Hamnet is a story of family, loss and overwhelming grief. The story begins with an historical Note advising the reader that “Hamnet died in 1596, aged eleven. ~Four years or so later, the father wrote a play called Hamlet.”
The story begins at Hamnet’s home in Stratford, where his twin sister Judith has fallen extremely ill, the house is empty and Hamnet is desperately seeking help. “This moment is the absent mother’s: the boy, the empty house, the deserted yard, the unheard cry.” His mother is at Hewlands, her prior home, working with her bees. His older sister, Susanna is with their grandmother Mary out selling gloves. His Father is in London where he works and his grandfather, a frightening figure, slaps him for hanging around. At the beginning stages of the story we learn that the grandfather, John, is a disgraced business man who has fallen from a position of respect. The reasons for the fall are not quite clear but his business dealings are fraught. He is known to beat his children.
The first part of the book shifts, on a chapter by chapter basis, from Hamnet’s story until his death, to the story of how his parents met. As a young man, his Father, who is never identified by name (Shakespeare of course!), is indentured to a farming family to tutor the family’s boys in Latin. The indenture is intended to pay off John’s debt to the family. One day while tutoring the boys the Father sees a young woman who strikes him. He begins to talk to her, thinking she is a servant of the household and quickly falls for her. The woman is Agnes, the daughter of the farmer who had died a number of years before. She lives on the farm with her brother, Bartholomew, stepmother, Joan and many half siblings. Her father had left her a significant dowry. Her stepmother treats her terribly.
Agnes is rumored to be “strange, touched, peculiar, perhaps mad.” In reality, she has the ability to see a person’s future and has an innate knowledge of plants and their healing powers. When Joan refuses the Father’s request to marry Agnes, Agnes makes the decision to become pregnant, thereby forcing the issue. “We can, she said, take matters into our own hands.” Of course Agnes and the Father marry and they move into an apartment in John and Mary’s house. At the wedding Bartholomew, who is described as very large and strong, whispers to the Father, “’Take good care of her, Latin boy, very good care, and no harm will come to you.”
Although it is Judith who is very ill, she survives and Hamnet succumbs to the plague. Agnes is inconsolable and the Father does not get back to Stratford from London before Hamnet dies. They bury their son and then the Father announces that he must get back to London, where he runs a playhouse. The second part of the novel focuses on grief and the relationship between Agnes and the Father. The description of profound grief in all its phases takes the reader deep into the family’s pain.
After Hamnet’s death, the Father’s visits to Stratford become less frequent and his correspondence also becomes less frequent. Agnes questions his faithfulness. Agnes discovers, through her stepmother, Joan, that the Father has written and is producing a play in London called Hamlet. Agnes is furious and she and Bartholomew travel to London on horseback to see the play. It is while she is watching the play that she suddenly understands her Husband’s deep grief.
There are a lot of other things going on in the novel—character studies, sixteenth century superstitions, friendships and more. However, the novel is mostly about grief. It is beautifully written and very sad. The novel won the 2020 Women’s Prize. You can reserve Hamnet at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.
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