A Woman to Know: Susanna Hall

Witty above her sex, but that's not all. — from Susanna’s epitaph

Witty above her sex, but that's not all. — from Susanna Hall’s epitaph

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

Much is known of William Shakespeare’s writing, and much is written of the lives his legendary characters led on the page and on the stage. But comparatively little is known about his family back in Stratford-upon-Avon — and even less about his eldest daughter, Susanna, the caretaker of the Bard’s legacy.

In 1583, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway amidst some family grumblings— prior to the “handfast” engagement, Anne discovered she was already pregnant with Susanna. But the Shakespeare in-laws prepared a separate apartment for the newlyweds and their future granddaughter, and Susanna arrived just six months after the wedding.

At the time, English schools did not yet admit female students, and it was rare for girls of Susanna’s class to learn more than the ability to read religious texts and write their signatures. But Shakespeare took a keen interest in the education of his firstborn and arranged for private tutors to visit the house. As she grew up, Susanna took to writing and reading with the zeal of her literary father, and the two often exchanged letters once he left Stratford-upon-Avon to pursue a career in London.

By the 1590s, the playwright’s star was on the rise. Once Shakespeare attracted the attention of Queen Elizabeth and other high-profile patrons, he established a full-time residence in London and visited his family only a few times a year. Letters to his eldest daughter suggest he left much of the running of the household to Susanna; later, as he amassed more and more wealth, he entrusted her with greater tasks, such as running rental properties and purchasing tracts of land on the outskirts of town.

When Susanna married a local doctor, John Hall, in 1607, her father gifted her 107 acres of land as a marriage present. The Halls set up an estate down the road from Susanna’s parents’ grand house, and in 1613, when her father retired in Stratford-upon-Avon, the two continued to work together on business affairs and real estate purchases.

That same year, however, Susanna and her husband found themselves embroiled in scandal. A local medical student claimed Susanna had contracted a venereal disease from a years-long affair with the Stratford haberdasher. Susanna claimed the story had political motivations: some in the town supported the Catholic church, while the Halls supported the Puritan Protestants, and a few disgruntled doctors disliked Susanna’s knowledge of medicinal herbs and resented her standing in the community. Susanna subsequently sued for defamation and won when the man failed to appear in court. But the scandal forever marred her reputation in town, and she spent more and more time managing her father’s estate.

In 1616, when Shakespeare passed away at the age of 49, Susanna again became the subject of local gossip: her father left almost all of his property and worldly possessions to Susanna, notoriously leaving only his “second best bed” for his wife Anne. When Susanna herself passed away 30 years later, she passed on much of the estate to her own daughter, as well as her surviving sister Judith, who’d originally been excluded from her father’s will.

Susanna buried in Stratford-upon-Avon, with this fitting epitaph inscribed on her tomb:

Witty above her sex, but that’s not all,

Wise to Salvation was good Mistress Hall,

Something of Shakespeare was in that, but this

Wholly of him with whom she’s now in blisse.

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