As William Styron once wrote, the historical novelist works best when fed on short rations. The rations at Maggie O’Farrell’s disposal are scant but tasty, just the kind of morsels to nourish an empathetic imagination ... This novel is at once about the transfiguration of life into art — it is O’Farrell’s extended speculation on how Hamnet’s death might have fueled the creation of one of his father’s greatest plays — and at the same time, it is a master class in how she, herself, does it ... O’Farrell, Irish-born, schooled in Scotland and Wales, and shaped by a childhood steeped in story and school days that always began with song, has a melodic relationship to language. There is a poetic cadence to her writing and a lushness in her descriptions of the natural world...She is deft, too, at keeping her research subordinated to the story. We’re not force-marched through a manual on 16th-century glove-making techniques or an exegesis of illegal practices in the Tudor wool trade. But we can smell the tang of the various new leathers in the glover’s workshop, the fragrance of the apples racked a finger-width apart in the winter storage shed ... The book builds toward an intriguing speculation, which I will not reveal here. As it unfolds, it brings its story to a tender and ultimately hopeful conclusion: that even the greatest grief, the most damaged marriage and most shattered heart might find some solace, some healing.
... told with the urgency of a whispered prayer — or curse ... Unintimidated by the presence of the Bard’s canon or the paucity of the historical record, O’Farrell creates Shakespeare before the radiance of veneration obscured everyone around him. In this book, William is simply a clever young man — not even the central character — and O’Farrell makes no effort to lard her pages with intimations of his genius or cute allusions to his plays. Instead, through the alchemy of her own vision, she has created a moving story about the way loss viciously recalibrates a marriage ... This is a richly drawn and intimate portrait of 16th-century English life set against the arrival of one devastating death. O’Farrell, always a master of timing and rhythm, uses these flashbacks of young love and early marriage to heighten the sense of dread that accumulates as Hamnet waits for his mother ... None of the villagers know it yet, but bubonic plague has arrived in Warwickshire and is ravaging the Shakespeare twins, overwhelming their little bodies with bacteria. That lit fuse races through the novel toward a disaster that history has already recorded but O’Farrell renders unbearably suspenseful.
... moving ... O’Farrell brilliantly conveys the horror and devastation the plague brought to individual households—such as Shakespeare’s, as she imagines it—and to entire communities ... a satisfying and engaging novel that conjures up the life of a strong, vulnerable, lonely, and fiercely independent woman ... With her touching fiction O’Farrell has not only painted a vivid portrait of the shadowy Agnes Hathaway Shakespeare but also found a way to suggest that Hamnet was William Shakespeare’s best piece of poetry.
... a wholly original, fully engrossing reimagining of Shakespeare’s little-explored home life with barely a flubbed line, misplaced stage prop or tedious soliloquy in sight ... rush out and pick this book up immediately ... Agnes is a character for the ages—enigmatic, fully formed and nearly literally bewitching to behold in every scene she’s in ... Also poignant is the depiction of Agnes and Shakespeare’s passionate yet often strained marriage ... Whether you are a Shakespeare scholar or someone who hated reading Hamlet in high school English class, the appeal of Hamnet is multifold. Not only does it demonstrate O’Farrell’s gift for capturing the human spirit both in the throes of love and under duress, but it also proves yet again that there is still more to be said about the legendary English playwright.
... vividly captures the life-changing intensity of maternity in its myriad stages — from the pain of childbirth to the unassuagable grief of loss. Fierce emotions and lyrical prose are what we've come to expect of O'Farrell. But with this historical novel she has expanded her repertoire, enriching her narrative with atmospheric details of the sights, smells, and relentless daily toil involved in running a household in Elizabethan England — a domestic arena in which a few missing menstrual rags on washday is enough to alarm a mother of girls ... About halfway through this tour de force, there's a remarkable 10-page passage in which O'Farrell traces how the plague reached Agnes' children. It's a sequence that would stand out even in more salubrious times, but which holds particular resonance in light of the current global Covid-19 pandemic ... Although more than 400 years have unspooled since Hamnet Shakespeare's death, the story O'Farrell weaves in this moving novel is timeless and ever-relevant.
