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A thrilling departure: A short, piercing, deeply moving new novel from the acclaimed author of I Am, I Am, I Am, about the death of Shakespeare's eleven-year-old son Hamnet--a name interchangeable with Hamlet in fifteenth-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 literary masterpieces of all time, Hamnet is mesmerizing and seductive, an impossible-to-put-down novel from one of our most gifted writers.

310 pages, Hardcover

First published March 31, 2020

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About the author

Maggie O'Farrell (born 1972, Coleraine Northern Ireland) is a British author of contemporary fiction, who features in Waterstones' 25 Authors for the Future. It is possible to identify several common themes in her novels - the relationship between sisters is one, another is loss and the psychological impact of those losses on the lives of her characters.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 26,618 reviews
Profile Image for Nataliya.
746 reviews11.9k followers
February 20, 2022
So apparently being critically acclaimed and award winning still doesn’t make a good book, even when it tries this hard.
“Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns.”

Since this overwritten and overwrought book has not yet met an adjective or a metaphor that it didn’t like and immediately adopt (usually in neat sets of threes) to add to the neverending list of descriptors purpling its melodramatic prose, I’ll throw out a few, just to give you a taste. Overwritten, overwrought and melodramatic I already used. There are, however, still all of these: superfluous, ornate, overly lyrical, flowery, meandering, long-winded, cliche-laden, monotone, repetitive, sentimental, pretentious, and simply overdone. When one word would suffice, twelve will be used.
“The moment she has feared most, the event she has thought about, mulled over, turned this way and that, rehearsed and re-rehearsed in her mind, during the dark of sleepless nights, at moments of idleness, when she is alone.”

The prose is so purple that even Prince at the peak of his career would have stayed away from it.
“She grows up with a hidden, private flame inside her: it licks at her, warms her, warns her.”

When it comes to the meat of the story, it’s certainly a vegetarian option. See, I can do a metaphor, too!*
*(No offense meant to my vegetarian brethren. I blame the metaphor.)

In a strange and grating affectation, O’Farrell chooses to keep William Shakespeare unnamed, referring to him only as a Latin tutor, husband, father, son, but never even allowing him to have a first name. It’s not done for any big reveals as his identity would have been clear a few pages in regardless, even without all the marketing and even the title pointing right to him. If that’s a way to bring him down a peg so that his mostly unknown wife gets a spotlight, then it’s strange and offputting. You don’t give the voice to the voiceless by shutting up others. It’s just dismissive.
“They beg her to stop, not to touch people’s hands, to hide this odd gift. No good will come of it, her father says, standing over Agnes as she crouches by the fire, no good at all. When she reaches up to take his hand, he snatches it away. She grows up feeling wrong, out of place, too dark, too tall, too unruly, too opinionated, too silent, too strange. She grows up with the awareness that she is merely tolerated, an irritant, useless, that she does not deserve love, that she will need to change herself substantially, crush herself down if she is to be married. She grows up, too, with the memory of what it meant to be properly loved, for what you are, not what you ought to be.”

This is a novel about Anne - or Agnes - Hathaway, William Shakespeare’s wife, who remained behind in Stratford-upon-Avon while her husband changed the course of English literature in London. We know she was a few years older than William, had three children, lived apart from Shakespeare for years, and was eventually bequeathed his second-best bed in the Bard’s will. This book had enough artistic license to breathe life into her — and yet it chose to go with a cliche upon cliche. O’Farrell chooses to make Agnes a wild spirit, possible part-dryad, eccentric and in touch with nature, a healer and a herbalist, possessing almost unerring precognition. She’s special and intuitive and quirky in that force-of-nature new strong-woman feminine stereotype that does her no favors.
“She is rarely wrong. About anything. It's a gift or a curse, depending on who you ask.'

The rest of the characters remain flat and underdeveloped, existing as merely a background. Even our titular character, the unfortunate Hamnet, is barely a sketch of a boy, making it hard to care for him and his ultimate fate. Instead of character development, we blunder through bogs and thickets of excessive metaphors and descriptions* that slow down the paper-thin plot to glacial pace — ooooh, what a pretty metaphor! Shiny! - interrupted incongruously by a chapter that, for reasons unknown, decides to chart a course of bubonic plague fleas to the shores of England — unless the whole point was for a discerning reader to appreciatively chuckle at the presence of a merchant from Venice in that chapter. (Seriously, plague outbreaks were a common occurrence at that time. Who cares how that particular one got there? It wasn’t the first one or an unusual one. At least the chapter woke me up from snoozing over this book monotony - but still unnecessary.)
* Almost every page is like this:

“Several streets away, the owl leaves its perch, surrendering itself to a cool draught, its wings silently breasting the air, its eyes alert. To it, the town appears as a series of rooftops, with gullies of streets in between, a place to be navigated. The massed leaves of trees present themselves as it flies, the stray wisps of smoke from idle fires. It sees the progress of the fox, a man, sleeping in the doorway of a tavern, scratching at a fleabite on his shin; it sees coneys in a cage at the back of someone’s house; horses standing in a paddock near the inn; and it sees Judith, stepping into the street.”

And all that poor characterization and tired archetypes, combined with overwritten ornamental prose, put a wall between the characters and me, a reader. I just could not connect with them. It made me feel detached from them, always observing from a distance but never feeling or caring on a deeper level.

And now it’s as good of a time as any for a quick sample of ridiculous plot points that, in this bogged down and poorly paced narrative, literally went nowhere.

- What’s the point of Agnes’ precognition and strange dryad-ish origins? I like my magical realism as much, or actually probably more, than the next person, but what was the point of incorporating this here?
‘Someone who knows everything about you, before you even know it yourself. Someone who can just look at you and divine your deepest secrets, just with a glance. Someone who can tell what you are about to say – and what you might not – before you say it. It is,’ he says, ‘both a joy and a curse.’

- What with the insistent hints at illegal sheep skins dealings of Shakespeare’s father and involving Agnes’ brother in shady dealings as a precondition for marriage consent that were never followed up and just petered out?

- Why all the fretting about Agnes not realizing that it’s Hamnet and not Judith who would die? It’s not like she had power to do anything about it, not that timely attention would have helped.

- Why write about that damn kestrel anyway if we never hear anything about it after the wedding? Was it fulfilling the witch’s familiar part until O’Farrell lost her interest in that storyline?

- Why switch the focus from abusive father to the jealous mother-in-law just to have all these storylines fizzle out? Also, what was the point of mentioning Hamnet having been hit by his grandfather when Judith fell ill, all the references to the cut above his eyebrow, and no payoff? I was half-waiting for the damn cut to get infected and kill him (instead of a plague).

- Why oh why were we treated to “this house is shaped like a letter “A” eyeroll-worthy bit of dialogue???

- Why would Agnes freak out that her husband would use their dead son’s name in a play? Why see it as an offense and not a loving tribute?

- Why are those fraternal twins written as identical?

- And finally, my most burning question. What happened to all those apples that needed to be stored properly but were all disturbed during that cringeworthy barn sex scene? Did they all spoil? And if they didn’t, why was I subjected to reading about them bouncing around like there was a small earthquake from the steamy sex????

The climax of this story, as you’d predict, hinges upon Shakespeare writing “Hamlet” a few years after his son Hamnet dies. It’s right there in the book blurb, making sure we don’t fail to spot the blatant similarity in the names. And that climax was as underwhelming as one could only imagine, hinging on weak and tenuous connections and completely out-of-character observations by Agnes, and existed because it was supposed to, regardless of whether it felt organic to the story.
“He has, Agnes sees, done what any father would wish to do, to exchange his child’s suffering for his own, to take his place, to offer himself up in his child’s stead so that the boy might live. She will say all this to her husband, later, after the play has ended, after the final silence has fallen, after the dead have sprung up to take their places in the line of players at the edge of the stage.”

At the beginning, I thought that its prose was an interestingly styled introduction into meandering and a bit feverish mind of Hamnet, but as the narrative plodded on, I noted more irritation, eventually sliding into impatience and finally settling into that reading curse — a tired boredom. I no longer cared what would happen, only how long it would take me to reach the end of the book. And that comes from someone with a decent tolerance for overwriting, given my general love for Valente, Mieville or This Is How You Lose the Time War.

2 stars. Overwritten, overwrought, overhyped.

Buddy read with Stephen and Allie.
Profile Image for Hannah Greendale.
703 reviews3,283 followers
January 12, 2021
2020 Best Books of the Year [#02 of 11]

Quite often, the Women's Prize for Fiction longlist contains one book more fanciful than the rest. The rogue book in the lineup usually has unique qualities that manifest either as robust lyricism or as strange yet scintillating content. Occasionally, the longlist offers a book with both qualities (think 2017 Women's Prize longlist nominee, The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O'Neill).

