April, again, and gazing up from the Gutter, my colleagues and I must now tear our eyes from the stars and turn them instead to the vaunted facades of ivory towers. Or to put it another way: time to get reputable up in this biz.
His canon is a celebration of love, blood, and dick jokes, but you still can’t get more reputable than William Shakespeare–English national poet, bard of Avon, middle class boy done good, and arguably the greatest writer in the English language evar–assuming, of course, he wasn’t always Christopher Marlowe or Ben Jonson in disguise. Scholars have made whole careers stitching the extant fragments of Shakespeare’s biography to contemporary events to literary analysis in the hopes of capturing a man who, for all the timeless ubiquity of his writing, remains himself something of a walking shadow. And even less is known about his family, except that his direct family line ends with his children–unless of course he had illegitimate children. There’s plenty of speculation on that, too.
On that point, scholar and writer Germaine Greer was “appalled by the sheer perversity of what my distinguished colleagues chose to believe about Shakespeare. Part of what they believed was that Shakespeare abandoned his wife and children in 1585, or thereabouts, and then moved back into the marital home after twenty-six years or so of bachelor living in London.” Greer, of course, also wrote Shakespeare’s Wife, a reinterpretation of Shakespearean literary and historical scholarship that sought to fill the “wife-shaped hole” in his biography. The chief difficulty there was, without fresh facts to bolster her claims, Greer’s work could be dismissed by much the same criticism that inspired her to take on the project in the first place–sexist bias and a social agenda on the part of the historian. (Although she certainly wasn’t wrong about her premise. She may have been right about much more.)
All of this prelude leads me finally to my own true subject–not Shakespeare, not Greer, but a writer sitting smack in-between: Maggie O’Farrell, whose National Book Circle-winning historical novel Hamnet earned the closest thing possible to the Bard’s ghostly approval with a stage adaptation by the Royal Shakespeare Company. (In fact, it opens this very April; appropriately, if Greer is correct about the significance of the month in Shakespeare’s heart, that April is when the playhouses closed and Willy Shakes welcomed the time home in Stratford.) O’Farrell’s novel itself is a bit evasive on its subject as well. Nominally about Shakespeare’s only son, dead at the tender age of 11 for reasons lost to history, Hamnet instead dwells mostly with Shakespeare’s strange, witchy wife Agnes and uses her relationship with the Bard to weave a story about him without him–not unlike most Shakespearean scholarship. But well-researched and meticulous as it is, O’Farrell’s novel is still closer to fanfic than true history–not unlike most Shakespearean plays.
The book does begin, in an introductory note and–judging from her remarks outside of the text–in O’Farrell’s heart and mind, with the recognition that Hamnet and Hamlet are the same name. She cites historian Stephen Greenblatt’s assertion that the names were interchangeable in Shakespeare’s day. (Perhaps that single letter of difference was the single letter that made it possible for a grieving father to write again and again, to hear again and again, to speak on stage again and again.) This cannot be insignificant, she argues. Why would Shakespeare choose to resurrect the tale of Danish prince Amleth, of all the stories in all the world, unless it were in some way about his own lost son? More to the point, how could he?
This is the crux of Hamnet, O’Farrell’s desire to set the record straight with emotional truth if nothing else, to rescue Shakespeare’s history from Shakespeare’s historians. It is about the human emotions that inspired all of those wonderful plays full of love and grief, about the push and pull of family life as an artist or with an artist and the compromises that must be made. It is about the warring and the wedding of dualities–brothers and sisters, fathers and sons, twins, young lovers, husbands and wives–the heart’s dialectic, which does not admit that there is such a thing as a lone genius making it all up on his own. And so in this way, the book called Hamnet,* dedicated “For Will” must inevitably center on Hamnet’s mother, on Shakespeare’s wife.
She mentions some of this in endnotes, but O’Farrell fully explains her feelings about Agnes, better remembered as Ann Hathaway, in this discussion of the names in the novel.
The woman we have been taught to call Ann Hathaway is, like her husband, given neither appellation in the novel. The narrative she has been yoked to for almost half a century – that of the illiterate peasant who lured a boy-genius into the marriage he regretted – distressed and angered me. I wanted, more than anything, with Hamnet’s mother, to ask readers to forget everything they think they know about her, and to open themselves up to a new interpretation.
