Book Review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Title: Hamnet
Author: Maggie O’Farrell
Publisher: Tinder Press
Publication date: March 31, 2020
Length: 372 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Drawing on Maggie O’Farrell’s long-term fascination with the little-known story behind Shakespeare’s most enigmatic play, Hamnet is a luminous portrait of a marriage, at its heart the loss of a beloved child.

Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.

Award-winning author Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel breathes full-blooded life into the story of a loss usually consigned to literary footnotes, and provides an unforgettable vindication of Agnes, a woman intriguingly absent from history.

New York Times Notable Book (2020), Best Book of 2020: GuardianFinancial TimesLiterary Hub, and NPR.

Hamnet is a powerful, emotional, beautifully written story about grief, mourning, and sorrow. Also, Shakespeare.

In Hamnet, the main point-of-view character is Agnes, although we do get passages from the perspectives of Agnes’s children and husband too. Agnes is gifted with sight and special powers. A talented healer, she can also see people’s futures simply by touching them. About herself, she has one clear vision: She will be the mother of two children.

When Agnes meets her husband, the son of a disreputable glovemaker and Latin tutor to her stepbrothers, they’re immediately drawn to one another, and eventually marry. Agnes can see her husband’s unhappiness casting a shadow over their lives. He lacks purpose, a means of fulfilling his own pursuits — so she sends him off to London, ostensibly to further his father’s business interests there. They plan for him to get settled, then send for Agnes and their children.

But all does not go as intended. Already the parents of a healthy girl, Agnes soon delivers not the 2nd child she expects, but a 2nd and 3rd. The twins are a girl and a boy, the girl born so weak and fragile that she was not expected to survive. She names the babies Hamnet and Judith, and they are inseparable. It soon becomes clear that moving to London will never be an option for Agnes and her children — Judith’s health is too delicate to allow her to live in a crowded, dirty city. And so Agnes and her husband live apart, with him returning for visits when he can, although he’s achieving success as a playwright and creating a separate life for himself in the world of theater.

But Agnes can never quite forget her own vision, of herself as the mother of two children.

She fears her foresight; she does. She remembers with ice-cold clarity the image she had of two figures at the foot of the bed where she will meet her end. She now knows that it’s possible, more than possible, that one of her children will die, because children do, all the time. But she will not have it. She will not. She will fill this child, these children, with life. She will place herself between them and the door leading out, and she will stand there, teeth bared, blocking the way. She will defend her three babes against all that lies beyond this world. She will not rest, not sleep, until she knows they are safe. She will push back, fight against, undo the foresight she has always had, about having two children. She will. She knows she can.

When “pestilence” — the Black Death — reaches the family’s home in Stratford, it’s Judith who is stricken. But Hamnet will not abide the idea of losing his twin, and eventually, he is lost while Judith survives. Agnes and the family are plunged into the horrors of loss, the devastating death of a child punching a hole through the fabric of their lives.

In Hamnet, Shakespeare himself is never named (he’s always the husband or the father or the son), but we know who we’re reading about. It feels appropriate for him to be presented in this way — if the story were about him, his life and career would overshadow all the rest. Here, though, it’s a story about a family, and especially about a mother, trying to find a way to live in the shadow of unbearable grief. The father’s way of dealing with the loss, through the power of his words, is just one aspect of what the family experiences.

The writing in Hamnet is absolutely gorgeous. I’m not usually a fan of “literary” fiction, but this novel is an exception for me. The carefully constructed characters, the lyrical descriptions of their world and their lives, and even the passages describing the transmission of the plague are all presented in a way that’s beautiful and haunting and powerful.

Hamnet is a special book, and I’m so glad my book group chose it for this month’s discussion. Once again, thanks to the group, I’ve read an excellent book I might otherwise have missed!

Very highly recommended.

To read more about Hamnet:

New York Times review (written by Geraldine Brooks)
NPR review
Washington Post review

Book Review: Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell

Title: Fools and Mortals
Author: Bernard Cornwell
Publisher: Harper Collins
Publication date: October 19, 2017
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Library

Rating: 5 out of 5.

New York Times bestselling author Bernard Cornwell makes a dramatic departure with this enthralling, action-packed standalone novel that tells the story of the first production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream—as related by William Shakespeare’s estranged younger brother

Lord, what fools these mortals be . . .

