Book Review: Hamnet

Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet is a historical fiction novel centered around the life of William Shakespeare’s family. Told largely from the perspective of William’s wife, Agnes, the novel covers Agnes and William’s romance, the birth of their three children, their long-distance relationship, and the grief of the Shakespeare family after the death of their son Hamnet.

The book: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Hamnet was an enjoyable read for me, but I definitely went into the novel with the wrong expectations. For some reason, I was under the impression that the book focused entirely on the death of William and Agnes’ son Hamnet, and how their grief inspired William Shakespeare to write the play Hamlet. In actuality, Hamnet is a book in two parts. The first part alternates between chapters telling William and Agnes’ love story, and chapters focusing on the days leading up to Hamnet’s death. The second part of the book, which is written as one long chapter, shows the family in their grief after Hamnet has passed. This format would have worked so much better for me if I hadn’t expected the entire novel to focus on the grieving of Hamnet’s death, but because I did have that expectation, I found myself getting pretty impatient with the first part of the book.

Although Hamnet wasn’t what I expected, I still found it compelling. Maggie O’Farrell does an excellent job of making the reader feel connected to 16th-century England by drawing upon relatable emotions and experiences, like the stigma and shame of being a social outcast, and the overwhelming burden of grief. And with the novel’s release in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the passages depicting societal anxiety surrounding the Plague were eerily familiar. But at the same time, O’Farrell juxtaposes those relatable elements against historical details that unquestionably place the novel in the 16th century. Children die frequently, mothers die frequently, cruel parenting methods are common, and medical knowledge is so limited. That balance between timeless human experiences and very specific historical details was the most striking part of the novel for me.

I also appreciated how much the novel focuses on Agnes, as opposed to her very famous husband. William Shakespeare’s works are incredible, and he is famous for good reason – but part of what allowed him to become so successful was the invisible labor of Agnes. By centering so much of the novel around Agnes and the work she put into running her household and taking care of her family, O’Farrell demonstrates that Shakespeare probably couldn’t have become so successful without major sacrifices and support from Agnes.

Hamnet is also beautifully written, and Maggie O’Farrell is the master of showing, not telling. In this scene, for example, where young William Shakespeare defends himself against his abusive father, O’Farrell writes: “The sight of the mark seemed to enrage the father further because he lifted his arm again, for a second blow, but the son reached up. He seized his father’s arm. He pushed, with all his might, against him and found, to his surprise, that his father’s body yielded under his. He could push this man, this leviathan, this monster of his childhood, back against the wall with very little effort. He did so.” O’Farrell could have just said that William hit his father back, but instead she turns a small action into an immersive scene. With that being said, there were definitely some instances where the flowery language was too much for me, and where I thought a succinct description would have been just fine.

Overall, I enjoyed and would recommend Hamnet. My expectations of the novel did affect my enjoyment of it, though, so I would recommend that other readers not go into this novel expecting it to focus entirely around one specific event.

Author: Hannah Celeste

Hi! I'm Hannah, a book-blogger from the Northeastern United States. I enjoy reading many genres, cooking and baking, doing yoga, and spending time with my two cats.

20 thoughts on “Book Review: Hamnet”

    1. It was a good read! I wish I had had more realistic plot expectations going in – I don’t even know where I got the unrealistic plot expectations from. Hope you enjoy this! I’ll look forward to your thoughts on it!

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  1. Good thing you mentioned that it’s not only about Hamnet’s death, because that’s exactly what I’m expecting it to be too! I’m adjusting my expectations accordingly. I’m glad you still found it compelling, though, and that the focus on the invisible labor of Agnes made it work for you. Also, I can’t help but ask: do you think it deserves its spot on the shortlist? 🙂

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    1. Oh yay!! I hope you’ll enjoy this book, especially since you’ll be going into it with realistic plot expectations lol! And I do think Hamnet deserves its spot on the shortlist!! It wasn’t my favorite, but I can definitely see the rationale in putting it there – the writing was beautiful 🙂

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  2. I just finished reading the last of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels (The Mirror and the Light) so I’m primed for another dive into the period: this book sounds right up my alley, but thank you for straightening me out on the expectations 🙂

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    1. I hope you’ll enjoy this! I think Hamnet will be a less challenging read than anything in the Wolf Hall series (although I haven’t started the Wolf Hall trilogy yet so I can’t say for certain). But one thing that makes it less challenging is that O’Farrell changed the names of some characters to eliminate the confusion of having multiple characters with the same name.

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  3. I am glad you enjoyed it, even if you were expecting something a bit different. I have seen somewhat mixed opinions and not quite sure if it’s something for me. Great review though, it gives a good idea of what to expect.

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    1. Thank you! It was a great read, but I know what you mean about not being sure if it’s for you. If this one hadn’t been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize I probably wouldn’t have gone for it either.

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  4. There’s definitely something to be said for a strong, accurate, spoiler-free synopsis on the back of a book and in all the work’s marketing efforts. I’ve read synopses with spoilers, incorrect details, and ones that are too vague to even guess what to expect. Sounds like the book turned around for you, though. I’ve heard of this author many times, but have not read her work.

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    1. It’s unfortunate when that happens – in this case the book was really good, but I would have enjoyed it more had I gone in with the right expectations. And based on my experience with Hamnet, I’d definitely recommend the author!!

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  5. I’m glad you ended up liking a lot of things about this one, despite being off-put by the structure/focus. I remember being most surprised by all the backstory of William and Agnes’s relationship before the childrens’ birth, but I enjoyed it enough that I didn’t mind needing to readjust my expectations. Actually those days leading up to Hamnet’s death were perhaps my least favorite, as they were so slowly paced compared to the alternate past chapters which covered YEARS, and it was so clearly building up to his death. I did love his relationship with Judith though. I completely agree about the writing bordering on too flowery, but it also tended to hook me so well that I really ended up liking nearly everything about the book, despite wishing it had done some things differently. Anyway, great review!

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    1. I agree with you about the days leading up to Hamnet’s death – that’s where I found myself getting the most impatient in the first part of the book! I can definitely see why you liked so much about this novel. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but it was still a great read. And thank you!!

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