“I have always been intrigued about the relationship, the link, between this lost boy, this lost son, and this incredible tragedy. And that’s what I’m exploring in the novel.” Maggie O’Farrell discusses her historical novel Hamnet with host Mary Laura Philpott on NPT’s A Word on Words.
Maggie O’Farrell is an award-winning novelist who has written seven works of fiction, as well as the memoir-in-essays I Am, I Am, I Am. Her latest book, Hamnet — a fictionalized portrayal of William Shakespeare’s family, including his son Hamnet, who died young — captured the attention of readers around the globe and earned O’Farrell the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. In this episode of A Word on Words, O’Farrell talks with host Mary Laura Philpott about how she made a story about a family who lived nearly 500 years ago feel vitally important and alive to a contemporary audience.
Mary Laura Philpott: Hi, Maggie. How are you doing?
Maggie O’Farrell: Hi. Wonderful.
Philpott: Thank you for taking the time to shoot this remote episode with us. Would you mind telling us where you are recording from?
O’Farrell: I am in my study, which is a small room at the back of my house in Edinburgh, Scotland. This is our second lockdown, and we’ve been locked down since, well, since Christmas day, actually. So we’re now in week three of homeschooling. I’ve got three kids at home, so it’s quite a busy house. It’s lucky that I’m wearing my headphones, because otherwise you could hear the total chaos and cacophony going on behind me. There’s rap music coming from my son’s room. My daughters are playing. My husband’s playing jazz in the kitchen.
Philpott: I relate to all of that very much. I’d like to start our conversation talking about Hamnet, but we are going to get to some of your other work as well. For those who have not read it yet, would you mind giving us just sort of the quick report on who and what Hamnet is about?
O’Farrell: Hamlet is a novel. It’s a fictionalized reimagining of the life of William Shakespeare’s only son, who was called Hamnet, and he died aged 11. They had three children — Susanna and then boy and girl twins, Judith and Hamnet. The Globe Theatre dates the play, which is probably Shakespeare’s most famous play, Hamlet, four years after Hamnet died. And I have always been intrigued about the relationship, the link between this lost boy, this lost son, and this incredible tragedy — which is called pretty much the same name. Elizabethan spelling was less stable, so it is the same name. What does it mean for a playwright to call his tragedy, his play, the Prince and also ghost, after his dead son? What does that mean? What’s the connection? That’s what I’m exploring in the novel.
Philpott: How did you first become aware of Shakespeare’s son, of his life and his death?
O’Farrell : Well, actually I was told about him when I was pretty young. I was 16 and I was studying the play Hamlet for my highersin Scotland. I had an absolutely fantastic English teacher at high school, one of those teachers who really changed my life and changed the way I looked at the world and books. And he just mentioned in passing one day when we were studying the play that Shakespeare had a son and that he had been called Hamnet and that he died. And I remember being very struck by this. And even when I was 16, you know, and I was a long way off from being both a mother and a writer. And I just remember looking down at the cover of the school-issue play that we had and putting my finger over the L and thinking, it’s the same name. I studied literature at university and I was always really amazed that nobody knew about Hamnet.
You’d read these huge, 500-page biographies of Shakespeare by the world’s leading biographers and scholars and academics, and Hamnet was lucky if he got maybe two mentions. They mentioned he was born, they mentioned that he’d died. And his death was always sort of bound up with statistics about infant mortality or child mortality in the late 16th century, which of course was very high. But it was almost as if the implication was that it wasn’t that really big of a deal because, you know, lots of children died everyday, parents would have been expecting it. And I was always really, really shocked by that. I thought that was such a huge presumption. So I’ve always felt that the boy isn’t nearly as well-known as he should be, that he’s been underwritten and slightly forgotten. He’s been consigned to a sort of literary footnote.
I think he’s enormously significant. And I think his death was significant. And I think he was grieved. You know, you only have to read the opening scenes of the play Hamlet to realize that whole work is underpinned by this enormous sense, this enormous well of grief. So I wanted to resurrect him in a sense and give him his due. I wanted to give him a voice and a presence and to say to readers, this boy was important. You know, we owe him so much. Without him, we wouldn’t have Hamlet and we probably wouldn’t have Twelfth Night.
Philpott: I’m curious about your research for this book. How did you find a comfortable line between what you could find out and what you couldn’t know — or to put it another way, what you needed to know and what you could feel okay not knowing because that’s where the fiction would pick up?
