by Maggie O'Farrell

Hardcover, 2020




Knopf (2020), 320 pages


"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"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Cariola
I enjoyed earlier books by this author ([The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox], [After You'd Gone], [Instructions for a Heatwave]), but it has been a while since I picked up one of her novels. I definitely need to go back and catch up on what I've missed. [Hamnet] jumped to the top of my 2020 Best Reads list. Nothing else I've read this year comes even close and it will be very, very hard to beat.

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.
… (more)
LibraryThing member bookfest
Of course, I love anything having to do with Shakespeare, but this isn't really about him. Like Ahab's Wife, it is a highly fictionalized account of a famous man's unknown wife. While many of us had learned that Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, the author informs us in the endnote that historical records suggest her name was actually Agnes. This is her story. She is portrayed as a woman of the forest, deeply connected to the natural world, talented at healing, capable of reading people's illnesses and future. She is an uncomfortable fit in the home of Shakespeare's parents in the village of Stratford, always considered odd by her father-in-law and difficult by her mother-in-law, Mary. Ultimately, the story is about the death of their son, Hamnet, who, theoretically, inspired the play Hamlet.
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!
… (more)
LibraryThing member Bananaman
I'm not normally a great fan of historical fiction but this book changed my opinion.
She really captures the environment, atmosphere, people and their emotions superbly.
Can't recommend the book highly enough.
LibraryThing member nancyadair
The story of William Shakespeare's wife and family makes for the best kind of historical fiction, a literary gem that transports readers into another world that is alien and yet very familiar, thanks to the depth of the characters.

O'Farrell imagines William meeting and falling in love with Agnes, a strange woman who practices herbal remedies and wanders alone through the fields and woods with her pet falcon.

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.
… (more)
LibraryThing member ParadisePorch
Note: I read the Canadian edition "Hamnet and Judith"

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 and fascinating.

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.
… (more)
LibraryThing member PaulCranswick
One cannot commence a review of this fine novel without pondering the nature and expression of grief.

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 treat with grief? For some of us it stultifies; we feel as if the world has or should stop turning so that we can stay as we were in that exact moment before we were bereft. It is said that grief can be all-consuming and for some it does consume - in pain, in loss, in fear and anguish and anger. For some it inspires us to memorialise and remember to create and to dedicate so that the loved one is never forgotten.

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.
… (more)
LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
William Shakespeare had a son. A son who died as a youth. This is the imagined circumstance of that life and death, its coming and its consequence, its possible reverberation across the centuries. But mostly it is the story of Agnes, sometimes known and ‘Anne’, who was William’s wife, the mother of Hamnet (which is an alternate spelling of ‘Hamlet’), he who was twinned with Judith and died, in this account, in her place, the collateral damage of pestilence.

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.
… (more)
LibraryThing member overthemoon
Very sensitive descriptions meant that this took me quite a while to read, as I wanted to absorb evey word down to the scattering of pollen on the table. The chapter telling how the "pestilence" spread from a monkey's flea in Alexandria to England is fascinating. And I came to understand why William Shakespeare willed to his wife the "second-best bed"; it's what she would have wanted.… (more)
LibraryThing member jmoncton
In the Wikipedia entry on William Shakespeare there is a single line about his twin son, Hamnet. "Hamnet died of unknown causes at the age of 11 and was buried 11 August 1596." But the impact of the death of an 11 year old child, who is also a son, a twin, and a brother can't be conveyed in that single line. But based on that single event, Maggie O'Farrell has woven a heart wrenching novel that tells the story from the courtship of William Shakespeare and his wife Agnes through the loss of their son. The prose is stunning -- descriptive, lyrical and totally enveloping. Shakespeare, surprisingly is not the lead character in this story. Instead the story revolves more about the life in Stratford-upon-Avon, with beautiful descriptions of daily tasks and the family of Hamnet Shakespeare. The story is quiet and gentle, but the emotions that it conveys when it comes to loss and grief are powerful. Definitely one of the most poignant books I've read about the death of a child.

