Book Reviews,  Europe,  FICTION,  History,  Middle Ages,  Prize Winner

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell *** (of 4)

The story’s most famous character, William Shakespeare, is never mentioned by name. History tells us that Hamnet, the son of William and Agnes (Anne Hatheway) Shakespeare, died at age 11, but little more is known. O’Farrell brings to life, and death, the 1500s in rural England. The plague comes and goes. Neighbors squabble. Relatives promote themselves and (some of) their brethren, while petty jealousies fester. For the sheer strength of O’Farrell’s characterizations, her book is Shakespearean.

But the added benefit is the authority with which she describes muddy lanes between thatched roof homes, household gardens, glove-making shops, apothecaries, market stalls, and, on the edge of town, cow fields. When illness befalls Hamnet, medical wisdom of the era recognized the symptoms and likely deadliness of Bubonic plague, but knew little of its transmission or treatments. Hamnet’s mother is broken by her son’s illness and ensuing death. William Shakespeare, speculates O’Farrell, was, too. His play, Hamlet, is a tribute to his lost son.


  • Jane Lawson

    I’m glad that you’ve read Hamnet which I enthused about a few months ago. The reader is immersed in the Warwickshire of four hundred years ago but the deeply observed relationships and the depiction of grief show all too clearly that human behaviours and emotions don’t change much.

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