How do we envisage Shakespeare’s wife?

18 August 2018

9:00 AM

18 August 2018

9:00 AM

Despite his having one of the most famous names in the world, we know maddeningly little about William Shakespeare. His private life was lost in the swirling debris of the early modern world. Buildings such as the Globe or New Place (the house he retired to in Stratford) were demolished in the centuries after his death. Not a single letter survives, no first drafts of the plays have surfaced and it is disputed whether his portraits even look like him.

Scholars are forced to find other ways of peering into his soul. Some look to the plays and sonnets, boldly presenting fictional and contradictory poetry as concrete evidence. Others examine the objects he may have owned, but the results are hardly the stuff dreams are made on. Victorian archaeologists at New Place unearthed a rusted key and a broken table knife.

A third option is to try to glimpse him through the people he interacted with. Drawing on old biographies, novels and plays, Katherine West Scheil documents how for more than 200 years Anne Hathaway has been used as a keyhole through which to spy on the playwright as husband and lover. Her review of these varying interpretations demonstrate that Anne has been distorted to fit the Shakespeare each writer or era wanted to see.

Little is known about their marriage: a daughter born six months after their wedding; the bride being eight years older than the groom; an absentee husband; Shakespeare’s last-minute bequest of the second-best bed in his will (for Carol Ann Duffy an intimate in-joke; for Anthony Burgess a final insult hurled from beyond the grave).

Anne has had a rough ride. She was steamrollered in the 18th century (in order to get a better view of Shakespeare’s monument, Georgian pilgrims stood on her grave), but there was an explosion of interest over the next 100 years. Two templates have emerged. Those who see the plays as the product of a vibrant, dashing libertine (think Shakespeare in Love) have to find a reason for him to leave Stratford, so cast Anne as an illiterate, sex-crazed shrew who seduced the teenage Will and made his life a misery.

By contrast, Victorian morality dictated that Shakespeare’s knowledge of love could only have come from a stable marriage. Anne was a perfect housewife who stoically kept the home fires burning, her cottage and New Place providing the foundations for the couple’s domestic bliss.

Scheil’s scholarship provides a reality check. Uncovering the ‘real’ Anne Hathaway is impossible, and Scheil is not afraid to attack biographers who say they have. She is particularly severe regarding Stephen Greenblat’s Will in the World, one of the most successful Shakespeare biographies of all time. Greenblatt is accused of sensationalism, of sacrificing accuracy for profit and of borderline misogyny. Expect one of the ruthless cat-fights common in academia.

Scheil lays out the few husks of what we do know for certain. Anne is only mentioned in seven legal documents and although she lived at the Hathaway family farm (now the cottage) before her marriage, there is no evidence that Shakespeare wooed her there. Archaeological evidence at New Place suggests she was left in charge of a large household and brewery while Shakespeare made his name in London. The family shepherd endowed her with money to be dispersed to the poor, indicating she was someone to be trusted with communal finances. Her epitaph contains lines indicating she was a loving and pious mother.

But this is still too little. You may as well judge a book by its cover as judge a person by their epitaph. Since the last source to mention her was discovered in 1880, she will almost certainly remain a ‘shadowy figure in the corner of the great house in Stratford’. And how can a shadow throw light on William Shakespeare?

For Scheil this is not so much a problem as an opportunity. Lack of evidence means speculation can thrive, creating new representations for the 21st century, acceptable as long as they include the disclaimer of being fictional. Scheil quotes new novels in which Anne is an independent woman, offering ‘refreshing new alternatives to the well-worn narratives of the last few centuries’. These vary from stories discussing the frustration and sacrifice of domestic life to turgid fantasies that make Green-blatt’s ‘sensationalism’ look measured, in which Anne sleeps with Christopher Marlowe and ghost-writes Shakespeare’s plays.

Scheil’s critique throws up the question of who owns the past. Is it ‘responsible’ to portray a woman from the 16th century as one from the 19th or 21st? A historian would be horrified; yet the reason Shakespeare still thrives is because of re-invention. Gone are the days when endless cockscomb jokes brought the house down; yet a Lear wandering in the wilderness of a Calais refugee camp is deeply moving. Change in perspective is what keeps Shakespeare’s world alive, and Shakespeare’s wife is a notable part of that world.

But presenting Anne as a strong, self-reliant woman will always be a challenge. The cottage has set ‘Anne the local housewife’ in stone; and as yet no film or book pushing for her has surpassed Shakespeare in Love. Perhaps a shadow like Anne Hathaway is not the best woman for this fight. The only reason anyone is interested in her is because of the man she married. With regard to feminist figureheads in Shakespeare’s world, Elizabeth I probably still wears the crown.

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