..superb ... Finding fertile soil in this already overworked field is not for the faint-hearted, but O’Farrell is more than equal to the task ... The world of Stratford and its surrounding countryside is evoked with lyrical precision: its strict social hierarchies, its quarrels and power struggles, its pressing physicality, the circling seasons and ceaseless round of domestic chores. This is a woman’s world, seen for the most part through female eyes ... One of the many pleasures of this novel is its close-grained portrayal of motherhood and the countless hours of care, joy and exasperation that go into the raising of children ... Maggie O’Farrell’s exquisitely wrought eighth novel proves once again what a very fine writer she is. Hamnet is a deeply felt honouring of the warp and weft of life, the pain and joy that are inextricably part of human experience, the many forms resilience can take, and the unexpected directions from which come grace and hope.
This is a remarkable piece of work, in which emotional intelligence and solid, intellectual research are evident, but with enough of a 'space for fiction' to make it a novel and not a thesis ... O’Farrell excels in avoiding both the traps, and, perhaps most impressively of all, has fashioned a novel of true heart and character that can be read and appreciated even if you have no interest in Shakespeare at all ... gives a Shakespearean tang ... not cluttered detail for its own sake ... the same shuttlecocking of chronology generates tension even when the outcome seems predestined ... This is a staggeringly beautiful and unbearably poignant novel. O’Farrell is one of the most surprisingly quiet radicals in fiction. When I finished it, I wondered – no, I hoped – that instead of shifting genre again, O’Farrell might not follow Mantel with a sequel. After all, the final years of Shakespeare between leaving the stage and dying are another curious absence.
... the idea that motivates Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel...is an awkward one. What father would memorialize his dead child as a depressed man who contemplates suicide and the murder of his uncle before being murdered himself? ... If one is able to overlook this central flaw, then the novel offers a moving portrait of a mother’s grief ... Ms. O’Farrell depicts her as a mishmash of Shakespearean heroines ... One is almost tempted to exclaim that she is the real poet—brooding and eccentric, steeped like Prospero in ancient magic, an observer and interpreter of human affairs. Shakespeare himself remains oddly flat ... Ms. O’Farrell’s prose is characteristically beautiful. Here, as in her memoir, she uses the continuous present tense to give the everyday the quality of a dream. But the close correspondence between her experience and that of her character inadvertently highlights the lack of correspondence between Shakespeare’s life and the events of the play. Despite much that is lovely, in the novel’s animating impulse—connecting Hamnet to Hamlet—it falls flat.
... audacious, beguiling ... In our own pandemic era, her novel resonates, filling in the lacunae of literary history, an ode to intimate pleasures and ineffable pain ... Her novel is embroidered with humor as well as sorrow, characters true to their time and yet immediate, reminiscent of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy. Faulkner once called the Bard’s oeuvre 'a casebook on mankind'; here O’Farrell picks up the baton of all great literature, giving us an indelible, moving book destined to stand the test of tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. The test of time.
...the story goes rather slowly, weighed down in part by O’Farrell’s love of the rhetorical rule of three. She never describes something once if she can do it multiple times ... Once noticed, it becomes unignorable, and the problem with piling on the descriptions is that it doesn’t deepen the reader’s understanding, it dilutes it ... But when Hamnet dies, the story takes on a new steel, and there is plenty of power in Agnes mourning Hamnet’s body, in the arguments it causes between Agnes and Wil in Agnes’s loss of faith in her own abilities and her numb grief ... And the death affects everyone in the family: what is the name for a twin, asks Judith, who isn’t a twin any more? Most of all, it gives a sense of purpose not just to Shakespeare but to the novel as well. And it is fitting, perhaps, that Hamnet has to die to bring his own story to life.
