Ellen’s Pick of the Week: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

More than four hundred years after his death, William Shakespeare is still as relevant today as is Lin-Manuel Miranda. Yet, we still don’t know much about his personal and family life except that at age 18 he married  26 year old Anne (AKA Agnes) Hathaway and that their first daughter Susannah was born six months months later, followed by twins Hamnet and Judith. 

Maggie O’Farrell brilliantly re-imagines Shakespeare’s family life during the times he’s away working in London by focusing on what little is known about his wife Agnes (as she is known in her father’s will) and their three children, most especially Hamnet (this spelling is interchangeable in the contemporary records with Hamlet). I felt like I was living in those days, the historical details were so perfect. Christianity was the main religion, but just to be safe, many people still made offerings to the older gods and evil was a real thing to be protected against. The relationship between Agnes and the Bard is shown to be a powerful one and it also allows them both some measure of independence. Agnes is a healer and uses herbs and potions to cure the villagers who regularly come to her. Shakespeare himself  lives in London most of the year, except during the regular plague seasons when his acting company moves out of the city to perform in less crowded cities. The story, however, focuses on Hamnet and his illness and death at the age of eleven, probably from bubonic plague, and the impact of his death on the family. There is sadness in the book, but what I loved was this family’s dynamics. The writing was exquisite and I felt every emotion that the characters felt. Although I don’t usually re-read books, this is one that I will reread just to savor the language O’Farrell uses to paint this masterpiece. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that carried me away so completely as did Hamnet. I hope it gets some buzz so others can share my experience. It’s a rare book indeed. (This book was released today, July 21, 2020 and there are still just a couple of holds on it.)

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