Will and Anne: love story or shotgun wedding?

Many a romantic fantasy has been woven around Shakespeare’s early and hasty marriage, but the facts paint a rather prosaic picture.


One of the great mysteries about Shakespeare’s life, and the source of many a romantic fantasy, is his relationship with his wife, Anne Hathaway. Anne’s family were farmers in the village of Shottery, a short walk from Stratford-upon-Avon. Anne and Will probably met through their fathers who were business associates, though it is unlikely it was they that made the match.

Photograph of Elizabethan cottage believed to belong to Anne Hathaway's family.
Anne Hathaway’s cottage

When they married, Will Shakespeare was eighteen and Anne Hathaway eight years older and three months pregnant. For Anne to be pregnant at her wedding was not unusual. In fact, a third of all Elizabethan brides were pregnant. Nor would Anne’s age of twenty-six have been considered particularly old to marry. The average age for marriage in Elizabethan England for both men and women was in their mid-twenties.

What was unusual in this marriage was the relative ages of the couple. Not only was it uncommon for a man to marry an older woman, it was extremely rare for a man to marry before he reached his majority for just the very reasons that this marriage would have been less than ideal for both the young Shakespeare and his bride.

While it was customary for newly-wed couples to set up house on their own, Will and Anne were unlikely to be in a position to do so. At eighteen, Will had no trade of his own, while Anne had only a modest legacy to bring to the marriage. More than likely they would have had to move into the already crowded Shakespeare family home in Henley Street. To make matters worse, as a married man, Will would have found many of the avenues for bettering himself closed to him. He would not have been able to enter into an apprenticeship, nor attend a university. He would have to continue to be dependent on his family which was already in straightened circumstances.

Rather than reading the banns for three weeks, Will and Anne were married under a special licence obtained on November 27, only four days before the beginning of Advent when no weddings could be held. Without it they would not have been allowed to marry before the end of Christmastide, by which time Anne’s pregnancy would have been obvious. The fact that the licence was acquired by Anne’s friends rather than Will’s would suggest that the urgency was on the part of the Hathaways, eager to avoid scandal, while the Shakespeares might have been reluctant to give their permission earlier, unhappy that their son should be burdened with a family at such a young age.

Despite his youth, there is some speculation that Shakespeare may have had a previous attachment. Records in the episcopal archives in Worcester show that while the bond issued on November 28 names William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway of the parish of Stratford-upon-Avon, the licence issued the previous day names the bride Anne Whately of Temple Grafton. The sentimentally inclined imagine that Anne Whately was Will’s true love, abandoned because he was forced to marry the pregnant Anne Hathaway. The more realistic accept that it was merely a slip of the pen as another Whately had been recorded earlier that day.

However, in his book In Search of Shakespeare, Michael Wood does latch onto the reference to Temple Grafton, a parish to which neither party belonged, but which was presided over by an old fashioned priest of strong Catholic leanings who was known to break the rules. As Will and Anne’s wedding cannot be found in the records of the parish of Stratford-upon-Avon, and the parish register for Temple Grafton does not begin until 1612, it may well be the case that Anne and Will were married there.

Will’s mother, Mary Arden, came from a staunchly Catholic family and had a close relative who was executed under suspicion of being involved in Catholic plots to usurp the Queen. As a town alderman, John Shakespeare would have had to be more pragmatic in his religious allegiances and all his children were christened in the Church of England. However, the discovery of a Catholic testament hidden under the eaves of the family home suggests that at some point he pledged himself to the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, Anne’s father’s will is a solidly Protestant testament. These religious differences would have added to the tension between the families. Perhaps in the end the Shakespeares struck a deal with the Hathaways: they would give their permission for Will to marry as long as the wedding was held according to the Catholic rite.

