Geraldine Brooks in The New York Times:
“Hamnet” is an exploration of marriage and grief written into the silent opacities of a life that is at once extremely famous and profoundly obscure. Countless scholars have combed through Elizabethan England’s parish and court records looking for traces of William Shakespeare. But what we know for sure, if set down unvarnished by learned and often fascinating speculation, would barely make a slender monograph. As William Styron once wrote, the historical novelist works best when fed on short rations. The rations at Maggie O’Farrell’s disposal are scant but tasty, just the kind of morsels to nourish an empathetic imagination. We know, for instance, that at the age of 18, Shakespeare married a woman named Anne or Agnes Hathaway, who was 26 and three months pregnant. (That condition wasn’t unusual for the time: Studies of marriage and baptism records reveal that as many as one-third of brides went to the altar pregnant.) Hathaway was the orphaned daughter of a farmer near Stratford-upon-Avon who had bequeathed her a dowry. This status gave her more latitude than many women of her time, who relied on paternal permission in choosing a mate.
Shakespeare was a grammar school graduate, the eldest son of a glove maker in declining fortune. His father had once been the equivalent of Stratford’s mayor, but by the time his son was 18, he had fallen into debt, disrepute and legal opprobrium.