It's quite possible Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell is this year's rogue contender. O'Farrell's writing style is a lyrical dreamscape. Where the average author mentions the presence of kittens, O'Farrell writes of kittens "with faces like pansies and soft pads on their paws." Some authors would stop at saying a character collected honey, O'Farrell describes the honey flowing "slow as sap, orange-gold, scented with the sharp tang of thyme and the floral sweetness of lavender." Your average author notes a plum orchard, but O'Farrell invites readers to see plums with "red-gold jackets near to bursting with sweetness." Hamnet is a feast for the senses; a seven-course meal for readers hungry for books written with skillful embellishment.

Unfortunately, the rogue book filled with lyricism rarely makes the shortlist. And this year's judges have already stated they're looking for a winner that's relevant and timely, so Hamnet - which ventures to convey the perilous days during which William Shakespeare's young children struggle to survive the Black Death - at first seemed like it wasn't a contender for the shortlist, having no relevance to the modern day. That's no longer the case.

Verdict: Hamnet is a devastating book, as upsetting and vivid as the current global pandemic. An absolute must read.
It is to him she speaks in her disordered mind, not the trees, not the magic cross, not the patterns and markings of lichen, not even to her mother, who died while trying to give birth to a child. Please, she says to him, inside the chamber of her skull, please come back. I need you. Please. I should never have schemed to send you away. Make sure this child has safe passage; make sure it lives; make sure I survive to care for it. Let us both come through this. Please. Let me not die. Let me not end up cold and stiff in a bloodied bed.

Fifth read from the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist.
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,431 reviews2,513 followers
April 29, 2020
I'm clearly in a minority here (again!) but I found this unengaging and flat. There's too much indirect speech and the whole story feels very distanced rather than immediate. O'Farrell talks in the foreword about how she's wanted to write this book for decades, and the result is that it feels laboured, weighted down with expectation that doesn't come to fruition for me.

I especially hated the portrayal of Agnes as one of those almost witchy 'wise women' who abound in historical fiction: fey, with preternatural senses, a herbalist as a code for 'female' power... it's very predictable, very common, very Philippa Gregory!

The vaunted connection to Shakespeare is tangential at best, and the idea that the death of Hamnet illuminates the writing of 'Hamlet' is sparse. The claim made in the novel that Shakespeare was so traumatised that he never wrote about plague is not quite true: 'Thou art a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood' (King Lear); 'A plague on both your houses' (Romeo & Juliet) are just a couple of examples. It is the case that censors at the time wouldn't let naturalistic representations of the plague pass (playhouses were one of the first public spaces to be closed when outbreaks occurred) but that applies to all Elizabethan/Jacobean dramatists and is a structural limitation rather than an indication of personal grief.

A book which is not for me, then, but clearly other reviewers have loved it.
Profile Image for Bill Gates.
Author 10 books509k followers
January 25, 2022
If you’re a Shakespeare fan, you’ll love this moving novel about how his personal life might’ve influenced the writing of one of his most famous plays. O’Farrell has built her story on two facts we know to be true about “The Bard”: his son Hamnet died at the age of 11, and a couple years later, Shakespeare wrote a tragedy called Hamlet. I especially enjoyed reading about his wife, Anne, who is imagined here as an almost supernatural figure.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews53 followers
July 30, 2020
Hamnet was wonderful. My favorite Maggie O’Farrell novel, so far!
It grabbed me from the start....and I wasn’t expecting it to.

I really enjoyed it — I can’t imagine any reader who wouldn’t like it.
Not to worry if you’re Shakespeare-challenged. I mean ‘really’ don’t worry. (I did).... needlessly.

The title seems a little misleading- but for those who haven’t read this yet....I’ll say no more.

Great book to go in blind.
Not only does it not disappoint— it’s SURPRISINGLY MAGNIFICENT.....
The writing is gorgeous....the ‘story’ - family - situations - are raw, intense, and intimate.
The story is sad....( I was so close to bawling in one part), filled with loss and grief...but sooo heartfelt —staggering impressive - clever- and simply brilliant.
This book deserves all the praise it’s getting...
And I repeat....NOTHING TO BE WORRIED ABOUT ( I’m so happy that Maggie wrote this book - for EVERY TYPE OF READER.

Profile Image for Angela M .
1,286 reviews2,204 followers
June 30, 2020
I have to admit that I was a little nervous going into this one for two reasons. I sometimes have a hard time with fictionalized accounts of real people. I’m always questioning how realistic they are and at the same time having to keep reminding myself that they’re fiction. Perhaps because not much is known about Shakespeare’s wife Anne or Agnes, her birth name, as she is called in the novel, that I found the imagining to be so captivating. Even though I still wondered how much might be true, O’Farrell’s beautiful rendition stands as brilliant story telling. The other thing that worried me is that this novel just seemed so different from the other novels by Maggie O’Farrell. She’s one of my favorite writers and I didn’t want to be disappointed. I wasn’t in the least and after thinking about this for a bit, I had to up my original four stars to five. While it’s a different kind of story than what she has written before, I found the same beautiful writing and stunning depiction of emotion that I loved in all her other novels.

The bard himself is not the main character on this stage. His name is not mentioned once . He is the son of John and Mary, the husband of Agnes, the father of Susanna and twins Hamnet and Judith, but never called by name. The focus is not on his plays, except for one, titled after his son Hamnet, who in the book dies at eleven of the plague. How we see the play in the end through Agnes’s eyes and heart was one of the most moving scenes of the novel. This felt from the beginning for me like Agnes’s story. Her story begins in an is almost fairy tale like way, as a girl belonging to a forest, remembering her mother, learning the power of plants and the meaning of her premonitions . She meets the Latin tutor, son of the glove maker and when they marry, she moves to Henley Street in Stratford with him.

The narrative alternatives from 1596 just before Hamnet dies and with Agnes’s early life, the time of their marriage and the years in between. Life in these times and in this place feels historically accurate, even if we really never will know the details of their family life, the death of their son. The most realistic thing of all was the stunning portrayal of a family’s grief, especially a mother’s grief. As Agnes prepares for Hamnet’s burial, when she goes to his grave or can’t bear to part with his clothes, I felt the depth of her grief.

I loved reading about Stratford, the family house and Agnes’s birthplace. Although I don’t remember details, I was there on Henley Street around thirty years ago at Shakespeare’s birthplace house and Anne (Agnes) Hathway’s house which is on the property there as well. I felt a warm connection knowing that I had been there once . I recommend this to lovers of historical fiction and most definitely to fans of Maggie O’Farrell.

I received an advanced copy of this book from Knopf (Random House) through Edelweiss.
Profile Image for Jenna ❤ ❀  ❤.
790 reviews1,186 followers
August 7, 2020
Unpopular opinion ahead

I had no desire to read Hamnet when I first heard of it. Shakespeare gets married, they have kids, one dies, he writes "Hamlet". 

Nope, not interested. Then several of my friends wrote amazing reviews and reeled me in. I was still hesitant but thought, Why not? Just give it a try and DNF if it's not interesting.

Let me tell you. In the beginning I was mesmerized by Maggie O'Farrell's writing. The descriptions made everything so vivid, the setting and characters leapt off the page. Wow, I thought, I can see why everyone loves this so much!

Unfortunately, as quickly as I fell in love with Ms. O'Farrell's writing, I just as quickly fell back out of love. Partly this was due to the story itself failing to interest me as it progressed. I was thinking of DNF'ing but then came the flea!

Who'd have thought a flea could be so interesting! I couldn't get enough of that little bugger, as it made its way from Alexandria, Egypt to Stratford, England. So intent on surviving and sucking blood and unwittingly spreading pestilence. 

I gotta give Maggie O'Farrell credit for that, for turning a tiny, nasty, virus-carrying flea into an interesting character. That takes talent. 

Sadly, I wasn't as taken in by all of the story. There were places I was immersed but then I'd go pages and pages wishing the book would just end already. Maybe I'm cold but I have little patience for books intent on maximizing the tear factor. 

If you have more of a heart than I apparently do, and if you're a fan of historical fiction, you will probably love this book. It's written beautifully and descriptively. It tells not so much about Shakespeare (who is never mentioned by name) but about his wife and children. Not much is known about any of them yet Maggie O'Farrell brings them to life with her vivid imagination and meticulous writing. 

It probably deserves the 4 and 5 stars I've seen everyone else give it, but I was bored through too much of it to grant it any more than 3. 
Profile Image for emma.
1,823 reviews48.7k followers
December 5, 2022
Once upon a time, I said I would rate this book depending on how memorable it is.

Today, when I looked at the next review I had to write in my line up, I forgot I'd even read this book.

So it's going to be a 2.5 star situation from me.

I don't read historical fiction very often, because the very IDEA of living in a time before showers and readily accessible desserts and the right to vote is more disturbing to me than any horror novel, but something about this book piqued my fancy. Maybe it's that weird title. Maybe it's that lovely-ly floral H on the cover. Maybe it's...I don't have a third thing. But there was something.

