Pandemic Perspectives: a Conversation about Hamnet and Judith, by Maggie O’Farrell

In conversation: Judith Owens with Lynne Fernandez

Lynne Fernandez (LF):  Judith, I know that this book had to be of great interest to you given your love of Shakespeare and interest in the healing arts in English Literature. I thought it so clever the way O’Farrell made the story about Shakespeare’s wife Agnes and his children.  You don’t find Shakespeare’s name, given or family, used once, and this puts him squarely to the side: it’s Agnes’ story and we see how her strength, insights and other-worldly powers allow him to find his vocation. She senses his genius before even he does.

Judith Owens (JO): You’re right, Lynne. As soon as I heard about this book I wanted to read it, even though I’m not usually a fan of historical fiction. I’m always bothered by what strike me as anachronisms, in dialogue, in features of setting, in ways of being in the world. I’m especially wary if a work is set in sixteenth- or seventeenth-century England since this is the period in which I specialize as a literary scholar. But very little, if anything, in Hamnet and Judith feels anachronistic to me. O’Farrell’s imagining of the death from plague in 1596 of the 11-year-old Hamnet, and of the lives of Shakespeare’s immediate family, reflects deep immersion in the social history of the period as well as in the works of Shakespeare.

JO: I think that we both felt that this novel is an astonishing act of historical imagination, that it takes readers, as much as that’s possible, into the lived lives of late Elizabethan England, and especially into the lives that history so often forgets: the lives of women. Here, specifically, we’re invited to imagine in all its fullness the life of a woman who is often relegated to a footnote in Shakespeare’s world as the person to whom was bequeathed the “second best bed” in Shakespeare’s will. O’Farrell rather slyly alludes to that often-repeated fact by having Agnes refuse to give up her old bed when the family moves into the grand new house with its brand-new furnishings. This is just one of the ways in which O’Farrell invites us to imagine this woman as something other than “Shakespeare’s wife.” Just by calling her Agnes, as she was named in her father’s will, rather than Ann, the name by which history knows her, O’Farrell is writing this woman into a story separate from the story of Shakespeare. Meaning “pure and holy,” “Agnes” is also a name that suits a character who has an otherworldly air at times, while its closeness to “Agnus” as in agnus dei, lamb of god, highlights crucial aspects of Agnes’ role–as martyred (to some extent) for Shakespeare’s art, and as a figure who offers salvations of various kinds. We see with welcome clarity the woman behind the great man. What you’ve called her other-worldly powers and insights enable Shakespeare to become Shakespeare, the historical figure she divines through touch when she holds his hand, pressing the space between thumb and index finger, and senses vast landscapes within him. I can’t help but think that O’Farrell chose the image of landscapes because the theatre most closely associated with Shakespeare was the Globe.

LF: I appreciate the way you frame that Judith, in terms of her being relegated to a footnote. Feminist economists have been thinking along the same lines for decades, pointing out that were it not for women’s unpaid work, our world would fall apart. The book called The Invisible Heart by economist Nancy Folbre, does just that, in response to the notion of Smith’s ‘invisible hand,’ which magically organizes economic activity. 

LF. What about her knowledge of the healing arts? I’m interested in how that topic plays out in literature because of course it was an important economic activity, one that allowed women like Agnes to participate in paid labour.

JO: O’Farrell’s depiction of Agnes’ healing arts–divination and prognostication; the mixing of salves and tinctures from the herbs she cultivates or collects; the laying on of hands–is one of the things that O’Farrell gets so right about late Elizabethan England. Practitioners of “household medicine” were commonplace, unlicensed, almost always women, and frequently rumoured to be witches–as is the case with Agnes, the strange young woman with whom the Latin tutor falls in love–and much distrusted, resented, and despised by the medical establishment. This is a period in which the gendered division of curative labour underlay tensions between learned male “physicians,” whose medical knowledge came from books, and illiterate “cunning” or “wise” women such as Agnes, whose medical knowledge came from hands-on practice as well as from deep wells of mysterious insight. O’ Farrell captures this tension perfectly in the terse exchange between Agnes and the physician who comes to the door with a treatment for Judith (the first twin to fall sick from plague in the novel), certain that his is the superior knowledge and whose speech to that effect is cut off abruptly when a furious Agnes bangs shut the hatch through which she sells her cures. Our medical landscape today is far different from the one in Elizabethan England, but Covid-19 has shown us how deeply divided we can still be on medical interventions.

