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Mistress Shakespeare [Paperback]

Karen Harper
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Jan. 5 2010
A bold and intriguing novel about the woman who was William Shakespeare's secret wife, by the national bestselling author.

As historical records show, Anne Whateley of Temple Grafton was betrothed to William Shakespeare just days before he was forced to wed the pregnant Anne Hathaway. Here, Anne Whateley takes up her pen to tell the intimate story of her daring life with Will. Obliged to acknowledge Will's publicly sanctioned marriage, Anne Whateley nevertheless follows him from rural Stratford-Upon-Avon to teeming London, where they honor their secret union, the coming together of two passionate souls. Persecution and plague, insurrection and inferno, friends and foes all play parts in Anne's lively tale.

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 the real story of Shakespeare in love.




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About the Author

Karen Harper is a New York Times– and USA Today–bestselling author whose novels, both historical and contemporary, have been published worldwide. A former college and high school English instructor, Harper now lives in Columbus, Ohio, and Naples, Florida, and frequently travels around the country to promote her books and speak about writing.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Prologue

LONDON, FEBRUARY 10, 1601

When I opened my door at mid-morn and saw the strange boy, I should have known something was wrong. I'd been on edge for three days, not only because of the aborted rebellion against the queen, but because Will and I were at such odds over it—and over our own relationship.

"You be Mistress Anne Whateley?"

My stomach knotted. The boy was no street urchin but was well attired and sported a clean face and hands. "Who wants to know?" I asked as he extended something to me. He must have a missive saying someone was ill. Or dead. Or, God save us, arrested.

"'Tis a tie from a fine pair of sleeves meant for you with other garments too, once adorning Her Majesty's person," he recited in a high, singsong voice as he placed a willow-green velvet ribbon laced with gold thread in my hand. In faith, it was beautiful workmanship.

"Didn't want me carrying all that through the streets," he added.

"'Tis all waiting for you at the Great Wardrobe nearby."

"I know where that is, lad, but have you not mistook me for another? I have naught to do with the queen's wardrobe."

"Three figured brocade gowns, two fine sleeves with points and ribbon ties, a butterfly ruff and velvet cloak for the Lord Chamberlain's players to use at the Globe Theatre. Since they be busy today, I am to fetch you to receive the garb."

Of late certain nobles had given me donated garments to pass on to Will's fellows. I'd done many things for the players behind the scenes, as they put it. I'd once helped with costumes, and that at court too. In the disastrous performance but three days ago, I'd held the book and prompted the players. I'd copied rolls for Will and his fellows as well as taken his dictation. Many knew I had helped to provide the fine cushions that padded the hard wooden seats beneath the bums of earls and countesses who graced the expensive gallery seats at the Globe. So mayhap the word was out that I was the Jack—or Jill—of all trades at the Globe.

Yet things from the queen's wardrobe? It was said she had more than two thousand gowns, so I supposed she could spare a few. The Shakespeare and Burbage company had performed before the court both at Whitehall and Richmond, but after the catastrophe of the Essex Rebellion, three days ago, Her Grace was donating personal pieces to them? Surely, she had heard that they had staged Will's Richard II, a play some whispered had intentionally incited the rebellion against her throne.

I'd told Will—another of our arguments—that promoting that tragedy at that time could be not only foolhardy but fatal, so thank the good Lord the Virgin Queen valued her favorite plays and players. The promised garments must be an olive branch extended to them. At least this would prove to Will once and for all something else I'd argued for years. Elizabeth Tudor was a magnanimous monarch, not one who should be dethroned or dispatched before God Himself took the sixty-seven-year-old ruler from this life. "One moment," I told the boy. "I must fetch my cloak, for the wind blows chill."

And blows ill, I thought, as I put away the pages of As You Like It, so-called a comedy, for it was larded with serious stuff. Will and I had been feuding over what was love, and I was looking at a copy of his role as Jaques, the part he'd written for himself. Like this character, Will had been "Monsieur Melancholy" lately and, looking closer at Jaques' lines, I'd been appalled by what I'd found. And though Will and I were not speaking right now, I meant to take it up with him too. More than once he'd stripped our tortured love bare for all London to see, devil take the man, and he meant to do it again in this play!

