I remember being puzzled by the discovery that Shakespeare had a son called “Hamnet”. What had that got to do with Hamlet? It surely couldn’t be just a coincidence, even allowing for that peculiar one-letter difference between the names. Maggie O’Farrell’s novel, which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction, offers an explanation. It’s one that is satisfying fictionally and perhaps psychologically, but almost certainly false historically.

The novel centres on Shakespeare’s wife; we normally know her as Anne Hathaway, the somewhat older woman with the famous cottage, left behind in Stratford while Shakespeare enjoyed his glittering career in London. O’Farrell gives us a different person; even her name is changed to ‘Agnes’, which it seems is what her father called her. They had a flexible approach to spelling back then; we’re told up front that they treated ‘Hamnet’ and ‘Hamlet’ as the same, so that’s that cleared up (of course Shakespeare spelled his own name several different ways on different occasions).

Agnes, in this version, has more than a touch of woodland magic about her. She can see into people’s minds by holding the web of flesh between their thumb and finger (which must be really irritating); she often knows the future, and can knock up a terrific poultice or potion out of a range of herbs with the kind of names they give to fancy shampoos these days. She may not comb her hair much, but she has a natural beauty and squirrels come to sit on her shoulder as if she were being written by Disney.

A little of that goes a long way for me, and I feel that the traditional Anne Hathaway – lumpish, too old, inadequately loved – would have been a character eminently worth writing about. But that’s wishing O’Farrell had written a different book, which is simply bad manners from the reader. I don’t feel she goes overboard, anyway; she makes a vivid character out of Agnes. In fact her suffering comes across strongly; I wouldn’t read Hamnet if you have a sick child, or perhaps if you’re pregnant.

In O’Farrell’s version the relationship between Will and Agnes is true love from the moment he spots her flying her kestrel while he is doing some Latin tutoring to help pay off his disgraced father’s debts. Although the later separation while he is making his name in London brings difficulties, the strength of the bond is never in doubt; O’Farrell fairly points out that when he’d made enough money, Shakespeare came home to Stratford for the rest of his life.

In this version (spoilers!) Hamnet dies tragically of the plague, voluntarily taking on his twin sister’s fatal illness. Agnes is horrified to hear that Shakespeare has produced a play apparently named after his son, but ultimately realises that in that play he has brought him back to life while voluntarily taking on the death in turn by casting himself as the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

Maybe Shakespeare did think that way to some degree, and it rounds out the novel into a memorable read. But the historical background suggests a different picture. It seems very likely (to me at least) that the Shakespeare twins Hamnet and Judith were named after close family friends Hamnet Sadler and his wife Judith. It may well have been reciprocal, with Hamnet Sadler naming two of his many children after Will and Agnes (or Anne). Hamlet the prince was named after neither Hamnet, however. He comes from a character in a Danish legend named ‘Amleth’; it’s probable that Shakespeare took him from an earlier play or text in which the name may already have been Englished as ‘Hamlet’. In short, neither Will nor Agnes would have supposed that Hamlet was named after, let alone meant to depict, their son, any more than he depicted Hamnet Sadler the baker.

But this is a novel, not a scholarly monograph. As a novel I recommend it and think it was a worthy winner.

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