Shakespeare Story

Shakespeare’s invisible mother: Mary Arden

On Mother’s Day, we take a look at the overlooked woman in Shakespeare’s life

3 minute read

Shakespeare and his father, John, both made advantageous marriages to wealthier women with whose families they’d been connected from childhood. Mother’s Day provides a perfect opportunity to take a closer look at the woman who shaped Shakespeare’s life, his mother Mary Shakespeare née Arden.

We know very little about Mary Arden’s marriage to John Shakespeare, which took place sometime between 1556 and 1558. He was the son of a tenant farmer on her father’s land. She was from a well-to-do farming family from the village of Wilmcote, and the youngest of at least eight daughters. Mary seems to have been the favourite. Her father left her a valuable inheritance of land and named her an executor of his estate upon his death in 1556. Perhaps aided by Mary’s money, John and Mary Shakespeare bought a house in Henley Street in Stratford where they went about starting a family.

Palmer's_Farmhouse_(aka_Mary_Arden's_House)

Palmers’ House, as part of the current Mary Arden’s Farm estate managed by The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Mary gave birth to eight children, of whom William was the first to survive infancy, despite being born in a plague season. Her role in his life remains tantalisingly out of reach. Like many ordinary people in early modern England, Mary’s life has not left much trace; and like most women in Shakespeare’s time, such information as has survived testifies to her legal relationships with men: her father, her famous son, and her husband.

But judging from typical child-rearing practices of the time, we can be sure that Mary was responsible for teaching the most famous English writer to speak, and possibly to read. It was typical for mothers to take young children through their ABC, using a sturdy single-sided ‘horn book’ on which was printed the alphabet and the Lord’s Prayer.

William married at the unusually young age of 18, and there is no evidence of Mary’s involvement in the match. She doesn’t seem to have been active in matchmaking for her three younger sons, either, or indeed for her daughter Joan. Mary’s independent life is barely recorded in the historical record, unlike some of her Stratford contemporaries – including her daughter-in-law Anne Hathaway, who lent and borrowed money and seems to have run a malting business (and perhaps a brewery) in later years.

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Harry Enfield as John Shakespeare, Paula Wilcox as Mary Arden, Liza Tarbuck as Anne Hathaway, David Mitchell as William Shakespeare and Helen Monks as Susanna Shakespeare in Ben Elton’s  Upstart Crow. Photograph: Colin Hutton/BBC.

Mary frequently appears in popular and literary culture and biography as an unhappy, unsatisfied character. In Ben Elton’s Upstart Crow (BBC) she’s a fine country lady who married beneath her. In Germaine Greer’s biography of Anne, Shakespeare’s Wife, Mary is presented as bitter and unhelpful, incapable of managing her husband’s business when he gains a place on the Stratford town council. But perhaps the time is ripe for a re-evaluation of Mary’s life and influences on her son. Mary Arden takes a central role in Maggie O’Farrell’s forthcoming Hamnet, published at the end of this month, which revolves around the shared Stratford household of John, Mary and Anne (here known as Agnes) Shakespeare while William is working in London.