Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell review – tragic tale of the Latin tutor’s son

Stephanie Merritt
Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

In 1596, William Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son Hamnet died in Stratford-upon-Avon. Four or so years later, Shakespeare wrote the play considered by many to be his greatest work, giving its tragic hero a variation of his dead son’s name. Almost four centuries later still, Maggie O’Farrell was studying Hamlet at school and learned of the boy Hamnet, whose life has been little more than a footnote in his father’s biography. The seed of curiosity planted 30 years ago has grown into her finest novel yet; a reimagining of Hamnet’s death and the long-lasting ripples it sent through his family.

But the title is slightly misleading. Though the novel opens with Hamnet, its central character and beating heart is the boy’s mother, whom O’Farrell calls Agnes. Names are significant in this book; when Agnes eventually sees the version of her son’s name on a London playbill, she feels he has been stolen from her a second time. Meanwhile, the most famous character in the novel goes unnamed; he is variously “her husband”, “the father”, “the Latin tutor”. He is allowed very little direct speech. This deliberate omission frees the narrative of all the freight of association that his name carries; even Stratford is rarely mentioned explicitly, with the author instead naming individual streets and houses to root her story in its location.

All this has the effect of focusing the attention on the everyday, domestic life of this family, who could be any family. Indeed, in their small local sphere it is Agnes who is the celebrity, known in the town for being unconventional, free-spirited, a gifted herbalist who trails rumours of other, stranger gifts. O’Farrell’s Agnes is a woman whose origins merge into a particularly English kind of folklore – “There used to be a story in these parts about a girl who lived at the edge of a forest” – harking back to a deep connection between humans and landscape, with echoes of tales such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

“There were creatures in there who resembled humans – wood-dwellers, they were called – who walked and talked, but had never set foot outside the forest, had lived all their lives in its leafish light, its encircling branches, its wet and tangled interior.”

Agnes herself is, in the eyes of her neighbours, a creature descended from myth; they regard her with a mixture of awe and wariness. When the young Latin tutor engaged to teach her half-brothers first spies her from the window of the schoolroom, striding out of the forest with a kestrel on her wrist, he thinks she is a boy. O’Farrell’s great skill throughout the book is to treat obviously “Shakespearean” themes, such as this kind of gender-blurring or the affinity between boy and girl twins, with subtlety, making them almost tangential when they occur in the playwright’s own life. Hamnet and his twin sister, Judith, have a trick they play on people: “to exchange places and clothes, leading people to believe that each was the other”.

Shakespeare’s family with Hamnet standing on the left. Photograph: The Picture Art Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

This is not O’Farrell’s first foray into historical fiction – her 2006 novel The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox was set partly in the 1930s – but it is quite unlike anything she has written before. There is an elliptical, dreamlike quality to her prose in Hamnet that, though not obviously steeped in 16th-century language, is essential to creating a world that feels at once wholly tangible and somehow otherworldly, as if the membrane between the natural and supernatural was more porous then. The depth of her research is evident on every page. Anyone who has visited Shakespeare’s birthplace will recognise her descriptions of his former home, but O’Farrell plunges the reader into the vivid life of the house, with its smells of a glover’s workshop, the heat and bustle of a cookhouse, the physical effort of planting a garden or twisting out newly washed sheets.

At its heart, though, this is a book about grief, and the means by which people find their way through it. The scene in which Agnes washes and lays out the body of her dead son is devastating (he must be buried quickly, for fear the plague will spread – an aspect of the story that has gained accidental pertinence). There is great tenderness, too, in her reimagining of the relationship between Agnes and her husband, which endured such long absences. “It’s as if her mother needs London, and all that he does there, to rub off him before she can accept him back,” Judith observes.

Hamnet is evidence that there are always new stories to tell, even about the most well-known historical figures. It also confirms O’Farrell as an extraordinarily versatile writer, with a profound understanding of the most elemental human bonds – qualities also possessed by a certain former Latin tutor from Stratford.

• Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is published by Tinder Press (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15