Meet Shakespeare’s Wife & Children

Maggie O’Farrell says she first read Hamlet in high school (she didn’t call it high school, as she was in the UK, but I’m translating!). Since then, she has been very taken with the play, even dressing up as Hamlet for a costume party, carrying around a skull, of course.

Later in her studies, she learned that Shakespeare and his wife had a son named Hamnet who died at age eleven in the black plague. She says several things were very interesting to her about this:

  • History books, she says, make it seem like losing a child in those days wasn’t a big deal because of the general high child mortality rate. She wasn’t buying that.
  • Very little is known about Shakespeare’s life, even though he left behind such a great body of work. His wife, typically called Anne Hathaway, is often presented as an older woman who trapped him into marriage and whom he did not love. O’Farrell disputes that. Shakespeare was 18 when he married her, btw, and she was 26. She says all the time Shakespeare was in London  he sent most of his money back to his family in Stratford and when he retired he moved back there to live with his wife, so she sees those facts as disputing the belief that he did not care for her. Also her name, legal records show, was Agnes, not Anne.
  • She credits an article by scholar James Shapiro for pointing out that in those days the names Hamlet and Hamnet were interchangeable. And that therefore the fact that Shakespeare wrote a play called Hamlet four years after his son died is, as she puts it, “not nothing.”

Now that I’ve given you some background, I will say: this book is a master work. Not that that is my judgment only; it has already won numerous accolades in 2020.

O’Farrell is in total control of this story, spooling it out at a slow pace and getting us deeply inside the emotional heart of the story. And although you might think, as I did, that this book is mostly an historical story, a retelling/reimagining of the story of Shakespeare and his wife, which is what I expected, it is not that. This is a story of grief and of a woman losing a son. It is heartbreaking beautiful. In my canon of contemporary literary fiction that is sure to have long-lasting value, this book belongs there. A must read.

Also interesting to see how this book was published in other countries. Here is the original UK cover:

And here is the Canadian cover. In Canada, interestingly, the book had a different title, calling it after Hamnet and also his twin sister, Judith, an intergral part of the story.

Author: Lynn Rosen

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