O’Farrell: Well, the thing about Shakespeare is, there’s a really odd imbalance about him, because on one hand, there’s an enormous wealth of his work. You know, we have all these plays and we have his poetry. We have this enormous, enormous output, but on the other hand, we actually, in terms of fact, know very, very little about him. He left a very scant paper trail.
There’s one biographer who said that to an extent, all biographies of Shakespeare are houses built on straw, because people take these scant facts and these hints and these theories and these conspiracy theories all the time and try to weave them into a narrative. Despite the best efforts of all these scholars, no one’s ever really been able to work out how exactly this son of a glover from a small market town who only had a grammar school education came to be probably the greatest writer that has ever lived. I mean, not probably, definitely the greatest writer who ever lived. Scholars refer to it as “the lost years.” No one has worked out how Shakespeare made that transition from being the glover’s boy with a grammar school education to making it to the London stage. There’s lots of theories, but no one’s been able to prove it.
You could spend the rest of your life reading books about Shakespeare, there’s no shortage of books. And so in a sense there’s an enormous amount of research, but also there are these enormous vacancies, which as a novelist are a bit of a gift actually, because you can fill those vacancies with whatever fictional imaginings you make yourself. You can join those dots yourself.
Philpott: There’s something sort of freeing about that.
O’Farrell: Yeah. In a sense.
Philpott: What fascinated you about Shakespeare’s wife, Agnes?
O’Farrell: I have a son and two daughters, like the Shakespeare’s did, and I found that I couldn’t write this book while my son was under the age of 11. I couldn’t write it until he was at least 12. I’m not very superstitious, but I was superstitious writing about that. So I originally had conceived the book to be about fathers and sons as the players. But it’s funny, when I started researching and I started reading around Shakespeare and his family — and obviously there’s a very valid reason why biographers and scholars and other novelists, other screenwriters, have focused on Shakespeare’s career in London — but I have always felt that the biggest drama, the biggest act of Shakespeare’s life happened off stage in Stratford Upon Avon. That’s where the death of his son was. I feel that his wife and his three children have been very much pushed to the sidelines. People are obviously much more interested in his career in London. His domestic life has always been relegated to the shadows. So I knew that I wanted to write a novel about Hamnet.
But the wife, Mrs. Shakespeare, she didn’t really figure in any of the studies that I did or any of the books that I read. And so I started reading about her, trying to find out about her. The first thing I should say is that if we think what we know about Shakespeare is scant, what we know about his wife is even less. There’s not even a handful of facts we have about her. We don’t really even know, there’s no proof actually, of when she was born, because she was born before parish records began.
She was several years older than William, and I think what shocked me most of all was that even though we know so little about her, this hasn’t stopped a lot of biographers and scholars from rushing to fill that void with just untold amounts of hostility and criticism and actually just downright misogyny. There are biographers who have said that she was manipulative. She trapped this young boy into marriage. She was a strumpet, she had loose morals. She was ugly. I mean, you name it, it’s out there. And it’s written in these very respected biographies, and I find that astonishing. I mean, just to take one of those questions, that she trapped him into marriage: He was 18 and she was 26 when they got married, and he had to have a special license because he was too young to be able to marry on his own. He needed a special license and his parents’ permission. But as far as I know, it does take two people to get a woman pregnant, so at least we can assume that he was equally there in that act.
People have said that he hated her and that he ran away to London to get away from her. Again, there’s absolutely no evidence of that. And to claim she was ugly is ridiculous, because there’s one portrait of her, which was a pencil sketch drawn and dated eight years after she died. And actually in it, she bears a remarkable resemblance to Saoirse Ronan, the actress. She’s very beautiful, with a fine narrow face and high cheek bones, a sort of grave expression, very far from being ugly. So I have no idea where all this comes from.
People will always, of course, invoke the “second best bed.” [Shakespeare famously left his wife only one thing in his will: “my second best bed.”] But the will itself is a very odd document. It’s very dry — it’s devoid of any emotion at all for any of the people in it. And of course, in Jacobean times, his wife would have been entitled to a third of his estate anyway, without any question. And actually, the “second best” is an inter-lineation. If you look at the documents, it’s squeezed in between two lines. And the man was dying, probably of typhoid, which is a particularly nasty death.
But the main thing I’ll say to people who bring up the “second bed bed” to me is, okay, well, I’ll raise you this: at the end of his career, when he was probably the equivalent of a multimillionaire, he was an incredibly good businessman, as well as being a pretty good playwright and an actor. When he retired, he could have lived anywhere. He had a huge amount of money. But he chose to go back to Stratford and live with her, which doesn’t to me speak of somebody who hated his wife. Also, every single penny he earned on the stage — and he could have bought several streets in London if he’d wanted to — but every single penny he sent back to Stratford where he bought his wife and daughters an enormous mansion of a house with huge amounts of ground the year after Hamnet died. All that doesn’t imply to me that he regretted his marriage and he hated his wife and stayed away from them all. I don’t believe any of that.
