Were the plays of Shakespeare, AKA the Bard of Avon, written by William Shakespeare, a small-town glover’s son? It’s still a moot question after 4 centuries, because we know so little about the man. His father was a social climber. He was considerably younger than his wife, Anne Hathaway. He bought a house and other property in his hometown of Stratford, although his work as a playwright, actor, and theater co-manager in London kept him from visiting very often. His only son died in childhood during the Plague. He left his wife “my second-best bed.”
Maggie O’Farrell weaves these and other tantalizing facts into what you might call a historical novel of domestic suspense. Her Anne Hathaway is called Agnes (the name on Anne’s baptismal record), a semi-orphan with strong instincts about living creatures–including people, including the man she married, after seducing him so as to free herself (and him) from an abusive dead-end future. Agnes is as compelling to the reader of this rich, absorbing, plausible story as she is to her son Hamnet’s father (who is never named, though it’s obvious who he is).
It took me a year to read this book. Hamlet is my favorite play; I’ve seen more than 20 productions as well as directed it myself. I couldn’t read more than a chapter of Hamnet in one sitting because it’s steeped in sorrow, especially if you know what tragedy looms ahead. The Plague, like coronavirus, lurks out of sight most of the time, like a deadly fairy-tale monster. But O’Farrell is kinder in the end than Shakespeare, staging a denoument which amounts to redemption for her characters and a fully rounded, deeply satisfying story for her readers.