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The real 'hamnet' died centuries ago, but this novel is timeless.
In the 20 years since the publication of her first novel, After You'd Gone, Irish-born Maggie O'Farrell has wooed readers with intricately plotted, lushly imagined fiction featuring nonconformist women buffeted by the essential unpredictability of life, which can turn on a dime. O'Farrell's last book, I Am, I Am, I Am (2018), was a nonfiction account of her own unpredictable life, filtered through 17 dramatic, near-death experiences, from her hair-raising childhood through her middle child's harrowing, periodic anaphylactic attacks brought on by a life-threatening immunological disorder.
With her eighth novel, O'Farrell brilliantly turns to historical fiction to confront a parent's worst nightmare: the death of a child. Set in Stratford, England, in the late 16th century, Hamnet imagines the emotional, domestic, and artistic repercussions after the world's most famous (though never named) playwright and his wife lose their only son, 11-year-old Hamnet, to the bubonic plague in 1596. Four years later, the boy's father transposes his grief into his masterpiece — titled with a common variant of his son's name — in which the father dies and the son lives to avenge him.
O'Farrell's narratives are rarely straightforwardly chronological. In Hamnet, she toggles between two timelines, one beginning on the day the plague first afflicts Hamnet's twin sister Judith, the other circling back to the beginning of their parents' passionate relationship some 15 years earlier.
'all is true' finds melancholy and magic in shakespeare's final years.
Bloody-scepter'd 'tyrant' explores shakespeare's take on politics.
In this telling, the woman we know as Anne Hathaway is called Agnes, pronounced Ann-yis, which O'Farrell explains is how her name appeared in her father's will. She's a wonderful character, a free spirit and healer who, like her late mother, is most at home in the woods. But she's also a Cinderella in her nasty stepmother's household, in which the future playwright — still in his teens with an uncertain future — is indentured as a Latin tutor to help settle a debt incurred by his errant father.
The two abused misfits recognize something special in each other, and the chemistry between them is palpable. A first kiss, later followed by sex that literally rocks and upends the apples in the storage shed, would be heavy-handed in its biblical overtones were it not so beautifully written. Hamnet is, among other things, a love story about a sorely tested marriage.
But before we meet his parents, we meet Hamnet, a smart but easily distractible boy, as he desperately seeks help for his twin sister, who has suddenly taken ill. With rising panic, he checks upstairs and down in his family's small apartment and his grandparents' adjacent house, and is anguished to discover that his mother, grandmother, aunt, and older sister are nowhere to be found. His father is off in London staging his plays. The only one home, drinking ale in the off-bounds parlour, is his irascible grandfather, from whom Hamnet has been warned to keep his distance.
As in her earlier novels, O'Farrell seeds her tale with dark forebodings. Agnes, off tending her bees during Hamnet's frantic search, will come to rue her absence that day:
Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mother's: the boy, the empty house, the deserted yard, the unheard cry ... It will lie at her very core, for the rest of her life.
Hamnet vividly captures the life-changing intensity of maternity in its myriad stages — from the pain of childbirth to the unassuagable grief of loss. Fierce emotions and lyrical prose are what we've come to expect of O'Farrell. But with this historical novel she has expanded her repertoire, enriching her narrative with atmospheric details of the sights, smells, and relentless daily toil involved in running a household in Elizabethan England — a domestic arena in which a few missing menstrual rags on washday is enough to alarm a mother of girls.
About halfway through this tour de force, there's a remarkable 10-page passage in which O'Farrell traces how the plague reached Agnes' children. It's a sequence that would stand out even in more salubrious times, but which holds particular resonance in light of the current global Covid-19 pandemic.
"For the pestilence to reach Warwicksire, England, in the summer of 1596," O'Farrell writes, "two events need to occur in the lives of two separate people, and then these people need to meet." The unwitting conduits are a master glassmaker in Murano, who in a moment of inattention burns his hands while blowing glass beads, and a cabin boy on a merchant ship, who becomes enchanted with an African monkey in Alexandria and picks up a stowaway infected flea in his red neckerchief. With the tenaciousness of a forensic viral chaser, O'Farrell charts the flea and its progeny's deadly path, through cats, rats, midshipmen, officers, glassmaker, and into the boxes of glass beads, one of which Hamnet's sister Judith excitedly unpacks when it is delivered to a Stratford seamstress who has been eagerly awaiting them for a client's fancy gown.
Unaware of the source of her children's illness, poor Agnes is left to suffer the consequences. O'Farrell writes, "There is a part of her that would like to wind up time, to gather it in like yarn. She would like to spin the wheel backwards, unmake the skein of Hamnet's death." But of course she realizes, "There will be no going back. No undoing what was laid out for them. The boy has gone and the husband will leave and she will stay and the pigs will need to be fed every day and time runs only one way."
Although more than 400 years have unspooled since Hamnet Shakespeare's death, the story O'Farrell weaves in this moving novel is timeless and ever-relevant.
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Hamnet Maggie O'Farrell, 2020 Knopf Doubleday 320 pp. ISBN-13: 9780525657606 Summary England, 1580: The Black Death creeps across the land, an ever-present threat, infecting the healthy, 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. 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 she 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 taking off when his beloved young son succumbs to sudden fever. A luminous portrait of a marriage, a shattering evocation of a family ravaged by grief and loss, and a tender and unforgettable 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, Hamnet is mesmerizing, seductive, impossible to put down—a magnificent leap forward from one of our most gifted novelists. ( From the publisher .)
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Shakespeare’s Son Died at 11. A Novel Asks How It Shaped His Art.
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By Geraldine Brooks
- Published July 17, 2020 Updated Nov. 23, 2020
HAMNET A Novel of the Plague By Maggie O’Farrell
“Hamnet” is an exploration of marriage and grief written into the silent opacities of a life that is at once extremely famous and profoundly obscure.
[ The editors of The Book Review chose this as one of the 10 best books of 2020 . ]
Countless scholars have combed through Elizabethan England’s parish and court records looking for traces of William Shakespeare. But what we know for sure, if set down unvarnished by learned and often fascinating speculation, would barely make a slender monograph. As William Styron once wrote, the historical novelist works best when fed on short rations. The rations at Maggie O’Farrell’s disposal are scant but tasty, just the kind of morsels to nourish an empathetic imagination.
We know, for instance, that at the age of 18, Shakespeare married a woman named Anne or Agnes Hathaway, who was 26 and three months pregnant. (That condition wasn’t unusual for the time: Studies of marriage and baptism records reveal that as many as one-third of brides went to the altar pregnant.) Hathaway was the orphaned daughter of a farmer near Stratford-upon-Avon who had bequeathed her a dowry. This status gave her more latitude than many women of her time, who relied on paternal permission in choosing a mate.
Shakespeare was a grammar school graduate, the eldest son of a glove maker in declining fortune. His father had once been the equivalent of Stratford’s mayor, but by the time his son was 18, he had fallen into debt, disrepute and legal opprobrium.
For centuries, Shakespeare’s male biographers twisted these meager facts into a misogynistic scenario: An aging spinster entraps a callow youth and a loveless, mostly long-distance, marriage ensues. In 2007, in her convincing corrective, “Shakespeare’s Wife,” Germaine Greer placed these accounts in the long history of male scholarship’s diminishment of women — especially wives — in the lives of male artists and intellectuals going back to the ancient Greeks. O’Farrell has cited Greer’s work as an influence on her thinking .
In “Hamnet,” Shakespeare’s marriage is complicated and troubled, yet brimming with love and passion. Hathaway is imagined as a free-spirited young woman, close to the natural world and uncannily intuitive. She attracts the ardor of a repressed, restless teenager still in search of his life’s purpose. In this telling, Will, with his disgraced father and uncertain prospects, is no catch; it is Agnes, given her degree of social and financial independence, who is seen as making the poorer match with this “feckless, tradeless boy.”
A few more facts from the historical record: The child whose imminent arrival likely forced the timing of the Shakespeares’ November wedding was born six months later, a girl named Susanna. Two years on, the couple had twins: Judith and Hamnet. In 1596, Hamnet, just 11 years old, died. (The cause of death is unknown; O’Farrell imagines, plausibly, that it was plague.) By then William Shakespeare was an established playwright, living in London but providing amply for his family, amassing Stratford property and returning home for visits.
He is not at home, however, as O’Farrell’s novel opens on a moment of domestic tension. The boy, Hamnet, is in frantic search of help. His twin sister has suddenly fallen ill. We feel his anxiety rise as he fails to find the adults — particularly his mother — who might know what to do.
Here, right at the start, O’Farrell plants her flag. This novel will be about grief: how we experience it, how we respond to it, what it costs and whom it damages. “Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicenter, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns,” she writes. “This moment is the absent mother’s: the boy, the empty house, the deserted yard, the unheard cry. … It will lie at her very core, for the rest of her life.” The mother is a mile away from home, tending to her beehives. Her son’s building panic is juxtaposed beautifully with a serene description of her gentle labors. Would her presence have saved her child from plague? Probably not. But grief’s equations are not figured rationally.
O’Farrell knows this. Her breathtaking memoir, “ I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death ,” details the disturbing instances in her own life when the angel of death came close enough to let her feel the beat of wing feathers disturb the air. And as the mother of a child born with a suite of life-threatening illnesses, she is on intimate terms with the dread, grief and guilt engendered by a suffering offspring.
This novel is at once about the transfiguration of life into art — it is O’Farrell’s extended speculation on how Hamnet’s death might have fueled the creation of one of his father’s greatest plays — and at the same time, it is a master class in how she, herself, does it.
Consider this description of Judith falling ill: “She cannot comprehend what has happened to this day. One moment, she and Hamnet were pulling bits of thread for the cat’s new kittens … and then she had suddenly felt a weakness in her arms, an ache in her back, a prickling in her throat. … Now she is on this bed and she has no idea how she got here.” O’Farrell, in her memoir, has written vividly of how, at age 8, she contracted encephalitis, almost died and was bedridden for more than a year. When Judith lies watching the walls “bulging inwards, then flexing back” as the bedposts “writhe and twist like serpents,” it is the precise and graphic description of high-fevered hallucinations recalled by someone who has experienced them.
At times, “Hamnet” brought to mind an earlier novel I admire, Sena Jeter Naslund’s “Ahab’s Wife” (1999), which centers its narrative on the young bride of Melville’s whaling captain — a woman barely mentioned in “Moby-Dick.” At the time, Naslund recalled the pressure of writing into the space occupied by such a classic: “You don’t send a minnow out after ‘Moby-Dick.’” Nor do you go after the private life of the Bard of Avon with a casual regard for English prose. O’Farrell, Irish-born, schooled in Scotland and Wales, and shaped by a childhood steeped in story and school days that always began with song, has a melodic relationship to language. There is a poetic cadence to her writing and a lushness in her descriptions of the natural world.
She is deft, too, at keeping her research subordinated to the story. We’re not force-marched through a manual on 16th-century glove-making techniques or an exegesis of illegal practices in the Tudor wool trade. But we can smell the tang of the various new leathers in the glover’s workshop, the fragrance of the apples racked a finger-width apart in the winter storage shed, and we can see how the pale London sun “reaches down, like ladders, through the narrow gaps in buildings to illuminate the rain glazed street.”