Anyway, I suppose I was so furious about all this hatred for her. And I thought, I can’t find any evidence for this. Why is it we are constantly taught this narrative about the woman? Why is it biographers and scholars want to give the bard a retrospective divorce? Is it because we are so wedded to the idea of an artist being footloose and fancy free in London?
So I thought, okay, enough of this. I’m going to ask readers to look at her and forget everything they think they know about “Anne Hathaway” and look at her anew, look at her as a different person. I wanted to imagine the marriage as a partnership and an exchange of artistry. And one of the things that really struck me in a kind of lightning bolt moment was when I was reading her father’s will. Richard Hathaway died a year before she and William married. He was a very well-to-do yeoman, a sheep farmer. In his will, he left her a very generous dowry. And in it, he named her as “my daughter, Agnes.” It was one of those moments where I thought, my God, in addition to everything else, have we been calling her by the wrong name for almost half a century? Because if anyone knows her real name, it’s going to be her father. As I mentioned, spelling was unstable, so you could see how it might get shortened or misinterpreted or, you know, written by some scribe in the wrong way. So I decided to give that name back to her.
[laughs] That was a very long answer to your question, right?
Philpott: [laughs] It’s wonderful. You’re answering every question before I ask it. I love that you gave her that name back, and I found the whole portrait that you painted of her very real. Just as a mother, she felt very real to me.
I was also just fascinated by the point of view that you took in this book. It’s in third person, but at different times you were really closely following one character or another. Sometimes it was one of the children. There’s even a part in the middle of the book where what you’re following is the plague itself, which I just thought was brilliant. Tell me about writing that part. Why was that important to include?
O’Farrell: So, I tried to trace the path of the infection from a flea on a monkey in Alexandria all the way to Stratford. It passes through various people and various animals and it comes on a ship and then it goes into the hold and it goes into the class and it goes into some beads and then it gets taken to Stratford Upon Avon, where the sister, Judith, opens up a package.
Looking at that chapter now, of course… You know, usually when you write something, your relationship with it is done and finished and sealed and set in stone. But actually, what’s happened in the world since I wrote Hamnet continues to change my relationship with it. I hadn’t planned to write that chapter at all. It comes about halfway through the book. The first half of the book mostly takes place in one house or two houses in Stratford Upon Avon. As I was writing it, I thought, I need to throw open the book at this point, because it was starting to feel quite geographically claustrophobic for me. I thought we need to sort of throw open the doors a bit and let some air come through this book.
And I wanted to look at the global perspective, because I was starting to learn about the black death or the plague, and just the numbers of it are absolutely jaw-dropping. At one point — I think it was in the 14th century — one quarter of the world’s population die. And that’s when the plague was just in Europe. It wasn’t in Africa, obviously it wasn’t in the States. In one outbreak, one quarter of the world’s population could be felled by one particular bite.
Philpott: Hopefully that’s not where we’re headed now.
O’Farrell: That’s why we now have antibiotics! I mean, our current illness is a virus, so it is different, but I think we are lucky in a sense that we know how it spreads. In previous centuries, they had no idea it was actually spread by lice and fleas. So I suppose I just wanted to pull back the camera and study how the illness reaches Stratford. Where does it start? How is this tragedy set in motion?
Philpott: It’s eerie, the timeliness and the similarities.
O’Farrell: I had all these maps up on the walls of my study, tracing the trade routes of Elizabethan times and how the illness came from China and swept through Europe. It is odd, because I remember we were all looking at the infographics [for COVID] a year ago, thinking, is it going to come? Is it getting closer? It’s in Northern Italy, is it going to come here? And they look so weirdly like the ones that I had been looking at when I wrote that chapter. So it did give me quite a strange feeling, certainly.
Philpott: You have written time and again, in different ways, about something that is of great interest to me as a person and a parent and also as a writer — and that is the fine line between a loss and a near-loss. Your memoir-in-essays I Am, I Am, I Am, which I have back here on my desk [points], is about brushes with death. Hamnet, of course, is about actual death. As you point out in both books, the line between the two is razor thin. How do you, as a human being, live with near-misses and the constant possibility of calamity?