I had a perfectly O.K. time reading this. I read it fairly quickly, I was neither bored nor not bored, I appreciated the fact that I live in a building with lights and an operational refrigerator more than I do on your average day.

But other than that, I don't have any takeaways from this. It was a fairly emotionless read for me. No real connection to any characters. No sadness at any of the 3-4 tragic events that happen within the storyline.

It was just a book that I read and then forgot about.

Bottom line: A perfectly average rating for a perfectly average read.


god, i am so glad i wasn't born in the 16th century.

review to come / will rate depending on how memorable this is

tbr review

next time i feel like my life is bad, i'm going to imagine being a young boy named HAMNET in 1580s england dying of the plague. and then your dad writes a play with a title that's almost your name.

could be worse.
Profile Image for Candi.
614 reviews4,644 followers
August 26, 2020
“What is given may be taken away, at any time. Cruelty and devastation wait for you around corners, inside coffers, behind doors: they can leap out at you at any moment, like a thief or brigand.”

Without a doubt, this is a brilliantly imagined novel written by one who is quickly becoming a favorite author. I’m afraid I’ll have to explain myself for not singing its praises as effusively as I would have liked, but I’ll get to that later. There are a lot more positives to this than there are negatives, after all. I did just profess that O’Farrell is edging her way to the top of my list after just two books!

“She, like all mothers, constantly casts out her thoughts, like fishing lines, towards her children, reminding herself of where they are, what they are doing, how they fare.”

Anne Hathaway, called Agnes here, was wed to William Shakespeare. Above all, this is her book, not Shakespeare’s and not Hamnet’s, despite the title. In fact, O’Farrell never utters Shakespeare’s name directly; he is always called ‘husband’ or ‘father’. Agnes, however, is front and center, and what absorbed me fully was the theme of motherhood – the joys, the doubts, the fears, the sorrows. A mother constantly questions whether she is doing enough for her children. There looms a certainty that surely you could do more if you only tried harder. With little knowledge to build on, O’Farrell has shaped one of the most fascinating mothers in the literary world. Agnes is of another realm entirely, it seems. She reminded me of a sprite, so ethereal in nature. Starved for love as a child after her mother’s death, Agnes makes friends with nature – the animals and the forest become her companions. She learns to divine truths about the essence of others based on what she can glean from their hands.

“If asked, the girl – a woman, now – would remove the falconer’s glove and hold your hand, just for a moment, pressing the flesh between thumb and forefinger where all your hand’s strength lay, and tell you what she felt. The sensation, some said, was dizzying, draining, as if she was drawing all the strength out of you; others said it was invigorating, enlivening, like a shower of rain.”

The plot alternates between Agnes’s youth, courtship and pregnancies with the time when tragedy strikes in 1596. A parent’s greatest fear is finally realized. I remember when my children were young and some illness or another would strike. I couldn’t sleep, remaining constantly alert to any cries in the night, any change in breathing. Surely, I thought, I could be doing more to relieve their suffering.

“The trick is never to let down your guard. Never think you are safe. Never take for granted that your children’s hearts beat, that they sup milk, that they draw breath, that they walk and speak and smile and argue and play.”

The first three-quarters of this novel completely captivated me – the atmosphere, the pacing, the shadow hovering overhead. “There is a sensation of change, an agitation of air, as if a bird has passed silently overhead.” The exploration of both a mother and a father’s grief is handled with the care and knowledge of what I am certain comes from O’Farrell’s own experiences. I have read her memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death. She understands foreboding, fear, and heartache. She writes what she knows with clarity. What I missed, however, was a complete connection to her words. I’ve been trying to pinpoint what exactly lacked for me here. I have certainly been a blubbering fool over the last few novels I’ve read, but not this one! I should have been weeping buckets! Perhaps it is the third person point of view in this one, compared with her memoir which wholly succeeded in baring O’Farrell’s heart and soul to the reader. I went into this one expecting the same. Had I not read the other first, I suspect I would have had a bigger soft spot for Hamnet. But don’t let that stop you from picking this up. It’s worthy of your time and a very fine work of historical fiction – never trite and altogether unique.

“Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicenter, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns.”
Profile Image for Beata.
736 reviews1,112 followers
June 1, 2020
An emotionally-charged novel about grief after the death of a child. It takes a master author to create a story with scant background documents that goes deep, deep into a reader's heart. I admire the worlds Ms O'Farrell created of Agnes, of her childhood, life with her husband, and of motherly love and pain...
Some scenes were so moving that I felt physical sensation while reading them. For a reader to experience a novel in this way is a gift from the author.

Profile Image for nastya .
420 reviews257 followers
July 25, 2020
This book and I are enemies, foes, nemeses. I did not dnf it on principle to know if my loathing was justified till the end, finale, conclusion. (Spoiler alert - it was.)
Agnes is the wisewoman, oracle, witch, fay, elf, sorceress. I was waiting for her to go to the ocean one night and turn into a selkie and swim away. But alas. :(She is, she is, she is the ultimate “not like other girls” girl, woman, Other. Shakespeare, latin tutor, husband (it’s a very smart decision not to name him, you see) tells her exactly that, that’s why he is into her, cherishes her, adores her.

About the prose: every description has at least 3 adjectives; every feeling or smell or object description has 3 similes; everything any character sees conjures some lyrical flashback. Where you can use 2 words to describe something, Maggie will use 25. It drove me mad, irritated, bored.

“It is a love based on giving and receiving as well as having and sharing. And the love that they give and have is shared and received. And through this having and giving and sharing and receiving, we too can share and love and have and receive.” Maggie O’Farrell, no, sorry, Joey Tribbiani
Profile Image for Violet wells.
433 reviews3,059 followers
September 25, 2020
There's an incredibly powerful and poignant moment in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall when Cromwell's two young daughters die suddenly of the plague. You sense that scene might have had a profound influence on the birth of this novel. Its central event is a plague death. Like Mantel's novels, it's written in the present tense, it's rich with detailed description and it takes a famous figure from history as its protagonist. Where Mantel was daring and adventurous with her imaginative identification with Cromwell, O'Farrell is decidedly timid with her identification with Shakespeare - she even backs off from ever naming him - not surprising since it would be a colossal act of hubris to believe you can rummage through the mind of one of humankind's foremost geniuses. So it's not so much William she seeks to portray as his wife Agnes. Agnes is outrageously idealised. A 21st century composite of the women with knowledge of the healing properties of plants as a kind of fantasy super hero. O'Farrell grants her fairy story powers of divination. She does handle the otherworldly tone quite well so I didn't have a problem suspending disbelief though I can imagine some will. That said, this 21st century habit of granting women powers of magical thinking in periods of history when women had so little other power irritates me unless the tone is mischievous which it isn't here.

A fascinating conundrum this narrative throws up is how petty, especially with hindsight, personal feeling appears in the light of artistic achievement. How really can we sympathise with Agnes' feelings of abandonment when we know what her husband was achieving as a consequence of distancing himself from her? In fact, it's hard not to get irritated with her. For me, the author didn't quite have a hold on this conundrum which is why the final stretch of this novel failed to live up to its early promise. We do sympathise with Agnes, but only up to a point. Because ultimately we're inestimably more happy that Shakespeare produced his plays than bothered about whose feelings he might have hurt to accomplish this achievement. Sometimes when a novel begins to lose fizz you can find the explanation in math. For most of the novel we get similarly sized chapters of alternate timelines. When the timelines meet this structure collapses and we get an endless rather rambling chapter which continues for dozens of pages until the end of the book. Agnes' emotions began to baffle me. She seemed to barely know her husband. It becomes apparent that this is a necessary plot device for the denouement of the novel's theme of bereavement to work. The ending though was fancifully sentimental. I'm no Shakespeare expert but surely one of the great enigmas about him is how conclusively he erased his personality from his work. There's something forced and self-indulgently blinkered about O'Farrell's attempt to find him in Hamlet. Essentially, you'll learn nothing much about Shakespeare here that you won't find on Wikipedia. Except this one insight O'Farrell believes she has about the effect the death of his child had on him and how this can be read into the pages of Hamlet. I'm afraid I didn't buy it at all. Overall, Hamnet provided me with some enjoyable light entertainment while grappling with the enigma codes of Proust and Pynchon but it's a long way from rivalling Hilary Mantel in shedding light on a pivotal man of history.
October 31, 2021
To read or not to read, that is the question?

Hamnet is a triumph, a masterpiece and a fantastic work of fiction interwoven with real historical events. I would give 6 stars if I could. If “to read” is the question then “Oh Yes” must be the answer.