At the center of the novel is a question: Why did Shakespeare title his most famous play for the son who had died several years earlier? (Hamlet and Hamnet are used interchangeably in parish records of the time. They were, essentially, the same name.)
The book builds toward an intriguing speculation, which I will not reveal here. As it unfolds, it brings its story to a tender and ultimately hopeful conclusion: that even the greatest grief, the most damaged marriage and most shattered heart might find some solace, some healing.
An earlier version of this review overstated what is known about the death of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet. The circumstances of his death were not recorded; it is not known that he “died of plague.” The error was repeated in the headline.
How we handle corrections
Geraldine Brooks’s most recent novel is “The Secret Chord.”
HAMNET A Novel of the Plague By Maggie O’Farrell 305 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95.
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Hamnet Summary & Study Guide
Hamnet Summary & Study Guide Description
The following version of this book was used to create the guide: O’Farrell, Maggie. Hamnet. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2020. Kindle edition.
Hamnet is a historical novel chronicling the lives of two families before and after the untimely death of a young boy in the late 1500s. Told through an omniscient narrator and rotating third-person perspectives, the novel anchors the family’s struggles and triumphs with historical facts detailed in an epigraph preceding the first chapter. The epigraph establishes the titular character Hamnet’s death before the narrative begins.
The focal characters are Hamnet and Agnes, though an ensemble of characters feature throughout the novel. The narrative is set in various locations in England during the late 1500s, alternating between two timelines. The first chronological timeline begins when the unnamed father meets Agnes, and the second begins fifteen years later, when Hamnet’s twin sister Judith becomes ill. The novel is divided into two parts.
Part 1 begins when Judith, eleven-year-old Hamnet’s twin sister, becomes ill at the house on Henley Street in Stratford. Hamnet’s family members are all absent except his grandfather, John. John strikes Hamnet in the face for startling him and does not help Hamnet locate his other family members. Hamnet calls on the physician’s wife, who promises to send the physician to check on Judith after a brief conversation reveals Judith’s diagnosis: the bubonic plague.
As Judith suffers her illness, the novel alternates between the past and present. In the past, a young Latin tutor meets Agnes, a woman with a strange reputation from a prominent farming family. The Latin tutor and Agnes develop a romantic relationship to the dismay of both their families. The Latin tutor proposes to Agnes, but Agnes’s stepmother Joan refuses the engagement. The couple forces the marriage with a premarital pregnancy, which the tutor’s father works to his financial advantage, negotiating the terms of the union to save the farming family from scandal. After a secret wedding ceremony, the couple moves into an apartment adjacent to the Latin tutor’s family home. Agnes becomes comfortable in their new home, establishing her own apothecary business through a window in the house at Henley Street. Eventually, Agnes gives birth to their first child, Susannah, in the woods beneath a fallen tree.
From Susannah’s birth through the rest of the novel, the Latin tutor is called the father. The father struggles with depression after Susannah’s birth, growing distant from Agnes as she cares for their infant daughter. Agnes senses her husband’s unhappiness and encourages him to move to London to extend the family glove business. London revitalizes the father and introduces him to his new passions, writing and theater. Agnes eventually gives birth to unexpected twins while her husband is away. The younger twin, Judith, is too sickly to withstand the harsh conditions of the city, so the family never joins the father in London.
Back in the present, Hamnet alerts Agnes to Judith’s illness. Agnes attempts to heal Judith with the natural remedies, but the remedies do not work. Judith’s condition becomes dire. While the rest of the family is asleep, Hamnet decides to trick Death by disguising himself as Judith. Agnes awakes to find both twins in bed, but quickly discovers that Hamnet is now suffering the symptoms of plague while Judith rests in perfect health. Hamnet dies.
Part 2 begins immediately after Hamnet’s death. Agnes struggles with grief while preparing Hamnet’s body for burial, bonding with her mother-in-law, Mary, who has also lost children to the plague. The father returns from London but departs again right after the funeral, creating a rift in his marriage. The father makes amends for his absence by purchasing a new home for his family to start fresh after Hament’s tragic death.
Joan, Agnes’s stepmother, intrudes on the family’s newfound peace to deliver a playbill to Agnes. The father’s newest play is titled Hamlet, after their late son. Agnes is furious and embarks to London with Bartholomew to confront her husband. Instead, she marvels at her husband’s tender resurrection of their son in the play’s main character.
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By Maggie O'Farrell
Book review and synopsis for Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell, a story about Shakespeare's marriage and the death of his son.
Hamnet opens with some historical notes. A couple in Stratford had three children, twins Hamnet and Judith, and daughter Susanna. Hamnet, died in 1596, aged eleven. Roughly four years later, his father writes the play Hamlet (a name that is interchangeable at the time with name Hamnet).
As the story unfolds, the book tells a fictionalized story of William Shakespeare and his wife Agnes and the death of their son Hamnet.
(The Detailed Plot Summary is also available, below)
Detailed Plot Summary
The three-sentence summary: Hamnet is essentially a family-type drama telling the background between Will Shakespeare and his wife Agnes. It follows their relationship as they deal with their grief over the death of their son Hamnet, the implications of Will's career and Will's infidelity. In the end, Will writes the play Hamlet as a farewell to his son -- it's a play where the father dies instead of the son and the ghost's final line is "Remember me."
(The book opens with a few historical notes . A couple in Stratford had three children, twins Hamnet and Judith, and daughter Susanna. Hamnet, died in 1596, aged eleven. Roughly four years later, his father writes the play Hamlet , interchangeable at the time with name Hamnet.)
The chapters jump back and forth between two timelines. In 1596, Hamnet is a young boy whose twin sister Judith has suddenly fallen ill. Hamnet searches for an adult, but the only person home is his drunk and abusive grandfather John Shakespeare. John is a disgraced glove maker, due to his illicit wool trading, among other things. Hamnet's father (William Shakespeare, though he is never named in the book) is in London, as usual. Hamnet's mother, Agnes, is away. He falls asleep next to Judith, crying.
In an earlier timeline, John Shakespeare owes a debt to a (deceased) sheep farmer. John and the farmer's (second) wife Joan have an arrangement for his son William to work off the debt by tutoring Joan's sons. It results in the tutor (Will Shakespeare) meeting Agnes. Agnes and her brother Bartholomew are the farmer's children with his first wife. Agnes has special abilities, where she is able to divine information about people, and she is also good with plants. Agnes and William fall in love.
In 1596, Agnes finally comes home and tries to treat Judith, confirming that she has "the pestilence" (the plague). The doctor shows up and warns them that no one is to leave the house until it has passed. When nothing works, Eliza (William's sister) writes to her brother in London to tell him to come home to say goodbye.
In an earlier timeline, Agnes becomes pregnant. John senses a business opportunity and strikes a bargain with Joan and Bartholomew regarding the debt, wool and Agnes. Soon, Agnes and the tutor are married. The baby, Susanna, is born. Agnes notices that her husband is unhappy as an errand-boy for his father. Agnes comes up with a plan to get John to send William to London. The plan works. Though Agnes is pregnant again, but William leaves for London, with plans to reunite once he is settled there.
An interlude traces the path of the disease. It involves a chance meeting of a glassmaker in Venice and a cabin boy on a ship. The cabin boy brings a disease-ridden flea onto the ship after interacting with a monkey in Alexandria. The pestilence ravages the ship. After the glassmaker loads his cargo in Venice, fleas end up in those boxes, which is unloaded in London. One box makes its way to a dressmaker. Her neighbor's daughter, Judith, is curious about it. The dressmaker lets Judith unpackage the disease-ridden box.
In 1596, Hamnet sees his dying sister and wants to trick death into taking him instead. He crawls into bed next to her. Agnes is soon surprised to discover that Judith is looking better, but Hamnet is barely breathing. She tries every remedy, but he dies.
In the earlier timeline, William sells some gloves to actors at a theater. Soon, he is acting (and later writing plays) and no longer dealing in gloves. In Stratford, Agnes is surprised to have twins, though she is worried because she has always known she would have only two children. Judith is the second one out, and she is weak and smaller than Hamnet. Agnes delays going to London until Judith is stronger, but Judith continues to be weak and sickly. The years pass, but the move to London never happens.
In 1596, William comes home to find Hamnet, not Judith, dead. Hamnet is buried. William is heartbroken. The house is full of reminders of Hamnet, and he is worried about the life he has built in London. William soon goes back to London and does not come home for a long time. Judith wonders if her resemblance to Hamnet is what keeps him away. Agnes grieves, too.
A year after Hamnet's death, William finally comes home. Agnes senses that he has been with other women. William apologizes for everything and decides to buy his family a house here in Stratford since it is clear that they will not be coming to London. He buys the largest house in the town, though he still only visits two or three times a year. As the girls grow up, Judith develops a love of plants like her mother. Susanna helps out with her father's affairs in terms of purchasing land, rental income, and other business affairs.
One day, Agnes learns that William has written a play (Hamlet) named after their son. Upset, Agnes goes (with Bartholomew) to London to find William. She finds him at the playhouse before a performance of Hamlet. As she watches the play, she realizes that her husband has written a play where the father is the one that dies instead of the child. In his play, "Hamlet"/Hamnet gets to live. The book ends with the last line that the ghost delivers, "Remember me".
For more detail, see the full Chapter-by-Chapter Summary .
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Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (or, Hamnet and Judith in some markets) is one of books in recent memory that I’ve been genuinely really excited to read.
After reading Bill Bryson’s wonderful (non-fiction) biography of Shakespeare , I’ve been interested in reading more historical fiction about the famous Bard, but haven’t found much to catch my eye. I tried a couple that I disliked enough that I gave on the pursuit for a while, but Hamnet has gotten great reviews and it sounded like a unique take on Shakespeare.
Hamnet is largely told with a focus on Agnes, the wife of William Shakespeare. (Anne Hathaway is the name that’s commonly used, but Agnes and Anne were commonly interchangeable at that time.) The death of Hamnet, their only male child, due to the plague features prominently in the story as well.
O’Farrell never actually refers to William Shakespeare by name, which helps to detach the story from all the mythology that comes with Shakespeare and his reputation. It also helps to reinforce that, although he is still a main character here, he’s not the main character.
O’Farrell’s Hamnet is a work of historical fiction, with a lot of emphasis on the word fiction . The reality is that what’s really known about Shakespeare is spotty at best (if you want to know more, I’ll reference Bryson’s Shakespeare biography here again), but it still makes for a delightful story to wonder about his life. (I also suspect that this story wouldn’t stand up to careful scrutiny about Shakespeare and all the details of his life, see the Historical Accuracy section below, but I’m not enough of a Shakespearean scholar to say for sure.)
Instead, facts serve as the rough contours of this book that gets filled in colorfully and vividly by this moving and beautifully written story. It’s not a complex or even terribly clever rendition of Agnes and William’s story, but O’Farrell tells it in a way that’s powerful and alive.
Quick (Minor) Criticism
The character of William Shakespeare in this book is humanized and made smaller. I understand why O’Farrell might want to do that, to avoid writing yet another tribute to the greatness of the towering figure of the William Shakespeare. However, I have to admit that this aspect of the book wasn’t entirely satisfying to me. Unlike his portrayal in the book, ultimately, he wasn’t just a guy who became financially comfortable writing plays. Instead, he wrote masterpieces and a lot of them.