"We're off straightaway then," the lad called over his shoulder as I followed him out the door into the courtyard. I lived in the large Blackfriars precinct, but it was still a goodly walk to the Wardrobe. Ever since I'd set foot in London eighteen years before, I'd loved this area and Will did too. When we were young and even more foolish than we were now at thirty-six years of age, Blackfriars was our fantastical place. We'd oft pretended we owned a fine brick mansion set like a jewel in green velvet gardens among homes of the queen's noblemen and gentry.

And to think that Gloriana herself had dined at Blackfriars earlier this year in the Earl of Worcester's house! She'd been met at the river and carried up the hill on a palanquin, I recalled with a sigh. At Blackfriars too the queen's noble cousin, the Lord Chamberlain, the players' patron, lived in elegant style in Hunsdon House. Maybe, I thought, his lordship had put in a good word for Will and his men in this Essex mess, so the queen had decided not only to forgive them but to reward them.

Still hieing myself along apace with the boy down the public street edging the area, I had to watch where I stepped to avoid the reeky central gutter and the occasional pan of slop thrown from upper windows. Others were abroad, but the streets still seemed greatly forsaken in the wake of the ruined rebellion. The half-timbered facades and their thatched brows frowned down on us, making the narrow streets even more oppressive.

We entered through the eastern gatehouse I so admired. As ever, I craned my neck to savor the venerable grandeur of its three stories. Its diamond-paned windows gazed like winking eyes over the city with fine views of mansions and their great privy gardens, old Bridewell Palace across the Fleet to the west, the city walls and even the bustling Thames.

Will and I had once found the gatehouse's lower door ajar. Holding hands, we'd tiptoed up the twisting stairs. Standing stripped of goods, the rooms were being whitewashed for new owners. Such narrow but elegant, sunny chambers!

"Next time 'tis offered, I'll buy it for you," Will had promised grandly, though he had but three pounds to his name after sending money back to Stratford.

"Says you, the dreamer, my marvelous maker of fine fictions," I'd retorted. But our lovemaking had been very real, and I yet treasured the memory. Nor, I told myself, would I forget this one, for I'd never been inside the vast structure that housed the queen's wardrobe, that which was not of immediate need and kept at Whitehall Palace.

I'd adored Elizabeth of England from the first moment I'd seen her, gorgeously gowned, on a white horse, when I was but eleven and she'd come to visit her favorite, the Earl of Leicester, near my home in Warwickshire.

The boy led me round the corner into an alcove hidden from the street. He knocked thrice upon it.

"Do you serve Her Majesty?" I asked while we waited.

"I serve those who serve her," he said only.

I meant to question him further, but the door creaked open and an old woman with face wrinkles like cobwebs stood there with her sleeves rolled up. She wore a broadcloth apron as if she were tending a kitchen. "Follow me," she said, not waiting for introduction or comment. The boy did not enter with us but closed the door behind me. It thudded nearly as loud as the beating of my heart, which I told myself was only from our quick pace and my excitement to see this place.

"Farthingales here. Watch your head," the old woman muttered. I trailed her through a narrow alleyway of swinging metal hoops, like lonely bird cages, over which the queen's elaborate kirtles and petticoats would be draped. We plunged down an alley of sweetsmelling sleeves arranged by color, though the limited lantern light made the rich tawny, ruby and ivory hues all seem dusky. Boned bodices came next, then an aisle of fur-edged capes and robes. Of a sudden, the sweet scent of lime and lavender from the garments changed to some sharp smell that made me sneeze.

"Camphor to keep out moths," my guide said.

