Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020, was the Waterstones Book of the Year 2020 and was the winner of the British Book Awards Fiction Book of the Year 2021. More importantly, people just can’t stop talking about it, recommending it and sharing it online.
I’m not usually drawn to historical fiction, but the lauding of Hamnet made me feel like I had to give it a go. It was perhaps the novel’s high praise that meant, ultimately, I was disappointed by O’Farrell’s book, despite my open-minded approach.
O’Farrell says that it is a book she has wanted to write for years. It was through reading biographies of Shakespeare that she learned of the existence of Shakespeare’s son, while studying English at Cambridge University. She outlines in her note on the text that the brevity of the mentions Hamnet is afforded in such biographies shocked her.
I’m not giving you spoilers by saying that Hamnet dies, age 11. His cause of death is unknown, but is imagined in the novel to be, realistically, plague. Hamnet is a reimagining of the short life of Shakespeare’s son, and the impact of his death on the rest of the family. In that respect, the novel is as much about grief as it is about Hamnet.
The facts known are roughly that, in 1596, William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died in Stratford-upon-Avon and four years later, Shakespeare wrote his renowned play, Hamlet. The similarity in the name is more than just that, and, as O’Farrell specifies, Hamlet and Hamnet are just variations of the same name, and can be used interchangeably. The link between son and play seems indisputable and the book is in part a fictional attempt to face the disparity between how little is known about the real Hamnet and the immense fame of the play Hamlet.
Hamnet is clearly well researched and as accurate as is realistically possible. O’Farrell also weaves aspects of Shakespeare’s plays into the story. For example, Hamnet and his twin sister, Judith, trick people: “to exchange places and clothes, leading people to believe that each was the other”. It is a clear link to the number of twins and preoccupation with gender switching and trickery that we see in the plays of their father.
Despite such allusions, the most famous character in the novel remains unnamed. He is merely referred to as “her husband”, “the father” and “the Latin tutor” and is allowed very little direct speech. The main character in the novel, it soon becomes apparent, isn’t Hamnet or his father, but Agnes, Hamnet’s mother.
Agnes’ relationship with the natural world is beautiful, and within the world of the text she is more well known than her husband, for her ability to grow and mix plants to heal others. The novel is lyrically written, which seems a fitting tribute to the work of the playwright, but is much more closely associated with the voice and life of Agnes in the book.
While I liked this slight mocking of the fame of the Bard, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the novel is somewhat overrated. It is already sacrilege to say something bad about Shakespeare and his pervasive influence, and it feels like the same taboo has been applied to Hamnet. I found the time switches and diversions following far removed characters whimsical and distracting, and wasn’t moved by a death that the entire text builds towards.
I did find the second half of the novel more compelling than the first, and, after talking to others, can understand that reading it from the perspective of a parent would be a very different reading experience. I have never had a twin and never had a child, and so my relationship to the experiences of the story are more distant.
The success of Hamnet proves that you can retell incredibly well known stories and still offer a new perspective. For me, however, that doesn’t mean this story was one that had to be written. If anything, its success only seems to continue the myth of Shakespeare, instead of giving space to entirely new voices from history.