Dublin Unitarian Book Club’s
choice for January 2022.


Note: The name Hamnet and Hamlet were interchangeable
in Elizabethan England.

When in school Maggie O’Farrell learned that in 1596 Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died at the young age of 11. No one knows how he died but at the time Bubonic Plague was rampant throughout Europe. In this novel O’Farrell posits the idea that it was the plague that took the young boy.
          Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway when he was 18 years of age and she was 26. She was pregnant at the time and over the centuries has been much maligned as having trapped the young playwright into an unhappy marriage. They had three children, Susannah and twins Judith and Hamnet. O’Farrell reimagines the lives of this family against the backdrop of a parent’s worst fear, the death of a child. She asks the readers to forget everything they know about Anne, called Agnes in the book, and to open themselves up to a new interpretation of her marriage to ‘Will’. She said in an interview that if the marriage was so unhappy then why did Shakespeare buy Anne a huge mansion in Stratford and he bought and invested in lands there. He also chose to return to Stratford to live which in her estimation does not speak of a man who was unhappy in his marriage.
          There are two parts to this book, the first alternates between the days just before Hamnet’s death and the earlier lives of Agnes and Will. The second part is after Hamnet’s death and describes how a family are coping or not, after such a tragedy.
          The book opens with Hamnet frantically searching for help as his sister Judith has taken ill. There is no one at home, his mother is out with her bees, his grandmother, aunt and sister are on errands. Only his cantankerous grandfather is there drinking ale in his glover’s workshop and is to be avoided. The writing is very descriptive and you are immersed into the sounds and smells of the time. She creates great atmosphere and you can feel the boy’s panic as he looks for help. You can also feel the fear and anxiety as the household returns and sees Judith’s buboes and the realisation that plague has visited them. Judith does recover and it is Hamnet who succumbs to the plague by infecting himself when he comforts her in her sleep. He trades places with her in a very Shakespearian twist by making a pact with death to take him instead.
          O’Farrell also takes us back to the earlier lives of Agnes and Will, whose name is never mentioned, he is referred to as the son, the husband, the Latin tutor, the playwright. Ironically it is Agnes whose voice is heard and her story that takes centre stage.
          She is a free spirit, a child of the forest as was her late mother. She is fiercely protective of her little brother. She is a herbalist, a healer and has insights into people and the future. She is equally feared and respected by the townsfolk. She meets Will, the Latin Tutor who is indentured to teach her half brothers on their farm where she lives with her controlling step mother. She is treated like a servant and she longs to escape her stepmother’s restrictions.
          The Latin tutor too is unhappy , he does not want to work in his father’s glove business and longs to escape his father’s many abuses. The two misfits fall in love and embark on a forbidden liaison. Agnes falls pregnant and they marry and move to Henley Street in Stratford next door to his parents. It is Agnes who sees how unhappy her husband is and knows that he must escape just as she had to. She connives a plan to have him go to London to expand the glove business but he now has the opportunity to write and so he embarks on a new career of playwright.
          This is very much the story of a marriage and family and how it survives the challenges it faces, there is separation due to work, there is the toil of domestic life at home and the living at close quarters with the in laws and family. The lives of the women are to the fore and you feel their interdependence as they work together to keep homes, farms, vegetable gardens and of course there is the support and help during pregnancies and childbirth. So when someone becomes ill with plague, the whole community is affected. When Hamnet dies he must be buried immediately. The pain and grief of Agnes is heartbreakingly described as she struggles and delays to let her son go, to lay him out as she must. Her husband is not there yet, he has been sent word that Judith is ill but when he does get home it is to find that it is Hamnet that has died.
          The effect of such a tragic event has a huge impact on everyone. Agnes withdraws into herself, she is consumed by guilt because as a healer she failed to save him and she did not see it coming. She falls into a numb depression. The playwright channels his grief into work and returns to London much to the annoyance and hurt of Agnes. They are on separate paths of sorrow.
          After four years the Playwright writes a play called Hamlet. Agnes is infuriated that he could sully the sacred name of their beloved son Hamnet by using it for a play. She goes to London to confront him and to perhaps regain their marriage. He is not home but is at the playhouse staging the play so she goes there and it is on seeing the play that she realises her husband’s pain and grief transformed into the tragedy of Hamlet.
          She says “ he has brought him back to life in the only way he can, her husband, in writing this, in taking the role of the ghost, has changed places with his son. He has taken his son’s death and made it his own”.

          All of the book club readers enjoyed this book and agreed that the writing , while overly descriptive at times is wonderful. The characters are very well drawn but may be a bit unbelievable in some aspects, but that’s fiction. This is one we would all recommend.

Alison Claffey
Dublin Unitarian Church