The novelist Maggie O’Farrell will travel to Stratford-upon-Avon next weekend bearing two branches of rosemary cut from her own garden. A plant traditionally associated with remembrance, as Ophelia notes in Hamlet, its flowering sprigs will be laid on the ground as tributes to Shakespeare’s twin children, Judith and Hamnet.
For centuries, they have had no visible memorial in the town where they lived and died. But all that changes on Saturday morning when two rowan trees will be planted in the graveyard of Stratford’s Holy Trinity church to mark their very different lives. O’Farrell will then place her gift of rosemary at the foot of each tree.
“I am so thrilled because I have been working towards this for years,” said O’Farrell, whose book about the family, Hamnet, won the Women’s prize for fiction in 2020. “Hamnet’s rowan, or mountain ash, will have red gold berries in the autumn, while Judith’s will be pinky white, so they are similar but not the same, just as they would have been.”
Working together with Annie Ashworth of the Stratford Literary Festival and with the vicar and church wardens of Holy Trinity, where Shakespeare himself is buried, the trees will help tell the full story of a family with global significance.
Hamnet, whose name was also written as Hamlet, died suddenly at the age of 11 in 1596, and the loss, O’Farrell believes, shaped Shakespeare’s later creative sensibility. Her own work of fiction tells the speculative story of the family’s bereavement. “I’m amazed really that people have debated about whether or not Shakespeare was grieving and whether the death affected his work. Of course it did. It’s baffling to me that people haven’t thought more about his importance, particularly when the spelling of his name and the title of his most famous play were interchangeable,” she told the Observer.
The idea of marking Hamnet’s short life came to her when she first visited the church in 2017 to research her novel. “It was seeded for me when I asked the person in charge of the graveyard where the grave was. ‘We don’t know,’ they said, although they have a record of his burial. It seemed emblematic to me, as Hamnet was consigned to literary footnotes and overlooked. Nobody has ever given him his due.”
As O’Farrell read the ink line that registered Hamnet’s burial, she vowed to organise a memorial, later realising that Judith also had no memorial.
Although she is to give a talk about her novel at the literary festival this Friday, she deliberately wants to keep Saturday’s ceremony distinct from her fictional account. “I wanted to do it separately, because this event is about the real Hamnet, not the person imagined in my book. This is absolutely about the real boy,” she explained.
The task of getting permission fell largely to Ashworth, and O’Farrell said it would not have been possible without the help of the town. “I discovered that you can’t have a gravestone without a burial, so a tree and a plaque for each of them seemed the right thing,” she said.
Judith Shakespeare, who is a central character in Ben Elton and Kenneth Branagh’s 2018 film All Is True, lived a long life and is rumoured to have been buried in a pauper’s grave.
“We are not sure, but she certainly had a hard time. She lived to 67, which was a very good age since the average expectancy was about 47 years then.
“It was a full, tough life though, because she buried a husband and three sons, as well as her brother Hamnet. I like to think she lived for herself and for him.”
Speeches in the graveyard from the vicar and from O’Farrell will be followed by readings from two of Shakespeare’s plays; passages chosen for the occasion by the novelist and read by the Royal Shakespeare Company actor Hannah Young.
“For Hamnet, I’ve chosen Constance’s speech from King John, where she talks about her dead son,” said O’Farrell. “I’ve always believed it was clearly about Hamnet. And then, for Judith, I have selected lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream which are about twins, a constant theme in his plays.”
The tone of the ceremony, the author expects, will be bittersweet: “We are honouring a child who died aged 11, but we are also happy to be paying them both tribute. They won’t be forgotten.”