Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell has gotten a lot of buzz and it made this reader curious enough to open the covers and enjoy Maggie’s novel. O’Farrell takes us back to Shakespearean England. She noticed a record in a local parish that recorded the death of a child named Hamnet Shakespeare. The tale she embroiders is as possible as any tale of Shakespeare’s homelife about which very little is known.
Agnes attracts the attention of a barely adult William while he is tutoring Latin at a local sheep farm to pay a debt owed by his father, a glove maker. She goes into the woods most days with a falcon (kestrel) on her gloved hand. She is a bit older than William but she is a conundrum he wants to solve. When that kestrel flies off to hunt and then returns from these wild adventures to the hand of Agnes, William imagines that she is a singular woman with a will of her own and powers that set her apart from other village women.
Agnes is able to read people’s lives, but she lives long enough to learn that what she reads may be cryptic and misleading. William and Agnes have three children, one girl, Suzanna and then twins, Judith and Hamnet. Judith is tiny and is often afflicted with health problems. Hamnet is a strong and smart boy. But when the plague comes to Stratford the outcome surprises Agnes and breaks the hearts of both Agnes and William.
I think what comes across most powerfully in this invented history is the depiction of a mother’s grief and what it does to a family and a marriage. Although Agnes is not a witch, she has supernatural talents and a knowledge of plants as medicines. How much of Agnes’ character is based in fact and how much is created by the author could be determined by finding out what is known about Shakespeare’s wife, who we know as Anne. The idea that Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, may have been inspired by family tragedy is a possibility that would be difficult to prove, but it makes for a good book, even if you have to suspend some disbelief.