If you follow me on social media, or actually if you’ve read some of my recent wrap up/TBR blog posts, you’ll probably know that I was really, really excited to read Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. I’d seen it all over social media, and it’s shortlisted for the Women’s Prize award, and the cover is absolutely gorgeous. Even under the dust jacket it’s stunning! But did it live up to the hype?
Short answer: no.
Long answer: not quite, but I did really enjoy it anyway.
So, what went wrong?
For me, I think because it was so hyped, it could never have lived up to my expectations. The way it had been hyped up, I was expecting something insanely clever and groundbreaking, and that just wasn’t what I got. I was expecting something that was formally and stylistically innovative, and I didn’t feel like I got that from the book. The narrative was very straightforward, as was the writing style, and although it was written very well, something was just missing for me because of the lack of innovation.
The part of this story that I did really like was the characters, the children and Agnes especially. I did find the idea of having Shakespeare as a character without ever actually using the words ‘William’ or ‘Shakespeare’ or any variations thereof was a bit gimmicky, especially in the flashbacks, where he features fairly prominently as a character. Agnes, both past and present, was the standout character for me, and I don’t think that calling Shakespeare by his name a couple of times would at all have detracted from the story of his family. Agnes’ ability to read someone’s future was a really interesting addition: though the audience knows from knowing Shakespeare’s life that Hamnet is doomed to pass away young, Agnes having a sense that one of her children won’t live to adulthood adds an extra dimension of anxiety for the character. Her worry over Hamnet’s younger twin, Judith, is a great example of dramatic irony for the audience, knowing she is not the one Agnes needs to be watching over.
Having visited Stratford several times, I did enjoy reading about the town in the 14th Century, imagining how different the streets would have been. I would have liked perhaps more of a sense of the setting of Stratford as much of the book does take place within the character’s houses, or on their land, and I really enjoyed the brief sections where the characters are out in the town. I love historical novels for the sense of the setting so I am a bit of a sucker for characters roaming the town, going into shops and interacting with people on the streets. The main focus of Hamnet, though, was the family. The focus is certainly not Shakespeare (hence him never being named), but the focus is absolutely on his family. In the ‘present’ sections (insofar as a novel set in the 14th Century can have a present section) Shakespeare is notably absent, predictably in London, writing and producing his plays, while his family remain in Stratford-upon-Avon.
The lack of accurate record-keeping from this time period meant O’Farrell had some room to play around with aspects of the characters’ lives without compromising the historical accuracy, which I enjoyed. For example, Hamnet’s cause of death was never recorded, as O’Farrell notes in the Authors Note at the end, which gave her a bit of freedom to play with history. While she chose to go with the generally accepted cause of death (the Bubonic Plague), her story of how the plague came to the Shakespeare’s door is entirely fictional (we assume!). This section was one of my favourites in the book, building the tension and anxiety the reader feels as the ripple effect of a couple of fleas landing on a sailor-boy far away from Stratford are chronicled, steadily bringing disease closer and closer to Stratford. It’s a tricky job, taking a story we are all so familiar with, and injecting it with a sense of impending disaster as the reader already knows the inevitable, but O’Farrell manages to build dread. I think this is the thing I was most impressed with about this book: it’s about the most famous playwright in history, yet it isn’t about him at all. It does, in this way, offer something new and exciting.
If you are thinking of reading Hamnet but you’re worried because you aren’t familiar with much of Shakespeare’s work: don’t worry. The only play of his mentioned by name is Hamlet (for perhaps obvious reasons), and even then you don’t really need a knowledge of the plot to follow the book. It might be useful to be familiar with the characters and the earlier scenes of Hamlet, but I think really the book itself gives you enough information. I would definitely recommend this book to fans of historical fiction, whether you care particularly about Shakespeare or not (but like I also absolutely recommend being interested in Shakespeare, but that’s not really the point of this review). If you are looking to learn about the Bard himself, this is a pretty indirect way to do it, but there’s certainly a lot about his life that you can take from this, if you’re looking for it.
This review also published on GoodReads, and The StoryGraph!