The core of O'Farrell's novel set during the plague years of 1596 is the unnamed playwright, a husband, a father and an intensely emotional man who wrote his classic plays. His son Hamnet comes intensely to life, just a boy when he succumbs to the plague. Also beautifully portrayed is Hamnet's mother, Agnes, who loves her family but remains tied to her patch of land at Hewlands, which she leases from her brother and where she keeps her beloved bees in hemp-woven skeps. Now there is a sensation of change, an agitation of the air, "as if a bird has passed silently overhead."
Agnes doesn't know that Hamnet--this "glover's boy, the grandson from Henley Street--has arrived at the house of the physician where he thuds and thunders and shouts about the Buboes: "He has heard the word before. He knows what it means, what it denotes." He thinks of his sister, Judith, her chest and face burning and covered with slick sweat. Judith told her brother that she had suddenly felt a weakness in her arms, an ache in her back, a prickling in her throat. With their father two days' ride away in London, Hamnet fights to grasp the logic and sense of what he is being told.
O'Farrell brings the playwright's family full circle in a world where every life has its kernel, from which everything flows out and "to which everything returns." Hamnet thinks of his absent mother, the empty house, the deserted yard, and the unheard cry as he stands in the backyard, desperately calling for people who have fed him--his grandfather John, grandmother Mary, and his dear twin sister, Judith. Born within minutes of each other, Hamnet and Judith are as alike as if they had been "born in the same caul."
The son of a middle-class couple, the Playwright is brilliant but never around. For much of Hamnet's life, his father is a ghostly and enigmatic presence. The letters from their father speak of contracts and of long days in the London crowds, who hurl rotten matter if they do not like what the hear, and of a rival playhouse owner who once released a bag of rats at the climax of the Playwright's new play. It crosses Hamnet's mind to call his father's name, to shout for him, but he is of course miles and hours away in a city where the boy has never been.
Though the center of O'Farrell's story is novel is the compelling ode to Hamnet, it's also a love story between Agnes and the Playwright, a couple heavy with passion and love yet destined to remain apart after the he seeks his fortune in London. When Judith catches the plague and Hamnet later succumbs to it, O'Farrell plunges us back to a morning in early spring, fifteen years or so before the Playwright returns to the house of the physician as a Latin tutor. Here, standing at his place at the window, the children's verbs wash over him, "through him like the wind through the trees."
The Playwright's father's rages arrive from nowhere, "like a gale that blows quickly on." In the last year or so, the son has grown tall taller than the father, and stronger, younger, faster. The Playwright is attracted to the young girl, Agnes, whose stepmother lives in terror of the girl putting hexes on her. The Playwright's father sees Agnes's dowry as an opportunity. The child in Agnes's belly will change everything for the Playwright, perhaps even free him from the life he hates, from a father he cannot live with and from the house he can no longer bear.
Dressed in dirty clothes but speaking like a lady, the novel is as much the story about the myth of Agnes and her closeness to her brother, Bartholomew. This is a time of confusion of the seasons, of rooms dim with smoke, of the constant bleat and groan of sheep, and of Bartholomew away for most of the day tending animals. Then the pestilence finally reaches Agnes's house, making its mark around her beloved child's neck. O'Farrell's Agnes is a woman is broken into pieces, her playwright husband caught in "a web of absence" with its strings and tendrils sticking and clinging to him whichever way he turns.
Harrowing and tragic, O'Farrell's novel brings to life the family of the world's greatest literary figure and the devasting loss that will go on to form the kernel of his most famous play. The grief might keep him with Agnes, but it's in danger of destroying all he has made for himself in London. The novel effectively captures the burdens of the Playwright and the despair of Agnes, his lonely, grieving wife trapped by the social strictures of her time.