Writers & Company

How the tragic story of Shakespeare's son Hamnet inspired Maggie O'Farrell's prize-winning novel

The 30th anniversary season of Writers & Company begins with Eleanor Wachtel in conversation with British author Maggie O'Farrell about her novel Hamnet, winner of the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Maggie O'Farrell is an Irish-British author. (Murdo Macleod)
Listen to the full episode58:18

To launch the 30th anniversary season of Writers & Company, Eleanor Wachtel speaks with British author Maggie O'Farrell, winner of this year's Women's Prize for Fiction.

O'Farrell's prize-winning novel, Hamnet — published in Canada as Hamnet & Judith — is a virtuosic imagining of the lives of Shakespeare's family, set in the plague years of 16th-century Stratford-upon-Avon. Seen primarily through the eyes of the playwright's wife, the story follows the life and early death of their son, about four years before Shakespeare wrote his celebrated play Hamlet.

Hamnet & Judith has been described as "superb," "profoundly moving" and "exquisitely wrought." The Women's Prize jury praised it for "express[ing] something profound about the human experience that seems both extraordinarily current and, at the same time, enduring." 

O'Farrell's previous books have won the Betty Trask Award and the Costa Book Award for best novel.

She talked to Eleanor Wachtel about Hamnet & Judith and her recent memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death, from her home in Edinburgh. 

Hooked on Hamlet

"I was studying Hamlet for my Highers. I was about 17 years old. There is a lot about the character of Hamlet that appeals to the certain type of adolescent that I was at the time — one who perhaps thinks too much, is a bit melancholic and wears a lot of black. 

There is a lot about the character of Hamlet who appeals to the certain type of adolescent that I was at the time.

"I used to hang about in a disused church from the 16th century. It was an ivy-clad ruin. My friends and I used to take black-and-white photographs of the graveyard. So, looking back now, I can see why Hamlet chimed with me, in a sense. 

"He got under my skin."

This 19th-century engraving re-imagines Shakespeare's home life. Shakespeare recites Hamlet to his family in 16th-century England. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

How Hamnet humanized the Bard

"I was lucky enough to have a fantastic English teacher called Mr. Henderson. He arrived in my life at a very deliberate point for me. He's one of those teachers who changes the way you look at the world and changes the way you feel about yourself and others. 

"He just mentioned in passing one day, when we were studying the play, that Shakespeare had had a son called Hamnet. It was quite shocking to me. 

"At that age in particular, you haven't realized that writers are actual human beings — in particular Shakespeare, who is, of course, the great behemoth, the writer of writers. Until I was probably in my 20s or so, I thought of writers as a bit like Greek gods, these very distant beings up on Mount Olympus that have nothing to do with us as mortals and humans.

"But hearing that fact that he'd had this boy, with basically the same name as the play, who had died as a child, it was as if the focus of my perspective on him sharpened. 

"He had lived. He had children he loved. He had a house. He had a wife. He loves this boy. I suddenly saw Shakespeare as a human being for the first time."

A personal connection to death and dying

"During childhood, I woke up one morning toward the end of the summer holidays and I had this terrible fever and headache. I remember the headache more than anything else because it went on for several months. Gradually, by the end of that week, I had lost all my motor functions. I could no longer feed myself or sit up and walk. Gradually, just one by one, I lost these abilities. 

"By that time I was in an isolation unit, in an intensive care unit. I was eight. And it's strange — my youngest daughter just turned eight recently and whenever my children reached that age, I always find myself looking at them thinking, 'Wow, they seem so young. 

They thought I was going to die. And then when I didn't die, they said that I would probably never walk again and I would be in a wheelchair for most of my life.

"When you look back, you don't think of yourself as that small. I don't want to imagine actually having to take them into intensive care on a stretcher. It is strange looking at it from the perspective of a parent. I was ill for a really long time. I was off school for about two years.

"They thought I was going to die. And then when I didn't die, they said that I would probably never walk again and I would be in a wheelchair for most of my life. Luckily I found a loophole out of the first destiny and also the second — thanks to some physiotherapists."

A strange sort of superstition

"I've been wanting to write this novel for a really long time. One of the things that stopped me was a strange sort of superstition. I'm not a very superstitious person, but I realized I was very reluctant to write this novel, because I have a son and two daughters like Shakespeare did.

"There was a huge part of me that was unable to write this book while my son hadn't yet reached the age of 11. The main impetus behind writing the book for me was to give this boy his due, to sort of amplify the meaning of his death. This was not an insignificant death. 

"As all the biographies suggest, statistics of infant and child mortality in the 16th century was high. Of course, lots and lots of children died. But that doesn't diminish how his parents would have felt, how his family would have felt. I've always felt that literary criticism in popular culture and literary biography has always sort of skimmed over Hamnet as if to say he wasn't that important. 

The main impetus behind writing the book for me was to give this boy his due, to sort of amplify the meaning of his death. This was not an insignificant death.

"But with this novel, I wanted to say he did matter. Without this child, we wouldn't have Hamlet. We probably wouldn't have Twelfth Night. His death had an enormous impact on his whole family. And the play Hamlet is Shakespeare's response to his death — or I think so anyway. 

"In order to write this book, I knew that I was going to have to put myself inside the skin of a mother who sits at the deathbed of her child. She was forced to watch him die. She's unable to save him. And then she has to lay him up for burial. 

"I found that I could not do that while my son hadn't gone past the age of 11. He's now a six-foot tall 17-year-old so it felt like safe territory to write it."

A statue of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, in Stratford Park, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, circa 1955. (Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Agnes and angst

"When I first heard about Hamnet, one of my unanswered questions was, How would Hamnet's mother Agnes have felt when her husband used her dead son's name for a play? 

"Because it is the same name. There's one letter difference in the way we write it, but in Elizabethan times, spelling was a lot less stable. It was very common to be born as Hamnet and buried as Hamlet. I'm not sure I would have been thrilled, actually.

"Obviously, Shakespeare has a right to use whatever name he felt like. But I do wonder how Agnes felt about that. Maybe she was fine; maybe she was thrilled. But I do wonder about the moment where she found out. It's possibly an apocryphal story, but I read somewhere that Shakespeare himself took the role of the ghost in Hamlet

"And of course, the ghost is also called Hamlet — there are two Hamlets in the play, one dead and one alive, which again, fascinates me. 

"The play opens on the battlements of a castle in Denmark and a prince whose father is dead. And obviously, it turns out the father had been killed by his brother, who has assumed his throne and married his wife, Hamlet's mother. So he is this person whose whole life has been suddenly turned upside down. 

"He's lost his father. He's lost his mother, in a sense, to another man. And then the ghost appears to say that he'd been murdered. There is a lot of debate and scholarly circles about how old Hamlet is supposed to be: is he 30? Is he 20? Is he a teenager? 

Obviously, Shakespeare has a right to use whatever name he felt like. But I do wonder how Agnes felt about that. Maybe she was fine; maybe she was thrilled.

"Reading it again recently, it really struck me: this child is 15. And it seemed like it's such a distinct developmental stage in a way. To me, he seemed to be sort of mid-teenager. 

"Everything he said, did and wore, he seems like a young adult pulled much too early into this very dark and confusing and violent adult world. He's not quite old enough and mature enough to deal with it. That explains a lot of his inaction and depression and grief. 

"You have to read the play through that lens, of Shakespeare having lost his son."

Maggie O'Farrell's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now