Book Review: “Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell

This book is a wonderfully executed piece of historical fiction.

Maggie O’Farrell creates a family history of William Shakespeare, his wife, and children. Working with very little available factual information, O’Farrell pieces together her imagined version of the world in which Shakespeare lived and worked. In the process, the reader is invited to speculate along with the author about the impacts of abuse, grief, and separation on his relationships and his work.  

O’Farrell opens the story as Hamnet, Shakespeare’s 11-year old son, is desperately seeking medical assistance for his twin sister, Judith, who has contracted the plague. We quickly learn that his mother, Agnes, is nowhere to be found, and that his not-yet-famous father is in London pursuing his dreams. 

While the fate of the twins hangs over you, the author then skips back and forth in time to fill out the family histories. We learn about: Shakespeare’s childhood; his father (who is painted as a social outcast and a bully); how Shakespeare and his wife meet and fall in love; Agnes’ own difficult childhood losses; how the two of them get married after she gets pregnant; how they almost immediately lead separate lives; and how a very spiritually-driven Agnes approaches and experiences childbirth. All this and more.

As you read, you are always brought back to the fate of the twins. (No spoilers, sorry.)  You worry with them; you feel their isolation and fear.  At the same time, the author invites you to wonder if Shakespeare’s marriage was immediately troubled and broken, or whether it was based on independence, support, passion, and trust.  

I can’t talk much about the author’s speculative ending without revealing too much about the book. It definitely elicited a “Wow!” from me.  O’Farrell writes beautifully and simply, yet somehow creates detailed scenes that place you directly in Shakespeare’s world.  I found that the story was also a reminder, in difficult times such as these, about healing and hope.

Review by Roberta Jordan, Outreach and Instruction Librarian

Click here to request a copy. 

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