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Maggie O'Farrell on the Significance of Names in Hamnet

Posted on 8th April 2021 by Mark Skinner

Crowned Waterstones Book of the Year in 2020 and now, in its paperback incarnation, our Fiction Book of the Month for April, Maggie O'Farrell's transformative tale of love, loss, family and fame is a towering achievement of the modern novel. In this exclusive piece, Maggie discusses the complications inherent in featuring such a famous character as well as the importance of reclaiming the identity of her female protagonist.   

You won’t find the name of the famous father anywhere in my novel Hamnet. The word ‘Shakespeare’ never appears; characters are given first names but not surnames. The playwright himself is given neither: he remains entirely nameless throughout.       

I realised fairly early on in my exploratory attempts at the book that I had a tricky decision. The name ‘William Shakespeare’ carries perhaps more heft and association than any other. Those two words possess and embody myriad meanings to all of us, from the greatest writer who ever lived to a person whose phrases underpin our very language, from a playwright who was a compulsory part of school curricula to a man who changed the way we view ourselves and others. It is an all-powerful synedoche of a name. Is there a person over the age of ten on the planet who hasn’t heard of him? And, if so, does anyone else fall into this category? I’d venture to say no.

All of which conspires to make it very difficult to place him in a novel. I found that I couldn’t type a sentence with this name in it without the distinct sensation that I was an eejit. ‘On his way down the stairs,’ I would begin to extemporise in my notebook, ‘to eat breakfast, William Sh–’

There I would stop, horrified, frozen, yanked out of the narrative. What appellation do you give the creator of King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Twelfth Night? His full name seems odd but ‘William’ is presumptuous, and ‘Will’ inexcusably familiar. And how, I wondered in a panic, could I expect readers to remain submerged in the narrative if I couldn’t even write his name without being startled out of it? 

The only answer was to do away with it altogether, to strip him of it: he would be ‘the father’, ‘he’, ‘the son’, ‘the Latin tutor’, ‘him’, ‘the glover’s boy’. 

It led to some interesting and challenging grammatical gymnastics. Most of the time, it was possible, with a little elasticity, to work around his nameless state. The pages which gave me the most difficulty in this regard were the ones in which he argues with his brother-in-law, Bartholomew. It is one of the few scenes in the book where two male characters are interacting alone. To have one of them without a name creates peculiar lexical hurdles. You can’t assume that readers will be able to follow every ‘he said’ or ‘he walked’ if the pronoun could refer to either man; sometimes a name is a necessary foothold on a page. I believe, as a result, I drafted and redrafted that scene almost more times than any other, going over it and over it, trying to force the language to bend around his namelessness. 

In a way, Hamnet is at its heart about names: their divergent meanings, their connections to their owners, and the way the two can become separated. The germ of the novel was planted by my English teacher at school, telling my class that Shakespeare had a son called Hamnet, who had died as a child, several years before the play Hamlet was written. I remember looking down at the school-issue copy of the play on my desk and placing a finger over the ‘l’. How easy it was to make ‘Hamlet’ read ‘Hamnet’.

It is, as the critic and scholar Stephen Greenblatt pointed out, ‘the same name, entirely interchangeable in parish records of the time.’ It has always seemed to me, ever since I first heard the name ‘Hamnet’ as a sixteen-year-old, an act of enormous significance to have called a play after your dead son. Nobody would do this lightly, to use the name of a lost child, to write it over and over again on a manuscript, to hear it spoken repeatedly, throughout weeks of rehearsals and months of production. To speak it yourself, aloud, on the stage of the Globe, night after night, to an audience who has no inkling of its towering significance.

If we consider the play through the lens of the echoed name, the shadowy and mysterious person we know as the literary behemoth William Shakespeare becomes briefly visible to us as a human being, a grieving man, a heartbroken father. I have, ever since hearing about the short and much-overlooked life of Hamnet Shakespeare, always viewed the play as a message from a father in one realm to a son in another.

There is of course another character in the book with a significant name. The woman we have been taught to call Ann Hathaway is, like her husband, given neither appellation in the novel. The narrative she has been yoked to for almost half a century – that of the illiterate peasant who lured a boy-genius into the marriage he regretted – distressed and angered me. I wanted, more than anything, with Hamnet’s mother, to ask readers to forget everything they think they know about her, and to open themselves up to a new interpretation. 

In the course of my research, I read her father’s will. Richard Hathaway, the sheep-farming yeoman, died a year before she married William, and he left her a very generous dowry. In the wording of the will, he refers to her as ‘my daughter Agnes’. It seems to exemplify history and scholarship’s treatment of her, that we may have been calling her by the wrong name for all this time. So I decided to give this name back to her: in Hamnet, she is Agnes, all the way through.

 

Comments

Patricia McDonnell

Hamnet was my book of 2020! So beautifully written and it brought tears to my eyes in parts. I love that Maggie O'Farrell does not mention Shakespeare by name throughout the story. I have read all her books but this is her best by far. Told in such a simple and sensitive way, bringing out the love Shakespeare's wife had for her children. Everyone should read this book! View more

Patricia McDonnell
27th April 2021
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