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?

Old looking drawing of Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare' wife

Drawing of Anne Hathaway in Curzon Family Third Folio

Painting of Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare's wife

Anne Hathaway Painting by Roger Brian Dunn (2010) based on a drawing by Nathaniel Curzon (1708)

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, home grown 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.

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Read a Shakespeare biography >>
Read about Shakespeare’s family >>
Read about Shakespeare’s family tree >>
Read about Shakespeare’s grandparents >>
Read about Shakespeare’s parents >>
Read about Mary Arden, Shakespeare’s mother >>
Read about John Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s father >>
Read about Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare wife >>
Read about Shakespeare’s children >>
Read aboutShakespeare’s grandchildren >>


10 replies
  1. conquest
    conquest says:

    Does anyone know if Anne Hathaway, Shaskespereare’s wife was smart or intelligent or interested in books like he was. Or maybe into the arts because most website do not really talk about her personality. thanks

    Reply
  2. Peter
    Peter says:

    I got a funny theory that the actress Anne Hathaway is the reincarnation of Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway. HA HA HA

    Reply
  3. Yvonne Hudson
    Yvonne Hudson says:

    In researching my one-woman show, Mrs Shakespeare, I confirmed that there are many reasons that Anne was older than Will, that it was unusual for her to be pregnant when they wed, and that the bequest of a bed was not a slight. Young women often–as Anne did–cared for family members as Anne did after her mother’s death–and married younger men as they were in greater number as possible husbands. This is statistical supported in the Warwickshire county records. In addition, a betrothal often involved “pre-consummating” the marriage as a common part of the bond. A wedding often followed. Regarding the bequest, the marriage bed was often called “the second-best bed” and was the “better” bed that guests would use. New Place was very large house–it’s documented that it had 10 fireplaces–so specifying that bed for Anne could have been a personal gesture of affection or simply gratitude. She bore twins and Will’s only son. His love for his children is expressed in his plays. While he may have enjoyed other infatuations or even affairs, he would have likely returned to Stratford at Lent and other times when the theatres closed (such as epidemics of plague). There’s no confirmation of why Hamnet died. Accidents were the leading cause of death in Elizabethan era childhoods. But infections were basically untreatable and a number of common things may have killed little Hamnet. These facts are some of the most helpful in understanding that the Shakespeare’s marriage was not so unusual or even loveless.

    Reply
  4. Janett
    Janett says:

    I just returned from England and got to stop at Anne’s home. The gardens were beautiful. Just love it there. I wonder when writer’s say Shakespeare “curtly” bequethed her the second best bed we aren’t reading too much into it. It would have possibly been the bed where their children were conceived, and maybe he and she were sentimental about it. Maybe the best bed went to the daughter because her need was greater than Anne’s. Just a thought, and a different perspective.

    Reply
  5. Taylor
    Taylor says:

    I thought this was very helpful; I am studying Shakespeare, and writing a biography, and I interpreted this as very helpful because I have a specific section in my biography about William Shakespeare about his wife. Thanks again!

    Reply

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