Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell: A review

Not a lot is known about William Shakespeare's family life, but from a cache of bare-bones facts, Maggie O'Farrell has constructed an exceptional historical novel the main action of which is set in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1596. Among those bare-bones facts is Shakespeare's marriage to a woman older than himself called Anne, or in some documents Agnes, Hathaway. In her story, O'Farrell chooses to call her Agnes. The marriage produced three children, first a daughter and then twins, a boy and a girl. The older girl was called Susanna and the twins were Hamnet and Judith.

Before all that, Shakespeare, in O'Farrell's telling, suffered from an abusive father. The father was a glover who for a while was successful but by the time Shakespeare reached adulthood, his father had been disgraced by some of his shady practices. In order to retire some of his debts, the father sent his son to serve as a Latin tutor for the Hathaway household and it was there he met Agnes, a free-spirited young woman who was a herbalist healer and a falconer. He was entranced by her and longed to marry her, but Agnes knew her family would not agree because of his family's reduced circumstances. She plotted to become pregnant by him in order to force the family to agree. And her plan worked.

Shakespeare continued to work for his father and some years later was sent to London to gain contracts for making gloves and there he fell in with a theater company, achieved his true purpose in life by becoming a playwright and actor, and, as they say, the rest is history.

But in this period, there was a plague on the land. Bubonic plague took untold numbers of lives and in time it reached Stratford-Upon-Avon and the Shakespeare household.  The twins became sick with the illness, first Judith, then Hamnet. Their mother used everything in her pharmacopeia as a healer to try to save them, but in the end, only Judith lived. 

Two of, for me, the most interesting and excruciating passages in the book related to this episode. First, there was a description covering several pages around the middle of the book that traced the journey of the plague to Agnes' children from a monkey flea in Egypt across Europe and all the way to Stratford. Second, when Judith became ill and it appeared she would die, the family sent a letter to Shakespeare in London to let him know. But Shakespeare wasn't in London; he was actually in Kent because the theaters in London had been closed because of plague and he had taken his theater company to perform on the road. The tortuous passage of the letter as it slowly makes it way finally to Kent is simply heartbreaking. We do take so much for granted in our modern communications, don't we?

Shakespeare arrived home too late to say goodbye to his son, Hamnet. The family's grief was bottomless. Eventually, he channeled his own personal grief into the writing of perhaps his greatest play, Hamlet.

In O'Farrell's tender if dark novel, she fully uses her creative license to craft a tale whose focus is not Shakespeare but his wife, Agnes. We see her as she goes about her life in Stratford in the absence of her husband. The writer gives us fascinating descriptions of the uses of medicinal herbs, the wool trade, and of Agnes' family life with her children and the occasional visits from her husband. She also explores the superstitions that were so much a part of village life in the 16th century. It is easy somehow to imagine the parallels between that plague and the one we are currently experiencing. But even though the novel travels much in dark territory, it really is not a depressing story. It ends with a recognition of the ability of the indomitable human spirit to make lemonade of the bitterest of lemons. Surely that must give us hope.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


  1. The idea behind these historical novels that take real characters and fictionalize them is interesting. Of course stories like this can work and even be great works in and of themselves. Though sometimes I am a little uncomfortable with the idea. Ironically, in his histories, Shakespeare himself did this to good effect as he played fast and loose with historical fact.

    1. Shakespeare was the master of the art and I think O'Farrell has done well in taking the known facts of his life and expanding on them. Of course, the focus of her story was actually his wife and it's interesting to see the Bard through her eyes.

  2. One of my reading groups is reading this next. I can't wait!

    1. I look forward to reading what you think of it. My guess is you will like it quite a lot!

  3. Glad you liked this one -- it is on my radar and I'm on the wait list. It reminds me slightly of Lincoln in the Bardo which might not be a good comparison ... just the father / son death dynamic.

    1. There are interesting parallels there that I had not even thought of until you brought it up. Thank you for that!


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