Considering how much intrigue and debate there still is about Williams Shakespeare, arguably the most famous writer of all time, its not surprising that there is even less verified information about his relations. That Shakespeare was married and had three children is well-known, as is the sad fact of his only son’s passing at a young age, but their lives and personalities are largely a mystery.
Into this void steps Maggie O’Farrell with her novel Hamnet. In the absence of documentary fact, O’Farrell feels free to invent, often wildly. In her hands Shakespeare’s wife becomes not Anne Hathaway, but Agnes Hathaway (this is on the flimsy evidence of one reference in her father’s will.) In O’Farrell’s tale, Agnes is a wild child, all instinct. She has healing powers and the curious ability to tell fortunes just by grasping a stranger’s hand. Her step-mother can hardly stand her but leaves her alone to her bees and her falcon, which she is tending to when she meets a young Latin tutor, the son of a glover.
For reasons which are perhaps only obvious to her, O’Farrell never uses the name William Shakespeare, but he is a minor figure in this story, first as a young boy without much promise who falls madly, badly in love and later as a largely absent presence, off in London with his theater group and traveling back home only a few times a year.
O’Farrell goes back and forth in time, between the courtship and early days of Will and Agnes to the tragic illness of their twin children Judith and Hamnet, culminating in Hamnet’s passing and the effect it had on their marriage. There are moments of tenderness and understand, especially near the end of the story, that are exceptionally moving. However, they are drowned in a sea of words, words, words. O’Farrell is one of those writers who portrays complex emotions by detailing six different feelings and leaving it to the reader to add them all together. She never feels that one example is sufficient but four of five will do, and she takes incalculable delight in dragging out scenes that shouldn’t require more than a line or two. A character walking into a room can take several paragraphs. It’s frustrating and enervating to say the least.
Overall the effect of these streams of verbiage is to suggest that O’Farrell didn’t have enough of a story to tell based on the meager historical evidence available. Given such leeway, it’s curious that she didn’t invent a more interesting character to build her book around.