Their age difference and his youth might have precluded Will and Anne enjoying a long courtship sanctioned by their families, but some courting must have taken place. Speculation about the nature of their relationship varies according to the taste of the biographer. Was Anne a frustrated spinster latching onto the handsome young Will? Did Will seduce Anne with his pretty sonnets? Or was the pregnancy the result of a quick ‘roll in the hay’? The solitary clue we have to their courtship is the only one of Shakespeare’s Sonnets that betrays any connection to the known facts of Shakespeare’s life, Sonnet 145.

Those lips that Love’s own hand did make,
Breathed forth the sound that said ‘I hate’,
To me that languished for her sake:
But when she saw my woeful state,
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that ever sweet
Was used in giving gentle doom;
And taught it thus anew to greet;
‘I hate’ she altered with an end,
That followed it as gentle day,
Doth follow night, who like a fiend
From heaven to hell is flown away.
‘I hate’, from hate away she threw,
And saved my life, saying ‘not you’.

When it is read aloud with a Warwickshire accent, ‘Hathaway’ can be heard in the penultimate line and ‘Anne saved my life’ in the last.

This obvious piece of juvenilia implies a long courtship in which Anne resisted an ardent Will until finally taking pity on him and succumbing to his charms. However, if their marriage did begin in passionate ardour, it did not last long, as within three or four years Will had gone to London, not to return to live with Anne again for almost thirty years.

We do not know exactly when Shakespeare left Stratford. All we can be sure of is that he must have been there for the conception of the twins in the spring of 1584. However, as Anne had no more children after they were born in 1585 it could not have been long after this date. Only two pregnancies for a woman of that time was most unusual. Even though Anne was still of childbearing age for many years after her husband’s departure, she did not have any more children. This would suggest that Shakespeare returned to Stratford only rarely if at all. Neither is there any evidence that Anne and the children ever joined him in London.

We cannot be sure if Anne was satisfied with this situation, but if she considered herself abandoned or unprovided for she did have recourse to the law, as it was a crime for a husband to leave his family. In fact, the family prospered and, while Will lived a hand-to-mouth existence in London, in Stratford the Shakespeares were doing business and acquiring property, suggesting that Shakespeare sent Anne every penny he could spare which she put to good use. (See Shakespeare the Businessman )

Photograph of Elizabethan four poster bed
Shakespeare’s Second Best Bed

The only other clue we have to the relationship between Will and Anne comes from the twilight of their years in Shakespeare’s last will and testament. There are no sentimental messages to his wife of thirty years and the will does not specify that she should receive a portion of his estate. This could be because his daughter Susanna, who inherited the bulk of her father’s property, could be trusted to take care of her mother, or, most likely, because Anne would automatically inherit her dower share of one third of her husband’s estate.

However, the item in Shakespeare’s will that most exercises biographers’ imaginations is the famous clause bequeathing Anne their second-best bed. As he left her his second, rather than his best bed, could he have been expressing some disdain for his wife or intimating that she was not his first choice of bed mate? Alternatively, was it not the case that most people slept in their second best bed and left the best for guests? Therefore the bequest could be expressing intimacy by ensuring Anne would continue to sleep in the bed she had shared with her husband. Or perhaps, as Germaine Greer suggests in Shakespeare’s Wife, it was the very bed Shakespeare was lying in and so he could not have gifted it to her before his death as he might have other of their household goods.

Michael Wood puts a more romantic spin on this bequest. He maintains that the bed in question was a Hathaway family heirloom and, by naming it in his will, Shakespeare ensured the bed went back to Anne and the Hathaway family. Wood sees it as a great gesture of love. However, even if he has correctly identified the bed, surely all the bequest shows is that Shakespeare thought well enough of his wife not to deprive her of something she really wanted. And why should he not? She had been a loyal wife for more than thirty years. She had raised his children and taken care of his business affairs in Stratford. The least he could do in return was to let her have the piece of furniture she asked for.


© Pauline Montagna 2015



Germaine Greer, Shakespeare’s Wife, Bloomsbury Publishing (2007)

Michael Wood, In Search of Shakespeare, BBC Worldwide (2003)



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