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29Mar

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell review – tragic tale of the Latin tutor’s son

A fictionalised account of the short life of Shakepeare’s son, Hamnet, is a work of profound understanding

In 1596, William Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son Hamnet died in Stratford-upon-Avon. Four or so years later, Shakespeare wrote the play considered by many to be his greatest work, giving its tragic hero a variation of his dead son’s name. Almost four centuries later still, Maggie O’Farrell was studying Hamlet at school and learned of the boy Hamnet, whose life has been little more than a footnote in his father’s biography. The seed of curiosity planted 30 years ago has grown into her finest novel yet; a reimagining of Hamnet’s death and the long-lasting ripples it sent through his family.

But the title is slightly misleading. Though the novel opens with Hamnet, its central character and beating heart is the boy’s mother, whom O’Farrell calls Agnes. Names are significant in this book; when Agnes eventually sees the version of her son’s name on a London playbill, she feels he has been stolen from her a second time. Meanwhile, the most famous character in the novel goes unnamed; he is variously “her husband”, “the father”, “the Latin tutor”. He is allowed very little direct speech. This deliberate omission frees the narrative of all the freight of association that his name carries; even Stratford is rarely mentioned explicitly, with the author instead naming individual streets and houses to root her story in its location.

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