Discussion Questions – ‘Shakespeare’s Mistress’ by Karen Harper


'Shakespeare's Mistress' by Karen Harper (2009)
‘Shakespeare’s Mistress’ by Karen Harper (2009)
  1. What early hints do you see that the boy Shakespeare will become the writing genius? What sorts of traits do you see that indicate particular talents or tendencies?
  • The boy was very imaginative and determined to live life to the full with his friends – these experiences have given him something to draw on.
  • The boy Shakespeare seems to have wanted experiences – he led the others in the group astray, into trouble, or doing things they wouldn’t otherwise have done.
  • Shakespeare seems very determined and ambitious – he doesn’t want to stay at home with a family, he wants more out of life.
  • Traits like being charismatic lend themselves to actors and public speakers, whereas being bookish and hard-working are more academic traits, and being adventurous and a bit of a daredevil lends itself to travel, where imagination lends itself to writing and art.
  1. Over the years, some Shakespeare critics and scholars have argued that it would be impossible for a boy with Shakespeare’s small-town grammar-school background to write the brilliant plays he did with all their diversity and depth. Do you think such a mind could come from a rural background?
  • Good writing comes from experience and imagination – being able to use your experiences and develop them with imagination into a storyline.
  • You also need to understand people and emotions and, according to what Shakespeare and his family undergo in this story, it is certainly believable that he had experiences he could draw on.
  • I don’t think background necessarily precludes being successful, even in the 16th century, where background was more important than it is today.
  • Wolsey was the son of a butcher and Cromwell the son of a blacksmith, and they were two of the most powerful men in the realm – it also depends on luck and knowing the right people.
  1. Although Will and Anne Whateley are in love from their early days, they disagree on many things. Do you think this weakens or strengthens their relationship? Can two strong-minded people who disagree on key issues really get along over the years? In love relationships, do opposites really attract?
  • Some disagreements can strengthen a relationship because constant agreement can be boring and disagreements mean you’re comfortable expressing feelings to that person.
  • I think opposites do attract but don’t always last as you need something in common in order to fully engage and talk to each other.
  • Strong-minded people can get along over the years, and often the big clashes result in passionate reconciliations which can make up for the negative parts.
  • Opposites do attract because people like what they see as the exotic and unusual rather than that which is familiar to them.