Apart from a very brief section where he plays a quick word game with his sister Eliza, there’s nothing in the book indicating that this is or was a brilliant person. Instead, he’s depicted as a disappointment to his parents, an absent father, a weakling and kind of an unmotivated loser in general, all of which made it hard for me to view this as a story that was about Shakespeare at all. I understand this wasn’t intended to be an origin story about William Shakespeare, but I also can’t imagine that this useless lump of a man described here would become the mythological creature that he is.
As a final note, even with that criticism, Hamnet not even being longlisted for the Booker Prize still says a lot more about a deficiencies of the Booker Prize’s judges panel (in my opinion) than it does about Maggie O’Farrell’s newest novel, which is well worth a read.
As mentioned previously, there’s definitely a lot of fiction mixed up in here.
For example, a colorful interlude in the book involves a petrified Hamnet and a doctor wearing the distinctively creepy beaked plague mask that you’ve probably seen before. The problem is, in the book this happens in 1596, and the design is commonly attributed to Charles de Lorme , chief physician to Louis XIII, who was born in 1584. It seems unlikely he designed it when he was 12. Furthermore, historians have noted that there’s no evidence the Plague Doctor costume was ever used in London . (It was primarily used in 17th/18th century Italy and France.)
I’m not a historian — not even a history buff, really — so if I can catch this fairly obvious mistake, I’m certain there are others in here as well.
Did any of this spoil my enjoyment of the book? Not really, but again, history buffs and Shakespearean scholars may feel differently.
Read it or Skip it?
Hamnet is a moving and uncomplicated tale about a marriage, a family and the loss of a child. It focuses on the character of Agnes and offers unique rendition of Shakespeare’s life.
I enjoyed the story quite a bit, the writing is lovely, and there’s a lot to like about Maggie O’Farrell’s vivid and engaging version of Agnes and William’s story.
I found the portrayal of William Shakespeare here a bit unconvincing and I think there are likely some historical inaccuracies here, but it still works splendidly as a work of historical fiction due to O’Farrell’s storytelling abilities. It’s an intimate and emotional book that I think historical fiction lovers can appreciate.
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Thanks for your thoughts. I will put this one on my TBR list.
Hi rosi! And thanks for reading, hope all is well with you!
Very emotional moments in the book. The love of a brother for his twin sister is amazing. The only other such example I know is when the firs Meghal emperor Babur was sitting near his son Hamayun’s death bed.He prayed to God to take his life and save his son and that did happen.
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Review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado
(New York: Knopf, 2020)
“Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicenter, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mother’s.” Thus remarks the narrator in the opening pages of Irish author Maggie O’Farrell’s breathtaking new novel Hamnet , whose title belies its subject. Although it is ostensibly a story about William Shakespeare’s eponymous son, the central protagonist is in fact the boy’s mother. The tale is focalized through Agnes Shakespeare, a historical personage more readily known to us as Anne Hathaway, or simply, “Shakespeare’s wife”. We think we know the Bard quite well, owing to the record of his prodigious body of work and its iconic cultural influence. However, scant biographical details exist about the man, and even fewer exist about his wife and their lost son. In a boldly subversive move, O’Farrell declines to name Shakespeare at all in her book; instead, he is “lodger, brother, husband, father and, here, player.” Rather than presenting us with the umpteenth Shakespearean biography, she offers us “something other” – a phrase which appears twice in the text to describe the enigmatic maternal figure. In her latest novel, O’Farrell seeks to retrieve the “absent mother” Agnes Shakespeare from the obfuscating sexism of historiography.
While visiting the archives, O’Farrell discovered that the woman we know as Anne Hathaway was called Agnes in her father’s will. In the early modern period, the name would have been pronounced similarly to the French Agnès, “said differently from how it might be written on a page, with that near-hidden, secret g .” In a wonderfully playful scene in the novel, Shakespeare mishears her name as “Anne” when they first meet. The slipperiness of her name in the book registers the mysterious nature of her identity. Prior to their fateful encounter, the eighteen-year-old Shakespeare has already “heard many…fanciful tales” about this enchanting woman eight years his senior:
She has a certain notoriety in these parts. It is said that she is strange, touched, peculiar, perhaps mad…collecting plants to make dubious potions. It is wise not to cross her for people say she learnt her crafts from an old crone…She is said to be too wild for any man. Her mother, God rest her soul, had been a gypsy or a sorceress or a forest sprite.
O’Farrell reimagines Agnes as a powerful woman with exceptional gifts, and this visionary healer captivates the local glover’s wayward son, who will one day become the world’s greatest dramatist. In a recent interview, O’Farrell stated that the majority of existing material disparages Anne Hathaway as “a cradle-snatching strumpet peasant” who “tricked Shakespeare into marrying her by getting pregnant,” despite the lack of proof to support such a theory. Accordingly, she depicts a passionate love affair, which is nearly torn asunder by the death of their beloved boy due to bubonic plague. Taking inspiration from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet , which he wrote four years after the death of his son, O’Farrell speculates on this underexplored aspect of his life. The epigraph to the novel cites Steven Greenblatt, who notes that “Hamnet and Hamlet are in fact the same name, entirely interchangeable in Stratford records” from the late sixteenth century. In the author’s note she emphasizes, “it is not known why Hamnet Shakespeare died,” nor is the Black Death even “mentioned once by Shakespeare” in “any” of his writings. Therefore naming, or the refusal to name, something or someone is a significant theme in the book. When Hamnet hears a neighbor mention the plague, he thinks, “That – he will not name it, he will not allow the word to form, even inside his head – hasn’t been known in this town for years.”
Not long ago, the word “plague” would have sounded decidedly old-fashioned to us, a relic from another era. And yet here we are, “in this distracted globe,” facing a worldwide pandemic, and the concept has re-entered contemporary life. In many ways, “the time is out of joint,” and it is in this uncanny moment that Hamnet has appeared. The novel is an astonishingly intimate portrayal of a family living in the shadow of pestilence during a strange, stifling summer – a scenario that is eerily relevant. In her memoir I Am, I Am, I Am (2017), O’Farrell reflects on death, “I know all too well how fine a membrane separates us from that place, and how easily it can be perforated.” Correspondingly, in Hamnet she writes of Agnes’s dying patients, “How frail, to Agnes, is the veil between their world and hers. For her, the worlds are indistinct from each other, rubbing up against each other, allowing passage between them.” The structure of the novel follows suit, and the result is deeply atmospheric prose that transports the reader to another world, which is at once Elizabethan England and a dreamlike space where anything can happen. The timeline of the text shifts back and forth between 1596, the year Hamnet dies aged eleven, and the 1580s, tracing the courtship and marriage of Agnes and William, and family life with their three children. It is an exquisitely rendered meditation on motherhood in all its love, joy, and grief, and the miraculous power of art to heal a wounded heart.
An accomplished writer, O’Farrell has published eight novels, a bestselling memoir, and several short stories. Her first novel After You’d Gone (2000) was praised by Edna O’Brien as “beautifully written,” and it won the Betty Trask Award. O’Farrell went on to win the Somerset Maugham Award for The Distance Between Us (2005), and the Costa Novel Award for The Hand That First Held Mine (2010). She was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award another two times, for Instructions for a Heatwave in 2014 and This Must Be the Place in 2017. She is currently shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction – surprisingly for the first time – for her latest book. Twenty years after publishing her contemporary fiction debut, O’Farrell makes a dramatic shift to historical fiction in Hamnet , and it is her finest work yet. She is a spellbinding word-weaver, conjuring up a vivid historical milieu that is at once familiar and surreal in its immediacy. Her extensive research is everywhere evident, but at no point does it intrude upon the realm of the text. Hamnet is a book about death as well as beginnings, and O’Farrell takes a recognizable storyline and makes it startlingly new. Just as Hamlet signaled a pivotal development in Shakespeare’s writing, so too does this novel mark a career-defining moment for O’Farrell. The death of William Shakespeare’s only son had a generative effect on the playwright, who went on to produce what is widely believed to be his masterwork, which he named after his lost child. Likewise, this historical event has also engendered Maggie O’Farrell’s magnum opus. Hamnet is a profoundly affecting study of Agnes Shakespeare: a loving wife, a grieving mother, and a woman who has been maligned by history. It is an utterly bewitching book suffused with incandescent beauty and intense emotion, and ghosted by extraordinary dream-images that will haunt your imagination long after you have finished reading it.
Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado is a Visiting Research Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast and co-editor of Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland . She tweets @drdawnmiranda.
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By Maggie O’Farrell
By maggie o’farrell read by ell potter, category: historical fiction | literary fiction, category: historical fiction | literary fiction | audiobooks.
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NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD WINNER • NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The bestselling author of The Marriage Portrait delivers a luminous portrait of a marriage, a family ravaged by grief, and a boy whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays of all time. • “Of all the stories that argue and speculate about Shakespeare’s life … here is a novel … so gorgeously written that it transports you.” — The Boston Globe England, 1580: The Black Death creeps across the land, an ever-present threat, infecting the healthy, 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. 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 she 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.
NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD WINNER • NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • “Of all the stories that argue and speculate about Shakespeare’s life … here is a novel … so gorgeously written that it transports you.” — The Boston Globe In 1580’s England, during the Black Plague a young Latin tutor falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman in this “exceptional historical novel” ( The New Yorker ) and best-selling winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. 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 she 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 taking off when his beloved young son succumbs to sudden fever. A luminous portrait of a marriage, a shattering evocation of a family ravaged by grief and loss, and a tender and unforgettable 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, Hamnet is mesmerizing, seductive, impossible to put down—a magnificent leap forward from one of our most gifted novelists. Don’t miss Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel, The Marriage Portrait !
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Also by maggie o’farrell.
