Maggie O'Farrell, HAMNET

Maggie O'Farrell, HAMNET

“It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to see what Shakespeare has done there: he’s allowed his son to live.” Novelist Maggie O’Farrell has been fascinated by Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, since she was in high school and decided it was time for the rest of the world to learn of his story. Maggie tells Zibby about the years of research that went into weaving a fictionalized account of how the Shakespeares handled the grief of losing a child, and encourages listeners to reread Hamlet with fresh eyes.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Maggie. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague.

Maggie O’Farrell: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Zibby: This is the best-written book I’ve read in so long. It is so good. I was just gripped from the first page. I’ve been hearing and hearing and hearing about how wonderful it was. I was like, no, it can’t be that good. It was amazing. That’s great. Congratulations.

Maggie: Thank you so much. I wish that I could ring you up every time I’m having a crisis of confidence of my writing. I wish I could just call you up and you could say that to me.

Zibby: You can just replay this. I’ll send you the audio file. You can make it your ringtone, every time the phone rings.

Maggie: That might be slightly overplaying it. I’m so pleased that you liked it.

Zibby: Maybe just an alarm ringtone once in a while or something. I read in the back how you came up with this whole idea. Why don’t you tell listeners about what inspired you? How did you come up with this? Just tell me about the whole process of writing this book and everything.

Maggie: It’s a book that I wanted to write for a really long time. I originally first heard about the existence of Hamnet Shakespeare, the boy, when I was at school. I was studying the play Hamlet for my Scottish . I was about sixteen coming up to seventeen. I had this really fantastic English teacher at high school who just mentioned in passing one day that Shakespeare had had a son who was called Hamnet who died at the age of eleven. Shakespeare went on about four or five years later to write the play Hamlet. I was just instantly struck by the similarity of these names. What did it mean? What did it mean for a man to call his play and his hero and the ghost, let’s not forget, after his dead son? I have a strong memory of looking down at the school-issue cover of the play on my desk and putting my finger over the L in the title and taking if off again and thinking, well, it’s the same name. When I went to university, I studied literature. I was reading a lot of books about Shakespeare. I was always amazed how significant Hamnet, the son, seemed to be to scholars and biographers of Shakespeare.

You could read these big, four-hundred-page biographies of Shakespeare, and Hamnet’s lucky if he gets two mentions. They mention he was born. They mention he’s died. There was a lot of faffing about saying it’s impossible to know whether or not Shakespeare was thinking of his son when he called Hamlet — to which I just want to say, are you serious? What are you talking about? Nobody, no writer in the world — they are the same name. In Elizabethan times, they are interchangeable in Paris records. A writer would casually just use the name of his dead son? He’d have to write it again and again in a manuscript. He’d have to hear it again and again in the rehearsals. He’d have to speak it himself. There is a story that Shakespeare himself took the role of the ghost of Hamlet in the first production at the Globe. It doesn’t even need to be said, really. That link is enormously significant. I wanted to write this novel because I don’t think enough people have heard about Hamnet. I don’t think enough people know about him. His very short life has been so downplayed by history. He’s been consigned to the margins. He’s been consigned to the literary footnote at the bottom of the page. I wanted to put him center stage and give him a voice and a presence and say, this child was important. He was grieved. Without him, we wouldn’t have Hamlet. We probably wouldn’t have Twelfth Night. Sorry, that’s a very long answer.

Zibby: No, that’s great.

Maggie: That is the short version.

Zibby: I want the long answer. That’s the whole point. All the facts and things that you interwove with the story, and things like which herbs they used when they were sick and all these little facts and things, and the way that the streets looked, and how it would be to get the physician, and just how you created the scene, and even how you took us inside the house and exactly what it looked like, how did you find all that information? Did you research it? Was it part imagination, part research? You just created it so vividly.

