How Hamnet the Play Rehabilitates Shakespeare’s Wife
Andrew Quintana Reviews a Dramatic Adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s Novel
Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet tells a story about, among other things, the redemptive powers of live theater. The novel chronicles the lives of William Shakespeare, his wife Agnes, their three children, and their parents in Stratford Upon Avon. It is a novel of interiority: O’Farrell identifies Shakespeare, for example, not by name but by what he sees: “He is watching the trees. Their collective presence, lined up as they are, fringing the edge of the farm, brings to his mind the backdrop of a theatre, the kind of painted trickery that is unrolled, quickly, into place to let the audience know they are now in a sylvan setting, that the city or streets of the previous scene are gone, that they are now on wooded, uncultivated, perhaps unstable ground.”
Adapting a beloved novel into a play means standing on unstable ground. How do you translate the perspectives of these characters onto the stage? The newly premiered stage version, currently showing at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon, alters the novel’s interwoven timeline—which chronicles the courtship of Agnes and William in one period, and the plague that sickens their children in another—to tell the story chronologically, from when Will and Agnes first meet in an apple shed.
O’Farrell had wanted the play, on which she collaborated with playwright Lolita Chakrabarti (Life of Pi), to premiere in Stratford partly to symbolically restore the reputation of a figure often vilified by history as a “cradle-robber,” in a town where her identity remains a shadow of Shakespeare’s. On stage, Hamnet preserves Agnes’s central perspective from the first scene. We open on an 18-year-old William (portrayed by Tom Varey) stealing an apple from the shed of a family whose kids he’s tutoring in Latin. Agnes (Madeleine Mantock), the oldest sister of the family, angrily confronts him: “Do you always take what doesn’t belong to you?”
William then presses Agnes against him—”You’re hurting me,” she protests—and says he’ll only return the apple if she tells him her name. “My name is mine to gift and not yours to take,” she insists. He attempts to kiss her, but she pushes him away and pinches him. The tension between sexual chemistry and violation is disturbingly and effectively ambiguous. The dialogue teases the central question of the play: Will Agnes disappear inside this relationship?
The set’s backdrop is shaped like an A, and in a whimsical piece of blocking, Agnes and William spend their wedding night on the floor above its middle point. She tells William she cannot sleep because the house is shaped like the letter—she has told us previously it’s the only written letter her father taught her to recognize—to which he asks, “Do you know that is the foremost reason I love you?” She replies, “That I cannot sleep in the air?”
He says, “No. That you see the world as no one else does.” Whether she’s teaching William’s sister how to make lavender soap or sharing her book of plants with William, her spirit infuses the play, like it does in the novel, with infectious energy.
Yet perhaps the most ingenious and cunning strategy of the adaptation is its incorporation of the novel’s meta-theatrical elements. The title character, Agnes and William’s only son, has a much reduced role on stage due to his parents’ narrative centrality; yet, even before he is born, he haunts the play in ghostly voiceover, calling back to Hamlet, a tragedy all about haunting.
“He has a tendency,” O’Farrell writes of Hamnet in the novel, “to slip the bounds of the real, tangible world around him and enter another place.” This prose is realized as a stage direction, the boy (Ajani Cabey) slipping from the future into the past, gliding across the stage in interludes and disappearing before we can catch a good look at him.
But the play departs from the novel by sharpening our perspective not on Hamnet but on William, dramatizing his burgeoning life in London more vividly and asking how his relationships might have affected his work and artistic sensibility. Chakrabarti writes new scenes for William and, in turn, offers a respite from the claustrophobic, provincial world of Stratford. Particularly, we get scenes of William rehearsing Romeo and Juliet with his company of actor-shareholders, Richard Burbage and William Kempe, at the brand-new Globe Theatre.
They aimlessly discuss the plague. They perform now-classic monologues extempore, like Bottom’s dreamy ramble from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They fart. At one point, summoning his friends to the alehouse, William quotes Seneca in the original Latin: today we eat, tomorrow we die.
The palpable joy of these scenes establishes a necessary dramatic tension for the play, guilty pleasures which contrast with the reality of sickness in Stratford. Agnes and William’s daughter—and Hamnet’s twin sister—Judith eventually contracts what seems to be the rapidly spreading plague, which William worries will close down the playhouses. Almost as a chastisement to his joy, a key, devastating Stratford scene unfolds as a pageantry of mortality.His talent for writing—the reason for his absence—has yielded for her the epiphany that through theater, those we’ve lost can momentarily live again.
It strikes us with fear when, to quote the novel, on the doorstep is a terrifying sight, a creature from a nightmare, from Hell, from the devil. It is tall, cloaked in black, and in the place of a face is a hideous, featureless mask, pointed like the beak of a gigantic bird. This is the physician, wearing an outfit donned in plague times, who wanders the stage silently as Hamnet begs for him to leave.
For fans of the book, director Erica Whyman’s staging makes it impossible to watch the actors in action without having O’Farrell’s words in your ear. “The idea strikes him,” the novel writes of Hamnet’s realization to cure his sister,
to hoodwink Death, to pull off the trick he and Judith have been playing on people since they were young: to exchange places and clothes, leading people to believe that each was the other….He pulls the sheet up over both of them, tucking it under their chins.
In the production, the moment is ballet-like, with Judith trembling as Hamnet covers both of them up. When the lights dim and Agnes comes into the room, Judith looks calm. But beside her lies Hamnet under the blanket, like a funeral shroud; when they uncover it, he seems to have absorbed her illness, shaking in the same way she was except even more violently. He dies, and Agnes holds his small, still body in her arms. It’s in these silences and tableaux that the director holds on where the play most resembles the novel.
From here, the play unfolds as a portrait of Agnes and William’s estrangement, as a result of their son’s death. He copes by escaping, once again, back to London. She is left in Stratford where everything reminds her of her son. But William is struggling too. In a scene at the Globe, Burbage improvises a line and William snaps: “D’you know how long I spend selecting every word? Can you fathom how much thought and effort go into every single syllable?” To protect himself from his own humanity, William cloaks himself in the infallibility of genius.
The play soars at its climax, dramatizing Agnes’s confrontation with her husband’s imposing creation of Hamlet. We watch her question, interpret, and challenge it in real time, standing in the Globe crowd to confront her husband on why he used their son’s name to title his play. Unlike in the book, large passages of the Shakespearean text are delivered in their entirety. But there’s power in the choice.
When Hamlet delivers his first line, for instance, Agnes believes she’s seeing her son live again and exclaims she cannot move. She notices William, in character as the ghost, wracked with a private guilt of his own: “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder!”
To her, this isn’t theater, but her life, her grief. “Revenge it?” she yells at her husband from the audience. “But who’s to blame?”
Agnes even hears echoes of the poisoning of the King by his brother in the way the plague took away Hamnet. Hearing “Swift as quicksilver it courses through / The natural gates and alleys of the body,” she responds, “It was that exactly.” Indeed, while William’s role is increased in this production, the shift only serves to highlight Agnes as the emotional center. She confesses that he has the power of language that she lacks; his talent for writing—the reason for his absence—has yielded for her the epiphany that through theater, those we’ve lost can momentarily live again.
Hamnet’s most unique features lie not only in the conversation it has with Shakespeare’s work—that we find all levels of human experience reflected in his language—but with O’Farrell’s as well—returning us to the brilliant novel and reminding us that her prose is, first and foremost, an ode to our subjective experience of the physical world.