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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Shakespeare's Daughter Susanna



On 26 May 1583, Shakespeare and his wife Anne baptised their first baby Susanna.

Shakespeare reading Hamlet to his family
with his son Hamnet standing, Susanna and Judith on either side
and his wife Anne seated opposite
engraving by unknown artist, 1890

Anne was already pregnant with Susanna when she wed Shakespeare in November of 1582.

Some people think this means that Shakespeare and Anne were forced to marry because of the pregnancy, and for some people this means they did not love each other.

I don’t agree.


Perhaps they really did love each other and they were so eager to get married and have children that they rushed into it happily.

Perhaps instead of thinking how Susanna was born to two people who weren’t supposed to get married, we should think of Susanna as the first child who was born of an intense and romantic love between Shakespeare and Anne -- lovers who did belong together.

After all, it was not the last child they would have. Shakespeare and Anne had twins, named Judith and Hamnet, in February 1585.

This means that Anne conceived the children in May 1584, only one year after Susanna was born.

Does this mean that Shakespeare and Anne didn’t like being married, and they were regretting the fact that they were together?

Were they having more children because they wanted to try and just make the marriage work?

Maybe they wanted to have more children because they were so happy together that they wanted to make even more children!

For all we know, they may have been trying for one full year to have more children until the twins were conceived.

Maybe they were so busy enjoying Susanna so much in that first year that they waited some time before having any more.

In the case of Shakespeare and Anne’s first child Susanna, I like to look at the glass half full. I think it is very likely that they loved each other, loved being married, loved being parents and wanted more children.

I liked to think that those were very happy days for Shakespeare and Anne. Like any parents who have just had their first child, they doted on her and showered her with love and affection.

Shakespeare and Anne would have more children, but Susanna was the first and she would always have a special place in their hearts.

When Susanna was born, the house would have gotten a little more crowded. Shakespeare and Anne were living with his parents John and Mary.

These three generations of the family living together would have been very busy with the new child, but would have been immensely proud. I like to imagine neighbors, friends and family all paying visits and eager to see little Susanna.

I like to think that in those early years, Shakespeare would treasure the memories he had with his family, and he would preserve those memories when he would travel to London in the next few years to become an actor and playwright.

Susanna's signature

As far as education was concerned, any school records from the time are lost. But Susanna was known to be able to sign her own name. I am not surprised at all. After all, she was born to one of the greatest writers in history. He probably taught her reading and writing himself.

Years later Susanna would lose her younger brother, Hamnet. He would die tragically, at the age of 11.

It could not have been easy for any of them, but it would have been especially hard for Hamnet’s twin sister Judith.

Susanna would have been hit hard by the loss, as would Shakespeare, Anne and Judith of course.

But it was also a critical moment in Susanna's young life. Hamnet was the heir, and it was his responsibility to carry on the Shakespeare name.

When Hamnet was gone, that responsibility fell to Susanna. Now the focus was on her to continue the Shakespeare line and elevate the family further than even her father had.

It would seem that she rose to the challenge, eventually marrying a decent, responsible and respectable man, John Hall.

It would seem that she took her duty as a daughter and as a wife seriously. She had her first child in 1608, a girl named Elizabeth.

This child was the only grandchild that Shakespeare would know, when he died in 1616.

I often wonder why she didn’t have more children, especially considering the importance of male heirs, but that is a mystery we may never solve.

Another interesting insight we have about her life is that she was accused of not attending Easter day church service in 1606.

This was a serious offense, especially since the Popish Recusants Act had just been passed in order to punish those who were secretly Catholic and who would not attend services like the one that Susanna missed. 

This Act was written in response to the Gunpowder Plot on 5 November of 1605. Tensions across the country would have been high, and anyone who missed any church service, and especially the Easter service, would have been suspected of being a secret Catholic.

We don’t know why she missed the service, but it does suggest that Susanna was more than just a dutiful daughter who never got into trouble.

When her father died in 1616, he left almost everything to her and her husband. It was a very detailed last will and testament, which tried to preserve the property and fortune that Shakespeare had worked so hard to earn.

It says a lot about Susanna that he would entrust her with such a responsibility. 

I like to think that he gave her more than money and property. I think that he made her understand that she was preserving a legacy that was without equal. She would have understood that her father was not any ordinary man, and what he had accomplished was remarkable.

She died in 1649, at the age of 66.

It is very sad to think that she died while England was engaged in a civil war.

I think she would have been especially sad that the theatres had been closed in 1642.

They would open again many years later, but long after she died.

Her father had been an actor and a playwright in one of the most incredible periods in England’s history, a period of freedom and a flowering of the arts. Shakespeare had been at the vanguard of that artistic movement.

For her, in 1642, that was all gone in 1642. As far as she knew at the time she died, Shakespeare’s plays might disappear, and never be seen again.

Cheers,


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