England, 1580: The Black Death creeps across the land, an ever-present threat, infecting the healthy, the sick, the old and the young alike. The end of days is near, but life always goes on.
A young Latin tutor—penniless and bullied by a violent father—falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman. Agnes is a wild creature who walks her family’s land with a falcon on her glove and is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer, understanding plants and potions better than she does people. Once she settles with her husband on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon,
England, 1580: The Black Death creeps across the land, an ever-present threat, infecting the healthy, the sick, the old and the young alike. The end of days is near, but life always goes on.
A young Latin tutor—penniless and bullied by a violent father—falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman. Agnes is a wild creature who walks her family’s land with a falcon on her glove and is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer, understanding plants and potions better than she does people. Once she settles with her husband on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon, she becomes a fiercely protective mother and a steadfast, centrifugal force in the life of her young husband, whose career on the London stage is just taking off when his beloved young son succumbs to sudden fever.
- May 2021
- 320 Pages
NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD WINNER
ONE OF THE NEW YORK TIMES 10 BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR
A NEW YOUR PUBLIC LIBRARY BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
One of Bill Gates’s Favorite Books of the Year
Book Club Pick: Duchess Camilla Parker Bowles’ The Reading Room
“Of all the stories that argue and speculate about Shakespeare’s life … here is a novel … so gorgeously written that it transports you.” —The Boston Globe
“Hamnet is an exploration of marriage and grief written into the silent opacities of a life that is at once extremely famous and profoundly obscure… In Hamnet, Shakespeare’s marriage is complicated and troubled, yet brimming with love and passion… This novel is at once about the transfiguration of life into art– it is O’Farrell’s extended speculation on how Hamnet’s death might have fueled the creation of one of his father’s greatest plays– and at the same time, it is a master class in how she, herself does it… O’Farrell has a melodic relationship to language. There is a poetic cadence to her writing and a lushness in her descriptions of the natural world… We can smell the tang of the various new leathers in the glover’s workshop, the fragrance of the apples racked a finger-width apart in the winter storage shed, and we can see how the pale London sun “reaches down, like ladders, through the narrow gaps in buildings to illuminate the rain glazed street.”… As the book unfolds, it brings its story to a tender and ultimately hopeful conclusion: that even the greatest grief, the most damaged marriage, and most shattered heart might find some solace, some healing.” –Geraldine Brooks, the New York Times Book Review [COVER]
“All too timely…inspired…[An] exceptional historical novel ” —The New Yorker
“A tour de force…Although more than 400 years have unspooled since Hamnet Shakespeare’s death, the story O’Farrell weaves in this moving novel is timeless and ever-relevant… O’Farrell brilliantly turns to historical fiction to confront a parent’s worst nightmare: the death of a child…Hamnet vividly captures the life-changing intensity of maternity in its myriad stages — from the pain of childbirth to the unassuagable grief of loss. Fierce emotions and lyrical prose are what we’ve come to expect of O’Farrell. But with this historical novel she has expanded her repertoire, enriching her narrative with atmospheric details of the sights, smells, and relentless daily toil involved in running a household in Elizabethan England — a domestic arena in which a few missing menstrual rags on washday is enough to alarm a mother of girls.”
“Miraculous… brilliant… A novel told with the urgency of a whispered prayer — or curse… through the alchemy of her own vision, she has created a moving story about the way loss viciously recalibrates a marriage… A richly drawn and intimate portrait of 16th-century English life set against the arrival of one devastating death.” –Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“Wholly original, fully engrossing. . . . Agnes is a character for the ages—engimatic, fully formed and nearly literally bewitching to behold in every scene she’s in.”—San Francisco Chronicle
1. What did you know about the origins of Hamlet, and about the history of William Shakespeare’s life and family, before reading this novel? How did the novel change your interpretation of the play?
2. How do Agnes’s special gifts affect her reputation throughout the town and her connection to her husband? Consider especially the way she feels the space between a person’s index finger and thumb, where “a person’s ability, their reach, their essence can be gleaned,” and how she uses this part of the body to connect with different people in the novel (49).