Maggie: It was a mixture, actually. Obviously, a lot of it was library-based research because there’s no shortage of books about Shakespeare. You could spend the rest of your life reading about him if you wanted to. Lots of people do. Also, I went to Stratford-upon-Avon. I would urge anyone if they’re even slightly interested in Shakespeare or literature, obviously once it’s allowed, to go to Stratford-upon-Avon. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust have bought all the houses that are related to Shakespeare. What’s extraordinary about this Birthplace Trust is that Shakespeare himself is a person who’s quite mysterious. What we know about him is pretty scant. There are all these big gaps in his story despite the best efforts of the world’s best biographers and scholars. There is still a lot about him we don’t know. There are only six examples of his signature, which is extraordinary, really, when you think about the wealth of work we have. Given all that, it’s still a puzzle. If you go to Stratford-upon-Avon to buy a ticket and to walk into the house where he grew up, you can stand in the room where he was born. You can stand in his bedroom that he shared with his brothers. You can walk into the room where he ate his dinners every day. It is a kind of hairs-at-the-back-of-your-neck moment. It seems so unlikely that this house, this building would’ve survived in an intervening five hundred years or whatever, four hundred, five hundred years.

I spent a long time in Stratford in 2017. I went there in the autumn and walked around and around the houses and walked around his wife’s house. I asked all the guides approximately three hundred questions each. They were very, very patient with me. I would say, if you can, do go because it’s a really, really incredible experience. Also, particularly for the lives of the female characters in the book, their lives, not only are they so — obviously, they’re very undocumented. Very few biographers will touch on the life of Shakespeare’s wife and his three children apart from just criticizing his wife. We can talk about that later. Their lives are pretty shrouded. Also, the women’s lives are so, so distant from ours. Talking to you, Zibby, as women in the twenty-first century, it’s completely unknowable to us. Mary Shakespeare, William’s mother, she gave birth to eight children, three of whom died very young. There were two girls before William was born. Both of them died in infancy. There was another girl, Anne, who died when she was seven. Then she had five children of pretty much , eight births in one house. When William got married at the age of eighteen, he had a sister and then brothers going down. Mary also had a toddler, age two, when William was eighteen. I just find that unthinkable. I’ve got a nearly-eighteen-year-old. The idea that I’d still be looking after a toddler as well makes you feel so exhausted.

Also, the idea that in that household, for the multiple generations living, just the sheer number of food you had to produce or laundry to do or keeping all these children well and alive and fed and educated, in order to do their lives, I did a bit more hands-on research. One of the things I did, I found a recipe for bread. I made that just to try and get inside their skin in a way. I also planted my own medicinal herb garden according to an Elizabethan layout. I’d read that the woman of the household would’ve had basic education in how to use herbs to cure minor ailments of everyone in the house. The other thing I did for the character of Agnes, who’s often better known as Anne Hathaway, William’s wife, was I learned to fly a kestrel. I went down to the Scottish to see a falconer. She let me fly her kestrel in the wood. I went on archeological digs along the River Thames in London in the right outside the Globe Theatre. I was sifting through the mud. I found, particularly outside the Globe, lots and lots of brass pins, Tudor pins that were used to fix their costumes, to fix their hair and to fix the . You pin everything on. It felt absolutely amazing to have made that link through history and to pick these things out of the soil in front of the Globe Theatre. I still have them. I can’t show you, actually. I should’ve got them here, but they’re in a different room. They’re very . I keep them very carefully.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that’s amazing. Wow, I wonder what subject you’re going to tackle next. The in-depth, you can see it. You can feel it in every page of this book, how much you know. It’s so transporting. Tell me a little more about Shakespeare’s relationship with his dad because I hadn’t known — I am not one of those people who has chosen to study Shakespeare for their entire lives. Have not read his work since probably high school. Did he have this sort of abuse relationship? Was his father — obviously, it must be true if you put it in your — actually, I shouldn’t say that. So is that true? Did that come from real life?

