This could very well end up as one of my favorites for 2021. O’Farrell’s novel imagines the death of William Shakespeare’s young son Hamnet and the grief the envelops the family as a result. I could not put this book down, it is so beautifully written and heart wrenching. While Shakespeare is a character in the novel (never named but obviously him), the main character is Agnes, his wife and mother to Hamnet, Hamnet’s twin Judith and Susannah. It is mainly through her eyes that the story unfolds. It is a tragedy, one where we in the audience can see what is going to happen, experience the pain and suffering alongside the family, and hope for their survival.
Told in two parts, Part I opens with 11-year-old Hamnet alone in his family’s home in Stratford. Right away we learn several important things. His twin Judith has suddenly fallen ill; all of the family that Hamnet lives with — mother, sister, grandparents, servants — are out; his grandfather John (Shakespeare’s father) is a violently abusive man; and his father is, as usual, far away with his company. The chapters in this first part alternate between Hamnet desperately trying to find his mother, and the story of how Agnes and Shakespeare met and married. I am no great scholar of Shakespeare— I can remember reading a few of the plays in high school— but even I can see the way O’Farrell works Shakespearean tropes into her novel, and it is wonderfully done. I imagine the real Shakespeare fanatics will see Easter eggs galore that I missed. Anyway, we learn that Agnes is a quirky young woman with a strong bond to the natural world. She keeps a kestrel and knows plants and herbs. Her own mother, who died in childbirth, was likewise unusual, seemingly coming from the forest, almost nymphlike or perhaps witch-like. Agnes also possesses the unnerving ability to “read” people by holding their hand in a particular way; it’s as if she can see their true character and even get a glimpse of their future. Young Shakespeare, a tutor to Agnes’ brothers, is drawn to this unusual girl who seems to alarm everyone in town. Although their families oppose marriage, the two lovers find a way. And when Agnes “reads” Shakespeare, what she sees is beautifully described:
“When she had taken his hand … she had felt — what? Something of which she had never known the like. Something she would never have expected to find in the hand of a clean-booted grammar-school boy from town. It was far-reaching; this much she knew. It had layers and strata like a landscape; there were spaces and vacancies, dense patches, underground caves, rises and descents…. She knew there was more of it than she could grasp, that it was bigger than both of them….”
Agnes also sees that her husband needs to be loosed from his father’s family, and that that will entail him spending time away from her, but she accepts this and helps her husband realize his potential. In the meantime, she — given her abilities of foresight — knows that she will bear a daughter in her first pregnancy. She also envisions two children with her at the end of her own life. All of this foreshadowing makes certain things obvious to the reader that are murky to Agnes. This first part also gives us brief glimpses into Hamnet’s head and what he is experiencing as he tries to help his sister and find his mother. O’Farrell gives the reader a sense of who this boy is and what he means to his family so that when the inevitable tragedy occurs, we mourn along with them.
The second part of the novel begins with the family dealing with Hamnet’s death, preparing his body for burial, and the return of his father. Agnes suffers depression and blames herself for her son’s death. Her daughters grieve but also have to find a way to live with their mother in this state. And Shakespeare handles his grief by leaving to get back to work. Part II focuses more on the relationship between Agnes and her husband and on her struggles to try to get back to some kind of “normal”. The reader sees that Hamnet’s parents and his twin Judith imagine Hamnet everywhere, still with them, and are desperate to see him again. It’s hard to do justice to how well O’Farrell shows the grief of the entire family and how they struggle to move on. The play “Hamlet” does figure into the ending of this story, and it is incredibly moving to read. There were several parts of this novel in the second half that had me in tears.
I highly recommend this novel. I am certain it would appeal to those who love Shakespeare, but it’s really just a brilliant story of family tragedy, sorrow and healing. It could be the story of any family that has suffered loss. It is a human story, and isn’t that what Shakespeare’s work is all about?