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Shakespeare & Beyond

Not simply Shakespeare's wife: Marking the 400th anniversary of Anne Hathaway's death with poetry

Woman dressed in a 17th-century style with a ruff
Woman dressed in a 17th-century style with a ruff

A new collection of poetry about Anne Hathaway has been published to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare’s wife on August 6, 1623. The editors of Anne-thology: Poems Re-Presenting Anne Shakespeare share their take on Anne Hathaway’s life and why she deserves a book of her own.

2023 marks the 400th anniversary of Mr William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, which has come to be known as the First Folio. It is less known that during the creation of this most influential of volumes, while Othello was in fact being printed, Anne Shakespeare (née Hathaway) died. This Anne-thology seeks to ensure that the quatercentenary of Anne’s death will not simply be elided in favour of the sole memorialisation of her famous dramatist-husband.

We think she deserves a book of her own, and we place her centre-stage, celebrating her memory while engaging with the ways in which her lost agency can be reclaimed. In setting Anne free from the restrictions of being, simply, “Shakespeare’s wife,” this collection not only excavates a previously hidden historiography of poetical reimaginings of this enigmatic figure, but also brings to the fore a kaleidoscope of new Annes, reflecting today’s broad variety of female and female-identifying perspectives, social identities, sexualities, ethnic backgrounds, and national or regional affiliations, as well as drawing on the richness of responses from neuro- and physically-diverse creative communities. This collection mines the unexplored possibilities of Anne’s life, presenting some fresh answers to both old and newly-posed questions. Was Anne a writer, poet or story-teller? How did she cope with Hamnet’s tragic early death? What kind of relationship did she have with her daughters Susanna and Judith, and how might she have reacted to the prejudices attached to women’s social roles? How did she articulate her own gender or sexual identity? Did she navigate her world with a non-normative body or with a neuro-atypical outlook? Could she have struggled with her mental health? How did she engage with, or express her concerns about the natural environment with which she interacted? What might her “voice” sound like if she were to speak through a different set of ethnic or religious influences to those traditionally accorded to her? Was she a rebel, an activist, a businesswoman? What were her deepest secrets?  We hope the mysterious “Anne” on the cover speaks to these possibilities.

This Anne-thology incorporates poems re-presenting Anne from different periods, and from authors of varying backgrounds and ages, resisting hierarchies with an alphabetical organization according to surname. This allows for a serendipitous collision of expressions, viewpoints and creative responses, bringing the words of the long-dead into dialogue with the voices of the living as they conjure their own Annes from history’s scintillating lacunae.  But engaging with the now also means looking towards the future; this is why we were keen to include children’s voices too: six poems by nine and ten-year old students from Holy Trinity Church School, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Anne Shakespeare, born Anne Hathaway (1555/56 – 1623), was from Shottery, a village that lies about one and a half miles from Stratford-upon-Avon. She married the eighteen-year-old William Shakespeare in somewhat of a hurry because she was already pregnant by him. Their first child, Susanna, was born in May 1583. A boy and girl twin, Hamnet and Judith, followed in early 1585. William and Anne experienced the heartbreak of Hamnet’s death, aged eleven, in August 1596. Th e following year the family moved into New Place, the largest house in the borough of Stratford-upon-Avon. William was only ever a lodger in London and New Place was his retreat and refuge, especially during times of plague. While her husband had to spend long stretches of time in London, Anne would remain the constant mistress of New Place for nineteen years. The house had between twenty and thirty rooms, and Anne oversaw all of the day-to-day household management.  Theirs was a successful partnership of opportunity, business, and investment. William died at New Place, aged 52, in 1616 and bequeathed her “my second-best bed with the furniture,” a way of Anne remaining in residence at New Place throughout her widowhood.  Anne died on 6 August 1623, aged 67, and was buried next to her husband in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon.

The Latin epitaph on Anne Shakespeare’s grave describes her as “so great a gift,” probably written by her daughters Susanna and Judith, since she is praised as a good mother and caregiver, a woman who should “rise again and seek the stars.”  Although her epitaph has been available in Holy Trinity Church since shortly after her death in 1623, over the last four hundred years Anne has been both praised and denounced, eulogized and ignored, suppressed and enhanced. In fake love letters, novels, plays, poems, and biographies, these various versions of Anne range from a loyal and supportive wife who ran the family brewing business at New Place, to a raging shrew who entrapped her younger husband, from a steadfast and nurturing partner to a “disastrous mistake” who filled Shakespeare with “revulsion” and “sour anger,” in the words of one contemporary biographer. These diverse, contradictory, and irreconcilable Annes underline the instability of knowledge about Shakespeare’s wife, but should also open up possibilities for out-of-the-box imaginings, as this collection of poems demonstrates. Some Annes are devoted wives, others are scorned spouses, but they all serve as reminders of how unstable biographical knowledge about Anne is, and yet at the same time, how crucial Anne is for offering a life story that can resonate with a variety of issues in various historical moments.  With imaginative free reign, Anne has recently begun to “rise again,” and become the real author of the plays by Shakespeare, the hidden inspiration for the literary masterpieces, and the brains behind the Shakespeare family. We can never retrieve the actual historical Anne Shakespeare, a woman who outlived her famous husband by seven years, remains buried between his monument and his grave in Holy Trinity Church, gave birth to his three children, grieved over the death of their young son, celebrated their two daughters, and shared her life with him in some way. While we will never know what the real Anne Shakespeare was like, it is time to let her be the centre of her own story, and to empower the great variety of poets in this collection to create new and inspiring versions of her life.

This collection is a celebration of the power of poetry to connect us to the past, and to illuminate the complexities of the present. By bringing together a diverse group of voices to pay tribute to Anne Shakespeare, we are reminded of the power of language to connect us across time and space, and to bridge the gaps between different cultures and experiences, and on the broader themes that her life touches upon, from spirituality and the natural world, to the experience of being a woman in a patriarchal society. This anthology is a testament to the importance of lifting up diverse voices and celebrating the contributions of women throughout history, and to the enduring legacy of one remarkable woman who continues to resonate across the centuries.

Katherine Scheil (with the help of Chris Laoutaris, Aaron Kent, and Paul Edmondson)

Interested in Anne-thology?

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