Despite William Shakespeare's singular position at the peak of Western literature, we know vanishingly little about the man himself.
In her stunning new novel, "Hamnet," Maggie O'Farrell seizes that blank canvas and paints a gorgeously written, deeply moving family portrait.
O'Farrell, who was born in Northern Ireland and lives in Scotland, has written seven novels, including the Costa Book Award-winning "The Hand That First Held Mine," and a memoir. Much of her fiction has contemporary settings, but "Hamnet" is set in a vividly imagined Elizabethan England.
Some of the few facts we have about Shakespeare have to do with his family. His father, John, was a glovemaker in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon. When William was 18, he married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior. Their daughter Susanna was born six months after the wedding, twins Hamnet and Judith two years later. In 1596, at age 11, Hamnet died of unknown causes.
That death lies at the heart of O'Farrell's novel. "Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre," she writes, "from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mother's: the boy, the empty house, the deserted yard, the unheard cry. It will lie at her very core, for the rest of her life."
William Shakespeare is never named in this book. He's the father, the husband or, somewhat disparagingly, the Latin tutor. He's not even the main character.
That role is played by his wife, the mother of Hamnet. In some historical records, her first name appears as Agnes; that's what O'Farrell calls her, and she is a memorable character — strong, smart, mysterious and sometimes heartbreaking.
The first part of the book moves back and forth between two timelines: the days surrounding Hamnet's death and, 15 years before, his parents' courtship and marriage. The novel opens with foreboding as the boy's twin sister, always a frail child, suddenly falls frighteningly ill. The children's father is in London, and, by coincidence, all of the other adults in the Shakespeare household — mother, grandparents, aunts and uncles — are out about their business, the twins home alone.
When Hamnet sees huge swellings emerging on Judith's neck, he recognizes them as buboes, the dreaded telltale symptom of bubonic plague. He runs through the town to summon the physician, but returns thwarted to the empty house. By the time Agnes comes home, tragedy is already in motion.
In the chapters set years earlier, we learn about the families of Agnes and her future husband. Her beloved mother, who died when Agnes was little, was rumored to have strange powers and origins. Agnes has a somewhat wicked stepmother and a protective older brother; like her mother, she's a healer with a deep knowledge of the natural world.
She and the Latin tutor meet when he's pressed into service teaching her younger half brothers at the family's farm, in payment for a debt his father owes her family. John Shakespeare is a somewhat sketchy businessman and, at home, a violent abuser of his wife and children, especially his oldest son.
Sparks fly between Agnes and the tutor immediately. Their flirtations practically raise steam from the page, and their first lovemaking sets an entire shed full of apples bouncing joyfully.
They share more than lust: Both of them want nothing more than to escape from their families. Her stepmother does not consider a teenager with no particular prospects a suitable match, especially since Agnes has a considerable dowry left by her late father. But love finds a way (which the stepmother discovers by counting the number of clean menstrual cloths in the cupboard), and the pair are soon happily, if quickly, wed.
Agnes has escaped, but the couple is living in John's household, and her husband is still working for his father. Within a few years, his restlessness turns into something that sounds like depression. Everyone knows about Agnes' gift for healing, but she's secretive about her abilities to read minds and sometimes foresee the future. Holding a person's hand between the thumb and forefinger, she can see into his mind, and she knows her husband's holds entire worlds, and that he must find a way to bring them into being.
Hence, when Judith sickens, her father has been living in London for a while, pursuing a career in the theaters and coming home occasionally. A desperate letter brings him rushing back, but too late.
O'Farrell's depiction of Agnes' overwhelming grief is almost unbearably real. The latter part of the novel explores the effects of such a loss on a marriage, and what might be salvaged from the ruins.
Allusions to Shakespeare's plays are used with the lightest of hands, until a final virtuoso scene about the play that bears a version of Hamnet's name. O'Farrell does employ one of the playwright's favorite tropes, though — twins who trade places with each other. Shakespeare most often made it a comic device, but here it has dire consequences.
Line to line, O'Farrell's writing is so beautiful it can be breathtaking: "Look, a kingfisher: a jewel-backed arrow piercing the silver skin of a brook." At the same time, she immerses us in the real details of life in the 16th century, especially the enormous amount of labor it took to run a household, most of it by women.
Midway through the novel, O'Farrell includes a chapter about the path the plague took to the Shakespeare household, starting with a cabin boy who plays with a tame monkey on a street in Alexandria and brings back to his ship its fleas, the carriers of the disease, and ending with Judith in Stratford, opening a box of fancy Venetian beads that had traveled on that ship. Along the way, the plague leaves countless dead in its wake.
O'Farrell couldn't have known when she was writing "Hamnet" just how terribly timely a book about a child's death in a pandemic would be. Bubonic plague killed one-third of the population of Europe, but this novel reminds us that every one of such deaths, then and now, shatters someone's world.