In the summer of 1596, William Shakespeare received the news every parent most dreads: one of his children was dangerously ill. By the time he’d travelled back from London to the family home in Stratford-upon-Avon, his 11-year-old son Hamnet was dead, a victim most probably of bubonic plague. Four years later, in around 1600 (the exact date is contested), Shakespeare, then in mid-life and at the height of his success, wrote Hamlet, destined to become his most famous play.

The names Hamnet and Hamlet were “entirely interchangeable in Stratford records in the late 16th and early 17th centuries”, according to Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt. But what is the connection between the playwright’s tragic hero and his dead child, whose name saturates the play from its title page to its closing speech, yet who remains resolutely absent from its overt subject matter?

It is a question that hangs over Maggie O’Farrell’s superb new novel Hamnet. For once, however, it is not the famous father who takes centre stage, but the virtually unknown mother: Agnes Hathaway, more usually known as Anne. Finding fertile soil in this already overworked field is not for the faint-hearted, but O’Farrell is more than equal to the task.

The novel begins in 1596, with Hamnet discovering his beloved twin sister Judith has taken sick and searching for someone to help her, not realising it is his own illness that will be beyond cure. From there the narrative cuts back and forth in time between Agnes’s childhood, her early married life, the final days of Hamnet’s life, the cataclysm of his death and its aftermath.

Agnes was 26 when she married 18-year-old Shakespeare in 1582, already pregnant with their first child. O’Farrell brilliantly conjures her as a free spirit, a woman with a gift for healing, who “can tell if a soul is restive or hankering . . . what a person or a heart hides”, and who embarrasses her eldest child by “making a spectacle of herself, as ever, stopping to . . . whisper something in the ear of a mule, to gather dandelions in her skirts”.

The world of Stratford and its surrounding countryside is evoked with lyrical precision: its strict social hierarchies, its quarrels and power struggles, its pressing physicality, the circling seasons and ceaseless round of domestic chores. This is a woman’s world, seen for the most part through female eyes: Agnes; her daughters Judith and Susanna; her mother-in-law; her stepmother; her sister-in-law. The generations are close-quartered. Everyone exists in relation to something or someone else, and, as Agnes slowly accepts, her talented, restless husband must escape to London or “run mad”.

One of the many pleasures of this novel is its close-grained portrayal of motherhood and the countless hours of care, joy and exasperation that go into the raising of children. O’Farrell almost certainly drew on personal experience in her depiction of tending a desperately sick child. One of her children has a serious immune disorder, which she wrote about in her powerful 2017 memoir I Am I Am I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death: “I know all too well how fine a membrane separates us from that place, and how easily it can be perforated.”

For Agnes, the membrane is perforated by the arrival of the plague in Stratford. “It has come. The moment she has feared most . . . The pestilence has reached her house. It has made its mark around her child’s neck.” Hard not to read those lines with particular disquiet at this moment in time, encircled by Covid-19, our own modern pestilence.

Shakespeare’s plays are rarely referenced explicitly, but they ghost the novel — as angry fathers, touring actors, thwarted lovers, separated twins. In Agnes, too, we catch the trace of familiar heroines: a young woman striding through the forest dressed in boy’s garb; a motherless girl running barefoot across fields; a fairy queen working her magic with her potions and spells. When O’Farrell has a grief-wrecked Agnes “finger the collar” of her dead son’s shirt and slip her hands into his boots to feel “the empty shapes of his feet”, we hear Constance in King John, probably written soon after Hamnet’s death: “Grief fills the room up of my absent child . . . Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.” The novel invites us to read these literary pairings as expressions of love by the playwright to his wife.

Shakespeare is another of the novel’s ghosts, never named and only referred to in relation to others: “the tutor”, “their father”, “his son”, “her husband”. He is seldom in Stratford, and for Agnes he mostly exists in her imagination and memory. His life in distant London is unknown and unknowable. After their son’s death, she is appalled to hear that his new play is a comedy. He is too far away for her to know that it is not through indifference: “He can manage these: histories and comedies. He can carry on. Only with them can he forget who he is and what has happened. They are safe places to stow his mind.”

This is above all a novel about the uncertain border between life and death, the psychological hinterlands that separate and bind the living and the dead, and the troublesome claims of each on each. By narrating the novel in the continuous present tense from multiple perspectives and different time-points, O’Farrell draws us deep into the experience of non-linear time. A child lies dying on one page and on the next is still safe in its mother’s womb. The description of Agnes laying out her son’s body for burial and seeing everywhere the proof of his aliveness is an astonishing piece of writing, a poised and profoundly moving portrait of the indelible imprint of love and loss.

Which brings us back to Shakespeare, Hamnet and Hamlet. In the light of this novel, I saw with new clarity the contours of the playwright’s grief, his unpacked heart. “I am thy father’s spirit,” says the murdered father, both haunted and haunting. “Remember me,” the dead Hamlet implores, to which the living Hamlet passionately replies, “Remember thee? / Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat / in this distracted globe.”

Maggie O’Farrell’s exquisitely wrought eighth novel proves once again what a very fine writer she is. Hamnet is a deeply felt honouring of the warp and weft of life, the pain and joy that are inextricably part of human experience, the many forms resilience can take, and the unexpected directions from which come grace and hope.

Hamnet , by Maggie O’Farrell, Tinder Press, RRP£20, 384 pages

Rebecca Abrams is the author of Touching Distance (Picador)

Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Cafe. Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

Get alerts on Fiction when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article