Remember Me .
… (more)
LibraryThing member gypsysmom
Just to clear up a source of confusion for me that probably has happened to others, this book is only titled Hamnet and Judith in Canada; in England and maybe the rest of the English speaking world for all I know the title is simply Hamnet.

I listened to the audiobook which was narrated by Daisy Donovan who did a great job. Some books work well as audiobooks and some don't but this was one that did.

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
… (more)
LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
I decided to read this book because of the positive reviews as well as seeing how the author wove history and her own fiction. The story takes the basic historical facts surrounding Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway and creates a fictional account of their relationship. Unlike many books there is no great mystery as to what occurs. The center piece of the book is the death in 1596 of their son Hamnet. From historical records we learn that Hamlet and Hamnet were interchangeable names so we can speculate about the connection between the death of their son and the play Hamlet. O'Farrell's book deals mainly with Agnes(probably Anne's real name) who is portrayed as a free spirited woman with strong ties to nature. She is a creator of herbal cures and medicines. We see life during this time portrayed in detail and with her beautiful prose we can appreciate the time. The book is told through the eyes of the different characters and Shakespeare is always referred to as a son or husband but never by name. She uses the facts that Shakespeare spent time between London and Stratford and builds her story around the known set of facts. I truly enjoyed the book and my only complaint was the way it alternated between the beginning of the relationship between Anne and William and the time surrounding the death of Hamnet. The last 3rd of the book stays on the latter narrative and it is the best part of the book. If you love Shakespeare then you should consider this book. It is a worthwhile read.… (more)
LibraryThing member lauralkeet
The details of William Shakespeare’s life are largely unknown. But we do know that he married, had three children, and lost one -- a boy, Hamnet -- at a young age. In this novel, Maggie O’Farrell develops this spare outline into a beautifully moving story of a family, and their love, loss, and grief. From the beginning, Shakespeare is a relatively minor figure; it’s his wife, Agnes, who occupies center stage. She refuses to conform to societal norms, going so far as to give birth to her first child alone, in the forest. The townspeople rely on her expertise in cultivating and mixing herbs to treat all manner of illnesses. Between this and her husband’s business interests in London (he started out representing his father’s glove making business), they are able to support themselves.

But Agnes and her remedies are no match for the plague. O’Farrell’s narrative shifts between two time periods: the early days of Agnes & William’s marriage, and several years later when the disease strikes. We go back and forth between watching a young couple fall in love and raise a family, and being thrust into the frantic effort to spare that family. This makes the ultimate outcome -- Hamnet’s death -- that much harder to bear. O’Farrell brings us right into the family home: peering over Agnes’ shoulder as she treats her children, watching the women lay out the body, and being present at the burial itself. The last third of the book shows the family coming to terms with their loss and the ways in which Hamnet’s spirit remains present and sustains them.