3. Describe the nature of Agnes’s love for her husband, and his for her. What draws them to each other, despite their different backgrounds?
4. What makes Susanna’s birth different from that of the twins? How does this manifest itself in each of the children’s relationships with their mother?
5. Throughout the book, Susanna expresses a frustration with the rumors about her mother and her strange ways, which is exacerbated after Hamnet’s death. Why do you think this daughter still takes up her mother’s work in the garden, caring for the house, and teaching of Judith, in spite of these feelings? What do you expect her prospects of marriage are, as she reflects on them at the end of the novel?
6. Discuss the lineage of mothers within the two families in the novel vis-à-vis the expectations of women at the time. How do Mary, Joan, and Agnes differ in their approach to women’s work in the world and rearing children, especially their daughters? How do Agnes’s insights, especially her vision of two children at the foot of her deathbed, affect her decisions as a mother? Consider her thought during the birth of the twins, when she fears one of her children will die: “She will place herself between them and the door leading out, and she will stand there, teeth bared, blocking the way” (202).
7. The fathers in the book—John, Hamnet’s father, and King Hamlet—all create a physical and/or emotional distance between themselves and their families. How does this affect their children and lineage overall? Consider the ultimate future of the Shakespeare line (in a bodily sense and otherwise) after Hamnet’s death. How did John’s actions ultimately impact how his own son would be remembered?
8. The plague is an insidious, but somewhat familiar, presence for the inhabitants of England during the time of the novel. How is its arrival marked and felt by the families we follow? What signs of infection are visible in the body and in how people behave? Were these notions familiar to you at all in the wake of the conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic, or other periods of large-scale disease you experienced in your lifetime or that occurred at other points in history?
9. Hamnet’s death comes as a shock to all in his family, but our insight into the twins’ last moments together reflects a kind of knowing that not even Agnes is able to access. How do their similarities affect the family’s ability to grieve and heal? How does Hamnet live on as “Agnes watches the child drop from her younger daughter, as a cloak from a shoulder” but still looks for her son’s face in Judith, as he might have aged into it (279)?
10. Agnes’s husband says of her that it is a joy and a curse to be married to “‘Someone who knows everything about you, before you even know it yourself. Someone who can just look at you and divine your deepest secrets, just with a glance. Someone who can tell what you are about to say—and what you might not—before you say it’” (268). Can you relate to this feeling at all, regarding your spouse, other relatives, friends, or coworkers? What does it feel like when a secret part of you is laid bare to another without your knowing, and how does that manifest itself in pursuits such as writing and art? Did reading this book, or any others you’ve read in the past, make you feel like the author knew something about you?
11. Agnes is very sensitive to her environment, including when she moves between different homes. What information do the three houses, indoor and outdoor, that she inhabits tell her about what will happen there? How do the energetics of the spaces, and the people who live there with her, become characters in and of themselves?
12. Why do you think William Shakespeare goes unnamed in the novel? From how he is described—as a Latin tutor, with a diminutive stature, et cetera—would you have recognized him as the great playwright without knowing this was his family’s story?
13. Discuss the significance of names in the novel overall, including the interchangeable spelling of “Hamnet” and “Hamlet.” Who is afforded their own name, and who is known exclusively by their relation to others?
14. What are the consequences of Agnes’s encouraging her husband to go to London? Do you think she still regrets the decision at the end of the book as she is watching Hamlet onstage?
15. Describe Agnes’s trip to London and her time at the playhouse. What does she learn about her husband’s life there from her attempts to find him? What does she discover about his pursuits when she sees him onstage? Do you think she forgives him in the end upon witnessing his homage to his son?
16. Based on the portrayal of the play in this novel, how are Hamnet and his father, and Hamlet (the character) and his father related to one another? Is the correlation one-to-one (son/son, father/father), or is there a crossing among them?
17. Shakespeare’s plays are known for their supernatural elements and figures. What might be considered supernatural about the events of the novel? Who are the conduits for these mysterious forces and messages among the living and the dead?
18. What roles do the written word, the spoken word, and words that are neither written nor spoken play in how the characters know one another and how we know them? How are various kinds of literacy—whether it’s reading letters on a page, reading gestures on a stage, reading plants in a garden, or reading souls in bodies—valued or not valued in the society of the novel? Are those values similar or different from those of our current society?
