Hamnet was a book that many read during Covid. It felt both strikingly modern and deeply grounded in the tradition of British historical fiction. Tragically, however, the play does not live up to the book. Like a butcher displaying the different cuts of beef, the play chopped up the book into a crude mockery of its source material. The decision to stick obsessively close to the plot and to drop the book’s non-linear storytelling required a vast amount of scenes and dialogue to be squashed into a play of two and a half hours. Nuance and subtly were lost as actors powered through story beat after story, beat before stripping and remaking the stage for the next moment of forced drama. Each scene could, by necessity, only last a few minutes due to the sheer volume of material that had to be covered. Where the book danced lightly, allowing readers to draw the connections and feel the horror of Hamnet’s oncoming death, the play felt like a plodding teledrama novella.
Furthermore, the play betrayed the spirit of the book. In the novel, the boy’s life and fatal decision were woven through the book’s story. This allowed the reader to imagine the emotional turbulence that Will and Agnes Shakespeare must have felt with him gone. Their one son, whose birth and life, that they viewed their whole life as preparation for, is snatched away from them, sending them into the depths of grief.