Maggie O’Farrell on the tension between myth and reality in ‘Hamnet’

Maggie O’Farrell on the tension between myth and reality in ‘Hamnet’
Portrait of Maggie O'Farrell (L): Murdo Macleod. Book cover (R): Penguin Random House.

“Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell is the February Ballerina Book Club pick. Become a member by signing up for our newsletter. You can catch the latest news and updates in our club house.

Maggie O’Farrell speaks to Ballerina Book Club about writing “Hamnet,” the surprises she found along the way and how she sees the novel now

Maggie O’Farrell’s novel “Hamnet” took root in a name. While studying Shakespeare’s tragedy “Hamlet” in school, O’Farrell learned that the playwright’s son Hamnet died a handful of years before Shakespeare penned the classic play.

“I was immediately struck by the echo of these names,” O’Farrell told Ballerina Book Club. “What did it mean for a father to call a play after his dead son?”

The resulting novel explores the grief of losing a son. Set in Tudor England, the pages dwell in the domestic to tell a fictionalized account of what happened in the time surrounding Hamnet’s death in 1596 at age 11. As the narrative unfolds, O’Farrell shifts through time, taking readers back to the first meeting of Shakespeare (who’s never mentioned by name) and his wife Anne Hathaway, or Agnes, as she’s called in the book.

When beginning “Hamnet,” O’Farrell said that she originally envisioned the book as a story about fathers and sons. But in her research, she was struck by portrayals of Hathaway.

“I was unprepared for the Hathaway vitriol in much of what I was reading,” O’Farrell said. “‘Why,’ I kept wondering as I worked my way through histories and biographies, ‘are we instructed to hate her? Is it a case of simple misogyny or is there something more complex at work here? Why do we desire the Bard to be unhappily married?'”

The depictions of Shakespeare’s wife transformed the novel.

“There is often a point, in the process of writing a novel, when it begins to veer off in a direction you may not have originally planned,” she said. “This was the case with ‘Hamnet.’ Hathaway hijacked the book.”

We spoke to O’Farrell about what she learned while writing “Hamnet,” scent and memory, the pandemic and the 16th century.

What surprised you along the way while writing “Hament”?

There were so many discoveries that challenged my preconceptions about Shakespeare and the times he lived in. I remember being shocked to learn that he would have had to walk from Stratford to London and that the journey would have taken four days. I had incorrectly and vaguely assumed there would be some sort of carriage service.

I also loved the idea that the Globe performances would have been during the day because the actors needed the natural light. And reading Richard Hathaway’s will was a revelation: The reference to “my daughter, Agnes” was an electric moment for me, and made me wonder if we’ve been calling her by the wrong name for 400 years.

But my favorite surprise was that 16th-century sheep would have been half the size of those today.

Early in the book, we learn about the “myth” of Agnes, and you note that “she herself might tell a different story.” How did “myth” inform your writing?

With “Hamnet,” I am asking readers to put to one side everything they think they know about Shakespeare and his family and to open themselves up to new possibilities, new interpretations of these people. The whole book, in a sense, is about the tension between myth and reality.

As much as this book is about Hamnet, it is also about Anne Hathaway, or Agnes. What drew you to writing about her?

I really enjoyed creating the character of Hamnet’s mother. We are so accustomed to calling her “Anne Hathaway,” but her father’s will clearly names her as “Agnes.” That was an electrifying, defining moment in the writing of the book. In giving her what is presumably her birth name, I’m asking readers to discard what we think we know about her and see her anew.

If you ask someone what they know about Shakespeare’s wife, you’ll probably receive one of two answers. Either: he hated her. Or: she tricked him into marriage. Historians and biographers and critics have for a long time inexplicably vilified and criticized her, creating a very misogynistic version of her. I wanted to persuade people to think again, to not rush to conclusions.

Scent seems to play a large role in the book, especially when calling up memories. Could you talk a little about your approach to perfuming the pages?

I once read somewhere that if people from the past came into our world, they would be horrified by the noise; and if we went back to the past, we’d be horrified by the smell. I’m probably paraphrasing badly, but I’m sure this is true. I find scent very evocative in summoning up a particular time and place in my own life, so it seemed very important to me to use specific scents as a means of transporting a reader to Tudor times.

What limitations and freedoms come with writing a work of historical fiction? And did you ever toy with the idea of letting Hamnet live?

Nothing prepared me for how disorientating it would be to write about the 16th century. I felt that I had to relearn everything I knew about constructing a sentence, a paragraph, a line of dialogue. There were whole swathes of metaphors and images suddenly unavailable to me; I could no longer reach for similes that came easily to me. I could not say “her scream was like a fire alarm” because, of course, such things didn’t exist in Elizabethan Warwickshire. The experience of writing Hamnet reminded me most of my first forays and attempts into fiction, back in my early 20s: that sensation of feeling your way in the dark, not knowing how to proceed. It was invigorating; it made me work hard.

I had what I thought of as my “forsooth line”; I was strict with myself about never crossing it. There was no way I was ever going to attempt to recreate a cod-Elizabethan dialogue. I tried, where possible, to avoid using words which had a different meaning to today’s.

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At all times, I tried to keep in my mind that the people I was writing fiction about had been real. They had lived and moved about in the world. I tried as much as possible to honor and respect that; it was always my aim never to go against a known fact about them. So, no, I never considered letting Hamnet live, as much as I would have liked to. His death was unavoidable, immutable fact.

Not only is Shakespeare physically absent in the book, but he’s also not mentioned by name. What went into this decision?

I always knew that Shakespeare would be a lesser character; he’s not present in Stratford for most of the novel. There is a playbill that proves his company was touring in Kent when Hamnet died, so it’s not known whether he made it to the funeral.

I avoided using his name because the word “Shakespeare” proved too distracting for me, and I knew it would be the same for readers. With this novel, I’m asking readers to forget everything they think they know about him and open themselves up to a new interpretation. Which is why I refer to him as “the father,” “the Latin tutor,” “the brother” and so on.

As many have pointed out, “Hamnet” arrived during the pandemic. How has this affected the way you relate to your characters in the book?

In the normal course of events, your relationship with the book you are writing ends when you type the final full-stop: your connection with it is set, finished, at that moment. With “Hamnet,” however, I’ve had a different experience. My thinking about it has changed in the course of this past year’s extraordinary events, and continues to do so.

We are now, I believe, much closer to the Elizabethans, and previous populaces, than ever before. We can empathize more deeply with them, given the parallels between our pandemic and theirs.

The interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

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Top Image: Portrait of Maggie O'Farrell (L): Murdo Macleod. Book cover (R): Penguin Random House.