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Shakespeare Got Married in a Hurry… Life Imitating Art, Perchance?

Published Tuesday, Jun. 4th, 2024

Illustration / print from a book depicts William Shakespeare with his family at home.
Above: William Shakespeare recites Hamlet to his family. His wife, Anne Hathaway, sits in the chair to his right. (Photo: Perine, George Edward, 1837-1885, printmaker., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Were William Shakespeare's plays based on his own marriage to poet & playwright Anne Hathaway?


Many of Shakespeare’s plays feature the themes of love and marriage, with a hefty dose of wedding drama. So maybe it’s not a surprise that The Bard’s own marriage started with a 16th Century shotgun wedding. 


Related: Funny Shotgun Wedding Ceremony Script


Young William Shakespeare was married to a much-older Anne Hathaway (no relation to today’s well known actor) when he was only 18 and still a minor under the laws of the time. So young, in fact, that his rushed marriage disqualified him for an apprenticeship. (via The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust)


Why the hurry? Shakespeare’s wedding was a ‘shot-gun ceremony,’ a crude but common phrase that describes a wedding with a pregnant bride. In this case, that bride was the lovely Anne Hathaway, an English poet, playwright, and businesswoman of notable talent and wealth. 


Anne was 26 at the time, which was the usual age for young women of good standing to marry. The age difference between the lovers was not usual, however, and she was several months into her pregnancy at the time. Being an unwed mother might have caused a scandal, so she and William were wed quickly – in secrecy, and far from their homes. 



Color photograph of Shakespeare's home in Stratford-upon-Avon, England

Shakespeare's home in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. (Photo: John, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)


When did William Shakespeare get married to Anne Hathaway? 


Historians aren’t sure where the couple was married, but they do know when: Anne Hathaway and William Shakespeare were married in November of 1582, with some experts suggesting the exact date as November 28th, 1582. This is the day their marriage license was purchased, however there is little evidence to narrow this down as their wedding date. (


Related: Medieval Themed Wedding Ceremony Script


The couple left their home parish of Stratford-upon-Avon to marry elsewhere, with special permission issued by the Bishop's Court in Worcester to preserve their privacy. (via The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust)


The Shakespeares’ first daughter, Susanna, was born only six months later, and the two playwrights spent many of their married years happy, but living apart.


(Fun fact: The experts at the Folger Shakespeare Library say that nearly 30% of marriages during this time period began with a pregnancy. So people may have gossiped about William and Anne, but the couple was probably in good company.)


Related: Give Your Love Letter Ceremony a Centuries-Old Twist with Letterlocking


Photo of an illustration in a book, public domain, titled 'Shakespeare's Courtship,' said to show Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway sitting together in a posh room

"Shakespeare's Courtship" / Public Domain / Rijksmuseum 

Above: A vintage illustration (ca. 1866) of William and Anne sitting together during their courtship period. William would have been around 18 years old at the time, and Anne was 26.



If all of this sounds like something well-suited for the stage, there’s good reason for it: Nearly all (if not all) of Shakespeare’s greatest works center on themes of love, marriage, and weddings, though most of these weddings themselves take place off stage – just out of sight of the eager audience – and we don't hear much about the marriage after. (Sound familiar?)


There’s the desperate romance in ‘Measure to Measure,’ in which Claudio gets Juliet pregnant before they are married, resulting in Claudio being sentenced to death by the corrupt deputy Angelo. Although Claudio’s life is spared by the Duke-in-disguise, after many devious twists and turns, others in the story are not so lucky. Claudio and Juliet are reunited and set to marry, just as the play ends.


Then, there’s the off-stage double wedding that concludes the intricate and convoluted love triangle and mistaken-identity of ‘The Twelfth Night,’ when Viola and Orsino, and Sebastian and Olivia, pair up. The audience never sees the ceremony!


Related: A Wedding Ceremony Script Based on the Best Wedding Movies of All Time (Take One)


And, of course, there’s the tumultuous marriage between King Leontes and his pregnant wife Queen Hermione in ‘The Winter’s Tale.’ The couple is happy enough at first, until Leontes begins to worry that the child isn’t his. Suspecting that his best friend Polixenes is the baby's true father (he’s not), Leontes is consumed with jealousy and puts Hermoine on trial for treason. Hermoine later dies of grief. (Or does she? Maybe not...) (Read more about this wild plot at The Royal Shakespeare Company.)


The list goes on and on, but you get the idea. Shakespeare had a lot of ideas about weddings and marriage, and he used them to create a lot of very relatable, very over-the-top, and very entertaining stories. 


But was Shakespeare’s work inspired by his own wedding and marriage to Anne? Was it inspired by other messy marriages of the era? Was it art imitating life, or life imitating art? Shakespeare’s first performed work didn’t hit the stage until he was 25, after all… He'd been married for nearly seven years then. 


We can’t say for sure, but what’s certain is that it all started with a wedding ceremony, just off stage.


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A man and woman hold hands as they walk down the road into a forest. They are facing away from the camera, their identities a secret from the viewer.

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Jessica Levey
Jessica Levey

Lead Staff Writer & Illustrator

Jessica loves exploring the history and magic of ritual, the connections between people and places, and sharing true stories about love and commitment. She's an advocate for marriage equality, LGBTQ+ rights, and individuality, and is an ordained Minister with AMM. When she’s not writing or illustrating for AMM, she enjoys city hikes, fantasy novels, comics, and traveling.

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