LF: Judith, we’ve talked about the overwhelming, raw emotion of the twins’ illness, the bond between them, and the way young Hamnet sacrifices himself to save his sister. I cried when I read that section, but you couldn’t even get through it, and had to put the book down.  Now that you have finished it, did you find any comfort in the idea that the grief of losing Hamnet manifested in the timeless play that bears his name? Grief is such an all-encompassing force, and I sometimes think it can transform us and wring great things out of us, things we did not know were there.

JO: Both of us found the book to be deeply affecting in its depiction of Hamnet’s death and Agnes’ preparing of his body for burial; and, yes, I did have to put the book aside, for months, after reading those passages. I like what you’re suggesting about how Hamnet’s death, how the enormity of that loss, for the characters and for the readers, is somehow. . .balanced by isn’t quite the right word. . .maybe, placed alongside, Agnes’ rootedness in nature, the body, touch– things that we have lost today. If I’m understanding you correctly, it’s in this way that the novel touches you most profoundly, by reminding us of what we today have lost–not just generally, in the loss of community and connection to nature that seem to have characterized earlier periods in history, but also very specifically, in the isolations forced upon so many by Covid-19. It’s a little uncanny that this novel, written before the pandemic, speaks so immediately to our world today.

JO: With you, I wonder if O’Farrell means us to find solace at the end in Agnes’ realization that her husband–who had seemed to move on and away from the dead child so easily–has answered that loss for himself with the play Hamlet, bringing Hamnet back through his writing. I think that maybe we are meant to find comfort in that, and in the idea that art answers our deepest needs. But I’d like to think about this idea of the solaces of art by introducing another perspective from which to think about the losses–the pain, the grief, the emotional abysses, the incapacities in both Agnes and Will to carry on–that follow upon Hamnet’s death.

JO: Protestant reformers of the 16thC attacked many of the doctrines, beliefs, and practices of the Catholic church, including the doctrine of Purgatory–a place believed to house temporarily the souls of the dead who were not destined for hell, but who were not yet ready for heaven, a place where these souls could expiate their sins through suffering. For hundreds of years prior to that, generations of the bereaved had been able to offer prayers and money to the church to help to alleviate the torments of their loved ones; for generations, the living had in this way been able to maintain emotional ties with their dead and had been able to feel that the dead were in many ways still with them–for better or worse: in popular lore, souls locked in Purgatory sometimes came back to torment the living. Officially, by Shakespeare’s day, Purgatory in Protestant England had been abolished, effectively separating the living from the dead, as Keith Thomas has pointed out. But the linkages, emotional and spiritual, between the living and the dead could not easily be broken, of course, certainly not by edict. Shakespeare knew that: his dead King Hamlet, “confined for a time” to the expiating fires of Purgatory, returns to his son as a ghost, plying young Hamlet’s emotions, demanding revenge.

JO: O’ Farrell, it seems to me, explores, primarily through Agnes, what it must have been like to experience the seismic changes of the Reformation, in particular, the abolition of Purgatory, the place that formerly kept the dead close by. Agnes starts out in a world informed with magic: she feels her mother’s spirit near her; the world around her is infused with the supernatural; she is friends with a Catholic priest who conjoins the material and spiritual worlds with ease. Those capacities for easy communion with the world of spirits gradually diminish with her marriage and her move from the country to the bustling market-town, with its commercial ethos, materialism, and, we’re to assume, Protestant cast. And when Hamnet dies, Agnes loses him completely for a long time: her reluctance to relinquish his body for burial and her anguish when he’s put into the ground to “be sealed in the earth for eternity” reflect her fear that once he’s physically gone, he’s gone from her forever. For months afterward, she searches, but “cannot locate the spirit of her own child,” cannot experience the comfort (as she did with her mother) of feeling him nearby. This grief, as we’ve both remarked, incapacitates her, isolating her from her husband and her living daughters. It’s Judith who, after a meeting with the old, superstitious midwife who attended the birth of the twins and who tells Judith that she has often seen a spectral figure near the Henley house, makes nightly visits back to her old home until she encounters a spiritual presence that she knows is her brother. It’s Judith, forever connected to Hamnet in spirit, who inherits her mother’s garden and herbal lore and who speaks to cats. O’Farrell is saying something about the persistence of beliefs in Shakespeare’s day, certainly. But I’m wondering if there’s any kind of application today.

