Agnes Shakespeare, An Icon – Reading Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A stunning insight into the people surrounding the most famous writer in the English-speaking world, Hamnet is a novel like no other.

When I picked up Hamnet I had no idea that I’d be delving into the world of William Shakespeare and family, specifically the death of his 11 year-old son, Hamnet, which went onto inspire his tragic play, Hamlet. Generally, I find fictionalised accounts of real people kind of creepy (see my review of the awkward Hilary Clinton fan-fic that is Rodham) but Maggie O’Farrell’s novel avoids any creepy vibes and is beautifully written from beginning to end.

Summer, 1596. In Stratford-upon-Avon, a young girl is overcome with fever. Her twin brother searches everywhere for help but, finding no one is home, curls up beside his sister. One mile away in a Warwickshire garden, their mother, Agnes, tends to her medicinal herbs. Their father is working away in London. Neither parent knows that this week they will lose a child.

Firstly, Shakespeare’s wife, Agnes (or as she’s more commonly known, Anne Hathaway), is everything. She is the moment. If you’re looking for a reason to pick up this book, it’s her. The reimagining of history’s forgotten women is a *stunning* trend that I’ve seen more and more in contemporary historical fiction, from works like Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of Women Killed by Jack the Ripper or A.L Blakemore’s The Manningtree Witches (review coming v soon), and O’Farrell certainly delivers on this front.

“She is not yet where she needs to be, in the forest, alone, with the trees over her head. She is not alone.”

Witchy, unruly and utterly fascinating, Agnes is ultimately set apart by her ‘abilities’. Finding ways ‘for her path to coincide with those who need her’, before feeling their weakness with a simple touch and healing them with her herbal remedies, she’s like a mythical figure. She also has a pet falcon – the pagan Disney princess we didn’t know we needed. While we get an insight into her relationship with her husband, the plot ultimately centres around her and her children; the eldest, Susanna, and twins, Hamnet and Judith.

“He can feel Death in the room, hovering in the shadows, over there beside the door, head averted, but watching all the same, always watching. It is waiting, biding its time. It will slide forward on skinless feet, with breath of damp ashes, to take her, to clasp her in its cold embrace, and he, Hamnet, will not be able to wrest her free.” 

I feel like it goes without saying that after the last two years, we should all now have some understanding of how terrifying it would be to be around during the Black Plague. It’s not long before the illness strikes the Shakespeare household, first infecting little Judith before spreading to her twin brother, Hamnet. Agnes has always known that she will die with two children beside her, despite giving birth to a third, however she is consumed by grief when her strongest child, Hamnet, passes away. The final third of the novel focuses on a mother’s grief, from disbelief, to anger and isolation. It is nothing short of heartbreaking.

Ultimately I loved this book and felt a real connection to the characters, but I will say that it took a little while to get into. Maybe it’s just me but I found the first 50 pages, where Hamnet is running around unable to find anyone in the house, kind of an odd segue into the main plot. Pushing past this, however, the novel proved to be super compelling and I definitely understand the all hype around this book.

Hamnet gets 4 stars, 3 of which go to Agnes and 1 to her pet falcon.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Published by Lily Evans

writing about books

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