No one knows what caused the death of Hamnet Shakespeare in 1596, at the tender age of 11. Likewise, little is known about his mother Agnes (aka Anne Hathaway). Hamnet imagines the lives behind these historical footnotes.
Hamnet’s father—William Shakespeare—remains nameless in O’Farrell’s novel, and apart from one performance of Hamlet it doesn’t engage explicitly with the Bard’s work. Rather than overt references, there are shrouded ones: twins swapping places; Agnes appearing to be dressed as a boy; a suspected witch named for a Rowan tree. It may disappoint some readers that this rich vein is not exploited further. Instead, the focus is on domestic life in Stratford—courtship; birthing babies; Hamnet’s connection with his twin Judith; the family’s profound anguish at the boy’s death.
Equally, the story is not over-burdened with historical facts, which are altered, elided, or given the merest subtle nod, when required. Hamnet and Judith Sadler, the twins’ namesakes, pop up briefly as ‘the baker’ and his wife. There is an oblique reference to the famous ‘second-best bed’ bequeathed later by Shakespeare to Agnes. More attention is given to animals—squirrels and cats and birds and bees and fleas and a monkey—the novel teems with tiny creatures and their fleeting lives.
Creative license bends to the novel’s purpose. For instance, staging Hamlet in 1600 (the actual date is unknown) thus ducking the death of Shakespeare’s father in 1601, and any influence his passing may have had on the play. It might seem implausible that the plum role of Hamlet would go to ‘a lad—halfway between man and boy’ and not say, Richard Burbage, but this too serves O’Farrell’s aim of mapping Hamlet directly to the death of the boy Hamnet. This attempted link to the famous play is a lovely poetic idea but historically unconvincing.
Hamnet is an imaginative work of historical fiction and an eloquent meditation on grief and loss. It soars in the intimate moments, such as when Agnes enters the graveyard ‘with three children and she leaves it with two’. Not a spot-the-reference book for Shakespeare nerds, but rather a lovely expression of the tragic mode.