When the pestilence came to Stratford

Review: Vivien Horler

Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press)

Hamnet Shakespeare was William Shakespeare’s only son, who died aged 11 in the British summer of 1596.

To our eyes the name is a strange one, accustomed as we are to the name of the Prince of Denmark in one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. But Shakespeare scholar Steven Greenblatt has written that in Stratford records of the late 16th and early 17th centuries the names Hamlet and Hamnet are interchangeable.

Maggie O’Farrell, who won the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction with this novel, has taken the scant historical details of Shakespeare’s home life in Stratford and created a beautiful, slightly mystical story of a 16th century extended family.

At the centre of the book is Hamnet’s death and the devastation it causes, but there is much else besides in this telling, including the passionate love story between the son of a glove maker and a wild young farmer’s daughter who flies a kestrel, treats people with her herbal remedies, and feels most at home in the forest near her home.

O’Farrell tells us there is no record of how or why Hamnet died, but in her story she has him succumb to bubonic plague, brought to Stratford by a flea hidden in cotton waste that was loaded on to a ship in Alexandria.

After their marriage Will and Agnes – pronounced the Italian way as Anyis – live in Stratford in a cottage attached to his father’s home and glove-making premises. But Will, who acts as a salesman for his father and works as a private tutor, is desperately unhappy; he wants to write, and Agnes contrives a plan that will see him go to London as an agent for his father, and have time there to write and stage his plays.

At first Agnes means to join him, but after the birth of their second daughter, Judith, who is delicate, Agnes decides to stay in Stratford for the child’s health.

And it is Judith, Hamnet’s twin sister, who introduces the bubonic-carrying flea, to the household, and who first becomes ill.

O’Farrell says nowhere in his plays or poetry does William Shakespeare – the man, not the character – mention the Black Death or the “pestilence”. She writes: “I have always wondered about this absence and its possible significance; this novel is the result of my idle speculation.”

Whatever the truth, around four years after the death of Hamnet, the play was written.

Apart from the story told, this novel is rich in the minutiae of domestic life in a middle class family in a country town. We learn of the difficulties of travel, of sending a letter – there was no postal service in the 1500s; the preparation of food, the business of a tanner and leather worker.

It is a marvellous book.












One thought on “When the pestilence came to Stratford

  1. David Bristow

    And he gave us so many words and phrases, including “household” and “eaten out of house and home”. I remember a list of words and customs coined around these times, like threshold, but I forget ….


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *