As is the case with her husband, we know remarkably little about the life of William Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway. There is no record of either her birth or her baptism, but the inscription on her gravestone indicates that she was 67 years old when she died in 1623. This suggests she was born in 1556, which would make her eight years older than her husband.
Anne was the eldest of eight children born to local farmer and landowner, Richard Hathaway. It is assumed that the first three children were borne by Richard’s first wife, and the woman listed as her mother, Joan Hathaway, was, in fact, Anne’s stepmother. We have no information as to the identity of Anne’s biological mother, nor do we know for sure if Richard had ever married her.
(Pictured: Drawing purportedly of Anne Hathaway).
The family was raised in the village of Shottery, about a mile-and-a-half from Stratford-upon-Avon. Their home was a twelve-room farmhouse which has since become known as Anne Hathaway’s Cottage – a rather misleading nickname considering it is much larger than a cottage, and it never actually belonged to Anne. As the eldest girl, Anne would have been expected to help with the care of her younger siblings and with the upkeep of the farmhouse. We have no information about the education she received, although it is doubtful that she attended school. This does not necessarily mean, however, that Anne was illiterate, as has often been suggested. In fact, given that her family were ardent Protestants, it is likely she would have been taught to read, if only to enable her to study the Bible.
Hasty marriage to William
Richard Hathaway died in September 1581, leaving his eldest daughter over £6, payable only on the occasion of her marriage. Anne would have received this sum fourteen months later when she wed the 18-year-old William Shakespeare. We have no idea how long the courtship lasted, but the marriage itself was a hastily arranged affair, as suggested by the fact that the groom paid £40 to receive special dispensation from the Church to marry quickly. Six months later, the assumed cause of the rushed nuptials made her first appearance – the couple’s first daughter, Susanna, was born in late May 1583. Twins Hamnet and Judith followed in 1585.
Much has been made about Anne’s age at the time of her marriage (she was 26), and the eight-year age gap between husband and wife. These details, along with her pre-marital pregnancy and the fact that Shakespeare spent most of their married life working in London, have been used to suggest that the young William was trapped by a desperate spinster, and forced into an unhappy marriage. There is no evidence to either support or refute this assertion.
Further controversy has arisen from Shakespeare’s rather unusual bequest to Anne in his will. In this document, he gave Anne his ‘second-best bed’ while seemingly making no further provision for her. Again this has been interpreted as being indicative of Shakespeare’s antipathy towards his wife. But according to the legal convention of the day, Anne would have been automatically entitled to receive a third of her husband’s estate upon his death, a provision known as the ‘widow’s dower’. There would, therefore, have been no need to make specific provision for his wife in his will, and his failure to do so should not be taken as proof that he disinherited her.
Anne Hathaway outlived her husband by some seven years. She died on 6 August 1623, and is interred in the next grave beside her husband, in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church.