Even centuries after his death, the life, work, and legacy of William Shakespeare continues to fascinate readers. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell offers a unique and poetic look at the intimate family life of Shakespeare and the devastating loss that had a profound impact on his work, through the eyes of the lesser known people in his life. If your book club has picked up Hamnet, then we’ve provided some questions and resources to help facilitate your successful book club meeting!
Hamnet Book Summary
In the late 1500’s, Agnes is a young woman with an affinity for plant life and nature and she adores spending time outdoors. Her knowledge of plant life makes her a talented healer, but when she marries she finds herself settling down in Stratford-upon-Avon. As her husband finds success as a playwright, she tends to their small, growing family. But when their son falls ill with a fever spreading across the country at an alarming rate, it changes the course of Agnes’s life forever and her husband immortalizes the name of their son in one of his best-known plays.
Hamnet Book Club Questions
- This novel is clearly about the life of William Shakespeare, but he was never mentioned by name. Why do you think the author made this choice? What do you think is the significance of telling the story from Agnes’s point of view when very little is known about the life of the real Agnes, aka Anne Hathaway?
- How much did you know about the real Shakespeare and his relationship with his wife before reading this book? If you did know anything, did it affect your expectations of the book?
- How well matched did you think Agnes and her husband were? How did your impression of their marriage change or evolve over the course of the book?
- What was your impression of their lives? Did anything surprise you about the historical setting and every day life?
- Discuss the relationships that Agnes had with the various characters in the book. Why do you believe that she had so many fraught relationships? How does the family suffer from the reputation that Agnes has in town?
- Do you think Agnes is a good mother? Discuss the various depictions of motherhood and the expectation placed on mothers during this time. Contrast this with the fathers of the novel, and the expectations they seem to have of their roles and of their wives.
- Agnes’s affinity for the outdoors is an important aspect to her identity. Discuss how she is affected by being in nature and by being removed from nature. How does nature play a role in her life and mental health?
- Did you know about Hamnet Shakespeare before reading this book? Did this exploration of his young life affect your perception of Shakespeare?
- What sort of parallels can you draw between the pestilence that strikes Agnes’s family and the present-day pandemic?
- This book is largely about the deep emotion of grief. What did you think of O’Farrell’s depiction of the family’s grief?
- Why do you think Agnes encouraged her husband to leave after Hamnet’s death and go to London? Do you think she made the right choice?
- What did you think of Agnes’s experience watching Hamlet onstage at the end? Do you think Agnes would be content with the idea that her son’s name will become the most remembered name in literary history? Did you think that her husband’s play healed them?
- What were your favorite parts of the novel? What were your least favorite parts? Which lines stood out to you?
- Would you read another novel by Maggie O’Farrell? Why or why not?
Setting up your meeting:
We’ve got plenty of advice on how to run a book club, but if you are hosting your clubs discussion of Hamnet, consider posing an icebreaker question to attendees before getting the conversation rolling, such as, What’s your favorite Shakespeare play? If you’re looking for acitivities to go along with the book, consider hosting a viewing of Hamlet after your discussion, or planning an outing to a live performance of any of Shakespeare’s plays! Get creative, and have fun!
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