This reader guide shares the most thought-provoking Hamnet book club questions to discuss Maggie O’Farrell’s bestselling, award-winning “Novel of the Plague,” about the death of William Shakespeare’s son.
Plus, get a free printable PDF of the questions to take with you!
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is good for book clubs and their thoughtful discussion, given its meticulous plotting, heavy use of literary devices, lush writing style, and real-life inspiration, based on the death of William Shakespeare’s eleven-year-old son, Hamnet, which inspired his famous play, Hamlet.
It was a slow, methodical read for me, in which I found myself stopping to jot down topics to explore further as a discussion guide. It’s hard, it’s heavy, it’s slow… and it’s 100% worth it. This book will stay with me for a long, long time.
Hamnet Book Club Questions
Below are my handcrafted Hamnet book discussion questions, followed by answers to frequently asked questions about the novel.
Was Hamnet an easy or hard read for you?
What do you know of Shakespeare’s life outside of this novel?
What did you know about “The Black Death” prior to reading?
Hamnet and Hamlet are said to be interchangeable names. Still, why do you think Shakespeare chose a slightly different name for his play?
Why do you think O’Farrell chose the title Hamnet?
O’Farrell stated there are “scant historical facts” known about the Shakespeare family (thus, much of her novel is speculation). Does this change your opinion on the contents of Hamnet?
The true cause of death of Hamnet is unknown. Does this change your opinion on the contents of Hamnet?
Do you think any of the accounts in Hamnet were likely to have occurred as written?
What genre would you describe Hamnet as: based on a true story, historical fiction, literary fiction, or something else?
Shakespeare never refers to “The Black Death” (The Plague) in his writing. What do you make of this?
Shakespeare is only referred to as the “Latin tutor” and similarly general names in Hamnet. Why do you think O’Farrell made this choice?
Did you like O’Farrell’s unique writing style, overflowing with detailed descriptions?
In Hamnet, the chapters about the past are longer and the chapters about the present are shorter. Do you think there is significance in this pacing?
Did you like or dislike the dual timelines in Hamnet?
Discuss the use of foreshadowing in premonitions in Hamnet.
Discuss the theme of motherhood that was woven heavily throughout Hamnet.
Discuss the theme of childbirth that was woven heavily throughout Hamnet.
How were Agnes’s childbirth experiences similar and different?
Discuss the significance of Agnes being a healer.
Discuss the significance of Shakespeare’s difficult relationship with his father.
Describe Agnes’s personality type.
How were life and death scenes juxtaposed in Hamnet?
Discuss the similarities and differences among the mother figures in Hamnet.
Given that Hamnet’s father is a famous figure, why do you think O’Farrell focused so much more heavily on his mother’s experiences?
Were apples meant to be symbolic in their use during the scene involving the physical relationship between Hamnet’s parents?
What caused Agnes and William Shakespeare to fall in love?
How do Agnes and William Shakespeare show parental love similarly and/or differently?
Discuss the sibling bond between Hamnet and Judith.
Discuss the differences between Bartholemew and William Shakespeare.
Eliza’s note to William Shakespeare about Judith’s illness is handwritten in the print copy. Why do you think this choice was made?
Discuss the irony in Agnes being a healer?
Discuss the irony in the death of Hamnet versus Judith.
Why do you think O’Farrell chose for both Judith and Hamnet to become ill?
Judith’s illness occurs over far more pages than Hamnet’s. Why do you think O’Farrell made this choice?
Why do you think O’Farrell chose not to have Hamnet’s father present for his death?
Discuss the theme of grief in Hamnet.
Discuss how each member of the family coped with grief.
The events of Hamnet occurred hundreds of years ago. How is grief similar and different today?
Did the members of the Shakespeare family have regrets and/or guilt about Hamnet’s death?
In the beginning of Part II, King Hamlet is quoted, asking for his story to be told. Discuss the significance of this.
Discuss the changes to the Shakespeares’ home after the death of Hamnet.
Discuss the changes in the Shakespeare family after the death of Hamnet.
Why do you think O’Farrell had Joan deliver the news about Shakespeare’s play?
Discuss the final sentence of Hamnet.
O’Farrell has said she wrote Hamnet to give a voice to an overlooked person in Shakespearean history. Did she do his (largely unknown) story justice?
O’Farrell is no stranger to writing about death — her book I Am, I Am, I Am is about seventeen brushes she herself had with it. Do you think this is coincidental?
Compare and contrast “The Black Death” (pestilence) with COVID-19.
The last line of Maggie’ O’Farrell’s novel is ‘Remember Me’. This is said by Shakespeare who is acting the role of ghost from the play ‘Hamlet’. In Hamlet (the play) this line is often interpreted as the ghost of dead king Hamlet (who has been murdered by his brother) asking that young Hamlet seeks revenge. Why does Maggie O’Farrell conclude her story with this line?
Quick Summary and Review
Five out of five stars.
Hamnet is both a national bestseller, a Women’s Prize for Fiction Winner, and a National Book Critics Circle Award Winner. It was also named “Novel of the Year” at the Dalkey Literary Awards, shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize, and longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. It’s easy to see why, with its meticulous plotting, heavy use of literary devices, and very lush, literary writing style.
Set in England during the late 1580s, it’s loosely based on the death of William Shakespeare’s eleven-year-old son, Hamnet, from “The Black Death,” which inspired his famous play, Hamlet, about an opposing scenario in which a son grieves his father, King Hamlet. Ultimately it’s a family drama novel about grief.
Hamnet shifts timelines between the story of Shakespeare’s relationship with his wife, Agnes (also known in history as Anne), and the illness that begins with Hamnet’s twin sister, Judith, and ultimately ends with him, just as William Shakespeare’s playwrighting career is taking off.
It’s a true work of art that was seemingly crafted word by word, so it’s ripe for a lot of thoughtful discussion amongst literary buffs, as well as fans of Shakespeare. (It’s definitely a great book club book for this type of group.)
It was a slow, methodical read for me, in which I found myself stopping to jot down topics to explore further as a discussion guide by way of these book club questions for Hamnet. It’s hard, it’s heavy, it’s slow… and it’s 100% worth it. This book will stay with me for a long, long time.
I also enjoyed watching her discuss the novel with one of my favorite authors, Ann Patchett:
Frequently Asked Questions
No. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is historical fiction about the possible inspiration for Hamlet by William Shakespeare. You need not read Hamlet before Hamnet, but it helps to know that Hamnet is about grief over the death of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, and Hamlet is about a son’s grief of the death of his father, King Hamlet.
Yes, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is good for book clubs and their thoughtful discussion, given its meticulous plotting, heavy use of literary devices, lush writing style, and real-life inspiration, based on the death of William Shakespeare’s eleven-year-old son, Hamnet, which inspired his famous play, Hamlet.
In the Author’s Note in Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell explained that William Shakespeare’s wife, Anne, is called Agnes because she was so named in her father’s will.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is historical fiction based on the true story of the death of William Shakespeare’s eleven-year-old son, Hamnet. However, in the Author’s Note, O’Farrell explains that much of the book is “the result of [her] idle speculation,” as little is historically known about the events portrayed.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell shows that grief can be coped with by transforming it into art. It also explores marriage and parenthood in the context of the death of a child.
These Hamnet book club questions foster introspective discussions and deeper connections to O’Farrell’s intricate portrayal of grief, marriage, parenthood, and art. It’s a great selection for fans of Shakespeare, historical fiction and/or literary fiction. May your discussions be as immersive as the novel itself.
Keep the discussion going! Share your thoughts on Hamnet or any remaining questions you may have in the comments below.