O’Farrell: Well, I think it’s a big question. I think all you can do is, I don’t know, honor that awareness in a sense. In the past year or so, all of us have been living with a vast amount of stress and threat and nervousness. And some of us are supporting or shielding vulnerable people, we’re looking after elderly relatives or we’re trying to cope with our children learning at home and not being in school and also cope with interpreting the world for them, metabolizing what’s going on, handing it to them in a form that they can understand. I mean, I’m keeping the radio off a lot during news at night, but I have done that for a year. There are things on the news that I don’t necessarily want my younger children to know about, or I need to interpret it for them. So it is hard.
But I think we have to honor the fact that life is short. We all know that. It is fragile. We can be plunged from one state, from a state of normality, into a state of crisis from one day to the next. I think there’s sort of two different reactions you can have to that. Yes, it can be terrifying and stressful, and you can feel your cortisol levels rising when you think about it. But the other way you have to think about it is almost to turn it on its head and think, well, if this is true, which it is, then we have to live the biggest and the best life we can. I mean, everybody has restrictions. Everybody has limitations in what they can and can’t do in their life. Some of us have physical or mental or neurological limitations. We just have to live the biggest and the best life we can, within our known limitations.
Philpott: I love that. Let me give you a minute to offer some advice to novelists or aspiring novelists who want to write historical fiction. I feel like as a reader, there are some historical novels that I just cannot connect with. Like, I just don’t care about the butter churn. I don’t care about the horse and buggy. I just can’t make the leap and connect. But these people lived 500 years ago, and within the first page, you made them feel immediate and important to me. What’s the secret to writing historical fiction that feels relevant?
O’Farrell: [laughs] God, I don’t feel qualified at all to give any advice on that, but I think what I can say is that what I tried to do, when I wrote this book, is not think too much about it being historical with a capital H. I always veered away from that. I always tried to think about it as I would any other novel, actually. I also thought quite carefully about the kinds of historical novels that I really loved, the ones that I loved and why I loved them.
I think this is probably true of most novels perhaps, but I think it’s particularly true of historical novels: what you want to happen when you open a historical novel is for the writer to be entirely invisible. There needs to be a kind of sleight of hand where he or she is not present in the manuscript at all. You want to be able to submerge yourself and completely forget that this was written by a person looking backwards in time. And I think one of the ways to do that is you’ve got to be very, very careful with your research.
You know, there’s so much you need to know in order to write a scene set in a parlor 500 years ago. You’re going to need to know what the floor is made of. You’re going to need to know what’s on walls. You’re going to need to know what the windows are made of. You’re going to need to know how high the ceiling is. You’re going to need to know exactly what everybody’s wearing and how it feels. Are they wearing their clothing tight? Is it itchy? Is it made of linen? What the shoes are… You’re going to need to know all that, but then you need to chuck out 95 percent of it, because what you don’t want — like you said, with the butter churning — you don’t want the kind of novel where it feels so heavy with all the research, where the writer’s trying to tell you that she or he has done his or her homework, you know? You need to know it, but then you need to get rid of it. You need to take it out of the book because it’s fiction, it’s a book. If it comes up, then maybe you can put in what the windows are made of, but you can’t put it in if it’s incidental. Then you’re just showing off.
Philpott: That makes perfect sense. What is the biggest difference for you in writing fiction versus writing nonfiction? How do those feel different to you? Do you feel like you’re using different parts of your brain?
O’Farrell: Well, it’s funny. When I started writing my memoir, I kept getting pulled up by the false familiarity of it. Obviously, you know, a sentence is a sentence, and it all works into paragraphs. I thought, yeah, I’ve done this before, I know this. But then the truth is, it is really hard. I think it’s harder, in a sense, writing about yourself when you’re looking inwards and you’re trying to dig down — a bit like an archeologist. Writing a novel is creation. It’s a bit like driving at night on a road you don’t know, and you see those cat’s eyes on the side of the road, and it’s your headlamps that are illuminating it… you don’t know what’s ahead of you until you’re there. But of course a memoir is completely different, because what you’re doing is excavating. You’re digging down into your own life and your own past, trying to find something of value among all the dross and ashes and soil of all the boring stuff. So it is actually completely different and it does feel different. I had to constantly remind myself that I couldn’t fall back on my habits of fiction. I had to find new muscles.
Philpott: Will you write non-fiction again?
O’Farrell: No. I mean, I shouldn’t say that because I always said I would never, ever write a memoir, and look, I ended up doing exactly that. So you never know. Nonfiction is really hard, much harder than fiction. Honestly, when I started writing Hamnet, I thought, oh thank God. It was like getting into a warm bath.
