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Katherine West Scheil, Imagining Shakespeare’s Wife: The Afterlife of Anne Hathaway
by Andrew Hadfield

Katherine West Scheil. Imagining Shakespeare’s Wife: The Afterlife of Anne Hathaway. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. xiv + 272pp.

Katherine West Scheil has produced the first proper study of the history of Anne Hathaway. It is an entertaining and intriguing story, one that inevitably tells us far more about those who imagined her than the woman herself. As Prof. Scheil puts it, Anne’s biographers have ‘invented an “Anne Hathaway” to suit their own needs and desires, moving from speculation to certainty in pinning down various details about her life in their quest to invent a private life, a marriage and a wife for Shakespeare’ (xix).

We hardly know anything about Anne Hathaway – hardly unusual for provincial people of the ‘middling sort’, especially women. There is that sonnet, of course, and lots of information about her network of relations in Warwickshire, but we do not know what she looked like; whether she was literate; whether she and Will got on; whether she was generally regarded as a nice person who inspired devotion in her many friends; whether she was a good household manager, craved rather more out of life, or was satisfied with her lot in Stratford (which assumes that she did not travel much). But this lack of evidence has not prevented speculation about her character over the centuries and many of us, especially those with an interest in biography, undoubtedly have our own preferred versions of Anne. I like to think of her as she is portrayed by Lisa Tarbuck in Ben Elton’s ‘The Upstart Crow’: jolly, capable, likeable, smiling more often than not, a good companion with opinions of her own, admiring and loving her husband without being blind to his faults. I suspect I am not alone, but it is not clear whether this is a fantasy rooted in who we hope she and Shakespeare were, or some sort of informed guess based on what we know about the social life of the period.

What is certain is that Elton’s Anne is a better and more rounded picture than the depressingly oft-repeated misogynistic portrait of Anne as part-harridan and part-floozy. Anne is frequently portrayed as an older women trapping a talented young dreamer into a loveless union by deliberately getting pregnant then tormenting the poor bisexual soul so badly that his only hope of revenge was to parade his infidelities in verse (with some dramatic hints too) and leave her, with acid calculation, his second best bed in his will. It is little wonder they chose to live apart and the lure of the greasepaint and celebrity in the capital compensated for a dull life of frostiness and bickering in the dreary market town of Stratford. Germaine Greer exposed the assumptions behind this male hatchet job a decade ago in Shakespeare’s Wife (2007) in one of her funnier polemics, pointing out that people, especially women, did not just hang around in fields waiting to seduce passers-by. They worked incredibly hard and had little time for al fresco summer high jinks. The purchase of New Place and its management surely owed much to her ability to look after a household, not just the bounty of her successful husband. Furthermore, marriages were generally arranged a long time in advance and were rarely based on the fleeting attractions of youth, and the Shakespeares and the Ardens had every reason to pair up their offspring and so develop their land holdings. As Katherine West Scheil comments in Imagining Shakespeare’s Wife: ‘the union of Anne and William was a match between two families with long-standing relationships’ (5). For Greer, Anne was a resourceful, hard-working woman, who probably had to put up with a lot from her errant husband (which perhaps tilts the evidence too far in an opposite direction).             

The first section, ‘Establishing Anne’, consists of three chapters that outline all that we know about her. The first looks at the facts; the second how her character was developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; and the third, the history of her famous cottage. Part Two, ‘Imagining Anne’, contains another three chapters that survey the early representations of Anne; how she was imagined and substantiated after the Second World War, and concludes with a survey of more recent interpretations. It is a sign of the widespread distaste for her that she does not even appear in the most successful recent film about Shakespeare’s life, Shakespeare in Love (1999), replaced ‘by an upper-class fictional woman’ (149), Viola de Lesseps, played by Gwyneth Paltrow.

