“Caught in a web of absence”: Risk, death and survival in Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet


Maggie OʼFarrellʼs Hamnet (2020) is a reimagining of the death of Shakespeareʼs only son, and the existential havoc that the event causes in the protagonistsʼ life. However, the title is slightly misleading because the novelʼs central character is Hamnetʼs enigmatic mother, Agnes Hathaway, better known as Anne. The narrative oscillates between two timelines: the present begins on the day the plague first afflicts Hamnetʼs twin sister Judith and soon after takes away the boy himself, a trauma that risks breaking both the family bonds and fragmenting the individual psyche. The past swings back to Agnesʼs meeting her future husband about 15 years earlier. Though Hamnet died of unknown causes, OʼFarrell attributes it to the bubonic plague that raged throughout the country at the time with devastating consequences, an aspect of the story that is highly topical due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Hamnet is a text crossed by a number of deaths, both in the family of the dramatist and of his wife. As such, it is argued, the novel explores various forms of risk: physical, psychological and emotional. At the same time, it examines the different strategies that the human psyche activates to heal its wounds.


plague, risk, death, trauma, survival, safety

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Published : 2022-10-01

Struzziero, M. A. (2022) “‘Caught in a web of absence’: Risk, death and survival in Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet”, Crossroads. A Journal of English Studies, (37). doi: 10.15290/CR.2022.37.2.01.

Maria Antonietta Struzziero  mstruz@hotmail.it

Maria Antonietta Struzziero is an independent scholar. She completed a PhD in Linguistic and Literary Studies at the University of Salerno with a doctoral dissertation on Jeanette Winterson and the love discourses in some of her novels. She has published several articles and book chapters on different topics and authors, and given papers at Italian and international conferences. Her main fields of study include: modernism; post-modernism; gender studies; auto/biographical writing; feminist theories; trauma studies. Her current research interests focus on experimental life-writing in two contemporary memoirs by Hilary Mantel and Maggie O’Farrell, as well as on the re-reading of mythology in some recent novels by Pat Barker and Madeline Miller. She has co-edited “Voci ed echi: Quaderni di letteratura comparata” and translated two novels.