Shakespeare is all around us. This year, we are reminded that he died in 1616, four-hundred years ago. Much literature has been recently published. I add the memoir of a remarkable woman who tells the little-known story of her love affair with Shakespeare.
Will & Me
By Lady Katherine (Poole Hancock), January, 1646
I have lived a long and full life. Changes in my body tell me that my days are coming to an end. I have kept a journal since I was a child, but much that was written in those volumes should not be seen by other eyes. They contain the secrets of friends and relatives, confided to me over the years. Soon I shall destroy most of them.
But I have saved every scrap I have written about William Shakespeare. Ours is a story the world should know, since I can refute many of the falsehoods circulated about Will by the ignorant, the jealous, and the malicious. I have waited thirty years since Will died for someone to ask me about him, and no one ever has. That our relationship has remained a secret is miraculous, for although we were careful at the beginning, in our last year together we were forced to seek the help of others. Apparently none of those who helped us have spoken of what they—or we—did. I think all concerned are dead except for Will’s daughter Susanna and his granddaughter, Elizabeth, both of whom approve of what I am doing. They, too, desire that the world know the truth about Will.
I saw Will for the first time in the autumn of 1583, when I was eight and he was nineteen. I had accompanied my father, Sir Henry Poole of Sapperton in Gloucestershire, on a visit to the Lucys, our kinsmen, at Charlecote near Stratford-on-Avon. While we were there, Will called to ask for Sir Thomas Lucy’s assistance. Sir Thomas, the highly respected head of the Lucy clan, agreed to see Will. He was acquainted with Will’s father, John, who had risen in the town to chief Alderman. John Shakespeare had been brought down by debt and scandal, but Sir Thomas never turned his back on old friends, no matter how low they fell.
Even in the drab clothes of a poor man, Will was beautiful—slender and tall, with smoky gray eyes and auburn hair. (He later lost most of his hair, but I still thought he was beautiful.) I fell in love with him on sight, but he did not see me. I had crept into the library to read, and was hidden from view by a screen. I sat mouse-like in my corner and listened to him describe his difficulties in the remarkable voice that later entranced theatre goers. His manners were proper, if not polished, and he said all that was respectful and due to Sir Thomas. I could tell that Sir Thomas was pleased with him, and I knew that, if at all possible, Will’s request, whatever it was, would be granted. Indeed, Sir Thomas, who had never met him until that day, was Will’s friend until the older man’s death in 1600.
When Will was fourteen, he was forced to leave school and go to work for his father, a glover and dealer in wool and other commodities, to help support his father’s family. He longed to go to Oxford, but after his marriage and the birth of Susanna, Will was forced to work even harder. He remained in his father’s house, crowded with his brothers and sister, along with Anne Hathaway and the child. But he made little working for his father, and he needed to find other work to take care of his daughter. I listened attentively to every word while he described his predicament.
“Sir Thomas, I am loathe to speak of it, but my wife is no companion to me,” Will said. “She can neither read nor write, and has no desire to learn. She is slovenly and lazy, unwilling to help my mother with the housekeeping or to care for the child. She lies in bed all day, eating, drinking, sleeping. She spends her evenings in taverns, but if I am in the house she will not leave me alone, nagging me to come to her bed.
“I long for work away from here, where Anne cannot find me. I will send what I make to Stratford for Susanna. I must part from Anne. Even though I know we must always remain wedded, I cannot live with her,” he said, his voice breaking.
Later, when Will had left, and my father joined Sir Thomas in the library, I continued to huddle in my corner while they discussed Will. They were familiar with his plight; his sad story was common knowledge. Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior, whom he had married the previous November, had seduced him when he was still in his teens. Her pregnancy had forced him into marriage five to ten years before he would ordinarily have wed. Anne had not attracted a husband in the ordinary way, and at twenty-six she could no longer expect a proposal. She would receive a legacy from her father if and when she married, but it was not enough to attract suitors. Desperate for a spouse, she had set out to trap poor Will. He was as vulnerable as a young hare to a hungry falcon.