About Maggie O’Farrell
MAGGIE O’FARRELL was born in Northern Ireland in 1972. Her novels include Hamnet (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award), After You’d Gone, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, The Hand That First Held Mine (winner of the Costa Novel Award), and Instructions for a… More about Maggie O’Farrell
The Book of Longings
A Long Petal of the Sea
The Personal Librarian
The Secrets We Kept
Deacon King Kong (Oprah’s Book Club)
The Nickel Boys
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow
NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD WINNER • ONE OF THE NEW YORK TIMES 10 BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR • A NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR • One of Bill Gates’s Favorite Books of the Year • Book Club Pick: Duchess Camilla Parker Bowles’ The Reading Room “O’Farrell has a melodic relationship to language. There is a poetic cadence to her writing and a lushness in her descriptions of the natural world. . . . We can smell the tang of the various new leathers in the glover’s workshop, the fragrance of the apples racked a finger-width apart in the winter storage shed. . . . As the book unfolds, it brings its story to a tender and ultimately hopeful conclusion: that even the greatest grief, the most damaged marriage, and most shattered heart might find some solace, some healing.” —Geraldine Brooks, the New York Times Book Review “All too timely . . . inspired. . . . [An] exceptional historical novel ” — The New Yorker “Magnificent and searing. . . . A family saga so bursting with life, touched by magic, and anchored in affection. . . . Of all the stories that argue and speculate about Shakespeare’s life, about whether he even wrote his own plays, here is a novel that matches him with a woman overwhelmingly more than worthy.” — The Boston Globe “A tour de force. . . . Hamnet vividly captures the life-changing intensity of maternity in its myriad stages—from the pain of childbirth to the unassuagable grief of loss. Fierce emotions and lyrical prose are what we’ve come to expect of O’Farrell.” —NPR “O’Farrell moves through the family’s pain like a master of signs and signals. . . . In Hamnet , art imitates life not to co-opt reality, but to help us bear it.” — Los Angeles Times “Wholly original, fully engrossing. . . . Agnes is a character for the ages—engimatic, fully formed and nearly literally bewitching to behold in every scene she’s in.” — San Francisco Chronicle “A moving portrait of a mother’s grief. . . . O’Farrell’s prose is characteristically beautiful.” — The Wall Street Journal “Miraculous… brilliant… A novel told with the urgency of a whispered prayer — or curse… through the alchemy of her own vision, she has created a moving story about the way loss viciously recalibrates a marriage… A richly drawn and intimate portrait of 16th-century English life set against the arrival of one devastating death.” –Ron Charles, The Washington Post “What could be more common, over centuries and continents, than the death of a child – and yet Maggie O’Farrell, with her flawless sentences and furious heart, somehow makes it new. This story of remarkable people bereft of their boy will leave you shaking with loss but also the love from which family is spun.” –Emma Donoghue, author of Room “Grief and loss so finely written I could hardly bear to read it” –Sarah Moss, author of Ghost Wall “A bold undertaking, beautifully imagined and written” –Claire Tomalin, author of Charles Dickens: A Life “Heartstopping. Hamnet does for the Shakespeare story what Jean Rhys did for Jane Eyre , inhabiting it, enlarging it and enriching it in ways that will alter the readers view for ever” –Patrick Gale, author of A Place Called Winter “Exquisite, immersive and compelling… deserves to win prizes” –Marian Keyes, author of The Break “It so happens that the child at the center of Hamnet inspired one of civilization’s most famous plays, but in Maggie O’Farrell’s gifted hands, Hamnet feels as real as my own child. The raw physical life of O’Farrell’s Renaissance England is enthralling. But the beating heart of this book is Hamnet’s mother – an indelible, dauntless woman. What a sensual, full-throated love song to the lost child.” –Amity Gaige “Hamnet is a beautiful read, a devastating one, intricate, and breathtakingly imaginative. It will stay with me a long time” –Rachel Joyce “I’m absolutely blown away by Maggie O’Farrell’s HAMNET. Love, grief, hope, resilience – the world of this novel is so vivid I could nearly smell the grass in the fields, hear the rain in the gutters. In moments where the story shoots up to heaven I was there, too, grieving with these characters, feeling how lucky we all are to be alive, understanding how desperately we want the people we love to be remembered. It’s without a doubt one of the best novels I’ve ever read.” –Mary Beth Keane, author of Ask Again, Yes “A bold, beautiful, heart-breaking novel. Maggie has taken on both the most famous writer in the world and the mantle of history with effortless grace. In the process she’s written the book of her life. I’m wildly jealous!” –Tracy Chevalier “I don’t know how anyone could fail to love this book. It is a marvel: a great work of imaginative recreation and a great story. It is also a moral achievement to have transformed that young child from being a literary footnote into someone so tenderly alive that part of you wishes he had survived and Hamlet never been written” –Dominic Dromgoole, author of Hamlet, Globe to Globe “Evocative. . . . [ Hamnet ] is also life-affirming as it suggests ways art can transcend misfortune.” — National Review “Superb. . . . O’Farrell’s exquisitely wrought eighth novel proves once again what a very fine writer she is.” — Financial Times “Elliptical, dreamlike. . . . [ Hamnet ] confirms O’Farrell as an extraordinarily versatile writer, with a profound understanding of the most elemental human bonds—qualities also possessed by a certain former Latin tutor from Stratford.” — The Observer (UK) “A remarkable piece of work. . . . O’Farrell is one of the most surprisingly quiet radicals in fiction.” — The Scotsman (UK) “[A] portrayal of grief and pain. . . . O’Farrell describes these agonies with such power that Hamnet would resonate at any time.” — The Guardian “[O’Farrell is] a writer of rare emotional intelligence whose personal intimations of mortality bear rich fruit in this, her eighth novel.” — Evening Standard “This artfully paced novel is an anatomy of grief. . . . Just when the novel’s second part seems to be moving to a tragic conclusion, it mounts a stunning redemptive volte-face.” —The Times Literary Supplement “This striking, painfully lovely novel captures the very nature of grief.” — Booklist [starred review]
National Book Critics Circle Awards WINNER 2020
Women’s Prize for Fiction WINNER 2020
ALA Notable Book SELECTION 2021
Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction SHORTLIST 2021
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Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell review – tragic tale of the Latin tutor’s son
I n 1596, William Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son Hamnet died in Stratford-upon-Avon. Four or so years later, Shakespeare wrote the play considered by many to be his greatest work, giving its tragic hero a variation of his dead son’s name. Almost four centuries later still, Maggie O’Farrell was studying Hamlet at school and learned of the boy Hamnet, whose life has been little more than a footnote in his father’s biography. The seed of curiosity planted 30 years ago has grown into her finest novel yet; a reimagining of Hamnet’s death and the long-lasting ripples it sent through his family.
But the title is slightly misleading. Though the novel opens with Hamnet, its central character and beating heart is the boy’s mother, whom O’Farrell calls Agnes. Names are significant in this book; when Agnes eventually sees the version of her son’s name on a London playbill, she feels he has been stolen from her a second time. Meanwhile, the most famous character in the novel goes unnamed; he is variously “her husband”, “the father”, “the Latin tutor”. He is allowed very little direct speech. This deliberate omission frees the narrative of all the freight of association that his name carries; even Stratford is rarely mentioned explicitly, with the author instead naming individual streets and houses to root her story in its location.
All this has the effect of focusing the attention on the everyday, domestic life of this family, who could be any family. Indeed, in their small local sphere it is Agnes who is the celebrity, known in the town for being unconventional, free-spirited, a gifted herbalist who trails rumours of other, stranger gifts. O’Farrell’s Agnes is a woman whose origins merge into a particularly English kind of folklore – “There used to be a story in these parts about a girl who lived at the edge of a forest” – harking back to a deep connection between humans and landscape, with echoes of tales such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight .
“There were creatures in there who resembled humans – wood-dwellers, they were called – who walked and talked, but had never set foot outside the forest, had lived all their lives in its leafish light, its encircling branches, its wet and tangled interior.”
Agnes herself is, in the eyes of her neighbours, a creature descended from myth; they regard her with a mixture of awe and wariness. When the young Latin tutor engaged to teach her half-brothers first spies her from the window of the schoolroom, striding out of the forest with a kestrel on her wrist, he thinks she is a boy. O’Farrell’s great skill throughout the book is to treat obviously “Shakespearean” themes, such as this kind of gender-blurring or the affinity between boy and girl twins, with subtlety, making them almost tangential when they occur in the playwright’s own life. Hamnet and his twin sister, Judith, have a trick they play on people: “to exchange places and clothes, leading people to believe that each was the other”.
This is not O’Farrell’s first foray into historical fiction – her 2006 novel The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox was set partly in the 1930s – but it is quite unlike anything she has written before. There is an elliptical, dreamlike quality to her prose in Hamnet that, though not obviously steeped in 16th-century language, is essential to creating a world that feels at once wholly tangible and somehow otherworldly, as if the membrane between the natural and supernatural was more porous then. The depth of her research is evident on every page. Anyone who has visited Shakespeare’s birthplace will recognise her descriptions of his former home, but O’Farrell plunges the reader into the vivid life of the house, with its smells of a glover’s workshop, the heat and bustle of a cookhouse, the physical effort of planting a garden or twisting out newly washed sheets.
At its heart, though, this is a book about grief, and the means by which people find their way through it. The scene in which Agnes washes and lays out the body of her dead son is devastating (he must be buried quickly, for fear the plague will spread – an aspect of the story that has gained accidental pertinence). There is great tenderness, too, in her reimagining of the relationship between Agnes and her husband, which endured such long absences. “It’s as if her mother needs London, and all that he does there, to rub off him before she can accept him back,” Judith observes.
Hamnet is evidence that there are always new stories to tell, even about the most well-known historical figures. It also confirms O’Farrell as an extraordinarily versatile writer, with a profound understanding of the most elemental human bonds – qualities also possessed by a certain former Latin tutor from Stratford.
- The Observer
- Maggie O'Farrell
- William Shakespeare
Maggie O’Farrell: ‘Having to bury a child must be unlike anything else’
Shakespeare in a Divided America by James Shapiro review – how the bard found his greatest stage
Alas, poor Hamnet: spotlight falls on Shakespeare’s tragic only son
Maggie O’Farrell: ‘As a child ill in bed for two years, I read all the time. That’s all I did’
Hail, Coriolanus! The greatness of Shakespeare's shape-shifting epic
I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death by Maggie O’Farrell – review
Maggie O’Farrell: 'I've revealed the secrets I’ve spent my life hiding'
I don’t care who wrote Shakespeare, says RSC artistic director
AI 'reveals Shakespeare and Fletcher’s different roles in Henry VIII'
by Maggie O'Farrell
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Written by people who wish to remain anonymous
Though William Shakespeare is arguably the greatest writer in history, little is known of his personal life, as it is not well-documented. Apart from the names of his wife, the first daughter, and the twins, the aspects of their lives have barely been dramatized in literary works. In this novel, O’Farrell delves into their lives by introducing characters quite similar to them including the death of Hamnet. While the story leads to his death, it focuses largely on Agnes through his journey as a young woman and mother. It is a story about grief and motherhood through a loss that alters the dynamic of marriage and household.
Our main character, Agnes, is a popular figure in the town where she is known as a free-spirited herbalist with healing gifts. The husband’s name is never mentioned but his absence is felt in the home akin to the real Shakespeare. Thereby, the narrative explores the consequences of his creative endeavors on the marriage and the family. Since the novel is named after the twin son who died at a young age, it showcases how grief impacts the parents. The father copes by turning his pain into the renowned magnum opus that sees the reversal of his circumstance in the play. The mother’s pain of losing the child is the crux of the story as it also charts the way her children contracted the bubonic plague.
This reimagining of history offers some sort of closure by empathizing with the pain of a mother through childbirth and loss. Ron Charles of The Washington Post said “A novel told with the urgency of a whispered prayer — or curse…through the alchemy of her own vision, she has created a moving story about the way loss viciously recalibrates a marriage... A richly drawn and intimate portrait of 16th-century English life set against the arrival of one devastating death.”
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Hamnet Questions and Answers
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Study Guide for Hamnet
Hamnet study guide contains a biography of Maggie O'Farrell, literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.
- About Hamnet
- Hamnet Summary
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clock This article was published more than 3 years ago
Maggie O’Farrell’s ‘Hamnet’ reimagines the life and death of Shakespeare’s only son
On Aug. 11, 1596, William Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, was buried. He was 11 years old.
Almost nothing more is known about the boy’s brief life. Four centuries later, his death is a crater on the dark side of the moon. How it impacted his twin sister and his parents is impossible to gauge. No letters or diaries — if there were any — survive. The world’s greatest poet did not immortalize his lost child in verse.
Instead, we have only a few tantalizing references in Shakespeare’s plays: the laments of grieving fathers, the recurrence of twins and, of course, a tragedy called “Hamlet.” But aside from the name — a variant of Hamnet — attempts to draw comparisons between that masterpiece and the author’s son are odorous. We’re stuck, as we usually are, projecting our own sympathetic sorrow on the calamities of others.
