Shakespeare’s Unhappy Marriage
History - World Released - Feb 07, 2013
Of course, it's true. William Shakespeare was unhappily married. Why else would he leave his wife, Anne Hathaway?
It's proverbial: if a man of genius is to realize his full potential, he must not only have jettisoned his wife, she must be shown to have gotten her just desserts. Thus, down through the years, Anne Hathaway has been cast as the scheming “older woman” who tricked the Bard into marriage. He was right to leave her.
That she was unattractive cannot be doubted, and that he was forced into marriage, was a given. Writes journalist Anthony Holden: “It is hard to believe that this ambitious young dreamer (Shakespeare), already aware that there was a world elsewhere, way beyond rural Warwickshire, was so enamored of a homely wench eight years his senior . . . as to want to marry her. Or did the local farmer’s 26-year-old daughter, only a month after her father’s death, set out to catch herself a much younger husband by seducing him?”
A renaissance scholar named Stephen Greenblatt believed that Shakespeare developed an absolute aversion to his wife. He didn’t want to be around her, even in death. “When he thought of the afterlife, the last thing he wanted was to be mingled with the woman he married. Perhaps he simply feared that his bones would be dug up and thrown in the nearby charnel house--he seems to have regarded that fate with horror--but he may have feared still more that one day his grave would be opened to let in the body of Anne Shakespeare.”
Such conclusions have been made by men of scholarship for the past 400 years, based on the barest shred of evidence. In fact, there is as much evidence that Shakespeare was happily married as not.
But what does Shakespeare say? A reading of his plays tells quite a different story. While scholars have searched in vain for a consistent philosophical thread running through the Bard’s plays, he is quite consistent when it comes to women and marriage. He adored women, and praised the marriage covenant as the very cement holding civilization together. He portrays a good marriage as not merely romantic but as heroic.
Shakespeare created a series of female characters who were both passionate and pure, who gave their hearts spontaneously into the keeping of the men they loved and remained true to the bargain in the face of tremendous odds. The men in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale, all err in not trusting their wives.
While female characters, having spontaneously and often suddenly committed themselves to a man, never swerve from the commitment, though in respecting it they may be called up to risk their lives, the male characters will break their vows at the drop of a hat. The inconstancy of men causes no great upheaval in the Shakespeare world, but when the solidity and truth of women are undermined, as in Titus Andronicus, Troilus and Cressida, and King Lear, the world regresses to savagery.
Two recent movies that recall the Bard’s view of women and marriage are “Groundhog Day” and “What Women Want.” In both movies, men are fickle, treacherous, and deceiving, while the women they are pursuing are steadfast, constant, and not easily fooled. When at last the men see their error, admit their failings and reform, the women they are pursuing are won over.
So why the prejudice against Anne Hathaway by Shakespearean scholars who should know better? According to Germaine Greer: “The possibility that a wife might have been closer to their idol than they could ever be, understood him better than they ever could, could not be entertained.”
For more, read Greer’s “Shakespeare’s Wife.”