Mrs. Shakespeare: Anne Hathaway

by J. M. Pressley, SRC Editor

The Hathaway family cottage in Shottery, photographed by the author in 2001. (Credit: J. M. Pressley)

Shakespeare Fun Fact

Hathaway descendants lived in their house in Shottery until 1892, when the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust acquired it.

The hard facts of Anne Hathaway's life can be summed up in a paragraph. She was born in Shottery in 1556. She married William Shakespeare at some point prior to the birth of their first daughter, Susanna, in May of 1583. In 1585, she bore him two more children, the twins Hamnet and Judith. While Shakespeare made his reputation in London, Anne stayed behind in Stratford. She lived for over a decade with Shakespeare's family in their house on Henley Street, then afterward in New Place when Shakespeare purchased it in 1597. She outlived her husband, dying in August of 1623, and is buried in the chancel of Stratford's Holy Trinity church next to Shakespeare.

It's important to understand how truly little we know about Anne Shakespeare because there is simply so much conjecture about her. Scholars and authors over the centuries have attempted to paint various portraits of Anne. Some suggest a cuckolded, bumpkin wife left behind in Stratford. Others draw a more favorable caricature, such as the love that inspired Shakespeare's muse. Two of the most recent contributions to the field, Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World and Germaine Greer's Shakespeare's Wife, offer diametrically opposed viewpoints on the subject. To Greenblatt, Shakespeare hated his wife. To Greer, Anne is a heroine systematically wronged by history.

Both viewpoints, whatever their authors' best intentions, must ultimately be recognized for what they are: pure speculation. Learned speculation, perhaps, but speculation nonetheless. For facts, we can only rely on two references: Shakespeare's marriage license and his will.

The Marriage License

On November 27, 1582, the diocese records in Worcester show a license issued for the marriage of William Shakespeare and one Anne Whately of Temple Grafton. The next day, friends of the recently deceased Richard Hathaway of Shottery posted a surety bond for the marriage of William Shakespeare to Richard's daughter, Anne Hathaway. Critical consensus is that "Whateley" was simply a clerical error. However, some suggest that the two records refer to different marriages, or even that Shakespeare meant to marry Anne Whateley but was forced to marry Anne Hathaway due to her pregnancy.

Much more ink has been spilled, however, about the timing of the marriage license. The customary protocol was for a couple to be wed after three successive readings of the banns (announcing the upcoming marriage in the church). This allowed a reasonable period for anyone to raise any objections to the marriage. The license was required to have the wedding after only one reading of the banns. No banns were read during the Advent and Lent seasons; it seems that Shakespeare and Anne must have intended to marry as soon as possible.

Whatever parish records there were of the actual marriage have not survived. We don't know exactly when William and Anne were wed. One would assume it was shortly after the license was granted. What is interesting—and has raised as much speculation as anything about the marriage—is that only six months from the issue of the license, Anne gave birth to the couple's first daughter, Susanna. While that may explain the need for haste, it tells us nothing about the couple's actual relationship.

Incidentally, it may be possible that William and Anne were formally betrothed well before the license was granted. If the couple had pledged themselves in the presence of witnesses, this would have constituted a legally binding relationship. Under those circumstances, they could have consummated their love prior to the wedding without anyone raising an eyebrow. But that's just conjecture as well, and since the betrothal would have been a verbal commitment, there wouldn't have been a record of it anyway.

The Will

The only mention Shakespeare himself actually makes of Anne is in his last will and testament. It is but a single line: "I give unto my wife my second-best bed with the furniture." And so, the thinking goes, how much could he have loved this woman if he essentially left everything to his eldest daughter and her husband? There is evidence in other wills of the period to suggest that the seemingly inconsequential bequeathal of this bed wasn't perhaps the insult we perceive it to be today.

First, English law would guarantee Anne's right to a third of Shakespeare's estate and the right to live in New Place as his widow, whether or not it was spelled out in his will. Second, it is entirely within customs of the time that Shakespeare would have left the bulk of his estate to his eldest daughter and her successful husband, John Hall (Stratford's only physician). Third, custom also suggests that the best bed was reserved for houseguests and was normally passed as an heirloom; the "second-best bed" as it is termed could very well be Anne and William's matrimonial bed. Whatever one might make of Shakespeare's will, it is not nearly as odd as it is made out to be.

To be sure, there is no real sense of affection in the language of the will, but that goes for everyone mentioned in it, not just Anne. It is a dry, matter-of-fact legal document, not a love poem. And ultimately, it tells us nothing about Shakespeare's feelings about his wife or his family.

The Unknown Reality

Simply put, it is impossible to determine any real sense of Shakespeare's relationship with Anne from the scant evidence available to us today. Short of discovering any personal correspondence between them, we will likely never know anything more of Anne than we have for centuries. Mrs. Shakespeare is one of the many facets of Shakespeare's life destined to remain a mystery.


William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life (Schoenbaum, 1987), NTC's Dictionary of Shakespeare (Clark, 1996), The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 6th Edition (Bevington, 2009)