Critics’ Corner: Hamnet

Lila Caminiti, Features Editor, Senior

It’s no secret that Shakespeare’s plays have inspired a multiplicity of remakes, both modernized and traditional. However, the famous playwright’s own life has served as the muse for many fantastic adaptations. A recent example of a Shakespearean-inspired novel is Hamnet, an historical fiction novel published in 2020 that chronicles the story of Hamnet, the 11-year old son of William Shakespeare, as he and his sister battle the plague. This narrative is paired with that of Hamnet’s parents as they fell in love and married against all odds just a few years earlier. Hamnet is a fantastic story that will have readers glued to the page.

The dual narrative structure of Hamnet is extremely conducive to one’s understanding of the characters involved and their relationships. On one hand, the book chronicles the romance between William, the Latin tutor son of an atrabilious old tanner, and Agnes, a free-spirit who roams the grounds of her family’s farm with her loyal raven. Their story is one that will warm readers’ hearts. This story is told in tandem with that of Hamnet, the 11-year old son of an up-and-coming London playwright. Hamnet lives with his two sisters, mother and grandparents in Stratford-Upon-Avon, as his father works on his plays in England’s capital. The young Hamnet and his twin sister, Judith, both fall ill with a mysterious illness that looks all too familiar to the doctors that treated thousands of plague patients only years prior. The novel chronicles Hamnet’s sickness from his point of view.

The story is a dramatized account of the life of Hamnet Shakespeare, a life of which little is known other than his early and tragic death due to the plague. It’s been said that Shakespeare drew inspiration from his son in his play Hamlet, in which the son lives, but the father dies. In fact, some scholars argue that the name Hamnet would actually be pronounced Hamlet at the time of Shakespeare. Either way, it is evident that Shakespeare’s son was a muse for this incredibly famous work.

Although both narratives in Hamnet are extremely interesting, the romance between Agnes and William is especially heartwarming. Their romance is one that will have readers rooting for them, as the unusual Agnes and bookish William defy the odds of Agnes’s unkind stepmother and William’s abusive father to be together.

Although Hamnet is a fantastic book, it definitely starts a little bit slow. My advice to any readers is to hold on throughout the first few chapters— although they move a bit slowly, you will become enticed by the fantastic writing and fascinating plot once you develop a basic understanding of the character dynamics! In fact, the novel took home both the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Critics Circle Award for Fiction.

Overall, Hamnet is a must-read that will be loved by all ages. Whether or not you have prior knowledge of Shakespeare’s work, Hamnet is a fantastic story of love and resilience that will have you engrossed.