Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 150
Anne and William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died in 1596, when he was 11 years old. We don’t know too much more about him. But author Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel, Hamnet, delves into his story and comes away with a lyrical and moving portrait of a family’s grief. The novel is focused not so much on William Shakespeare—in fact, O’Farrell never actually mentions his name in the book—as it is on his family back in Stratford, and how they cope with Hamnet’s tragic death.
On this episode, we talk to Maggie O’Farrell about how the idea for Hamnet came to her, the way she imagines Shakespeare and his family, and what she learned in the process of writing the book. She is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Maggie O'Farrell is the author of eight novels: After You'd Gone; My Lover's Lover; The Distance Between Us; The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox; The Hand That First Held Mine; Instructions for a Heatwave; and This Must Be the Place. Her latest, Hamnet, was published in the US by Knopf in 2020. It has been short listed for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction.
From the Folger’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published August 4, 2020. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “O My Son, My Son!” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.
Read an excerpt from Maggie O'Farrell's new novel, Hamnet.
Shakespeare Documented: Hamnet and Judith's baptisms
See the 1585 parish register entry recording twins Hamnet and Judith Shakespeare's baptisms.
Shakespeare Documented: Hamnet Shakespeare's death
See the 1596 parish register entry recording Hamnet Shakespeare's burial.
MICHAEL WITMORE: Shakespeare had a son. When he was 11 years old, he died. It’s safe to say… that’s all you know about him. Now let a novelist get ahold of his story. Suddenly, there’s so much more.
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. Maggie O’Farrell writes beautiful, lyrical novels. Now, there have been plenty of those written about Shakespeare, but with her newest effort, Maggie has tried something different. She’s written a Shakespeare novel that never actually mentions the writer’s name. That’s because the center of attention is not the artist himself, but his family, back home in Stratford. Specifically his son, who died during a plague outbreak in 1596, and the child’s mother, who tried franticly to save him.
The novel is called Hamnet. And at the time we’re recording this, it’s on the short list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. That’s the competition created after the 1991 Booker Prize short list had no novels by women on it.
Maggie O’Farrell joined us recently from her home in Edinburgh, where she and her children are locked down during our own plague outbreak. There are spots in this interview where the audio quality is not everything we’d like it to be. We hope you’ll understand, under the circumstances.
We call this podcast episode, “O My Son, My Son!” Maggie O’Farrell is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: When did you first hear the story of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet?
MAGGIE O’FARRELL: Well, it was a very long time ago. I was about 16, rising 17. I was at school, and I was lucky enough to have an absolutely brilliant English teacher. He mentioned in passing while we were studying the play, that Shakespeare had had a son called Hamnet, who died about four years or so before Shakespeare wrote the play. And even then—you know, I was a very long way off, obviously, from being a parent and a very long way off from being a writer myself. But even then the parallel, sort of symmetry of these names really struck me. So it was just something.
That was 30 years ago now and it just always stayed with me, you know? What does it mean to have written a play with the same name as your dead son? What is that telling us for a man like Shakespeare, who’s left such a scant paper trail? There are so very few clues about him or about his life and about the person he was. We have this incredible richness of work to draw on but not a great deal of biography. You know, for a man who’s quite mysterious and shadowy really as a person, it seems to speak enormous volumes: this act. That’s always intrigued me; the link between this lost boy and this stupendous tragic play.
BOGAEV: Was there reason that this inspiration returned to you now or when you started to write the book?
O’FARRELL: Well, in a sense it’s never really left me, actually. The play—I think as it does, actually, with a quite a lot of adolescents or probably a certain type of adolescent—the play Hamlet really got under my skin. I remember—I studied literature at university. This was in the early ‘90s and the kind of trend for academia then was very much… you know, we were kind of encouraged to write Marxist/post-Marxist/post-feminist essays. It was all seen through the lens of sort of theory, and I felt as though we were getting further and further away from the text.
I remember reading a lot of biographies of Shakespeare then. They’re fairly hefty works. You know, they’re maybe 400, 500 plus pages, and I was really amazed that Hamnet the boy, maybe got—if he was lucky—got two mentions. They mentioned he was born and they mentioned his death.
