Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

This has been a very popular book since it came out in July of 2020. I just finished it in preparation for our book group’s discussion on July 2. It’s an intriguing premise: the young son of William Shakespeare dies and we know nothing of him. So O’Farrell constructs a story around him, and it is a wondrous tale.

O’Farrell is a beautiful writer, and reading this book is like floating on a river. (Maybe the Avon?) It took me a little bit to get into it, not in the least because of some confusion regarding Hamnet’s mother, William Shakespeare’s wife. We know her as Anne Hathaway, but O’Farrell names her Agnes which apparently sounds like “Anne” in 16th century English. But that is a small thing, although names are very important in this story. Shakespeare himself is never named, and the name of their child Hamnet who dies becomes increasingly significant as the novel progresses.

O’Farrell makes the Bubonic Plague a central part of this narrative and the cause of Hamnet’s death. There is no certain cause of his death, but the plague theme is well done and effective. Of course it is so related to the current pandemic. I found myself paying close and focused attention to her chapter on how the plague arrived in England. (A flea jumped from a monkey to the scarf of a young crew member and so on.)

One of the few pieces about Anne Hathaway that has survived down the centuries is that William Shakespeare in his will (he predeceased her by 7 years) left her his “second-best bed.” O’Farrell has a wonderful way of explaining that mystery!

Do read Hamnet. It is a sad story in many ways, but one rich in all the necessary parts and descriptions of love and joy and grief.

One thought on “Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

  1. I’m about halfway through. Also struggled to get into it. First bit was boring, IMO. But feel quite differently now. I live the scale of the story. Very domestic and so descriptive of the small details of day to day life for women and children in 17th century England. I feel like the author has placed herself in the household and is bringing us there to watch the story unfold with her. Your review makes me very intrigued about where she is taking us.


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