At Sir Thomas’s request, a Lucy cousin gave Will a position as tutor to his young sons. This branch of the Lucy family lived in a manor house near Oxford, where Will served for seven years, using the name William Arden, after his mother, Mary Arden, who came from a good family. He taught the little boys their letters and Latin and availed himself of the libraries of the Lucy family and their friends. He wrote page after page on used paper, and the cheapest he could find. The Lucys did not know the nature of his writing until much later, but they encouraged Will’s intellectual pursuits and were devoted to him.
Will’s early education was free as it was for all boys until they were fifteen. He had been taught the basics, especially Latin. He always wanted to learn and during his years with the Lucys, he made up for all that he had missed, learning from the scholars he met through the Lucys. The Lucys reported that he had become as educated as any Oxford man and was gentlemanly in his behavior and manners.
Since Will’s employment with the Lucys remained secret to shield him from the wretched Anne, there were many rumors about his whereabouts. The most ridiculous story was that Will sought refuge in Lancashire, where he was supported and protected by Catholics. Will was always loyal to the Queen, and never embraced the old religion. The Queen loved and trusted Will, and the Chamberlain’s Men, the group of actors that specialized in Will’s plays, and with whom he performed before the Queen.
Because the Lucys were family friends, I saw Will often during his Oxford years, but he never paid me any attention. The gap between us was large, because of our ages and our relative social standing. His hosts would have been most unhappy to see him talking to me. But I made a note every time I saw Will, and whenever I had news of him, I wrote of it in my diaries, how I heard it, and from whom, although as it was most of the time information I picked up while eavesdropping. If the news was big and important, as when Anne Hathaway gave birth to twins in 1585 and claimed that Will had sired them, my father told my aunt and me the truth of the matter.
“That Hathaway woman would trap him again if she could,” my father said. “She swears he begat those twins. Luckily he was with the Oxford Lucys and scarcely out of their sight when the twins had to have been conceived. According to the Lucys, he hasn’t returned to Stratford since he joined that good family.”
“Who fathered them?” Aunt Miriam asked.
My father shrugged. “Anyone,” he said. “The woman’s a strumpet. If she can, she’ll force Will to support those brats. People say he attended the twins’ christening in February, acknowledging his paternity. He did nothing of the sort. The vicar who christened them was new, and had never met Will. None of the Shakespeares were present at that christening. Anne Hathaway told the vicar the children were Will’s, and that’s what was entered in the parish register. That was that. Will never left Oxford. Why would he travel to Stratford for a christening of children who were not his? In any case, he would not go near Hathaway.”
Everyone knew Will avoided Anne Hathaway and that he never had anything to do with the twins. Hamnet, the boy, died in 1597, some say of the plague, and some of drowning. Will was in London when the boy died, and never knew the truth of it, but the rumor persists that Hamnet and Judith, his twin sister, were playing in the river where they were forbidden to go, and where he drowned. They said Judith was the leader in all their escapades and at fault in the drowning.
People said Judith was wild and ignorant. She aped her mother, refusing to learn to read and write, and made a spectacle of herself wherever she went. She was a slattern, and slow and clumsy. I saw her from a distance once or twice, and she had not the look of Will, nor of Susanna, who has Will’s fair coloring, gray eyes, and slender form. Judith was dark and swarthy, and heavy-set like her mother. She tormented poor Will even when he was all but in his grave. In February 1616, two months before Will died, Judith, then thirty-one, married Thomas Quiney, a good-for-nothing lout, years younger than she. A month later, Quiney was charged with getting another woman pregnant. The woman died in childbirth, and the infant with her. People talked of nothing but the scandal. Will was angry about her marriage and the shame of the episode, undoing much that he had arranged to improve his family’s standing in Stratford. Some folk even said Judith’s behavior hastened Will’s death.
