Jane’s Pick: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Hamnet is a fictionalized account of the death of Shakespeare’s young son Hamnet, but the story isn’t about Shakespeare at all – his name is never mentioned. He is, in turns, called the Latin tutor, the father, the husband. This is one of my favorite aspects of the book, it completely flips the historic narrative. It recasts Agnes as the full character instead of Shakespeare and relegates him to a footnote much in the way she has be historically assigned.

Using the same historic facts others have used to paint a negative picture of Anne/Agnes, O’Farrell is able to tell the story from a different perspective. Not only is this fresh and unique, but it actually added a new angle to my understanding of Shakespeare.

The novel switches between two time periods – the beginning of his relationship with his wife Agnes (Anne) and then later as the bubonic plague takes Hamnet. The story mainly focuses on Agnes – who is cast as a healer with an special affinity for the forest and magic. Although, she is regarded as an outcast amongst the locals, her deep understanding and empathy is what sets off the love affair between her and Shakespeare. The novel is also about her grief, of what she has lost. And, in the last chapter – we see how this tragedy feeds Shakespeare’s artistic pursuit and pulls them toward one another again.

“Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mother’s: the boy, the empty house, the deserted yard, the unheard cry.” – Maggie O’Farrell Hamnet

O’Farrell’s writing encompasses the reader into the details of Elizabethan England – the sights, sounds, textures; small details that bring into focus the physicality of the time.

As an aside, during this time of pandemic, I was engrossed in the 10 pages O’Farrell dedicates to how the plague spread to England. It added an element of connection to the current world.

Even if you know nothing of Shakespeare, this book is a worthy read – an emotional novel of love, relationships and grief. If you are a Shakespeare fan, you will recognize how deeply O’Farrell has ingrained Shakespeare’s writing into a book that doesn’t even mention him by name.