Review: Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell (2020)

Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is premised on the events that surround the death of Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet. The novel is a beautiful exploration of life, grief, and family, framed within one of literature’s most famous families. Its title comes from the interchangeability of the name of the Danish Prince, its king, and the son of a Warwickshire bard.  

O’Farrell’s writing throughout the book is sublime. She creates deep and intense descriptions of her key characters and their surroundings. When talking about the forests and lands surrounding Stratford-upon-Avon, it is easy to imagine yourself there, basking in the sun with contemporary cottages, fields, and people. Furthermore, the workings of the novel which create a sense of family ties and links are also impressive. O’Farrell creates a solid focus on the inner complexity of the relationships between parent and child as well as brother and sister in a way that makes the reader feel involved with each of their emotions and experiences.

These details and creations are also further demonstrated in O’Farrell’s use of language. Throughout the novel, there are little quirks or snippets that can be directly compared to its more famous predecessor. For example, “There is the soil and there is the body and it all comes to nothing” feels like a line from the Gravediggers scene (Act V, Sc. I): “Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam”. Similarly, “she would like to spin the wheel backwards, unmake the skein of Hamlet’s death” can be considered a direct allusion to Hamlet’s description of death as “this mortal coil” (Act III, Sc I). To a reader, these feel like inside jokes, or something that has not yet happened to these characters but are retained within the text as reminders of what will forever be inevitable, acting as a memento mori that the play is infamous for. One of my favourites, appearing towards the end of the novel, is the theme of “the undiscover’d country [of death], from whose bourn/ No traveller returns – puzzles the will”, as the characters deal with the reality of death and grief and the want for their child to return home to them. The stark comparison between the funeral of Hamnet and that of Ophelia (particularly if you watch the Paapa Essiedu version, which I highly recommend) is also beautiful yet subtle in its description and portrayal.

These references become particularly poignant towards the end of the novel and in the descriptions of Agnes, Hamnet’s mother. By firstly reading the title page and then eventually seeing the play, it allows us a unique focal point to see a fictional reaction to the play being held in its contemporary format. O’Farrell’s descriptions of emotion and grief within Agnes, whilst the lines of the play almost fall into the narrative as background noise, is one of the most incredible pieces of literature. Each line that O’Farrell picks out, and in particular those haunting final lines of Old Hamlet’s ghost, “Remember me” is done with expertise to create poetic comparison within her own text from the events of the novel to the play itself, without being too overly obvious and garish.

Despite these great strengths, the novel has some downfalls. In my initial reading, it may be safe to say that the title of Hamnet does not entirely fit with the narrative of the book. Yes, he remains a key figure throughout and is integral to the plot as well as O’Farrell’s stylistic comparisons with the play, but he is not the main character. Instead, much of the focus is on his mother Agnes. While I do not disagree with the centring of her character in the novel, the title of the book seems particularly odd as Agnes takes up around 75 per cent of the narrative yet is not perceived as the protagonist. Furthermore, the character of Agnes is given a few unusual character traits. From her initial meeting, she is described to us as a “child of the forest” and continues to take on this trait as an almost “witch” character that seems unnecessary, adding tension between her and the other women in the family for no real reason. This becomes a particular issue in the scenes of the birth of her children, where Agnes expresses her desire to give birth alone in the forest rather than with the support of the other women in her family. In historical practice, giving birth would have been a time of bonding between women as well as an event that could easily result in many complications without additional female support. There is no explicit reason to give for Agnes’ decision other than the creation of her character as “mysterious” and an “outsider”, rather than the matriarchal role she seems destined for.

O’Farrell also makes the narrative choice to remove the bard as a main character, which seems ill-thought-out and needless. The reasons for such can be appreciated; the story is about Shakespeare’s family and life in Stratford-upon-Avon, rather than a historical fiction narrative of his own biography. However, in a story about personal grief that leads to the writing of Hamlet, it makes no logical sense to remove Shakespeare as a character and disengage the familial connections that could have made the feeling of grief to the reader ever more powerful. This is semi-rectified in the final pages of the book and O’Farrell’s playing of Hamletas an artistic device of grief in Hamnet:

“Hamlet, here, on this stage, is two people, the young man, alive, and the father, dead. He is both alive and dead. Her husband has brought him back to life, in the only way he can. As the ghost talks, she sees that her husband, in writing this, in taking the role of the ghost, he has changed places with his son. He has taken his son’s death and made it his own; he has put himself in death’s clutches, resurrecting the boy in his place.”

The language of the text in this way can also be seen as a limitation of it. While it is beautiful and its ability to integrate Hamletis incredible, it assumes that the reader has a previous knowledge of both the play and Shakespeare’s life and is thus able to make sense of it. Although O’Farrell’s sense of family is successful, it is often hard to keep a count of who is related to who. Within this, the choice to name Shakespeare’s wife Agnes, rather than her more common name of Anne, and then the inclusion of a sister who is also named Anne, created much confusion in my initial reading. Although personally, it was the saving grace of the novel, the final chapters once again require previous knowledge of the play and its themes. The scenes that O’Farrell chooses to highlight here and throughout the novel only retain their power if the significance of the play itself is made apparent.

Overall, the hype that the novel has received so far has been thoroughly deserving. It is a magnificent rendering of Elizabethan life, family, landscape, and grief that brings the often-shadowed figures of the Shakespeare family to life and creates context and nuance to one of the most famous plays in English history. However, it may be worth watching Upstart Crow and possibly even the bard’s masterpiece (although it is four hours long, so please choose anything but the Branagh version), before you pick up this book.

Maggie O’Farrel’s Hamnet was published in 2020 by Headline Publishing. In 2020, it won the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

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