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British Novelist Reimagines The Life And Death Of Hamnet Shakespeare


How much do we really know about the inspiration for one of the most famous plays ever performed? When William Shakespeare sat down to write "Hamlet," his son - his only son, Hamnet - was some 4 years dead. Hamnet Shakespeare only lived to the age of 11. His death was recorded. The cause was not.

In her new novel, Maggie O'Farrell sets out to imagine who he was, how he died and, in doing so, to imagine the interior life and family life of the father, William Shakespeare. The novel is titled "Hamnet." And Maggie O'Farrell joins me now from her home in Edinburgh in Scotland.

Maggie O'Farrell, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MAGGIE O'FARRELL: Thank you very much for having me. It's an honor to be here.

KELLY: When did you first learn of Hamnet?

O'FARRELL: I can remember exactly when it was. I remember exactly the moment. I was 16, and I was in a very cold classroom in Scotland. And I was studying the play "Hamlet."

KELLY: Yeah.

O'FARRELL: I had this absolutely brilliant English teacher called Mr. Henderson (ph), and he just mentioned in passing when we were studying the play that Shakespeare had had a son. And even then, I was really struck by the names. And I thought, what does it mean? What does it mean for a man like Shakespeare to call a tragedy like this after his dead son? Spelling in - of course, in Elizabethan times was a lot less stable, so Hamnet and Hamlet are, in fact, the same name.

KELLY: So from there, when did you start thinking, well, maybe there's a book in here?

O'FARRELL: You know, I studied literature at university, and I read lots of biographies and criticism about Shakespeare. And I think at that point, I was very frustrated, actually, that I felt that Hamnet was really overlooked. You know, in one of these big sort of 500-page biographies of Shakespeare, Hamnet is lucky if he gets a mention - maybe two mentions. And it always felt to me that Hamnet the boy wasn't well-known enough. But it just...

KELLY: So perfect for a novelist. You can make of them whatever you want.

O'FARRELL: Yeah. I mean, I - but it's funny. I made several attempts at writing the book, and then I kept veering away from it and writing other books. And I realize now, actually, that what was stopping me was an odd superstition. So I have a son and two daughters like the Shakespeares did. And I couldn't write the book, I realize now, until my own son was very safely past the age of 11 - not that there was much risk of him contracting the Black Death, but I just couldn't do it. I couldn't write a book about a mother who sits down at her child's deathbed and is forced to watch him die and then has to lay him out for burial. I just didn't want to go there.

KELLY: You do. I mean, in writing this novel, Hamnet - I don't think I'm giving too much of a spoiler away - he dies. And that required you to imagine what it would be like to lose a child and the guilt and the fury and the grief that would follow. You write so beautifully about that in one passage that I wonder if I could get you to read for us. This is the mother, Agnes, who is preparing Hamnet, her son's body, for burial.

O'FARRELL: (Reading) She, like all mothers, constantly casts out her thought like fishing lines towards her children, reminding herself of where they are, what they're doing, how they fare. From habit, while she sits there near the fireplace, some part of her mind is tabulating them and their whereabouts - Judith upstairs, Susanna next door. And Hamnet? Her unconscious mind casts again and again, puzzled by the lack of bite by the answer she keeps giving it. He is dead. He is gone. And Hamnet? The mind will ask again - at school, at play, out at the river? And Hamnet? Where is he? Here, she tries to tell herself, cold and lifeless on this board right in front of you. Look. Here. See. And Hamnet? Where is he?

KELLY: Because she can't get her head around it, because how could any mother get their head around that you're preparing your son's body for burial? How did - I mean, how did you do that? How did you go about trying to get it right?

O'FARRELL: So it was - I mean, it was tricky. I did find this - you know, funny - I was looking back in a diary I wrote a couple of years ago. It covered the time in which I was writing the novel. And I just came across this completely blank double page. And on it was written one line, and it said, I killed Hamnet today. I remember dreading it as I was coming up to that point in the book, and I found that I couldn't write those scenes in the house where my children live. I had to write them in the garden.

And we had, actually, this really ancient, dilapidated potting shed. And I actually sat in there and wrote those scenes. And I did it in about 15-minute bursts. Then I'd have a little walk around the garden, and then I'd come and do another 15 minutes. So it wasn't easy, but I think...

KELLY: 'Cause you didn't want to have it under the roof where your children live.

O'FARRELL: Yeah. You know, I think that it is obviously - as you were saying, it is every parent's worst nightmare. I can't imagine a worse and more visceral fear than to have to bury your own child. You know, it goes against nature and the natural order of things. But it is - it's one of those things - you know, it's not a huge leap of the imagination. If you love someone as much as parents love their children, you just have to turn it inside out to understand what it might be to lose them. You know, I think a greater part - a great part of love is fear of loss.

KELLY: I mean, what else do we actually know about the link between Hamnet the boy and "Hamlet" the play? Do we have any insight into how this may or may not have inspired Shakespeare to write it?

O'FARRELL: Well, it's hard. I mean, I am wary about imposing Shakespeare's biography on his work. You know, I think we all have to be wary about that. But I took as my guide the list of dates as the - from the Globe. The Globe have a list of them, and they listed "Hamlet" as 1601, which is four years after Hamnet the boy died.

And it's funny that if you go back and read the play with the sort of wearing the spectacles of the idea that this child died four years before this play was written, it seems so obvious, in a sense, that this is a play about fathers and sons and absence and loss and grief and the inability to deal with grief. You know, it causes this enormous chasm within you.

And of course, you know, there is - I mean, there is a story which I read. I mean, it's possibly apocryphal that Shakespeare himself played the ghost in the first productions of "Hamlet." And of course, I slightly forgot. And then I read the play again, and I realized the ghost is also called Hamlet. And you get this idea of this identity that's been separated into - the son is alive, and the father is dead.

And you can understand, you know, if you've lost a child, there is that urge, and you do wish you could take their place. You know, you only have to watch your child suffering. And you know, any parent is overwhelmed by this urge, thinking, I will take that. I will have your pain. Let me have it and spare the child. And I don't know. To me, it feels so obvious. It's so evident to me that the play is a kind of response to the loss of this boy.

KELLY: That's Maggie O'Farrell. Her glorious new novel is titled "Hamnet."

Maggie O'Farrell, thank you. This was a pleasure to read and to talk to you.

O'FARRELL: It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: One other question that occurs to me that didn't quite come up in conversation but which I am really curious about, which is this - you never actually use Shakespeare's name in the book. Why not?

O'FARRELL: Well, I just couldn't because, you know, I mean, his name carries so much heft. And I just felt that I couldn't write his name in a sentence like, William Shakespeare came downstairs and had porridge for breakfast. You know, it just - even saying it makes me laugh. And you just feel - instantly, you just feel like an idiot. And so I call him - you know, he's always he. He doesn't have a name. He's the husband, or he's the father or the playwright or the actor. I needed people in a sense to forget who he is. I wanted them to think about him as a human being...

KELLY: Yeah.

O'FARRELL: ...Rather than the behemoth that we, you know, know him as.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAREN O AND THE KIDS SONG, "HIDEAWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.