Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s new virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, Folger staff provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, Dr. Emma Poltrack shares the items she presented on December 3, 2020 as an introduction to Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. Discussion questions from the evening can be found here.
O’Farrell’s moving portrayal of marriage, motherhood, and grief is steeped in historical research and wonderful details that transport the reader to Stratford-Upon-Avon in the late 16th century. Touching a rich variety of subjects—including those previously explored through Words, Words, Words such as plague, education, and healing—Hamnet offered rich opportunities to explore many different aspects of the Shakespeares’ lives.
Much of the novel takes place in and around Stratford-upon-Avon, specifically in the Shakespeares’ house on Henley Street (left) and Hewlands Farm (right). John Shakespeare ran his glove-making business from the Eastern part of the house, the right side of this image, while the single-family apartment was an addition to the Western side. We know that William Shakespeare’s sister Joan (re-named Eliza in the novel) lived there, and it’s very possible Will and Agnes could have spent time there as newlyweds. Today, the building is referred to as Shakespeare’s Birthplace and is operated by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT), which was originally founded as the Shakespeare Birthplace Committee in the mid-19th century to purchase and preserve the Henley Street property. As the story goes, P.T. Barnum also had intentions to buy the building, only to dismantle it and rebuild it in New York as a tourist destination. Concern about this plan is credited with spurring the SBT’s fundraising efforts and allowing them to triumph at auction.
Hewlands Farm, now known as Anne Hathaway’s Cottage (another SBT property), is located just outside of Stratford. With parts of it dating from the mid 15th century, Hewlands was the home of 13 generations of Hathaways and this stable line of ownership resulted in a number of artifacts and pieces of furniture surviving along with the house. Rebranding the farmhouse as a “cottage” has helped develop its aura as romantic spot where the couple courted. Facts about the Shakespeares’ marriage are scarce, and while it was previously thought by many to be fractious and strained, there has been an evolution in thinking in recent years to reframe it as more equitable and affectionate. After all, Will might have spent much of his time in London, but he then made the decision to live out the end of his life with Agnes at home.
Not having a great deal of biographical information to work with, O’Farrell nonetheless was able to paint a picture of early modern life by drawing on contemporary sources and weaving historic details into her narrative. When we first meet Agnes, she is tending her bees, which was a useful and common skill for the time. Charles Butler’s The feminine monarchie, originally published in 1603, was the first English guide to beekeeping and had ten chapters of useful advice and guidance (as well a four-part madrigal one could sing if you wanted to mimic the sound of the queen bee).
One of the texts O’Farrell specifically mentions when discussing her writing is George Tuberville’s The booke of faulconrie, which uses heavily gendered language to describe how best to tame a bird and make it dependent on its owner through sense deprivation. Tuberville’s advice is strongly echoed in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, when Petruchio describes how he’s using the same techniques to “tame” Katherine. Drawing on Tuberville’s work provides clues to Agnes’ character through her unusual choice of animal companion, imbuing her both with a touch of wildness and also dignity, as hawking was primarily an upper-class pursuit.
Another text referenced by O’Farrell is John Gerard’s herball, or illustrated dictionary of plants and their uses. While Gerard had an impressive garden, and this book contains plants from both it and North America, the bulk of the work (over 1,400 pages!) is an uncredited translation of Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens’s own 1554 herbal. Entries include a plant’s description, where to find it, the time of the year it grows, the different names it goes by and its uses. Here is shown the entry for borage, which is used to “exhilirate and make the mind glad.” It is also one of the initial ingredients Agnes thinks of as a way to combat Judith’s sickness.
Medicine in the early modern era overlapped with a number of other areas, including astrology, witchcraft, and cooking. Both medicinal and culinary recipes were compiled by women in manuscript receipt books, such as the ones above, which were proof of one’s skill at running a household as well as a social document where advice and preparations were shared and recorded.
The receipt books pictured above show different methods of combating and curing the pestilence, including “D Burges water for the plague” which could prepared by a physician, and a method for “For the Ryseing of the Plague sore.” The plague cast a shadow throughout the Shakespeares’ lives. While we do not know exactly how Hamnet died, the frequency of plague outbreaks—including one in Stratford the year William Shakespeare was born—makes disease a possible cause. Familiar ingredients such as sage, ginger, and nutmeg appear in the handwritten recipes, as well as those used by Agnes such as rue and rhubarb.
O’Farrell focuses on Hamlet for the novel’s dramatic conclusion, imagining how Shakespeare may have used the play to process his feelings about the death of his son. Written around 1600, Hamlet not only shares a name with the deceased boy, spelling variations at the time making the two forms interchangeable, but addresses themes of grief, mourning, and memory. There is, however, an earlier work that may also reflect the playwrights’ feeling on the loss. Tentatively dated the same year as Hamnet’s death—though whether before or after we can’t tell—King John contains a moving scene wherein Constance mourns the loss of her son, Arthur, reflecting how “Grief fills the room up of my absent child.”
O’Farrell’s skillful weaving of historical information with rich characterization creates Hamnet‘s immersive world. To explore these items further, visit the collection on LUNA.
Registration for the February 4 session on Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account opens Tuesday, January 5. We hope you make a plan to join us!