By Megan Whitlock
After the success of her award-winning bestseller Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell has secured the first memorial to Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, who died aged eleven in 1596, and his twin sister Judith, who died aged seventy-seven in 1662. Hamnet, which was published in 2020 by Hachette’s Tinder Press, was inspired by the story of Shakespeare’s long-forgotten son and has gone on to win awards such as the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.
The memorial came in the form of two rowan trees planted in the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare, Anne Hathaway and their eldest daughter, Susanna, are famously buried. In autumn, Hamnet’s dedicated tree will have red-gold berries, and Judith’s will be a pink-white colour. The trees are accompanied by plaque quotations from Twelfth Night, a play that centres around separated twins, and Hamlet, specifically from Opehlia’s mourning song in Act IV:
"He is dead and gone, lady. He is dead and gone; At his head a grass-green turf, at his heels a stone."
As well as words from O’Farrell, the memorial ceremony involved RSC actress and Stratford local Hannah Young reading passages from Shakespeare’s plays. The author also brought sprigs of rosemary cut from her own garden, a plant Hamlet stresses is for remembrance, to lay as a tribute at the foot of each tree.
In the 426 years since his death, this is the first established memorial dedicated to Hamnet, who is believed to also be buried at the church, just like his sister, in an unknown location. The ceremony also coincided with Stratford’s literary festival, which ran from 3-8 April and included a wide number of speakers such as Derek Jacobi and Simon Armitage, as well as O’Farrell.
O’Farrell is quoted in The Bookseller as saying:
“When I first visited Holy Trinity Church in 2017, I was saddened to discover that there was no gravestone to either of the Shakespeare twins [...] It’s wonderful that the church and the town have come together to create this memorial. We owe Hamnet and Judith so much. Separated twins surface again and again in Shakespeare’s plays; I believe that without Hamnet’s early death, we wouldn’t have Hamlet and we wouldn’t have Twelfth Night.”