Mrs. Shakespeare: The Complete Works

Written by Robert Nye
Review by Trudi E. Jacobson

This is Anne Hathaway’s story, written years after her husband has died. Her daughter Susanna has given her a beautiful book of blank pages, covered in ivory-colored vellum, complete with silver clasp, lock and key. She feels destined to write her story in it, “the true history of how it was between me and Mr. Shakespeare.” She sets out to write about her one and only trip to London to see her husband. Intertwined with this story we learn about her daughters, her in-laws, her worthy son-in-law and her ne’er do well one, her feelings about her husband, and even the mysterious second best bed, told in a very frank and conversational manner.

Mrs. Shakespeare feels no great reverence for her husband. He greets her upon her arrival in London, after months of separation, “‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ he enquired politely. ‘No thanks!’ I said.” Mrs. Shakespeare claims she has no liking for fancy talk and poesy (it gives her a headache), but she doesn’t do too badly herself, describing Mr. Shakespeare, “He had a look in his eyes like the sound of a clump of dirt falling on a coffin.” Later she explicates one of her husband’s sonnets, for the benefit of the “reader who is not accustomed to the kind of riddling speech you find in poesy.”

At the time of her trip to London in 1594, her husband has yet to reach the pinnacle of his career. He has had minor acting parts, “Ghosts, heralds, third murderers, fourth messengers, and so forth.” But he has not succeeded even in these lowly parts–he forgets his lines and has to make up speeches on the spot. But he has acquired a wealthy patron, and some expensive possessions for his wife to admire (or not), and which play a large role during her trip to London. Mrs. Shakespeare has a distinctive voice. While it might be a bit sharp to handle in person, it is very refreshing to listen to as she describes her life since meeting Mr. Shakespeare. She is always cognizant of the needs of her readers, frequently addressing us directly, but has to temper these needs by her insistence on telling the truth, however upsetting it might be.

Robert Nye provides a brief afterword in which he notes the sources from which certain components of his novel come, which helps to sort fact from imagination. I am not a Shakespeare scholar, but I had great fun finding elements of his work in her story. My view of him will be forever slightly altered by reading this engaging book.