Shakespeare grieves his son’s death in Maggie O’Farrell’s poignant novel

In an interview, Maggie O’Farrell explains why she believes the play “Hamlet” is tied in part to the death of Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son, Hamnet.

Courtesy of Murdo MacLeod and Penguin Random House
Author Maggie O’Farrell appears with her novel “Hamnet.”

When she was a teenager, Irish-born novelist Maggie O’Farrell became smitten with the works of William Shakespeare. While studying “Hamlet,” she was haunted by the brief life of the playwright’s only son, Hamnet, who died at age 11, possibly of bubonic plague. In “Hamnet,” she fashions a historical novel around the boy, whose death may have impelled his father to write “Hamlet.” Monitor correspondent Peter Tonguette spoke with Ms. O’Farrell about her fictionalized portrait of the Shakespeare family.

Q: How as a teenager did you become interested in Shakespeare?

We were studying the play “Hamlet.” It really got under my skin, both the play and the character. “Hamlet” does appeal to the adolescent, certainly the kind of adolescent I was – slightly more melancholic, reflective, likes to wear black. I was fortunate to have this absolutely fantastic English teacher, and he mentioned in passing that Shakespeare had a son called Hamnet who had died several years before [“Hamlet”] was written. It just really struck me at the time.

Q: Are Hamnet and Hamlet two versions of the same name? 

Absolutely. Spelling in Elizabethan times was a lot less stable than it is now. There are many examples in the Stratford parish registers of children who were born as Hamnet or Hamlet, and were buried as Hamlet or Hamnet, the other way around.

Q: How did Hamnet’s death influence Shakespeare’s work?

I’ve always felt that Hamnet has never been given his due. You read these big biographies, and the boy gets maybe two mentions. His death is always wrapped up in statistics about how common it was for children to die in the 16th century. I wanted to give him a voice, and to give dignity to his death. Also, Hamnet was important. Without him, we wouldn’t have one of the greatest tragedies ever written. We probably wouldn’t have “Twelfth Night,” which is about boy-and-girl twins who are separated and they each think the other is dead and then they are magically reunited. [Hamnet had a twin sister, Judith, and an older sister, Susanna, who each lived well into old age.]

Q: How long did you work on the novel?

I made a pass at it a few times – three times, actually. I have written three books since [starting] “Hamnet.” I realized that one of the things stopping me was that I was unable to write the book while my son still hadn’t reached the age of 11. I knew that I had to put myself inside the mind of a parent who sits at the son’s bedside as he is dying.

Q: As a writer, how do you put yourself in the shoes of Hamnet’s grieving parents?

I don’t think there’s a huge leap between love and loss, actually. I think loss is the sort of inverse of loving somebody, isn’t it? It’s fear of what your life would be like without this person, and I think there is no more visceral fear for a parent, certainly, than losing your child. You want your children to outlive you, don’t you? It’s a very, very basic urge that all of us have.

Q: Will you return to the terrain of Shakespeare again?

I certainly have missed him an awful lot, I have to say. It took me a really long time to take down all my maps and diagrams and photographs. ... I think Shakespeare’s domestic life has been so minimized and so silenced for so long that I do find it a very rich, imaginative territory.

Q: Do you read his plays differently now?

I think I always have, in a sense, because I was fortunate enough to have this brilliant and inspirational English teacher.

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