Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet (#BookReview)

Book cover

Not unusually, I’m late to this book that was all the talk in 2020 – and, I may not have read it at all if it hadn’t been for my reading group. I’m talking, as you will have guessed from the post title, of Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet.

As most of you will know, Hamnet’s plot draws from the life of Shakespeare (never named in the novel) and Anne Hathaway, and the death of their son Hamnet at the age of 11. There was an older sister, Susanna, and Hamnet’s twin sister, Judith. O’Farrell explains her interest in her Author’s Note:

Lastly, it is not known why Hamnet Shakespeare died: his burial is listed but not the cause of his death. The Black Death or ‘pestilence’, as it would have been known in the late sixteenth century, is not mentioned once by Shakespeare, in any of his plays or poetry. I have always wondered about this absence and its possible significance; this novel is the result of my idle speculation.

Because this book has been well-covered already online, I’m going to take a slightly different tack with this post, and focus on a couple of questions.

“She herself might tell a different story”

With all books, but particularly with historical fiction, one of my questions is, why did the author choose to write their story. O’Farrell partly answers it in her Author’s note. However, there is also, surely, a feminist reading, because, although the novel is titled Hamnet, it is primarily about his mother Agnes (as Anne is named in Shakespeare’s will). Early in the novel, O’Farrell writes “This is the story, the myth of Agnes’s childhood. She herself might tell a different story”.

The thing is, we don’t know a lot about Agnes Hathaway which makes her ripe for historical fiction. What we do know is that women’s stories were – and too often still are – rarely told, but that that doesn’t mean their lives were unimportant. It means that importance hasn’t been placed on them. Whoever Agnes really was, O’Farrell has created a wonderful, eccentric character, who is perceptive, warm, independently-minded, a little flawed but engaged in the life of her family and community. She is fun to read about.

Besides telling a story about her, though, O’Farrell also presents, through her, a story about grief, and this, for me, was one of the strongest aspects of the novel. Agnes’ thoughts about burying her son, her astonishment that people can complain about their children, her utter discombobulation were so real:

Agnes is not the person she used to be. She is utterly changed. She can recall being someone who felt sure of life and what it would hold for her …

This person is now lost to her for ever. She is someone adrift in her life, who doesn’t recognise it. She is unmoored, at a loss. … Small things undo her. Nothing is certain any more.

So real …


Warning: Spoiler of sorts

Given the novel is titled for Hamnet, rather than for its main protagonist, Agnes, it’s worth considering why, and this leads us to the play Hamlet. The novel ends with Agnes attending a performance of her husband’s play, which confirms the significance of this play to the novel. The epigraph to the novel’s second part is a quote from Hamlet (V:ii): “Thou livest;/ . . . draw thy breath in pain,/ To tell my story”. But, Hamlet could scarcely be seen to be Hamnet’s story, though I did have a little laugh at the point in the novel where Hamnet chooses to die:

They cannot both live: he sees this and she sees this. There is not enough life, enough air, enough blood for both of them. Perhaps there never was. And if either of them is to live, it must be her. He wills it. He grips the sheet, tight, in both hands. He, Hamnet, decrees it. It shall be.

Eleven-year-old Hamnet seems, here, to be far more decisive than his namesake who is known for his prevarication. This, however, is not what we are expected to take away from the novel I’m sure!

So, what else? Well, there’s the grief theme, which Hamlet can be seen to “resolve” in the novel. Agnes, devastated after her son’s death, can’t understand her husband returning to work – and writing comedies:

His company are having a great success with a new comedy. They took it to the Palace and the word was that the Queen was much diverted by it.

There is a silence. Judith looks from her mother, to her sister, to the letter. 

A comedy? her mother asks.

She is even more devastated though to learn that her husband has gone on to write a play using their son’s name – Hamnet and Hamlet being interchangeable – so she goes to London to confront him. What happens is something else. Initially, she feels eviscerated:

How could he thieve this name, then strip and flense it of all it embodies, discarding the very life it once contained? 

But then, as she sees the ghost father and living son, she starts to see something else:

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.

My reading group discussed the question of the play a little, though we didn’t come to any particular conclusion, which I rather like. However, we did talk about how Shakespeare wrote his darkest, strongest plays, including the four great tragedies, after Hamnet’s death, which suggests that his son’s death had a big impact on him. A member also raised the play’s existential nature, seeing it exploring the fragility of life – “to be or not to be” – and how you go on in the face of bleakness.