To this unfathomable well of grief now comes the brilliant Irish writer Maggie O’Farrell with a novel called “Hamnet” told with the urgency of a whispered prayer — or curse.
Unintimidated by the presence of the Bard’s canon or the paucity of the historical record, O’Farrell creates Shakespeare before the radiance of veneration obscured everyone around him. In this book, William is simply a clever young man — not even the central character — and O’Farrell makes no effort to lard her pages with intimations of his genius or cute allusions to his plays. Instead, through the alchemy of her own vision, she has created a moving story about the way loss viciously recalibrates a marriage.
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The novel opens in silence that foretells doom. “Where is everyone?” little Hamnet wonders. He wanders like a ghost through the empty house and the deserted yard, calling for his grandparents, his uncles, his aunt. “He has a tendency,” O’Farrell writes, “to slip the bounds of the real, tangible world around him and enter another place.” But he’s no spectral presence yet. His twin sister, Judith, has suddenly fallen ill, and Hamnet needs to find their mother. She’ll know what to do. She’s an herbal healer, equally revered and feared in the village. “Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicenter, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mother’s,” O’Farrell writes. “It will lie at her very core, for the rest of her life.”
Between the hours of this fateful day, the story jumps back years. We see William’s unhappy adolescence as the son of a cruel and disreputable glover. One day, while teaching Latin to bored children in a country schoolhouse, he spots a young woman gathering plants along the edge of the woods. History knows her as Anne Hathaway, but O’Farrell uses the name her father gave her in his will: Agnes. Neighbors whisper that she’s “the daughter of a dead forest witch . . . too wild for any man.”
That’s your cue, William!
Soon, he and Agnes are acting out “hot blood, hot thoughts, and hot deeds” — including the hottest sex scene ever set in an apple storeroom.
This is a richly drawn and intimate portrait of 16th-century English life set against the arrival of one devastating death. O’Farrell, always a master of timing and rhythm, uses these flashbacks of young love and early marriage to heighten the sense of dread that accumulates as Hamnet waits for his mother. None of the villagers know it yet, but bubonic plague has arrived in Warwickshire and is ravaging the Shakespeare twins, overwhelming their little bodies with bacteria. That lit fuse races through the novel toward a disaster that history has already recorded but O’Farrell renders unbearably suspenseful.
Dead center in the novel, the author momentarily arrests the story of the Shakespeare family and transports us to the Mediterranean Sea. Here, in a chapter just a dozen pages long, we get a gripping lesson in 16th-century epidemiology. Then as now, commerce and travel are the engines of disease. A glassmaker in Venice, a monkey in Alexandria, a cabin boy from the Isle of Man — they all play small but consequential roles in the intricate chain of transmission as infected fleas jump from body to body, sowing illness across Europe. It’s a fascinating and horrific demonstration of the same forces now driving a different pandemic more than 400 years later. We may have better medical technology, but our frantic missteps sound like echoes of the Renaissance. They had their physicians prescribing onion and dried toad; we have our president nattering on about light and bleach.
But O’Farrell isn’t merely delaying the inevitable tragedy at the heart of her story; she’s creating the context to help us feel its full impact on Hamnet’s parents. Agnes is a skillful woman married to a restless man whose talents are more imaginative than practical. Constrained by the demands of motherhood and the limited opportunities of the time, she must exercise her influence indirectly and stealthily. The moves she makes to keep her children healthy and her spouse happy represent the hidden sacrifices that countless women have made, without thanks or credit, to support their husbands’ ambitions.
A marriage based on secrecy is threatened in Maggie O’Farrell’s ‘This Must Be the Place’
That delicate negotiation grows far more perilous when the couple endures the death of a child. No two spouses respond to such a loss in harmony, and O’Farrell is at her most sensitive here, detailing the unspeakable anguish that strips Agnes of her confidence and propels William into the imaginary world of his comedies and tragedies.
The dark months and years of mourning that fall over the Shakespeare family would seem a slough of despair after the frantic efforts to save Hamnet’s life, but in O’Farrell’s telling, grieving is a harrowing journey all its own. The novel’s final scene offers a miraculous transformation — no, not a “Winter’s Tale” resurrection — but the revelation that love can sometimes spark.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com .
By Maggie O’Farrell
Knopf. 305 pp. $26.95
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Reading guide for Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell
Summary | Excerpt | Reading Guide | Discuss | Reviews | Beyond the Book | Read-Alikes | Genres & Themes | Author Bio
by Maggie O'Farrell
- Historical Fiction
- UK (Britain) & Ireland
- 17th Century or Earlier
- Dealing with Loss
- Top 20 Best Books of 2020
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- Reading Guide
Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
- What did you know about the origins of Hamlet , and about the history of William Shakespeare's life and family, before reading this novel? How did the novel change your interpretation of the play?
- How do Agnes's special gifts affect her reputation throughout the town and her connection to her husband? Consider especially the way she feels the space between a person's index finger and thumb, where "a person's ability, their reach, their essence can be gleaned," and how she uses this part of the body to connect with different people in the novel (49).
- Describe the nature of Agnes's love for her husband, and his for her. What draws them to each other, despite their different backgrounds?
- What makes Susanna's birth different from that of the twins? How does this manifest itself in each of the children's relationships with their mother?
- Throughout the book, Susanna expresses a frustration with the rumors about her mother and her strange ways, which is exacerbated after Hamnet's death. Why do you think this daughter still takes up her mother's work in the garden, caring for the house, and teaching of Judith, in spite of these feelings? What do you expect her prospects of marriage are, as she reflects on them at the end of the novel?
- Discuss the lineage of mothers within the two families in the novel vis-à-vis the expectations of women at the time. How do Mary, Joan, and Agnes differ in their approach to women's work in the world and rearing children, especially their daughters? How do Agnes's insights, especially her vision of two children at the foot of her deathbed, affect her decisions as a mother? Consider her thought during the birth of the twins, when she fears one of her children will die: "She will place herself between them and the door leading out, and she will stand there, teeth bared, blocking the way" (202).
- The fathers in the book—John, Hamnet's father, and King Hamlet—all create a physical and/or emotional distance between themselves and their families. How does this affect their children and lineage overall? Consider the ultimate future of the Shakespeare line (in a bodily sense and otherwise) after Hamnet's death. How did John's actions ultimately impact how his own son would be remembered?
- The plague is an insidious, but somewhat familiar, presence for the inhabitants of England during the time of the novel. How is its arrival marked and felt by the families we follow? What signs of infection are visible in the body and in how people behave? Were these notions familiar to you at all in the wake of the conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic, or other periods of large-scale disease you experienced in your lifetime or that occurred at other points in history?
- Hamnet's death comes as a shock to all in his family, but our insight into the twins' last moments together reflects a kind of knowing that not even Agnes is able to access. How do their similarities affect the family's ability to grieve and heal? How does Hamnet live on as "Agnes watches the child drop from her younger daughter, as a cloak from a shoulder" but still looks for her son's face in Judith, as he might have aged into it (279)?
- Agnes's husband says of her that it is a joy and a curse to be married to "'Someone who knows everything about you, before you even know it yourself. Someone who can just look at you and divine your deepest secrets, just with a glance. Someone who can tell what you are about to say—and what you might not—before you say it'" (268). Can you relate to this feeling at all, regarding your spouse, other relatives, friends, or coworkers? What does it feel like when a secret part of you is laid bare to another without your knowing, and how does that manifest itself in pursuits such as writing and art? Did reading this book, or any others you've read in the past, make you feel like the author knew something about you?
- Agnes is very sensitive to her environment, including when she moves between different homes. What information do the three houses, indoor and outdoor, that she inhabits tell her about what will happen there? How do the energetics of the spaces, and the people who live there with her, become characters in and of themselves?
- Why do you think William Shakespeare goes unnamed in the novel? From how he is described—as a Latin tutor, with a diminutive stature, et cetera—would you have recognized him as the great playwright without knowing this was his family's story?
- Discuss the significance of names in the novel overall, including the interchangeable spelling of "Hamnet" and "Hamlet." Who is afforded their own name, and who is known exclusively by their relation to others?
- What are the consequences of Agnes's encouraging her husband to go to London? Do you think she still regrets the decision at the end of the book as she is watching Hamlet onstage?
- Describe Agnes's trip to London and her time at the playhouse. What does she learn about her husband's life there from her attempts to find him? What does she discover about his pursuits when she sees him onstage? Do you think she forgives him in the end upon witnessing his homage to his son?
- Based on the portrayal of the play in this novel, how are Hamnet and his father, and Hamlet (the character) and his father related to one another? Is the correlation one-to-one (son/son, father/father), or is there a crossing among them?
- Shakespeare's plays are known for their supernatural elements and figures. What might be considered supernatural about the events of the novel? Who are the conduits for these mysterious forces and messages among the living and the dead?
- What roles do the written word, the spoken word, and words that are neither written nor spoken play in how the characters know one another and how we know them? How are various kinds of literacy—whether it's reading letters on a page, reading gestures on a stage, reading plants in a garden, or reading souls in bodies—valued or not valued in the society of the novel? Are those values similar or different from those of our current society?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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46 pages • 1 hour read
A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.
- Historical Note-Chapter 6
- Chapters 7-12
- Chapters 13-17
- Chapter 18-Author’s Note
- Symbols & Motifs
- Important Quotes
- Essay Topics
- Discussion Questions
Agnes, Hamnet’s mother, is at the center of O’Farrell’s narrative , appearing in every chapter except for the 11th one, which explains the plague’s trajectory. While Shakespeare’s wife was conventionally known as Anne Hathaway, O’Farrell used the name Agnes, which was written in Hathaway’s father’s will. O’Farrell decided to make Joan Hathaway Agnes’ stepmother so that she could give her a more unusual maternal influence in Rowan, a fairy-like woman who grew up in the forest. The otherworldly quality that Agnes has inherited from her mother is evident, as she goes around with a kestrel, a fierce and stealthy bird of prey on her shoulder. She gives this bird up on her marriage to the Latin tutor, as she exchanges a rural existence for a more urban one.
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British literature, elizabethan era, european history, goodreads reading challenge, health & medicine, historical fiction, mortality & death, order & chaos.
Royal Shakespeare Company and Neal Street Productions
In association with Hera Pictures
by Maggie O’Farrell
Adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti
Our hotly anticipated production of Hamnet is now playing at London’s Garrick Theatre until 17 February.
2 hrs 30 mins (including a 20 mins interval)
- About the play
Cast and creatives
Production photos, behind the scenes.
9 November, 2:30PM
Garrick Theatre London
'Elegant and beguiling' Evening Standard
'Pure theatre gold' Mail on Sunday
‘The evening soars and sears’ Daily Telegraph
'She’s like no one I’ve ever met... She’s like fire and water all at once.'
Experience the Royal Shakespeare Company’s hotly production of Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, now playing at London’s Garrick Theatre following a sell-out run in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Warwickshire, 1582. Agnes Hathaway, a natural healer, meets the Latin tutor, William Shakespeare. Drawn together by powerful but hidden impulses, they create a life together and make a family.
When the plague steals 11-year-old Hamnet from his loving parents, they must each confront their loss alone. And yet, out of the greatest suffering, something of extraordinary wonder is born.