I jammed a finger under my nose to halt a torrent of sneezes. The maze deepened: swags of green and white Tudor bunting lined the way, then dusty, draped flags and battle banners. Suddenly, my stomach clenched with foreboding. Why would not the garments to be given me simply be ready at the door? We seemed to have passed from attire to military materials. As we rounded the next corner, my worst fears leaped at me from the shadows.

Within a dimly lit grotto of garments, behind a small portable table sat a man simply but finely attired all in black; his amber eyes shone flatly, like an adder's. It took me but a moment to realize I knew him—that is, I knew who he was. I had glimpsed him at court the time the players had taken me with them. His hunchback form was unmistakable. For months, the whole city had talked of naught but the bloodless battles between this man and the Earl of Essex. ...


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3.0 out of 5 stars ...and it had started out *so* well... Aug. 21 2009
By Schmadrian TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
Actually, it had started out brilliantly. As someone who has a prolonged and protracted relationship with The Bard, I was constantly pleasantly surprised in so many instances by what Ms Harper was getting right, how dead-on her instincts were in this piece of gutsy speculative historical fiction. The premise made me grin. Her evocation of life in Stratford had me nodding my head. In fact, almost everything based in their (Anne Whateley's and Shakespeare's) hometown was lovingly related, and with just the right amount of indulgence.

And then the story moved to London.

Meh.

If I had to be harsh...and I do, because if you're going to set the bar as high as Ms Harper did here, with Shakespeare (maybe the only way to raise the bar would be to write the secret married life of Jesus), then you better be prepared to take your lumps...I'd say that there are a handful of areas where she fell down. Stumbled...then fell down quite without any grace...and then crawled.

The first would be her tendency to spoon-feed. There are simply too many instances where she provides what amounts to 'exposition-through-dialogue'. And they all made me wince. Seriously; if your readership is aware of the backstory, you don't need to spoon-feed. And if they're not- Well, it's doubtful they're going to be reading it. (Of course, I could be way off-base, and be ignoring the notion that there's a sub-genre thing going on here, a smarmy, hug-yourself-til-it-hurts, historical-romantical-chicklitical genre... OK; now I'm getting mean. I apologize.) I've always felt that it's best to execute at as high a level as possible; those for whom the piece is written will be thankful, and those who have to strain to keep up will be rewarded in the end in unexpected ways.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  18 reviews
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History never pleased so much as this tale. Absolutely riveting. March 4 2009
By Bookreporter - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
"The rendering of my thoughts, emotions and experiences is part comedy and part tragedy as well as history, for life is such a mingling. And so, I write this report of the woman born Anne Rosaline Whateley, she who both detested and adored a man named William Shakespeare."

Now comes the tale of the great bard of Avon, wonderfully humanized and told from a woman's viewpoint. Anne Whateley, William Shakespeare's first --- and secret --- wife, pens her story in five acts. More than a love story, it is a romantic chronicling of the writer's career, his greatest love and his forced, loveless marriage.

As youths in Stratford-Upon-Avon, Anne Whateley and Will Shakespeare were great friends. She had a talent with words such that she could inspire the poet even when he was a mere lad. The two sparred with each other by dueling with couplets, striving to outdo the other with their cleverness. They spent many happy days romping around the English countryside as children. Intrigued in the way of carefree young people, they slaked their curiosity by experiencing their world to the fullest.

But as they grew, so did their desires, and they found themselves almost unwittingly becoming lovers. Driven not by lust but by something much larger, they forever hungered for each other, feeling wretched in the times they were apart. Some people are simply meant for each other, and so it was with Anne Whateley and Will Shakespeare. But their happiness was not to be so simple, for another Stratford girl, Anne Hathaway, laid claim to Will as the father of her child. There was nothing to be done but for Will to marry her.

Heartbroken, Anne Whateley moved from Stratford to London, where she could try to mend her emotions. Her beloved Shakespeare would remain in Stratford with his new family, giving her a chance to try to forget him. With a love as deep-rooted as Anne Whateley's, forgetting was not something she could do easily. She was miserable without him, aching for the next time she would see him, feel his touch and hear his voice.