Now, I could go on and talk about the style (language, use of present tense, symbolism), the decision not to name Shakespeare, and the dual storyline structure, as I normally would, but I’m sure they’ve been discussed elsewhere, so I’m leaving it this time. There were aspects of the novel that I question, but the truth is that I fell for Agnes and her story.

So, I’m going to leave you with two quotes, one from the husband, one from the wife.

It is so tenuous, so fragile, the life of the playhouses. He often thinks that, more than anything, it is like the embroidery on his father’s gloves: only the beautiful shows, only the smallest part, while underneath is a cross-hatching of labour and skill and frustration and sweat. 

Gardens don’t stand still: they are always in flux. 

These relate to their spheres of activity, but they also say something about life, don’t you think?

Maggie O’Farrell
London: Tinder Press, 2020
eISBN: 9781472223814

43 thoughts on “Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet (#BookReview)

  1. I’m even later than you in reading this, although I do have it on my e-reader so that’s the first step. I’ll come back to read your review once I’ve finished it!

  2. I was surprised when you said you were behind on this book, that it came out in….2020. I thought it was going to be much longer ago. 2020 feels like a decade ago.

    My brain latched onto this line: “What we do know is that women’s stories were – and too often still are – rarely told, but that that doesn’t mean their lives were unimportant.” One of the last events held at the library where I worked just before I resigned was about women’s stories not being told in history, and that it’s actually in cookbooks where you find them. Do you have what are known as community or church cookbooks in Canberra? A group of women pool together recipes and sell the books, usually to raise money for something. Recipes often included a story about the woman’s family and where the recipe came from. Just based on what those women were eating and which meals they valued, you can learn a lot about them. Granted, this is not the same as a biography or anything, but it’s a time capsule of sorts that reflect the period.

    • Oh yes, Melanie … I do know those sorts of cookbooks and have a few from my travels, from Australia and the USA. Not many have stories with the recipes, but some do. However, even those that don’t have stories provide an insight don’t they? You can almost see the story in the recipe. (One Canberra one I have was put out my out local Quilters organisation.) Anyhow, that’s just the sort of event I would have loved to attend. Did the library do an exhibition of the books?

  3. Love the quotes you chose to end on. The one about gardens is so true!

    I came to this book late too. I read it in May this year and didn’t much like it. The prose style really grated on me and I struggled to believe the exciting premise of the first part of the story (that Hamlet survived the plague) and felt that o’Farrell had played a trick on her readers.

    • That’s interesting kimbofo. I didn’t think there was anything to suggest that Hamnet wouldn’t die. I just presumed he was going to catch it from Judith, and die while she’d recover. I wonder what made you think O’Farrell was setting us up to believe he’d survive when the whole premise was that he’d died? The historical note at the start, and the epigraph which opens part I both tell us he died.

      Anyhow, I’ll come visit your post!

      • Oh we all know he’s going to die but that first chapter toys with the reader’s emotions by building up the idea that it’s his sister who is at risk of death. I think that’s a cheap trick to generate excitement / adrenaline in the reader. Ian McEwan does this a lot in his fiction too which is partly why I have no respect for him either. 🤷🏻‍♀️

        • But isn’t that common with disease? It’s how COVID is going. It’s not necessarily the first person to get it who dies. We are going to have to disagree on this point because it just doesn’t compute. I was thinking, ah, Judith is sick but Hamnet is going to die. Ah, look, he’s starting to look sick but they are all focused on Judith who was the weaker twin. The foreshadowing, which she used a bit, made it clear that he was going to die and they’d all regret missing the signs. Anyhow, I’ll leave it there. I really enjoyed reading your post.

      • I’ve not read anything by Maggie Farrell but after listening to the two friends discuss her in their Maggie Farrell episode on their Diving In podcast she is on my radar more now. Diving in, if you aren’t familiar are two very educated young women or maybe gen x, from Perth and I love their series.

        • Thanks Pam. I think you’d enjoy this. I haven’t read her before and who knows if I’ll read her again, but this did capture my imagination.

          Thanks for recommending that podcast. Somehow I don’t find any time to listen to podcasts though I know there are a lot of good ones out there. But, one day I might.

  4. I confess I didn’t make it to the end of this book. The herbal wild woman trope falling for the ‘tutor’ made me roll my eyes! But I did love the beginning with Hamnet’s desperate search for someone to help with Judith. I did hear the ending, with it’s discussion on grief, was pretty powerful.
    So thank you for the two quotes.
    I know that you focused on their pertinence to ‘Life’ but both made me wonder just how tenuous or fragile things really are? The people or the players come and go, but playhouses & Shakespeare’s plays are still being performed today – even in the rebuilt Globe Theatre. And Anne/Agnes’ garden is still available for tourists to stroll through. These things have survived and evolved over hundreds of years.

