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On March 3, when Nan Wade presents a reading of Robert Nye's "Mrs. Shakespeare" at St. Mark's School as a kick-off for Anne Hathaway project, a mysterious woman will step from the shadows.

For centuries, Anne Hathaway has been a nebulous figure, known to posterity only for her cottage. Little has come down through history about Shakespeare's relationship with his wife. They had three children: Hamnet and Judith, who were twins; and Susannah (whose iffy marital situation was the focus of the recent Kavinoky Theatre play "The Herbal Bed").

Beyond those facts and a few others, we must use our imaginations. Nye, whose other novels include "The Memoirs of Lord Byron" and "The Late Mr. Shakespeare," is used to doing that.

Wade is, too. She becomes quickly emotional when she discusses the little that is known about Will and Anne.

The couple met in Stratford-on-Avon, Wade explains, where they both lived. Hathaway was eight years older than Shakespeare. She got pregnant, and they got married. Their marriage was punctuated by long separations, and once, Shakespeare spent seven years in London, away from his family.

It's at this juncture that "Mrs. Shakespeare" steps in, imagining Anne visited her husband in London, rekindling their passion. The novel reopens an ancient mystery: In his will, Shakespeare left his wife "the second-best bed." What was the best bed? Was it the guest bed, as has long been thought? Or was it, Nye wonders, the bed the couple used in London, during Anne's rapturous visit?

Whatever the answer, Wade takes a charitable view of the marriage. "I think he loved her very much," she says. "They had a strange relationship, like every artist has with his wife. Look at how movie stars break up. It's tough."

But all's well that ends well - and ultimately, Wade suggests, Shakespeare and his wife smoothed over their differences.

"He died in her arms," she says.

Nan Wade will present a reading of "Mrs. Shakespeare" at St. Mark's School, 401 Woodward Ave., at 8 p.m. March 3. Admission is $20. For info, call 832-4726 or 874-2362.

- Mary Kunz

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