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Commemorating International Women’s Day: The Women Who Made Shakespeare

Professor Charlotte Scott
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According to the parish records of 1623, “Mrs Ann[e] Shakespeare” was buried on the 8th August that year. Unlike Shakespeare’s mother Mary, she is not, as was customary, recorded as ‘widow’, but in her own right, with an ‘X’ added later, to highlight her significance. But who was Anne? She’s variously moves through the archives as wife, mother, businesswoman and then, infamously, as the recipient of Shakespeare’s ‘second best bed’. She died at 67, 7 years after her husband, at their large family home in Stratford, known as New Place. During those years, when her husband was commuting to London, she raised three children, tragically losing her son, Hamnet, when he was only 11 years old. As William’s status grew so, we might imagine, did Anne’s responsibilities, including a successful malt business, a growing family, and the intricate management of the domestic and commercial stabilities of life in Stratford.

When women walk through history their footsteps are often washed away by the tide of male narratives that dominate our shorelines. We have been conditioned to read history, much like film, through the male gaze: but if we cast our eyes to the margins of books, to the labour of industry, to the streets beneath our feet; to the readers, makers, artists and influencers, we can begin to see the spectres of the women who have not only made our present but who are also the custodians of the past.

Like so many great male writers, William Shakespeare remains the focus of our attention, but there are many women, both familial and local, who have sustained, supported and inspired this work. As we launch our multi-year programme exploring the Women Who Made Shakespeare across the Shakespeare family homes we have the space to think about those intergenerational networks of women who surrounded and enabled Shakespeare, we also want to think about how these women informed his work: the survivors and victims, children and mothers, forces for change and champions of power.The women who made Shakespeare are both real and imagined, and we take this as an opportunity to ask deeper questions about how history can be both recorded and reimagined.

The women in Shakespeare’s life were fundamental to the organising principles of his work, not only practically in the domestic, artisan and agrarian industries, but in the cultural networks through which family, gender, power and agency shaped the complex creativity of Shakespeare’s imagination. Mrs Anne Shakespeare, her mother-in-law, Mary, her daughters, Susanna and Judith, as well as her granddaughter, Elizabeth all resided at Shakespeare’s New Place during, and beyond, his lifetime. As so often with female histories, their stories have been assumed, appropriated or ignored: at worst, this has shaped prurient narratives of a loveless marriage, a preferred daughter, Susanna, an ignorant Judith, or an impecunious sister, Joan; at best, they are elided. There are, however, other stories at work in the archives, if we know how to look for them.

The ‘mark’ or initials of Judith, as witness to a deed of an active local business woman, Elizabeth Quiney, and a vintner in her own right, are a trace of that hand that has fallen into the shadows of her tragic twin. A mother who lost three sons, sustained a local sex scandal with her husband’s previous lover, and very likely worked alongside him, also as a vintner. In the will of a local shepherd, Thomas Wittington, in 1601, executors are instructed to reclaim a debt of forty shillings from “Anne Shakespeare, wife unto master William Shakespeare”, to be distributed to the poor, perhaps signalling her role as co-partner in their business affairs. Susanna, his eldest daughter, inherited the bulk of her father’s estate, on the assumption that it would go to a male heir. Susanna, who had married a local doctor, John Hall, had one daughter, Elizabeth, while her sister, Judith, had three sons, all of whom died before their mother. Susanna was also most likely an active agent in her husband’s medical practice, as her epitaph suggests, that she offered ‘comforts cordial’, relating both to the preparation of medicinal remedies, as well as to the heart. Susanna later took it upon herself to ensure that her father’s estate would pass to his granddaughter, Elizabeth and her husband Thomas Nash. Elizabeth was widowed at 35 and subsequently remarried to become Lady Bernard, after her new husband, John, was knighted in 1661.

Indeed, our new exhibition at Shakespeare’s New Place will bring these women to the foreground, not as obscure footnotes in Shakespeare’s history, but as significant parts of his story and the cultural legacy that his work has sustained.

Women move like shadows through history: authors, agents, activists and absences they often lie in the gaps, margins, magiscules or matrices of a male dominated world. If we look closely at Susanna’s epitaph, we see a woman ‘witty above her sex but that’s not all/ Wise to salvation was good Mistress Hall/ Something of Shakespeare was in that’. Susanna may be commemorated within the context of her husband and her father, but she is also an effective agent of change who secured her daughter’s endowment. Elizabeth later went on to ensure that the property on Henley Street, now known as the Birthplace, would be subsequently inherited by her grandson, Thomas, and therefore in legacy for the Hart family, including Shakespeare’s sister. While William Shakespeare may be the gravitational attraction, many stars, both bright and eclipsed, secured and sustained this galaxy.

Professor Charlotte Scott is Director of Knowledge at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. For more information on the Women Who Made Shakespeare, including the new exhibition please click here