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Book Review: Hamnet

Book Review: Hamnet Cover Image

S. A. Smith

October 4, 2022

Do you know how some people take something wonderful and ruin it for you? That's what my college English professor, "Dr. M," did to Hamlet. When I took his Shakespeare survey class my junior year, he must've been on a collision course with the "publish or perish" goblin because rather than teaching us, he turned us into overworked, unpaid research assistants. Our ongoing assignment was to hunker down in the university library and ferret out odd tidbits of information in obscure articles about Hamlet. (At the time, I thought if I ever had twins, I'd name them after the scholarly journal Notes & Queries, as I spent more time with it than I did my brand-new husband.) Every class session, Dr. M would call on several of us to stand in front of our fellow captives and report what we'd found while he scribbled furiously on a yellow legal pad. I was sure he'd put me off Hamlet forever!

Maybe that's why Hamnet, written by Maggie O'Farrell, sat unread on my bookshelf for nearly two years, but when I finally started reading it, I fell in love with this imaginative story about the boy who might've inspired one of the greatest English-language plays ever written.

Historically, we know nothing about Shakespeare's family but their names and the odd fact that he willed his wife his "second-best bed." However, O'Farrell fleshes them out, warts and all, so they seemed as real to me as my own family. Shakespeare's wife, called Agnes (pronounced An-yiss) in the novel, is my new favorite literary character. At the front, center, and heart of O'Farrell's story, she plays a much bigger role than her husband. This Mrs. Shakespeare is an herbalist, a healer, a falconer, a bee whisperer, a witch--or at least a seer--and, above all, a free spirit and loving mother. Interestingly, O'Farrell never refers to her Mr. Shakespeare by name, instead calling him "the son," "the Latin tutor," "the husband," "the father," and so on. Maybe she doesn't want us to see him as the great playwright but as an imperfect man of many roles.

We don't know how young Hamnet died, but considering the time he lived in, it's quite possible he succumbed to bubonic plague. O'Farrell says Shakespeare never once mentioned the "pestilence" in any of his works. The omission got her speculating, and the result was Hamnet.

Like many magical realism novels, Hamnet takes its time with the plot instead of bulldozing through it. O'Farrell takes an entire chapter to detail how the great-great-great grandson of a particular plague-carrying flea from Murano, Italy, came to England in a box of glass beads that was eventually opened by Hamnet's twin sister. Later, she describes Agnes immediately after her son's death. Agnes essentially does nothing but sit by his deathbed for ten pages, but what exquisitely detailed, agonizingly beautiful pages they are! The outcome of O'Farrell's slow handling of her plot is a glorious bouquet of words that slips in snippets of history while imagining the link between a boy the world never knew and one the world will never forget. I couldn't guess the ending until it was right in front of my face, but it left me in a puddle of my own tears. 

I give this book five stars, but it deserves five more for its sheer heart.