“Behind every great man there is a great woman” – this expression can undoubtedly be applied to Avril Rowlands’ play Mrs. Shakespeare... the Poet’s Wife. This tongue in cheek comedy is told from her point of view and shows Anne as a confident woman of genius with a deep unconditional love for William despite his infidelities. Rowlands proposes that Anne wrote the plays and William passed them on as his own works, adding another candidate to the authorship debate. Passionate about writing since her childhood days and described as having “a way with words”, she wrote in secret as her mother dismissed women’s writing as the devil’s work. When William suffers rejection as a playwright, Anne comes up with the cunning plan to get her plays performed under his name. Rowlands’ comedy reads like a feminist’s fantasy that tells us little about the ‘real’ Anne Hathaway but a lot about the writer’s wishful thinking. The character Anne Hathaway is too one dimensional, too forgiving, demure, and talented to be believable. Even when jealousy catches up with Anne or when William criticises her for creating too assertive female characters, she tries her best to calm his anxieties and her attempts at appeasing him jar with her feminist lines such as “You are not the writer Will. Never forget that. You are a player, playing a part of my devising, dancing to my tune.”
In addition to Rowlands’ play, also in our collections is the play The Wooing of Anne Hathaway by Grace Carlton and the novel entitled The Secret Confessions of Shakespeare by Arliss Ryan. In terms of visual representations of Shakespeare’s wife, we have a 1994 cartoon of Anne and William by Graham Clarke and a painting of Anne Hathaway created in 2010 by Roger Brian Dunn that is based on the 1708 pen and ink drawing by Nathaniel Curzon. Curzon’s drawing is supposed to represent Shakespeare’s wife. However, no evidence exists to prove that the portrait depicts Anne Hathaway. I will be looking at how each artist chose to represent Anne Hathaway and compare their different approaches.
In Ryan’s novel The Secret Confessions of Anne Shakespeare and Rowlands’ play The Second Best Bed, Anne follows William Shakespeare to London and while he establishes himself as a writer, Anne’s talent for writing develops too and both collaborate on plays, of course in secret. Rowlands has taken Anne’s creativity a step further making her the sole creator of the plays. These two modern interpretations of Anne contrast with the way in which she was represented in the 1938 play by Grace Carlton where Anne is not as independent and creative as her modern counterparts. Carlton gives us an Anne who understands William’s creative genius completely and encourages him to go to London, “You are free to go. I have said so many a time.” Carlton’s Anne Hathaway is not a feminist yet but she’s confident enough to allow William his freedom and is not a deserted woman.
What the literary representations of Anne Hathaway have in common is Anne’s willingness to endure William’s infidelities for the sake of art.