His death was always wrapped up in statistics about child mortality in the 16th century, almost as if the unspoken implication was that it wouldn’t really have been that big a deal because they probably should have been half-expecting their children to die. That really, really got to me; that assumption. It’s such a presumptuous ascertain to make, that…
BOGAEV: And such hogwash. I mean, when have parents not been struck to the ground? Yeah.
O’FARRELL: Yeah, how could you not? How could you not? Yeah, when he was 11. And you only have to read the first act of the play to know that it’s underpinned by this enormous weight of grief.
BOGAEV: That’s true, although we don’t really know the order in which the plays were written.
O’FARRELL: No, it’s true, and I think obviously you have to always be circumspect when you’re trying to read biography into his work. Clearly there are… you have to differentiate between one and the other. No, it is true, no one’s entirely sure which order the plays were written in.
BOGAEV: No, I mean, that’s true. We do know, though, that King John is written in 1596, which is the year that Hamnet Shakespeare died.
BOGAEV: And it has the heartrending speech from Constance about the death of her son.
BOGAEV: And just leaps off the page.
O’FARRELL: Yes, it really, really gets you—that speech—doesn’t it? It’s like… I don’t know, it’s like a knife through the ribs.
BOGAEV: Yeah. But we don’t know which came first: the death of Hamnet or the play Hamlet, or whether Hamnet was sick and expected to die while Shakespeare was writing. You just don’t know.
O’FARRELL: Yeah, no, nothing’s known.
BOGAEV: But to get back to your book, it is true very little is known also about Shakespeare’s wife. You flesh out her portrayal in such an interesting way. In your book she’s a healer and a seer, really.
O’FARRELL: When I originally conceived it, you know, I’ve been wanting to write this book for a really long time and I would sort of do a bit more research. Then I would decide to write something else, and I’d put all my Shakespeare books back up on the shelf—my sort of Hamnet library, back on the shelf—and I’d get it down again and I’d have another shot.
So I decided that I would really give it a go, and I applied myself to very serious research. What really struck me actually from the research that I did was what a hard time of it the woman who married William Shakespeare has been given. Over the years she’s been vilified and criticized and demonized. I mean, it’s astonishing.
BOGAEV: She really does get bad press, yeah.
O’FARRELL: Yeah. And really there is no evidence. She seems to have done very, very little to deserve this, really. If you, say, stopped a passerby in the street and said to them, “What could you tell me about the woman William Shakespeare married?” They’d probably like to say one of two things, that she forced him into marriage by getting pregnant and that he hated her. I mean, the last time I checked, getting pregnant is something that involves two people. And, of course, where is the evidence that he hated her?
People will always reach for the famous, you know, into leaving in his will, “The second best bed.” But with that—I like to counter that and I say, “You know, at the end of his career, when he was retiring from the stage he went back to Stratford to live with her which doesn’t suggest to me a marriage that he regretted or a wife that he hated.”
So, I think, I just became quite fascinated by her and my interest got really hijacked by her in a way. I thought, “Well, maybe they did love each other. Maybe it was a marriage of equality and parity…,” and you know. I wanted to kind of ask readers to think again; to forget everything they think they know about her and maybe open themselves up to a new interpretation.
One of the things I was really struck by was I read her father, Richard Hathaway’s will. He died a year before she and William married, and he left her a very generous dowry. He described her as, “My daughter Agnes,” which… it was a bit of a thunderbolt moment for me because I thought, “Obviously, spelling in Elizabethan times was a lot less stable than it is now, but if anyone would know her real name, it would be her father.”
BOGAEV: So we don’t even know her name?
O’FARRELL: Yeah. Have we been calling her for the wrong name for 400 years? It seemed to kind of really typify attitudes towards her. I wanted to give this name back to her, so in my book she’s Agnes.
BOGAEV: So she is a healer, and as you describe her she’s kind of a wildling. She grew up in the forests with a counter-culture mother. She’s very much an individual, and she has a superpower, really. She has a way of reading people. She grasps them by the hand and presses the flesh between the thumb and the forefinger. The way you describe it, she can feel what they’re feeling and what they’re thinking… who they are in their essence. And she can also see the future sometimes. How did you come to give her this superpower?
