Shakespeare’s Son

I am reading Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet, about the son of William Shakespeare and Anne (or Agnes) Hathaway.  It is a heartbreaking story about parenthood — its delights and its dangers. Shakespeare is never named but it is made clear that this is the bard of Stratford upon Avon, who later writes a play called Hamlet (a then-common variation of the name) about a son who avenges his father’s death. O’Farrell creates the 11-year-old Hamnet as a curious and enterprising kid, into everything, active and distractible, whose twin sister sickens first from the bubonic plague, but it is Hamnet who dies. (Hamnet Shakespeare did die at age 11, but no one knows the cause of death). The parents’ grief is shattering: In O’Farrell’s words, it remains the “epicenter” of Agnes’s life. There is no better proof of the truth of the words of Shakespeare’s contemporary, Francis Bacon, ‘He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune…” We console ourselves that our laws and medicines keep children safer now than they were in the 16th century. Certainly, that’s true for greater numbers of them but the lessons of the past couple of years show that there will always come an enemy, motorized, environmental or viral, that will summon up the darkness. O’Farrell is a tremendous, fierce writer. The part of the book that traces how the infected fleas brought the plague to England is, itself, so astute and harrowing that the story is worth it for that alone. But it’s so much more.


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