Irish author Maggie O’Farrell won this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction for Hamnet, a novel inspired by and named after William Shakespeare’s only son—and the possible inspiration for his tragedy “Hamlet.”
The fictionalized account opens with 11-year-old Hamnet anxiously tending to his twin sister, Judith, who has a mysterious fever. It turns out to be the Black Death. As Hamnet frantically searches for family members to help, we launch into a back-and-forth timeline and discover John Shakespeare’s violent tendencies toward his son, and how William longed to escape Stratford and him.
At its heart, this is a story not of the famous playwright William Shakespeare, but his wife, Agnes—known to historians as Anne—a woman who can foresee futures and read people’s true natures with a single touch. William goes unnamed in the novel, in fact—he is “the Latin tutor,” or “her husband” or “the father”—while Agnes is front and center, a strong-willed and fiercely independent woman who tromps through forests with a kestrel on her arm. In one of the most memorable scenes, she retreats into the woods to birth her first child, harnessing her animal nature and foreshadowing what becomes an ongoing battle between her natural instincts and the 16th-century world around her.
Though its subtitle is “A Novel of the Plague,” O’Farrell’s story doesn’t center on that like Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders. (Though there’s a fascinating chapter where we track the disease from a single flea on a performing monkey onto a cargo ship and eventually to the European continent.) This is a book about devastating loss, about grief, and about how people find their way through it.