Gini: Believe it or not, we both read the same book this month, Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell. 

This well-researched historical fiction details the origins of William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet (1603), being based on the life of his son, Hamnet. Growing up outside of London in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare fights poverty under the abusive hand of his bullying father.

Seeking a trade other than that of his father, glove making and leather works, he becomes a Latin tutor. He marries one of his lively and unusually gifted students, Agnes (Anne Hathaway). 

All of these details are woven into the early chapters of this book to help the reader understand the times, lifestyles, and building plot.

Realizing that his mind is withering in his home village, Shakespeare moves to London leaving his wife and three children, Susanna, and twins Hamnet and Judith behind. 

Acting, writing, and directing plays, his theater develops into a well-known for his excellence. 

During this same time the Plague ravages England, eventually hitting the Stratford-upon-Avon household. O’Farrell includes excellent background information on this as Judith becomes ill. Twin Hamnet works to save her as he awaits his mother’s return from her job as a local healer. Instead he contracts the disease and dies just before his mother returns home. 

Sensing her failure, Agnes suffers, blames herself and her absent husband and falls into despair.

Shakespeare, heart-broken over his beloved son’s death, buries himself in sorrow and writing and ultimately his sadness yields inspiration – Hamlet. 

While I have not unearthed all of the parallels of this book to the play, I do know that out of loss, insight and creativity arise.

This makes me think of the theme of this play plus the many others Shakespeare generated acknowledging that the themes of the 1500-1600s emerge in the plays, movies, books, and stories of today. 

Hamlet’s themes of revenge and death, uncertainty and the complexity of action, is transferred to a variety of current writings and situations. 

People question how Shakespeare penned tales of Denmark and Italy never having travelled there, but settings can be imagined with universal themes linked to the characters and scenes.

At the very least, Hamnet motivates me to read more Shakespeare to better understand recurring, persistent themes.

Debbie: As Gini mentioned above, we read the same book this month and we have a winner! The book is, of course, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. William Shakespeare wrote Hamlet four years after his son Hamnet died at the age of eleven. Hamnet and Hamlet are the same name.

I loved this book!  Yesterday, if you had asked me why I loved it so much, I really couldn’t have said — and yet, here I am, writing an opinion piece today.

 How do I support that opinion? What is so special about this book concerning the death of Shakespeare’s young son? 

Why, Maggie O’Farrell, did you choose such a topic? What made you think that the death of a young boy from the plague in 1596 would resonate with readers today? 

It does though, readers, it really does! Maybe it’s the prose - it’s well written and sophisticated, interesting, the construct intriguing as O’Farrell switches back and forth in time,  and the flawless research, although the author does deviate from history some, but this is a re-imagined telling after all.

 When it comes down to it, this is the story of a marriage and the grief of parents over the loss of a son.

You might be thinking to yourself that the story of grieving parents and death from the plague sounds about as interesting as watching corn grow, but you would be wrong. 

In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the last line is “Remember Me” and over 400 years later, we do remember him. If a father’s love, which trickles down a few hundred years, isn’t the most compelling reason to read this book then re-read what I wrote above: it’s well-written, sophisticated, interesting, and intriguing.  It’s an atmospheric, intimate tale about a marriage, the loss of a child, and the transformative power of connection and grief. 

It is amazing, especially if you like historical fiction. I recommend it without reservation.

In September, this novel was awarded the 2020 Women’s Fiction Prize, one of the UK’s most prestigious annual book awards celebrating and honoring fiction written by women.

Founded in 1996, this prize is set up to celebrate originality, accessibility, and excellence and to connect world-class writers with readers everywhere.