Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a play that has intrigued scholars and theatergoers alike for centuries.
But what about the story behind the story?
What about the tragic loss of Shakespeare’s own son, Hamnet, that inspired him to write one of the most celebrated plays in the English language?
Have you, for one second, contemplated on this very matter?
In her novel Hamnet, acclaimed author Maggie O’Farrell brings this little-known history to life, illuminating not only the grief of a family torn apart by the death of a child but also the complex dynamics of a marriage and the sacrifices made for an artistic achievement.
Via this discussion guide, we’ll have a look at some amazing book club questions for Hamnet and why it’s a must-read for anyone looking to explore the strengths and weaknesses of O’Farrell’s writing and consider whether it lives up to the hype as a masterpiece of historical fiction.
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Hamnet Book Club Questions
- The novel vividly depicts the experience of losing a child, particularly in the way it affects Agnes, Hamnet’s mother. She is being consumed by grief and struggles to find a way to cope with this kind of a devastating loss.
What O’Farrell shows is how grief can drive people to do things they might not otherwise do, such as Shakespeare writing the play Hamlet as a way to process his son’s death. She also states that such situations can either bring people closer or drive them apart – the strained relationship between Agnes and her husband being the case of the latter.
Discuss how the novel vividly depicts the experience of losing someone you love. Do you think Maggie O’Farrell has portrayed this situation in an accurate and nuanced manner?
- The book portrays the role of women in Shakespearean England as being constrained by societal expectations and limitations. They are expected to marry and bear children, with their opportunities for education and professional advancement being extremely limited. Agnes, in contrast, is portrayed as a strong and independent woman who defies these norms by being a skilled healer who has a deep connection to nature.
What’s your take on the way Agnes is portrayed in the novel? Did you like her character the most, or was it someone else?
- O’Farrell’s decision not to mention Shakespeare’s name in the novel did affect my interpretation of the character in several ways. It allowed me to see the character as a product of his environment rather than as a famous playwright with a preconceived reputation. It also shifted my focus away from Shakespeare’s achievements and instead places emphasis on his relationships with his family members and his community.
What’s your take on this creative liberty taken by O’Farrell?
- The kestrel in Agnes’ life serves as a symbol of her connection to the natural world and her unconventional stature. The Kestrel is a fierce and stealthy bird of prey that is typically associated with hunting and aggression, which reflects Agnes’ strong will and her determination to live life on her own terms.
Do you think that her giving up the bird on her marriage to the Latin tutor reflects her willingness to make sacrifices for the sake of her family and her desire to conform to societal expectations, something that is in sharp contrast to her character?
- The title Hamnet is significant because it represents the novel’s central themes of loss and grief and also alludes to the play Hamlet, which Shakespeare wrote around the time of Hamnet’s death.
Discuss the way the novel suggests that the play may have been a way for Shakespeare to process his grief and explore the themes of loss, grief, and a corroborative relationship between life and art.
- The novel suggests that art can be a powerful means of processing grief and exploring complex emotions. Shakespeare drew inspiration from his own life and the people around him, and his work was deeply influenced by the events and experiences he lived through.
Do you think that this fine line between life and art is often blurred and that the two are inextricably linked? If yes, discuss.
- The novel explores the experience of grief in an empathetic way, particularly through the character of Judith. After Hamnet’s death, Judith experiences intense grief and tries to find ways of holding on to her brother’s memory. She also struggles with the fear that she will lose others she loves and her health will deteriorate with time.
Discuss the character of Judith based on your own interpretation of her.
- While the novel is based on known historical facts and documents, O’Farrell also fills in the gaps with her own interpretation of the characters and their motivations. For example, the cause of Judith’s illness and death is unknown, but O’Farrell invents a vivid and haunting backstory involving a flea on a Venetian glass merchant. Similarly, while there is little information about Agnes Shakespeare, O’Farrell gives her a rich inner life and a compelling backstory as a healer and spiritualist.
What’s your take on the way Maggie O’Farrell blends historical accuracy with creative license to create a nuanced and imaginative portrayal of Shakespeare’s family life in this novel?
- Susanna feels overworked and underappreciated in her family, both at her grandmother’s house and later at her own family’s house. She longs to escape her strange family and worries about who will come to court her.
Do you think the character of Susanna represents the sacrifices children make for their parents as she feels that her prospects are submerged by her parents’ needs for self-definition?
- Agnes’ grief over Hamnet’s death contributes to her retreat to her rural origins in several ways. Firstly, it causes her to feel guilt and blame herself for not being able to prevent her son’s death. This guilt and sense of responsibility contribute to her feelings of helplessness and lead her to seek solace in the familiar surroundings of her rural home. Secondly, her grief causes her to feel resentment towards her husband for being able to escape the scene of their sorrow and continue pursuing his career in London.
Do you think it was this resentment that further distanced her from her husband and reinforced her desire to retreat to her rural origins? If yes, discuss.
If you liked these set of questions, here are a few other options for you to explore.
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