by Maggie O'Farrell

Hardcover, 2020

Call number



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.
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LibraryThing member mbmackay
This is an interesting book. A fictionalised telling of the life of Shakespeare, concentrating on the short life of his only son.
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 facts known about Shakespeare's family life, and entertaining to boot.
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.
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LibraryThing member starbox
Oh, this was a beautifully written work, conjuring up William Shakespeare's family....and the aftermath of the deatb of their 11 year old son, Hamnet. Little detail is known, so there's a lot of artistic licence...and maybe his wife was just a bit too touched-with-magic to be believed....but the quire heart rending evocation of the loss of a child, the way it impacts on the parents...and the portrayal of Tudor life..is quite superb.… (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 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 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 .
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LibraryThing member Gwendydd
This is a novel about William Shakespeare's family. He and his wife, Agnes, had three children. The younger children were twins, a boy and a girl. The boy, Hamnet, died at the age of 11. That is really all we know about Hamnet, but from those scant details O'Farrell has woven an incredibly vivid story of a family grieving for a son. The novel mostly focuses on Agnes. In the novel, she is a strange and perceptive woman, known for her love of nature and her knowledge of healing, and her uncanny ability to predict the future.

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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 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.
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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
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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!
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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 Iudita
Maggie O'Farrell is such a talented stylist and it shines through like the sun in the writing of this book. I loved what she did with the character of Shakespeare's wife, Agnes. I loved how she keeps Shakespeare offside to give room for Agnes to tell her story. I also love the way O'Farrell portrays grief in her writing. Unlike anyone else. It is a beautiful, creative, memorable piece of writing… (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.
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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.
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
Shakespeare's Hamlet, how it came to be as well as how Shakespeare became well, Shakespeare. In this excellent retelling, imaginative tale all is unveiled.

If you are looking for a happy little story, this is not one. If, however, you are looking for a story that is brilliantly written, with scenes vividly painted, with emotions so honest they are raw, characters brought to life, than you need look no further. I was brought into lives so artfully portrayed, that I felt with them, lived with them and wanted to change things so they could find happiness. The grief expressed upon the loss of a child was searing. The effects of the Plague, like our Covid, frightening.

I loved Agnes, her healing touch that could help so many, but not the one that mattered to her the most. Hard not to draw comparisons with our present day, and our many losses, confusion. This is an author whose books have never yet let me down. So many have risen to the top, and this one too deserves all the accolades it has received.
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LibraryThing member DanDiercks
“Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell is one of the most inspired books I’ve read in years. Perhaps not since Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes,” by contrast a work of nonfiction, has a book caused me to be as moved as I have these last several days.
I am a retired English teacher who, for 40 years, taught Shakespeare. In college, I read all 37 plays, and I’ve read most of the sonnets and poems by the Bard. It wasn’t easy to decide to read this book because I knew from teaching the great man that a smattering of information actually exists about him and his family. In fact, really only five facts exist, and none of those facts has anything to do with any of the great works he authored. And the only information about the children relates to their baptism dates. So I was skeptical. Why would anyone read an entire novel of speculation based upon real people, one of whom is perhaps the greatest English language writer ever? But the more I read, the less I thought of O’Farrell’s book as speculation. It was almost as if she had magically come upon the answers to Shakespeare’s mysterious life and now, after centuries was able to share it with us. This book is just that good, even to a Shakespeare lover like myself. If a novel of this kind can win me over, there must be armies of believers all over the world. I would predict the Pulitzer Prize for “Hamnet,” but that isn’t possible since O’Farrell isn’t American. So I will predict the 2020 Man Booker Prize for O’Farrell. If that doesn’t happen, shame on those judges.… (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.
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LibraryThing member cappybear
My wife and I began to read Hamnet for our local reading group but gave up about halfway through, finding it meandering, fey and a little too aware of itself. I'm mystified by all the rave reviews for this book.
LibraryThing member Beth.Clarke
At work, I'm currently reading Romeo and Juliet with freshman, and I'm sure that impacted my experience with Hamnet in a positive way. Maggie O'Farrell doesn't write in sonnets, but she does tap into the time period and uses some of the phrasing and language. Agnes, Hamnet's mother, is one of the most compelling characters I've read. I laughed, scorned, cried, and loved with her as she goes through life in this fantastic novel.… (more)
LibraryThing member lanewillson
I wonder if she considered another ending, one different and defiant of her final destination. But I'm grateful for the wonderful story she has given us.
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.
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