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The Folger Spotlight

Words, Words, Words: ‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell

Folger Public Programs closes out our book club series for 2020 on Thursday, December 3 with a discussion of Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. To get ready for the conversation, we’ve compiled some introductory information on this moving account of marriage, motherhood, and grief.

What is Hamnet about?

Hamnet cover art

England, 1580: The Black Death creeps across the land, an ever-present threat, infecting the healthy, the sick, the old and the young, alike. The end of days is near, but life always goes on.

A young Latin tutor—penniless and bullied by a violent father—falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman. Agnes is a wild creature who walks her family’s land with a falcon on her glove and is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer, understanding plants and potions better than she does people. Once she settles with her husband on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon she becomes a fiercely protective mother and a steadfast, centrifugal force in the life of her young husband, whose career on the London stage is taking off when his beloved young son succumbs to sudden fever.

A luminous portrait of a marriage, a shattering evocation of a family ravaged by grief and loss, and a tender and unforgettable re-imagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, and whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays of all time, Hamnet is mesmerizing, seductive, impossible to put down—a magnificent leap forward from one of our most gifted novelists.

Critical Reception

“Although more than 400 years have unspooled since Hamnet Shakespeare’s death, the story O’Farrell weaves in this moving novel is timeless and ever-relevant.”—NPR

Hamnet is evidence that there are always new stories to tell, even about the most well-known historical figures. It also confirms O’Farrell as an extraordinarily versatile writer, with a profound understanding of the most elemental human bonds – qualities also possessed by a certain former Latin tutor from Stratford.” —The Guardian

“As it unfolds, it brings its story to a tender and ultimately hopeful conclusion: that even the greatest grief, the most damaged marriage and most shattered heart might find some solace, some healing.”—The New York Times

“This is a richly drawn and intimate portrait of 16th-century English life set against the arrival of one devastating death.”—The Washington Post

Hamnet won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2020.

About the author: Maggie O’Farrell

Maggie O'FarrellMaggie O’Farrell is the author of the Sunday Times no. 1 bestselling memoir I am, I am, I am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, and eight novels: After You’d Gone (Winner, Betty Trask Award), My Lover’s Lover, The Distance Between Us (Winner, Somerset Maugham Award), The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, The Hand That Held Mine (Winner, 2010 Costa Award) , Instructions for a Heatwave (2013 Costa Novel Award shortlist), This Must Be The Place (2016 Costa Novel Award shortlist), and Hamnet (Winner, 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction). She appeared in Waterstones’ 25 Authors for the Future. She lives in Edinburgh.



Meet our Bookshop Partner: Politics and Prose 

Politics and Prose logoThis month, we are thrilled to partner with Politics and Prose, DC’s premiere independent bookstore devoted to cultivating community and strengthening the common good through books, programs, and a respectful exchange of ideas.

Orders can be placed online, or at any of the locations throughout DC—Connecticut Avenue NW, The Wharf, and Union Market—which are now open to customers. Click here for more information about operating hours and curbside pickup.

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Shakespeare bust with glassesTune in next week for additional Folger resources to enrich the conversation.