Book Review: Hamnet & Judith by Maggie O’Farrell

Hamnet & Judith – Maggie O’Farrell (

In the 1580s, a couple living in Henley Street, Stratford, had three children: Susanna, then Hamnet and Judith, who were twins.

The boy, Hamnet, died in 1596, aged eleven.

Four years or so later, the father wrote a play called Hamlet.

Hamnet & Judith – Maggie O’Farrell

With this historical note begins Hamnet & Judith, a historical fiction from Maggie O’Farrell, recent winner of the Women’s Literary Prize. (This book was published as Hamnet in the U.K. but as Hamnet & Judith in Canada.) The story begins when Judith falls suddenly ill and her twin brother frantically searches for someone to help him. His mother, grandmother, and older sister are each away on their own errands. His grandfather is a man to be feared, not one to turn to in a moment of trouble. His father is away in London as he has been for most of Hamnet’s life. That father is never called by name throughout the book. We all know who he is but he is referred to only as a father, a husband, a son, a brother, a tutor. Instead, the focus is on those around him, the family in Stratford.

O’Farrell sticks to the historical facts as they are known, but facts around Hamnet’s brief life are few. His cause of death is unknown so here O’Farrell imagines it as a result of the spread of the bubonic plague, noting in the afterword that despite being a huge issue of his time, Shakespeare never mentions it.

Hamnet and Judith and their mother Agnes are at the heart of the novel. Agnes’ unruly and tempestuous childhood, the death of her mother at a young age and her upbringing with her stepmother. We watch Agnes’ fall in love with the young tutor brought in for her brothers and we watch her life shift once more when she becomes pregnant, marries, and moves in with the glove-maker’s son and his family. Agnes’ is a somewhat unworldly character, a woman able to see glimpses of the future, her own and those around her, simply through touching hands. She has a vision of her own death bed with two figures beside her and so feels confident that she will have two children. When her second pregnancy results in twins – and thus three children in total – it casts an uncertainty over her future. Judith is the frailer twin, more prone to illness. So when she fall sick with the dreaded plague, Agnes is frantic to save her. Does she miss the clues that Hamnet’s life is in danger or is this her maternal guilt that plagues her afterward? Can we really know our futures and how much is in our control?

The reader knows from the first page that Hamnet will die and from other reviews I’ve seen that some have struggled with this lack of tension. Personally, this didn’t bother me. For me, the tension was in how this family would survive. It was in the relationship between Agnes and her husband, who love each other deeply but have lived the majority of their marriage apart. Before their oldest daughter is born, Agnes recognizes her husband’s need to be apart from his family and his father’s history. She has no inkling of his talent or his genius but seems to sense that he needs something more, something different. So she sends him to London with her blessing where he becomes a success in the theatre. In the years that follow she wonders continuously if she has done the right thing.

This is also a story about grief. Because we know that there is only one outcome of this illness, every moment, every thing we learn about these characters is clouded over with the grief to come. It is a story about life after loss and a story about how one death ripples out. It is a story about how two people can have a life linked together but be pulled apart by the loss of a child. The conclusion, when Hamnet’s father writes and performs a play that shares its name with his son, is beautifully written.

The novel is prone to asides, most notably when it traces the path of a flea that leads to Hamnet and Judith’s illness. While I can see where O’Farrell may have lost some readers during these sections, I enjoyed the historical glimpses into a pandemic so different than our current one and yet with a few similarities. The story is slow on plot and far more character driven but the characters are so well drawn that I never minded.

12 thoughts on “Book Review: Hamnet & Judith by Maggie O’Farrell”

    1. Thanks! I can definitely see why some readers didn’t connect with this one. I suspected I would and it worked for me. Glad you were able to enjoy it!

  1. I read on social media recently some magazine/journal editors complaining that all the fiction submissions they are receiving have COVID-19 in them. But as you write, “…a result of the spread of the bubonic plague, noting in the afterword that despite being a huge issue of his time, Shakespeare never mentions it.” It’s so strange to remove something all-encompassing from the world in which people exist. I was surprised these editors complained, though if they are deeply scared of COVID-19, I can see how reading pandemic fiction submissions can wear on them. But to actually say, basically, “ya’ll can stop sending COVID fiction” seems like gatekeeping to me.

    1. That does seem surprising. And kind of weird. This is a huge global event – of course people will write about it and produce art about it. We’re going to be reading books and watching movies about 2020 for years. It’s a way for people to process things and, as you say, it’s kind of a form of gatekeeping to tell people to stop writing about it.

  2. Interesting, did this book just come out now? These pandemic novels seem to be coming out of the woodwork. Or, did you come across this at your library? It feels a bit serendipitous to come across novels that deal with these sicknesses by accident, almost as if fate is leading us to particular books for reasons that will become clear to us later. Did reading it make you feel better about our current situation?

    1. It came out here this summer and in the UK early this year or late last year. So written before 2020 but still new. It does seem like a lot of books about illness and pandemics have been published this year but maybe we’re all just noticing it more?

      It was interesting to see the parallels and differences between our own situation and the bubonic plague but mostly it was so different that it didn’t feel that connected to what we’re experiencing now.

  3. I find it odd that O’Farrell chose to call her Agnes, since she is always known as Anne. I wonder if she was trying to emphasise that this is fiction rather than biography.

    1. In recent years, I’ve seen/read more about Shakespeare’s wife being simply a cover for his affairs with men and other women or that they didn’t really live together or have a loving marriage. Which may or may not be true but I suspect O’Farrell uses Agnes in order to distance her character from that idea. In the afterword she does say that Anne/Agnes’ father referred to his daughter as Agnes in his will so it’s possible she was called that.

    2. I think there’s so little known about either of them in reality that authors can pretty much do what they like with them as characters. I really enjoyed Jude Morgan’s The Secret Life of Shakespeare a few years ago, which was as much about Anne as Will.

    3. It works well as a subject because you can be historically based but no one can really argue with you. Shakespeare’s wife probably didn’t have the ability to sense people’s futures like O’Farrell portrays but none of us can prove it!

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