O’FARRELL: Well, it was partly, I think, because I was wondering what William would have been like at the age of 18 when he married. He must have stuck out like a sore thumb in this small rural market/farming town. And, I don’t know, I just wondered because what interested me, I think, is that one of the questions—Germaine Greer’s written a fantastic book about the woman we know as Anne Hathaway, it’s called Shakespeare’s Wife—and in it she says the question that everybody has asked; why did he marry her? Why did he marry this woman who is older than him? Why did he waste himself on her?
She went the other way around. Why did she marry him? Why did she choose this penniless, wage-less 18-year-old? I suppose if that question was asked of it, I thought, “Well, maybe she saw something in him. Maybe she looked at him and realized he was extraordinary, that he was a genius, that he was peerless in that sense.” So I suppose that that’s where this kind of grew from; that maybe she was the one person who could see into his soul and see what he was capable of.
BOGAEV: And that is funny because Shakespeare does come off a bit— especially in the passages about his youth in your book—kind of as a really pathetic figure as you say. Like this nervous weakling.
O’FARRELL: Oh, I don’t know. I didn’t see him as pathetic, but, I mean, he was young. He was 18, you know, which is…
BOGAEV: Right, and little. You’re right, little and not powerful.
O’FARRELL: Yeah, I mean, 18 is very different then from what it is now I think, but it’s still young. You’re still pretty unformed at that age, I think.
BOGAEV: Maybe you could read a passage for us, and this is the passage where Anne—or Agnes, as she is in your book—does her pincer grip on his hand.
O’FARRELL: “When she had taken his hand that day, the first time she had met him, she had felt—what? Something of which she had never known the like. Something she would never have expected to find in the hand of a clean-booted grammar-school boy from town. It was far-reaching: this much she knew. It had layers and strata, like a landscape. There were spaces and vacancies, dense patches, underground caves, rises and descents. There wasn’t enough time for her to get a sense of it all—it was too big, too complex. It eluded her, mostly. She knew there was more of it than she could grasp, that it was bigger than both of them. A sense, too, that something was tethering him, holding him back; there was a tie somewhere, a bond that needed to be loosened or broken, before he could fully inhabit this landscape, before he could take command.”
BOGAEV: Thank you. I love that description of the, “Spaces and vacancies, dense patches, underground caves,” inside of Shakespeare. This is your Shakespeare in the book and it’s also very interesting that Anne is the one who can sense that he’s being held back and she’s the one who has agency. She comes up with this idea for Shakespeare to set himself up in London, which is the very situation that in history is supposed to be a sign of their bad marriage; that they didn’t live together.
O’FARRELL: That’s right, people always…
BOGAEV: But, yes, you turn that upside down.
O’FARRELL: Yeah, well, I was just interested in the idea that maybe their marriage was a lot more a partnership than people have given it credit for in a sense. Which I think is why I wanted to give her her own sort of brand of artistry in a way.
Something that always fascinates me, and I’m sure many others, about Shakespeare’s writing is the incredible range and reach of his metaphors. You know, he shows such a vast range of knowledge and a huge range of subject. And of course, there’s a lot in Hamlet, the play, about herbology. Also hawking; here’s a lot of references to hawking and falconry in his metaphors, and so I decided to give these areas of expertise to her because I just wanted to portray them more as partners. As something much more symbiotic than people have characterized their marriage.
BOGAEV: I keep on thinking as you speak about the interview we did on the podcast a while ago about Anne Hathaway, and how one of the things that became clear is that over the centuries whatever the ongoing cultural controversy or preoccupation was, that would determine how people saw Shakespeare and his domestic life.
So in the 19th century, there was Shakespeare the family man, but in the early 1700s and then again in the 20th century, he was Shakespeare the libertine, cheating on his wife when he was in London. Then in the 20th century he was cheating on her with men and women. It really calls all of this up; how we take this void of Anne and throw ourselves and our anxieties into it.
O’FARRELL: Yeah, that’s very interesting. I know, it’s a strange one. I feel as though people have desired for so long to give him a kind of retrospective divorce. I’m not sure why. I don’t know whether it’s, kind of, misogyny or whether it just simply comes down to the idea that we prefer our artists to be footloose and fancy free and open to many love affairs.