In the meantime, she began to test the climate in London for Will's writing, for though she cursed him for his attachment to his Stratford wife --- chosen or not --- she could not rid herself of wanting him. If London wanted him, too, then she could once again help him with his writing. And if they became close in other ways --- well, she would face that if it happened.

History tells us that Shakespeare wrote prolifically while living in London, but Miss Whateley's history tells us of him as a person, in his depressions, anger and passions. Why did he write "Romeo and Juliet"? For whom were the sonnets written? Where did his inspiration come for "The Taming of the Shrew?" Anne Whateley will tell you she saw herself in many of the plays' scenes and characters. It may be true. She had Shakespeare's ear, and his love. The other Anne had his children, but never his heart. This pair may be Shakespeare's real star-crossed lovers.

MISTRESS SHAKESPEARE could be called "The Tragedy of Anne Whateley," for she had beauty, brains and strength, but not the one thing she truly wanted: to be recognized as Mistress Shakespeare. In the end, she had to be content to know that she was. Karen Harper's beautiful yet sad love story will touch the hearts of every romantic and thrill Shakespeare fans, if for no other reason than the period detail and depth of emotion she gives us with this striking novel. History never pleased so much as this tale. Absolutely riveting.

--- Reviewed by Kate Ayers
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable look at Shakespeare in love Feb. 8 2009
By C. Quinn - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I know little about the actual historical basis for this novel, but certainly enjoyed this take on Shakespeare in love. Ann Whateley is a strong woman in the cast of Elizabeth I herself, and her independence and creativity serve as Shakespeare's inspiration for many of his works. I was less delighted with her willingness to accept the poor behavior meted out by her true love, though the author did do a good job capturing the duality of Anne's feelings of love and hate.

Will Shakespeare is presented as a flawed man first, undeniable genius second. His efforts to write while earning enough to support his growing family are complicated by the complex political situation that thrives on suspicion and uncertainty. In the end, Shakespeare chooses to live in London and to write with his love, but he never really seems to acknowledge the harm he has done to both of the women in his life.

At heart, this novel is a love story, and it succeeds as such. Unfortunately, Harper falls into the trap of attempting quasi-period speech and her efforts fall flat. I found that when the characters lapsed into period language, the entire momentum of the narrative came to a halt. If it hadn't been for the language, I would have gone 4 stars, but as it is can only give this novel 3.5 stars.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars ...and it had started out *so* well... Aug. 21 2009
By Schmadrian - Published on Amazon.com
Actually, it had started out brilliantly. As someone who has a prolonged and protracted relationship with The Bard, I was constantly pleasantly surprised in so many instances by what Ms Harper was getting right, how dead-on her instincts were in this piece of gutsy speculative historical fiction. The premise made me grin. Her evocation of life in Stratford had me nodding my head. In fact, almost everything based in their (Anne Whateley's and Shakespeare's) hometown was lovingly related, and with just the right amount of indulgence.

And then the story moved to London.

Meh.

If I had to be harsh...and I do, because if you're going to set the bar as high as Ms Harper did here, with Shakespeare (maybe the only way to raise the bar would be to write the secret married life of Jesus), then you better be prepared to take your lumps...I'd say that there are a handful of areas where she fell down. Stumbled...then fell down quite without any grace...and then crawled.

The first would be her tendency to spoon-feed. There are simply too many instances where she provides what amounts to 'exposition-through-dialogue'. And they all made me wince. Seriously; if your readership is aware of the backstory, you don't need to spoon-feed. And if they're not- Well, it's doubtful they're going to be reading it. (Of course, I could be way off-base, and be ignoring the notion that there's a sub-genre thing going on here, a smarmy, hug-yourself-til-it-hurts, historical-romantical-chicklitical genre... OK; now I'm getting mean. I apologize.) I've always felt that it's best to execute at as high a level as possible; those for whom the piece is written will be thankful, and those who have to strain to keep up will be rewarded in the end in unexpected ways. But to 'write down' is not doing anyone any favours. Unfortunately, 'Mistress Shakespeare' has a decidedly 'written down' feel to it. Much to Shakespeare's detriment.

