“Hamnet is a novel inspired by the lost son of a famous playwright. It is a story
of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief.”
Hamnet is part of a pair; a twin and as you may expect, they are completely inseparable. Apart from when Hamnet is at school, they can always be found together, so it is unsurprising that when Judith is taken ill Hamnet refuses to leave her side.
It is at this point in the story that Maggie O’Farrell takes us back in time to where Hamnet’s father and mother first met.
Shakespeare was tutoring the boys from Hewland’s Farm when one afternoon, while looking out of the window, he came across Agnes. At the time he didn’t realise it was the sister of these bumptious brothers, instead believing it to be one of the hired help. For he had heard the rumours about their sister and the vision in front of him could not possibly be the person others had described. She is said to be too wild for any man. Her mother had supposedly been a gypsy or a sorceress, if the gossips are to be believed, and if not was clearly a free spirit that could not be tamed. According to others in the town, Agnes had developed the same bohemian, carefree attitude and therefore should be avoided at all costs.
Agnes “has a certain notoriety in these parts. It is said that she is
strange, touched, peculiar, perhaps mad.”
As soon as Shakespeare sees her however, he is completely besotted and cannot stop thinking about her.
Shakespeare’s parents however are not particularly happy about this union, she is far older than him and they feel uncomfortable in her presence so when she appears at their front door, after being exposed and ousted from her family home by her stepmother for being with child, they are not pleased. To stop the rumour mill from getting out of hand, and after Shakespeare admitting that he is the father of her child, a shot-gun wedding takes place so that neither of them are tainted by having children out of wedlock.
This doesn’t stop other stories of Agnes from spreading however. The locals still remember her mother, and the folktales continue to be shared between the generations. She was an outcast and therefore Agnes, because of her similarities, has become an outcast who people are weary of because it is believed that she can predict things. Therefore they see her as something different; something spiritual that people do not want to be associated with. This has meant that Agnes has learnt to repress her abilities, to refrain from naturally reaching out to people in order to foretell what their futures may hold.
Regardless of all this Shakespeare remains faithful and as time progresses, their family grows. After having three children together, it is agreed that Shakespeare will head to the capital in order to pursue his dream of becoming a successful playwright. This is when the dynamic of the family begins to change and the once close couple begin to drift apart. William only returns to Stratford between three and four times each year, and because of Judith’s weak disposition, it is unlikely that the family will ever move to London. Therefore, they fall into a new way of life. Agnes helping to cure people of their ailments from an open window of the family home, William in the city writing plays to be performed to large audiences each evening.
It is during this time that the plague comes to the British shores. We learn that a young boy fascinated with a monkey during a stopover, transports an infected flea over to Venice onboard a ship which kills several of the crew and nearly all of the cats. From Venice, the infested ship then docks back in England and the rest as they say, is history.
Unfortunately it is this that causes the real downfall of the Shakespeare family. Eventually the plague works its way up to Warwickshire and into the childhood home of William. It is at this time that the young life of Hamnet is tragically taken, completely devastating the family.
My Thoughts on Hamnet
Hamnet is a book I desperately wanted to enjoy. It won the Women’s Prize for Fiction and was perhaps the hottest book of 2020, so when I picked it up I had extremely high hopes for it although I didn’t really know how the story would unfold. I had purposely not read many reviews and had tried to stay away from any spoilers for that very reason. The only thing I actually knew when I opened the front cover was that unfortunately Hamnet did not survive.
Masterfully written, Maggie O’Farrell has entwined two different storylines into one novel. Firstly we read the tragic story of poor, young Hamnet. The other, is the love story of two young people destined to be together even though families would prefer they stayed apart.
It is the love story that captured my true attention. While I wanted to know about Hamnet it was the challenges faced by William and Agnes and how their love blossomed that fascinated me. Regardless of whether it is truly factual or not it was a wonderful storyline that shed some potential light onto the life of one of the greatest playwrights ever to live.
This is also a story of grief and how the loss of a child is something you can never come back from. The descriptions are raw and intense, leaving the reader emotionally charged.
This historical fiction while it has been written using great imagination, left me feeling a little deflated. After hearing so many rave reviews from people and with all the publicity I feel l must have missed something that so many others felt. The story of Hamnet at times felt flat and while I desperately wanted to love it, it just did not wow me the way I had hoped.
That is of course, not to say that others will not enjoy this novel or that I did not appreciate Maggie O’Farrell’s writing, I think she is a very talented author. I also want to stress that had I picked this novel up before all of the publicity it received, I would have probably written a very different review. It is a novel I enjoyed but I wanted more and for that reason I did feel a little let down.
Have you read Hamnet? Did you enjoy it? Have you read any other books written by Maggie O’Farrell and would you recommend them?
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