I think that obviously there’s a huge amount of debate about his sexuality and of whether or not he was faithful with her. I mean, clearly he was a very sexual being, and I imagine as a young man in London, far away from his wife, maybe… you know, I’m sure temptation was thrown in his way, especially in the sort of more free-wheeling society of the playhouses. But like so many other things with Shakespeare, we just don’t know.
BOGAEV: Well, exactly. That’s what I was going to say. We don’t know. Just to ask a very practical question, were there certain works or biographies that you found very helpful to you, either of Anne or of William Shakespeare?
O’FARRELL: Yes, gosh, so many, actually. There is, as you’ll know, an enormous wealth of reading material on Shakespeare. You could very feasibly spend the rest of your life reading about Shakespeare, and lots of people do.
I think the ones I really loved, actually, were Neil MacGregor’s Shakespeare’s Restless World. I also really loved—of course I mentioned Shakespeare’s Wife by Germaine Greer, and Peter Ackroyd’s biography. James Shapiro’s books about Shakespeare I’ve really loved. I recently read his recent one about Shakespeare in Divided America which I thought was wonderful. I also read a few, sort of, contemporary books. One of them was the “Herbal,” or General History of Plants, by John Gerard. Also there’s a fabulous book about falconry. It was called The Book of Falconry and Hawking by George Turberville which is from 1575.
You know, I read as many books as I could get my hands on but those are the ones that I’ve still got them in my study. They’ve all got thousands of post-it notes kind of glued into them saying things like, “London,” “traveling,” “windows,” eating,” you know, just these tiny sort of details that I needed to borrow from elsewhere.
BOGAEV: Well, that’s interesting, because that’s what you do need as a novelist, isn’t it? You need details in order to write and to bring these things alive. They’re not necessarily the details that you thought you would need about, say...
O’FARRELL: Not at all, no.
BOGAEV: Yeah, about, say, Shakespeare or Anne. They’re kind of the incidental stuff like falconry.
O’FARRELL: Yeah, exactly. I think research… it’s kind of a complicated issue, because obviously you need to do a huge amount, even to kind of know an awful lot. But you need to keep out maybe 90, 95 percent of it from the book because otherwise… I mean, I think if you’re writing fiction, I suppose in a sense, the kind of historical novel that I like to read are ones that don’t wear their research really heavily, you know? Aren’t weighted down by all the homework that the novelist has done. I find it really frustrating when I’m submerged in a scene and then suddenly somebody wants to tell me all about importing and, I don’t know, the sort of manufacturing processes of hemp or flax or something. I think, “Why is this here? Why am I reading this?”
I think especially when you’re writing a book about the past you’ve got to be really careful not to show your workings too much. But also, I think the fantastic thing about research and going into these very scholarly and detailed and exhaustively researched books—and it’s astonishing the works of scholarship that people have done—but also you come across things that you didn’t even know you needed to know. Those can be very, very fertile grounds for a novelist, certainly, because you can find all kinds of things that maybe spark you off in a new direction or send you off down an alleyway you didn’t know was there.
BOGAEV: Well, that leads to my next question because the novel focuses on the death of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet and the devastating ripple effects it has on Shakespeare and Anne and their marriage and the whole family. He dies of plague, and you have a whole epidemiology chapter that wonderfully traces how the plague came to Warwickshire, England in 1596 and then to Hamnet and the coincidences that needed to happen.
For me, reading this chapter in the midst of this pandemic, it’s just so resonant. The accidents just pile up, you know? An asymptomatic super-spreader decides to go to a funeral across the country and suddenly people are dying in one state while the rest of the country is oblivious of any COVID-19 danger. But you wrote this book long before COVID-19, so what possessed you to include a plague contact tracing chapter? Is it what you’re talking about, that you learned so much that you just can’t stop yourself from putting it in your novel?
O’FARRELL: Well, it’s funny, I mean, as you say, when I wrote that chapter, it was a long, long time before any of us had even thought that this current pandemic was even possible. So obviously when I wrote it, it was more a kind of structural thing that I wanted. I remember deliberately going off to research this because I wanted this to happen, you know? Because the first half of the book traces the final couple of weeks in Hamnet’s life.