Maggie: To be very fair to John Shakespeare, who’s William’s father, I don’t know if he was — in my novel, I depict him as quite a violent and unpredictable man, a bit of a despot, sort of a tyrant in a sense. To be fair, I don’t know if that’s true. That could be my invention, but there was a couple of things. In contrast to William, who I was saying the paper trail for him is very scant, there are very few documents, the paper trail for John, William’s father, is extraordinary. It’s enormous. There are so many documents pertaining to John Shakespeare. At the time, supposedly what happened was John had been a very successful businessman in Stratford-upon-Avon. He’d been the town’s most successful glover. He had been a high alderman, which was a very honored civic post. He was basically a bit like the town mayor at one point. If you’re a high alderman, you got special red robes to wear. You got to sit in the front pew at the church. He was involved in a lot of legal matters. He was a bit like a judge or a major. At the time when William was eighteen, just the time he married , the family fortune had taken a huge . In those days, you had to stick within your guild and within your trade. If you worked outside it, you were running into huge legal problems. He had started illegally trading in wool. Nobody quite knows why. He’d lost an awful lot of money. He’d run into a huge amount of debt. He was stripped of his bailiff, alderman title.

There was an account that I read saying he very rarely left the house at this point because he was so worried about running into his creditors. He owed money all over the town. He was also fined. He also got into trouble with the law not only for illegally trading, but also doing really peculiar things like — it was compulsory to attend church every single Sunday. He was fined for not attending church. He was summoned to court for dumping what was described as in the street right outside his house. I don’t even need to explain what might be. That’s quite an odd thing to do, to dump that in the street outside your house. I just got the picture of this man who was quite erratic, whose behavior was quite strange. Also, drawing on the plays, there are a lot of tyrannical, particularly aging men whose ambition is their downfall, whose reach exceed their grasp — I’m thinking of King Lear, Macbeth, Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus — whose temperaments are quite erratic, who swing from rage back again. That’s where I got it. I should say, it is possible that I owe the real John Shakespeare an apology. Maybe he was a lovely guy.

Zibby: I doubt it.

Maggie: I don’t know. In my book, he’s a sad tyrant whose ambition has been his downfall.

Zibby: Of course, at the heart of this whole story is the fear of losing a child and then what happens when that actually comes to pass. I feel like when I think about past generations, I’m like, oh, children used to pass away all the time. They couldn’t have felt the way we feel about our children now. They couldn’t have loved them as intensely because how on earth could they have gone on when so often children passed away in every single family? Yet that’s completely not true. I’ve just designed that in my head to rationalize it. Of course, it would be just as devasting then as it would be today. Tell me a little bit about how you got so into that feeling. As I was reading it, I was thinking, did Maggie have some sort of loss of her own? Is this your greatest fear? Where is all of this coming from?

Maggie: I do think losing a child is probably every parent’s most visceral fear, isn’t it? It’s the thing that we all absolutely dread. We almost can’t even contemplate or think about it because it’s so horrific. I think it goes back to those biographies that I was saying that I read as a student. Even then, while I was a long way off from being a mom, or a writer actually, I was really outraged by scholars who wrapped up Hamnet’s death or explained away Hamnet’s death by talking about lots of statistics about child mortality in the sixteenth century, which of course was horrifyingly high. I suppose, like you, I refused to believe that at any point in history anywhere in the world it’s anything less than a catastrophe for a parent or for a family to lose a child no matter how many times. Poor Mary Shakespeare who had to bury three daughters, I don’t believe that when she buried the third one it was any easier than it was burying the first one. I just think it must have ripped her in half. It must have done. I just refuse to believe it was anything less than devastating.

