Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, was born in 1556. Shakespeare was eight years younger than her. When they married in 1582 he was eighteen and she was twenty-six. She was pregnant at the time and whatever their relationship was like – which we don’t know anything about – he had no alternative other than to marry her because it was socially unacceptable for a woman of her standing to have a child without being married.
Anne Hathaway was the eldest of the eight children of a farmer, Richard Hathaway. They lived in a big farmhouse, called Hewland Farm in the village of Shottery, one mile from Stratford. When Richard died in 1581 she continued to live with her siblings and step-mother in the farmhouse, which is now known as Anne Hathaway’s cottage – one of the most visited tourist buildings in England. When she married she went to live with her husband in his parents’ house in Henley Street, Stratford.
The Shakespeares had two daughters and a son. Their son Hamnet died, aged eleven. It is generally thought that he died of the plague. (Read more about Shakespeare’s family.)
Soon after the marriage Shakespeare went to work as an actor in London while she remained in the Henley Street house with her in-laws. Shakespeare visited frequently but his wife Anne Hathaway never went to London, as far as anyone knows.
Anne’s in-laws were fairly prosperous, although that prosperity was on the decline, but their standard of living improved as her husband became, at first, well-off as a successful playwright and theatrical operator and then famous as the writer and presenter of the most successful plays of his time, even performing, occasionally, for the King and his royal court. Anne lived the life of what would be the equivalent, in our times, of a millionaire’s wife and enjoyed the prestige that came with having a successful and very wealthy husband. In 1596 her husband bought, and moved the family into, New Place, one of the biggest houses in town.
On his retirement in 1610, Shakespeare settled in Stratford and lived the last six years of his life as a family man – husband, father and grandfather. During those years the Shakespeares enjoyed a rich social life, visited by some of the most glittering stars of the age, men like Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton, whose names are still among the most famous as literary figures.
After Shakespeare’s death in 1616, Anne continued to live in New Place as a wealthy widow, until her death in 1623, aged sixty-seven. She was buried beside her husband in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford.
What Did Anne Hathaway Look Like?
Anne Hathaway’s Life as an Elizabethan Housewife
While her husband, William, was working hard in London to support the family, Mrs Shakespeare was working hard, too, in the home in Stratford. Here we take a look at what Anne Hathaway’s life as an Elizabethan housewife would have been like.
Girls in Elizabethan England were not given a formal education and weren’t even taught to read at home. Even among the great families that was the case, and a man would have been very advanced if he taught his daughters to read. Sir Thomas Moore, Henry VIII’s chancellor, was notorious for teaching his daughters to read and encouraging them to read philosophy and theology books. The rest of the community considered that scandalous. Queen Elizabeth was also an exception. Being groomed as a possible monarch, she was educated by the best tutors available.
But Anne Hathaway was illiterate, as were her two daughters. A great deal would have been expected of her, though, as a wife. She was responsible for managing the household which in those days, was far more demanding than it is today. Anne had to cook and preserve the food herself, using equipment that we would consider impossible today. Acquiring food was in itself an almost full-time job – there were markets, but not nearly as well-stocked as markets are today. Poor harvests, such as those that occurred in the 1590s, led to widespread starvation. Most housewives had kitchen gardens where they grew basic vegetables, which were roasted or boiled and served in soups and stews.
What qualities did Anne have to possess to be called a good housewife? Regardless of all her other functions, there were some precise expectations for her presence in the kitchen. In one of the first cookery books published in England, 1615, the author says: now that I proceed unto Cookery it self, which is the dressing and ordering of meat, in good and wholesome manner; to which when our House-wife shall address her self, she shall well understand that these qualities must ever accompany it; First, she must be cleanly both in body and garments, she must have a quick eye, a curious nose, a perfect taste, and ready ear; (she must not be butter-fingred, sweet toothed, nor faint-hearted) for the first will let every thing fall, the seconde will consume what it should encrease; and the last will lose time with too much niceness.
If the Shakespeare household was typical there would have been three meals a day. Each member of the family would have had a quarter of a pound of meat, a loaf of bread, homegrown vegetables, milk, butter, cheese, and ale. When she got hold of a chunk of meat Anne would have had to preserve it in salt or smoke it. Later, as William brought in more money, she would have been able to buy spices to counter the extreme salt taste of the meat or disguise the taste of meat that had gone off. She would also have to turn milk into butter and cheese – commodities that didn’t go off as quickly as milk. And she would have to brew ale – a very weak ale, safe from the diseases that water carried.
When her husband was at home on a visit, and particularly after his retirement, when he lived at home with her, she had to entertain his friends. Anne would have been expected to arrange sleeping accommodation for his guests, good meals and bathing facilities.
Anne also had to do the household accounting, budgeting, and everything that goes with making ends meet with, perhaps, some treats for the children. Considering that she could not read and write it all had to be done in her head.
Anne had three children, fewer than most of her neighbours would have had, but even then, raising them was a huge job. She had to do everything to keep them alive and well at a time when child mortality was common. Even so, in spite of all her efforts her son, Hamnet, died aged eleven of unknown causes. She had to teach her daughters household skills and she had to make sure that her son had the best education possible. Hamnet’s grandfather and father had both been to school and his mother had an obligation to ensure a good schooling for him as well.
It’s doubtful that Anne had any time for herself in the way that we try and make time for ourselves these days. However, she lived to a good old age, as a widow, and we can take pleasure in the thought that her husband left her well off and that she may have taken it easier once her daughters had grown up.