O’Farrell’s exquisite writing struck me to the core, especially her portrayals of tremendous sadness and grief. And yet there were also moments of lightheartedness and humor. I hope this novel is recognized in all the usual prize-giving circles; it is worthy of all the accolades it has received.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Pat_D
Imagined influence for Shakespeare's famous play not revealed until the ending. Poignant, slow, well-written effects of loss, death and spiritual belief.
LibraryThing member hemlokgang
This is a lovely, mystical, fictional story of William Shakespeare's wife and children. Agnes, Shakespeare's wife, is an ethereal, mystical, earth mother. She is the center of this tale and is an utterly engaging character. The story subtly addresses the role of women, the trajectory of an unlikely successful William Shakespeare, the journey of the plague into their home, and the peril of Shakespeare's twins, particularly the son, Hamnet. I am looking forward to reading more of Maggie O'Farrell's books. I hope you will enjoy this book as much as I did!… (more)
LibraryThing member Helenliz
You know that Shakespeare wrote two types of plays - the one you did at school and the all the others. Hamlet is "the one I did at school". It also appears to be the one Maggie O'Farrell did at school too. The novel is about lots of things, but in her author's note at the end she points out that nowhere in any of his plays does Shakespeare mention pestilence (as the Black Death wouold have been known). Living in an age when it was an ever present threat, that's an intersting thought. A bit like any play now not using a mobile phone. That and what does it mean when you give your dead child's name to a play. what exactly are you trying to say and do with that. And from those random musings come this novel. It's an interesting construct.
And to the novel. It is good. It is very good. It reduced me to tears (not difficult, admitedly). It explores the past and the present, how he and his wife met, their children, the secrets that lie in families and are never revealed to the outside world. The family dynamics are explored and it is interesting how the characters (most noticably the femlae ones) grow and change in response to their situation. The relationship between mother in law and daughter in law is one that evolves over the years captured in the book.
The author has a few stylistic quirks that felt odd. She'd refer to Shakespeare (for example) as "The father" throughout a paragraph. I know that in families you are very much defined by your relationship to the other members of the family but it felt like an odd convention to use. She also repeats a clause with a slightly different wording as emphasis. It works, but it seems to be repeated quite a lot as a trick.
Maybe it was the fact that this has just won the Women's prize for fiction and has been lauded quite a lot. I went in with high expectations, maybe too high. It's good, very good, but it never quite blew me away.
… (more)
LibraryThing member brangwinn
Take that, you male Shakespeare biographers. Maggie O’Farrell takes the same documents you have used and makes Shakespeare’s marriage to Agnes (Anne) Hathaway into a much more interesting story. As the story opens, the Shakespeare’s 11-year old son, Hamnet, is desperately searching for his grandmother or mother because his sister has a fever. In chapters that move from the past to the present and back, this story focuses on how grief takes over our lives. It is not Hamnet’s sister, but Hamnet’s himself who dies. Shakespeare, himself, spends most of his time in London working on plays, and as the ending of the novel suggests, Shakespeare named his pay “Hamlet” in memory of his son. For along with grief, there is love and the need to carry on for the rest of the family. O’Farrell has taken what little is known about Hamlet and the Shakespeare family life and made them real, while fleshing out their lives with the daily events of the late 16th century.… (more)
LibraryThing member kimkimkim
A masterpiece no matter the liberties taken.
LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
This novel is about a family and mostly about a woman who marries the young Latin tutor and moves from her stepmother's farm to the town to live in the tutor's father's house. She bears him three children. The tutor is finding his vocation in London with a group of traveling players when he is summoned back. The plague, which has be raging through England, has reached his family.

This novel centers on grief, on being a parent who has lost a child and what that loss and grief does to a family, and to each of the members of that family. O'Farrell does such a brilliant job in bringing to life the world that Shakespeare and his family inhabited, as well as writing a tender and stark account of grief. This is a hugely impressive book that is both beautifully written and impressive in how lightly it wears its research.
… (more)
LibraryThing member tangledthread
A beautifully imagined and narrated story of the life of the Shakespeare family as they carry on in Stratford while their husband and father is in London.
The marriage of Will (tho' never named in this novel) and Agnes (historically known as Anne) is depicted from courtship and beyond the death of their 11 year old son.
The author's descriptive language of the setting and the emotions of the characters is mesmerizing. You can almost smell the herbs & flowers, and hear the bees while Agnes is in her element.
This book was a beautiful interlude in this Covid-19 summer.
… (more)
LibraryThing member msf59
“He can feel death in the room, hovering in the shadows, over there beside the door, head averted, but watching all the same, always watching. It is waiting, biding its time...They cannot both live: he sees this and she sees this. There is not enough life, enough air, enough blood for both of them.”

“How were they to know that Hamnet was the pin holding them together? That without him they would all fragment and fall apart, like a cup shattered on the floor.”

