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Karen Harper – Mistress Shakespeare

January 20, 2009

7. Mistress Shakespeare by Karen Harper (2009)

Pre-order Mistress Shakespeare on Amazon

Length: 384 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

Started: 15 January 2009
Finished: 18 January 2009

How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 10 December 2008
Verdict? Keeper

One Anne in Stratford,
but the Anne in London is
Shakespeare’s one true muse.

Summary: The Episcopal register of Worcester has two entries of interest to any Shakespearean scholar: the first, on 27 November 1582, is a marriage license issued to “Wm Shaxpere and Anne Whateley of Temple Grafton”, the second, one day later, is a marriage bond to “Willm Shagspere and Anne Hathwey of Stratford”. Many scholars believe this to be a clerical error, but Karen Harper takes a different tack: that Anne Whateley did exist, and that Shakespeare entered into a handfast marriage with her on the day before being bullied into a shotgun wedding with the substantially older Anne Hathaway.

Mistress Shakespeare is written a memoir from the point of view of “the first” Anne, who was Shakespeare’s childhood friend and sweetheart, and later his wife, if not the one he publicly acknowledged. Though the course of true love ne’er did run smooth, and Anne had to endure the humiliation of having the marriage she considers valid kept secret, bitter arguments over Will’s jealousy, and the turbulent religious and political currents of the late sixteenth century, she makes her way through Shakespeare’s London as his one true love, and the inspiration for his greatest works.

Review: I went through a fairly protracted phase of Shakespeareaphilia in high school and college, but that mostly involved reading his plays – I knew only the basic outlines of his life and the social and political situations that affected him and his work. This book does an excellent job in rectifying that, even if its central premise is one that most scholars reject. It’s a captivating story of a life-long romance, and Harper breathes enough life into the character of Anne Whateley to make her convincingly real, no matter what those pesky scholars say. Shakespeare, too, gets a touch of the humanizing treatment, although since it’s told from Anne’s point of view, he’s never as fully fleshed out as she is.

The writing is mostly well-done, effectively evoking a Renaissance atmosphere while still being easy to read for a modern audience. Anne and Will’s early life together (and then apart) is well-detailed, and events flow smoothly. Once Will becomes established in London, however, things get a little jumpier, and there were times when the narrative tricks used to skim over large swaths of time were awkwardly done enough to distract me from the story. I also wish that “the second Anne”, Anne Hathaway, had been a more developed character; seeing Will’s other relationship might have provided the story with a little more moral meat and kept the later parts from feeling like a history pageant of Shakespeare’s life.

While on the whole I quite enjoyed this story; I don’t think it’s for everyone. Presumably the people that would pick this up are those with some interest in, and therefore prior knowledge of, Shakespeare’s life and works. It’s good that most of the connections are kept subtle, but those without a passing familiarity with most of Shakespeare’s plays are going to miss a lot of the meaning of the story. Likewise, details about Shakespeare’s life and times are frequently referenced without being explained – for instance, readers who didn’t know that Shakespeare’s will left Anne Hathaway their “second-best bed” will be left in the dark by the page and a half Anne Whateley spends talking about shipping mattresses around England. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: A vivid, entertaining read for anyone who likes historical fiction, Elizabethan England, or Shakespeariana, although if you’re not up on your Shakespeare trivia, a few minutes’ refresher course on Wikipedia prior to starting wouldn’t go amiss.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: I know some of you out there have read this book, but I didn’t see any reviews – if I missed yours, leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: When I opened my door at mid-morn and saw the strange boy, I should have known something was wrong.


  • p. 155: “In the second, musicians wailed away on their sackbuts, crumhorns, fydels, and the softer lutes.” – A medieval instrument resembling the trombone; A wind instrument of the Renaissance with a curving tube and a double reed; Presumably fiddles?
  • p. 194: “Humming, we danced about the room in a fast lavolta, then a slow pavane.” – a Renaissance dance for couples, associated with the galliard and done to the same kind of music. Its main figure consisted of a turn and lift in a sort of closed position, which could be done either to the right or to the left.
  • p. 225: ““Angelica, ivory, mithridate and black pitch to smear on that man’s face you hate.”” – a confection believed to contain an antidote to every poison.
  • p. 250: “She was the beautiful – at least he gave me that – termagant elder daughter of a man who refused to let his charming younger daughter wed until the shrew was off his hands.” – violent; turbulent; brawling; shrewish.
  • p. 347: ““Now he claims she committed adultery with him and gave him running of the reynes, and she’s begging me to ask you to testify on her behalf in court.”” – gonorrhea (I think? Judging by the Google results, it wasn’t a common term.)

Quotes and page numbers are from an uncorrected advance copy, and may be different in the final published work.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. January 20, 2009 1:35 am

    Lovely review! I’ve wanted to read this one for some time now, but just haven’t quite gotten there yet. Sounds like a very enjoyable read!

  2. January 20, 2009 3:22 am

    If I ever get this, I’ll be sure to take your advice and brush up on my shakespeare knowledge beforehand.

  3. January 20, 2009 12:21 pm

    Sounds like a wonderful book – maybe not as fleshed out as it could be, but still one that has caught this Bardolator’s attention!

    Mystery, intrigue, scandal, and tights? Sign me up for Shakespeare!

  4. January 20, 2009 4:54 pm

    Michele – It was! I hope you enjoy it when you get to it!

    Lenore – I think a quick trip through Wikipedia should just about do, plus there’s a site that’s listed in the Author’s Note where you can see pictures of some of the actual documentary evidence throughout Shakespeare’s life.

    Chelsea – Bardolator? Is that a real word? Anyways, it was a very enjoyable read, and got me interested in the actual history, which is one of the reasons I read historical fiction.

  5. January 20, 2009 6:38 pm

    Great review. I’ve wanted to read this one for a while now but haven’t gotten around to it.

  6. January 21, 2009 10:43 am

    I love reading about Shakespeare, and I had no idea he may have had another wife! Have you read A Year in the Life of Shakespeare: 1599? I really enjoyed it, and learned a lot, too. :)

  7. January 21, 2009 10:46 am

    Darlene – It’s worth bumping up the list.

    Jessi – I haven’t heard about it, but it looks interesting; thanks for the tip!

  8. January 21, 2009 4:37 pm

    I really like the sound of this. I love me some good historical fiction. And it being Shakespeare related is definitely a plus.

  9. January 21, 2009 11:39 pm

    I absolutely can not wait to read this one – and your review is making me drool even more!

  10. January 22, 2009 9:04 am

    Nymeth – That was my exact thought process when I requested it. :)

    Carrie – Oh no! No drooling on the books!

  11. January 23, 2009 8:46 am

    This is going on my TBR – I’m already planning what to read during the summer when we go to the cottage. I think I’ll read only books about Shakepeare – theme reading (yes I’m a geek)

    This will be perfect, along with the ‘Will in the World’ now I just need to find a good book about the Shakespeare identity theory.

  12. January 23, 2009 3:23 pm

    I remember this catching my eye when I first saw it listed – the cover is gorgeous!

    I am one who would enjoy it, but need to take that wikipedia refresher course to get the most out of it :)

    I love the vocab you listed at the end of the review – “running of the reynes” – who knew!?

  13. January 23, 2009 4:29 pm

    Joanne – I love theme reading, although I normally try to bring a variety with me on vacation, so if I get sick of one thing, I have something different on hand.

    Dawn – I do love the cover, although it’s not exactly fitted to the book, since Anne Whateley in the book is half-Italian, with dark hair and olive skin. :)


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