"A thrilling departure: a short, piercing, deeply moving novel about the death of Shakespeare's 11 year old son Hamnet--a name interchangeable with Hamlet in 15th century Britain--and the years leading up to the production of his great play. England, 1580. A young Latin tutor--penniless, bullied by a violent father--falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman--a wild creature who walks her family's estate with a falcon on her shoulder and is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer. Agnes understands plants and potions better than she does people, but once she settles with her husband on Henley Street in Stratford she becomes a fiercely protective mother and a steadfast, centrifugal force in the life of her young husband, whose gifts as a writer are just beginning to awaken when his beloved young son succumbs to bubonic plague. A luminous portrait of a marriage, a shattering evocation of a family ravaged by grief and loss, and a hypnotic recreation of the story that inspired one of the greatest masterpieces of all time, Hamnet is mesmerizing, seductive, impossible to put down--a magnificent departure from one of our most gifted novelists"--
Anyone familiar with Shakespeare's sketchy biography probably knows that he had a son, Hamnet, who died in 1596 at the age of 11. And anyone who knows Shakespeare's works probably wondered about the similarity between his son's name and that of his best known tragic hero, Hamlet. O'Farrell attempts to connect the two.
The cause of Hamnet's death is unknown, but O'Farrell speculates that he may have caught the plague, which was rampant in London at the time and starting to reach rural areas. She begins her novel with the feverish boy frantically looking for his mother, grandmother, or any other adult who might come home and help his twin, Judith, who has suddenly fallen seriously ill. The story back tracks to the meeting and early life of Agnes (the novel's focal character) and her brother's much younger Latin tutor. (In case you wonder, Anne Hathaway has been referred to as Agnes in some early documents. It's possible that her name was pronounced in the French way, AHN-ye, which was transcribed as Anne.) Agnes's mother, a natural healer, died when she was young, but not without bestowing a good deal of her folk wisdom on her daughter, and Agnes, unhappily under the thumb of her stepmother Joan, believes that she receives messages from her. She has a reputation for being an odd woman: she spends her time in the woods, owns a trained falcon, is outspoken, and apparently has no interest in marriage. At 26, she falls in love with the tutor (whose name is never given; he is variously referred to as the tutor, the father, the playwright, etc.), who is only 18. When she becomes pregnant, their families and the neighbors speculate much as Shakespeare scholars and biographers have: Did he deliberately impregnate a woman of higher status, or did she deliberately since a younger man, perhaps because she was approaching spinsterhood? O'Farrell takes a third theory, that theirs was truly a love match, a "marriage of true minds." She follows their struggles to gain their families' approval and on through the early years of their marriage living under Mary and John Shakespeare's roof with their three young children. While their marriage strengthens and their understanding of one another grows, Agnes's husband's discontent grows as well. It is her love for this man that prompts her to encourage him to seek a better fortune in London. And this is where he is when first Judith and then Hamnet fall dangerously ill.
O'Farrell gives us a wonderful character in Agnes, a woman who is strong, intelligent, passionate, loyal, and fierce. While [Hamnet] is more her story than the playwright's, it is equally the story of a family and a portrait of grief. Grief is a hard thing to write, hard to put into words without spelling it out or falling into maudlin platitudes, both of which diminish the experience. O'Farrell has mastered the old maxim for new writers: Show, don't tell. I can't recall ever reading anything that made me feel so exactly, so overwhelmingly, the the weight of grief and the way it affects an entire family, especially Agnes, Hamnet's twin Judith, and his father. It's exquisitely done here.
Does O'Farrell address the similarity of the name Hamnet to Hamlet. Indeed she does, in a very unique way. I hope that you will read this amazingly beautiful book to discover just how.
The description of William Shakespeare’s early life, his marriage to Anne Hathaway, whom O’Farrell calls Agnes, the death of his son Hamnet from the plague and the subsequent impact of this tragedy on their marriage and his work comprise the plot of the novel. Will is never named and is referred to as ‘her husband’, ’the father’ or ‘ the latin tutor’. He also has very little to say for himself. This deliberate omission is most likely made to free the narrative from the weight of association that his name carries, but I found it quite contrived considering how much detail we are given about the setting, including the house interiors and streets of Stratford.
The novel begins with Hamnet but the central character is his mother Agnes who is unconventional, free spirited, a gifted herbalist and clairvoyant. It is the events between Hamnet’s parents’ meeting and his birth that provide a major part of the story. At her first meeting with Will she presses the flesh between his thumb and forefinger which reveals his incredible future to her but disappointingly very little subsequently emerges from this insight. There are some interesting descriptions of his former home and the life of the household. The story is narrated in a non-linear fashion with each chapter relating to a different time period. However I found the frequent back and forth an unnecessary stylistic approach that added to my overall disappointment.
I liked the plot - it is clearly fiction, and quite different from what I imagine might have been the case in real life, but it is plausible, consistent with the few
I was less thrilled with the writing style. The non-linear style of telling made the story disjointed for me. I also was a little irritated by the use of first names only, soon after characters have been introduced - the reader sometimes needs descriptors for the first few times - 'his father' rather than just 'John'. This can be done subtly, and the reader gets into the groove. This author had me flailing.
But a good read for anyone with even the most fleeting interest in Shakespeare.
Mostly this is a story about grief - about how two parents grieve for their dead son in very different ways, and how that grief pulls them apart and brings them together.
