In ‘Hamnet,’ Shakespeare’s Wife Takes the Spotlight, at Last
Of the numerous puzzles about William Shakespeare, those concerning his love life are the most tantalizing. Why did he marry a local woman, Anne Hathaway, have three children with her, then decamp to London for a life in the theater? What was their relationship really like? And why do we know so little about Anne herself, whom one scholar has called a “wife-shaped void” in the playwright’s story?
This year, the 400th anniversary’s of Anne death, might be the year we finally hear about this other Shakespeare. A volume of celebratory poems, “Anne-thology,” is being published later this month. A small bust of her has been unveiled at Holy Trinity church in Stratford-upon-Avon, where her body has lain next to her husband’s since 1623. And, most strikingly, a Royal Shakespeare Company production devoted to her story opens next Wednesday at the company’s Swan Theater in the town.
“It’s about time,” said Erica Whyman, the show’s director, in an interview after a recent rehearsal. “This is her town; she was born just outside Stratford and lived here all her life, as far as we know. She deserves to be back here.”
The play, an adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s best-selling 2020 novel “Hamnet,” is named for the Shakespeares’ only son, who died at age 11 in 1596, for reasons unknown. His father apparently began work on the death-haunted “Hamlet” not long afterward, something that has driven biographers into frenzies of Freudian speculation.
But in the script, which has been adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti, there is little doubt who is the star: Shakespeare’s wife, the mother of his children and the head of his household, who brims with spirit and practical intelligence, and runs rings around her partner and everyone else. In the play’s first scene, we see the 17-year-old William gawkily trying to woo her while she flies a pet hawk. (She, too, will never be tamed, we surmise.) Later, we see her industriously baking bread and mixing folk remedies while he dreams of poetry and the theater.
“She’s so alive,” said Madeleine Mantock, who plays the role based on Anne for the Royal Shakespeare Company. “She has all this knowledge, all this capability.”
O’Farrell explained in a phone interview that she first encountered Shakespeare’s wife at college, after becoming curious about the playwright’s family — something historians have often neglected. “Shakespeare’s domestic life, if you want to call it that, just never came into the picture,” Anne least of all, she said. “And the more I read, the more derailed I was about her and the way she’s been treated. She’s been sidelined, in fact worse than sidelined — vilified.”