I think that was partly the engine behind my desire to write the book because I feel that, like I was saying, that Hamnet’s death has been downplayed. Again, going back to those scholars who say it’s impossible to know how Shakespeare grieved his son, how could he not? You really only have to read the opening scenes of the play Hamlet through that lens, through the lens of the loss of this boy to realize that the whole play is a huge expression of an immense amount of grief. It’s a message from a father in one realm to a son in another. Of course, the name Hamlet in the play is split into two. It’s the young, teenage grieving son, and it’s the father who’s dead, who’s the ghost. It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to see what Shakespeare has done there. He’s allowed the son to live. The son has grown up to be an adolescent. The father is dead. It’s the son seeking the ghost of the father. I think that’s what all parents want to do. If your child is in pain or suffering or ill, you want to take it. You want to make some kind of odd, superstitious bargain and say, give me that and spare them.

Zibby: Then you have the whole added element of the book coming out in a pandemic when you are writing about the plague. Even the one mention in there where someone’s wearing a mask, they were like, does he really need to wear a mask? Yes, they believe it might help. I was like, oh, my gosh, that’s like what’s going on now. Unbelievable.

Maggie: I certainly didn’t see COVID coming if that’s what you’re asking. Obviously, it’s not known what the real Hamnet Shakespeare died of. His burial is recorded in the Paris records, but not the cause of death. I just went back to the play. There’s a speech in the play where the ghost is telling his son Hamlet how he died. He’s describing the manner of his death. He’s lying in an orchard. He describes his brother creeping up to him and pouring poison into his ear. The description of the death, it’s a really horrifying speech. He talks about the poison coursing through the gateways and alleys of his body and how painful it is. He says it’s horrible, horrible, most horrible. When I read that, I just thought, it sounds like the black death. It sounds like the plague, the poison coursing through the body, the agony of it, the suddenness of it.

There’s a part of me that really, really hopes that Shakespeare made that speech up, that it’s entirely fiction, but I have a horrible feeling that it’s Shakespeare describing Hamnet’s death. It’s funny, I do think that in the play Hamlet, more than any of his other plays, he becomes visible to us a lot more there. I’m particularly thinking of not only in, of course, the massive significance of the man the name of the hero, but there’s a scene in which Hamlet himself has written a play and he’s talking to the actors who are going to speak it. He instructs them on how to say it. He says, “You speak the words trippingly off the tongue. Don’t do this. Don’t do that.” When you read that scene, you think, oh, my god, there he is. There’s Shakespeare. That’s Shakespeare talking to his players. I do wonder whether that speech of the ghost is also him and he’s describing Hamnet’s death. It’s painful when you read it through that understanding.

Zibby: Tell me about this part of Agnes’s ability to touch between the finger, this little — I’m holding up my hand, but nobody, of course, listening can hear that — my thumb and my pointer finger. That little piece of flesh that Agnes can touch and kind of tell the future, did you just make that up? I’m assuming.

Maggie: I did make that up. I was quite interested in the idea — partly, the character of Hamnet’s mother, I think I originally conceived the book as to be about fathers and sons, as of course the play is, and about ghosts, about the search for a ghost, the absence of presence and the presence of absence. I became so enraged, actually — it’s probably the only word — about how his mother has been treated by history. If Hamnet has been ignored and sidelined, the woman we know as Anne Hathaway has been vilified and criticized without any good reason, actually. I became so shocked and so distracted about how historians and scholars and biographers and other novelists and writers of Oscar-winning screenplays have treated her. We have constantly been fed one narrative about her. That is that she was this older peasant woman who lured this boy genius into marriage, that he hated her, that he had to run away to London to get away from her, that he regretted his marriage. Actually, there isn’t a single, single shred of evidence that I could find that supports that. People will always talk about the second-best bed bequest in the will. In a sense, the will is a very dry document. The second-best bed is an interlineation. It’s squeezed in between two other lines. The will is a very dry, arid document.

The man was dying, let’s not forget, probably of typhoid, which is a particularly horrible death. What always spoke much louder to me is the fact — this is a concrete, evidenced fact. At the end of his career when he retired from the stage in London, he was an incredibly wealthy man. He was the equivalent of multimillionaire. He chose to go back to Stratford to live with her. He sent all his money back to Stratford. He bought her an enormous mansion of a house. None of those things, to me, suggest a man who hated his wife and regretted his marriage. I was so furious about how she’s been treated. One of the documents I read was her father’s will. Her father died a year before she married William. In it, he left her Agnes. It was like a lightning-bolt moment for me. I thought, my god, on top of everything else, have we been calling her by the wrong name for almost four hundred years? It just seemed to exemplify how badly she’s been treated and how misunderstood she’s been.

