"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.
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.
She really captures the environment, atmosphere, people and their emotions superbly.
Can't recommend the book highly enough.
Remember Me .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.