William Shakespeare marries Anne Hathaway at 18, she in her mid-twenties. Soon they have a daughter Susanna, followed by twins, a boy and girl, named Hamnet and Judith. Then one of the children dies. This is what we do know about Shakespeare and a very ambitious story for Maggie O’Farell to take on and make her own. The story is wonderfully narrated around the family but particularly Agnes / Anne Hathaway and her role married to her husband William Shakespeare.

The author writes, "two events need to occur in the lives of two separate people, and then these people need to meet." A cabin boy on a ship, unknowingly picks up the infected flea in his red neckerchief and Hamnet's sister Judith eagerly unpacks a parcel delivered to a Stratford seamstress. Their fate is sealed.

Agnes had married for love, but like all great love stories, tragedy threatens to tear them apart with the loss of one of their children and her husband's prolonged absence from their home to find work at the theatres in London.

Agnes is warned, by her mother-in-law, that the newest work by her husband is a play named after their son. Furious she sets off to London to confront him but is surprised to observe the pitiful surroundings he lives in, and not living the lavish lifestyle Agnes had imagined. It is only then she begins to realise the grief and sorrow felt by her husband, after the loss of their child. As Agnes sits in the audience to watch his play, she can see for the first time the tapestry of their lives embroidered with every event and the visions of sorrow and joy using threads skilfully woven to capture the heartache and personal tragedy. To other’s Hamnet is a great play but to Agnes and her husband it is everything that captures their pain and loss on a canvas for all the world to see.

It takes a gifted author to make the story sing from the pages in a way that conjures up such emotions in its readers. Hamnet is one of those books where not a single word should be written or worded differently, it possesses a dream like quality, and entices you as the reader to play your part for Shakespeare is never named as the husband, our imagination takes us there.

This is one of my favourite books this year and possibly ever in this historical period. It is very difficult for a book to move me in this way, but Hamnet hit the right spot and managed to have me choked up at the end. Simply gorgeous, sad, and painful but a remarkable story.
Profile Image for Karen.
575 reviews1,121 followers
July 23, 2022
I loved this story!
This is a work of fiction about William Shakespeare and Ann Hathaway, their family, and the death of their only son Hamnet who died at 11 yrs of age.
It’s the story of a marriage, and grief....of what life was like in 16th century England in the time of the Black Death plague.
It was a sensual, beautiful and magical story.
The heart of the book is Hamnet’s mother and you feel everything along right with her!
Profile Image for jessica.
2,535 reviews32.7k followers
July 28, 2020
wow. this story is something else. i picked this up on a whim and i do not regret it.

very early on, i thought this book would be too ‘description’ heavy for my personal liking. there are paragraphs upon paragraphs of very detailed description, so i was unsure if i would connect with this kind of narrative (especially because its written in present tense). but slowly, and ever surely, i became completely absorbed by the end. it definitely creeped up on me.

what i love most about this, though, is how it takes one seemingly insignificant point in history and turns it into a moment of purpose, motivation, and acceptance. back in shakespeares time, children dying was not uncommon, but its fascinating to see and speculate at how the death of one child could cause such an impact, not only on the immediate family, but beyond that. i really like how MOF lays the foundation for anne and williams relationship, and imagines how that relationship changes through their common grief.

im really quite happy that i enjoyed this so much more than i thought i would.

4.5 stars
Profile Image for Cheri.
1,744 reviews2,274 followers
August 16, 2020

’Remember me.’

Words fail me, or at least words that would be worthy enough of this look into another time, a time that has an almost uncanny resemblance, in some ways, to the current plague that has fallen upon us. But it is also so much more than that, as it exposes the grief that accompanies the loss of the life of a child, and how quickly, and invisibly this plague travels from one place, one creature to another again and again over a short period of time, to land on an innocent person, and take so many lives in the process. It is a story of love, and hope, and perhaps the loss of both, at least for a time, as well.

Perhaps, even the ultimate gift of love.

’Could he pull off their trick, their joke, just once more? He thinks he can. He thinks he will. He glances over his shoulder at the tunnel of dark beside the door. The blackness is depthless, soft, absolute. Turn away, he says to Death. Close your eyes. Just for a moment.’

But, again, because it is about life and shared by O’Farrell, it is not discounting the sweet altogether, this story had me feeling everything. Has me feeling it all still. If nothing else, O’Farrell’s words cover both of those territories as well as the seemingly normal daily ins and outs of life.

’She walks back, more slowly, the way she came. How odd it feels, to move along the same streets, the route in reverse, like inking over old words, her feet the quill, going back over work, rewriting, erasing.’

And then there is the guilt the ones left behind feel, they ‘why.’ Why them? Why not me? It is heartrendingly felt.

The one section of this that stood out for me as I was reading this is one that I’m sure was felt by everyone else that has read this, as it shares the story of how this plague first begins, a boy, a monkey, three fleas that fall from the monkey, and thus begins the route that will end the lives of many.

I remain in awe of O’Farrell’s ability to bring so much beauty to such a heartrending story.

Many thanks, once again, to the Public Library system, and the many Librarians that manage, organize and keep it running, for the loan of this book!

Profile Image for Marchpane.
293 reviews2,133 followers
September 9, 2020

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?

—William Shakespeare (The Life and Death of King John)

No one knows what caused the death of Hamnet Shakespeare in 1596, at the tender age of eleven. Likewise, little is known about his mother Agnes (aka Anne Hathaway). Hamnet imagines the lives behind these historical footnotes.

Hamnet’s father—William Shakespeare—remains nameless in O’Farrell’s novel, and apart from one performance of Hamlet it doesn’t engage explicitly with the Bard’s work. Rather than overt references, there are shrouded ones: twins swapping places; Agnes appearing to be dressed as a boy; a suspected witch named for a Rowan tree. It may disappoint some readers that this rich vein is not exploited further. Instead, the focus is on domestic life in Stratford—courtship; birthing babies; Hamnet’s connection with his twin Judith; the family’s profound anguish at the boy’s death.

Equally, the story is not over-burdened with historical facts, which are altered, elided, or given the merest subtle nod, when required. Hamnet and Judith Sadler, the twins’ namesakes, pop up briefly as ‘the baker’ and his wife. There is an oblique reference to the famous ‘second-best bed’ bequeathed later by Shakespeare to Agnes. More attention is given to animals—squirrels and cats and birds and bees and fleas and a monkey—the novel teems with tiny creatures and their fleeting lives.

Creative license bends to the novel’s purpose. For instance, staging Hamlet in 1600 (the actual date is unknown) thus ducking the death of Shakespeare’s father in 1601, and any influence his passing may have had on the play. It might seem implausible that the plum role of Hamlet would go to ‘a lad—halfway between man and boy’ and not say, Richard Burbage, but this too serves O’Farrell’s aim of mapping Hamlet directly to the death of the boy Hamnet. This attempted link to the famous play is a lovely poetic idea but historically unconvincing.

Hamnet is an imaginative work of historical fiction and an eloquent meditation on grief and loss. It soars in the intimate moments, such as when Agnes enters the graveyard ‘with three children and she leaves it with two’. Not a spot-the-reference book for Shakespeare nerds, but rather a lovely expression of the tragic mode.
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,779 reviews1,267 followers
January 10, 2023
I read this ahead of a Book Group in June 2021 having previously read it in early April 2020 (just after the start of lockdown). In the comments below the review I have added my notes from the author’s brilliantly produced interview with Peter Florence at the 2020 virtual Hay Festival.

This book was on my radar since the Guardian’s Alex Preston in his 2020 preview said it was the book that might beat Hilary Mantel to her third Booker.

The book of course beat Hiliary Mantel won the 2020 Women's Prize, the 2020 Waterstone's Book of the Year (from the UK's best bookseller), the National Book Critics Circle Award (one of the very few US awards open to UK writers), the 2021 British Book Awards Best Fiction "Nibbie" and so on.

It was also, to the considerable deteriment of the Booker not even longlisted for that prize (which was distinguished in 2021 only by its Winner). That omission I think resulted in its unusual shortlisting for the 2020 Guardian Not The Booker (unusual in that the Guardian website BTL votes which are used to pick half that shortlist are normally dominated by author and publisher lead campaigns on small books) - a prize for which the judges (of which I was one) decided it was too good to be a winner.


My thematic thoughts on the book - including some extensive quotes, best read after completion of the book.


And comparisons to Mantel’s book are inevitable – a book set in the 16th Century, featuring a famous Englishmen in an unfamiliar way, and written in a third person point of view present tense. A comparison made even more inevitable when the book’s opening lines include a confused child and the words “He stumbles as he lands, falling to his knees on the flagstone floor” which to the reader immediately evokes Mantel's opening words of he trilogy “he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard” which follow the now-famous ”So now get up”.

There however the two books depart – both in subject matter and style.

Whereas Cromwell is the sole focus of Mantel’s book(s), so much so that the third party style is really as close as possible to a first party narrative; Shakespeare, while featuring as a point of view character, is very much a tertiary one (and in fact only ever referred to in indirect terms (the tutor, the husband, the father) , with the narrative initially started by his son Hamnet (twin to Judith) and largely sustained by his wife – Agnes (perhaps better know to us as Ann Hathaway).

