by Thomas O’Dwyer
When Mrs. William Shakespeare died on this August day in 1623, her family and friends believed they would lay her to eternal rest beside her renowned husband. They did not. They did inter an ordinary wife and mother, but the memory of her went out to become a Frankenstein monster, cut up and reassembled down the centuries. Few of the many makeovers done to Anne Hathaway Shakespeare since her passing have been flattering.
It’s hard to say how Anne came to deserve this cruel fate. Gossips, academics and a myriad of random scribblers have mocked her in many contradictory guises. She is a dumpy, illiterate house wench who clamped herself like an iron ball to the ankle of an unfortunate great man. She is a calculating promiscuous slut having a fine time with young men on the coin of a struggling genius. A dreary drudge, or a vicious vamp – sound familiar, ladies?
In a once common version of her story, 26-year-old Anne Hathaway seduced the boy William, eight years her junior. She became pregnant and forced him to marry her. Poor Will had no choice but to flee from the provincial prison of Stratford to London. There he blossomed as the world’s greatest playwright before returning to Stratford as a tired old gentleman. He never wrote again and was dead within six years. There are many versions of this theme. Some purport to be factual portrayals of Anne Hathaway’s life, some admit to being fictional-but-possible. Facts do not get in the way of the tall tales because there are so few of those – rare brief mentions of Anne in legal documents. In place of the facts, we got the twisted facts and then the fictions. Original documented references to Anne Hathaway are like a few random pencil marks on a blank white canvas. Biographers and faux biographers, mostly men, have each in turn approached the canvas to draw a complete picture. What they have left behind are portraits of their own male fantasies and misogynistic inventions unrelated to any real woman.
What we know about Anne from surviving documents is skeletal. She was born in 1556 in Shottery, a tiny hamlet close to the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England. She died at home in Stratford 395 years ago, on August 6, aged 67. She had married 18-year-old William Shakespeare in 1582 – she was 26 and three months pregnant. They had three children, Susanna, Hamnet, and Judith. Anne outlived her husband by seven years and lies beside him in an inscribed tomb. There exists one dubious image of her by a Sir Nathaniel Curzon, dated 1708, said to have been traced from a lost Elizabethan portrait. For the most part, the rest is silence.
The Anne of fiction walks beside her William of parallel fictions, as dutiful in death as she was in life. Documents mentioning her husband are more plentiful, so we have a less fragmented image of the playwright. But fabrications, speculations, and inventions have often buried the real William Shakespeare too. The consensus about the Shakespeares’ marriage has been that it was unhappy, asexual, almost non-existent. An early Shakespeare biographer, Charles Knight, wrote that “nothing was more clearly proven than the unhappiness of his marriage.” The person responsible for initiating this perception was the unwitting William Shakespeare himself. His last will has survived from March 1616, a month before his death. It is a dense, handwritten document of 1400 words, of which a mere 12 strange words refer to his wife.
“Item, I give unto my wife my second-best bed with the furniture.” This most famous phrase in the world’s most famous will has reverberated down the ages. The will has full details of what bequests go to his two daughters, his sister Joan Hart, her three sons, and many friends and acquaintances at Stratford. (His son Hamnet died in childhood). So William’s contempt for Anne seems blatant. In this period the bed was a substantial and expensive piece of furniture in any prosperous household – a classy bed could cost the same as a small house. Shakespeare’s bequest to his wife suggests the inadequacies of their intimate and domestic arrangements. This could explain why she stayed in Stratford all her life and he in London for most of his. It would seem the dull wife of Stratford was a mere second-best to the mysterious Dark Lady of the sonnets. The misogynists rest their case, m’Lord.
But wait. Isn’t a bed sometimes just a bed? In the will of Will, what was his will?
There have been few comprehensive biographies of Anne Hathaway. What we know about her would fit on a small envelope, and that wouldn’t include any word she said or wrote. Some brave biographers have taken up the challenge but failed to find the machine in the ghost. Germaine Greer’s Shakespeare’s Wife and Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World attempted to fill the missing gaps. They did so by looking at the circumstances of women similar to Anne who were better documented in her time and place. Such biographies remain light on what she did or didn’t do and are replete with maybes, might haves, could haves, and probablies. Germaine Greer brings a historian’s tools to documentary evidence about Elizabethan life in Stratford. She puts the Shakespeare marriage in its social context. This offers a sober modern take on the farmer’s daughter who married England’s greatest cultural hero. The Anne that emerges is a remarkable, resourceful, independent woman. Greer is scathing about the parade of male misogynists who attempted to bury any possible virtue or humanity in Anne Hathaway. Even so, it is curious that the feminist Greer titled her biography Mrs. Shakespeare – the wife of – and not Anne Hathaway, the person.
George Steevens was a marathon runner in 18th century literary commentary – his project Shakespeare ran to 21 volumes. He dismissed the common view that the second-best bed was any old bed and wrote that “the bequest was a mark of peculiar tenderness” by Shakespeare. Steevens was also a property lawyer. He said that in the custom of the time, Shakespeare would have completed legal provisions for his wife, and this would not have needed a mention in the will. Others suggested that in houses with many rooms, the “best bed” would be the one in the most important guest room. Anne would not have misunderstood her husband’s sly reference to the “second-best bed” – their own. Historian Katherine Scheil, author of Imagining Shakespeare’s Wife, has called the search for the true nature of the Shakespeare marriage “the wife-shaped void”. She says that Anne’s detractors have not tried to portray her as an independent early-modern woman. She was likely to have been self-sufficient like other women of her status in Stratford, and also supported by her husband’s success in London. Many commentaries on Anne were instead designed to craft a particular image of the great Shakespeare for his fans, Scheil says.