I wanted to reinvent her, in a way, and ask readers to forget everything they think they know about Shakespeare’s wife and open themselves up to a new interpretation that perhaps it was a partnership. Perhaps they did love each other. He certainly lived out his final years with her. Also, I was interested in the idea of what he was like. When they got married, he was eighteen, which was pretty young then, as it is now. I was just trying to imagine what he would’ve been like at eighteen, how he would’ve been seen in rural Warwickshire or in Stratford-upon-Avon. We know now, of course, how extraordinary he was, what his intellect and imagination was going to produce. Then, I wonder whether he was seen as this slightly feckless, tradeless, unemployed oddball, maybe. I liked the idea of maybe she saw something in him. Maybe that’s why she married him. She was twenty-six when they got married. She was from a pretty respectable family. She had quite a good dowry. He, as discussed, was from this family that had gone on the decline a bit. Their family was in a bit of trouble. Their reputation had fallen. I just liked the idea that maybe she chose him because she saw something in him. That’s where the idea of her insight into people came from.

Zibby: Wow, I love it. I love how you’re making them into real people. I feel like historical figures, you’re like, of course, I know a little bit about them, but no. This is their interior life. The older woman and the younger man and the Latin scholar in the barn, this is going to be a great scene in a movie. I’m sure this is going to be a movie. I haven’t even researched. Yes? Has this been optioned and everything?

Maggie: It has, yes. It’s been optioned, but I can’t actually say at the moment because it’s all a bit in the balance. There’s lots of paperwork going on. Unfortunately, I can’t. I’m sorry. I can’t. I’m not allowed to reveal anything, but hopefully.

Zibby: I know we’re almost out of time already, but I just had to mention that the one line that — well, not the one line. Every other page is dogeared. Now, of course, I’ve read nothing out loud to you. The one part that really got to me, perhaps because I have boy-girl twins of my own, was when the girl twin asks Agnes, she’s like, “I know that when you lose your parents you’re called an orphan, but what is it called when you lose your twin?” That got me. She was like, “There’s no word for that.” Just the emotion that’s in this book, the family bonds, how it took finding out about the play for her to have one of those days when she didn’t get out of bed even though she had been able to keep the family before then. The way that grief works in this unpredictable, not-linear way, it’s just beautiful the way you did it. It was just really impressive, really amazing.

Maggie: Thank you so much.

Zibby: You’re welcome. What are you working on now? What are we going to see next from you?

Maggie: I’ve just two days ago finished the end of a first draft of a new book. I’m feeling a bit weird now. I feel a bit untethered. It’s funny, I don’t really like to say until I’ve actually really, really finished it. What I can say is it is another historical book. I’m sorry, that leaves it wide open, I realize.

Zibby: That’s true. Yes, that’s doesn’t narrow it down too much. Thank you. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Maggie: What I wish I had known when I was starting out is that you don’t have to begin at the beginning. I find beginnings of novels really hard. It’s the often the bit that I find I have to redraft and rework more than any other. Actually, you don’t need to come up with your zinger of a first line. You can worry about that later. Just dive in anywhere in the book. You can start at the end. You can start in the middle. You can start a third of the way in. Just get words down on paper. Don’t worry too much. You can always go back and fix it later.

Zibby: Excellent. I love it. Thank you so much. Sorry this internet connection wasn’t perfect. Thanks for discussing Hamnet, all the work you put into, all of it. It will stay with me. It was beautiful. Well done.

Maggie: That was my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. Have a good day.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.

Maggie O'Farrell, HAMNET

HAMNET by Maggie O’Farrell

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