Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet is both a brilliant re-creation of the lives of William Shakespeare and his family in late 16th-century Stratford-upon-Avon and an emotionally intense account of the death of the dramatist’s young son and its painful aftermath.
Told mostly through the eyes of Shakespeare’s wife, herbalist and clairvoyant Agnes (known to history as Anne Hathaway), Hamnet shifts between the early 1580s, when she and William meet as he’s tutoring her stepsiblings on their farm outside Stratford, and 1596, when the couple resides in a small apartment next to her in-laws’ house. William struggles to escape his overbearing father and the family’s glove-making business to pursue his writing career.
In a flawlessly executed chapter that’s especially chilling in this time of global pandemic, O’Farrell traces the path of the bubonic plague from a glass-blowing factory near Venice to the Shakespeare home, where it afflicts Judith, the twin sister of 11-year-old Hamnet. Through a supernatural chain of events initiated by Hamnet, the disease passes from the girl to her sibling, and Agnes’ joy at Judith’s miraculous recovery is eclipsed by the horror of the boy’s unexpected death. What follows is a vivid and heartbreaking portrait of grief, as Agnes tries to adjust to life without Hamnet, while William travels to London and moves forward as a celebrated playwright.
An award-winning writer who has published seven previous novels, O’Farrell excels at evoking the essence of the Shakespeares’ daily lives in Stratford, from the claustrophobia of the family’s dwelling to the beauty of Agnes’ beloved forest, where she gathers plants to fashion her potions. But in addition to getting all the details right, O’Farrell succeeds in creating psychologically acute portraits of characters living at a distance of more than 400 years. Graceful and moving, Hamnet is a triumph of literary and historical fiction.