In February 1589, while Will was still with the young Lucys in Oxford, my grandfather died and left me a marriage portion of four hundred pounds. I was married that same year to Richard Hancock. I was fifteen, and he was twenty-five. My marriage, as was the custom, was an alliance of family and money that enhanced the standing of both our families. In the eyes of the world, it was a good marriage, although I loved Will all my life, and could never love Richard. I never told anyone of my feelings for Will. My family would have laughed at the thought of an intimate relationship between Will and me. Everyone in my world saw marriage as about family, property, and fortune. My role was to produce an heir and to manage a great household. My secret love for Will glowed in my heart, a banked fire. I never dreamed it would one day flame up and nearly consume me.
When I married, I moved to Peacock Manor, Richard’s home. Because we were near Oxford, we often visited the Oxford Lucys. Will was sometimes present, but we never exchanged more than polite greetings. In the early days of our marriage, Richard was jealous and possessive, and never far from my side. But I saw Will look at me, and I liked to think his gaze was admiring.
After Will left for London, he often wrote to the Oxford Lucys and to Sir Thomas, who proudly shared his news. Will sent the greater part of his wages to Sir Thomas, who arranged to have the money delivered to Will’s father. Susanna’s grandfather made sure that she was safe, and was taught to read and write.
My early years at Peacock Manor were busy, and I was content, especially after the birth of my son John. But in the next several years, I lost two babies, both girls. I would have dearly loved a daughter. Like others who have suffered great loss, I buried myself in my work. I had in my care fields, orchards, a garden for vegetables, another for herbs and flowers, and a dairy. We frequently entertained visitors, and we employed a large staff, which I supervised. I had little time to mourn, but I could not bear to visit the nursery wing.
I thought of Will every day and rejoiced in his growing fame and prosperity. When his poem Venus and Adonis was circulated in 1593, with the help of my maid Annie—I had brought Annie, who had been my nurse, with me to Peacock Manor—I managed to obtain a copy on tattered paper. My body thrilled to his words:
I’ll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer;
Feed where thou wilt, on mountain, or in dale:
Graze on my lips, and if those hills be dry,
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.
My passion rose, and I longed for Will as I’d never longed before. When, the following year, I read The Rape of Lucrece, I enjoyed it, but not as I had reveled in Venus and Adonis. Years later, Will told me he wrote Venus and Adonis while thinking of making love to me.
Will became famous as both a playwright and an actor. When he performed before the Queen at Greenwich, all England heard of it, and in 1596, when he bought John Shakespeare a coat of arms, there was much talk of his advancement. In 1597, Will settled Anne Hathaway, Susanna and Judith, at New Place, a substantial house in Stratford. Will was determined to give Susanna a decent background, enabling her to make a good marriage despite her mother’s and sister’s reputations and behavior.
Every time I wrote an entry about Will in my journal, I was deeply conscious of how much I owed my dear father. He was generous and kind to my brothers, but especially to me, his only daughter. He’d insisted that I was taught to read and write at an early age—unusual at the time. Few things in my life brought me more pleasure than reading and writing.
In 1600, Richard was knighted by the Queen. As a result, our consequence rose greatly. We owed the knighthood to my father, and to Elizabeth, a Poole connection, who had married John, Lord Russell. Lady Russell became my patron. I had just learned to write when she gave me my first journal. When she heard that I was a committed diarist, from time to time she sent more journals, precious gifts of great value—the paper was expensive—enabling me to write not only my secret thoughts and feelings about Will, and the facts of his life, but also my receipts and remedies. I do not think I would have written my book but for the encouragement of Lady Russell. I remain grateful to her, because my book brought me a small measure of fame, and indirectly, reunited me with Will.
