Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (Book Review)

Watching Upstart Crow recently, I learned of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, who died of the plague. It seemed a strange coincidence that around the same time that I watched this episode, I saw this book which is set around the life and death of Hamnet. It tells of how William Shakespeare (never referred to by name) meets Agnes (who we know as Anne Hathaway), how they fell together and started a family before he left for London and began to pursue the life of a playwright. Agnes has gifts, a type of sight, and the ability to heal using herbs. Their lives are challenging and tough, never more so than after Hamnet dies.

I read this as part of a book group, and the discussion after was very interesting. For example, we discussed the idea that so many women in books set in this time were seen as witches, or healers, or having some kind of gift. Whether this is because that is a common trope, or because there weren’t so many roles for women to play. The more I think of books I’ve read set in this time, the more I can think of. Is it simply because we want women to have some kind of power?

I thought the choices O’Farrell made were very interesting. I feel as though I know a lot (broadly so) about Shakespeare and his life, but O’Farrell has used her research and made connections that may or may not be strictly factual. This is what I quite enjoy about historical fiction- I know it’s not fact, but it’s one interpretation of how things might have been.

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