England 1580. The Black Death haunts the land. We are introduced to a family, living in Stratford -upon-Avon. A struggling playwright, his wife and three children, including twins. A boy and girl. The boy is named Hamnet, who will be immortalized in a great play called Hamlet.
This dark, beautiful novel, looks at a marriage and a family ravaged by a sudden death, while reimagining a boy's life, which very little is known about. This book has received many accolades. It deserves every one.
… (more)
LibraryThing member vancouverdeb
Hamnet is a beautifully told story , lyrical and detailed. The title is somewhat misleading , as most of all, this is the story of Agnes, the wife of William Shakespeare. Not much is known about the life of William Shakespeare, and his family, but Maggie O'Farrell takes what is known and creates a fictionalized version of their lives . It is focused on his family, rather than his life as a playwright. In fact, William Shakespeare is never named in the book, but goes by " the Latin Tutor" , " her husband" or ' the father." The story is told in two timelines, beginning with young Hamnet seeking out his mother , or some family member as his twin sister Judith is very ill. It then moves to the time that Agnes and William met. Agnes is a fascinating, somewhat other- worldly person. She is a gifted herbalist and somewhat intuitive of others. Others are wary of her. This is both a story of love between Agnes and William, as well their three children, Susanna , and twins Hamnet and Judith, and the grief that threatens to tear the family apart.

A beautiful, tender tale .

Five stars and highly recommended
… (more)
LibraryThing member BrokenTune
DNF @ 20%

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 remember which character we're talking about, or be annoyed by a precocious child who just declared herself an atheist sometime in the 80s. The 1580s.

I'll be giving this one a miss.
… (more)
LibraryThing member therebelprince
A truly remarkable novel, so finely wrought, conjuring up a powerful sense of the past, creating palpably real characters. A must for Shakespeare fans, but even if you don't know your Stratford-upon-Avon lore, there's a lot to be found here.
LibraryThing member camharlow2
This is a richly written, fascinating and evocative novel, tracing the life of William Shakespeare from his early youth to the point where he write ‘Hamlet’, arguably his most moving play. Based on what little is known about him, his wife Anne (Agnes in the novel) and their three children, O’Farrell weaves what can be imagined as an authentic recreation of his early life in Stratford, with his strained relationship with his father and his courtship of Agnes which is opposed by both families. Indeed, it is Agnes who is the stronger of the two, with a reputation as an outsider with a deep knowledge of herbs and who is able to see into people’s hearts and futures.
O’Farrell’s use of language reflects the time and also Shakespeare’s own and the novel pivots on his and Agnes’ feelings as they try to come to terms with the early death, at 11, of their only son, Hamnet, from the plague. His death threatens to tear apart their marriage, as they are separated with Agnes in Stratford and William pursuing a highly successful career as a playwright and actor in London. In a highly charged finale, O’Farrell suggests how this lead to ‘Hamlet’ and how this may have lead them to a re-evaluation of each others response to Hamnet’s death.
… (more)
LibraryThing member ozzer
In a time when thousands are grieving for loved ones lost to a disease, Maggie O'Farrell gives us a poignant story about people known to us, who also grieved for a loved one lost to a pandemic. The dearth of known facts about Shakespeare’s life gives O'Farrell license to imagine how the loss to the plaque of his son, Hamnet, profoundly influenced him and his family. Her focus, however, is not Shakespeare, a character she never names, but his wife, Agnes (a woman known to us as Anne).

O'Farrell gives the reader a marvelous portrait of Anne Hathaway. The joy she derived from her marriage and family as well as the profound sense of guilt and grief she felt after the death of her son, Hamnet, are central themes of the narrative. Agnes evolves from a mystical free spirit to a strong woman in a time when this was not the norm. She contends with a bullying father-in-law, an absent husband, pregnancy and childbirth, and especially the death of a young child. The scarcity of plot twists notwithstanding, O'Farrell captures an intimate portrayal of quotidian life in Elizabethan England never straying far afield from Stratford and the cottage readers may have visited. She strays from this intimate portrait only to speculate on how the plague may have migrated to England from the Middle East, on the way infectious diseases almost mysteriously jump between individuals, and how the death of his son may have influenced Shakespeare to create his greatest play. Despite its inevitable darkness, HAMNET leaves the reader with the uplifting message that moments of hope and healing can mitigate pain and loss.
… (more)


Original language



Page: 0.7938 seconds