Book Reviews

Maggie O’Farrell

Alfred A. Knopf

 

 

Mary inhales, shutting her eyes for a moment, as if mustering the final shreds of her patience. “Agnes,” she says, opening her eyes and fixing them on her son, “is with child. Says it’s yours.”

He gives a nod and a shrug, all at the same time, eyeing the broad back of his father, who looms behind his mother, still facing the street…

“Is it?” his mother says, her face white, stretched.

“Is it what?” …

“Yours.”

“Is what mine?” …

Mary presses her lips together. “Did you put it there?”

“Did I put what where?”

                       

                               from Hamnet


  

Re-imagining Mrs. Shakespeare

According to church records, William Shakespeare’s 11-year old son was buried on August 11, 1596. The cause of Hamnet’s death is not known, but historical speculation leans toward the bubonic plague, even though the plague rarely struck only one or two people from a village and there were few other deaths recorded. (Kenneth Branagh’s 2018 film, “All Is True,” offers darker speculations on the boy’s death.)

The Irish novelist Maggie O’Farrell opts for the plague explanation. In one masterful chapter, reminiscent of the end scene in the 2011 film “Contagion,” she traces the plague’s transmission from a flea on a monkey in Alexandria who climbs on an English cabin boy, to Venice, then London, and finally to Warwickshire, where Shakespeare’s family resides.

O’Farrell works with the few facts that are known of this period in Shakespeare’s life and imagines the rest to fashion a historical novel about his relationship with his wife, Anne Hathaway, and their family.

Shakespeare was 18 when they married; Anne was eight years older and already pregnant with their first child. Shakespeare spent much of his adult life in London, where he found enough success as a playwright to be able to purchase the finest house in Stratford-on-Avon for his family. In a codicil to his will, he famously left Anne his “second-best bed.”

From these facts, many have believed that it was not a happy marriage. O’Farrell has a different interpretation: In her re-imagining, Shakespeare is a restless youth, smitten with the older and unconventional Anne (“Agnes” in the book, as she was called in her father’s will), mysterious and suspect to the towns people, an herbalist given to solitary walks in the forest. Unhappy and frustrated in Stratford, Shakespeare does depart for London leaving his family behind, but it is to escape his brutish father who wants the sensitive youth to follow him in the glove-making trade, and as much Agnes’ decision as Shakespeare’s.

It is Agnes who is the more intriguing and interesting figure. A strong independent woman, she ignores many of the customs of the day, and is quite able to care for her family without a husband nearby. She also has the gift of foresight and, even as a young woman, knows that she will live a long life and that her two children will be standing at her bedside as she is dying. She is confident in this knowledge, and at peace with her destiny. It is we, the readers, who are made uncomfortable, knowing that she will give birth to three children.

 


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (October 15, 2020.) Reprinted with permission.


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