  1. Why do you think Will is so jealous of Anne? Is this understandable in him? When does jealousy become unacceptable?
  • Will seems to be jealous of Anne because she isn’t tied down in the way he is with a wife and children nagging him to come home – she can live her own life.
  • I think Will also regrets the fact that he couldn’t marry Anne, and had to marry Anne Hathaway instead, so is jealous of the fact that Anne herself didn’t have to marry against her will.
  • I think in a way it is understandable in him because he feels hard-done-by in comparison to Anne, but it was still his choice to marry and he could have refused.
  • Jealousy becomes unacceptable when it begins to impact the happiness of the person against whom it is directed – being jealous is one thing but making the other person feel bad about it is unacceptable.
  1. The Elizabethan world might seem to be an era of freedom, compared to the medieval world that bred it, but what are some of the strictures on personal freedom that would never be acceptable today?
  • Children, especially noble and royal children, were expected to marry in line with the wishes of their parents to advance the family name and lineage; today there is more freedom to marry for love.
  • Women were considered to be corrupted and compromised if they were left alone with a man for any length of time – they would be expected to marry said man to save their reputation.
  • Women didn’t have any political or economic freedom – they were expected to adhere wholly to their husband’s or father’s views, and could only acted alone once widowed, and not always with support.
  • The monarchy had a lot more power, especially after the Break with Rome, when they gained control over spiritual as well as temporal affairs. This is unthinkable today.
Droeshout Portrait of William Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout c.1622
Droeshout Portrait of William Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout c.1622
  1. Why does Anne so admire and identify with the queen? What women in public roles do you admire and why?
  • Anne admires and identifies with the queen because they share quite a few characteristics, mainly being disappointed in love – Elizabeth wanted to marry Robert Dudley and Anne wanted to marry Shakespeare but neither got their wish, so Anne shares emotional heartbreak with Elizabeth.
  • The woman I most admire is Anne Boleyn – the mother of Elizabeth I – because she managed to thrive for a long time in a world dominated by men. She played the game well even though she ultimately lost, and she understood the ways that women could wield power.
  • In modern times I admire Emma Watson, the actress and feminist advocate, because she is determined to use her public image and popularity to push a cause that she cares about and wants to see change happen.
  1. Part of Anne’s backbone comes from her feeling different. Why does she feel this way and what possible other effects could this have had on her character and personality? Have you seen instances in which tough times moulded a person one way or the other?
  • I think Anne feels different because she hasn’t really had the same upbringing as the others that she played with as a child – she felt able to break away from her family where Will, for example, feels honour-bound to be close to his family.
  • Anne has had to grow a backbone to be able to strike out on her own, which she seems to have done rather successfully by the rules of the period.
  • Tough times can make people better or worse – sometimes it teaches them the value of life and so they strive to always be their best self.
  • On the other hand, sometimes people come to resent the tough times and are determined to make others suffer as well.
  1. Many authors, both in fiction and nonfiction, have opined on why Anne Hathaway and her husband seemed to have such a long-distance relationship. Besides the possibility that another woman had his heart, what other differences between them do you see that made them less than soul mates?
  • Anne Hathaway seems to be very focused on material possessions that enhance her status and standing, where Will is more bothered about his art.
  • The fact that the two were more or less forced to marry doesn’t bode well for a happy relationship – the two could have grown to resent each other and how they were forced together.
  • Will was away from his home and family for long periods of time, which could have meant that Anne Hathaway felt abandoned – perhaps she was jealous that he was in London and wanted to join him?
  • There is always the obvious one – that Will didn’t want to marry Anne Hathaway and so the two were never really close.
  1. Both of Shakespeare’s daughters have problems with men, which greatly saddens their father. Susannah is sued for adultery and Judith marries a scoundrel. Are the sins of the fathers truly visited upon the children?
  • Possibly the daughters were affected by the tumultuous relationship between their parents and a wish for love and stability.
  • It is possible that Suzannah saw adultery as perfectly normal – perhaps Anne Hathaway committed adultery during the long periods that Will in London, but didn’t get caught, so she considered it perfectly normal.
  • In some ways Will could be considered a scoundrel in the way he treats Anne and their children, so possibly Judith was tempted by someone who reminded her of her father.
  • I don’t think it’s necessarily that the sins of the father are visited on the children, but that children are influenced by what they see and hear as they grow up, either positively or negatively.
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
  1. The story covers about forty years. What changes occur in the lives of the two main characters and in the Elizabethan world during that time?
  • In the period of the story the characters live through the tumult of the Elizabethan era with rebellions, executions and invasions, under England’s second female monarch (the first being Bloody Mary).
  • Will goes from wishes and dreams to being a successful playwright – we see his development from the boy that no one really knows to the famous playwright of legend.
  • Anne really comes into her won – she has known love, sadness, disappointment, happiness, and anger, most of which directed at Will himself.
  • Will’s and Anne’s lives are irrevocably tied together throughout as they keep coming back to each other just when it seems they’ve pulled apart.
  1. Fear of the plague permeated Elizabethan society. In our world, such horrors are gone – or are they?
  • The plague was the big fear for Elizabethans as it spread quickly from person to person and you died soon after contracting it – there was no cure. There were a few lucky people who survived but people at the time didn’t really understand how.
  • The plague may not be part our society any more, but we have other diseases that we are fighting – cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart attacks and obesity are prevalent in today’s society in a similar way to hwo the plague was in the 16th
  • It’s not so much disease and illness any more as it is terrorism which kills hundreds, if not thousands, across the world each year.

Author: Helene Harrison

I have an MA in History, with a thesis entitled 'The Many Faces of Anne Boleyn: Perceptions in History, Literature and Film'. I have an interest in the Tudors and the Wars of the Roses along with my love of reading and literature.

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