Hamnet ~ A Capsule Book Review

Hamnet ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

A little background information, please: English playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) lived in the small town of Stratford-on-Avon, a hundred miles or so from London. The business of his family was making and selling gloves. When he was eighteen, he married a twenty-six-year-old woman named Anne Hathaway (1556-1623) who was expecting his child. William Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway had three children: Susanna (1583-1649) and twins Hamnet (1585-1596) and Judith (1585-1662). Hamnet died, age eleven, in 1596. The cause of his death is not known. Since the plague was a persistent threat during this period of history, it might be assumed—or has been speculated—that Hamnet died of the plague. Nobody will ever know for sure.

Little is known about Shakespeare’s private life or the life of the family. What is known is that Shakespeare’s profession (playwright, actor and theatre manager) made it necessary for him to leave his family behind and spend most of his time in London. He tried to spend at least spend part of every year with his family in Stratford-on-Avon.

The novel Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is a purely speculative historical novel about Shakespeare’s family, mostly minus Shakespeare. While the title of the novel is Hamnet, it is more about Shakespeare’s wife, Anne, who is called Agnes here. (Apparently, as explained in a note at the end of the book, she went by either name.)

Hamnet, the novel, is told from the female point of view: that is, Anne Hathaway’s point of view. There is a lot of material here (female angst) about domestic concerns, raising children, dealing with difficult relatives and having a mostly absent husband. The great man himself is a secondary character in this story. If you’re looking for a book that gives insight into Shakespeare’s life and times, his private life and character, this isn’t it.

With her husband (William Shakespeare) away so much of the time, Anne (Agnes) has a lot of time to be jealous and to wonder what he might be doing (and with whom) in London. At the end of the book, she, along with her brother, Bartholomew, makes a surprise visit to London on horseback. She doesn’t find William at his lodgings, but she is told she might find him at the theatre. It’s providential (and coincidental) that she, an unlettered woman who never understood her husband’s passion for writing, finds him acting in his own production of his new play, Hamlet, as the ghost of the king’s father. She understands, for the first time, the alchemy that occurs from the spoken dialogue that her own husband writes, and how the play is, in a way, a tribute to their departed—and much lamented—son, Hamnet.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

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