What would the world be like if everyone just accepted the status quo and never asked, ‘What if’? Imagine for a moment if questions like these had never been asked:
What if the world isn’t really flat?
What if leeching isn’t really a great medical treatment?
What if the earth isn’t really the center of the universe?
What if William Shakespeare was really a bigamist?
The last question is explored in Karen Harper’s novel, Mistress Shakespeare. This book follows the life of Anne Whateley, who Harper believes was William Shakespeare’s first and perhaps true wife, and traces her relationship with Will, showing how they lived, wrote, and did amazingly average things like visiting friends and walking by the river. As impossible or fictitious this may seem, Harper has some strong evidence to back up her claim that Anne Whateley was William Shakespeare’s first wife and that the two shared a life-long relationship.
To begin, there are two different marriage licenses bearing William Shakespeare’s name. The second, of course, documents his marriage to Anne Hathaway. The first, however, shows William Shakespeare marrying Anne Whateley of Temple Grafton. Many scholars, as Harper notes, have passed this first entry off as a mistake. They suggest that both licenses were in fact issued to William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway and believe the “Whateley” and “Temple Grafton” are misspellings and/or clerical errors.
What if, however, these scholars are wrong? What if Anne Whateley was a real person? What if Anne Whateley was William Shakespeare’s first wife?
Harper’s query is rooted in reality, and she has the credentials and the research to back up her assertion; she wrote her master’s thesis on All’s Well That Ends Well, visited London and Stratford-Upon-the-Avon numerous times, and has written a nine-book historical mystery series set in Queen Elizabeth’s court. After performing extensive research into the marriage licenses, she came to the conclusion that “Other writers and historians, such as Ivor Brown and Anthony Burgess in his 1970 critical studies on Shakespeare, made a case for the second Anne. I agree, relying as much on what seemed to be missing from Will’s relationship with Anne Hathaway as with the research on Will’s life on which I base this story. Will could well have had another wife.”
This premise is just so much more interesting than debating whether or not Shakespeare really wrote all the plays. Shakespeare buffs needed something new to mull over, and Harper provides it.
The story follows Anne’s life, moving quickly through her childhood, the death of her mother, and her friendship with Will. Anne and Will marry in true Romeo and Juliet fashion: in secret because his parents don’t approve. Anne and Will are found out, and just as the history books contend, Will marries a pregnant Anne Hathaway.
The next day Anne Whateley’s father dies, and Anne escapes to London, vowing never to forgive Will or forget his betrayal. In London, Anne runs the family business, makes friends, sees plays, and again, in true Shakespearean fashion, seems fated to run into Will at incredibly convenient times. After several false starts, tears, and abject misery on both Anne and Will’s part, the couple renews their romantic relationship, bonding over a draft of Love’s Labour’s Lost. Will has one night to complete the play and is only able to finish it because of Anne’s help.
This is another reason why the story works: Anne Whateley is a strong, well-rounded character. We see her grow from a naïve child who is foolish enough to enter a strange man’s tent during the Queen’s summer progress, to a caring young woman who lies to cover up her best friend’s suicide, to a successful and clever woman who can outwit some of Queen Elizabeth’s best advisors and spies. Anne is smart enough to run a business and to trade witty remarks with Will (often in rhyming couplets), but she is foolish enough to drink herself into a stupor and pass out in Kit Marlow’s bed.
She’s a beautiful and independent woman, but she is still amazingly insulted after reading a draft of Sonnet 130 (My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips red), and she refuses to give Will the chance to explain or tell her about the rest of the poem. She’s an incredibly human character with faults, strengths, passions, and insecurities. Much like Shakespeare’s plays themselves, there is a timelessness to Anne’s character.
Because this is Anne’s story and Anne is the narrator, we see her character the most clearly. Will’s character isn’t quite as well developed, and Anne Hathaway’s character is almost a little flat. But the historical detail and the intricate plots and subplots give readers plenty to think about. Between Will and Anne’s romance, the drama of the theatre and the challenge of presenting a play that wouldn’t result in the author’s beheading, Queen Elizabeth’s spies, religious persecution, the Plague, a little blackmail, and a defamation lawsuit involving Shakespeare’s daughter Susannah, there is a lot going on, plot-wise, in this book.
At the end of the day, this book probably would still be a good read even if Anne Whateley never existed or married Shakespeare. But it’s a better read because it is possible that Anne Whateley did exist and did marry Shakespeare.