In the heart of Elizabethan England, Richard Shakespeare dreams of a glittering career in one of the London playhouses, a world dominated by his older brother, William. But he is a penniless actor, making ends meet through a combination of a beautiful face, petty theft and a silver tongue. As William’s star rises, Richard’s onetime gratitude is souring and he is sorely tempted to abandon family loyalty.

So when a priceless manuscript goes missing, suspicion falls upon Richard, forcing him onto a perilous path through a bawdy and frequently brutal London. Entangled in a high-stakes game of duplicity and betrayal which threatens not only his career and potential fortune, but also the lives of his fellow players, Richard has to call on all he has now learned from the brightest stages and the darkest alleyways of the city. To avoid the gallows, he must play the part of a lifetime . . . .

Showcasing the superb storytelling skill that has won Bernard Cornwell international renown, Fools and Mortals is a richly portrayed tour de force that brings to life a vivid world of intricate stagecraft, fierce competition, and consuming ambition. 

Don’t you just love when a book takes you by surprise and ends up becoming a favorite?

Fools and Mortals is my book group’s pick for September, and I just wasn’t feeling enthusiastic about reading it. My impression was that it would be a dry read that I’d have to work to get into, and I just wasn’t in the mood. But, being a responsible book club member (ha!), I decided to give it a go.

As you can tell from the 5-star rating, I loved it. Once I started, I just couldn’t put it down. So let me tell you more about it.

Fools and Mortals is a story about William Shakespeare’s acting troupe at the Theatre in London, told through the perspective of his younger brother Richard. Richard ran away from home in Stratford as a young teen to escape a cruel apprenticeship, but his brother isn’t exactly warm and welcoming.

A very lovely-looking young man, by age 21 Richard has spent years as a player at the Theatre, although not a full member (Sharer) with a stake in the earnings. When he performs, he earns money. When there’s no part for him, or when there are no performances due to bad weather, he gets nothing. Richard lives in a dingy boarding house, constantly threatened with being thrown out if he can’t pay his back rent, and resorts to petty thievery to keep from starving.

On stage, he specializes in women’s parts, but he wants to be taken seriously. He yearns to be allowed to grow up, cut his hair, grow a beard, and take on the significant male roles that will allow him greater status as an actor. But Will doesn’t seem to have any interest in his brother’s goals, and when he finally promises him a man’s role, there’s still a trick involved that means Richard will end up playing a woman once again.

Meanwhile, there’s intrigue and action afoot. Will has earned a commission to write a play to be performed at the wedding of the Lord Chamberlain’s daughter — the play that will become A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Will is also working on an Italian play, which will be Romeo and Juliet.

But rival companies are also building huge theaters, and original scripts are invaluable in the theater world. If another company can get their hands on one of Will’s plays, they’ll be able to perform it and Will will have no way to get it back or claim it.

So when the new scripts go missing, there’s plenty of suspicion, and Richard is one of those accused of stealing the scripts in order to make some needed money. It’s up to Richard to get them back, but doing so is likely the most dangerous thing he’s ever done.

I won’t go further into the plot itself, but trust me — it’s fascinating! I loved the characters and the behind the scenes look at how a play like A Midsummer Night’s Dream came into being. Through Fools and Mortals, we get to see the complicated business of patronage and protection, the terrifying power of the Persuivants (known as Percies) — the vehemently Puritanical force who have the power to arrest and convict anyone suspected of heresy — as they threaten the players, and the deadly serious competition and scheming related to gaining and keeping players and scripts.

William Shakespeare himself comes off as cold and heartless when it comes to his brother, but of course, we do get to see his brilliance as well. I was enthralled by the descriptions of how the players learn their parts, figure out the staging, interact with their audiences, and more.

Fools and Mortals reminded me of the (sadly) short-lived TV series Will that was on TNT a few years ago. Will was a little over-the-top at times, but the parts that focused on the players and the productions were terrific, and having seen the show, I was better able to visualize some of what was going on in Fools and Mortals.

This book was such a treat! So thank you, once again, to my book group, for getting me to read a book that I probably would have completely missed otherwise.

If you enjoy Shakespeare, historical fiction, the Elizabethan era, theatrical history, or really, just plain good writing, check out Fools and Mortals!