Anne lived in Shottery, a small hamlet within a pleasant stroll of Stratford. It is likely that the 18-year-old Will met 26-year-old Anne Hathaway on one such stroll.
Anne shared the house with her brother following the death of both her parents. In a rural community such as this, women tended to marry earlier, and it is likely that the village gossip machine would have been gearing up to turn her unmarried state into an issue when Will came along, and, in 1582, Anne subsequently became pregnant.
They married in November, before the pregnancy was too advanced, in what was probably a Catholic service.
Marriages in Tudor times were much more partnerships to provide security and companionship than great romantic gestures. At 26, Anne knew the way of the world while William was still a troubled youth, unsure of his path and coping with the collapse of his father's businesses and the uncertainty of the times. After William turned 21, there would be no more children for Anne and him. There would instead be long absences as William later toured the country and set up home amongst the theatrical community in London. There would be extramarital affairs and head-turning passions for the poet, and he would encounter much more of the world than Anne in rural Warwickshire ever could.
Eventually Shakespeare would return to Stratford, and upon her death, Anne would ask to be buried with him.
At the very end of Shakespeare's life there would be just a simple curt bequest in his will "item to my wife the second best bed..."
But was this, as some have suggested, the final bitter kiss-off of a man who believed that had Anne not come along and become pregnant, he might have done better? Or in those few shorts words is there a recognition and regret that he had broken his marriage's "bed vow" by taking other lovers?
Perhaps neither, maybe this was simple pragmatism. Anne may well have been automatically granted a third of William's estate by law. Also, the beds specified were Hathaway family heirlooms, itemized in Anne's father's will and lent to her in the understanding that they would one day be returned to her family's possession. Anne would have been aware of any alterations made to the poet's will and could well have pointed out the need for the return of the beds.
Then again, maybe this was some unfathomable last message of love, in the special language spoken only between a husband and a wife, and not meant for another's understanding
Whatever the detail of their relationship, it seems to have endured over time and distance.
Shakespeare's marriage may also have inspired what might be his earliest surviving poem, a work that surfaced some thirty years later in an almost confessional collection of his sonnets detailing his crush on an exceptional young man and sexual passion for a mysterious Dark Lady. At first dismissed as too juvenile to be by the Bard, re-examination does point out a Shakespearian pun or two, and perhaps the seed of a great talent.
An understanding of the pun relies on the Warwickshire pronunciation of Hathaway. Also, in the last line, is it possible that Shakespeare is playing with the sound of words to make it appear to say, "Anne saved my life?"
Widely thought to be not very good compared with his later works, it does, however, illustrate a passion that is hard to square with the idea he was forced into marriage.
Perhaps Anne's love and encouragement were enough to give what might have been the seeds of ambition in the poet the inspiration and nurture they needed. Rescued by the pregnancy from an unappealing life as a scrivener, maybe Anne really had saved his life.
Anne Hathaway died in 1623, having lived just long enough to see a monument built to her late husband in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford. She is buried in the chancel next to him.
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