Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Shakespeare's death

Rereading The Winter's Tale the other day and pondering the Paulina/Antigonus relationship got me thinking about readings of the romances, and interpretations of Shakespeare's "retirement" and death in 1616. Sadly, it's rather a commonplace in many books and articles about Shakespeare to comment on his marriage to an "older" woman, Anne Hathaway (she was about 8 years older than Shakespeare).

The comments tend to focus on the idea that the marriage was forced on Shakespeare because Hathaway was apparently pregnant at the time (according to the parish register, their first child was born within 7 months of their marriage, not uncommon in the period); often the comments hint, imply, or state outright that Hathaway must have somehow led Shakespeare sexually astray, into temptation, that she was a predatory woman. They then continue on to suppose that the marriage was more or less loveless, a mismatch between genius and inadequacy, as evidenced by the famous "second best bed" bequest in Shakespeare's will.

(The will appears to have been drafted in January 1616; January is crossed out on the document, and March added, suggesting that it was revised or amended in March 1616.) (You can find transcripts of the will on the web in various places; here's one at The New Internet Shakespeare Editions.) (For a more scholarly source, see S[am] Schoenbaum's William Shakespeare: A documentary life, New York: Oxford UP, 1975.)

Anyway, when the commenters get to Shakespeare's retirement, they tend to remind their reader that his wife was aging or aged, while somehow at the same time implying that Shakespeare himself was practically a young whippersnapper. There's a good deal of explicit and implicit sexism here. That's no shock, but still irritating.

So I got to wondering: Say Shakespeare "retired" around 1610-1613. (Retirement isn't a really big concept in the early modern period, so it's weird to think of someone retiring. Still, he was by this time a fairly well-to-do man, so may have decided to live on his savings/holdings.) Having been born (or at least baptized) in 1564, he would have been around 46 to 49, which is quite young to think about retirement, at least at first glance. Hathaway would have been 54 to 57. (See, I CAN do basic math still!)

I'm not the first to note that people's health doesn't correspond directly to their chronological age; someone can feel quite old at 50, while another doesn't. Maybe, in fact, Shakespeare himself was already feeling sickly at 46? Is there a family age thing?

So I looked up some ages: John Shakespeare, Shakespeare's father, was born c. 1531, and died in 1601, at about the ripe old age of 70. His mother, Mary Arden, born in 1540, and dead in 1608 died at the age of 68. If genetics are telling, William Shakespeare might have expected to live a long life.

But of Shakespeare's siblings who survived to adulthood and pre-deceased him, his brother Gilbert died at about 46, his brother Richard at 39, and his brother Edmund at 27. Those early deaths lead me to believe that genetics really don't tell us much about life expectancy in the period. There were simply too many ways to die. (Have I mentioned lately how very happy I am to be born into a post-penicillin world? Penicillin! Small Pox and Polio vaccines! Thank you science!)

The dates of January and March 1616 on Shakespeare's will suggest he recognized he was in failing health at that time. Perhaps he had been in failing health for several years; if so, would he have written his will earlier? Would an earlier draft have survived if he'd written another? My guess is that he was in relatively good health up to nearly January, when something happened that caused him to write his will. (Better folks than I have speculated endlessly on the cause of Shakespeare's death, so I'll go no further.)

Anne Hathaway, despite being 8 years older, survived to 1623, outliving Shakespeare by 7 years, and dying at about 67. There's really no telling what her general health was like, except that she survived childbirth twice (giving birth to twins the second time). She may have been feeling lousy and old at 54 or not.

She was 29 when she gave birth to Hamnet and Judith, her twins. Off the cuff, two pregnancies seems like a small number for the period, especially when the last is at 29, and makes me wonder if she had problems with her second, if she miscarried at a later point, if she used abortifactants, or if she and Shakespeare abstained from sex? Hmmm, I wonder what the average number of pregnancies for an early modern woman was?

I've got a few other records in front of me. One is Mary Arden's, which shows 8 children born, the last at the age of 40, which seems a reasonable point for lowered fertility. Arden's childbirths were spaced 2-4 years apart, except for her last, 5 years after the previous one. So, we might guess that she breastfed her children for a year or so, reducing the likelihood of pregnancy, and then became pregnant relatively quickly thereafter. If her fertility were reduced, or she'd had a miscarriage, then the additional time between her last two pregnancies could make sense. Perhaps nursing another two years, further reduced fertility, and perhaps menopause ended her childbearing.

Shakespeare's daughters Susanna and Judith appear to have had one and three children respectively. Susanna had her first within a year of marriage, at the age of 25. Judith had her first in 1616, the year she married, at about 31, and her last in 1620, at about 35.

In the end, I'm left with more questions than answers. I'm not convinced based on the little evidence available that Anne Hathaway was the sexual predator, mismatched and inadequate partner of some commentaries, nor that she was so much "older" than Shakespeare in health. I'm still really irritated by the sexism of most commentators.

And I'm suddenly strangely interested in pregnancy rates and stuff in the period. Are Hathaway's two successful pregnancies typical? Does having twins affect later pregnancies or health? (And at the risk of sounding like I'm blaming Hathaway for not producing a truckload of Shakespeare babies) Are low birth rates common in Hathaway's family for some reason? (In other words, are her daughter's birth rates low, and if so, is there a genetic/familiar component?)

So much for waking up before dawn thinking about Shakespeare!

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous4:41 AM

    Hi again,

    poor Anne has always grabbed my imagination when thinking about our willie. A fact that is never mentioned in summing up the argument.

    John Shakespeare loaned Anne's father money when Will was about 8 years old. this makes Anne about 15 and in a state of full blown adolescence. I had crushes on many of my elder sisters' friends around that age. Possibly so did our Will.