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BOOK REVIEW

Seeing Shakespeare’s family by way of a plague tale in ‘Hamnet’

Most of Maggie O'Farrell's new novel unfolds in the realm of Shakespeare's family.
Most of Maggie O'Farrell's new novel unfolds in the realm of Shakespeare's family.Bookshop

The first time the Latin tutor sees her, through the window of the farmhouse where he is miserably teaching, he takes her for a young man. Her long skirts bunched over her boots, her braided hair under a hat, she strides out of the woods with a small falcon perched on her outstretched arm.

She is Agnes, and she will marry him. He is 18, a restless, directionless dreamer from the nearby town of Stratford; she’s a little older, placidly eccentric, and rumored to be a witch. In 16th-century England, they are misfits both, and they tumble into passionate love.

Maggie O’Farrell’s magnificent and searing new novel “Hamnet” never calls the tutor William Shakespeare, never calls him by name at all. Shakespeare is who he is, though, while Agnes is a shimmering fictional version of the woman history knows, albeit barely, as Anne Hathaway — the left-behind wife to whom, when he died, he infamously bequeathed his “second best bed.”

Banish all thoughts of that line item in the great man’s will; O’Farrell makes easy sense of it when the time comes. But that is decades in the future from where the book begins: with their only son, Hamnet, searching in vain for his mother, his grandparents, any grown-up, really, to help Judith, his suddenly ailing twin. Home alone in late summer, 1596, these 11-year-olds don’t realize that the plague has sidled in.

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The real Hamnet, of course, is the Shakespeare child who died — of what is unknown. A few years later, his famous, absent father named a new tragedy, “Hamlet,” almost after him.

The boy’s death is the clawing grief at the center of O’Farrell’s tale. But what sprawls around it is a family saga so bursting with life, touched by magic, and anchored in affection that I only wish it were true.

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Of all the stories that argue and speculate about Shakespeare’s life, about whether he even wrote his own plays, here is a novel that matches him with a woman overwhelmingly more than worthy.

Agnes’s husband falls for her because she is sexy and self-assured, because she cares what no one thinks, and because she has a nimble curiosity. If it unnerves him that this beautiful, beekeeping herbal healer can touch a muscle in his hand and read his mind, there are advantages to having a partner who knows you that well and keeps on loving you.

His mother, Mary, is appalled by this interloper.

“Mary finds she cannot look at her daughter-in-law for long, she cannot hold her gaze. This creature, this woman, this elf, this sorceress, this forest sprite — because she is that, everyone says so, Mary knows it to be true — bewitched and ensnared her boy, lured him into a union.”

She is wrong about the bewitchment, but Agnes is in tune with the supernatural. So is her sweet Hamnet. Good at school like his father, deeply kind like his mother, he so strongly resembles his twin that they delight in swapping clothes and pretending to be each other. Why wouldn’t their father borrow that plot device?

Most of the novel unfolds in the realm of the family, in the house on Henley Street where Agnes’s husband grew up — the least favorite child of his father, John. A vicious domestic bully and a cheat as a businessman, John is the seed of every cruel father in the plays that his son would write,

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The proximity to John is part of what makes life in Stratford unbearable for Agnes’s husband, though on his own he doesn’t have the ingenuity to make the break. When the time comes for him to escape, alone, to London, it is she who formulates the plan and sends him on his way.

Neither of them thinks it’s more than a temporary separation. Then he gets acquainted with the theater, and ambition.

Halfway through the book, one aberrant and fascinating chapter traces, step by step, how the contagion that would fell Hamnet was borne across the Mediterranean, into the workshop of a Stratford seamstress, then into Agnes’s family — a slow-motion, impending fatality.

Otherwise O’Farrell tells the story in two strands: the years of courtship and marriage in one, the days of sickness and death in the other. A twining of promise and doom, it morphs with Hamnet’s demise into a single narrative of anguished regret and infuriated sorrow.

It becomes a portrait of a couple torn from each other by loss, suffering alone their separate guilts: his for not having been with their dying son, hers for not having saved him.

There are a few times, including one important moment, when O’Farrell’s powers of conjuration briefly falter. I warn you, though, that I nearly drowned at the end of this book, and at some other spots besides. It would be wise to keep some tissues handy.

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Yet “Hamnet,” so gorgeously written that it transports you from our own plague time right into another and makes you glad to be there, is paradoxically not a downer.

It will make you think tenderly of Shakespeare, and darkly, too. But Agnes? She is wondrous all the way through.

HAMNET

By Maggie O’Farrell

Knopf, 305 pp., $26.95

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at laura.collinshughes@gmail.com.