I had collected recipes and remedies before my marriage, and continued to do so all my life. When in 1600, I decided to put my collection in book form, I asked friends and relatives to send me their best receipts and remedies. Nearly all of my family responded. Among my treasures are two remedies using tobacco from a distant kinsman, Sir Walter Raleigh. The more material I received, the more I wanted, and I expanded my requests outside the family. I even wrote to a young doctor, John Hall, about whose skill I’d heard. It was very bold of me—he was in no way connected with my family—but he answered immediately.
Once I had told him about my interest in treatments for illnesses, and described the book I was compiling, we began a correspondence and a sharing of remedies. One day when his practice brought him near Peacock Manor, Doctor Hall called, and he soon became a regular visitor. He was about my age, and Richard and his friends were much older, so my friendship with Doctor Hall might have caused talk, but Richard was fascinated with medical matters. He enjoyed John Hall’s visits because he could complain to the doctor about his aches and pains until he nodded off. While he slept, John and I discussed our mutual interests, including the works of William Shakespeare. He had actually met Will!
When John heard that I had read only Will’s first two works, he lent me pages, the precious scraps of paper making up the plays—Richard III, Hamlet, Henry IV and Henry V, and above all, Romeo and Juliet. (I read of “a pair of star-cross’d lovers’ with empathy.) My admiration—adoration—of Will grew.
In 1602, to my great joy, my second son, Henry, was born. Richard was vastly pleased, because, he said, “It is always good to have a second son, lest, something should happen to the heir.” As always, he thought of everything as it concerned the estate. Thank God, Henry was a fat, healthy child. I delighted in him, and enjoyed visiting the nursery again. But I had another reason for great happiness. Doctor Hall, knowing of my delight in Will’s work (and having no suspicion of my passion for the man), urged me to write Will and tell him of my admiration for his writings.
“All men like to hear that others enjoy and understand their work,” he said. “Give me your letter and I will see that he receives it.”
I was easily persuaded. And I wrote to Will, attempting to convey friendship and admiration, and nothing more. I kept a copy of my letter: “Good Sir, with the advice of your friend Doctor Hall, I write to tell you of my admiration for your writings, which have given me great pleasure. You will perhaps remember me, although the time is exceedingly long since we last met in Oxford. Your assured friend, Katherine Hancock.”
His reply was delivered by John’s servant three days later:
“Good Lady, I have received your kind letter which is welcome unto me with all my heart and I give you a thousand thanks. I remember you well, and I am much beholden to your kinsmen, the Lucy family. It is my great good fortune to have gained your favor. If you are pleased with my unpolished lines, I account myself highly praised. I send you a token of my esteem, and take my leave. I beseech you to write soon again.”
The “token” he sent was a most beautiful sonnet, the first line of which is: “Shall I compare thee to a summers day?”
My joy knew no bounds. Thus began a correspondence that enriched my life and kept my love alive, although I did not meet Will for five more years.
In February, 1603, the Chamberlain’s Men, the group that performed Will’s plays and with whom he acted, appeared before the Queen for what was to be the last time. In March, the Queen, sixty-nine, died in her sleep. England mourned, but hers was a peaceful passing, and King James was installed with little controversy. My husband and I did not go to the King’s coronation in March 1603, which, because of the plague, was subdued. But on March 15, 1604 the king held a great entertainment which we attended. There, Will, magnificent in a red velvet cloak, doublet and breeches, walked in the procession. I saw him only from a distance, but a small boy slipped me a note, which contained, as his letters so often did, a line or two from one of his plays. On this occasion, he wrote “Your heart’s desires be with you!” I smiled to myself, and wished it were so.
In 1604, my book of remedies was completed, and I was pleased, but its completion left an emptiness in my life. I was far less busy than I had been with my household duties, for Richard was not well. He was always tired, and slept more and more. He had lost interest in the activities he once enjoyed—hunting, fishing, riding his horse around the estate. Because he no longer wished to entertain, we lived in near isolation. Meanwhile, Will’s fortunes continued to rise. In 1602 and 1605, he wrote that, with Susanna’s future in mind, he had acquired other properties in the Stratford area. He was often near Peacock Manor, but there was no way we could meet. As Richard’s health declined, he expected me to nurse him, although he sometimes failed to recognize me. The doctors said his illness was a form of melancholia, for which there was no cure. He had short periods during which he would appear nearly well, but he soon grew even more forgetful, and recognized no one.