With as an aside a throwaway line later in the book which links to almost all we know of her (via the reference in her husband’s will)

[She] refuses to give up her bed, saying it was the bed she was married in and she will not have another, so the new, grander bed is put in the room for guests.

Agnes herself is portrayed as following her dead mother as something of a white witch/folk and natural healer/forest folk/mystical diviner.

I was inevitably reminded less of Mantel and more of that other great modern day chronicler of the Tudor Court – Philippa Gregory, and in particular her Cousins War series and particularly the character of Jacquetta of Luxembourg and her relationship with Elizabeth Woodville in “White Queen” and “Lady of the Rivers”. That is not to damn the book with faint praise, both books are excellent, but it was a little unexpected in a purely literary novel. Like Gregory, O'Farrell uses this as a way for a female to gain strong agency in a fundamentally patriarchal society (at least in this section we see that Anne's pregnancy, resulting marriage and even Will's move to London are all engineered by her).

And while Mantel’s tale sustains throughout a sense of immediacy, of imminent peril, of ever present danger in a court subject to the arbitrary caprices of a tyrant, for the first two thirds of the book, this is written in an indirect, very distanced style. The style of course reflects the character – not a necessarily paranoid man-of-the-world, painstakingly aware of the precariousness of his ascent and the multitude wishing his fall; but instead someone who is by their very identity other-worldly, possessed of both ancient knowledge and foresight and who therefore operates at a necessary remove from both the here and the now.

This style though does make the first two thirds of the book at times a rather too languid experience.


One interesting break is a section where we trace the course of the plague

For the pestilence to reach Warwickshire, England, in the summer of 1596, two events need to occur in the lives of two separate people, and then these people need to meet. The first is a glassmaker on the island of Murano in the principality of Venice; the second is a cabin boy on a merchant ship sailing for Alexandria on an unseasonably warm morning with an easterly wind.

And this account is very cleverly mirrored a little later – in an account of the convoluted passage of a letter sent to Shakespeare telling him of Judith’s seemingly imminent death with even some small details mirrored (such as some unevenly balanced baskets).

Mirroring being a crucial theme of the book – with Judith and Hamnet as slightly odd twins (seemingly identical other than in their sex)

It’s like a mirror, he had said. Or that they are one person split down the middle. Their two

He feels again the sensation he has had all his life: that she is the other side to him, that they fit together, him and her, like two halves of a walnut. That without her he is incomplete, lost. He will carry an open wound, down his side, for the rest of his life, where she had been ripped from him. How can he live without her? He cannot. It is like asking the heart to live without the lungs, like tearing the moon out of the sky and asking the stars to do its work, like expecting the barley to grow without rain. Tears are appearing on her cheeks now, like silver seeds, as if by magic. He knows they are his, falling from his eyes on to her face, but they could just as easily be hers. They are one and the same. ‘You shall be well,’ she murmurs. He grips her fingers in anger. ‘I shall not.’ He passes his tongue over his lips, tasting salt. ‘I’ll come with you. We’ll go together.’

Ideas which the author expands into a plot point which of course draws on the use of mistaken identity and doubles in their father’s work:

Then the idea strikes him. He doesn’t know why he hadn’t thought of it before. It occurs to Hamnet, as he crouches there, next to her, that it might be possible to hoodwink Death, to pull off the trick he and Judith have been playing on people since they were young: to exchange places and clothes, leading people to believe that each was the other.


Another fascinating aspect of this first section – which effectively leads up to the (real life) death of Hamnet – is the many accidental resonances with our present day situation, resonances which I suspect increase the already high chances of this book winning literary prize acclaim.

The way the plague spreads not just in England but also in Northern Italy (and the links between the two)

The fleas that leapt from the dying rats into their striped fur crawl down into these boxes and take up residence in the rags padding the hundreds of tiny, multi-coloured millefiori beads (the same rags put there by the fellow worker of the master glassmaker; the same glassmaker who is now in Murano, where the glassworks is at a standstill, because so many of the workers are falling ill with a mysterious and virulent fever).

The inadequacy of Personal Protective Equipment for English medical staff:

It is tall, cloaked in black, and in the place of a face is a hideous, featureless mask, pointed like the beak of a gigantic bird. ‘No,’ Hamnet cries, ‘get away.’ .. Then his grandmother is there, pushing him aside, apologising to the spectre, as if there is nothing out of the ordinary about it, inviting it to step into the house, to examine the patient. Hamnet takes a step backwards and another. He collides with his mother, ‘Don’t be afraid,’ she whispers. ‘It is only the physician.’ ‘The . . .?’ Hamnet stares at him, still there on the doorstep, talking with his grandmother. ‘But why is he . . .?’ Hamnet gestures to his face, his nose. ‘He wears that mask because he thinks it will protect him,’ she says. ‘From the pestilence?’ His mother nods. ‘And will it?’ His mother purses her lips, then shakes her head. ‘I don’t think so.’


The spectre is speaking without a mouth, saying he will not come in, he cannot, and they, the inhabitants, are hereby ordered not to go out, not to take to the streets, but to remain indoors until the pestilence is past.

The guilty upside of the events for children of busy parents

If the plague comes to London, he can be back with them for months. The playhouses are all shut, by order of the Queen, and no one is allowed to gather in public. It is wrong to wish for plague, her mother has said, but Susanna has done this a few times under her breath, at night, after she has said her prayers. She always crosses herself afterwards. But still she wishes it. Her father home, for months, with them. She sometimes wonders if her mother secretly wishes it too.

Misplaced faith in unlikely treatments (hydroxychloroquin anyone?)

‘Madam,’ the physician says, and again his beak swings towards them, ‘you may trust that I know much more about these matters than you do. A dried toad, applied to the abdomen for several days, has proven to have great efficacy in cases such as these.

And the realisation that whatever contingency planning healers have done is powerless in the face of what they are confronted with

She thinks of her garden, of her shelves of powders, potions, leaves, liquids, with incredulity, with rage. What good has any of that been? What point was there to any of it? All those years and years of tending and weeding and pruning and gathering. She would like to go outside and rip up those plants by their roots and fling them into the fire. She is a fool, an ineffectual, prideful fool. How could she ever have thought that her plants might be a match for this?


Any frustration at the slightly slow pace of the first parts, is really overcome in the final section, which deals with the aftermath of Hamnet’s death. Following on from Agnes’s realisation both that her healing powers were inadequate in the face of plague and that her foresight has actually mislead her and forced her to concentrate on the wrong risks (Judith rather than Hamnet) she is thrust back into the real world and the removal of time and place is taken away.

What we get instead is a fierce and painful examination of the grief of a mother and a more oblique examination of how that grief played out in the work of her husband.

Of the way it unmoors all of our pretensions to control

What is given may be taken away, at any time. Cruelty and devastation wait for you around corners, inside coffers, behind doors: they can leap out at you at any moment, like a thief or brigand. The trick is never to let down your guard. Never think you are safe. Never take for granted that your children’s hearts beat, that they sup milk, that they draw breath, that they walk and speak and smile and argue and play. Never for a moment forget they may be gone, snatched from you, in the blink of an eye, borne away from you like thistledown.

That includes a moving burial scene which cannot help remind the reader of another Booker winner - “Lincoln in the Bardo”

It is even more difficult, Agnes finds, to leave the graveyard, than it was to enter it. So many graves to walk past, so many sad and angry ghosts tugging at her skirts, touching her with their cold fingers, pulling at her, naggingly, piteously, saying, Don’t go, wait for us, don’t leave us here.

And then moves into helplessness

And Agnes finds she can bear anything except her child’s pain. She can bear separation, sickness, blows, birth, deprivation, hunger, unfairness, seclusion, but not this: her child, looking down at her dead twin. Her child, sobbing for her lost brother. Her child, racked with grief.


Agnes realises that rather than bringing her family together – her husband will instead move away from her and be absorbed in his work (her influence over him declining with her powers) – leaving her not so much for London but

‘the place in your head. I saw it once, a long time ago, a whole country in there, a landscape. You have gone to that place and it is now more real to you than anywhere else. Nothing can keep you from it. Not even the death of your own child. I see this,’

That (and this was one of the inspirations for the writing of this book) that he will never reference plague directly in his work (as has already been noted by his daughter even in his speech)

It is also plague season again in London and the playhouses are shut. This is never said aloud. Judith notes the absence of this word during his visits.

That a playwright who gave so many words to the English language is not even available to help his family find the words that they need

What is the word, Judith asks her mother, for someone who was a twin but is no longer a twin?

But, in a tour de force ending to this excellent book that he will examine the death in his own way and via his most famous play.

