Losing Our Heads Over Shakespeare, Part 1: Mrs. Shakespeare’s Four-Century Journey

Mrs at Statue 2005Around the world this month, as the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s passing, thespians are especially recalling how they “met” Shakespeare. So, I’m now asking other Pittsburgh Shakespeareans how they met William Shakespeare for a birthday week post here in Part II of “Meeting Will”.

In the meantime, I’m sharing some of my own life-long journey with him. For many years I’ve traveled in the character of his wife, Anne Hathaway, in my solo show Mrs Shakespeare, Will’s first and last love. I created and debuted the piece in Pittsburgh and have most frequently perform it here. There’s a lot of Pittsburgh theatrical and historic places connected to my experiences and Will’s wife will indeed make some appearances again this month.

The woman I portray has been a sort of literary mystery. She is not widely accepted as the writer’s muse, disregarded by many early male literary critics, and left alone by her husband for some 23 years of the Shakespeares’ marriage.

As a master’s student in Theatre Arts at the University of Pittsburgh, my curiosity about Anne was piqued while working for the long-running Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival. As I studied Shakespeare, tragedy, and criticism with Dr. Attilio Favorini, TRSF founder and long-time department chair, I wondered about Shakespeare’s wife.

What clues about this woman were in the plays? We were producing plays by a writer who created strong women characters yet often depicted fathers with children with no mother nearby. Characters such as Rosalind, Juliet, Portia, and even Lady Macbeth carry the day in their stories. On the other hand, the wives of Shylock, Prospero, and Lear are not present in their family tales. Why?

And, nasty literary critics such as Frank Harris said Anne was shrew who drove Will away to London. There wasn’t much in the archives or stacks of Hillman Library to negate this position, but I considered it mean-spirited and completely unfounded.

Inspired to create a solo piece (initially with the interest of marketing the Shakespeare Festival off-season), I set out on a research course that was initially confined to what existed in print. There were few facts to found. Unadaunted, my first script, woven through with sonnets, songs, and soliloquies became my master’s thesis and a performance project, performed in the louvered black box Studio Theatre in the Cathedral of Learning basement.

Since then, I’ve continued to work, but confirmed that there wasn’t much more to learn than I originally found at Pitt. The lives of Anne and William were documented primarily by records of births, marriages, business and legal transactions, and death.

So I dove into the works themselves for more clues about Shakespeare, his wife, and family. And there is was. I believe the self-portrait of the writer is embedded in the very works performed here in Pittsburgh as much as anywhere in the world. My research has become more personal than academic, freeing me to bring new insights, experiences, and even archaeological findings to my projects.

Through further development of Mrs Shakespeare and a number of trips to London and Stratford-Upon-Avon over many years, I continue discovering more about the Shakespeares than any anti-Anne mid-century critic could suppose. I meet fathers haunted by Will’s absence from his own children. In the plays, fathers covet their motherless daughters. It’s almost as if William is making up for lost time with his own children. In Twelfth Night, he explores the connection of orphaned twins–a boy and a girl, like the twins Anne bore. And in Hamlet, he wallows in the unbridled grief of losing his own son, Hamnet and names his longest and most complex tragedy for him.

Before Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival began, Pittsburgh Public Theater and Pitt Stages regularly produced Shakespeare’s works. As a Point Park University student, I experienced by first Shakespeare production, Henry V at the Hazlett Theater where PPT originally performed. It’s remained my favorite history. Then, I soaked up three plays and a lot of guest solo shows each of my five seasons with TRSF, undoubted some of my inspiration for my own solo Shakespeare adventure.

On many Shakespeare birthdays (April 23), I’ve been at the Carnegie Music Hall statue in Oakland, first as publicist for TRSF and later as Will’s wife, laying flowers at his feet. While I’ve taken my character, costume, props, and broom to London, New York, Washington, and a restored prairie music hall, the show has played in Pittsburgh more than anywhere else, more than 20 times in the Pitt English Room and many other small, unique venues here.

Audience members, like me, are intrigued by Shakespeare, the father and husband. Often they have little or no knowledge about his three children and even less about his wife. I can’t resist taunting them early on with: “You didn’t know he had a wife, did you?” But, I warn them not to believe what they read and invite them to listen.

After all, wouldn’t Anne be most likely to know what happened to William’s supposedly (see, there’s assumption again!) skull, recently claimed missing from his grave in Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford. You see, Anne lies beside William under the altar there. I’ll bet his patient and long solitary spouse (including seven years after his death) arranged to have that “missing” skull buried with her.

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This month varied Shakespeare events around town mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and his 452th birthday. Mrs Shakespeare can be found (sans skull):

Monday, April 18 at 7 pm A Special 3rd on 3rd: A Celebration of Shakespeare

Carnegie Screenwriters and the Carnegie Arts Initiative hosting a celebration of the Bard.

Readings and performances include excerpts of Mrs Shakespeare, food, drink, and more. Free admission with door donations accepted.

3rd Street Gallery, 220 3rd St., Carnegie, PA 15106

Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks’ Week of Will, April 23-19

Mrs Shakespeare is just one of the Shakespeareans appearing during PSIP’s second annual observance of the Bard’s big day.

Sat, April 23 Statue Salute at Carnegie Music Hall, Forbes Ave., Oakland

Monday, April 25  Shakespeare Slam/Bring Your Own Bard on Villains, Te Cafe, Murray Ave, Squirrel Hill.

Thurs., April 28  Franktuary Friendraiser, 5-7 pm, Larrencevillle

Watch for details of more WEEK OF WILL events in Oakland and online,

What else is happening around Shakespeare this month? Let us know and we’ll wrap it into our next post when area Shakespeareans share what attracted them to Will’s works.