Doctor Hall began to court Susanna Shakespeare in 1605. The timing of his courtship was not a coincidence. I do not mean to imply that John did not love Susanna. I believe he came to love her, for she was a good woman, and they had a daughter they adored. But John was too wise to marry where there was no fortune and no family. Susanna’s mother and sister were poor connections for a doctor on the rise. The property Will acquired for his beloved daughter made all the difference. His courtship did not interfere with our friendship. While Richard slept nearby, John talked about Susanna—her intelligence, her education, her poise, her gentleness, her garden. He also spoke of Will and his work. I treasured every word.
I longed to invite John to bring Susanna and her father to visit us, but I knew that, if he knew of it, Richard would forbid it. Susanna Shakespeare, with her notorious mother, and in Richard’s mind, equally notorious father, was not a person with whom he would dine. Richard did not care for the theatre and he had heard much about the bawdiness in Will’s plays.
Because of Richard’s attitude, I never saw Will act. In 1603, he had performed with the King’s Men in Sejanus, His Fall, a play by Ben Jonson, the last time he appeared as an actor. I have always regretted that I missed seeing Will on the stage. But Will wrote that he didn’t care for the last few plays in which he acted (all by Jonson). He promised he would one day take me to see one of his plays. I was amused by his pride, and touched by his wish to please me, but I did not believe that could ever be possible. He sent me everything he wrote, and our letters were filled with love, although written in terms that could have been read by anyone, mostly quotations from his work.
In 1606, my little son Henry died, despite all everyone, including Doctor Hall, could do. I still cannot think of it without great pain. That same year, my elder son John married his cousin, Margaret. The newly wedded couple lived with Richard and me at Peacock Manor, as is the custom, and I tried to teach Margaret how to run the household. One day she would take over my responsibilities. I wish she and I could have been friends, but we had no interests in common. (She lived to spend money on fine clothes and jewels.) She could neither read nor write, and had no desire to learn.
John had always been more Richard’s son than mine. When Richard was younger, and in good health, they had hunted and fished and rode together. After Richard took to his bed, John hunted and fished with friends. When John was at home, he and Margaret kept to themselves, or visited her family.
When John Hall married Susanna on June 5, 1607, Richard and I were invited to the wedding. Richard, who was experiencing one of his occasional periods of lucidity, was reluctant to meet the Shakespeares, and would have refused, but Sir Thomas Lucy had died in 1600, leaving his estate to his daughter Mary, who had married Sir William Cooke. William and Mary were desirous of our attendance and invited us to stay with them at Charlecote for the occasion. Richard was torn. Sir William was his great friend, and the Cookes and the Lucys were kinsmen, but it was not a wedding he would normally have attended. I sat silently by while Richard mulled the idea for two days, and hid my joy when he said we were to go. I would at last see Will. I wrote Will that we would be at the wedding, and that we would stay for two nights at Charlecote.
I remember little of the wedding, but the sight of Will, blazing like a star, is still in my mind and heart. We had not seen each other in seventeen years. He was very distant. He bowed and said, “Lady Hancock. How good to see you again.” But his eyes sparkled, and we shared smiles, recalling our frequent letters.
The embers of my love flared. Through all our long correspondence, we had come to know each others’ minds and hearts, and now at last, I was sure the rest would follow. Later, when for a few moments I was alone, Will approached, and under cover of the music, murmured, “I shall call on Lady Cooke tomorrow. When would be the best time?”
“Late morning,” I said. “Richard and William are going into the country to look at horses and will be away for the midday meal. I shall see that Mary asks you to dinner.”
