Who Needs Shakespeare? Hamnet Surely Doesn’t

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

The buzz over Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague has been wildly positive. The New York Times declared it one of its 10 best of 2020. The National Book Critics Circle named it the best work of fiction of the year. I’m not here to say they’re wrong about the quality of the writing here. But…

The conceit of the book is that William Shakespeare, though hardly named in the book, used his grief over the loss of his young son, Hamnet, as inspiration for his moody masterpiece, Hamlet, (Hamlet being interchangeable with the name Hamnet in the late 16th century). But really that’s not a fair description of the novel, since Shakespeare, the playwright, is hardly at center stage. This is a book about Agnes, otherwise known as Ann, the fierce wife and mother whose own grief is really the focal point. So much so that you wonder why the connection to Shakespeare had to be made at all.

O’Farrell is a master at evoking the texture of daily life in Stratford. You can smell the foul odors of the glover’s workshop, feel the cloying heat of the cramped quarters next door, and see the green fields out the windows of the Latin classroom. O’Farrell also creates Agnes as a compelling Celtic healer, whose free-spirited ways earn her disparaging evaluations from in-laws and townspeople alike, even if they do show up at the door for her herbal remedies when they’re sick.

Agnes has to be a creation, though, because there is so little historical evidence to go on. And the descriptions of grief are so profound and universal that you wonder why they had to be tied to a historical character at all. When Agnes shows up in London to watch her husband’s artistic distillation of his experience, it is not compelling and really doesn’t add anything to the story, especially not a climax.

In the end, the only really disappointing thing about the book is that it has any tie to Shakespeare at all. It sets up too many expectations that are unnecessary to the book and makes O’Farrell work too hard at making the connections. The subtitle of the book is A Novel of the Plague; let’s let it be that and marvel at O’Farrell’s imagined world. It’s luminous without the bard.

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