William Shakespeare’s Wife: Who Was Anne Hathaway? | History Hit

William Shakespeare’s Wife: Who Was Anne Hathaway?

Amy Irvine

26 Apr 2023
Illustration of William Shakespeare reciting his play Hamlet to his family. His wife, Anne Hathaway, is sitting in the chair on the right; his son Hamnet is behind him on the left; his two daughters Susanna and Judith are on the right and left of him.

Anne Hathaway is famous for being the wife of William Shakespeare, one of the most well-known playwrights in the history of the English language.

Not much is known about Anne, but while she is most commonly known as Shakespeare’s wife, there is more to her life than that.

Early life

Anne Hathaway was born in 1556 in Shottery, a small village located to the west of Stratford-upon-Avon (less than 1.5 miles away from where Shakespeare was born and raised). Her father, Richard Hathaway, was a yeoman farmer (and thus a well-respected member of the local community), and her mother, Joan, was thought to have died when Anne was aged 10. Anne – also known as Agnes – was the eldest of eight children, and her family were considered well-off for the time.

Little is known about Anne Hathaway’s life before she met William Shakespeare, but it is clear that she came from a relatively well-off family, who were tenants of a one-storey ‘cottage’ on a 90-acre farm. (This farmhouse was kept in the Hathaway family for 13 generations until purchased by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 1892 and turned into a museum).

She likely received an education – unusual for women of the time – and may have been involved in local social and cultural events. It is also possible that she had some connection to the theatre before she met Shakespeare as her family were known to have some ties to the theatre world.

Upon Richard Hathaway’s death in 1581, he left his daughter Anne a small sum of money with which she could marry.

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage in Shottery, near Stratford-upon-Avon

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Wedding to William Shakespeare

Anne Hathaway married William Shakespeare in November 1582 when she was thought to be 26 years old, and he was just 18. This age difference was not uncommon for the time, and the marriage was likely arranged by their parents. The average age of marriage was 26, so whilst Anne was an eligible young lady, William was still a minor in the eyes of the law, therefore needing permission from Anne’s father to marry her.

At the time of their marriage, Anne was already three months pregnant with their first child, Susanna, who was born just six months later. To avoid scandal, it was important they married before signs of her pregnancy became too obvious. Consequently, William sped things up by applying to the Bishop’s Court in Worcester, and they married outside their home parish. Subsequently no records exist of where their marriage took place.

Their age difference, alongside Anne’s pre-wedding pregnancy, has meant some historians view this as evidence they had a ‘shotgun wedding’, forced on a reluctant Shakespeare by the Hathaway family, but there is no evidence for this.

Documents from Worcester’s Episcopal Register record (in Latin) the issuing of a wedding licence to “William Shakespeare” and “Anne Whateley” of Temple Grafton. The following day, friends of the Hathaway family signed a surety of £40 as a financial guarantee for the wedding of “William Shagspere and Anne Hathwey”. Some argue this is evidence Shakespeare was involved with two women, choosing to marry one, Anne Whateley, but when this became known he was forced by Hathaway’s family to marry their pregnant relative. This alleged entrapment was seen as a reason for his decision to pursue a career in the theatre in London.

However, most modern scholars think the name Whateley was almost certainly a clerical error, and some suggest Shakespeare and Hathaway’s age difference suggest he was the one to pursue her. Shakespeare offered few prospects for a husband at the time; his family had fallen into financial ruin, while Hathaway was from a family in good social and financial standing, and would have been considered a catch. Furthermore, pregnancy was frequently a precursor to legal marriage at the time.

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After their wedding, Anne lived with Shakespeare in his family home on Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, which doubled as a glover’s shop. Two years after Susanna’s birth, the couple had twins, Hamnet and Judith.

Very little is known about Anne and William’s relationship, though it is thought it was not always smooth sailing. Soon after the birth of their twins, Shakespeare spent most of his time in London working as an actor and playwright, while Anne remained with Shakespeare’s family in Henley Street with their children. It is not known how regularly they saw each other, but whilst Shakespeare is said to have visited often, it is likely that their relationship was strained due to the distance between them.

Their son, Hamnet, died aged 11 on 11 August 1596 during a bubonic plague outbreak. It is unclear whether Shakespeare was able to attend his funeral in Stratford-upon-Avon, though obviously likely.

There are also rumours Shakespeare may have been unfaithful to Anne during their marriage. In one of his sonnets, he refers to a “dark lady”, who some scholars believe may have been a mistress. However, there is no evidence to support this theory, and it is possible that Shakespeare was using the sonnet to explore different emotions and experiences in his writing.

Furthermore, after retiring from the theatre around 1613, Shakespeare chose to live with Anne in Stratford-upon-Avon in New Place (bought by Shakespeare, and the family home since 1597), rather than in London. Despite any difficulties they may have faced, Anne and Shakespeare remained married until Shakespeare’s death in 1616.

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Shakespeare’s will

Under English medieval common law, a widow was entitled to a third of her late husband’s estate for her life, and the right to live in the family home, even if not specifically mentioned in the will. However in practice, most wives were mentioned, often affectionately.

On his death, Shakespeare’s will (signed on 25 March 1616) left Anne his ‘second best bed’. However, in Shakespeare’s time, beds of prosperous citizens were hugely expensive, sometimes equivalent in value to a small house, so this is not necessarily the slight to Anne it first appears, and was most probably their marital bed.

Their ‘best’ bed (usually reserved for guests), would have been passed to their eldest heir, Susanna, upon his death, along with the bulk of his estate (including the Shakespeare family home on Henley Street) – something entirely within the customs of the time.

After Shakespeare’s death, Anne lived for another seven years, dying in 1623 aged 67. She was buried in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare is also buried.

The only surviving image that may depict Anne Hathaway, wife of William Shakespeare. Portrait line-drawing made by Sir Nathaniel Curzon in 1708, referred to as “Shakespear’s Consort”. It was drawn on the verso of the original title page in the Third Folio (1663) of Shakespeare’s works located in the Colgate University Libraries, Special Collection and University Archives, Hamilton, NY.

Mysterious legacy

Known for being the wife of one of the greatest writers in the English language, Anne Hathaway was also a mother, daughter, and member of her community during a time of great change in England.

In recent years, scholars and writers have sought to uncover more information about Anne’s life. Some suggest she may have had a greater influence on Shakespeare’s work than was previously thought, while others have looked into her family’s connections to the theatre world.

However, due to the amount of conjecture about her, it’s important to acknowledge how little we actually know about Anne. Scholars, authors, playwrights and films have all attempted to depict various portraits of Anne over the centuries; to some, she is a ‘country bumpkin’ wife left behind in Stratford whom Shakespeare disliked, some perceive her love as Shakespeare’s muse, and some think of Anne as a heroine wronged by history.

All these viewpoints are pure speculation. It is impossible to determine any real sense of Shakespeare’s relationship with Anne from the scant evidence available – just two documents: Shakespeare’s marriage license and his will – meaning Anne’s full story remains a mystery.

Amy Irvine