A boy is coming down a flight of stairs.
The passage is narrow and twists back on itself. He takes each step slowly, sliding himself along the wall, his boots meeting each tread with a thud.
Near the bottom, he pauses for a moment, looking back the way he has come. Then, suddenly resolute, he leaps the final three stairs, as is his habit. He stumbles as he lands, falling to his knees on the flagstone floor.
It is a close, windless day in late summer, and the downstairs room is slashed by long strips of light. The sun glowers at him from outside, the windows latticed slabs of yellow, set into the plaster.
He gets up, rubbing his legs. He looks one way, up the stairs; he looks the other, unable to decide which way he should turn.
The room is empty, the fire ruminating in its grate, orange embers below soft, spiralling smoke. His injured kneecaps throb in time with his heartbeat. He stands with one hand resting on the latch of the door to the stairs, the scuffed leather tip of his boot raised, poised for motion, for flight. His hair, light-coloured, almost gold, rises up from his brow in tufts.
There is no one here.
He sighs, drawing in the warm, dusty air and moves through the room, out of the front door and on to the street. The noise of barrows, horses, vendors, people calling to each other, a man hurling a sack from an upper window doesn’t reach him. He wanders along the front of the house and into the neighbouring doorway.
The smell of his grandparents’ home is always the same: a mix of woodsmoke, polish, leather, wool. It is similar yet indefinably different from the adjoining two-roomed apartment, built by his grandfather in a narrow gap next to the larger house, where he lives with his mother and sisters. Sometimes he cannot understand why this might be. The two dwellings are, after all, separated by only a thin wattled wall but the air in each place is of a different ilk, a different scent, a different temperature.
This house whistles with draughts and eddies of air, with the tapping and hammering of his grandfather’s workshop, with the raps and calls of customers at the window, with the noise and welter of the courtyard out the back, with the sound of his uncles coming and going.
But not today. The boy stands in the passageway, listening for signs of occupation. He can see from here that the workshop, to his right, is empty, the stools at the benches vacant, the tools idle on the counters, a tray of abandoned gloves, like handprints, left out for all to see. The vending window is shut and bolted tight. There is no one in the dining hall, to his left. A stack of napkins is piled on the long table, an unlit candle, a heap of feathers. Nothing more.
He calls out, a cry of greeting, a questioning sound. Once, twice, he makes this noise. Then he cocks his head, listening for a response.
Nothing. Just the creaking of beams expanding gently in the sun, the sigh of air passing under doors, between rooms, the swish of linen drapes, the crack of the fire, the indefinable noise of a house at rest, empty.
His fingers tighten around the iron of the door handle. The heat of the day, even this late, causes sweat to express itself from the skin of his brow, down his back. The pain in his knees sharpens, twinges, then fades again.
The boy opens his mouth. He calls the names, one by one, of all the people who live here, in this house. His grandmother. The maid. His uncles. His aunt. The apprentice. His grandfather. The boy tries them all, one after another. For a moment, it crosses his mind to call his father’s name, to shout for him, but his father is miles and hours and days away, in London, where the boy has never been.
But where, he would like to know, are his mother, his older sister, his grandmother, his uncles? Where is the maid? Where is his grandfather, who tends not to leave the house by day, who is usually to be found in the workshop, harrying his apprentice or reckoning his takings in a ledger? Where is everyone? How can both houses be empty?
He moves along the passageway. At the door to the workshop, he stops. He throws a quick glance over his shoulder, to make sure nobody is there, then steps inside.
His grandfather’s glove workshop is a place he is rarely allowed to enter. Even to pause in the doorway is forbidden. Don’t stand there idling, his grandfather will roar. Can’t a man do an honest day’s work without people stopping to gawk at him? Have you nothing better to do than loiter there catching flies?
