Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is an historical novel. The main character is the son of William Shakespeare which we know even though the writer isn’t actually named in the story. The author uses the life and death of Hamnet to tell us something about life in the sixteenth century and this family in particular (this is not a spoiler as we know from the beginning of the book that Hamnet dies and also if you know anything about Shakespeare’s life then you will already be aware of this fact).
This is a beautifully written book full of great description of the landscape and nature, the feelings of the characters, the society and culture of the time, and the way in which families work. The author has reimagined Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway as Agnes (an alternative spelling used at the time) who is able to see into the future and also spends her time making potions for townspeople. Agnes does not see Hamnet’s death coming and the grief nearly destroys her. The magical/supernatural is a large part of this story and the author links it to the use of herbs in healing. This touch of magical realism moves the story more into the realm of a dream or fairytale in places – I liked it but it does make the whole book less based in reality.
Shakespeare’s home background is also filled in and the author creates a narrative that answers questions which have always been raised about his life including why he left home and why he stays away for most of his married life. From few known facts a whole history of his family, his character and his aspirations are formed.
In the end the author asks us to believe that the play of Hamlet was created for Shakespeare to come to grips with the death of his son. I have to say that I find this the least convincing part of the book and the theory doesn’t convince me but this is only a small part of the book and it may not be an issue for others.
This is an excellent read and has recently won the author a prize. It is not, however, a history book. I have seen people say that they had previously known little about Shakespeare’s life and now they know a lot more. If they are thinking that this book is factual then they don’t know more. We know staggeringly little about Shakespeare’s life and even less about his family and although this book tells a convincing story it is only a story and quite a romanticised view of the time and the people in many ways.
Read as fiction this is a powerful and beautifully crafted novel which I enjoyed a lot.