Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare's Wife

Anne Hathaway Shakespeare (died 6 August 1623)


An unhappy marriage? A forced marriage? A happy marriage? A dutiful but dull wife? A despised wife? A cherished wife? The reason for Shakespeare's "escape" to London? The reason for his return to Stratford every year, and the wife he returns to when he retires? 

A 1708 drawing of "Shakespear's consort,"
that may--but probably does not--
represent Anne Hathaway
Such have been--and remain--the contradictory views of Anne Hathaway, the wife of William Shakespeare. Of course, whatever the case may have been, the cards were stacked against her. As Germaine Greer writes in Shakespeare's Wife
Until our own time, history focussed on man the achiever; the higher the achiever the more likely it was that the woman who slept in his bed would be judged unworthy of his company. Her husband's fans recoiled from the notion that she might have made a significant contribution towards his achievement of greatness.
And so, in his best-selling Will in the World: How Shakespeare Came to Be Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt believes that one way Shakespeare "came to be" Shakespeare was by leaving Anne Hathaway behind. His chapter title is particularly telling about the way things are going to go: "Wooing, Wedding, and Repenting." For Greenblatt, Anne at first represented "an escape": a safe choice, an exciting choice (Anne "was in the unusual position of being her own woman," independent and with her own financial resources), her sexuality offering a "compelling dream of pleasure." 

While noting that "Shakespeare's marriage has been the subject of almost frenzied interest," Greenblatt is happy to join in, suggesting that, while Anne Hathaway "had something of an inheritance," it wasn't all that much ("she was hardly a great heiress"). He happily agrees with those who suspect "that Will was dragged to the altar." 

And while Greenblatt acknowledges that "the state of [Shakespeare's] feelings at the time of his wedding is not known, and his attitude toward his wife during the subsequent thirty-two years of marriage can only be surmised," surmise he does. According to Greenblatt, Shakespeare "was curiously restrained in his depictions of what it is actually like to be married." Shakespeare found it "difficult to portray or even imagine fully achieved marital intimacy" but, rather, his plays "register the frustrated longing for spousal intimacy." Shakespeare could not, Greenblatt asserts, "find what he craved, emotionally or sexually, within his marriage." At best his marriage with Anne is "a mismatch."

By contrast, Greer's work is advocacy--to counter Greenblatt's contention about marriage as it's represented in Shakespeare's plays, she notes that the plays repeatedly show "constant wives redeem unjust and deluded husbands." And, as she contends, "No one has ever undertaken a systematic review" of the life of Anne Hathaway--or her potential contributions to Shakespeare's life and work--"while every opportunity to caricature and revile her has been exploited to risible lengths." Greer's Shakespeare's Wife is a work of advocacy, but it is also an extraordinary example of careful and thorough archival work. 

And as for Greenblatt's "Wooing, Wedding, and Repenting" chapter title? Greer has a few doozies of her own: the Introduction is subtitled "considering the poor reputation of wives generally, in particular the wives of literary men, and the traditional disparagement of the wife of the Man of the Millenium" (in 1999, Shakespeare was voted the "British Person of the Millenium" by BBC4 radio listeners); chapter 10, "suggesting that, having sent her boy husband to seek his fortune, with three small children to look after, Ann Shakespeare found work she could do indoors, and with the help of her haberdasher brother-in-law might even have prospered"; chapter 17, "in which Shakespeare returns to the town some say he never left and lives the life of an Anglican gentleman while Ann continues to live the life of a puritan townswoman," and chapter 21, "in which the intrepid author makes the absurd suggestion that Ann Shakespeare could have been involved in the First Folio project, that she might have contributed not only papers but also money to indemnify the publishers against loss and enable them to sell a book that was very expensive to produce at a price that young gentlemen could pay."

As Greer acknowledges, for many scholars (like Greenblatt?), "most" of her book will be regarded as "heresy":
The Shakespeare wallahs have succeeded in creating a Bard in their own likeness, that is to say, incapable of relating to women, and have 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 behaviour by vilifying her is puerile. The defenders of Ann Hathaway are usually derided as sentimental when they are trying simply 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 Hathaway lived long enough to see a monument for her husband built in Stratford, but she is not buried with him. She is buried separately, her headstone bearing the following inscription: "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."

About this separate burial, Greenblatt writes, 
When Shakespeare lay dying, he tried to forget his wife . . . And when he thought of the afterlife, the last thing he wanted was to be mingled with the woman he married. There are four lines carved in his gravestone in the chancel of Stratford Church:
GOOD FRIEND FOR JESUS SAKE FORBEARE,
TO DIGG THE DUST ENCLOASED HEARE:
BLEST BE YE MAN YT SPARES THES STONES,
AND CURST BE HE YT MOVES MY BONES.
In 1693 a visitor to the grave was told that the epitaph was 'made by himself a little before his death.' If so, these are probably the last lines that Shakespeare wrote. Perhaps he simply feared that his bones would be dug up and thrown in the nearby charnel house--he seems to have regarded that fate with horror--but he may have feared still more that one day his grave would be opened to let in the body of Anne Shakespeare.
Nice work, Mr. Greenblatt.