He nodded and left my side. Soon after those precious moments, our party returned to Charlecote, where the wedding was discussed in detail. I listened with only half an ear to their chatter, until they spoke of Will.
Mary and the men agreed that all had been done properly and with decorum. Susanna wore a modest dress of pale yellow, deemed appropriate for her station. Perhaps because of John Hall’s Puritan tastes, nothing was overdone or incurred Richard’s disapproval. Anne Hathaway and Judith Shakespeare were kept out of the way, were dressed soberly, and were seen to sip only barley water. Sir William said John Shakespeare had told them he would beat them if they touched wine or beer that day.
“What a very handsome man Will has grown to be,” Mary said. “He was a beautiful young man, but—he’s what? Forty-four, I think—and he’s the handsomest man his age I’ve ever seen.”
“Bit of a popinjay,” said Richard, who was near Will’s age, but looked and acted as if he were sixty.
I hid a smile. Richard had worn black, thinking to slim his stout figure. Will, as slender as a boy, was dressed in pale blue and white satin. He looked glorious. I, too, had dressed in blue, which people say becomes me, because of my blue eyes. My looking-glass told me I appeared years younger than I was, with my face aglow with the joy of Will’s nearness. Before I retired that night, I told Mary that William Shakespeare had said he would call the next day to express his gratitude for all her father had done for him.
Her face lit up. “Oh good. We can talk about his plays, and the theatre. I shall ask him to dine with us. How lucky that the men will be away! Richard wouldn’t like him coming here, and William would be bored with theatre talk. But my father befriended Will, and would want me to do the same. I love the theatre, and you would, too, if Richard allowed you to go. How amusing it will be to see Will on our own.”
The next morning, the men left at ten, and Will arrived at half past. I had arranged to be in the sunlit garden when he arrived, where he could see me through the drawing room’s open doors. I wore a pink gown to match the pink and white roses that covered the walls around the garden. The scent of the roses was all around me, the bees were drunk with their sweetness, and so was I. He came to me, and held my hand to his lips. He saw how I trembled, and smiled. “Is it with you as it is with me?” he asked. “I ache to make you mine.”
“Oh yes, my love. Have you not known it all these years?”
“I hoped, but I could not be certain, until you told me. If it is your wish, I have thought how we can meet in private. Is it safe to send you a note with a servant?”
“Yes, I get receipts and remedies from all over the kingdom, including London, Oxford and Stratford. No one will notice another. But how can a meeting be managed?”
“As soon as I learned that you would be here, and knew that I would see you at last, I bought a cottage near Peacock Manor. It shall be ours. I have also taken a room in an inn in Oxford. I’ve told the Lucys that it is a place where I can write, away from the distractions of London. But instead of writing in that room, I shall be making love to you in our cottage, if that is your desire. I have wanted you for years, ever since I saw you as a woman, when I was but a tutor to little boys, and you were fifteen, and the bride of a notable man. I dared not approach you.”
“I have longed for this day,” I whispered. I was melting, and could hardly stand. ‘I think I know the place—Brooke Cottage?”
“Yes, beloved, it will be our secret home.”
Somehow I got through dinner, although I was weak with excitement and desire. When he touched my leg with his foot, or brushed me with his fingertips, I felt faint. He was an actor, and performed much better than I. He chatted with Mary about the theatre as though this were an ordinary day. Neither of us ate more than a bite or two.
When Richard returned in the afternoon, he was drowsy with food and drink, and slipping back into darkness. We climbed into our carriage for the drive home. Richard slept, and I dreamed.
Will’s note arrived the next day. Richard paid it no more heed than he had the receipts and such that so often came in. He was not interested in my book, although he considered it a suitable occupation for Lady Hancock. Indeed, Richard had little interest in me. He and I had not lived together as man and wife since Henry was born. Richard, having begot a second son, felt that he had done his duty, and put aside the marriage bed, in which he had never been much interested, except to get him sons.
