Hamnet & Judith – Maggie O’Farrell

Very little is actually known about William Shakespeare, the man (I believe is) responsible for writing some of the most beautiful poetry ever committed to paper. His plays are still produced some 400 years after his death. He is a mainstay of English Language Arts curriculums the world over. In fact, I am just beginning to look at Romeo and Juliet with my Grade 10 classes. It is a play I love to talk about and I can totally trace my love of angst back to my first exposure to it in 1977.

Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet & Judith tells the story of an unnamed man (clearly Shakespeare) and his wife, Agnes (more commonly known to us as Anne) from their first meeting, through the birth of their first daughter, Susanna, followed by the arrival of their twins, Hamnet and Judith. The novel bounces forwards and backwards in time, but somehow still manages to move forward to its perfect (yet heartbreaking) conclusion.

Agnes is really the central character in O’Farrell’s novel. She and her brother Bartholomew (loved him!), have been orphaned by the death of first their mother, and then years later their father. Now they live with their unkind stepmother, Joan, and a gaggle of step siblings. The tutor who is teaching Agnes’s younger brothers, becomes enamoured with Agnes when he sees a figure out walking in the fields with a hawk on her arm.

She has a certain notoriety in these parts. It is said that she is strange, touched, peculiar, perhaps mad. He has heard that she wanders the back roads and forests at will, unaccompanied, collecting plants to make dubious potions.

It is said that the stepmother lives in terror of the girl putting hexes on her, especially now the yeoman is dead. Her father must have loved her, though, because he left her a sizable dowry in his will. Not that anyone, of course, would want to wed her. She is said to be too wild for any man.

Hamnet & Judith concerns the relationship between Agnes and the tutor, a relationship that seems quite modern, actually. Agnes soon learns that the tutor needs out from under his father’s controlling hand and she finds a way to give him his freedom, although I think it does come at great personal cost to her. The way they are portrayed in this novel, one could never doubt their love for one another.

It also concerns the relationship between Judith and Hamnet. The novel actually begins when Hamnet, 11, discovers his sister very ill. It is plague times, of course, and O’Farrell even includes a chapter in the book that explains how Judith came to be ill – from a flea that traveled in a container of glass beads all the way from Murano, Italy. Of course, it is not Judith who dies – I hope that’s not a spoiler – and four years after Hamnet’s death, his father writes, perhaps, his most famous play, Hamlet.

Ultimately, this is a novel about family. It’s about grief, and watching Agnes mourn the loss of her son is absolutely heart-wrenching. It is about the minutiae of daily life. Given that we are experiencing a global pandemic, it’s difficult not to see the parallels despite the 400 years that separate our story from this one. Let’s not forget, although O’Farrell’s story is fiction, Shakespeare and his family were very real.

I loved this book. It’s more than worthy of the praise.

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