Based on Maggie O’Farrell’s best-selling book and adapted by award-winning playwright Lolita Chakrabarti ( Life of Pi, Red Velvet, Hymn ), Hamnet pulls back a curtain on the story of the greatest writer in the English language and the woman who was the constant presence and purpose of his life.
Directed by Erica Whyman, with Set Design by Tom Piper, Lighting by Prema Mehta, Sound by Simon Baker, Music by Oğuz Kaplangi, Movement by Ayse Tashkiran, Fights by Kate Waters and Casting by Amy Ball CDG, Hamnet is a love letter to passion, birth, grief and the magic of nature.
Now playing at London’s Garrick Theatre for a limited season until 17 February 2024.
For more information about the themes and content of this play see our content advisory page.
Hamnet is supported by RSC Production Circle Members Peggy Czyzak-Dannenbaum, Susan Tomasky and Ronald J Ungvarsky, and Marcia Whitaker.
Hamnet is a recipient of the Edgerton Foundation New Play Award
New Work at the RSC is generously supported by Hawthornden Foundation and The Drue and H.J. Heinz II Charitable Trust.
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Full cast announced for Hamnet at the Garrick Theatre, London. Now booking to February 2024.
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How Grief’s Alchemy Turned “Hamnet” into “Hamlet”
Cover image from Hamnet , by Maggie O’Farrell
Over wine, my book club raved about the quiet spell Hamnet cast, the grace and tenderness of its language. We read aloud our favorite Maggie O’Farrell’s lines: “The fireplace, which is filled only with ashes, held in the fragile shape of the log they once were…” “Time runs only one way.” “Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns.” We marked Agnes’s reason for falling in love with William Shakespeare: “You had more hidden away inside you than anyone else she’d ever met.” Above all, we were grateful: Somehow O’Farrell evokes the most wrenching grief of all, a parent losing a child, in a way that takes you by the hand, keeps you from wanting to slam the book shut and find a comedy on Netflix.
Because we had just come through the worst of the pandemic, we were riveted when she traced the bubonic plague that killed Shakespeare’s son to a single flea, stowed away with an African monkey on a ship where it leaped from cats to rats and sailors and laid itself to rest in a box of Murano glass beads that was bound for Stratford, where the Shakespeares’ daughter would open it. She was the frail one you expected to die. We had held our breath as her eleven-year-old brother lay down next to her, desperate to save her, only to die in her stead. All this while the life of the household moved on, oblivious, the adults occupied with everyday chores. This is why we prize deathbed goodbyes, I suspect. First because we want that last chance to exchange love, but also because it is so much worse to be absent, busying ourselves with the mundane while someone we love is dying. In retrospect, these trivial preoccupations will seem grotesque. How can you return to routine with full ease, now that you know its sweet reassurance can coincide with tragedy?
We talked our way to the end of the novel, sympathizing with Will Shakespeare’s wife, furious at him for going off to write his plays while their son died and she grieved. What a relief, when she saw the play he had written—in the novel, it is Hamlet —and understood that her husband’s grief was as sharp as her own…
And there I tripped. It was all wrong. How could Shakespeare have cherished his young son and then written him up as a neurotic (our term) introvert paralyzed by conflicting emotions and a love for his mother that later scholars would see as lust? Hamlet may be Shakespeare’s greatest play, but its title character is far from heroic. He winds up dead in large part because his own melodramatic scheming has run amok— no!
O’Farrell avoids naming Shakespeare in her novel, calling him “the tutor” when Agnes (Anne Hathaway to us) falls in love with him. This lets us avoid all the pompous scholarly baggage and know him as a young man driven by his love of language and theater, his gifts of wit and knowledge. We fall in love along with Agnes, roll our eyes at his stumbles but root for them both. I could not fathom Hamlet as Agnes did, as a proof of loss so deep he could speak it no other way.
Granted, we would excuse any slip, gratified by O’Farrell’s coup. She changed the angle. You see someone differently when the fame is stripped away and you can peer into their home life, into the hearts of those who have chosen to love them. More than that, though, she showed us how extraordinary Agnes was, put her on public record, made us love her free and independent spirit, taught us about life and grief and love through her courage. Most of what matters in life begins, is made possible, at home, a fact western culture has tended to forget.
Still. Hamlet? I went home and opened my laptop, moved through links. “Aha!” I exclaimed, loud enough to wake both husband and dog. Shakespeare did not write Hamlet right after his son’s death, as the novel suggests. Instead, he wrote romps and romcoms: The Merry Wives of Windsor , Much Ado About Nothing , As You Like It— alongside Henry IV, Henry V , and Julius Caesar .
Besides, “writing a play about Hamlet, in or around 1600, may not have been Shakespeare’s own idea,” Stephen Greenblatt notes in The New York Review of Books. Not only had the story of the Danish prince already been staged in England, but that playwright was now dead, the plot was a crowd-pleaser, and a new version promised revenue for the company.
Triumphant, I emailed the book club. This made me feel much better. Illiterate about such things, I had assumed that Shakespeare invented Hamlet from whole cloth, and the idea that his first imaginative act after his son’s death would be that play had floored me.
After I hit send, though, I stared, unfocused, at the screen. How could a writer as accomplished and intelligent as Maggie O’Farrell have gotten something so wrong? Hamnet won righteous praise last year: the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Fiction Prize, a place on fifteen Best Books of 2020 lists. I searched further and found plenty of scholars connecting Hamnet’s death with Hamlet, the four-year delay notwithstanding.
He could have pushed aside the grief, I mused, distracting himself with wit’s swordplay until time dulled the pain bearable. And when his next plot presented itself, how could he not make the connection? Hamnet, Hamlet—a single letter of the alphabet is far too flimsy to keep us from our memories.
The luck is that, by 1600, Shakespeare was ready artistically as well as emotionally. After writing what Greenblatt describes as rather wooden monologues in Richard III, Shakespeare went inward, nailing the complexity of Richard II’s thoughts in lines that did not simply assert and contradict, playing at confession, but instead turned the character’s mind inside out with psychological subtlety. After Hamnet’s death came the reprieve of the comedies, but then, in 1599, Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar, letting most of the play linger on the suspended state between dreaming up a terrible deed and acting it out.
And then came Hamlet , offering him a character who could spend the entire play suspended, trapped by the workings of his own mind. Hamnet had been dead for four years, and Shakespeare had just received word that his father was close to death.
A fresh, hard loss wakes all the old grief you have put to sleep. But enough time had passed to make art possible, and he knew, now, how to go inward.
Hamlet freed its author’s “preference for things untidy, damaged, and unresolved over things neatly arranged, well made, and settled,” Greenblatt writes. The text showed us his pain and “his refusal of easy consolations.”
Sadness works on you. In art, that process is telescoped: Shakespeare skipped Hamlet’s entire childhood so we could watch him confront his father’s death as a young man. Hamnet brings the production of Hamlet forward four years so Agnes can take the measure of her husband’s unspoken grief. But O’Farrell is making the same connection Shakespeare made, when his still vivid grief infused another man’s story—and gave us one of the finest plays ever written.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here .
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Book summary of hamnet by maggie o’farrell.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, is a historical fiction novel that delves into the life and family of William Shakespeare, with a particular focus on his son, Hamnet, who tragically passed away at a young age. The narrative explores the intricate dynamics of family relationships, the profound experience of grief, and the creative journey, all within the context of the life of the renowned playwright, offering a distinctive perspective on this iconic figure in history.
The novel opens on a historical note : It is the late 16th century, and the story unfolds in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, England , in a fictional take upon the life of William Shakespeare . The novel is divided into two parts, I and II. Part I follows an intertwining timeline , one that alternates between 1596 (the present in which the events take place), following an eleven-year-old Hamnet, and fifteen years prior, following the story of Hamnet’s parents, eventually leading up to and merging with the present in Part II.
Agnes , Shakespeare’s wife, is portrayed as a strong and unconventional woman with a deep connection to nature and an unusual ability to foresee the future. The couple has three children: the younger twins, Hamnet and Judith , and a daughter named Susanna . The introductory note states that Hamnet passed away in the year 1596, aged only eleven . Approximately four years after this loss, his father composed his famous play Hamlet , a name that was interchangeable with “Hamnet” during the era.
The novel explores the emotional depths of Agnes and Shakespeare’s relationship as they grapple with the impending tragedy. As Hamnet’s condition worsens, Shakespeare is away working on his plays. Agnes must confront her own grief while trying to protect her family. The novel also delves into the creative process of writing and how Shakespeare’s experiences and emotions may have influenced his work, particularly his play Hamlet .
Born in North Ireland, Maggie O’Farrell grew up in Wales and Scotland. Some of her other well-known works include After You’d Gone (2000), The Hand That First Held Mine (2010), and The Marriage Portrait (2022)
Maggie O’Farrell’s storytelling and vivid characterization have earned Hamnet critical acclaim. Hamnet , published in the year 2020, won the Women’s Prize for Fiction , the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction , and was the Novel of the Year at the Dalkey Literary Awards.
Hamnet | Summary
Hamnet | chapter 1.
The first of these follows the young Hamnet, who finds himself in a warm dusty room in his grandfather’s empty house. Adjoining to this is another two-roomed apartment where he lives with his mother and sisters. Hamnet desperately searches for an adult , calling out for his grandparents, the maid, and others but in vain as nobody responds. It is revealed that his twin sister, Judith is unwell and that he has been looking for someone who would care for her and would know what to do in the situation.
Hamnet, after receiving no response to his calls, ultimately finds his grandfather, John Shakespeare , in the house. His “room is filled with gloom,” and John, who by profession is a disgraced glovemaker, is drunk and abusive toward the boy. Hamnet, in this encounter, remembers his father ( William Shakespeare, who is never named in the book, and is referred to as the “father” or the “tutor” ), who is “miles and hours and days away, in London,” and his warning to Hamnet to stay away from his grandfather when he “in one of his black humors.” Struck physically by John, Hamnet runs back to his house crying and bleeding to check on Judith’s condition. Judith, his twin, is hot with a fever and has bulbs on her neck and shoulder . As she asks for their mother, Hamnet runs out again to find a physician .
The narrative here cuts off from this drab setting to their mother, Agnes , who is far away from her children, at her leased piece of land at Hewlands. Agnes tends to her bees, as something has been amiss with them:
“a blackish stain [had] spread throughout the branches.”
The narrative continues, that in retrospect, had she left then and there, heeding this “nameless unease,” leaving the bees to their own devices without trying to understand this strangeness, she might have changed the course of things to come.
The tale shifts back to Hamnet’s course as he arrives at the doors of the physician’s house . An uncooperative woman answers, and enquiring if Judith has lumps on her body, she sends him home hurriedly, promising to send the doctor when he arrives.
On his way back, Hamnet passes his grandparents, John and Mary , and his older sister Susann a. This section sheds a brief introduction to each of these characters. John, the disgraced glove-maker strives to win back the appreciation and status he once enjoyed in society, his wife Mary, whom old friends now avoid due to her husband’s soiled reputation, and Susanna, who is observant of these social tensions, which leave her with “black scorch marks.” Meanwhile, Judith lies in her bed, dreaming feverish dreams, thinking of her father, and wondering where her family is, and the maid flirts with the dairyman behind his stall. Agnes, in the Hewlands, finishes collecting her honey, coaxing her bees into their hive, and Hamnet’s father (in Stratford, London), who has woken up with a “terrible hunger,” on this particular day listens as a man talks on. Hamnet returns to his house, and calls out again, receiving an answer only silence, as nobody has been back home yet.