Hamlet, here, on this stage, is two people, the young man, alive, and the father, dead. He is both alive and dead. Her husband has brought him back to life, in the only way he can. As the ghost talks, she sees that her husband, in writing this, in taking the role of the ghost, has changed places with his son. He has taken his son’s death and made it his own; he has put himself in death’s clutches, resurrecting the boy in his place. ‘O horrible! O horrible! Most horrible!’ murmurs her husband’s ghoulish voice, recalling the agony of his death. He has, Agnes sees, done what any father would wish to do, to exchange his child’s suffering for his own, to take his place, to offer himself up in his child’s stead so that the boy might live.

Overall - magnificent
Profile Image for ✨    jami   ✨.
663 reviews3,893 followers
May 11, 2020
Everyone seems to love this but... not for me. Maybe take my opinion with a grain of salt since I'm notoriously picky with historical fiction, and especially ones which fictionalise real people and events. Maybe I just went into it with the wrong expectations given it's marketed as "the heart-stopping story behind Shakespeare's Hamlet" and it's .... really not that.

The story never gripped me. it boasts itself as the illuminating story behind Shakespeare's Hamlet, but the links Maggie O'Farrell draws seem tenuous at best. Really, this story is about Agnes/Anne Hathaway, and her experience raising her children while her husband is away in London writing.

I thought the portrayal of Agnes/Anne was cliche and boring. Another reviewer put it perfectly "I especially hated the portrayal of Agnes as one of those almost witchy 'wise women' who abound in historical fiction: fey, with preternatural senses, a herbalist as a code for 'female' power... it's very predictable, very common

Some reviewers also praised the writing but I found it overwrought and tedious. I didn't feel I particularly got a great grip or sense of the time period or setting through the writing.

All in all, I just didn't find this story gripping or interesting or illuminating. I went into it for it's Shakespeare connection but it's really more of a slice of life from Elizabethan England and despite moments of interest, like the chapter about the plague arriving in England, or the final chapters as Agnes watches a production of Hamlet, there was little here that excited me. But I'm quite disappointed because I had really high hopes for this!
Profile Image for Jen CAN.
488 reviews1,370 followers
April 13, 2021
At last, I am baptized into the O’Farrell world. And what an awesome discovery.
I was a little nervous picking this one up when I heard Shakespeare. I didn’t think I wanted to read this, but holy moly, I would have missed out on this exquisite writing and fabulous, yet heart wrenching story.

This is a remarkable tale of love.. Of man and woman and parents and children. A devastating death of a twin at the centre. The division that comes with loss. And a new appreciation for that that speech I was forced to learn back in grade 11. To be or not to be....
I will Remember.
This will go down as one of my all time faves!

Profile Image for Anne Bogel.
Author 7 books55.1k followers
January 4, 2022
In her sweeping novel, Maggie O’Farrell takes a few historically known facts about Shakespeare’s wife and family and, from this spare skeleton, builds out a lush, vivid world. You should know this book is devastating, and I consumed the better part of a box of Kleenex while reading it. Yet with its captivating central character and evocative storytelling, I didn’t want to leave Shakespeare’s world—or put down O’Farrell’s writing. The story centers on Agnes, Shakespeare’s wife, who is torn apart by grief when their son Hamnet dies at age 11. Soon after, Shakespeare writes Hamlet—and O’Farrell convincingly posits that the two events are closely tied. In her distinctive style, O’FarrellI takes you to the heart of what really matters in life, making you feel such a deep sense of loss for Hamnet that you won’t look at your own life the same way.
Profile Image for Ceecee.
1,978 reviews1,510 followers
March 29, 2020
Maggie O’Farrell is an author I’ve always enjoyed reading but I think Hamnet will be one of my favourites. In 1596 Hamnet/Hamlet (names are interchangeable) the son of William Shakespeare died, cause unknown. This captivating story takes us backwards and forwards from 1580 to 1599 to the writing of Hamlet. In 1580 our would be actor and playwright is transfixed by his first sight of Agnes (Anne) Hathaway as he tries without great success to tutor her reluctant stepbrothers. We get a glimpse of his life at home with his tempestuous and violent father John who is a glove maker, mother Mary and sister Eliza. We watch as love grows between William and Agnes who has a Cinderella life with her harsh stepmother Joan, who is contemptuous of Agnes’ skills with herbs and magical powers. We are invited to their wedding and glimpse their family life. You hold your breath as the events unfold that lead to Hamnet’s death and it’s impact upon them and we are in the audience at the premier of the play in his name.

Where to start? This is so well written and in a style appropriate to the century. It’s lively, vivid and captures late Elizabethan times so well that you feel you have been transported back. You are dazzled by the sights, you smell the pungent smells and are a witness to the harsh and hard reality of the times. The images are so colourful as are the characters. Agnes is wonderful, William is an enigma but Agnes understands him well, Hamnet is a clever dreamer and so close to twin sister Judith they are halves of a whole. This wonderful storyline includes magical beliefs, myths and superstitions of the time. It’s an emotional ride too as there’s hatred, selfishness, bitterness, fear, anger, agony and overwhelming sadness but also deep love. You come to understand how William ends up in London and several days journey from his family and how he gets drawn into writing and the world of theatre. The ending is especially affecting and is a very powerful end to a tale you feel connected to.

Overall, this book is stunningly beautiful. I love this period and Shakespeare’s plays (some more than others!) and was lucky enough last summer to see a production of Hamlet at the Rose Theatre in York, a replica of an Elizabethan playhouse, so I guess Maggie O’Farrell already ‘had me’!! However, it doesn’t matter if you are not a fan of the work of the Bard because this is storytelling at its best. Highly recommended and an easy five stars!!

Thanks to NetGalley and especially to Headline Group for the privilege of the ARC.
Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,035 reviews48.5k followers
July 22, 2020
On Aug. 11, 1596, William Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, was buried. He was 11 years old.

Almost nothing more is known about the boy’s brief life. Four centuries later, his death is a crater on the dark side of the moon. How it impacted his twin sister and his parents is impossible to gauge. No letters or diaries — if there were any — survive. The world’s greatest poet did not immortalize his lost child in verse.

Instead, we have only a few tantalizing references in Shakespeare’s plays: the laments of grieving fathers, the recurrence of twins and, of course, a tragedy called “Hamlet.” But aside from the name — a variant of Hamnet — attempts to draw comparisons between that masterpiece and the author’s son are odorous. We’re stuck, as we usually are, projecting our own sympathetic sorrow on the calamities of others.

To this unfathomable well of grief now comes the brilliant Irish writer Maggie O’Farrell with a novel called “Hamnet” told with the urgency of a whispered prayer — or curse.

Unintimidated by the presence of the Bard’s canon or the paucity of the historical record, O’Farrell creates Shakespeare before the radiance of veneration obscured everyone around him. In this book, William is simply a. . . .

To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post:
Profile Image for Diane Barnes.
1,259 reviews451 followers
July 2, 2020
Well. I was looking for something very different from the southern novel I had just finished and the one I wanted to start soon, to give me a change of pace. So, a novel set in the sixteenth century about Shakespeare 's wife and family promised that. I have also been wanting to read something by Maggie O'Farrell as I have read some wonderful reviews, so her newest offering checked that box. I knew from the first page that I had chosen well.

What I didn't realize was that this is a work of art. Any superlative adjective will work here. This author has taken a man with an instantly recognizable name the world over, who, ironically, not much is known about except for a few facts taken from public records of 400 years ago, and she has made him come to life, without mentioning his name even once. More importantly, his wife and children, his parents, brothers and sisters, and the village of Stratford on Avon are turned into real people, real places.

The writing pulled me in, beautifully showing me the courtship and marriage of Will and Agnes (Anne) Hathaway, her pregnancies, daily life, his decision to leave his family and go to London, the death of their 11 year old son, Hamnet, and the grief of the mother and family, especially his twin, Judith.

The lack of facts known about William Shakespeare enabled O'Farrell to give free rein to her imagination, using those facts as groundwork to weave a plausible tale about how it might have been, what might have happened and why.

Lest you dismiss this book because you have no interest in Shakespeare, let me just explain that neither did I. However, this is going on my favorites list and might possibly be the best book I've read this year. It cast a spell that didn't let up from first page to last. Highly recommended for anyone looking for great writing combined with a great story and great characters.
Profile Image for Terrie  Robinson.
399 reviews590 followers
November 30, 2022
"Hamnet" by Maggie O'Farrell is a Masterpiece!

In Stratford, Warwickshire in 1580, a Latin tutor falls in love with Agnes, an eccentric young woman who is uniquely different and perceived as strange by the townsfolk for her innate connection to nature and wildlife.

The Latin tutor and Agnes quickly marry. She becomes a fierce mother, a wife, and a healer. The husband becomes a gifted writer. They have three children together: the oldest, Susanna and twins, Hamnet and Judith. The husband goes to London for his work, only to visit his family several times a year.