Of course, it isn’t known what the real Hamnet Shakespeare died of; there’s no cause of death recorded. But what we now call the plague or the Black Death would have been a kind of constant fear for people in the 16th century.
BOGAEV: And yet, Shakespeare never wrote a plague play.
O’FARRELL: He didn’t, no. I think what’s interesting about it is going back to talking about the enormous range of subjects and knowledge that he reaches for in his metaphor. He never once mentions the pestilence or what we now call the Black Death. I mean, he mentions plague but he’s not actually talking about the Black Death. “A plague on both your houses,” he’s talking about a plague, any plague, because of course, there were no shortages of killer illnesses in the 16th century.
But he never mentions it which… it’s extraordinary, really, when you consider how prevalent and how high it must have registered in people’s consciousness at the time. I’ve always wondered, actually, about this absence in his work.
BOGAEV: Yeah, and you write in your author’s note in the book that this novel came out your idle speculation about why Shakespeare never wrote about it. We had a guest on recently who’s a medical doctor who wrote about deaths in Shakespeare’s plays and she brought that up too.
O’FARRELL: Oh, interesting.
BOGAEV: What do you make of it?
O’FARRELL: Well, I don’t know. Obviously, you know, it is something that’s always struck me. I suppose as a novelist I wanted to join the dots between those speculations. I mean, we don’t know why Hamnet died, but he died in a plague year and he died in high summer. It’s not impossible. It’s perfectly possible that he cut his finger and died of septicemia, you know? We have no idea, but as a writer of fiction, it was just too tempting for me not to join those dots.
BOGAEV: Well, one of the terrible ironies of the novel is that Anne is a healer and everyone throughout the book is coming to her for cures of all kinds. Her cures seem to work, but when her son is dying, she can’t help him and that just adds to her guilt and her grief, which you write about just so searingly. I’d like you to read a passage for us from this part of the book that’s on page 219.
O’FARRELL: “Inside Agnes’s head, her thoughts are widening out, then narrowing down, widening, narrowing, over and over again. She thinks, This cannot happen, it cannot, how will we live, what will we do, what will I tell people, how can we continue, what should I have done, where is my husband, what will he say, how could I have saved him, why didn’t I save him, why didn’t I realize it was he who was in danger? And then, the focus narrows, and she thinks: He is dead. He is dead. He is dead.
“The three words contain no sense for her. She cannot bend her mind to their meaning. It is an impossible idea that her son, her child, her boy, the healthiest and most robust of her children, should, within days sicken and die.
“She, like all mothers, constantly casts out her thoughts, like fishing lines, towards her children, reminding herself of where they are, what they are doing, and how they fare. From habit, while she sits there near the fireplace, some part of her is tabulating them and their whereabouts: Judith, upstairs. Susanna next door. And Hamnet? Her unconscious mind casts again and again, puzzled by the lack of bite, by the answer she keeps giving it: he is dead, he is gone. And Hamnet? The mind will ask again. At school? At play, out at the river? And Hamnet? Where is he?
“Here, she tries to tell herself. Cold and lifeless on this board, right in front of you. Look, here, see.
“And Hamnet? Where is he?
“With her back to the door, she faces the fireplace, which is filled only with ashes held in the fragile shape of a log they once were.”
BOGAEV: That passage—you read it in a very measured way but in my mind as I was reading, it was a very panicked mind and just a howl of grief and these cycling thoughts. You really give us a sense of that, and your style of writing changes here for quite a bit in the book; that there’s less coherence or narrative flow. Your writing becomes a series of small, kind of, sketches. What fueled your descriptions of a grief like this?
O’FARRELL: Well, I think the whole impetus behind the book for me has always been going right way back to when I was 16 and sitting in the very cold classroom in Scotland hearing that Shakespeare had had this son. I think the whole impetus for me was to give a kind of solemnity. To honor this death which I think has been really overlooked and underplayed by history, and by scholarship, and by popular culture as well, actually. I just feel that nobody before has said, “This was really important. This shattered the family.”