Philpott: How has the last year changed life or work for you?
O’Farrell: Well, I’m a very restless person. I like to be moving around a lot. I like to be traveling as much as I can. So I do find the narrowness of life in lockdown quite hard, I do struggle with that. I think we all do, actually, in this house. I think everybody does. But I’ve had to keep reminding myself that the five of us have all been well. My parents are well. No one I know who I’m close to so far has been very ill. And we have a roof over our heads, and we have food in the food in the cupboard, and we’ve got an outside space. We’ve got gardens. So, you know, compared to most of the world, we’re really, really lucky.
But it’s hard. What I find strange about it is that it’s impossible to make any kind of plans. You can’t project your mind forward and think, you know, in two months I’ll be doing this or in a month I’ll be doing that. Someone said to me, we were talking about work and they said, well, when do you think you’ll be able to do that project? And I just thought, what’s life going to be like in July? I mean, are we going to be on a holiday? Are we going to still be stuck? Here? Are the kids going to be at school? You know, it’s just impossible. Normally, I would think, oh, in two years’ time… in three years’ time… you have this kind of elastic sense of time. But right now I can only really think about what’s happening tomorrow. It’s really strange.
At the moment I’m writing a book about Italy, and I’m finding that really hard, because I really wanted to go there and walk around. I mean, I’ve lived in Italy. I do know it quite well. So it isn’t that I don’t know what I’m talking or writing about, but being here and trying to think myself there is strange. But in one way, it’s really nice, because mentally I’m traveling a lot, which helps.
Philpott: It’s certainly been an exercise in mindfulness and stillness. You know, what they always tell you in meditation about just being where you are.
O’Farrell: It’s true. But I do worry about the effect particularly it’s having on teenagers. And the elderly. My parents, I don’t think have left the house for six months, and I don’t think that’s good for them. My son who’s 17, he’s just found his wings in life, and suddenly he’s got to clip them. I think it’s really hard. I worry about those two generations. They’re missing out on so much.
Philpott: Yeah, I’m right there with you. My kids are teenagers. My parents are older. All I do is go back and forth, worrying about one and then the other.
Philpott: Okay, we’re going to finish up with our lightning round. This is super quick. First question: Where do you write?
O’Farrell: Honestly? Anywhere. I’ve trained myself, having three kids, to be totally the opposite of precious about where I can write. You grab that 20 minutes, you grab the half hour outside of a play date or outside a judo lesson. You just open your laptop and you get on with it. Before I had kids, I remember I used to kind of faff about… I’d find the right jumper… and then I would sit down. Now, I just get on with it. Any moment I have anywhere, literally anywhere.
Philpott: And where do you read?
O’Farrell: Again, actually, pretty much anywhere I can sit up. I have an ability to shut my mind off. I mean, I like to read in bed, obviously. That’s the best place to read. I never read in the bath. People who read in that bath, that’s like a perversion. And also the pages go ripple-y. Why would you do that? So, no, not the bath. Trains are lovely. I mean, the idea of a train journey right now is just so, so dreamy.
Philpott: Well, that might answer one of my next questions, which is if you could go anywhere right now, where would you go?
O’Farrell: Oh, this is a game we’re constantly playing. I think I would probably go to Northern Italy. I’ve got a real urge to walk in the Dolomites in Italy. That would be quite nice. Also the sea. I do swim in the sea a bit here, but it’s really cold at the moment.
Philpott: When you read, do you like to read most from an actual paper book, on an ebook, or listening to an audio book?
O’Farrell: I’m pretty much a paper book kind of girl. Actually, I do occasionally listen to audio books, if I’ve got a long journey or something. But I don’t use an e-reader much at all. I do have one, but I think my son has stolen it. If I was ever lucky enough to go on a really long journey, then I’d probably take an e-book. But I’m not sure when that’s going to happen.
Philpott: Last one. A book that was important to you as a child?
O’Farrell: Ooh, that’s a hard one. I think I would probably have to say the Moomin books by Tove Jansson. I read those when I was ill as a child and there’s one, Moominland Midwinter, where Moomin has woken up in the middle of the night in the middle of hibernation and all his family is still asleep and he’s alone in the winter landscape. I still remember the shock and the thrill of reading that.
Philpott: One of my friends has a cat named Moomin.
O’Farrell: I’m going to have to steal that when I get my next cat.
Philpott: Maggie, thank you so much for being here.
O’Farrell: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
This transcript has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
Also by Maggie O’Farrell
The Hand That First Held Mine
Instructions For a Heatwave
This Must Be the Place
I Am, I Am, I Am