Book Review of Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet

Maggie O'Farrell is a brave and talented writer. To attempt to surmise what inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet is a big ask!

Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet tells a completely fictionalized version of Shakespeare’s life story after meeting his future wife Agne. The story unfolds up until the point Hamlet the play was performed in London.

Agnes (Anne Hathaway) is portrayed as a semi-wild unconformist woman with a love of nature, a skill in creating medicinal cures and a desire to escape her uncaring step-mother. There is a Cinderella aspect to the story as she is rescued by her hapless lover. Shakespeare, who works on her brother’s farm as a latin tutor. Shakesepare is presented as little more than a boy, a dreamer and a man with few prospects. We follow their lives as fanciful and practical matters combine, before focusing in on their children, particularly the twins Judith and Hamnet.¬†

Hamnet begins with the boy Hamnet tripping down the stairs full of life and vigour. We are quickly invited to understand  his relationship with his wider family. This pulls us in and we watch the saga unfold leading to his death,. We learn the family dynamics at which Shakespeare himself was central and see how the plague touched the household.

Most readers will have some knowledge of Shakspeare and Shakespeare’s England so this insight into a respected writer’s interpretation of events and culture, within a broadly accurate historical context, is interesting and thought provoking. The challenge, as a reader is to suspend one’s own imaginative flights of fancy and buy into someone else’s. Once this is achieved then the book is absorbing and the story is well-told.¬†

Maggie O'Farrell wrote three other books before giving herself a 'talking to' and finally writing Hamnet!

Book Discussion Questions on Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet

    • In¬†Hamnet,¬†Faggie O’Farrell doesn’t ever call Agnes’ husband Will or Shakespeare. Why do you think she chooses not to name him?


    • Agnes is presented as quite a strange woman who paid little attention to convention and respectability. She cured lots of people’s illnesses with herbs and tinctures. How did this conform with or differ to your own perception of Anne Hathaway?¬†


    • I think that the narrative voice in Hamnet is quite unusual in that it is quite didactc, but also has a floaty, not quite of this world feel. How would you describe the narrative? What do you think O’Farrell was trying to convey through it?


    • Look around your bookclub members. Who is most like Agnes and why?¬†


    • It is unknown whether Joan was Agnes’ mother or step-mother. How would the story have been different if she was actually Agnes’ mother?


    • In Maggie’ O’Farrell’s story Hamnet¬†were Agnes and her husband in love? Discuss.


    • The last line of Maggie’ O’Farrell”s novel is ‘Remember Me’. This is said by¬† Shakespeare who is acting the role of¬† ghost from the play¬†‘Hamlet’.¬† In Hamlet (the play) this line¬† is often interpreted as the ghost of dead king Hamlet (who has been murdered by his brother) asking that young Hamlet seeks revenge. Why does Maggie O’Farrell conclude her story with this line?¬†


    • What Is Agnes’ interpretation of her husband’s rationale behind playing the part of old King Hamlet’s ghost? Were you convinced by Agnes’ reading of events? If not how did this affect your enjoyment of the story?


    • Maggie O’Farrell visited Stratford and the tourist spots linked to Shakespeare in order to be able to write authentically about Tudor England. How successfully does she bring Shakspeare’s England to life? Give examples of what is effective?¬†


    • “Dazzling, Devastating”, “Flawless and furious”. “Heartstopping, Hamnet does for the Shakespeare story what Jean Rhys does for Jane Eyre” are all quotations usedi n lieu of a blurb on the back of the book. What quotation would you add to these? Feel free to joke around. I think Shakepseare would approve and Maggie O’Farrell probably would too!¬†


    • In Maggie O’Farrell’s retelling of Hamnet’s story, Shakespare’s family seem to have little interest in or understanding of his writing? Discuss the significance of this?¬†


  • Whilst we can’t ever know for sure what Shakspeare was like, how true is Maggie O’Farrell’s characterisation of Shakespeare, in comparison to the image you have built up of him in¬† your own mind?¬†


  • Explore the difficulties of writing a book with Hamnet as the main character rather than Shakespeare himself.

Bookclub Questions on Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet (If you haven't read the book!)

    • The story explores how Hamnet tricked death. Historically there are many parables and allegorical stories of where death is tricked.¬†Harry Potter and the tale of the three brothers¬†springs to mind. If death was a person what would s/he look like to you? How would s/he collect you?


  • O’Farrell has taken the most famous dramatist in the world and one of the most famous plays in the world¬†and offered a historical interpretation of how it was named.¬†How would you describe a writer who does something this bold? What is the boldest thing you have ever written?


    • To receive a letter delivered from Stratford to London, during Shakespeare’s time was a big feat. Explore the differences between the impact of receiving ‘snail mail’ then and an ’email now’.¬†


    • Hamnet and Judith have a ‘special bond’ due to being twins. What stories can you share of twins or triplets etc having a special bond?¬†


    • Hamnet¬†is set in Tudor England. What historical period would you like to live in and why?¬†


    • In Maggie O’Farrell’s story Shakespeare and his father have an unsatisfactory relationship. Explore some other problematic literary father/ son relationships.¬†


  • In Maggie O’Farrell’s story Shakespeare ‘found himself and his purpose in life’ by leaving Stratford and moving to London. How important is ‘place’ in defining who we are?¬†

Personal Response to Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet

Hamnet¬†was going to have to be a pretty special book for me to really buy into the story linking the death of his son with the play’s production. Maggie O’Farrell’s fiction account is, of course, utter conjecture. O’Farrell is offering ‘a reading’ or interpretation of what might have been. To get hung up on whether Agnes’ interpretation of events at the end of the story is plausible is, arguably, missing the point of the book.

O’Farrell is writing fiction and bringing alive a possible scenario about something which the reader knows absolutely nothing for sure. Did I get hung up on this? YES! Hamlet, has the best lines of any play ever written or likely to be written. It’s a big ask of the reader to ask them to either suspend their interpretation of the historical contextual reality in order to swallow this version. of the naming of the play. Could I do so? I’m afraid not entirely. That’s perhaps because, ultimately I am too enraptured by the¬†melancholia of Shakespeare’s tragedy, to step fully into this world created by Maggie O’Farrell!¬†

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