Hamnet | Chapter 2
The second chapter shifts back in the timeline to fifteen years before the previous timeline. In Hewlands, a tutor , who is never explicitly named as William Shakespeare in the book, imparts Latin lessons. This tutor is the eldest among six siblings and, during his childhood, bore the brunt of his father’s frequent outbursts. His teaching duty arises from his father, John, getting entangled in some undisclosed issue related to the wool trade. While the tutor is not privy to all the specifics, he is aware that there is something clandestine about the affair. The debt owed had been to a yeoman, a landowner who specialized in sheep farming. The yeoman has since passed away, but his widow and eldest son are aware of the outstanding debt. Consequently, an agreement is reached for the tutor to settle his father’s debt by tutoring the numerous children left behind by the deceased sheep farmer.
During one of his lessons, the tutor observes a woman taming a hawk. Intrigued, he sets out to find her, learning disbelievingly that she is the eldest daughter of the household, notorious for her peculiarity and unaccompanied wanderings through roads and forests collecting plants. When he locates her, he inquires about her bird, and she reveals that it is a kestrel, a type of falcon, given to her by a priest. They engage in playful banter and flirtation, and she introduces herself as Agnes (initially, he mishears her name as Anne, which reminds him of his sister who passed away almost two years ago) before sharing a kiss.
The narrative tells Agnes’s story in the form of a local myth: a circulated tale about a girl named Agnes who was born on the outskirts of the woods and grew up with her younger brother, Bartholomew. Their mother, “who might have been a wood-dweller,” had wed a farmer. In due course, both Agnes and then Bartholomew were born. The mother, an enigmatic character to other villagers, showered her children with affection. Regrettably, the third pregnancy ended tragically with a stillborn child, and the mother died during childbirth. Agnes, only a child:
“did not sob, she did not weep; she said not a word.”
Following this sorrowful event, a neighbor suggested that an unmarried Joan lend a hand at the farmer’s homestead to assist with raising the children and tending to the farm. Joan grumbled about the challenging little girl and gradually appeared more disheveled, marked by warts and blemishes. Nonetheless, over time, Joan and the farmer married and she bore him six children.
As time passed, Joan clamped down upon Agnes’s unusual behavior, however, rumors continued to circulate about the girl possessing extraordinary abilities. As she grew older, it was said that she harnessed these powers to aid those in need, earning a reputation for her benevolence.
During her upbringing, Agnes harbors a deep dislike for Joan, who treats her unkindly . Joan, having her children, clearly favors them over Agnes. The young girl yearns for her other mother and often shares stories about her with Bartholomew. She vividly remembers the day when she discovered her mother lifeless in a wooden box, cradling the stillborn child in her arms. Agnes’s father had extracted a promise from her to never utter a word about the peculiar priest who had appeared, wielding incense and speaking unfamiliar incantations.
As Agnes matures, she develops a fascination with hands and realizes that she possesses a unique talent for discerning people’s destinies by studying the muscles in their hands. This ability emerges during her childhood, but her father and Joan insist that she conceal this peculiar skill. Consequently, Agnes grows up feeling misplaced and unwanted, burdened by her unusual gift, and yearning to escape her family.
Hamnet | Chapter 3
In the year 1596, Hamnet returns to his home to discover that Judith’s condition has worsened even further than when he had left her to go to the physician’s. He takes a seat by her bedside, overwhelmed by sadness, and eventually cries himself to sleep.
Susanna, nearly fourteen years of age, arrives home half an hour later and hears a knock on their window. Susanna recognizes that it is likely someone seeking Agnes due to her unique abilities and is irritated and sends the visitor away. Their father, who typically visits home only a few times a year, stays for a week or sometimes even longer during these visits. Susanna longs for his presence and secretly prays that the plague reaches London, leading to the closure of the playhouses and allowing him to stay home for an extended period. Mary returns soon after, and together with Susanna, they begin to prepare dinner, the noises waking Hamnet upstairs with a start.
Hamnet | Chapter 4
On his encounter with Agnes, the tutor’s enthusiasm for teaching Latin has kindled:
“There is suddenly nothing so excellent as teaching Latin.”
One day, his sister Eliza discovers him in an attic where mysterious wool bales are hidden, their purpose unclear. Eliza can read her brother’s writings because he has taught her and their sister Anne, and notices several curls of paper on the attic floor and ink stains on her brother’s hands.
Eliza reveals that she has heard rumors about her brother spending time with Agnes , which he confirms. She expresses her concerns about the unsettling stories that circulate regarding Agnes’s peculiar nature. There are whispers that Agnes may have caused the strange marks and sores on her stepmother, Joan. However, her brother remains unfazed by these rumors and becomes defensive. Recognizing the need to approach the topic gently, Eliza refrains from pressing him for more details.
At the Hewlands, Agnes and the tutor consummate their romance among bushels of apples. They approach Joan to discuss their relationship, explaining that they had undergone a handfasting ceremony, a form of unofficial marriage ritual. However, Joan dismisses their claims , citing the tutor’s youth, financial instability, and the burden of his father’s debts.
However, Joan eventually notices that one of her daughters has not been washing her “monthly cloths,” indicating a missed period. She examines them and inspects their stomachs, leading her to the startling revelation that Agnes is pregnant . Joan demands to know the identity of the father, escalating the situation into a physical confrontation until Bartholomew and his brothers intervene to separate them. It is Bartholomew who deduces that the Latin tutor must be the father. In an attempt to oust Agnes, Joan threatens to kick her out , but Bartholomew reminds her that their father had bequeathed him the house, asserting his authority. Nevertheless, Agnes decides to leave of her own accord .
Shortly thereafter, Eliza encounters her brother at the market and urgently insists that he return home. There, he finds Agnes, unmistakably pregnant and sitting with their parents. When he admits to being the father, his mother erupts in anger. Expecting a severe punishment from his father, John surprisingly perceives an opportunity and expresses satisfaction. After ensuring that his son has not fathered any more children recklessly, John goes to the Hewlands, seeking negotiations. Bartholomew, Joan, and John engage in discussions, ultimately sealing the marriage agreement.
Hamnet | Chapter 5
Hamnet awakens and quickly descends the stairs. Agnes, with a distressed and pale demeanor, has been searching for him and Judith. Without saying a word, he gestures for her to head upstairs, and Agnes, alarmed by the bruises on his face, bounds up the steps, two at a time.
Hamnet | Chapter 6
Eliza proposes to Agnes that she would like to craft her wedding crown, a suggestion that pleases Agnes greatly. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of plants, Agnes and Eliza venture out together to gather flowers for the crown. During this process, Agnes touches Eliza’s hands and senses the loss of two sisters who preceded her. They reminisce about the first child, also named Eliza. Agnes reassures her that both Eliza and Anne watch over them and hold only good wishes for their family. Ultimately, the wedding crown they create consists of ferns, larch, and Michaelmas daisies.
On the day of the wedding, Mary is busy preparing the meal, while Edmond, Gilbert, and Richard—Shakespeare’s three younger brothers—playfully engage with one another. During the ceremony itself, Joan, along with her three daughters— Joanie , Caterina , and Margaret —walk together on their way to the church.
Upon arriving at the church, the priest, the same one who bestowed the falcon upon Agnes, begins his sermon. Agnes’s thoughts drift to her mother, yearning for some sign of her presence. As the priest concludes his words and the groom steps forward, a cluster of rowan berries descends from a tree into Agnes’s hands. Bartholomew discreetly murmurs a warning into the groom’s ear, emphasizing the importance of taking excellent care of her, and no harm shall befall him, just before the exchange of rings.
Hamnet | Chapter 7
Hamnet anxiously recounts Judith’s condition to Agnes. He describes how Judith’s throat had first begun to ache, and she had suddenly felt fatigued, raising concerns about whether she had contracted “the pestilence.” Agnes gazes upon her daughter’s boils, with a sense of dread, realizing that these are the symptoms of the plague.
Filled with anxiety, Agnes rushes to prepare a healing concoction, reflecting on the number of individuals who had previously recuperated. As she shares the diagnosis with Mary, Agnes can discern that Mary’s thoughts inevitably turn to Anne, who tragically succumbed to the pestilence at the tender age of eight.
Hamnet | Chapter 8
After midnight on their wedding night, Agnes explores her new residence, an apartment built into the side of John and Mary’s more spacious house, which originally served as storage. The lingering scent of wool suggests that the negotiation involving Bartholomew might have played a role in this arrangement. As Agnes sifts through her belongings, her newlywed husband enters the room. She shares with him a Latin book about plants that once belonged to her mother, a cherished possession she cannot read herself. Agnes requests that he read it to her, and he agrees.
Agnes sends her kestrel to live with the priest who initially gifted it to her, although she can still visit it. In her new home, Agnes takes on household tasks. On a particular day, Edmond becomes restless over a meal, prompting Agnes to observe John’s reaction, sensing that he is on the brink of striking the toddler. Her husband quickly intervenes, stepping between them. In that moment, Agnes comprehends why her husband behaves so differently in their home compared to when they are alone.
Hamnet | Chapter 9
In 1596, a man wearing a peculiar beaked mask arrives at the door. Hamnet is shocked and afraid, but Agnes reassures him, explaining that it is the physician. However, the doctor declines to enter the house, insisting that no one should leave until the pestilence has abated. He presents Agnes with a dried toad as a remedy for Judith, but upon his departure, Agnes merely mutters her contempt, deeming him a “fool.” She carefully sets the toad aside.
Hamnet | Chapter 10
In the spring of 1583, Agnes has a dream in which her mother seems to impart a cryptic message:
“The branches of the forest are so dense you cannot feel the rain.”
Waking early, she scribbles the message from her dream and ventures into the woods near Hewlands as she goes into labor.
At their home, Agnes’s husband realizes her absence. He discovers a note on his desk. Concerned, the entire family embarks on a frantic search for Agnes. Eventually, the husband finds Bartholomew, who grasps the significance of the note. Together, they locate Agnes in the woods, where she has already given birth.
Hamnet | Chapter 11
The arrival of the pestilence in Warwickshire, England, during the summer of 1596, thereby causing Judith’s sickness hinges on the interconnected events involving two individuals who cross paths several months before. The first individual is a skilled glassmaker on the island of Murano in Venice, who, several months prior, suffered a severe burn on his hand while crafting millefiori. This injury led to the amputation of two of his fingers. Subsequently, another worker packs these glass beads in rags.
Meanwhile, in Alexandria, a young cabin boy disembarks from a ship, receiving orders to go ashore and gather necessary provisions for his overworked shipmates. Staggering in the direction of a tavern, the cabin boy encounters a man with a monkey on a golden chain, and pauses on his way – he had never seen a monkey before. Animal and boy shake hands, and the monkey climbs up the boy’s arm and shoulders, briefly perching in his hair.
The endearing moment lasts a short time, and the angry stall-keeper, on being refused money for his show, leaves after a scuffle. However, the monkey leaves behind three fleas on the boy’s person after scratching his neck. One of these fleas falls onto the ground and is crushed. The second stays in his hair, until it makes its way onto the shoulder of an innkeeper at a local tavern. The third flea remains in the folds of red cloth around the boy’s neck, until it finds its way eventually onto one of the ship’s cats. The cat falls ill and dies resting on a midshipman’s hammock, leaving behind four or five fleas, born of the one that came from the monkey.