... nominally a work of historical fiction. But its core subject is the kind of unchecked, ravaging despair that follows the death of a child. The author, whose memoir I Am, I Am, I Am covered the near-death experiences of herself and her ailing daughter, understands the parental terror of a child’s suffering ... O’Farrell’s novel isn’t only about grief — or not any more than Hamlet is. The novelist calls our attention to the world around her characters, the sensual, sensory world available to us all (not just Elizabethans) but so often glossed over as we go about mundane tasks. There are lovely metaphors and similes ... Untethered by dates or events, the story loses historicity and gains immediacy, so that even as we know Hamnet will die, we suffer his passing as a shock ... O’Farrell moves through the family’s pain like a master of signs and signals ... In Hamnet, art imitates life not to co-opt reality, but to help us bear it.
Such an undertaking is an enormous challenge, but O’Farrell is passionately steeped in the period ... The utter fluency with which O’Farrell glides across years and decades, never lingering in one timeframe for long yet never confusing the reader, has always been one of her most remarkable achievements as a writer ... Once the illness leaps from Judith to Hamnet in August 1596, the novel becomes a breathtakingly moving study of grief ... O’Farrell’s portrait of maternal and sibling bereavement is so accurately expressed it’s almost too painful to read. Hamnet is, above all, a profound study of loss ... At her best, O’Farrell is simply outstanding. Within pages, she can inhabit the mind of an owl, of a great playwright, of a dying boy, of those watching him. It seems she can pretty much do anything on the page that she puts her mind to. Immersive, at times shockingly intimate, and triumphantly brought to fruition, this is a work that ought to win prizes.
O’Farrell’s great skill throughout the book is to treat obviously 'Shakespearean' themes, such as...gender-blurring or the affinity between boy and girl twins, with subtlety, making them almost tangential when they occur in the playwright’s own life ... This is not O’Farrell’s first foray into historical fiction...but it is quite unlike anything she has written before. There is an elliptical, dreamlike quality to her prose in Hamnet that, though not obviously steeped in 16th-century language, is essential to creating a world that feels at once wholly tangible and somehow otherworldly, as if the membrane between the natural and supernatural was more porous then. The depth of her research is evident on every page ... Hamnet is evidence that there are always new stories to tell, even about the most well-known historical figures. It also confirms O’Farrell as an extraordinarily versatile writer, with a profound understanding of the most elemental human bonds – qualities also possessed by a certain former Latin tutor from Stratford.
... magnificent and searing ... The boy’s death is the clawing grief at the center of O’Farrell’s tale. But what sprawls around it is a family saga so bursting with life, touched by magic, and anchored in affection that I only wish it were true ... Of all the stories that argue and speculate about Shakespeare’s life, about whether he even wrote his own plays, here is a novel that matches him with a woman overwhelmingly more than worthy ... There are a few times, including one important moment, when O’Farrell’s powers of conjuration briefly falter. I warn you, though, that I nearly drowned at the end of this book, and at some other spots besides. It would be wise to keep some tissues handy ... Yet Hamnet, so gorgeously written that it transports you from our own plague time right into another and makes you glad to be there, is paradoxically not a downer ... It will make you think tenderly of Shakespeare, and darkly, too. But Agnes? She is wondrous all the way through.
Those even faintly squeamish about coronavirus might find themselves particularly traumatised to read Farrell's extraordinary description of how, in the summer of that year, the virus travels ... She's a writer of rare emotional intelligence whose personal intimations of mortality bear rich fruit in this, her eighth novel which is not really about Shakespeare at all but his wife ... In O'Farrell's supple hands Agnes becomes a woman of formidable instinctive gifts ... Like Hilary Mantel, O'Farrell uses a disconcertingly intimate present tense ... O'Farrell uses perspective the way a film might use a camera, stealing up on scenes from unexpected angles ... It's a beautifully written novel but I confess I read it with a faint impatience that only abated in its final pages.
O’Farrell creates a period setting through mood rather than historical facts or details ... Above all, however, this artfully paced novel is an anatomy of grief ... Just when the novel’s second part seems to be moving to a tragic conclusion, it mounts a stunning redemptive volte-face ... This novel also fills in a vacancy, turning the bare fact of Hamnet’s death into a tribute to family bonds and to theatrical power.