Obviously—and for very good reason—biographies focus on Shakespeare’s life in London, his career, you know, with good reason. But for me, I’ve always thought that the biggest tragedy, the biggest drama of his life—of Shakespeare’s life—happened off stage in Stratford, at home. That was with the death of his son. And the book for me was always going to be a kind of memorial to this boy and wanting to say, “This was really important. He was very important.”
I don’t think without his death we would have the play Hamlet, and I don’t think we would have the play Twelfth Night. Culturally, he is crucial, and I think emotionally he is crucial. I think it must have been a huge turning point in Shakespeare’s life and in the whole family’s life. I wanted the death to come in the middle of the book and for the second part afterwards, to be… the style of it to reflect how the family must have felt. It must have been shattering. They must have all broken into pieces, and I wanted the way the book was written to reflect that.
BOGAEV: You do have a conversation between Shakespeare and his wife. It’s really their first heart-to-heart conversation about their son’s death. So you have to put words into Shakespeare’s mouth, which you do throughout the book, but I’m curious, how do you warm up to that? Putting words in Shakespeare’s mouth.
O’FARRELL: It is hard. Obviously, I think writing about him, there is an awful lot of vertigo, I say, involved, obviously, because it’s him, isn’t it? You know, the man on whose shoulders we all stand. I think that’s part of the reason why I don’t ever name him in the book.
BOGAEV: No, he’s just some guy for most of the book.
O’FARRELL: The word “William,” or even the very presumptuous “Will” doesn’t appear. It wasn’t something I necessarily planned but I just found in the writing of the book. It’s just almost physically impossible to write that name in a sort of sentence, you know? “William Shakespeare came down the stairs and helped himself to breakfast.” Instantly I just felt like a total idiot, and I thought, “You just can’t do it.” I thought, “If I’m getting pulled out of the narrative here, I can’t possibly expect readers not to feel the same.”
Also, the idea is that I wanted—partly, going back to what I was saying about Anne or Agnes—I suppose I wanted readers to try and forget all the things they think they know and just maybe open themselves up to a different version. Let’s see him before he was the man, the icon, the behemoth that we all know. Just think of him as a man you know. As a boy of 18 who gets his girlfriend pregnant.
BOGAEV: Right, he’s just this young Latin tutor in your book. He’s in love with a girl much older than him.
O’FARRELL: Yeah. And you know, at this point we need to try and forget who he is or who he becomes, we just want to see him as a young man in love, I suppose, or as a young but bereaved father.
BOGAEV: Although you do have some lovely dialogue for him and his sister Eliza, that plays off his love of language and wordplay that comes up throughout his plays, especially in the word “nothing.” I’m thinking of that conversation.
O’FARRELL: Well, he does have quite an interesting play on negatives; on un-words and no-words throughout his plays. I really wanted to avoid the kind of temptation to say to my readers, this is where he gets this idea from, and this is where he gets this idea from, because I would find that kind of thing really painful.
BOGAEV: The Easter egg thing? Yeah.
O’FARRELL: Yeah. Just awful. So I had to kind of really steer clear of that. But there’s a few—obviously, one of the first things I knew I would never, ever write in, sort of, Elizabethan faux-Shakespeare dialogue because that would be agonizing to write and to read.
BOGAEV: Thank you.
O’FARRELL: And also you can’t imitate him. He is who he is. You can’t try and pretend. So I knew that I would write it in modern language, but I always knew that I wanted to be very careful about the way they spoke, so you didn’t come across these terrible grating anachronisms. I try not to use any vocabulary,—so words—that wouldn’t have meant the same thing in 16th century.
So the last few drafts I did with the OED right next to me and I would look things up. So at one point I had… I can’t remember who it was, it might even have been him, saying that something was, “A shambles,” you know, meaning a kind of chaos. But actually, when I looked it up in the OED I realized that that word in the 16th century meant, “To dice and quarter up a carcass,” so that had to go.
BOGAEV: It’s a minefield.
O’FARRELL: It is, but you know, for someone like me, I’m a bit of a kind of etymological nerd so I find it quite enjoyable. So yeah, it was a minefield, but quite an interesting one for me. That’s the kind of thing I enjoy.
BOGAEV: Well, I don’t want to give away the ending, but let me ask you this. Did you always know the ending you were heading towards or was that something that you struggled with or came to as you were writing?
