Book review and synopsis for Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell, A story about Shakespeare's marriage and the death of his son.
Hamnet opens with some historical notes. A couple in Stratford had three children, twins Hamnet and Judith, and daughter Susanna. Hamnet, died in 1596, aged eleven. Roughly four years later, his father writes the play Hamlet (a name that is interchangeable at the time with name Hamnet).
As the story unfolds, the book tells a fictionalized story of William Shakespeare and his wife Agnes and the death of their son Hamnet.
(The Detailed Plot Summary is also available, below)
Detailed Plot SummaryChapter-by-Chapter SummarySee the Chapter-by-Chapter Summary of HamnetQuick Plot Summary
The three-sentence summary: Hamnet is essentially a family-type drama telling the background between Will Shakespeare and his wife Agnes. It follows their relationship as they deal with their grief over the death of their son Hamnet, the implications of Will's career and Will's infidelity. In the end, Will writes the play Hamlet as a farewell to his son -- it's a play where the father dies instead of the son and the ghost's final line is "Remember me."
(The book opens with a few historical notes. A couple in Stratford had three children, twins Hamnet and Judith, and daughter Susanna. Hamnet, died in 1596, aged eleven. Roughly four years later, his father writes the play Hamlet, interchangeable at the time with name Hamnet.)
The chapters jump back and forth between two timelines. In 1596, Hamnet is a young boy whose twin sister Judith has suddenly fallen ill. Hamnet searches for an adult, but the only person home is his drunk and abusive grandfather John Shakespeare. John is a disgraced glove maker, due to his illicit wool trading, among other things. Hamnet's father (William Shakespeare, though he is never named in the book) is in London, as usual. Hamnet's mother, Agnes, is away. He falls asleep next to Judith, crying.
In an earlier timeline, John Shakespeare owes a debt to a (deceased) sheep farmer. John and the farmer's (second) wife Joan have an arrangement for his son William to work off the debt by tutoring Joan's sons. It results in the tutor (Will Shakespeare) meeting Agnes. Agnes and her brother Bartholomew are the farmer's children with his first wife. Agnes has special abilities, where she is able to divine information about people, and she is also good with plants. Agnes and William fall in love.
In 1596, Agnes finally comes home and tries to treat Judith, confirming that she has "the pestilence" (the plague). The doctor shows up and warns them that no one is to leave the house until it has passed. When nothing works, Eliza (William's sister) writes to her brother in London to tell him to come home to say goodbye.
In an earlier timeline, Agnes becomes pregnant. John senses a business opportunity and strikes a bargain with Joan and Bartholomew regarding the debt, wool and Agnes. Soon, Agnes and the tutor are married. The baby, Susanna, is born. Agnes notices that her husband is unhappy as an errand-boy for his father. Agnes comes up with a plan to get John to send William to London. The plan works. Though Agnes is pregnant again, but William leaves for London, with plans to reunite once he is settled there.
An interlude traces the path of the disease. It involves a chance meeting of a glassmaker in Venice and a cabin boy on a ship. The cabin boy brings a disease-ridden flea onto the ship after interacting with a monkey in Alexandria. The pestilence ravages the ship. After the glassmaker loads his cargo in Venice, fleas end up in those boxes, which is unloaded in London. One box makes its way to a dressmaker. Her neighbor's daughter, Judith, is curious about it. The dressmaker lets Judith unpackage the disease-ridden box.
In 1596, Hamnet sees his dying sister and wants to trick death into taking him instead. He crawls into bed next to her. Agnes is soon surprised to discover that Judith is looking better, but Hamnet is barely breathing. She tries every remedy, but he dies.
In the earlier timeline, William sells some gloves to actors at a theater. Soon, he is acting (and later writing plays) and no longer dealing in gloves. In Stratford, Agnes is surprised to have twins, though she is worried because she has always known she would have only two children. Judith is the second one out, and she is weak and smaller than Hamnet. Agnes delays going to London until Judith is stronger, but Judith continues to be weak and sickly. The years pass, but the move to London never happens.
In 1596, William comes home to find Hamnet, not Judith, dead. Hamnet is buried. William is heartbroken. The house is full of reminders of Hamnet, and he is worried about the life he has built in London. William soon goes back to London and does not come home for a long time. Judith wonders if her resemblance to Hamnet is what keeps him away. Agnes grieves, too.
A year after Hamnet's death, William finally comes home. Agnes senses that he has been with other women. William apologizes for everything and decides to buy his family a house here in Stratford since it is clear that they will not be coming to London. He buys the largest house in the town, though he still only visits two or three times a year. As the girls grow up, Judith develops a love of plants like her mother. Susanna helps out with her father's affairs in terms of purchasing land, rental income, and other business affairs.
One day, Agnes learns that William has written a play (Hamlet) named after their son. Upset, Agnes goes (with Bartholomew) to London to find William. She finds him at the playhouse before a performance of Hamlet. As she watches the play, she realizes that her husband has written a play where the father is the one that dies instead of the child. In his play, "Hamlet"/Hamnet gets to live. The book ends with the last line that the ghost delivers, "Remember me".
For more detail, see the full Chapter-by-Chapter Summary.