Tragedy strikes this family when their son Hamnet dies in 1596 at age eleven from the bubonic plague. Several years later, the husband writes a play titled "Hamlet", named for his dead son...

This story is an emotional read that lacks joy and happiness from cover to cover. Despite it never reaching a stroke of brightness, the authors' prose is pure beauty in the telling of this speculative story.

The writing style captures the darkness and hardships of living in the time period and evokes a sense of being present in the places described, smelling the pungent odors of animals in the streets, and hearing the noises of living in close proximity to both family and neighbors.

The characterizations are clever and entertaining. She paints a clear picture in the readers' mind of each of the players as she draws them fully and creatively. The details in her story are rich and robust.

Listening to the wonderful Ell Potter narrate the audiobook is a breath-taking and memorable experience. I read the hardcover book in February, then listened to the audiobook in November and, to me, there is no comparison between the two. The audiobook brings more color and life to the story, its characters, and I remember it in greater detail!

I'm hesitant to read another book by this author as I wonder how she will possibly top this masterpiece. At the same time, I can hardly wait to select one. I highly recommend this book! 5 beautiful stars!
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,739 reviews14.1k followers
October 12, 2020
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.
Profile Image for Dave Schaafsma.
Author 6 books31.3k followers
April 10, 2023
4/10/23: Hamnet is being adapted by Maggie Farrell for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

10/20/20: I added some notes for myself at the end of the original review after I listened to Hamlet again and saw a film version of the play.

"Horatio, I am dead, thou liv'st; report my cause aright to the unsatisfied"--Hamlet

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is a devastating and beautiful book. You have to read it. I guess we can call it Tudor historical fiction, written in lyrical Elizabethan prose, where plums wear "red-gold jackets near to bursting with sweetness." Lyrical description throughout. She reveals/reminds us of the scant historical facts that guide her: In the 1580s a woman we know now as Anne Hathaway but who was actually named Agnes has three children: Susanna, and twins Judith, born sickly, and Hamnet, who is stronger always but nevertheless dies in 1596 at eleven. Four years later Agnes’s husband writes a play called Hamlet (and we learn that at this time the names Hamlet and Hamnet were interchangeable).

The novel is in one sense a novel about grief, over the loss of a young son, so the prose rises to the level of emotion appropriate to that. It has gorgeous writing, nothing quite like O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am (which I liked a lot; I’m just saying I Am is written in contemporary prose, though it also skirts the wall of death at every turn). Hamnet is set in a time of The Black Plague, which O’Farrell assumes may have killed Agnes' young son. And she writes this during a time when hundreds of thousands are being killed by (one of) our own deadly plagues. She means to say: This is what it means and has alway meant for a mother and father to lose their child. And why not see this loss primarily from the mother's perspective?! We have a thousand biographies of William Shakespeare; the non-writer wife, who had her own depth and even possibly psychic powers, O’Farrell suggests, is worth listening to as well, and knowing. She’s us, and we’ll never have a book written about us. Or maybe more specifically it is about a woman, written from her perspective, as so little was written about or by women for centuries.

“What is given may be taken away, at any time. Cruelty and devastation wait for you around corners, inside coffers, behind doors: they can leap out at you at any time, like a thief or brigand. The trick is never to let down your guard. Never think you are safe. Never take for granted that your children's hearts beat, that they sup milk, that they draw breath, that they walk and speak and smile and argue and play. Never for a moment forget they may be gone, snatched from you, in the blink of an eye, borne away from you like thistledown.”

Well, grief over the loss of a child: You never recover from it. And yet, as with George Saunders’s also anguishing Lincoln in the Bardo, the inevitable grief and depression can have transformative powers. Then, when Lincoln lost his young son, Saunders presumes it made Lincoln into the kind of man who could empathetically lead a nation. In Hamnet it is in part about how an actor/playwright known mainly as the husband uses his grief to write one of the greatest plays ever written.

Yet the novel is one primarily about Agnes, whose husband works in London, doing his theater work, acting and writing and trying to keep a theatre troupe alive. She realizes there is “more in him than anyone she has ever known,” and yet she resents him, too, at times, for obsessively being away from the family to live in the ever expanding worlds inside his head while she stays home with her children. And her son dies and this husband almost immediately leaves for many months after the funeral with little contact with her. How can it be justified? They need each other now!

Yet it is when the novel turns to the husband, to acknowledge that he too is in devastating grief, that the book begins to turn amazing to me. I’ll admit this may have to do with the gender I share with the husband, I'm not sure. And the fact that I really am interested in how Shakespeare also coped with grief, possibly, having grieved myself. He experiences love and grief differently than his wife does. He can’t talk to her about the loss; at first, he writes a comedy, then a history, and never tells his wife he is writing a play with their son’s name on/in it. And O’Farrell posits that Agnes hears about the play, and though she is not a literary person, and has never seen one of his plays, travels to London to see it.

Agnes initially sees the play in production as defiling the memory of her son. What, a boy whose father has died, and yet her Hamnet has died. . . And her husband plays the ghost of Hamlet’s father in it!? Her husband is. . dead? What does this literary twisting of the facts have to do with their son? And yet she begins to see that the play is grief transformed in so many ways, not a biography but a rich exploration of madness, grief, love, family, and so much more. I was enthralled to see the turn of the novel to the play as a way to explore the literary as a way of helping us live through the death of those we love. To help us understand the power of fiction to transform. And grief in a time of national trauma, the plague, then as now! Oh, this is one of the best books of the year that I have read, without question, but it sort of crept up on me over half the book, biding its time, and finally grabbed me by the heart.

Some notes on Hamnet/Hamlet after rereading Hamlet in the light of O'Farrell's novel:

Hamlet usually is seen as a play about revenge or madness but the play surely does have a lot about various people grieving, and what is appropriate grieving (for instance, Hamlet wonders if his mother truly grieves the loss of her husband, having remarried so quickly afterwards, and we are led to decide who grieves the loss of Ophelia more, Hamlet or her brother Laertes) so for my own notes I add some quotes--in addition to some above--here to support that claim:

“Remember me.” The ghost of Hamlet’s father to Hamlet

“To be, or not to be: that is the question. . .
To die: to sleep; No more; and by a sleep to say we end The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd." (suicidal ideation at the loss of his father)

“Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. ” (refers to Hamlet, but maybe also Hamnet?)

“When sorrows come, they come not single spies. But in battalions!” (grief over the loss of several people in this play)

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in
reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving
how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?" (Hamlet, privately grieving his dead father)

“I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not, with all their quantity of love, make up my sum.”
--This is Hamlet's response to Laertes

“Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting
That would not let me sleep.” (private anguish)

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? (again, a dead acquaintance, reflected on)

We all experience and express our griefs differently. After Hamnet’s funeral Shakespeare left his wife and two daughters for months. He wrote furiously, but not tragedy, at least at first--he wrote a comedy, and a history, tales distant from his personal experience, but within four years he was mounting what is arguably one of the greatest plays in history, Hamlet, named after his son Hamnet. If you look at it closely it's a play teeming with grief that O'Farrell contends the playwright otherwise didn't adequately know how to express.
Profile Image for Debbie.
441 reviews2,795 followers
July 28, 2020
Squirmed like a worm

Wait, don’t get excited—it wasn’t the story that made me squirm like a worm. It was me trying to rate this book that sent me into squirm-land. I yelled at myself, “Stop wiggling and just whisper 4 already!...Really, what is the big effing deal? It’s Maggie O’Farrell, that’s what the big effing deal is. Although 3 stars kept screaming in my head, I finally went with what I know is right in this world: I gave it a 3.5 but rounded up to 4. Truly, O’Farrell doesn’t write anything that’s just middle of the road. I can’t give it a 3, I just can’t.

This is a totally made up story about how Shakespeare came up with the idea to write Hamlet. Let me just say that it had something to do with a personal tragedy. The book is told from his wife’s point of view. I’m not going to say more, in case you want to go into this one blind.

Don’t ask me why, but I usually don’t like to read anything set in the dark ages (in this case, the 16th century). So I was wary. But lo and behold, I did just fine with the time period. I ended up being happy that I got the chance to imagine what life was like back then. Life was so tough, and death was always right around the corner.

Joy Jar

-O’Farrell’s language always slays me—it fits the contours of my soul. Many of her sentences are long flow-y lists, sort of, with words that jump and make her images come alive. Her prose is so sweet, so rhythmic, so mesmerizing. This is the number 1 reason I just can’t give this book 3 stars.

-A standout flea scene: We watch a flea travel from Egypt to England on a monkey. That doesn’t sound like much, but believe me, you’ll be sitting on the edge of your seat while you watch that little bugger go places. It’s hard for me to shut up, but I’ll say no more because I don’t want to give you even a hint of what goes on. This teensy story within the story is pure gold.

-Good bones, good characters—and all that jazz.