There are, that is, interesting historical notes here. Interesting information about the house Shakespeare grew up in, and the one he purchased when he began to make money. About flowers and herbs and their medicinal properties. There is a moving account of the courtship of an unlikely couple, an even more moving story about the grief experienced over the loss of a child. But what elevates the story above 'interesting' is its engagement with Shakespeare’s life, and there’s something peculiar about hinging the story’s emotional gravity on a reader’s knowledge of Hamlet’s father’s ghost ... There’s also, perhaps, something amusing about seeing the great playwright at a loss for words, but imagining the point of view of someone who has contributed more language to the canon than anyone other than the composers of the Bible might require a Shakespearean effort — and that is something not even the most demanding of readers would expect of Maggie O’Farrell.
...both a brilliant re-creation of the lives of William Shakespeare and his family in late 16th-century Stratford-upon-Avon and an emotionally intense account of the death of the dramatist’s young son and its painful aftermath ... flawless executed ... An award-winning writer who has published seven previous novels, O’Farrell excels at evoking the essence of the Shakespeares’ daily lives in Stratford ... Graceful and moving, Hamnet is a triumph of literary and historical fiction.
It takes a brave writer to put words in William Shakespeare’s mouth. In Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell almost gets away with it ... for once, Shakespeare isn’t the main draw: his wife Agnes is this novel’s star and treads the boards with style ... Agnes and her world feel real and bright, most of the time. But you do have to accept a certain amount of mumbo-jumbo about her 'foresight' and her ability to tell things about people by holding their hands in a special way ... It would be just about possible to forgive such nonsense as a reflection on the more superstitious world of the 16th century, if there weren’t also an uncomfortable feeling that this book reflects our own concerns and morality more than the Elizabethans’. Would anyone then care, for instance, about the fate of farm animals and think 'of the private cruelty behind something as beautiful and perfect as a glove'? It is not impossible, but it is also not entirely convincing ... What is convincing is O’Farrell’s portrayal of grief and pain ... O’Farrell describes these agonies with such power that Hamnet would resonate at any time. It is easy to understand why it has moved so many people now, in spite of its flaws.
...evocative ... Although Hamnet deals with the death of a child and its effects on his parents, the book is also life-affirming as it suggests ways art can transcend misfortune ... O’Farrell employs the techniques of drama and poetry, with vivid language as well as appeals to the five senses ... O’Farrell offers readers a penetrating look into the creative process itself, while her writing subtly becomes a metaphor for that process — which is the beauty of this novel and certainly no mean feat.
Historical sources on Agnes (aka Anne) Hathaway Shakespeare are few, so O’Farrell’s imagination freely ranges in this tale of deepest love and loss. Flashbacks document the Shakespeares’ marriage; O’Farrell offering a gentler rendering than the traditional view ... While O’Farrell encapsulates atmosphere through small sensory details ,she is laser-focused on human connections, their ebb and flow, and how they can drown a person. This striking, painfully lovely novel captures the very nature of grief.
... a brilliant historical novel steeped in the heady atmosphere of the 16th century ... this is not just a book about Hamnet’s death. It is also a startling revelation about the crippling effects of grief and the arcane sources of creativity. It is about the mystery and magnificence of the family bond. Not just any family — the family Shakespeare ... O’Farrell gives vivid dimension to the story by flashing back to the time William and Agnes met ... What O’Farrell has done is incredible. She has memorialized a family. The novel is the thing in which she catches the conscience of the reader. This is the kind of dazzling novel to put in everyone’s hands, to tell everyone to read. It is a flawless achievement. Every sentence is silk; every detail vibrant; every character pulsates ... In the overwhelming, heartbreaking conclusion of Hamnet, the author collects all the silences, all the sufferings, all the ghosts into a compelling resolution to tell the Shakespearean story. She breathes life into the boy who fell down the stairs.
...an outstanding masterpiece ... O’Farrell brilliantly explores the married couple’s relationship ... The book is filled with astonishing, timely passages, such as the plague’s journey to Stratford via a monkey’s flea from Alexandria. This is historical fiction at its best.