Sunday, November 27, 2011

Anne and William: Not Just "Second-Best"

   Their marriage was and still is filled with controversy. Was it a marriage of  love, or did it only deserve the "second-best bed."
Anne Hathaway

Anne Hathaway was born in the year 1556, in the small hamlet of Shottery about one mile from the town of Stratford. William Shakespeare was born around April 23, 1564 in Stratford. His father was John Shakespeare, a glove maker, and Mary, daughter of an affluent landowner. The age-difference between the two was an astonishing eight years! There are two ways people think of Anne Hathaway. One, as a 16th century cradle-snatcher and another as women who simply fell in love. Their wedding is also a very different from the norm at the time. Anne was expecting the couples first child at the time of the marriage. Maybe things would have been different if they had been betrothed, but they weren't. Anne was 26 at the time and William only 18, still considered a minor. The couple had to pay 40 pounds to buy a special bond so they could hurry up and be married.From the will of her late father it seems that Anne Hathaway brought a dowry to the marriage. Six months after they were married Anne gave birth to a daughter, Susanna. There is speculation that it was about this time that William might have offended Sir Richard Lucy by poaching a deer on his grounds. What with this, and what with the general misfortunes of the family, William left his young family and Stratford to seek his fortune in London. Acting troupes regularly visited the town of Stratford and this would have been a major form of entertainment. It is likely that William Shakespeare knew Will Kempe and possible that Shakespeare went to London with a troupe of actors when he left Stratford between 1585 and 1592. The rest, as they say, is history.Life continued for Anne with her children and in-laws in Henley Street. She never moved away from Stratford in the whole of her life. William, meanwhile in London, had started to become a success as a poet and was also making his name as an actor and playwright in the theatres of London. He occasionally returned home to see his wife and the family. He still kept an interest in the family businesses. 
William Shakespeare
           By 1592 William was mixing with the elite of the literary and theatrical worlds. But the role of a playwright was still not viewed as a creditable occupation. It could, in fact , be a very dangerous one as plays could be used as vehicles for propaganda. The State understood the power of plays. Therefore, all plays that were to be printed had to be registered, which ensured a form of censorship. Shakespeare never published any of his plays during his lifetime.In 1596 the Shakespeare family continued to prosper. But the good fortune came to an untimely and abrupt end when, in August, their son Hamnet died at the age of just eleven years. There is no documentation which records the cause of Hamnet's death but it is highly likely that he died of the plague, which had wreaked so much devastation in London 6 months before. Hamnet was buried in Stratford. 
        In 1610, with his fortune made and his reputation as the leading English dramatist unchallenged, Shakespeare appears to have retired to Stratford.  Anne had her husband home at last. His business interests took him to back to London on occasion but the majority of his time is spent at home. He would have been able to enjoy life with his family including his daughters and granddaughter, Elizabeth.
          Shakespeare did, however, draft his will in January of 1616. Perhaps he was unwell. There are no records or documented evidence which throws any light as to the health of Shakespeare in 1616. The strain of the scandal surrounding Judith would not have helped. William’s son-in-law, Dr. John Hall, oversees his final days and treatment. And in April 1616 William Shakespeare dies. (The exact date or cause of death is unknown but it seems fitting that he died on April 23rd April, the same approximate date of his birth, on St. George's Day, the patron Saint of England). The funeral of William Shakespeare was on April 25th 1616  when he was buried in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. Anne, of course, would have been the chief mourner supported by the family of William Shakespeare.The only mention that Shakespeare specifically makes of his wife was to leave her his "second best bed." This is probably the most famous entry of any last will and testament. To bequeath such an item sounds totally ungenerous. It is, however, understood that it would have been Anne's right, through English Common Law, to one-third of William's estate as well as residence for life at New Place. So one of the most famous slap-on-the-face postmortem gifts, could actually not be that at all, and instead be a symbol of the love Anne and William Shakespeare shared.

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