2020 was the year I discovered Shakespeare in so many ways – I participated in online courses (Bard101x, Shakespeare Matters by University of Adelaide), I watched online his plays at The Globe (here about the plays), and I read Hag-Seed by Atwood, a retelling of The Tempest (my review).

2020 was also the year when Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell was published – a story I longed to read on my journey to discover Shakespeare. “Only” 1 year later – it happened! 🙂

Hamnet in a nutshell

Hamnet tells an imagined story of Shakespeare’s family life, focusing on what is usually mentioned only in footnotes – his wife and children, including the death of his son Hamnet during childhood. It’s a story of love and grief, an illustration of passion and hard work.

What’s fascinating is that Shakespeare’s name is not mentioned once in the story! However, it is very easy to recognize that the story is about him, especially once he moves to London and his plays are successful.

Overall impression

I loved reading Hamnet! On one hand I was charmed by the beautiful writing style of Maggie O’Farrell, and on the other hand I enjoyed the educative side of the book about Shakespeare’s life.

However, reading historical fiction novels is tricky! When a book gracefully combines facts and fiction, you may end up not knowing where to draw the line between reality and fiction … and that’s something I felt often while reading Hamnet.

A book about pandemic times published just before our Covid19 pandemic

Part of the action from Hamnet takes place during the Black Plague – there are doctors wearing some kind of masks, people are frightened by the disease, theaters are closed, lockdown is imposed. Some stars must have been aligned, as Hamnet was published in March 2020, just before the Covid19 pandemic hit Europe.

While reading the book it’s impossible to not resonate with the story, to not empathize with the characters, to not relate with their fear of unknown.

Other stories that fill in gaps

It’s fascinating how writers get inspired by something that is missing, an untold story that deserves to be brought to the light. Just like O’Farrell was inspired by the missing story of Shakespeare’s son.

If you are also keen on reading such stories, here are some recommendations of historical fiction novels that I loved:

  • Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (my review) – the imagined story of how Vermeer got to paint one of his most famous paintings
  • The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams (my review) – the story of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary
  • The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (my review) – the overlooked contribution of Ethiopian women soldiers during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia
  • March by Geraldine Brooks (my review) – imagines the story of the missing father from the classic book “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott

Wrap-up

To sum up, Hamnet is a touching and captivating story of the Shakespeare family, focusing on details that remain usually overlooked in William Shakespeare’s biographies. It’s a book I recommend not only if you’re interested in Shakespeare’s life, but also if you’re into reading incredibly well-written stories.

‘Till next time … happy reading!

Georgiana


PS: while looking for the cover of Hamnet I stumbled upon the book published in Canada – there it is named “Hamnet & Judith” (Judith was the twin sister of Hamnet) and the book cover depicts a woman. That’s quite a change of perspective compared to the UK and US editions, where the focus is only on Hamnet.

Also, If I had not known the story, I would imagine that the “two extraordinary people” from the quote are Hamnet and Judith (the names from the cover), when it fact it’s about William Shakespeare and his wife Agnes …

What do you think of this?

Wait, what?! Hamnet & Judith?

9 thoughts on “The overlooked family of the famous William Shakespeare: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (book review)

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