Home Book Reviews Hamnet review: Maggie O’Farrell conjures up Shakespeare’s dream girl

Hamnet review: Maggie O’Farrell conjures up Shakespeare’s dream girl

by J. C. Greenway
Hamnet review book cover
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There is much to enjoy about Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, it kept me up reading later than was sensible! But while its appearance on prize long and shortlists seems logical, I didn’t love it as wholeheartedly as others. I wanted to explore why, so my Hamnet review is probably more spoiler-filled than usual. I know this book is on many 20 Books of Summer 21 lists, so if you haven’t got to it yet, now might be the place to bookmark this review to come back to later! A spoiler-free comment is that my heart was moved but my head was left with too many unresolved questions. Some of them will follow, if you’ll indulge me…

The reclaiming of Anne Hathaway’s life from later writers who made her a Shrew, so hated by her husband that he fled to London, is worth doing. But it is possible to go too far the other way, as Maggie O’Farrell makes her Anne – here known as Agnes, based on her father’s will – into a kind of 16th century girl-boss fairy superhero who can heal the sick, see the future by touching a hand and talk to the dead.

Agnes’s mother’s origins are murky, but her direction of travel and name points to a Welsh or perhaps Irish connection. Agnes’s mother is even more witchy, positively fey, than her daughter. But if Agnes had been known to be more than just good with plants – there are occasions where it is implied that people think she has a familiar – she might have been denounced and hanged, as happened to women accused of similar things during Anne Hathaway’s childhood. Agnes grows up to be able to manipulate the living too, so at a time when women did not have too much power of their own, there is temptation for a modern writer to have her be the architect of not only her own escape from her stepmother, but her young husband’s from his father’s control and off into his place in history.

It is a bold choice not to refer to that play-writing character by name throughout, he is at times the Latin tutor, the father, the glover’s son, her husband, but never You-Know-Who. I confess, this started to grate, as it kept him at a remove, leaving him feeling flat. Agnes knows so much of what is in his head and future that there is a sense of her bending him to her will (do you see what I did there…) She is such a force of nature that the other characters circle around her and feel like archetypes, there is the strong, silent, protector brother, the not-quite-fully-wicked stepmother who definitely is not matching up to the saintly dead mother, the violent father-in-law and meddling mother-in-law, with whom she cannot see eye-to-eye until they share a loss.

There is also a temptation to ‘do all the hits,’ as happened with the recent Han Solo movie, so just as I feel we did not need to see the Kessel Run made in less than 12 parsecs, do we need to read about the ‘second-best bed’ getting such a going over? (Also, I feel that people brought up without easy access to a Tesco Express would not risk an entire winter’s worth of apples for the sake of a knee-trembler).

Susannah is not as witchy as her mother, although her childhood imaginings are vivid, by the time she grows up, she is grounded, rational and firmly established as ‘the sensible one.’ The twins, Judith and Hamnet, felt to me at times almost like a device. That poor Hamnet is doomed is known from the history and the book blurb, so that is not a spoiler, but it is telegraphed from the start. Every stereotype about twins gets a workout. The duo are spoken of as like one person, but as boy-girl fraternal twins, they could not be as identical as they are made out to be, as when Susannah tells Judith that she could always tell them apart when others could not. A pretty central plot device hangs on them being easily mistaken for each other, perhaps as a nod to characters in the plays, as when their father mistakes Agnes for a man the first time he sees her. Hamnet is a golden child, as only the ill-starred can be, but he is not even the centre of the book that bears his name. He likes playing, goes to school, misses his father when he is in London. Perhaps to throw us off from his fate, there is foreshadowing in his father’s warning to stay out of his grandfather’s way when he is in a temper, but this ‘gun‘ remains on the wall.

For a pandemic read, the passage of a flea bringing death closer and closer to Stratford-upon-Avon is a chilling reminder of how easily the benefits of our trade and travel can work against us, but I think the urge to put in a MERCHANT from VENICE could have been resisted.

Unbeknown to them both, the flea that came from the Alexandrian monkey – which has, for the last week or so, been living on a rat, and before that the cook, who died near Aleppo – leaps from the boy to the sleeve of the master glassmaker, whereupon it makes its way up to his left ear, and it bites him there, behind the lobe. He doesn’t feel it as the cool air of the misty canal has rendered his extremities sensationless, and he is intent only on getting these boxes of beads aboard the ship, receiving his payment, then returning to Murano, where he has many orders to fulfil and the fire stokers are sure to be fighting again, during his brief absence.

At the start, chapters moving between the present day illness and Agnes and her husband’s courtship are nicely paced, but as they converge it begins to feel more rushed. I found the ending, where Agnes sees the play that bears her son’s name and realises that all the grief that could not be shared is manifested in it, to be moving but not as deeply developed as the earlier parts. That the 18-year-old playing Hamlet is so alike in looks and mannerisms to the lost Hamnet as tribute to a father’s unspoken grief seems like a leap. Your love for Hamnet may depend on how you feel about making that jump. And even if you can, it seems to me that it misses the point that… BIG SPOILER ALERT: The Danish prince also dies. Night after night.

My main quibble with Hamnet is that I am not fond of linking what goes on in a writer’s life to what is on the page. It seems to make our playwright less inspired and more easily understood and I wonder what that accomplishes. Another prominent (and awful!) group that does that are ‘truthers’ who think that the glover’s son was too low-born to be capable of writing what is credited to him.

…in voicing dissatisfaction over the apparent lack of continuity between the certain facts of Shakespeare’s life and the spirit of his literary output, anti-Stratfordians adopt the very Modernist assumption that an author’s work must reflect his or her life. Neither Shakespeare nor his fellow Elizabethan writers operated under this assumption.

Shakespeare’s Companies: William Shakespeare’s Early Career and the Acting Companies, 1577–1594
by Terence G. Schoone-Jongen (via Wikipedia!)

So while I enjoyed the re-creation of Stratford-upon-Avon at this time and thought the story had a lot to say about sickness and grief that will resonate today, ultimately, this witchy, possibly Celtic, proto-Dr-Dolittle, seer and free-birth advocate seems as likely or not as all the other versions of Anne Hathaway that have been conjured up out of very thin air, giving us a Mrs William Shakespeare who delivers whatever we need her to be, while remaining ‘No more yielding than a dream.’

So what do you think? Have you or are you planning to read Hamnet? Do you like this kind of invented history with real characters and are there any others you have enjoyed? How is your summer reading going? Let me know in the comments below.

UK readers can buy a copy of Hamnet via your local independent bookshop using the Bookshop website – I may receive a small commission if you do – thank you!

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JacquiWine 26 June 2021 - 5:34 pm

I think I would find this novel somewhat frustrating too, probably for similar reasons to those you’ve outlined in your review. From the responses I’ve seen over the past year, views on this novel seem very mixed, ranging from wildly positive to decidedly lukewarm to downright negative. It’s a strange spread, which leaves me feeling quite uncertain as to which readers it might suit! Anyway, it was interesting to see your take on it, especially the witchy vibe that seems to run through the novel!

J. C. Greenway 26 June 2021 - 5:57 pm

Yes, it is maybe one to disregard all the reviews (even mine!) and give it a go and see what you think. I felt a bit awful writing this review as I didn’t want to put the boot in completely. I can see why it has won or been nominated for prizes, I can see why there are five star reviews, but I can also see why there are the lukewarm and negative ones too. Perhaps it would be a good one for book clubs, as it would definitely spark a discussion!


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