I could hardly wait until I was alone to read Will’s message:
“When can you join me? The place will be ready by tomorrow. Leave a note at the Cottage. I will stop by there this evening to learn my fate.”
Brooke Cottage was but a short walk from Peacock Manor, and our woodland adjoined the property. I often wandered through the park and woods, searching for wild flowers and herbs for my potions. Since Richard slept for several hours after midday dinner, I usually took my walks at that time. I wrote to Will that I would be at the cottage at two the following afternoon and left the note under the door of the cottage.
He was there when I arrived. He’d managed miracles. There was food and wine and masses of roses—and joy of joys, a bed. A vast wonderful bed. Will taught me much about love that day, and every day we managed to meet. But we also talked, and talked and talked. Will described his childhood, the innocence which led to his entrapment, his despair when he realized he must marry his seducer, his disgust with her, and his love for the baby Susanna. He vowed he’d never touched Anne Hathaway after she told him she was pregnant and that he must marry her. The twins could not be his.
I told him about overhearing his talk with Sir Thomas, and how I fell in love with him when I was but a child. He told me how difficult it was to keep his distance when we met at the Lucys in Oxford soon after my marriage.
“You were so beautiful when you were fifteen,” he said. “Your golden hair and shining blue eyes—your slender figure. You wore such exquisite dresses—I longed to rip them off your body—and do this, and this and this…” I gasped, and cried out.
I nearly wept when a little later, he said, “But I swear, my love, you are even more beautiful now than you were then.”
And then, of course, we made love again.
He talked about his plays, and acting, and his sonnets, and his life. He said there’d been women, but he’d been careful never to make another woman pregnant.
When I asked about his love poems, he said many of them were created with me in mind. Others were about imaginary women, just as most of the characters in his plays were not modeled on real people, but came from inside his head.
“People say I had a male lover, but I never have. I know many with a taste for that sort of love, but not I. I put myself in their place, trying to understand them, and wrote what I imagined they felt. That is what a playwright does.”
“And the dark lady?” I asked.
He shrugged. “The same. I do not admire dark-complected women. I conjured up a ‘dark lady,’ and imagined how it felt to make love to her. But I never bedded one. I have a taste for blondes,” he said, and set out to prove it.
“Was there any woman you loved?” I could not help but ask, when I had the breath to speak.
“Other than you? Only the Queen. I loved her truly. How could I not? She was very good to me.”
And so it went. For nearly nine years we made love, and talked, and were happy. I felt no guilt about Richard, who had slipped into the shadows, and knew no one. The years were hard on Will. His father died in 1601, his brother died in 1607, and his mother in 1608. He suffered a terrible blow in 1613 when the Globe, his beloved theatre, burned. It was rebuilt, but at huge expense. Will over-exerted, writing and acting and helping other actors, and dealing with the business of the theatre. He frequently traveled back and forth to London. People thought that the property he’d acquired required his presence in Stratford more often than the usual annual visit to see Susanna. Perhaps it did. In any case, he came often to see me. He broke his long journey from London in Oxford, supposedly staying at the Taverne owned by John Davenant. He was rumored to be the lover of John’s wife, Jane Davenant. Nothing could have been further from the truth, although he sometimes stopped by the Taverne for a drink. When in Oxford, he also called on the Lucys, to establish that he was in that fair city to write in peace. He then went to the room he’d rented as a writing refuge, changed his fine clothes for those of a working man, used a theatrical trick or two to further disguise himself, and rode a hired hack to Brooke Cottage.
Our lives continued with passion and joy, until I began to worry about Will’s health. I did not tell him so, but his pallor and the grayish color of his skin troubled me, and he had a miserable cough, which none of my remedies cured. I feared consumption, the dreaded white plague. He no longer acted, but two of his greatest plays, The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale were written after our affair began. I could see that the effort of completing them drained him of strength. But I knew he would not stop writing. It was life to him.
