Hamnet Author:Maggie O'Farrell A portrait of a marriage, an evocation of a family ravaged by grief and loss, and a re-imagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, and whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays of all time... England, 1580: The Black Death creeps across the land, an ever-present threat, infecting the healthy... more », the sick, the old and the young alike.
The end of days is near, but life always goes on...
A young Latin tutor, penniless and bullied by a violent father, falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman named Agnes.
Agnes is a wild creature who walks her family’s land with a falcon on her glove and is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer, understanding plants and potions better than she does people.
Once Agnes settles with her husband on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon, she becomes a fiercely protective mother and a steadfast, centrifugal force in the life of her young husband, whose career on the London stage is just taking off when his beloved young son succumbs to sudden fever.« less
This is a story about a man and a woman who lost their son. That man is William Shakespeare and his wife is Anne or Agnes called Agnest by her father, Richard Hathaway. In his will he refers to her as Agnes.
Shakespeare was a penniless Latin tutor when he fell in love with Agnes. She roamed the family land with a falcon on a glove. People viewed her as a healer who related more to the natural world than to people. They marry and settle on Henley Street in Stratford-upon- Avon. An intensely protective mother to their three children, Susanna and twins Hamnet and Judith, she is the center of her husband's life. Seeking work in London, he discovers a calling to the theater. When all becomes more comfortable, their eleven-year-old son dies the summer of 1596. While it was not uncommon for a child to die during these times it is around this event that the author constructs a moving story that touches the heart.
Taking the few facts she could discover, the author weaves a tale about a family dealing with tragedy, grief and separation. Shakespeare frequently left his family to pursue his stage career. Moving the story between Agnes and Will, she imagines how each might have felt when they are apart and when Hamnet dies. The main characters are the family members and we glimpse how the daughters may have felt too. Imagine losing an only son or daughter if you can. Then read how one family might react and cope while struggling to go on with life after such a devastating loss. I marvel at the empathy and intensity of the descriptions of that life. It is some years later that Shakespeare wrote the play, Hamlet, that the author surmises adjusts the event to what the public would expect and accept. The reader hopes that the startling ending brought some understanding between the grieving parents.
If you are a stickler for rigorous historical accuracy, you might not love this book. I have just abandoned, and given a 1-start rating, and bad-tempered review, to a book that got the dates of the Thirty Year War wrong -- so why do I love this book?
Well, IMHO, O'Farrell isn't so much writing a historical novel, as writing an alternative history. What we actually know about the marriage and private lives (let alone their innermost thoughts) of one W.Shakespeare and A. Hathaway could be written on the back of a postage stamp (and not a Shakespeare 400th anniversary commemorative ...) O'Farrell is imagining the lives, and experiences (and innermost thoughts) of a woman named Agnes, a rather strange young woman who -- against all logic and social pressure -- marries a younger man, with big dreams. Whose name is NOT necessarily W. Shakespeare, oh, no.
Most readers I've spoken to (and reviewers I've read) treat it as a cute "in-joke" by O'Farrell that Agnes' husband is never named -- he is The Husband, The Son, The Father, The Playwright. But, for me, this is O'Farrell's whole point -- she isn't arrogantly claiming that she has "cracked the mystery" of Shakespeare's relationship with his wife, and his family, she is merely offering an alternative scenario, using two people who are very like W. Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway -- an alternative scenario to counter the hoary (and very misogynistic) old tale of the older woman, who entraps Callow Youth in marriage, prompting Callow Youth to run away to London and become the Greatest Playwright the world has ever known. (And quietly avenging himself, posthumously, by leaving the Conniving Older Woman nothing but the "second best bed" in his will. Take that, Conniving Older Woman!)
Most scholars now accept that the hoary old tale is based on next to zero facts, and mindlessly misogynistic interpretation of whatever facts there are. Anne Hathaway's reputation has already had a spirited (and well researched) defense from feminist writers like Germaine Greer. O'Farrell uses this framework of facts, such as they are, to construct a fiction about two people, capable in their own different ways, who marry, whose marriage evolves, who suffer a terrible loss.
As Shakespeare himself did -- with King Lear, with several of his comedies, with his history plays, with Hamlet itself -- O'Farrell has taken an established text and transformed it, to reflect his own themes and objectives, making it something different and rarer, even if it isn't slavishly true to its sources.
If it were possible to read this in blissful ignorance of who Agnes and her Husband "are," I think it would still be a worthwhile and satisfying story, for the universal truths that O'Farrell finds in the lives of two people who were remarkable in their own ways.
I was excited when Hamnet was a January title for my library book club as it's been on my "want to read" list since it was published in 2020. I've read glowing reviews of the book in spite of its sad and dark story.
In this beautifully crafted novel, Maggie O'Farrell builds a richly detailed story within the framework of facts about William Shakespeare's life. The narrative focuses primarily on the Bard's wife Agnes and the death of his son Hamnet, twin brother to Judith. We learn about Agnes and William's unhappy childhoods and familial relationships, follow their "meet cute" and courtship, and watch their marriage bloom and then wither. I appreciated Agnes's independence (as much as was possible for women in 16th century England) and her deep connections to nature through plants, animals, and insects. The small touches of magic were a pleasant and unexpected surprise.
I read this via audiobook with Ell Potter's lovely narration and followed along in a print copy when possible; this dual input and the short timeframe in which I read this fully immersed me in time and place. Discussing this with fellow readers at book club was a great experience and, as always, brought more meaning to Ms. O'Farrell's literary prose.
This book is in my all time top 10 favorites. I love that it is about the Shakespeare family, of whom I enjoyed learning of the family tree. I spent time researching and studying the family tree, which gave a real depth to my reading. The characters are very well developed and interesting, as was learning of life during the plague. The writing is absolutely stunning. The descriptions of mourning are beautiful, though some find it a difficult topic. I was moved by it, and have read it twice.