I thought this was going to be a fluffy historical novel about Shakespeare’s life but instead I found myself reading another pandemic novel. Not quite the escapism I was after.
Contagion aside, this book is as good as the reviews dictate. If you don’t know already, Hamnet is 2020’s Women’s Prize winning novel from Maggie O’Farrell centred around the short life of William Shakespeare’s only son. It is a largely fictionalised plot pieced together by the few facts history does tell us about Shakespeare and his home life. While the cause of Hamnet’s actual death remains unknown, O’Farrell draws on historical context to infer The Black Death as its cause. The book follows the events running up to this, the marriage of Agnes and the glovemaker’s son and the grief that haunts the family after Hamnet’s passing.
I’m glad that Shakespeare wasn’t explicitly named in this book, or even given much direct speech. I personally found it easy to disassociate the famous playwright from this story and I do think the omission of his name benefited this. While he was a constant presence in the novel, he is rarely seen at the centre of the action, and instead adopts a more passive role in his family’s life. To make up for this, O’Farrell frequently refers to popular themes from some of Shakespeare’s most famous works. For example, Hamnet and his twin sister, Judith, look incredibly similar and enjoy fooling others by changing places and swapping guises, much like Viola and Sebastian do in Twelfth Night. Stylistically, I found these references to be really tasteful and they added some extra layers to the narrative.
Somewhat falsely, this book has been marketed as a documentation of Shakespeare’s life or the life of his son, but, truthfully, the star of this text is Agnes. While the story is set around Hamnet’s life and untimely death, the majority of the book is centred around Agnes and her grief following the loss of her son. Agnes really reminded me of Madeline Miller’s Circe, who is another herbalist struggling to fit in with her peers. Agnes is headstrong, independent and fiercely loving - everything you could want from a female protagonist. But in some ways I think this made her story (and her decline) all the more heart wrenching. I found the scene where Agnes and her daughter cleanse and dress Hamnet’s body for burial extremely hard to get through. I also deeply felt for Agnes when her husband decides to leave their family home so soon after their son’s funeral. Throughout the book my sympathies were with Agnes and I’m in awe of how lifelike O’Farrell made her seem.
My advice for reading Hamnet? Go into this book blind, don’t read around the plot beforehand and definitely don’t try to insert whatever you think you know about Shakespeare into your understanding of this book. Now, enjoy.