Joy of joys, in 1611 Will kept his promise and took me to see a performance of The Winter’s Tale at the Globe. We were able to slip away overnight, because by then, Richard was accompanied day and night by hired nurses. My son and his wife were with her family, and there was no one who cared where I was. Will had donned one of his disguises, so that he would be unnoticed. I wore clothing borrowed from my maid. No one paid us the slightest heed. The night was one of the happiest I’d ever known.
In 1614, Will collaborated with John Fletcher on several plays. I did not admire them: too much John, not enough Will. I hated for Will to do this, sick as he was, but he felt compelled to work, even though he was so frail. When he could no longer ride his horse, I did not see how we could meet. Meanwhile, Richard’s health continued to decline. He slept nearly all the day and all the night. He could not speak intelligibly, and had to be spoon fed and bathed and changed like a baby. Given his dreadful condition, it was a blessing when in January of 1615, he died. The time had come for me to leave Peacock Manor, which now belonged to John and Margaret.
Will had planned for this eventuality. He had bought a dwelling house attached to one of the gatehouses of the Blackfriars priory in London. People thought Will had leased it to a man named James Robinson. In fact, Will was James Robinson, and I was Mrs. Robinson. We were at last to live as husband and wife.
After Richard’s funeral, I moved most of my belongings to a small house I’d acquired near Sapperton, where my father still lived. I said goodbye to Margaret and John. I explained to all who asked that I planned to make a series of visits to family and friends before settling down in my new home. Only my father, who, alas, outlived Will by only a few months, was interested. He knew how confined my life had been and he was happy that I could at last spread my wings. He wished me good travels, asked me to stay in touch, and said he’d look forward to my return.
Will put Brooke Cottage up for sale, arranged that everything in it be sold, except our precious bed, which was moved to our new home. With my maid, I departed for London and the Blackfriars house. I enjoyed making it ready for my love. Will was fifty and increasingly unwell, but he wanted to spend as much time as he could in London with me. He wanted to take me to the theatre and to show me all the places he loved. When he bought our new home, he confided in three friends he appointed as trustees for the house. Will wanted to make sure it never came into Anne’s clutches, and he knew these men would see that Susanna would be the next owner of our house.
We also confided in John Hall. John, ever the Puritan, detested Anne Hathaway and Judith, and understood Will’s desire to avoid them. He was shocked that Will and I intended to live as husband and wife, but when he saw how badly Will was ailing, he put aside his objections and agreed to help us. Will and John came to an agreement that suited us all. John would visit us once a month and treat Will as best he could. When John observed that Will’s death was near, Will would, for the sake of appearances, return to Stratford to die with Susanna, John and their daughter, Elizabeth. John and he worked out the details of how Will’s estate would be divided and how he would be buried. John insisted that, to avoid any more scandal, Judith be remembered in the will, and mentioned as a daughter. (I believe that John also wanted to make sure she did not fall into even worse ways, and that he would not become her sole support.)
Will agreed to nearly everything John advised, but he was determined to leave Anne “the second-best bed.” Since a wife always inherited the best bed, John was annoyed because it would cause talk. Will was adamant. “It is a private matter,” he said, and the bequest stood. John shrugged and departed, and we settled down to enjoy each other in our new home.
We began by doing all that Will had planned, but within the month, Will’s illness grew worse, and he wanted only to stay at home where he could rest. I read to him from his own work, or that of others. I prepared his favorite dishes, but he had little appetite. We sat together, holding hands, speaking of our time in the cottage. We both knew that he was slipping away. When John Hall next came, he took Will back to Stratford with him. I closed the Blackfriars house, and left it forever.
Will was buried on April 25, 1616, in Stratford. I was not there, nor with him when he died. But I had his love, and that was all that mattered. I also had the “best bed,” which was, of course, the bed we shared at Brooke Cottage and in London. I have slept in it every night since Will died.