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Giving the Shakespeare women a history

Exploring the lives of Anne Shakespeare and her daughters

Did Shakespeare teach his children to how to play chess? Did he think about them as he plotted his plays? Did he teach them how to read or write?

On the anniversary of his son Hamnet’s burial, 11 August, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) is admitting three new entries: Shakespeare’s wife, Anne (?1555-1623), and their daughters Susanna (1583-1649) and Judith (1585-1662). Writing an entry for the ODNB entails stepping back from partisan biographical approaches, to summarize trends and traditions, analyse them, and to be as factually accurate as possible.

But the subjects need to come to life, too. And there is plenty to say about three of the most important women in Shakespeare’s life.

Anne Shakespeare was married for thirty-four years to the man who became the world’s most famous poet, and their marriage was part of a well-established relationship between the two families. But she also must have led her own life, as primary caregiver to their three children in Stratford while her husband was away in London, and as the likely manager of the cottage industries at New Place, where she lived for a quarter of a century. Anne outlived her husband by seven years, dying in 1623, the same year the First Folio was printed. She is buried in Holy Trinity Church just to the left of her husband, between his grave and monument. Anne’s grave is marked with a beautiful epitaph in Latin, dating from at least 1634, and probably written by daughter Susanna. Anne is described as a pious woman and a good mother, eulogized as “so great a gift.” The fact that this epitaph was preserved on a brass plaque testifies to Anne’s important role in her family.

Anne's epitaph at Holy Trinity Church

Anne's Latin epitaph can be translated as: 

'Mother, you gave me the breast, you gave me milk and life;

Woe is me that for so great a gift my return will be but a tomb.

Would that the good angel would roll away the stone from its mouth,

And that your form, like the body of Christ would come forth!

Yet my prayers are of no avail; come quickly, Christ -

That my mother, though shut in the tomb,

May rise again and seek the stars.'

Susanna Shakespeare seems to have been every inch the poet’s daughter. She was thirteen years old when Shakespeare was writing Romeo and Juliet, and it is notable that he changed the age of his heroine from his source story – to make her the same age as his Susanna. She knew privilege early. The Shakespeare family moved into New Place when she was fourteen. It was the largest house in the borough of Stratford-upon-Avon with between twenty and thirty rooms. A later owner would comment on the epigrams Shakespeare and his children engraved on the windows of the house ‘many of them the product of his own children’s brains’. In one of Susanna’s two surviving signatures, in 1639, she leaves the ‘a’s in her name open, making them look like ‘u’s, a tendency Shakespeare himself also had. From 1607 she was the wife of John Hall, the well-known local physician. She visited his patients, gave advice on cures. As a widow, she continued to live in New Place, and there is good reason to suppose that she, along with the corporation, co-hosted Queen Henrietta Maria during her stay in Stratford-upon-Avon from 11-13 July 1643. Little wonder that Susanna is referred to as being ‘witty above her sex’ in her epitaph in Holy Trinity Church.

Judith Shakespeare, twin sister of Hamnet, was born in 1585 and outlived every member of the Shakespeare family except for her niece, Susanna and John Hall’s daughter Elizabeth Bernard Nash. When Judith was twenty-six, she signed her mark as a witness to the sale of a property in Stratford by Elizabeth Quiney (and her son Adrian). Judith may have been in service to the Quiney family at the time; five years later she married Thomas Quiney. There is much speculation about the circumstances of this marriage; it took place during Lent, and they failed to get the required bishop’s license, for which Thomas and probably Judith were both excommunicated. Thomas Quiney brought further scandal to Shakespeare’s youngest daughter through his dalliance with Margaret Wheeler, who died in childbirth. Around that same time, Shakespeare changed his will, giving part of Judith’s marriage portion to trustees for three years in order to ensure that Quiney provided her with £150 worth of land. Judith and Thomas had three sons together: Shakespeare, Richard, and Thomas. Though he only lived for six months, it is likely that Shakespeare Quiney was conceived while his grandfather was still alive. Judith lived another twenty years after the death of all three sons, but for some reason, is not buried in Holy Trinity Church with the rest of the Shakespeare family. Her unmarked grave, along with that of her brother Hamnet, who died at age 11, exists somewhere in the churchyard of Holy Trinity.

Judith Shakespeare’s mark made on 4 December, 1611.
Judith Shakespeare's mark made on 4 December 1611

Perhaps there is something of both Susanna and Judith in the magician’s daughter, Miranda, in The Tempest who is famously discovered playing chess with the next King of Naples. To play chess well is usually a sign of intelligence. How often did Susanna and Judith manage to get their mother or father into check-mate?

You can find out more about these three women in Shakespeare’s life from their entries in the ODNB, and in our free-to-attend Research Conversation on Wednesday 11 August from 5.00pm to 6.00pm with Dr Anders Ingram of the ODNB, Professor Katherine Scheil, University of Minnesota, and Dr Paul Edmondson, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Register here.

Paul Edmondson and Katherine Scheil.