Instead of pursuing the ages-old controversy "Who really wrote Shakespeare?” Karen Harper explores in this novel "Who really was Shakespeare's wife?” Mistress Shakespeare is a story of secrets, intrigue, and treachery in Elizabethan times. Historical records show that that The Bard and Anne Whateley of Temple Grafton were betrothed shortly before Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway of Shottery.
In Harper's account, Whateley became his London lover, intimately involved with the productions of his work and possibly the inspiration, his "dark mistress.” She imagines intimate details of their dangerous, daring life and the love.
The secret Whateley/Shakespeare match is a meeting of hearts and heads that no one — not even Queen Elizabeth or her spymasters—can destroy. From rural Stratford-Upon-the-Avon to teeming London, the passionate pair struggles to stay solvent and safe. Often at odds, always in love, they sell Will’s first plays and, as he rises to theatrical prominence in England, they fight off fierce competition from other London dramatists, who are as treacherous as they are talented.
During this reign of Elizabeth I, the queen’s men are hunting down secret Catholics. William Shakespeare comes under suspicion; his family is known to have sheltered priests in their Stratford home. The investigators first question the woman closest to Shakespeare–not his legal wife, Anne Hathaway, who stays in Stratford with their children — but this other Anne, who lives with the playwright and is rumored to help him write his scripts.
Persecution and plague, insurrection and inferno, friends and foes, even executions of those they hold dear, enliven Anne’s heart-rending story. Spanning half a century of Elizabethan and Jacobean history and sweeping from the lowest reaches of society to the royal court, this richly textured novel tells one possible story of Shakespeare in love. Part of the charm of "Whately" narrating this story is the perfect touch of Elizabethan language she uses, just enough to make us believe it could be true, if only for the length of this book. The couple's penchant for trading rhyming couplets becomes a bit tedious, but is plausible given their literary levels.
Harper pays close attention to the details of the era, bringing it to life. During the plague period, Anne prepares to step into the disease-infested world outside her home, "With an onion stuffed with figs, rue and treacle about my neck to ward off deadly air.” Imagine breathing the stench of such a concoction, as well as the smell of the open sewers running down the center of each street.
In an Author's Note at the end of the novel, Harper cites her abundant credentials and research that backs up her meticulous depictions. This is not the first novel she has written set in the Elizabethan era, and we can hope it is not the last.