    • Yes, I had some feelings about many of the characters being stereotypical (or archetypal) in some ways, Brona. A friend and I were talking about Agnes. She suggested that an older women – as Agnes was – who was not married, had to be a little odd, and that’s how O’Farrell portrays her. The “tutor”, I think, was a little odd too. He wasn’t respected by his father because he didn’t fit the mould; Agnes was not loved by her step-mother because she didn’t fit the mould. I didn’t see two people like this finding each other as unusual. My friend and I also talked about Agnes’ “career”. I wondered whether a clue might have been the garden in her cottage. I have seen the cottage but I don’t know what the garden was like in Agnes’ days. Did they know what was in the garden then, and did that add to the inspiration for O’Farrell’s characterisation of Agnes as a herbal woman/healer? Lots to think about.

      Re those quotes. Gardens do survive, I agree, but I read it in the sense that they are always in flux, they never stay the same. Similarly, life changes, and we have to grow, move on, as Agnes has to?

      The playhouses one I thought about a bit more, but I saw it as making a different point about life to the gardens quote. I read the quote as being about the “life” of the playhouses not about the playhouses themselves. So, I saw this “life” as the “play”, the “performance” (including, perhaps, the players and the audience – the whole experience). These are (can be) beautiful, uplifting, rejuvenating. But, underneath that – to achieve that – is a lot of hard work. And so, also in life, most of the “beautiful” (best/good) things usually come from hard work (“labour and skill and frustration and sweat”). And, it seems to me that the beautiful things are often brief? You can have many of them but each one tends to be brief, fragile?

      I have gone on,I’m sorry, but does this make sense, or do they still not quite work for you?

      • Yes, that does make sense Sue & I did see what you were getting at, esp the fleeting nature of beauty. It’s that when I first read the quotes my last visit to the UK popped into my mind & the wonderful performance of The Merchant of Venice that we saw at the Globe. And the lovely, but very cold morning I spent meandering around Anne Hathaway’s garden. And I thought tenuous but enduring. The lives they lived were fragile & fleeting (likes ours) but the places and spaces live on. I hope this makes sense now too!!

  5. Sue, I’ve read this review twice, but I’m afraid the idea of Hamnet just doesn’t grab me. To follow on from Melanie, my favourite cookbook of mum’s is the Boort cookbook (a little town in the Mallee) but I think the most used one was the CWA (Country Women’s Association) cookbook from the 1950s – they certainly tell stories about desserts!

    • No, I wouldn’t think it would be you Bill but thanks for commenting.

      I love that you’ve joined the recipe book discussion, and have favourite recipe books. I love that the CWA cookbook has stories about desserts.

  6. This one didn’t really work for me, but I’m aware I’m in the minority. I did like the character of Agnes, but I felt that the Shakespeare connection was really tenuous and that it could have been a stronger book if that link was left out.

    • You’re not the only one though, Cathy, and I had a few questions about it but the things I liked were strong. It’s hard to imagine leaving Shakespeare out of a book about his son’s death!!

  7. I fell for this story too. Still no one has responded to a question I asked in my review.
    As Agnes washes her dead son’s body “she runs her fingers over the scar on Hamnet’s arm where he fell from a fence at Hewlands, over the puckered knot from a dog bite at a harvest fair. The third finger of his right hand is calloused from gripping a quill. There are small pits in the skin of his stomach from when he had a spotted pox as a small child.” It seems like such a comfort, one I’ve experienced when preparing a pet for burial in the woods in back of our house. Am I the only one who reads this passage and wishes we could still do it for the people we love, too?

    • Ah Jeanne, that’s an interesting question that I’ve never really thought about. I’m sitting here thinking would I or wouldn’t I? Having spent time with people I love after death, I can say that I really appreciated having time with them, which with my father was on the night, and then the next day with my brother. The aged care place kept him in his bed until th,which was kind of them, but he was so cold, and so “gone” that I’m not sure it would have been a comfort. If it were my young child though? Maybe yes. I do think, when I read these preparing the body stories, what love and respect they show.

    • I went to your blog but I couldn’t find a search function to look for this review? Do you have a search button? If not, would you be happy to leave a link here for your review?

    • Oh thanks Stefanie. I love it when people say they enjoy my review – not just the book. It somehow makes it worth doing. It was a good discussion, even though, unfortunately, it was via ZOOM.

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