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Hamnet: A Novel by Maggie O’Farrell


Maggie O’Farrell could not have known that our spinning globe would be plagued by a virus starting in late 2019. It takes months, maybe years to research a novel like HAMNET, a novel that takes place in the 1500s. But how fortuitous, her finished work bearing the subtitle, A Novel of the Plague, published in July 2020.

This book is an artistic treasure,  a moving story, and if you have not read it yet, I am urging you to do so. 

O’Farrell dedicates the book TO WILL, which is her husband’s name, but she might also be dedicating this lyrical novel to William Shakespeare. (And the book was so welcomed and popular a film is in progress.)

At the very beginning, O’Farrell provides us with the following Historical Note:

In the 1580’s, a couple living on Henley Street, Stratford (Note: Stratford upon Avon in England), had three children: Susanna, then Hamnet and Judith, who were twins. The boy, Hamnet, died in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, his father wrote a play called Hamlet.

O’Farrell also quotes a source to let us know that: Hamnet and Hamlet are in fact the same name, entirely interchangeable in Stratford records in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.


Shakespeare’s Family: We first meet the young boy Hamnet, his twin sister, Judith and older sister Susanna. Their father has already left to work in London and they have stayed behind and are living with their mother and paternal grandparents in a house in Stratford. Throughout the novel, their mother is referred to as Agnes, not Anne (we know her as Anne Hathaway), because as the author explains: “…she was named by her father, Richard Hathaway, in his will, as “Agnes”—and thus O’Farrell chose to use that name. 

All these choices help O’Farrell create a story that we wander into without pre-conceived notions. Those choices and her luminous prose cause you to lingering in a garden of words, other times reading as fast as you can because someone is dying and you are filled with hope that something can be done to stop that death.   

But even though this story is set back in time, you are reading a tale that touches you within our modern age. People are people with their sorrows, loves and deaths. Thus, O’Farrell concludes the wedding ceremony that unites the brilliant future playwright with his chosen bride: “They bow their heads in unison and the priest places linen over them, to protect them from demons, from the devil, from all that is bad and undesirable in the world.”

Agnes is in many ways considered a healer, a midwife, with the plants and roots that she grows.

“She fills the soil with chamomile and marigold, with hyssop and sage, borage and angelica, with wormwort and feverfew. She installs seven skeps at the furthest edge of the garden: on warm July days it is possible to hear the restless rumble of the bees from the house.”

THE PRESENCE OF THE PLAGUE     Don’t Skip this part…

In the middle of the novel, O’Farrell creates a startling chapter. It begins: “For the pestilence to reach Warwickshire, England in the summer of 1596, two events need to occur in the lives of two separate people, and then these people need to meet.”

Having done much research, O’Farrell goes on to present us with a glassmaker on the island of Murano in Venice who wants to get orders of his beads delivered to the town where the Shakespeare family lives. She then creates a cabin boy who leaves his ship while in dock, the boy encounters a monkey and brings it on shipboard. That monkey encounters a rat etc.etc. Weaving this tale from port to port, underlines how the plague spread, until the beads from Venice are delivered to the Shakespeare home.


Thus you will discover that it is the boy Hamnet, the stronger twin, who dies when the plague reaches Stratford. The following is a passage that you might remember when folding your child’s laundry. It might make you consider the task a privilege, not a chore.

“As the fabric runs through her fingers, as she puts each seam together, as she flaps out the creases in the air, her body remembers this task. It takes her back to the before. Folding his clothes, tending to them, breathing in his scent, she can almost persuade herself that he is still here, just about to get dressed, that he will walk through the door at any moment, asking, “Where are my stockings, where is my shirt?”

In her own life, O’Farrell is not unfamiliar with the threat of death, she raising a child who can easily go into anaphylaxis. Writers take those terrifying experiences and create with them.


“What is the word,” Judith asks her mother, “for someone who was a twin but is no longer a twin?”
Her mother, dipping a folded, doubled wick into heated tallow, pauses, but doesn’t turn around.
“If you were a wife,” Judith continues, “and your husband dies, then you are a widow. And if it is parents who die, a child becomes an orphan. But what is the word for what I am?”
“I don’t know,” her mother answers. 
Judith watches the liquid slide off the ends of the wicks, into the bowl below.
“Maybe there isn’t one,” she suggests.
“Maybe not,” says her mother.


Though this beautiful, compelling novel focusses on Agnes, her sorrow, it reveals that family loss touched the great playwright.

“…he finds himself looking out, every evening, over the watching crowd, in search of a particular face, a boy with a slightly crooked smile and a perpetually surprised expression; he scans the audience…because he cannot fathom that his son could just have gone; he must be somewhere; all he has to do is find him.”

O’Farrell emphasizes that the loss of a child can move so strongly within one’s soul, one’s body, that creation–whether it’s a garden or one of the greatest plays ever written–is the only way to power grief, live with it. Thus the ghost in Hamlet says these final words                 “Remember me.” In reading HAMNET, you will find much to remember. 

6 Responses

  1. This sounds like a good read! And how prophetic, even if it wasn’t set in modern times. Not sure I could handle reading about another pandemic, though–!

    1. Thanks for writing, Ricki. I’m with you. The novel expands relationships on a very human level. It also give us more insight
      into how these people lived.

  2. I had heard of the book and then I forgot all about it. About that which there is no word for, I’ve never consciously thought of it but it’s true. It’s a bit amazing there is no word when it happened so frequently to so many parents before modern medicine. I have too many books on my reserve list at the NY Public Library to put it on reserve but I will try to remember to when my list frees up a little.

    1. No guilt involved. I just loved her writing, and when I heard the book will be adapted to a film, OLD SHAKESPEARE appears again.
      Thanks for writing and Happy New Year, Beth

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