JO: As you’ve implied in your comments about the end of the novel, Lynne, Agnes does eventually find Hamnet, even if not in the spirit-world. He’s restored to her, miraculously, mysteriously, she feels, in her husband’s play. Art gives back what has been lost. I’ve thought about this here specifically in terms of the abolition of Purgatory, because the argument is sometimes made that the theatre of Shakespeare’s day flourished as brilliantly as it did at least partly because it let audiences share in collective emotional and spiritual experiences that had been shut down by the Reformation. I’m wondering if you think there’s something comparable today, in terms of coping, collectively, with the effects of the pandemic?

LF: I think it will depend on how the landscape has shifted once the pandemic is over. Will we move away from the atomizing and individualist ethos of our mature capitalist society – the ethos that rendered society helpless when the pandemic hit? Given that economics has become the new religion, it is possible we could see a similar sea change in thought – an economic ephiphany, if you will, which will force us to think about all the elements of capitalization that have severed us from local, collective action: forces like globalization, fractured supply chains and privatization of elder and child care, and health care in general. That possibility is entwined in the similarities of how the pandemic unfolded compared to what happened in the novel.

LF: O’Farrell tells how one flea’s progeny travels from Alexandria to Venice, spreading death along the way and eventually landing in Stratford. It’s not so different to how Covid-19 spread: it came from afar, travelled on trade routes and left a path of death and fear. Our vulnerability to a simple virus has not diminished.  The other theme that re-emerged for me is the effect the pandemic has had on our economy.

LF: When the Black Death first swept through Europe in the 14th century, the economic impact was immense. An estimated one-third of Europe’s population succumbed, leading to severe labour shortages and an increase in wages. The force of that disruption and the subsequent re-occurrence of plague in Europe reverberated through the economy. An economic historian I follow, Adam Tooze, posits that Covid-19 may be the force that finally brings neo-liberalism to its knees: “The idea that the natural envelope of economic activity – whether the disease environment or climate conditions – could be ignored or left to markets to regulate was clearly out of touch with reality.” What this disruption brings remains to be seen.  

JO: You came away from the novel with an acute sense of what we’ve lost–losses that Covid-19 has magnified. You’ve talked here about the dismantling of neo-liberalism as a potentially restorative development. Does the thought that healing connections to nature, to the land, can persist give you hope that we today can recover something of what’s been lost? Could Indigenous perspectives expand a conversation about restoring balances?

LF: This loss is reflected in the way we interact throughout society: our loss of community; family ties; connection to nature; and our inability to meet our basic needs, so glaringly exemplified with Covid-19. Agnes could cultivate, harvest, sew, cook, heal, make soap, care for the animals and nourish her family. Without essential workers labouring in our market economy, we can’t even feed ourselves or look after our children and elders. It was always women who did that work, and today, is most likely underpaid, and often racialized women who do essential work, so in that sense, things haven’t really changed.

LF: Perhaps community-minded, nature-focused Indigenous cultures, so opposite to the zeitgeist of neo-liberalism, can show us how to heal ourselves and the planet.  There’s a conversation taking place about the need to learn from Indigenous people how to care for the forests to prevent “monster” forest fires. For that to happen, we need a shift from never-ending economic growth for the sake of profit, to a people/environment first approach. Given the way the climate crisis and pandemic have converged, we need that sea change now.


Judith Owens teaches Renaissance literature in the Department of English, Theatre, Film & Media at the University of Manitoba. Her current research focuses on the healing arts in English literature and culture of the 16th and early-17th centuries.

Lynne Fernandez is political economist, recently retired from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, MB. where she held the Errol Black Chair in Labour Issues. While Chair, her focus included labour/worker issues, neo-liberalism and austerity, and the impact of Covid-19 on Manitoba’s economy.