The novel dances around Shakespeare. His name is never used - he is referred to as "the tutor" or "Agnes's husband" or "Hamnet's father." He both looms over the novel and is entirely incidental to it, as he spends most of the book in London putting on plays, away from his family in Stratford.
This is an excellent work of historical fiction. O'Farrell paints the time period very vividly, focusing on daily life and women's work in the household, and yet still makes the characters feel very familiar and relatable.
The storytelling is very compelling. Even though you know from the beginning that Hamnet is going to die and Shakespeare is going to write a play with his name, you really want to know what happens next and it's hard to put the book down.
This is a lyrical tale primarily told from Agnes’ perspective. She is unusual for her time, a creature as much of the forest as of the town. She communes with bees, hunts with a kestrel, gathers herbs and medicinal flowers. She knows her own mind and, more significantly, the minds of others through a glance or a touch. From her first encounter with the young Latin tutor, she perceives worlds upon worlds within him, more than he himself yet dreams of. And so against the advice of others she will have him for her own. And life, as they say, develops.
O’Farrell writes with great assurance, comfortable with her subject and at ease with the movement back and forth in time from the immediate hours preceding Hamnet’s death to the earlier wooing of Agnes and William. She writes propulsively — you will be thrust forward ceaselessly as though the continuance of this story and yourself depends upon it. It really is a remarkable feat. And virtually impossible not to fall in love with.
So easy to recommend.
The book It is beautifully written. O’Farrell has a knack for establishing the ambiance of the era, and I felt transported back in time. I could almost feel the atmosphere of England in the late 16th century – the sights, smells, and sounds. The details are superb, particularly the intimate details of family life. It is a beautiful contemplation on motherhood, portraying deep love, small pleasures, joy, guilt, and grief. It suggests the role of art in healing emotional wounds.
The author explains her research, identifying fact from fiction, and most of it is fiction since little source material exists on the life of Hamnet. This is historical fiction “done right,” at least it is for me. It will make my list of favorites for the year.
So many of us have had our troubles and our losses over the past year or two that we would have to be turned into stone not to be moved by or identify with the protagonists of this book.
How do we
This is at heart what Hamnet spoke to me. The shades of grief between mother and father, twin and husband and wife is brilliantly explored and dissected and it leads us to the understanding that we all find our own way to get through. I thought the scenes where young Hamnet is prepared for his funeral and the funeral itself are some that will long stay with me and deserving alone of the plaudits O'Farrell received for the whole thing.
Possibly the world's finest play came from the premature end of a little boy, but the mother remembers the boy not the play.
She really captures the environment, atmosphere, people and their emotions superbly.
Can't recommend the book highly enough.
I listened to the audiobook which was narrated by Daisy
Hamnet and Judith were twins born to William Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway. Another potential source of confusion is that the wife's name is given as Agnes and Hathaway is never mentioned. Despite the title (whether the Canadian or British version) this book is really about Shakespeare's wife. In fact Shakespeare is never referred to by name.and he is rarely in the home in Stratford where the family lives Maggie O'Farrell has painted Agnes as a complex strong woman who manages her children and her business as a midwife and faith healer with little help from anyone else. Nevertheless when Judith and then Hamnet become ill with the Bubonic plague she is devastated. Shakespeare who is away from London with his troupe of actors doesn't get the message that Judith is ill for some time; by the time he arrives home in Stratford Judith has recovered but Hamnet is dead. Both parents are devastated by this loss but Shakespeare leaves Stratford and goes back to London where he writes Hamlet. This feels like a betrayal to Agnes but is it?
This book was awarded the Bailey Prize for Women's Literature for 2020 and I think it is a worthy recipient. It is not just a historical novel. It also explores the experience of grief showing how different people deal with grief and affirming that different ways work for different people. That's probably an important lesson during this time when so many are dying of COVID-19
O'Farrell imagines William meeting and falling in love with Agnes, a
William's unhappiness with rural life inspires Agnes to suggest he expand his father's business in London, where he becomes involved with he theater. He supports his family and visits several times a year while Agnes raises their children.
O'Farrell follows the path of the plague across the world until it reaches Agnes's twin children. Hamnet's protectiveness of his twin leads to dire consequences.
This story of grief is one more 2020 book whose timing was serendipitous. At a time when millions mourn, O'Farrell has given us a luminous story of grief.
I purchased a copy of the book.
This is a lovely book and has been thoroughly reviewed by many others. I'll add only two notes:
1. The chapter that describes (fictionally) how the plague reached Stratford in rags that packed Venetian beads which Judith helped unpack is detailed
2. Shakespeare and Agnes married in Temple Grafton – not their usual church in Stratford, because she was pregnant. My grandmother, Ethel O'Dell was born in Temple Grafton and lived there until 1919 when she, her two brothers, and her mother emigrated to Canada. I was raised on the legend that Shakespeare had been married in that parish 300 years before Gram was born.
O'Farrell's writing is remarkable. Her rich imagery immerses you in Agnes' world. You feel her. Feel her experiences. The reader knows from the outset that Hamnet dies, but the story is more about how he comes to be and, in the end, how his death fractures the lives of those closest to him.
Don't miss this one!
Remember Me .
I have issues with historical fiction, but that was not my main issue here. My main issue was the writing.
If I'm 20% into the book, I should be hooked or loving the language, or be interested in any of the characters.
I should not have to wince at over-written descriptions, try to
I'll be giving this one a miss.
A beautiful, tender tale .
Five stars and highly recommended