Arts Books Muse

Book Review: Hamnet

Cara Lee discusses Maggie O'Farrell's most recent fiction work, exploring an often-neglected area of Shakespearean history

Article Thumbnail

Image Credit: Headline Publishing Group, 2020

As a literature student, you have to like Shakespeare: it’s one of the requirements when you sign up for this degree.  But I think we – as students, but also readers more generally – tend to become so engrossed in the story a writer tells that we almost forget the writer existed and lived their own life, away from their writing.

Hamnet is Maggie O’Farrell’s latest work, published in March 2020.  It focuses on Hamnet, Shakespeare’s son who died aged eleven, and the ensuing grief caused by his untimely death. The novel cleverly intertwines Hamnet’s present with the past, before culminating in his death; we hear of Hamnet and Judith’s (his twin sister) birth and childhood, linked with the love story of Shakespeare and Agnes.

We are plunged into Hamnet’s present as he runs for help for his sister. I expected Hamnet to be more escapist than it turned out to be, but, given the plague is rife in the novel and looking at the current global situation, it hit a little too close to home. O’Farrell’s descriptions are evocative, bordering on folkloric as she delves into the souls of each character.  I especially enjoyed her magical, mystical depictions of Agnes, who embodies the entire essence of ‘free spirited’.

The story of Shakespeare and Agnes is one of forbidden love: the seemingly good-for-nothing tutor meets the seemingly mad sister and they fall in love, initiating an illicit relationship held within apple store cupboards and forests.  After her first pregnancy is discovered, Agnes is estranged from her family and moves in with Shakespeare’s.

Whilst I started this article saying we tend to forget about the writer, O’Farrell manipulates history into a place where Shakespeare takes a secondary role to Hamnet and Agnes.  In fact, he is never named, referred to only as 'the Latin tutor', 'husband' or 'father'.  The effort to focus on domestic life is noteworthy and goes to show Hamnet’s influence on Shakespeare and his work – four years after Hamnet’s death came the first performance of Hamlet.  Each part of the novel begins with a quote from Hamlet, but these are the only explicit references to Shakespeare’s work until the very end.

I thought Hamnet was a beautifully moving book, and O’Farrell’s poignancy and elegance of style renders it gripping too.  The domestic nature of the novel, with its few allusions to Shakespeare, creates an intriguing spin on a historical novel and demonstrates the impacts grief has on people.

What struck me whilst reading Hamnet is that there are still so many unknowns to us about such canonical writers.  Four hundred years later we are still reading Shakespeare’s works, but we rarely remember his life.

The book ends on a quote from Act One, Scene Five of Hamlet, 'Remember me', in which O’Farrell encapsulates perfectly the unending boundaries of love we feel for those we have lost.  We are commanded to remember not only Shakespeare, but life, in all its happiness, hope, love and grief.  And O’Farrell reminds us that we must also remember Hamnet, who served as the inspiration for one of the most influential plays ever written.

Latest in Arts