Anne Hathaway, or, Shakespeare in Love

Emma Severn
London: Richard Bentley, 1845

One of the earliest fictional portraits of Anne Hathaway and the first of several English works entitled Shakespeare in Love. Both Anne and William are idealized in the triple-decker tale of true love and sentimentality in Stratford. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare describes the novel as “truly execrable.”

The Portrait of Mr. W. H.

Oscar Wilde
First published in Blackwood’s Magazine, 1889

Erskine tells the unnamed first-person narrator about his friend Cyril Graham, who became obsessed with the theory that ‘Mr. W. H.’, the ‘onlie begetter’ of the Sonnets, was boy-actor ‘Willie Hughes’. In order to prove Hughes’s existence, Graham arranges for an impecunious artist to forge a painting of him. After Erskine discovers the deception, Graham kills himself; but refuses, in his suicide note, to abandon his idea, and urges Erskine to prove it. The narrator eagerly adopts the theory, and imagines Hughes travelling to Germany to perform Shakespeare’s work there before being killed in an uprising in Nuremberg. Erskine also becomes persuaded; years later, he too dies and bequeaths the forged painting to the narrator. Coming from Oscar Wilde, this piece is noteworthy for its anti-Shakespeare stance (Wilde was a sometime Shakespeare doubter) as well as its openness about homosexuality. —SJJ

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Shake-speare’s Sweetheart

Sara Hawks Sterling
Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs and Co., 1905

The “most artistic gift book of the year” according to one advertisement of its day, this romantic picture of Shakespeare’s love life purports to come from a manuscript by Ben Jonson, who recorded the story as told by Anne Hathaway herself. Anne is a more active and endearing character than usual, resorting to cross-dressing at one point to visit Shakespeare in London. Illustrated in an Arts and Crafts style by Clara Elsene Peck (1883-1968). Shakespeare is a nervous playwright on the brink of great fame. He is admired by many, but always, of course, a loyal husband.

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The Dark Lady

George Bernard Shaw
Rough proof – unpublished
London: Constable and Company Ltd., 1910

In this brief play, William Shakespeare attempts a secret meeting with his beloved, the Dark Lady of the sonnets. He mistakenly courts another woman, however, who turns out to be Queen Elizabeth. In the course of this comedy of errors, Shakespeare shows himself to be not only a smooth operator, but also a plagiarist, lifting lines from everyone he meets (lines we know from his plays). The play also includes a plea for England to establish a National Shakespeare Theatre. —VH

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Shakespeare and His Love

Frank Harris
London: Frank Palmer, 1910

Written, Harris says, in 1904, this play covers the same ground as Shaw’s “The Dark Lady,” though less successfully. Harris was incensed when Shaw’s play appeared in 1910, and rushed this one into print claiming in the preface: “I have not yet read or seen Mr. Shaw’s play: I only wish here to draw attention to the fact that he has already annexed a good deal of my work and put it forth as his own, […] I naturally infer that in this play he has taken from me even more than he could hope to pass off as his own.” In the play, Shakespeare desperately admires the Dark Lady, Mary Fitton (1578-1647), and asks William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke (1580-1630) to play Cyrano for him. Fritton falls for Herbert (an historic fact), and the emotional turmoil inspires Shakespeare’s most productive writing before he retires to a melancholy life in Stratford. —VH

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No Bed for Bacon

Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon
London: Michael Joseph, 1941

In an anticipation of the plot of the film Shakespeare in Love, Lady Viola Compton disguises herself as a boy, becomes a player, and falls in love with Shakespeare. In this version of history, the fire at the Globe theatre is started deliberately by the jealous Edward Alleyn and Philip Henslowe, and the book ends with the Essex rebellion and the first night of Twelfth Night at Court; Francises Drake and Bacon also appear, the latter scheming to acquire a bed that the Queen has slept in (hence the title). The relentlessly hearty prose and the running joke about Shakespeare’s inability to spell his own name may not be to the taste of every reader. —SJJ

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Nothing like the Sun: A Story of Shakespeare’s Love-life

Anthony Burgess
London: Vintage, 1964

This highly-fictionalized, slightly seedy pseudo-biography of Shakespeare is presented in a frame story as a bravura exposition of sonnet 147, “My love is as a fever,” etc., by a drunken professor, “Mr. Burgess,” to his Malaysian students. Its most salient feature is the extravagant chaos of its prose, presented as Shakespeare’s own stream of consciousness; the novel is written in an exuberant, head-spinning, sometimes-distracting style, modeled on Joyce’s Ulysses. Burgess uses snippets from Shakespeare’s own plays as well as slang, some historical, some invented, to evoke Elizabethan English. Life in contemporary London is presented in vivid, lavish detail as equal parts chaotic, squalid, and spectacular. Notorious Elizabethan prostitute Lucy Negro is cast as Shakespeare’s East Indian mistress, a former Muslim originally named Fatjmah, and the Dark Lady of his sonnets. She is seduced by Shakespeare’s foppish friend, patron, and occasional lover, the Earl of Southampton, catches syphilis from him, and imparts it to Shakespeare himself. Meanwhile, Shakespeare is cuckolded by his younger brother Richard, who stayed behind in Stratford, as proposed in the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode of Joyce’s Ulysses, and whom Shakespeare discovers here in bed in flagrante with Anne Hathaway.—PG

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Erica Jong
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987

The modern-day actress Jessica Pruit is in Venice filming a modern-day version of The Merchant of Venice when she falls ill and is somehow transported back to the sixteenth-century. Also in Venice at that time is Shakespeare, who is there to avoid a plague outbreak in England. In Jessica, he finds inspiration in a steamy and chronologically uninhibited romance. Shakespeare is romantic, impetuous, bi-sexual, and prone to quote himself. Also published in 2003 as Shylock’s Daughter: A Novel of Love in Venice. —VH

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Dark Lady

Karen Sunde
The Dramatic Publishing Company, 1988

Less a characterization of Shakespeare, who appears as a fairly traditional lover attempting to woo an unreachable prize, than another theory in fictional form, about the Dark Lady of the sonnets. Sunde argues for Emilia Bassano (1569-1645), an English musician and poet (later Emilia Lanier). Emilia was the mistress of Henry Carey, Elizabeth’s Lord Chamberlain. Shakespeare, as one of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, may have had contact with her. A beauty, she is described as “black” by some contemporaries and may also have had some Jewish heritage. In this play, Shakespeare is the enamored poet who finds inspiration in this remarkable—and historic—woman. —VH

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Loving Will Shakespeare

Carolyn Meyer
Orlando: Harcourt, 2006

In her young adult novel Loving Will Shakespeare, Carolyn Meyer spins the sparse facts known about the lives of William Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway into a bittersweet narrative told from Anne’s first-person perspective. Despite the title, Anne and Will’s courtship actually plays a lesser role in the book; this is really Anne’s story, with the majority of the novel focusing on the trials and triumphs of Anne’s youth. Nevertheless, Will does appear frequently, as a charming, confident, and precocious boy (at age eleven he declares Ovid his favorite poet) who seems to be in love with Anne long before she has any romantic thoughts about him. Meyer augments her narrative with details about aspects of early modern life (sartorial laws, hornbooks) which seem intended to make the novel more educational for young readers, and concludes with a note explaining which plot points are historical fact and which were her invention. Readers who have yearned for more details about Shakespeare’s wife will appreciate Meyer’s portrait of an Anne Hathaway who is strong, smart, and a person in her own right. ―BS

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