I watched BBC's “Shakespeare’s Mother: The Secret Life of a Tudor Woman” ” by historian Michael Wood with pleasure at the Tudor gardens and costumes - as well as some frustration. I’m fascinated by Mary Arden, but I found the approach in this BBC programme unjustified. Michael Wood believes that Mary Arden gave William Shakespeare his earliest imaginative experiences through storytelling - that she made him a poet. There is plenty of evidence in his imagery (as deciphered by Caroline Spurgeon in the 1930s) that William spent his earliest years playing in the kitchen garden of Henley Street, Stratford, or at Mary Arden’s farm, wandering into the kitchen and watching women work. But there is no sense of the working woman in the kitchen being a ‘mother’. This theory about his mother shaping him is as nostalgic as Wood’s ideas about the lost Catholic world of the Old Religion. Michael Wood seems to have no appreciation of the amazing release for ordinary English people of gaining access to the Bible in their own tongue.
Wood’s other notion is that Mary Arden was 'a peasant girl'. In fact, Mary was the grandchild of a very aristocratic family, with roots in Kings of Mercia and the Kings of France, a fact supported by two pieces of evidence: there were numerous rich wall hangings in the farmhouse of father Robert Arden and William Shakespeare claimed that Mary was the daughter of a gentleman on his application to the College of Arms. Yet what does Wood insist? That Mary Arden was a peasant girl and her father was a mere husbandman, a rural peasant. In fact, Mary Arden’s father Robert was worth the equivalent of £500,000 today - a man of inherited property. Mary was, in fact, a posh, minor heiress, which is one reason she married the future Mayor of Stratford and even why John Shakespeare became Mayor. She was gentry, by blood - as was her son.
Contrary to Wood’s nostalgic theories, there is absolutely no evidence in William Shakespeare’s writing that he felt anything special for his mother. There are no tender mother figures in any of Shakespeare’s plays. In fact, there is Lady Macbeth who says “Unsex me here” and goes mad, through social ambition. Shakespeare speaks endearing of young women and nurses, but not of mothers. He writes of his love for Ann, his wife, in the Sonnets about how she always speaks lovingly, but not about his mother. It is a point that Germaine Greer rightly makes in her excellent book “Shakespeare’s Wife”. Such a thesis about Shakespeare’s mother may appeal to many, but it is without foundation.
What I did learn (though I will check its accuracy) is that the Shakespeare family was so short of money that they had to rent out half their house - as a pub. I believe that his wife Anne was a practical woman who supported the foundering Shakespeare finances for years by making ale, which might very well have sold in the pub - in their house. The remains of vats in the cellar of New Place would suggest that she continued to do that: there is documentary evidence of her hoarding malt.
It is my belief that William married a very capable woman in Anne Hathaway, to save his own family, from self-destruction. She may have been the main breadwinner in Stratford, for years. Sister of the Protestant churchwarden of Stratford-on-Avon parish church, this woman probably stabilised a family falling apart in the hands of hopeless parents who could not manage either their life, or money. A significant fact is that Mary Arden failed to marry off any of her other sons (matchmaking was her role).
My own idea of Mary is not very favourable. Who failed to keep her husband solvent? Who goaded her son to apply for a coat of arms for her family? Was it his socially aspiring mother? Mary’s ‘symbol’ was a running horse - glamorous, fast, witty, light and flighty - but not stalwart and solid like her daughter-in-law.