Misrepresentations of real Elizabethan attitudes and mores have come to us through the censorious filters of 19th century Victorians. In 1909, The Man Shakespeare, by a notorious Irish scribbler, Frank Harris, did serious damage to the domestic reputation of the Shakespeares. He suggested that a clerical error in one of two marriage documents was really evidence that young Shakespeare was involved with two women. (A Stratford parish clerk had misspelled Anne Hathaway as Anne Whateley in one registry entry). Harris wrote that when Shakespeare’s affair with “Miss Whateley” became known, the Hathaway family forced him to marry their pregnant Anne. “Shakespeare’s loathing for his wife was measureless,” Harris concluded. She had trapped him, and so he abandoned her and Stratford for a career in the theater. One reviewer called Harris “a thundering liar.” The essayist Max Beerbohm said that, as a biographer, Harris “had the crippling disqualification that he told the truth only when his invention flagged.” Harris’ book fed earlier Victorian reconstructions of Anne as a sexual predator, a boy-snatcher, a calculating witch who ruined Shakespeare’s personal life.
Scheil says that many writers on Anne’s life have based their reimaginings on a small set of the surviving facts, to which they pinned the “second-best bed” controversy.
“Versions of Hathaway’s afterlife seem to coalesce around issues of domesticity and sexuality. There was the age difference of eight years between the Shakespeares and the premarital sex (the birth of their daughter Susanna).” Germaine Greer concurs:
“The Shakespeare wallahs have succeeded in creating a Bard in their own likeness, that is to say, incapable of relating to women, and then vilified the one woman who remained true to him all his life, in order to exonerate him. There can be no doubt that Shakespeare neglected his wife, embarrassed her and even humiliated her, but attempting to justify his behavior by vilifying her is puerile.”
Greer says that defenders of Anne Hathaway were derided as sentimental when they were trying only to be fair. “It is a more insidious variety of sentimentality that wants to believe that women who are ill-treated must have brought it upon themselves … Anne Shakespeare cannot sensibly be written out of her husband’s life if only because he himself was so aware of marriage as a challenging way of life.”
Unless more lost documents are found, we will never know the real Anne Hathaway, any more than we will see a three-dimensional Will Shakespeare. So what pieces have we left from which to construct an Anne Hathaway persona fit for the 21st-century? Feminist women and more enlightened men are now paying heed to a caution from the late philosopher Bertrand Russell – “It is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatsoever for supposing it is true.” It means we may have to settle for a duller but more credible and worthy Anne, living a life and marriage that had their problems and yet were unremarkable in her time.
The ways of the Elizabethans were more ancient and complex than many agenda-driven Victorian writers have told us. Most of the meager facts surrounding Anne are more simple than sensational. Shakespeare did not flee from a forced marriage – the twins Judith and Hamnet were born two years after Susanna – before he left to meet his destiny (and other lovers) in London. As 17th-century writers mentioned, the London theaters closed every year for the six-week fast of Lent. Who can say Shakespeare didn’t sometimes travel to Stratford during such times? He left family property and ventures in the care of a responsible wife and mother, who may have been self-sufficient too. At the height of his fame, abilities and wealth, he chose to return to Stratford, buy a comfortable property and live with his wife until the end.
In an earlier book, Shakespeare, Germaine Greer pointed out that other players in Shakespeare’s Kings Men theater company had settled their families in London. Shakespeare preferred to invest in a great house, New Place, in his hometown of Stratford, for his family. While working, he lived in temporary lodgings close to his theater. “This implies that the Shakespeares had a mutual interest in running a big country establishment,” Greer wrote. The house needed considerable restoration, and there were barns and two gardens, one planted with grapevines. A large Elizabethan household would have baking, brewing, distilling, and other such activities. Shakespeare’s success in this enterprise would have required the intelligent cooperation and management of Anne. The playwright was 48, at the zenith of his exhausting and triumphant career, when we find him documented as an actual resident of Stratford-upon-Avon.
Anne had made it clear to her family and friends that she wished to be buried beside her husband. The final words written to her are inscribed (in Latin) on a brass plate in the Holy Trinity Church at Stratford, at the behest of their daughter Susanna:
“Breasts, mother, milk, and life you gave me;
woe is me, for so great a boon I must give stones?
But prayers achieve nothing — come quickly, Christ,
that though shut in the tomb, my mother may rise again and seek the stars.”
Those are not words a middle-aged daughter would dedicate to a mother reviled in the town as a calculating shrew or an irresponsible harlot. The name of her husband feels etched with pride beside hers: “Here lyeth the body of Anne, wife of William Shakespeare, who departed this life the 6th day of August 1623 being of the age of 67 years.” It is the tomb of a woman with her daughter’s love carved for all to see and respected by the community that laid her here. She may not herself have found fame, but she happily sleeps in the shadow of her own Will Shakespeare, whatever his faults as a family man. He was great, but she was by no means second-best.