Longing to Stay Tied: Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet as a Work of Creative Criticism


Amy Muse


Literary critics turn to fiction when they cannot directly find something in fact. Maggie O’Farrell’s 2020 novel Hamnet feels borne out of the same impulse: to find the connection between the death of Hamnet Shakespeare and the writing of Hamlet; to gratify our wish to know that William Shakespeare did grieve the loss of his son and wrote this immortal play as a memorial to him. Long fascinated with the tale of Hamnet’s death and his resurrection in Hamlet, O’Farrell had attempted a novel several times but found it impossible to create Shakespeare as a character. She had to approach him indirectly: Hamnet refers to him only as “the Latin tutor,” “her husband,” and “the father,” presenting him through his family ties. This artful move increases the critical pleasures of reading Hamnet; it creates the feeling of first experiencing Hamlet, illuminating moments we’d forgotten or never even noticed. This essay reads Hamnet as a kind of creative criticism, not to presume O’Farrell’s goals as a novelist so much as to describe my own experiences as a reader. While absorbed in her storytelling, I witnessed novel-writing as a desire to know, and I marveled in her means of getting close—and getting me close—to Shakespeare.

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