Hamnet (O'Farrell) - Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, use our LitLovers talking points to help start a discussion for HAMNET ... then take off on your own:

1. Talk about the way in which Maggie O'Farrell's novel speculates that 11-year-old Hamnet's death may have sparked the creation of one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies.

2. How would you describe Agnes—what kind of a character is she? To the towns people she is almost a celebrity, a creature of near myth. In what way?

3. How does the author imagine Agnes and Will coming together, first as lovers, then as husband and wife? Consider Shakespeare's first view of Agnes. How would you describe their marriage?

4. Agnes is the novel's center. Why do you think Shakespeare goes unnamed, referred to instead as "her husband," "the father," and the "Latin tutor."

5. In what ways is this novel about grief, our all too human responses to it, the damages it causes, and the long arm of its persistence. O'Farrell writes at the onset of her novel, "This moment is the absent mother's: the boy, the empty house, the deserted yard, the unheard cry.… It will lie at her very core, for the rest of her life."

6. (Follow-up to Question 5) Talk about the way Agnes responds when she sees the version of her son's name on the Hamlet London playbill. Consider, too, Agnes's thoughts when, as an audience member, she sees her husband play the role of the ghost: It is, she thinks, "what any father would wish to do, to exchange his child’s suffering for his own."

7. O'Farrell gives us detailed, lyrical depictions of everyday life in Warwickshire. What struck you most about her portrayal of Elizabethan English life? Were the descriptions overlong, or did you feel they breathed life into the novel?

8. In The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, and As You Like It, Shakespeare plays with gender-fluidity, showing a close affinity between males and females. How does O'Farrell incorporate that tendency in her novel Hamnet, especially between the twins and even Shakespeare's first sight of Agnes?

9. Hamnet was published in 2020, a year of global pandemic. In the middle of her novel, O'Farrell transports us to the Mediterranean Sea, where readers are given a horrific lesson in 16th-century epidemiology. How does the spread of the Bubonic Plague 400 years earlier parallel our own recent experiences with Covid-19?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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