About the private life of William Shakespeare we know precious little. The son of a glove maker in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, at 18 he married 26-year-old Anne Hathaway, who, six months later, gave birth to a daughter, Susanna, and then, in another two years, twins Hamnet and Judith. In 1596, at 11, Hamnet died of unknown causes. Meanwhile, Shakespeare was becoming, you know, a pretty good playwright. Between 1599 and 1601 he wrote “Hamlet,” the name being, apparently, a variant of Hamnet.
Upon these meager details, bestselling (“The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox”), critically acclaimed (“This Must Be the Place”) author Maggie O’Farrell builds a novel, ostensibly about a young boy’s death but more, really, about the romance from which Shakespeare might have emerged. Anne, as the author tells us in a note, was named “Agnes” in her father’s will, and so, here she is Agnes, and an enchanting, enchanted creature she is.
When Shakespeare — never named, but introduced here as the Latin tutor to Agnes’ half-brothers — first sees her, she is emerging from the woods with a kestrel on her arm.
“There used to be a story in these parts,” he recalls, “about a girl who lived at the edge of a forest. … People who had lived in the village a long time believed that the girl’s mother had come out of this wood. From where, no one knew.”
Agnes, in this story, has inherited her (now dead) mother’s otherworldly beauty, as well as her healing way with herbs and worldly whatnot. She also has a way of reading a person’s soul by gripping the flesh between his thumb and forefinger. And she can see into the future — that, for instance, “there will be two children of hers standing at the bed where she dies.”
So when the birth of twins brings her total progeny to three, she is deeply confused. We aren’t. We know something awful is going to happen to Hamnet, though Judith is the sick one when the story starts — with “pestilence,” as it’s called here, the Black Death that O’Farrell traces from a flea on a monkey in Alexandria to a beadmaker in Murano to a dressmaker in Stratford.
There are, that is, interesting historical notes here. Interesting information about the house Shakespeare grew up in, and the one he purchased when he began to make money. About flowers and herbs and their medicinal properties. There is a moving account of the courtship of an unlikely couple, an even more moving story about the grief experienced over the loss of a child. But what elevates the story above “interesting” is its engagement with Shakespeare’s life, and there’s something peculiar about hinging the story’s emotional gravity on a reader’s knowledge of Hamlet’s father’s ghost.
There’s also, perhaps, something amusing about seeing the great playwright at a loss for words, but imagining the point of view of someone who has contributed more language to the canon than anyone other than the composers of the Bible might require a Shakespearean effort — and that is something not even the most demanding of readers would expect of Maggie O’Farrell.
Ellen Akins is a writer and a teacher of writing in Wisconsin.
By: Maggie O’Farrell.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 320 pages, $26.95.