In the course of my research, I read her father’s will. Richard Hathaway, the sheep-farming yeoman, died a year before she married William, and he left her a very generous dowry. In the wording of the will, he refers to her as ‘my daughter Agnes’. It seems to exemplify history and scholarship’s treatment of her, that we may have been calling her by the wrong name for all this time. So I decided to give this name back to her: in Hamnet, she is Agnes, all the way through.Maggie O’Farrell
Agnes, as imagined in Hamnet, is the half-wild, unwanted stepdaughter of a spiteful widow who has prevailed on Will’s father to send his boy around to give her sons Latin lessons as payment for a debt. Agnes is whispered about and feared, including by her hateful stepmother. She knows things about herbs. She will not be courted. Her only friend, aside from her protective older brother, is a kestrel she has tamed and keeps hooded in their barn. O’Farrell depicts Agnes as brilliant, though illiterate, and able to know things in far more interesting and rare ways than reading. (Shakespeare reading to Agnes her dead mother’s notes about herbs is one of the scenes that absolutely makes me go heart eyes. OMG OTP, you guys.) Whatever an Elizabethan manic pixie dream girl is, that’s kind of what Agnes is. But if Shakespeare’s own heroines are any indication–Portia, Beatrice, Rosalind, Katherina–this version of Ann Hathaway very much scans as his type.
There isn’t a lot outside Shakespeare’s plays to base any of this on, though O’Farrell is scrupulously candid about liberties she has taken, differences between her novel and to persons living and dead. Nevertheless, it’s more than fair to say O’Farrell idealizes the relationship of Agnes and Will, which far from subverting or threatening Shakespeare’s work, literally makes his theater career possible. It is Agnes who gives Will the motivation to leave for London and conspires with her brother to fool Shakespeare’s father into sending his son on business. It is Agnes who the famous playwright returns to, eager to reconcile, though she supernaturally perceives the affections of other women. They can sell this as a historical novel all they want; it is a romance. And a good one. A feast of one. Oh, did you not want a William Shakespeare sex scene? I’m sorry, but I assure you that you do.
Agnes, Hamnet, his twin sister Judith, sister Susanna all sit for O’Farrell’s intimate portraiture, but the one who never really gets to be center stage in Hamnet is Shakespeare himself. As alluded in the excerpt above, he is never called by name, only by his function and relationship to other people in his life. He is the Latin tutor, the son, Hamnet’s father, the glover’s boy. O’Farrell has good reasons for this, too:
And how, I wondered in a panic, could I expect readers to remain submerged in the narrative if I couldn’t even write his name without being startled out of it?
The only answer was to do away with it altogether…Maggie O’Farrell
It strikes me how O’Farrell’s decision to strip the legend from the man transforms the shade of Hamnet’s father into a flesh and blood person. It’s genius and it works. And it is the appropriate counterpoint after building up the person of Agnes, to put them on even footing, for richer, for poorer, etc. And so it becomes actually possible to have a sex scene with William Shakespeare. It becomes possible to hate him for not being there while his daughter and son suffer. It becomes possible to fall back in love with him, though you’re disappointed. No one could do any of that with William Shakespeare, could they?
So Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague is better said the love story of Hamnet’s parents, that story bisected by the tragic loss of their only son, which O’Farrell has decided to portray as due to the Black Death. Her reasoning for this, much as her reasoning for everything, depends on Shakespeare’s work, in which there is no mention of the plague at all. Considering how rampant the Black Death raged in Shakespeare’s England, she found that suggestive, much as Hamlet’s name is suggestive. It is careful, worshipful work she does here, and I love it even when I don’t believe it. And sometimes I really don’t! Is it really credible that Judith’s plague-weakened health was the reason Shakespeare’s household never joined him in London or that his wife’s brother would have been so instrumental in his purchase of New Place? How do we reconcile the suggestion of the supernatural in an otherwise naturalistic story? After learning about the play Hamlet from rural gossip, is it not fanciful to think Agnes would make the secret journey to witness a performance rather than communicate with her husband directly? And how could he have kept the writing secret from her, with her knife-keen insight into his soul? This may be more about my skepticism than any real flaw in the novel. But particularly after Hamnet’s death, I find it harder to see a reason for some events other than O’Farrell wanting them to happen. But then it is a romance. It is, basically, fanfic.
But there’s nothing wrong with fanfic. Shakespeare wrote fanfic. Hamlet itself, vent for a father’s grief that it very likely was, was still fanfic. Why shouldn’t Hamnet be? To call something fanfic or a romance is only to describe the inspiration and the scope of the story. It’s tone and quality that determines whether something passes as reputable or not, and O’Farrell’s writing itself is sublime, lyrical, glittering, exceptional. It’s confident prose, unafraid of being what it is, be it pulp or pith. She is Virginia Woolf’s Shakespeare’s sister’s revenge, and it is glorious. Perhaps the history is specious, but if it is, all Shakespearean scholarship is specious. Meanwhile, I am not sure that all Shakespearean scholarship pays as close attention to what is possible emotionally as it does parish records and manuscripts. And this may be the novel that inspires the next great discovery about the Bard’s life–maybe this time, starting with Shakespeare’s wife.
*It is called Hamnet and Judith in Canada, which is even better for my point.
Angela has a dual History/English degree, but the historians never really accepted her as one of them for a reason.
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