On 1 December 1582, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, the daughter of a family friend who lived in the nearby village of Shottery. At the time of their marriage, Shakespeare was only 18 years old, whereas Anne was 26. Little is known about their courtship, though some scholars have drawn links between Shakespeare’s biography and his first published poem, Venus and Adonis, which features an experienced woman seducing a man. Shakespeare may have initially viewed the marriage as advantageous. Anne, who had been orphaned in her mid-twenties and was bequeathed significant resources in her father’s will, was “wholly at her own government,” which means that she had complete autonomy over her own affairs as well as control over family property. Despite the lack of concrete evidence regarding their courtship, however, the conditions leading to their wedding seem much clearer. It is highly probable that the couple were rushed into marriage because Anne was pregnant. This speculation appears to be confirmed by a baptismal record for their first child, Susanna, who was born just six months after their wedding. Three years later Anne gave birth to the twins Hamnet and Judith. After that, the Shakespeares would not have any more children.
Following the birth of the twins, Shakespeare left for London. He spent the bulk of his life there, away from his family. Long periods of separation were not unusual at the time, and hence don’t necessarily indicate Shakespeare and Anne’s estrangement. Even so, scholars speculate that the Shakespeares had a troubled marriage. Circumstantial evidence comes from the plays themselves. Spouses—typically wives, not husbands—are often missing in his plays, and when both spouses are present, as in both
their relationships prove dysfunctional, even terrifying. Nor does Shakespeare promise happiness for future marriage like those foreshadowed at the end of
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
It is possible that Shakespeare’s return to Stratford around 1611 indicates a reconciliation with his long-neglected wife, perhaps one like that depicted in
The Winter’s Tale.
Complicating this theory of reconciliation is the fact that Shakespeare’s will leaves Anne but one bequest: his “second best bed”—that is, the marriage bed. Legal historians speculate that Shakespeare may have been trying to undermine the customary dowager’s rights that ensure a widow’s lifetime income. However, other scholars believe that Shakespeare’s bequest intended to honor rather than snub his widow. At the time a bed represented an expensive heirloom and status symbol.