In honour of Women’s History Month 2018, we are sharing highlights throughout March, written by and about inspirational women. In the following blog post, Katherine West Scheil discusses the contributions of Anne Hathaway.

Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway is buried next to her famous husband in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church. The epitaph on her grave, likely written by their daughter Susanna Shakespeare Hall, describes her as “so great a gift,” a woman who should “rise again and seek the stars.” Susanna would be intrigued to see the emergence of her mother as a major figure in Shakespeare’s life story, both in fictional accounts and in recent archaeological work at New Place, the Shakespeares’ family home in Stratford.

Anne Hathaway has been imagined since the late eighteenth century, in novels, plays, poetry, fake love letters, and in biographies. These numerous Annes run the gamut from the secret author of Shakespeare’s plays to the lover of the Earl of Oxford, from the loyal wife running the brewing business while her husband worked in London, to the cast-off oppressive spouse, gladly left behind in Stratford. Anne has also played a number of roles in biographies of Shakespeare, from supportive wife to “disastrous mistake.” In my forthcoming book Imagining Shakespeare’s Wife: The Afterlife of Anne Hathaway, I examine these various constructions of Shakespeare’s famous wife, looking at why Anne is created in particular ways, and for what ends. For example, why should Anne be a woman who filled Shakespeare with “revulsion” and “sour anger,” as she is in the words of one contemporary biographer, when she can be a supportive and independent-minded wife, as she is in other accounts?

These diverse, contradictory, and irreconcilable Annes advance competing versions of Shakespeare’s private life to audiences and readers, underlining the instability of knowledge about Shakespeare’s wife, and about Shakespearean biography in general. In any given period, readers and audiences have had available a plethora of Annes—some are loyal wives, others are scorned spouses, but they all serve as reminders of how intense the desire has been for glimpses into the poet’s private life in the last few centuries, and how crucial Anne is for reshaping a life story that resonates with women’s issues in various historical moments.

Unsurprisingly, women have long found inspiration in Anne’s life story. As early as 1860, Mary Cowden Clarke advocated that Shakespeare held women in “esteem as well as affection” because he gained his appreciation of women “from the mother of his children.” Recently, Anne has begun to “rise again,” to become a central figure in fictional works by women writers, geared to women readers. With imaginative free rein, Anne becomes the real author of the plays by Shakespeare, the hidden inspiration for the literary masterpieces, and the real brains behind the Shakespeare family.

Somewhere behind all of the imaginary, fictional, and fantasy “Annes,” there is an actual historical woman, who outlived her famous husband by seven years and remains buried next to him, gave birth to his three children, and shared her life with him in some way. While we will never know what the real Anne Hathaway was like, it is time to re-evaluate why she has been so often imagined in ways that only serve to construct a particular “Shakespeare,” and to bring Anne from the margins of her husband’s life to the center of her own story.

Katherine West Scheil’s latest book, Imagining Shakespeare’s Wife: The Afterlife of Anne Hathaway publishes in June 2018. You can find out more and pre-order your copy here.

Comments

  1. I am so looking forward to reading “Imagining Shakespeare’s Wife” having just read Prof. Scheil’s chapter in “The Shakespeare Circle.” This is a fascinating (and important) field in current Shakespeare scholarship. I imagine Anne possessing a dynamism and intellectual vigor that she shared with her children and family.

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