Book review: Shakespeare’s Mistress by Karen Harper

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What if? It’s an intriguing question and one that the great poet and playwright William Shakespeare may often have contemplated as he composed his masterpieces.

So what if the literary genius secretly had two wives... what if the famous ‘Dark Lady’ of his sonnets was a half-Italian girl who lived only a few miles from his own home in Stratford and was the real love of his life?

Rather than taking us through the well-worn debate over ‘who really wrote Shakespeare,’ Karen Harper’s entertaining novel explores the far more interesting premise, ‘who really was Shakespeare’s wife?’

Church records in Worcester, discovered in the 19th century, do indeed show that a marriage licence was issued to William Shakespeare and a woman called Anne Whateley to marry in the village of Temple Grafton near Stratford-upon-Avon.

Intriguingly, the following day, two friends of the Hathaway family from nearby Shottery signed a surety of £40 as a financial guarantee for the wedding of Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway, the woman the world has always regarded as the Bard’s legal wife. She was eight years older than 18-year-old Will and already pregnant...

In Harper’s imaginative rewriting of Shakespeare’s life in London, Whateley is his childhood sweetheart who becomes his secretly wedded bigamous wife and muse, closely involved with the productions of his work and the inspiration for his famous sonnets.

Whateley is the narrator, giving us the exciting and intimate details of their dangerous and daring life and love in a newly Protestant country that still fears a Catholic insurrection and will stop at nothing to seek out the covert followers of the old religion.

Shakespeare, who is rumoured to be Catholic and whose family is known to have sheltered priests in their Stratford home, comes under the surveillance of Robert Cecil, Elizabeth I’s chief minister, and government men go looking for the suspicious playwright.

Through persecution and plague, fierce competition from jealous playwrights, fire and executions, Will and his lover Whateley, nicknamed ‘Lady Tongue’ because of her own sharp wit, share a secret life in London whilst struggling to stay solvent and free from danger.

Stretching over almost fifty years, from the rural villages of Warwickshire to the bustling capital city with its teeming streets and lively theatres, this is a story of undying passion for life, love and literature.

Essentially a romantic romp, Shakespeare’s Mistress is well researched and as colourful as one would expect of a novel featuring England’s greatest writer, the spectacle of the Tudor court, the teeming streets of London and a mixed bunch of Elizabethan characters.

A new and daring version of Shakespeare in love...

(Ebury, paperback, £6.99)