Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Mary Arden, Shakespeare's Mother

Mary Arden Shakespeare (son baptized 26 April 1564)

We don't know exactly when Mary Arden, William Shakespeare's mother, was born--it may have been as early as 1537, which is the date many sources suggest, though she may have been born as late as 1540. She had eight children between 1558 and 1580. Her third child (and first son) was William--and although we don't know his date of birth either, we do know William Shakespeare was baptized on 26 April 1564, and so I've used that date for this post about his mother, Mary.

We know Mary Arden was the daughter of Robert Arden and his wife Agnes Webbe Hill (Agnes was the widow of John Hill). While the Arden family had a long and distinguished history, Robert Arden himself was not a member of the wealthy and distinguished Arden line--but neither was he impoverished. He was a prosperous man, and his marriage to Agnes enhanced his holdings. When he died in 1556, he left his daughter, Mary, money and land. Mary Arden was also one of the executors of her father's will, which may provide some clue about her age--if she had been born in 1540, she would have been very young to be an executor; a birth in 1537 would have made her about age nineteen.

We don't know exactly when Mary Arden married John Shakespeare, but it was probably in 1557, shortly after her father's death. Her first child, a daughter named Margaret, was baptized in Stratford on 15 September 1558. 

Mary Arden's family may have been Catholic (several recent biographers, notably Stephen Greenblatt, suggest Robert Arden and his family were Catholic). In his biography of Shakespeare, Greenblatt notes that Mary signed legal documents with a mark, which suggests she could probably not write (though neither could her husband, John, who also signed with a mark). Not being able to write didn't necessarily mean that Mary Arden couldn't read, but we don't know. 

Plague broke out in Stratford shortly after William was born--in her biography of Ann Hathaway, the woman who married Shakespeare, Germaine Greer notes, "We can only imagine Mary's terror for her newborn son." Greenblatt speculates too: "Perhaps Mary Shakespeare packed up and took her newborn to the country for several months, away from the pestiferous streets."

We don't know what Mary Arden thoughts were about her husband's downwardly mobile career--in particular about his mortgaging of part of her inheritance in 1578, the sale of some of her property, or his loss of still more her property in 1580, when he failed to repay debts for which the property had been collateral. 

We don't know what she thought of her son's marriage in 1582, or how she regarded her husband's legal actions throughout the rest of the decade of the 1580s. 

We don't know if Mary Arden was at the funeral of her grandson, Shakespeare's son Hamnet, who died in 1596 and was buried on 11 August.

We don't know if she was at the marriage of her granddaughter, Shakespeare's daughter Susanna, on 5 June 1607.

We don't know if she was at the burial of her youngest son, Edward, who was buried on 31 December 1607.

We don't know when Mary Arden died, though her funeral was in September of 1608. We don't know whether Shakespeare left London and attended the funeral in Stratford--there is no evidence for it, though according to Greer, "most scholars" agree he was there "mainly because they think he should have" been there.

Mary Arden did not leave a will.

The house that was long regarded as Mary Arden's house--a large and beautiful timbered frame house visited by thousands and thousands of tourists over the decades since it was bought by the Shakespeare Trust in 1930--is not Mary Arden's house. In 2000 it was correctly identified as a farmhouse owned by Adam Palmer. The actual childhood home of Mary Arden, smaller and much less picture-postcard-worthy, is next door.

There is no biography of Mary Arden. And there is no portrait.

This is not Mary Arden's house.

The newly identified home of Mary Arden