How Grief’s Alchemy Turned “Hamnet” into “Hamlet”


Cover image from Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell



Over wine, my book club raved about the quiet spell Hamnet cast, the grace and tenderness of its language. We read aloud our favorite Maggie O’Farrell’s lines: “The fireplace, which is filled only with ashes, held in the fragile shape of the log they once were…” “Time runs only one way.” “Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns.” We marked Agnes’s reason for falling in love with William Shakespeare: “You had more hidden away inside you than anyone else she’d ever met.” Above all, we were grateful: Somehow O’Farrell evokes the most wrenching grief of all, a parent losing a child, in a way that takes you by the hand, keeps you from wanting to slam the book shut and find a comedy on Netflix.

Because we had just come through the worst of the pandemic, we were riveted when she traced the bubonic plague that killed Shakespeare’s son to a single flea, stowed away with an African monkey on a ship where it leaped from cats to rats and sailors and laid itself to rest in a box of Murano glass beads that was bound for Stratford, where the Shakespeares’ daughter would open it. She was the frail one you expected to die. We had held our breath as her eleven-year-old brother lay down next to her, desperate to save her, only to die in her stead. All this while the life of the household moved on, oblivious, the adults occupied with everyday chores. This is why we prize deathbed goodbyes, I suspect. First because we want that last chance to exchange love, but also because it is so much worse to be absent, busying ourselves with the mundane while someone we love is dying. In retrospect, these trivial preoccupations will seem grotesque. How can you return to routine with full ease, now that you know its sweet reassurance can coincide with tragedy?

We talked our way to the end of the novel, sympathizing with Will Shakespeare’s wife, furious at him for going off to write his plays while their son died and she grieved. What a relief, when she saw the play he had written—in the novel, it is Hamlet—and understood that her husband’s grief was as sharp as her own…

And there I tripped. It was all wrong. How could Shakespeare have cherished his young son and then written him up as a neurotic (our term) introvert paralyzed by conflicting emotions and a love for his mother that later scholars would see as lust? Hamlet may be Shakespeare’s greatest play, but its title character is far from heroic. He winds up dead in large part because his own melodramatic scheming has run amok—no!

O’Farrell avoids naming Shakespeare in her novel, calling him “the tutor” when Agnes (Anne Hathaway to us) falls in love with him. This lets us avoid all the pompous scholarly baggage and know him as a young man driven by his love of language and theater, his gifts of wit and knowledge. We fall in love along with Agnes, roll our eyes at his stumbles but root for them both. I could not fathom Hamlet as Agnes did, as a proof of loss so deep he could speak it no other way.

Granted, we would excuse any slip, gratified by O’Farrell’s coup. She changed the angle. You see someone differently when the fame is stripped away and you can peer into their home life, into the hearts of those who have chosen to love them. More than that, though, she showed us how extraordinary Agnes was, put her on public record, made us love her free and independent spirit, taught us about life and grief and love through her courage. Most of what matters in life begins, is made possible, at home, a fact western culture has tended to forget.

Still. Hamlet? I went home and opened my laptop, moved through links. “Aha!” I exclaimed, loud enough to wake both husband and dog. Shakespeare did not write Hamlet right after his son’s death, as the novel suggests. Instead, he wrote romps and romcoms: The Merry Wives of WindsorMuch Ado About NothingAs You Like It—alongside Henry IV, Henry V, and Julius Caesar.

Besides, “writing a play about Hamlet, in or around 1600, may not have been Shakespeare’s own idea,” Stephen Greenblatt notes in The New York Review of Books. Not only had the story of the Danish prince already been staged in England, but that playwright was now dead, the plot was a crowd-pleaser, and a new version promised revenue for the company.

Triumphant, I emailed the book club. This made me feel much better. Illiterate about such things, I had assumed that Shakespeare invented Hamlet from whole cloth, and the idea that his first imaginative act after his son’s death would be that play had floored me.

After I hit send, though, I stared, unfocused, at the screen. How could a writer as accomplished and intelligent as Maggie O’Farrell have gotten something so wrong? Hamnet won righteous praise last year: the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Fiction Prize, a place on fifteen Best Books of 2020 lists. I searched further and found plenty of scholars connecting Hamnet’s death with Hamlet, the four-year delay notwithstanding.  

He could have pushed aside the grief, I mused, distracting himself with wit’s swordplay until time dulled the pain bearable. And when his next plot presented itself, how could he not make the connection? Hamnet, Hamlet—a single letter of the alphabet is far too flimsy to keep us from our memories.

The luck is that, by 1600, Shakespeare was ready artistically as well as emotionally. After writing what Greenblatt describes as rather wooden monologues in Richard III, Shakespeare went inward, nailing the complexity of Richard II’s thoughts in lines that did not simply assert and contradict, playing at confession, but instead turned the character’s mind inside out with psychological subtlety. After Hamnet’s death came the reprieve of the comedies, but then, in 1599, Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar, letting most of the play linger on the suspended state between dreaming up a terrible deed and acting it out.

And then came Hamlet, offering him a character who could spend the entire play suspended, trapped by the workings of his own mind. Hamnet had been dead for four years, and Shakespeare had just received word that his father was close to death.

A fresh, hard loss wakes all the old grief you have put to sleep. But enough time had passed to make art possible, and he knew, now, how to go inward.

Hamlet freed its author’s “preference for things untidy, damaged, and unresolved over things neatly arranged, well made, and settled,” Greenblatt writes. The text showed us his pain and “his refusal of easy consolations.”

Sadness works on you. In art, that process is telescoped: Shakespeare skipped Hamlet’s entire childhood so we could watch him confront his father’s death as a young man. Hamnet brings the production of Hamlet forward four years so Agnes can take the measure of her husband’s unspoken grief. But O’Farrell is making the same connection Shakespeare made, when his still vivid grief infused another man’s story—and gave us one of the finest plays ever written.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.