William and Anne’s marriage was ‘typical for the day’ (8), but their relatively modest production of children was not, a result perhaps of their long-distance relationship or Anne suffering ill-health after the birth of the twins. It is worth pointing out that Edmund Spenser had three children (that we know of) with two wives, so the Shakespeares are hardly out on a limb. The will, subject of so much distasteful speculation, may have been a standard formulation and not the deceased’s desires at all, the assumption being that Anne should inherit her rightful share of the estate (about a third). Anne’s own death and burial are also not unusual and the inscription on her grave, little commented on in the representations of her character, suggests ‘a pious and devout quality to Anne, and something that surviving family members thought appropriate to immortalize on her grave’. However, as the author wearily and appropriately comments, ‘“likely” versions are not necessarily the most prominent ones in the history of Anne’s afterlife’ (17).In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries attention turned to the nature of the Shakespeare marriage and the story of Anne’s seduction of young Will assumed quasi-factual status. Shakespeare became a philanderer, his racy life fuelled by various anecdotes such as John Manningham’s bawdy tale in which ‘William the Conqueror came before Richard III’, as Shakespeare outwitted Burbage in order to secure the affections of a citizen’s wife, and Sir William Davenant’s boast that he was the bard’s illegitimate son. Despite the epitaph in Stratford Church Anne was fast becoming the (justly) neglected wife, side-lined as bardolatry took off and Shakespeare had to become the peerless genius who had to do what he had to do to write the plays and poems. Warwickshire was in vogue, notably in David Garrick’s 1769 Jubilee, but Anne was not there. However, as the tourist trade to Stratford took off, Anne had to come back, and the detail of the ‘second best bed’ started to define her nature. If Shakespeare had to be a passionate lover then Anne could not have been the object of his affections. She fared rather better in the nineteenth century, which required a godly companionable marriage. Her case was enhanced by a number of intriguing discoveries, notably Shakespeare’s ‘courting chair’ with the initials ‘W. A. S.’ (William and Anne Shakespeare) which may have been forged by William Ireland (35). To be a ‘moral authority’ Shakespeare ‘needed to be moral himself’ (43) so now all had to be right at home. Shakespeare, bolstered by the solid reality of Anne Hathaway’s cottage became ‘the great poet of heterosexual love’ (56). When the American author Charles William Stoddard visited and slept in the cottage in 1874 he was woken in the night by a woman in white greeting her lover with the line ‘parting is such sweet sorrow’, as the ghosts of Anne and William declared their posthumous love.

Anne’s fidelity was now bound up with the countryside and she was cast as an English rose, a counterpoint to the sophisticated and immoral lures of London, a portrait that still holds sway in a public understanding of Shakespeare as a man whose heart was rooted in rural life. This may be tosh, but it matters, as Prof. Scheil points out, because popular ‘novels and plays have a broader influence than do academic works’ (100). Twentieth-century fictions of Anne represent Anne in contradictory ways, either as the devoted but unsophisticated wife or a shrew from whom he needed to escape. Rather touching is Thomas Lennon’s play, The Truth About Ann (1942) in which Will asks Anne what she would like in his will. When she chooses the ‘second-best bed’ he wistfully muses, ‘Anyone reading this undoubtedly will misconstrue it’ (135).

After the Second World War Anne’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. In Anthony Burgess’s quintessential ‘sixties novel, Nothing Like the Sun (1964), she is represented as an anti-Muse, forcing her libidinous husband to seek satisfaction elsewhere, and to find inspiration for his work in other beds, a version of Anne inspired by Frank Harris’s self-justifying work of 1911, The Women of Shakespeare. Even so, Burgess’s novel is still reprinted today and it is sad that Stephen Greenblatt’s 2004 biography produced almost exactly the same story. Robert Nye’s Mrs. Shakespeare (1993) imagines the other side of the coin: a lecherous Anne boasts that she not only satisfies Shakespeare’s desires but in her imaginative sexual role-playing inspires and acts out his plays, a Miranda to his Caliban, a Ganymede/Rosalind to his Audrey, and a more vanilla Juliet to his Romeo. More recently novels about Mrs. Shakespeare have been targeted at women readers. Karen Harper’s Mistress Shakespeare (2009) casts the ‘other woman’, Anne Whately as a feisty feminist heroine who manages to have her cake and eat it. She lands Shakespeare without having to be a wife, her independence a pointed contrast to the life of the other Anne whose life is circumscribed by the dull round of domestic duties and children. Arliss Ryan’s The Secret Confessions of Anne Shakespeare (2010) is, as the title indicates, more soft-porn bonking than cod women’s lib: ‘Readers get the next best thing to a Shakespeare play without having to read one, plus the salacious benefits of a modern confessional memoir’ (183). Indeed, as the book continues Prof. Scheil becomes rather less guarded in her writing and shows a deft wit in order to express her exasperation, describing Ryan’s sex scenes as ‘overwrought, maudlin, and gratuitous’ (185).

Imagining Shakespeare’s Wife is an enjoyable, well-written book that thinks carefully about the nature of biography, establishing clearly what we do know; what has been assumed; and what has been invented. I felt slightly melancholy when I read its last sentence. Noting that 2023 would be the four hundredth anniversary of Anne’s death the author commented, ‘By then, this book will be consigned to library and study shelves, but I hope it will have made a mark on the ways Anne can be imagined’ (206). I hope this proves to be unduly modest: the general public needs to read works like this in order to understand how often they are confronted by fiction masquerading as fact, and to realise that Lisa Tarbuck is the real Anne Hathaway.


Andrew Hadfield

University of Sussex


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Cite as:

Andrew Hadfield, "Katherine West Scheil, Imagining Shakespeare’s Wife: The Afterlife of Anne Hathaway," Spenser Review 49.1.15 (Winter 2019). Accessed August 26th, 2019.
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