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To be or not to be Anne

Anne Hathaway’s cottage lies amid gardens and fields of roses, rushes, lavender, and delphiniums, in Shottery, Warwickshire, a mile outside the city center of Stratford-upon-Avon. Lovely willow trellises line the walks of the “cottage” that is actually a rather substantial, 12-room farmhouse and was called Hewlands‘s Farm during the Elizabethan era. The nine acres of grounds are covered with winding tendrils of vine and vegetable. I believe Anne’s family house is a more beautifully floral tourist experience than her husband William Shakespeare’s birthplace in the town center.

An embroidered tea towel with Anne’s cottage

Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford has some grounds, though they’re more formal and much smaller than those at the Hathaway cottage. In fact, once your visit to Shakespeare’s birth home is done and you seek a feeling of “this is how is was,” I found exploring the River Avon a much more natural experience. The trees, plantings, and water features with the weirs, locks, dams, riffles, and water lilies were delightful and away from the press of  tourists. The walk is mostly flat and, though it’s sometimes muddy, not too demanding. You will likely find the introverts walking around.

Anne was three months pregnant when she married William Shakespeare. She was 26; he was 18. Their daughter Susanna was born six months later in 1582, and, three years later, twins Hamnet and Judith were born. Sadly, Hamnet died at age 11 from bubonic plague. Those are just a few of the facts we know.

The docent at the cottage described Anne as a “multi-tasking farmer’s daughter who probably could have turned her hand at about anything.” Anne would likely not have had any formal education. She would, however, have had to learn how to govern a household, run a farm, and become skilled in housewifely duties. Women were expected to be married, and single women, or women not under the supervision of a male, were often looked down upon, sometimes as witches. It was legal for boys to marry at age 14; girls at age 12. 

Shakespeare famously left his wife after the birth of their twins and spent most of his life in London. She stayed in Stratford. (The film Shakespeare in Love imagines Shakespeare having an affair with an actress in London.) You can speculate about the reasons he stayed apart: he was an actor and younger by eight years, she was an independent person), but Shakespeare himself is silent on the subject. Shakespeare died in 1616, reportedly after a night of binge drinking with his friends; Hathaway died seven years later, in 1623, of unknown causes. Scottish poet Carl Ann Duffy’s poem “Anne Hathaway” starts with an epigraph from Shakespeare’s will, I gyve unto my wife my second best bed . . . [from Shakespeare’s will*]

The bed we loved in was a spinning world

Of forests, castles, torchlight, cliff-tops, seas

Where he would dive for pearls.

My lover’s words were shooting stars which fell to earth as kisses

On these lips; my body now a softer rhyme

To his, now echo, assonance, his touch

A verb dancing in the centre of a noun.

Some nights I dreamed he’d written me, the bed

A page beneath his writer’s hands. Romance

And drama played by touch, by scent, by taste.

In the other bed, the best, our guests dozed on,

Dribbling their prose. My living laughing love –

I hold him in the casket of my widow’s head

As he held me upon that next best bed.

* He left all his gold and silver to his daughters, Susanna and Judith

Across the road from Anne’s cottage, the server at the Garden Tearoom described hearing ghosts when she’d do volunteer gardening chores early on winter mornings. “Might one of them have been Anne?” I ask her. “Probably,” she says, as she leans in to clear my tea things. “My friends tell me I should write a book!” I look forward to it.

Anne and Will are buried side by side in the Church of the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford.

“Anne Hathaway,” line drawing by Nathaniel Curzon, 1708

See also “Cheeky Rascals at Church of the Holy Trinity.”

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