O’FARRELL: No, I always knew that the book would end where it does. One of the big questions for me which I’ve always wondered about was how Hamnet’s mother might have felt to know that her husband had written a play with the name of their dead son as its title and also as the name of its hero, and also the ghost, of course, who’s also called Hamlet.
BOGAEV: And we should explain Hamnet and Hamlet; is this right, they’re virtually interchangeable in Elizabethan times?
O’FARRELL: Yeah, so as I was saying, you know, spelling in the 16th century was not stable, and so Hamlet and Hamnet are completely interchangeable in parish records. So Hamnet and Judith, the twins, were called after their godparents, who were the baker and his wife in Stratford. They were called Hamnet and Judith Sadler, and Hamnet Sadler’s name appears in various documents with a double T, with an L, with an N, with two N’s. There’s absolutely no consistency at all. So it is the same name. I always knew that the book would have to end with the play—not to give too much away—and with Hamnet’s mother’s interaction or experience of the play.
BOGAEV: I have to ask also whether writing this novel changed your thinking about Shakespeare the man or Hamlet the play?
O’FARRELL: I think it did, in so far as it made me really dig down very deep into both the man and the play. I mean, obviously I’d studied the play at school and I studied again at university and I read it since. I’ve never seen it on stage.
BOGAEV: You’re kidding.
O’FARRELL: I know, it’s ridiculous, isn’t it? Actually now I’m slightly nervous to see it. I have seen the Olivier version of it which is all very, you know, lots of tights and brooding, but I’ve never seen it. I know, I have to see it.
BOGAEV: Why haven’t you gone? Are you afraid it would ruin it for you because you love the play so much?
O’FARRELL: And that’s crazy, isn’t it? No, not at all. It’s funny, I mean, it’s not as though I’ve deliberately avoided it. I don’t know. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? Anyway, I can’t remember what you asked me now.
BOGAEV: Whether writing this book that you wrote…
O’FARRELL: Oh, yes.
BOGAEV: …you remember that.
O’FARRELL: I do remember, now. I’m back now.
BOGAEV: Whether it changed your thinking about Shakespeare as a man or Hamlet, a play?
O’FARRELL: I think writing the book made me think about him much more as a human being and it made me speculate a lot more about the lost years. How did this glover’s boy, how did he make that leap? Nobody knows, but I think as a novelist, writing about him, you start to fill in those gaps yourself. I decided to invent my own—actually his wife stage managed it all. The woman behind the man. But who knows? Nobody knows. But I think that’s what...
BOGAEV: All women everywhere will thank you.
O’FARRELL: Good, I hope so. But I think that’s what’s so fascinating about him. You know, this is a man who we only have, is it six examples of his signature? He is so shadowy.
BOGAEV: Well, I’d love to read your novel of his lost years. So, I hope that’s the next time we talk.
O’FARRELL: I think everything I know about him, that’s the biggest question mark.
BOGAEV: There you go, another novel. Thank you so much for this. This was wonderful talking with you.
O’FARRELL: Oh, no, it’s my absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for having me on your brilliant podcast. I mean, I wish I’d known about it when I was writing my book. It’s really frustrating, I’ve been listening to it and thinking, “Oh, that’s all these things I could have known.”
BOGAEV: Oh, that is so lovely to hear. That is the greatest compliment. I really appreciate it and I appreciate you taking the time.
O’FARRELL: It’s my pleasure. Thanks so much, Barbara. I hope you stay well.
BOGAEV: You too.
WITMORE: Maggie O'Farrell is the author of eight novels: After You'd Gone; My Lover's Lover; The Distance Between Us; The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox; The Hand That First Held Mine; Instructions for a Heatwave; and This Must Be the Place. Her latest, titled Hamnet—short listed for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction—was published in the US by Knopf in 2020. She was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Our podcast episode, “O My Son, My Son!” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.
We’d like to ask a favor. Please rate and review this podcast in the Apple Podcast store. I don’t personally understand how the algorithm works, but I’m told that reviews are the best way to let people who’ve never heard of Shakespeare Unlimited find out about the work we’re doing here. Thanks so much for your help with this.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.