Hamnet’s mind is quick: he has no trouble understanding the schoolmasters’ lessons. He can grasp the logic and sense of what he is being told, and he can memorise readily. Recalling verbs and grammar and tenses and rhetoric and numbers and calculations comes to him with an ease that can, on occasion, attract the envy of other boys. But his is a mind also easily distracted. A cart going past in the street during a Greek lesson will draw his attention away from his slate to wonderings as to where the cart might be going and what it could be carrying and how about that time his uncle gave him and his sisters a ride on a haycart, how wonderful that was, the scent and prick of new-cut hay, the wheels tugged along to the rhythm of the tired mare’s hoofs. More than twice in recent weeks he has been whipped at school for not paying attention (his grandmother has said if it happens once more, just once, she will send word of it to his father). The schoolmasters cannot understand it. Hamnet learns quickly, can recite by rote, but he will not keep his mind on his work.
The noise of a bird in the sky can make him cease speaking, mid-utterance, as if the very heavens have struck him deaf and dumb at a stroke. The sight of a person entering a room, out of the corner of his eye, can make him break off whatever he is doing—eating, reading, copying out his schoolwork—and gaze at them as if they have some important message just for him. He has a tendency to slip the bounds of the real, tangible world around him and enter another place. He will sit in a room in body, but in his head he is somewhere else, someone else, in a place known only to him. Wake up, child, his grandmother will shout, snapping her fingers at him. Come back, his older sister, Susanna, will hiss, flicking his ear. Pay attention, his schoolmasters will yell. Where did you go? Judith will be whispering to him, when he finally re-enters the world, when he comes to, when he glances around to find that he is back, in his house, at his table, surrounded by his family, his mother eyeing him, half smiling, as if she knows exactly where he’s been.
In the same way, now, walking into the forbidden space of the glove workshop, Hamnet has lost track of what he is meant to be doing. He has momentarily slipped free of his moorings, of the fact that Judith is unwell and needs someone to care for her, that he is meant to be finding their mother or grandmother or anyone else who might know what to do.
Skins hang from a rail. Hamnet knows enough to recognise the rust-red spotted hide of a deer, the delicate and supple kidskin, the smaller pelts of squirrels, the coarse and bristling boarskin. As he moves nearer to them, the skins start to rustle and stir on their hangings, as if some life might yet be left in them, just a little, just enough for them to hear him coming. Hamnet extends a finger and touches the goat hide. It is unaccountably soft, like the brush of river weed against his legs when he swims on hot days. It sways gently to and fro, legs splayed, stretched out, as if in flight, like a bird or a ghoul.
Hamnet turns, surveys the two seats at the workbench: the padded leather one worn smooth by the rub of his grandfather’s breeches, and the hard wooden stool for Ned, the apprentice. He sees the tools, suspended from hooks on the wall above the work bench. He is able to identify those for cutting, those for stretching, those for pinning and stitching. He sees that the narrower of the glove stretchers—used for women—is out of place, left on the bench where Ned works with bent head and curved shoulders and anxious, nimble fingers. Hamnet knows that his grandfather needs little provocation to yell at the boy, perhaps worse, so he picks up the glove stretcher, weighing its warm wooden heft, and replaces it on its hook.
He is just about to slide out the drawer where the twists of thread are kept, and the boxes of buttons—carefully, carefully, because he knows the drawer will squeak—when a noise, a slight shifting or scraping, reaches his ears.
Within seconds, Hamnet has darted out, along the passageway and into the yard. His task returns to him. What is he doing, fiddling in the workshop? His sister is unwell: he is meant to be finding someone to help.
He bangs open, one by one, the doors to the cookhouse, the brewhouse, the washhouse. All of them empty, their interiors dark and cool. He calls out again, slightly hoarse this time, his throat scraped with the shouting. He leans against the cookhouse wall and kicks at a nutshell, sending it skittering across the yard. He is utterly confounded to be so alone. Someone ought to be here; someone always is here. Where can they be? What must he do? How can they all be out? How can his mother and grandmother not be in the house, as they usually are, heaving open the doors of the oven, stirring a pot over the fire? He stands in the yard, looking about himself, at the door to the passageway, at the door to the brewhouse, at the door to their apartment. Where should he go? Whom should he call on for help? And where is everyone?
Excerpted from Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. Copyright © 2020 by Maggie O’Farrell.