Updated: Jan 5, 2021
A Historical Note prefacing Hamnet states the circumstances of the story best:
“In the 1580s, a couple living on Henley Street, Stratford, had three children: Susanna, then Hamnet and Judith, who were twins. The boy, Hamnet, died in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the father wrote a play called Hamlet.”
With that, we have the entire summary of known facts. Shakespeare’s life was not well documented, freeing authors over time to spin fanciful yarns of their own (e.g., Shakespeare in Love). That is what Maggie O’Farrell has done, and done well.
The story opens with a third person narrative in which the young Hamnet is walking through his home and the family property and does not see anyone. It is as if the boy is dreaming, and the dreamlike tone of the narrative flows on throughout the book.
But we quickly learn this book should be named Agnes, after Hamnet’s mother, because, more than Hamnet, this story is hers. In fact, the name ‘Shakespeare’ is never seen in the story's text. There are side references to the teenage ‘Latin Tutor,’ who eventually marries Agnes. Agnes’ husband moves to London, returning to Stratford and his wife infrequently, but eventually becomes a prosperous playwright.
Good writing propels the story, but the author is playing a game with us. She bounces around in time for the first half of the book. Even the name Agnes is confusing. William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway. Who is this Agnes? The author doesn’t tell us why she varied the name until her note at the end.
Early in the book, we have passages that read like a folk tale until the reader realizes it is about Agnes. The following passage represents the style of writing throughout the book:
“If asked, the girl—a woman, now—would remove the falconer’s glove and hold your hand, just for a moment, pressing the flesh between thumb and forefinger where all your hand’s strength lay, and tell you what she felt. The sensation, some said, was dizzying, draining, as if she was drawing all the strength out of you: others said it was invigorating, enlivening, like a shower of rain. Her bird circled the sky above, feathers spread, calling out, as if in warning. People said the girl’s name was Agnes.”
The copy I read was clearly for the US market, with its use of double-quote marks rather than single ones. But words remain spelled using the UK standard, which adds to the feeling of the old English of the time. Plus, there are several words that have fallen out of use. I constantly pressed words in my Kindle version for their definition.
Eventually, Hamnet dies. The author follows that event with more pages describing mourning than this reader needed. But once we have Agnes finding that her husband has his theatre troupe performing a play using his dead son’s name, we are headed for action that leaves you wondering what happens next, as the incensed Agnes heads to London to confront her husband. The ending is charming and thoughtful, and very satisfying.
All’s well that ends well.