The midshipman falls ill soon, foaming at his mouth and with a “tumour” in his neck. As more cats on the ship die, and are thrown aboard, the rats multiply, and other crew members succumb to illness.
Upon reaching Constantinople, the ship employs new sailors to replace the deceased ones. Meanwhile, in Venice, the cabin boy is assigned to replace the deceased ship’s cats. At the Venice dock, the master glassmaker loads boxes of cargo, including the glass beads, onto the ship. When one of the boxes nearly topples over, the cabin boy prevents it from falling, unknowingly allowing a flea to jump onto the glassmaker’s sleeve. Consequently, numerous glassworkers fall ill due to the flea’s bite.
As the ship sails to London, only five individuals remain on board: the captain, three sailors, and the cabin boy, along with a single surviving cat. A month later, the boxes containing the glass beads are distributed, one of which is transported to Warwickshire on horseback. During the journey, hungry fleas leap from the horse to a man and subsequently to various people he encounters along the way. By the time they reached Stratford, these fleas had laid eggs everywhere.
In Stratford, a seamstress eagerly awaits the arrival of a specific box of Venetian beads, intended for a gown she is in the process of crafting. When the box finally arrives, a curious neighbor’s child, named Judith, is allowed by the seamstress to unpack it.
Hamnet | Chapter 12
During the summer following Susanna’s birth, Agnes becomes aware of two significant things: the first is that she is pregnant again and senses that something is amiss, though it is an intangible feeling, akin to a detectable odor. Simultaneously, she notices her husband’s despondency and dissatisfaction. He is currently engaged in tutoring and serving as his father’s errand boy, a role that leaves him unfulfilled.
Susanna takes it upon herself to approach Bartholomew and asks for his assistance in persuading John to send his son to London for business purposes. She is aware that John is unlikely to agree unless he believes it to be his idea, and Bartholomew readily agrees to help. Agnes understands that she will miss her husband, but she views this as the only way to improve his situation. The plan is for him to establish himself in London, after which Agnes and Susanna will join him there. Agnes confides in Bartholomew about her second pregnancy but has no intention of sharing the news with anyone else until the arrangement for their move to London is finalized.
Hamnet | Chapter 13
Judith remains in extremely poor health. Eliza sends a letter to her brother in London, urgently imploring him to return home to Judith’s condition.
Later, Hamnet wakes up feeling unwell himself, and the thought of his sister’s impending death weighs heavily on his mind. Recalling a playful game they used to enjoy, where they pretended to be each other to fool others, Hamnet decides to play this game one last time. He plans to deceive death itself by taking his sister’s place and sacrificing himself so that she may have a chance to live. With determination, he goes to sleep beside her, resolved to make this sacrifice.
Susanna, who is now nearly two years old, plays on the floor while a heated argument unfolds among the adults. Mary strongly opposes her son’s decision to go to London, wishing fervently that he would stay with her and that his marriage to the unconventional and enigmatic Agnes had never happened. However, he remains resolute, believing he can contribute to expanding John’s glove business in the city. Despite Mary’s reservations, the decision regarding his move to London is made final.
Weeks later, as her husband prepares to depart, Agnes bids him farewell. He is now aware of her pregnancy, and they share a light-hearted moment, joking about Agnes’s intuition that they would have two children. Agnes is perplexed that she still cannot determine the baby’s gender but promises to write to him before the baby arrives so he can be there. The plan is for him to establish himself in London first, and then they will join him there .
Hamnet | Chapter 14
Eliza’s letter embarks on its journey, passing through various hands—from a delivery boy to an innkeeper, then to a grain merchant, and finally by cart—until it reaches a guildhall in Kent, where it is handed to its intended recipient. This recipient, now working as an actor, is deeply distressed by the news in the letter . Urgently, a young boy is sent to fetch a horse, to make arrangements for Judith’s father to reach back home immediately.
Hamnet | Chapter 15
Agnes, astonishingly large before her second pregnancy, approaches her due date and receives a message from her husband, informing her that he has secured a contract to make gloves for a troupe of actors at a theater. Unexpectedly, she goes into labor without warning , catching her off guard. With no time to write to her husband and ask him to return, she contemplates leaving to give birth elsewhere but is prevented from doing so by Gilbert, her brother-in-law.
During labor, Agnes is plagued by a sense of foreboding , fearing that either she or the baby will fail to survive. Hamnet, the firstborn, arrives, but her ordeal is not over. She realizes she is giving birth once more , and a second baby emerges , small, silent, and motionless. While the midwife and Mary believe the second baby to be stillborn, Agnes manages to coax the tiny gray infant back to life. Hamnet is the stronger of the two, while Judith seems closer to death, with no certainty whatsoever of her survival.
When her husband finally returns home, for a moment he is unable to recognize his wife. Agnes has grown thin and worn with the exhaustion of taking care of the newly-born twins. Looking at his newborn children, the father realizes the bond the two have shared, even in the womb, even before birth.
Agnes, on the other hand, through her fatigue, senses her husband’s newfound vitality . She knows that he has found what it was he had been searching for as he shares his plans to save money to purchase a home for their family in London. They hold onto the belief that they will reunite in London soon. However, their baby girl, Judith, remains frail and ailing. Agnes suggests delaying the shift until the baby grows stronger. What was initially intended as a few months’ delay stretches into two years, and moving to London is becoming increasingly unlikely . During this time, her husband transitions away from selling gloves and instead invests the money he saved in land elsewhere to generate an earning.
Hamnet | Chapter 16
Agnes checks on her twins, finding Judith in a healthy state, and finds Hamnet gravely ill, curled up close to his sister, and for a moment she has trouble discerning the twins from each other . This perplexes her until one of the two calls out to her, and she realizes it is Judith who has woken from sleep. Meanwhile, their father is racing on horseback, desperately trying to return home as quickly as possible.
Agnes exhausts all remedies to save Hamnet, including the use of dried toad, but none prove effective. Hamnet’s body convulses violently, his fever escalating, and then lies motionless before his family in his mother’s arms .
Hamnet | PART II
Preparations are underway for Hamnet’s body to be laid out. The women around Agnes remind her of the town’s decree that those who have succumbed to the pestilence must be buried swiftly, typically within a day. Agnes carefully takes a lock of Hamnet’s hair, and with Mary’s assistance, they wrap his lifeless form in a sheet, stitching it together to create a shroud. Judith, tearful and burdened with guilt, comes down to watch, believing that Hamnet’s death is her fault. Agnes consoles her, assuring her that it is not.
As Agnes’s husband finally arrives , he is relieved to see that Judith is in good health. However, his joy quickly turns to sorrow as he notices the shroud, realizing that Hamnet is no longer with them. Agnes confirms the news of Hamnet’s passing. They carry Hamnet for burial, proceeding down Henley Street until they reach his final resting place.
Back home, Hamnet’s father finds the atmosphere unbearable. He constantly sees reminders of his deceased son and yearns for his former life in London. He worries that everything he has worked for will be jeopardized if he remains in their current circumstances for too long. He informs Agnes that he must leave, leaving her baffled and deeply upset. Despite her distress, he departs nonetheless .
For weeks, Agnes is consumed by grief over her son’s loss , rendering her unable to summon the motivation to attend to household chores like cleaning or cooking. Time flows and months pass, and Agnes keeps a lock of Hamnet’s hair preserved in a jar above the hearth. As autumn approaches, and it is time to gather rosehips, Judith and Susanna have to persuade and coax Agnes to join them.
Meanwhile, in London, Agnes’s husband finds success in his new comedy , one that Queen Elizabeth enjoyed. He also communicates that he will be unable to return home until after the winter season. This prompts Judith to question her sister about whether her resemblance to Hamnet is why their father stays away. Susanna reassures her, explaining that people who know them well can discern the differences between the two siblings.
Agnes, consumed by her grief, neglects her once-thriving herb garden, allowing the plants to wither away. Susanna takes charge, instructing Judith to water the small patch of medicinal herbs. Judith also takes on the responsibility of answering the door and occasionally asks Agnes if she would like to help. For a long time, Agnes refuses, but when one woman persistently visits their door for the third time, Agnes finally relents and offers her assistance with her ailments.
In London, Agnes’s husband copes with his grief, he writes historical plays which are successes, still unable to believe that his son has passed. As the weather turns cooler, he knows he should return home, but he fears that if he succumbs to his grief, he may never recover. Instead, he remains in London, seeking refuge from the pain that haunts him .
It is almost a year after their son’s death, he finally returns home , prompting a family dinner with his brothers and sister to celebrate his homecoming. He brings an expensive bracelet for Agnes, but she senses that something is amiss – she suspects he has been involved with other women.
That night, he offers a vague apology for everything and suggests buying a house in Stratford if London is not suitable for Agnes and their daughters. Eventually, he approaches Bartholomew for assistance in acquiring a house, and Bartholomew agrees. Bartholomew takes Agnes to see a house, the largest in the town, declaring it as their new home. Along the way, Agnes advises Bartholomew on handling his dispute with Joan, emphasizing that she will want what he pretends to reject. Agnes assures him that soon Joan will demand that he proceed with his plans.
The family settles into their spacious new home , attracting significant gossip within the town. Their father continues to visit only two or three times a year, with longer stays during plague seasons when the playhouses are closed. Meanwhile, their daughters grow up, with Judith inheriting her mother’s botanical knowledge, while Susanna manages the household and assists her father with financial matters, including income, rent, and investments. She attempts to teach Judith to read, but it proves challenging.
Judith learns of a spectral sighting of Hamnet , witnessed running from their old apartment to their grandparents’ house one night. This prompts Judith to venture out at night in an attempt to see her brother. One night, she finally senses Hamnet’s presence and falls asleep in front of her grandparents’ house .
Joan arrives at the grand house in search of Agnes, but Agnes remains cautious, knowing that Joan tends to revel in her perpetual dissatisfaction and misery. Joan eagerly shares news about Agnes’s husband’s latest play, even showing her the playbill. To Agnes’s dismay, the play is a tragedy named after their son, Hamnet, or Hamlet , as the two names were used interchangeably during that time.
Devastated by this revelation, Agnes grapples with her emotions. After some contemplation, she decides to journey to London with Bartholomew to find her husband and witness the play for herself . In London, they locate the humble dwelling where her husband lives, a simple room with few belongings. Agnes discovers an unfinished letter addressed to her on his desk, realizing that he had been trying to convey information about this play but struggled to find the words.
Following a neighbor’s guidance, Agnes and Bartholomew make their way to the theater just before a production of Hamlet is set to commence. Initially confused, Agnes realizes that the play has no connection to Hamnet or anything familiar. However, her interest is piqued when the ghost finally appears. What shocks her even more is when a fair-haired boy who bears a striking resemblance to Hamnet takes on the role of “Hamlet.” It dawns on her that her husband has written a play in which the father dies instead of the child , allowing “Hamlet” to live. In this act, Agnes recognizes that her husband, by portraying the ghost, has exchanged places with his son. He has taken the son’s death upon himself, giving the boy a second chance at life .
The novel concludes with the ghost exiting his final scene, leaving behind the words, as if directly addressed to her:
Hamnet Book Club Questions
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