Book Review: “Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell

43890641._SY475_The Black Death has ravished England and Europe for centuries. Although the plague in the 16th century was not as devastating as in previous centuries, it still was a horrific disease that killed thousands. For example, in Warwickshire, England, a family understood how unforgiving death could be and how it can tear down even the strongest of familial bonds. The family of the playwright William Shakespeare must navigate the sudden loss of their beloved son while they keep their family together. “Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell is the story of the death of one child and how his death affected so many people.

When it comes to this book, it was one of those titles that I had heard so many good things about it, but I waited for a while until I bought it for myself. I wanted to understand why it was such a beloved novel.

It should be noted that O’Farrell does write in the present tense, which is somewhat unusual for a historical fiction novel. Since I do not read many books written in the present tense, it took me a few pages to feel comfortable with the narrative. We witness Hamnet rushing all over town to find his family as his twin sister Edith lays sick in bed, fearing that she is ill with the plague. We then switch to a different scene where we see the mother named Agnes, who is deemed eccentric and unusual, fall in love with a penniless Latin tutor who is the son of a glover. These two storylines seem separate, but when you realize how they connect, it shows how strong the love between Agnes and her husband was and how she fiercely loved her children.

In the end, it was not Judith who died but Hamnet. His death shifts the entire tone of this book, and we see the whole family grieve in different ways. Grief is painful for everyone, but Agnes’s grief is debilitating. Often, O’Farrell would have a scene in this novel or a line to make me want to cry. Hamnet’s death and the aftermath have been one of the most emotional rollercoasters I have read all year.

This novel was spectacular in the way it was written. Although the present tense did throw me for a loop at first, the story and its emotional weight were nothing short of impressive. It may have been about the Shakespeare family during the late Tudor dynasty, but it can translate to any family dealing with a pandemic, past or present. It is a novel that transcends time that anyone who loves historical fiction will devour. If you want an elegantly written book with a poignant storyline, “Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell should be on your to-be-read pile.

Biography: William Shakespeare

800px-Shakespeare(Baptized April 26, 1564- Died April 23, 1616)
Son of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden.
Married to Anne Hathaway.
Father of Susanna Hall, Hamnet Shakespeare, and Judith Quiney.
William Shakespeare was a poet and playwright. He is regarded as one of the greatest writers of all of English History and one of the greatest dramatists of all time.

William Shakespeare was born to John Shakespeare and his wife Mary Arden in Stratford-upon-Avon. We do not know his exact birth date, but many believe that he was born on St. George’s day, which is April 23rd because he was baptized on April 26, 1564. His father John Shakespeare was an alderman and a successful glover while his mother, Mary Arden, was the daughter of a successful landowning farmer. We believe that William Shakespeare went to King’s New School, which was a free chartered grammar school that was located in Stratford. It is here where Shakespeare learned Latin and his passion for the theatre. Since he was a commoner, there is no record of him ever going to university, which was a luxury that was reserved for upper-class families.

At the age of 18, William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, who at the time was 26 years old. The marriage licence was issued on November 27, 1582. At the time of their marriage, Anne was already pregnant with their first child, Susanna, who was baptized on May 26, 1583. Two years later, William and Anne welcomed twins Hamnet (son) and Judith (daughter), in 1585. They were baptized on February 2, 1585. Unfortunately, Hamnet would tragically die at the age of 11 from an unknown cause and he was buried on August 11, 1596.

After the birth of his twins in 1585, there are not many historical records about Shakespeare’s life until 1592. These years are known as “Shakespeare’s Lost Years” and many stories have emerged about what he supposedly had done during this time. One of the stories states that Shakespeare was in Stratford to avoid persecution for deer poaching. Another claims that he was a schoolmaster for some time. The problem with these stories is that there is no evidence to support them. We do not know what Shakespeare was doing during these years.

Shakespeare’s plays started to appear in London theaters in 1592, but we do not know when his writing career actually began. He was well known just enough for him to be attacked in newspapers. After 1594, Shakespeare’s plays were performed only by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a company owned by a group of players, including Shakespeare, that soon became the leading playing company in London. After the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, the company was awarded a royal patent by the new King James I, and changed its name to the King’s Men.

In 1599, Shakespeare and others purchased some land near the river Thames and created the Globe Theatre and in 1608, the group was able to take over the Blackfriars indoor theatre. Shakespeare was able to become a very wealthy man and was able to own property in both London and Stratford, but he preferred to live in London. In 1594, the first known quartos of Shakespeare’s plays were published, solidifying his reputation and by 1598, his name became the selling point in new productions. He gained a reputation of not only being a talented actor but a playwright as well.

In 1609, London suffered from the bubonic plague and in 1610, Shakespeare decided to retire from public life, which was extremely unusual. This, however, did not mean that he was not busy. Shakespeare is known to have collaborated with other playwrights like John Fletcher. William Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616 and was buried at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford.

In total, Shakespeare is known to have written at least 38 plays and over 150 poems, both long and short. If you would like to read more about his works, The Folger Shakespeare Library is a fantastic place to start: https://www.folger.edu/shakespeares-works

Sources:
https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/explore-shakespeare/shakespedia/?gclid=CjwKCAjwxILdBRBqEiwAHL2R84IxV7c3RHGPLkDwe8371g3ZF-p8i_7t0Xp314sNrSi3lF04CxIfShoCeuMQAvD_BwE
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Shakespeare
https://www.williamshakespeare.net/
https://www.folger.edu/shakespeares-works