Complaint Board

-Once Upon a Time I got a little bored. This whole story seems like it should have started with “Once Upon a Time...” It had that feel to it. The narration is third person, and that’s all fine and good. I’m just not a big fan of narrated stories; often they’re too long (for my ADD attention span), and clumps of descriptive text aren’t punctuated with enough dialogue and drama. In fact, I’d say there’s a little detail-itis going on. A narrated story for me usually lacks the intimacy that I so crave; it’s dense and distant. A big problem is that reading long paragraphs of descriptive text slows me down; it takes a while for my brain to form the images. I sometimes feel like my brain is stuttering.

-A little woo-woo makes me boo-hoo. There isn’t a lot of woo-woo, but there’s enough to bug me. The main character is sort of a medicine woman. I get tired of the prescient woman running around with a handful of herbs and a woo-woo way of sensing things. At the end, Shakespeare (who has only a small role) even senses someone’s presence. It bugs me in any book I read, and it seems like a gimmick. I don’t understand why a writer throws it in. Ditch the woo-woo, please.

-Good grief! For me, the second half of the book is weak. It’s mostly about grief, with nothing really happening. For me that got old; the story lost its momentum. It was an excellent study in grief, but I wanted some drama, even a little. Please?

-Do something! Say something! I wanted a little more action and dialogue, what can I say?

-This book won’t cheer you up, I’ll tell you that. The major gist is a kid dying. How sad is that? I don’t require Hallmark or happy dances, but the tone is somber for the whole book, with no letup.

O’Farrell doesn’t ever dress her words in polyester; she goes with 500-thread cotton. They’re always beautiful and classy, but here there’s not enough color.

I liked O’Farrell’s other books more. As I obnoxiously keep repeating, I wanted dialogue. There were chances to have conversations and they were missed. I was chomping at the bit for spoken words.

I know I whine and whine, but I adore O’Farrell and I’m not in the least sorry that I read this one. I’m in awe of her creativity; I marvel at how she imagined Shakespeare’s family life and wove this fascinating tale together. Her language is to die for, and man does she know how to put sentences together. And the sentences lead to brilliant paragraphs and then to a whole feast of a story that is incredibly rich. I’m not squirming like a worm anymore; writing this review made me know that giving it 4 stars was the only way to go.

Thanks to Edelweiss for the advance copy.

Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,770 followers
December 22, 2022
A writer wonders, Why did the prolific, irreverent and pointedly political Shakespeare never write of the Black Plague, which so impacted contemporary life in Elizabethan England? In her research, Maggie O'Farrell comes across a tragedy in the writer's life that may hold the answer: the loss of his beloved son when the boy was just eleven years old. O'Farrell imagines, quite plausibly, that the death occurred during one of the epidemic's periodic sweeps through England. The son, a twin to sister Judith, was named Hamnet, a common variant of Hamlet. The play, with its ghosts and princes and witches, its madnesses and revenge, was written three years after Hamnet's death. O'Farrell presents it as the playwright's elegy to his son — the fullest expression of grief he could offer.

But Hamnet, O'Farrell's lush, poignant, breathtaking novel, is not William Shakespeare's story. Although the writer is a central character, he is never named. He is lover, husband, father, an artist whose calling subsumes his responsibilities of hearth and home. This story belongs to Agnes, pronounces Ann-yis, the mother of Susanna, Hamnet and Judith Shakespeare. The novel moves back and forth between the present, with an ominous opening as Hamnet frantically searches for an adult to help his twin, Judith, who has succumbed to a sudden illness, and Agnes's early story as an orphan with a significant dowry in Stratford-upon-Avon, her romance with her stepbrothers' Latin tutor, and her evolution as a mother and a healer. She is several years older than the fine-boned young man when they fall in love, and several months' pregnant when they marry.

Agnes Hathaway is a free-spirited soul, fully at home in the forest, an independent woman who navigates the Cinderella tale of an evil stepmother and then her husband's shrew-like mother and abusive father. Motherhood and her work as the town's natural healer fulfill her curious mind and empathetic heart, while her husband follows his calling to London's theatres and playhouses. He returns home every few months, usually coinciding with the periodic rampages of the plague. His children grow and plans are made for the family to move to London, but Judith's fragile health — in contrast to her robust twin brother — holds them fast in Stratford.

Hamnet is the story of a marriage and of motherhood, and heartrendingly, of grief. It is beautifully written, in mesmerizing language that spills onto the page sometimes like poetry, sometimes like a fable, but always absorbing. O'Farrell captures daily life in a late 16th century town with an easy grace that belies the intensity of her research.

In the novel's middle is a ten-page tale of how the plague that shattered the Shakespeare family traveled from a merchant ship in Egypt to their hearth in southern England. It, like every other passage in this singular novel, is impossible to set aside.

I finished this in a wee hour just before dawn, raining throwing itself at the windows, tears dripping from my chin. Hamnet will be in my year's best reads list. A heaven's worth of stars to give. Magnificent.
Profile Image for Valeriu Gherghel.
Author 6 books1,302 followers
May 4, 2022
Cînd asist la fenomene de contagiune și exaltare populară (precum în cazul de față), fac un pas înapoi și devin foarte sceptic.

Despre Anne Hathaway se știu prea puține lucruri. Era mai mare cu 8 ani decît Shakespeare. Cînd s-au căsătorit (în noiembrie 1582), el avea 18 ani, ea 26: un fapt neobișnuit pentru vremea aceea. Au avut 3 (și numai 3) copii (Susanna, Judith, Hamnet): alt fapt neobișnuit. Unul dintre ei, Hamnet, numele era frecvent în epocă, a murit la vîrsta de 11 ani. Nu e sigur că a fost răpus de ciumă. Dar nici nu e exclus.

Dacă William a iubit-o pe Anne, nu au rămas dovezi. Bardul n-a omagiat-o în sonete, unde a vorbit în doi peri despre o „doamnă brună” (dark lady), care nu poate fi Anne / Agnes: nici un istoric n-a propus o astfel de coincidență. Nu știm nici dacă Anne l-a vizitat vreodată la Londra. Mai probabil, nu. Drumul dura 2 zile și era periculos. Singurul lucru aproape cert e că Anne odihnește alături de William Shakespeare (mormînt lîngă mormînt) în biserica Sfînta Treime din Stratford-upon-Avon. O inscripție lapidară precizează că a murit în 6 august 1623, în vîrstă de 67 de ani.

Așadar, portretul istoric al soției lui Shakespeare e gol. În acest deșert se poate broda orice. Maggie O'Farrell a făcut din Anne o farmazoană, o femeie a pădurii, o clarvăzătoare, care citește în sufletele celor din jur și prezice viitorul (pp.157, 259). Descifrează oamenii după miros (p.203). Pielea ei are aroma subtilă a rozmarinului (p.52). E o făptură vegetală. Se duce să nască în pădure (pp.165-169). E însoțită permanent de un șoim / vînturel. Îngrijește bolnavii din Stratford, culege plante și prepară leacuri, dar nu izbutește să împiedice moartea lui Hamnet. Asta o face să se îndoiască de sine. Suferința ei e stridentă. Prozatoarea vrea să ne stoarcă de lacrimi cu orice preț. Rezultatul e grandilocvent:
„Agnes este purtată pe sus..., de parcă ar fi o ucigașă, o nebună” (p.246). „Agnes este o femeie sfărîmată în bucăți, călcate în picioare și împrăștiate în jur” (p.297).

Agnes e o femeie hotărîtă, William e, în schimb, un sfios. Chiar dacă publicul cititor e fermecat de „bărbăția” femeii, o astfel de relație e neverosimilă.

Apariția romanului a ocazionat ample discuții în rîndul savanților cu privire la relația dintre Hamnet (fiul) și Hamlet (personajul). Cînd a compus, pe la 1600, vestita tragedie, s-a gîndit oare Shakespeare la băiatul lui mort? Probabil. A construit piesa pornind de la portretul lui? În nici un caz. Dacă ați citit Hamlet, cunoașteți deja răspunsul. Tema piesei e împrumutată din Gesta Danorum a lui Saxo Grammaticus. La Saxo, numele eroului e Amleth. Tragedia lui Shakespeare nu poate fi o elegie după copilul pierdut.

P. S. Cum arăta camera de lucru a dramaturgului? Maggie O'Farrell o pune pe Agnes să exclame surprinsă, ca și cum n-ar fi observat că s-a măritat cu un schivnic: „Atîta austeritate, atîta simplitate. Este chilia unui călugăr, camera de lucru a unui învățat. În aer plutește senzația intensă că nimeni altcineva nu intră aici, că nimeni altcineva nu vede camera asta vreodată” (p.371). În treacăt fie spus, în epoca elizabetană, actorii numai sfinți nu erau. Dar e dreptul sacrosanct al lui Maggie O'Farrell să vadă în Shakespeare un ascet...
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