In the stage adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell's novel Hamnet, William Shakespeare himself and his wife Agnes or Anne take centre stage
It is of course entirely apt to meet with award-winning novelist Maggie O’Farrell in Shakespeare's birthplace in the centre of Stratford-upon-Avon.
We are in the birth room, where it’s believed the bard was born and also his three children, including the boy that O’Farrell has made the centre of her book Hamnet. It is a story that is now on stage in Stratford, heading afterwards to the West End, a Shakespeare play that is not by him, but about him and the family he had and about which very little is known.
O’Farrell has long been interested in the fact that a few years after Hamnet died in 1596, Shakespeare wrote his most famous play Hamlet, a story of bereavement and loss.
She is convinced the two are connected; that even though Shakespeare was not with his son when the 11-year-old died, it’s believed from Bubonic Plague, and is not thought to have made it to the funeral, as he was working away, the grief he must have experienced would have informed his work.
The themes are of course evident in other plays, Hamnet had a twin sister Judith, and Twelfth Night is also believed to have been influenced by the bard’s family life. Being staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the newly refurbished Swan Theatre, the book has been adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti whose stage adaption of Life of Pi is currently on Broadway.
She says the new perspectives on the most famous writer in the world are welcome, in particular the part that his wife Agnes Hathaway, known as Anne, played in his life.
It is true that very little is known for sure about Shakespeare’s life before and after he went to London. Hence perhaps the huge success and popularity of O’Farrell’s beautiful novel that was released just before lockdown, striking a chord with readers around the world.
Now it is a story told on stage, with plans for a film, directed by Oscar winner Chloe Zhao. Alongside a memorial to his twin sister Judith, Hamnet too has had a tree planted and a plague dedicated to him, in the churchyard where the family is buried. I saw a number of visitors today stop to read the plaque. Hamnet is no longer forgotten.
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