The second is the tendency towards melodrama. Granted, when we're looking at a tale that has as one of its dual centers The Greatest Wordsmith That Ever Lived, there's bound to be some degree of excess. But I would have preferred this be found less in overwrought purple prose from the narrator's point-of-view and more... Well, more organically occurring. (My guess as to why this is an element of the novel is that Ms Harper maxxed-out her talent in putting this one together. She has the chops for so much...but this was never going to be a literary masterpiece...and yet from my perspective, it deserved to be.

Thirdly? Dialogue. Ugh.

Fourthly... I don't think I've ever come across an instance where the writing was of such a high calibre and yet so many false steps were taken. Especially when it came to Anne Whateley's reactions to certain interludes and incidents. Most remarkably considering the writer is a woman! I was saying out loud 'No, no, no!' on countless occasions, when she'd have Whateley going right, when clearly, anyone could see she'd be far more inclined to go left.

Perhaps much of the perceived weakness of the London part of the tale has to do with the fact that she was able to take more liberties with the Stratford portion. Once Shakespeare was in London, it was more a question of connecting the dots concerning the plays' débuts, historical events, and social landmarks. There is little to grip you, enthrall you...and really, if that's not what's going on when a story about Shakespeare is being told, then something's rotten in the state of Denmark.

I'm glad this book was written. And I'm especially glad I read it. As someone who has his own literary history with speculative fiction revolving around The Bard, it was a pleasure to read so cogent a take on this 'tale never told'; the author truly knew of what she wrote. I just wish it had been of a higher pedigree, is all.

(Personal rating: 7/10)
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars From S. Krishna's Books Feb. 8 2009
By skrishna - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I found the premise of Mistress Shakespeare very interesting, even moreso by the fact that, as the author explains in the Afterword, it seems to be based in fact. First of all, it is well known that William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway did not have a happy marriage. He spent most of his time in London, writing and acting in his plays. Harper surmises the reason is because he was actually betrothed and in love with another woman, Anne Whateley. Historical records actually support this claim; the Worcestershire Records Office shows that on the day before he was wed to Anne Hathaway, William Shakespeare was issued a marriage license to marry someone named "Anne Whateley of Temple Grafton."

Harper takes this small piece of information that most historians have dismissed as a clerical error and fleshes it out into the story of an independent and strong woman named Anne Whateley. Anne is a great character; she is feisty and funny and incredibly stubborn. She doesn't believe that Elizabethan England is a man's world; she takes her inspiration from the queen herself and proves that savvy and smart independent women can make it in the world. Her love story with Will is turbulent and stormy, but it is clear why these two love one another.

The book itself is full of rich, historical details about the time period. Harper obviously did careful research into Shakepeare's life; there seem to be a lot of in jokes that only someone well acquainted with him would appreciate. In order to fully grasp the book, it is necessary to have knowledge of Shakespeare's plays; otherwise many of the references contained within the book will not make much sense.

Mistress Shakespeare is a must for any fans of Shakespeare, and would be enjoyable for any fan of historical fiction. I definitely recommend it.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Rich period history, difficult love story. Oct. 20 2009
By CelticWomanFanPiano - Published on Amazon.com
This book centers on the premise that William Shakespeare had two wives. That first he married an Anne Whately, until he had to get to married to Anne Hathaway. The author is so obviously well versed in the history of the time period that it makes for a very rich read . . . up to a point. About midway through I started to lose interest. Even though the lead character is in London and getting involved in the theatre scene and the theatre behind the scenes, it is hard to sympathize with a character who is still feeling the sting of scorn and harboring a secret love for a married man with three children. When they are young and immature the love story is plausible, but then after a while it starts to become grating on the nerves. However, the book definitely provides some insight into the life of William Shakespeare and his entire family.
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