ON THE 400th ANNIVERSARY OF SHAKESPEARE’S DEATH LOTTIE J. DISPELS THE CONTROVERSY SURROUNDING HIS ‘SECOND BEST BED’
This year marks the 400th anniversary of playwright William Shakespeare’s death on 23rd April 1616. Although the exact cause remains a mystery, he began to make a will in January 1616, which suggests he was aware of his imminent demise. When his will was finally signed on 25th March, in the presence of his attorney, Francis Collins of Warwick, the shaky handwriting of his signature movingly anticipates the quietus, at the age of only 52, of a national treasure.
Of all the property accounted for in the will, and he left no stone unturned, the bequest that has caused the most controversy over the years is the only item that he specifically leaves to his wife, Anne Hathaway. She is mentioned just once, seemingly as an afterthought, when Shakespeare writes, ‘Item I gyve unto my wief my second best bed’. This seemingly insignificant, even insulting, token is often explained by the apparent unhappiness of Shakespeare’s marriage. Separated during the early years of their marriage while Shakespeare pursued his career in London, the broad gaps between the births of their children depict a marriage that was at least complicated. Shakespeare did not include Hathaway in the first draft of his will, and the perhaps sarcastic acknowledgment of giving her the ‘second best bed’ could be a literal final nail in the coffin of a neglectful union.
But modern interpretations of this bequest portray Shakespeare’s intentions in a more positive light. During the 16th and 17th Centuries, the ‘best bed’ was often reserved for guests, so it is possible that the so-called ‘second-best bed’ was actually the bed William and Anne shared when they were together at their house in Stratford. In a poem entitled ‘Anne Hathaway’, and written in the widow’s voice, Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy explores the possibility of the ‘second-best bed’ being an emotional world where the love between husband and wife was most widely explored and deeply cherished. She makes Anne say:
In the other bed, the best, our guests dozed on,
dribbling their prose. My living laughing love –
I hold him in the casket of my widow’s head
as he held me upon that next best bed.
In this moving monologue Duffy challenges the common view that Anne must have been an irritating obstacle in Shakespeare’s quest to find a muse. Duffy argues that Hathaway herself was capable of providing inspiration for some of his greatest writing. Shakespeare is remembered in the imagination of Hathaway, implying that she was the only woman who ever truly knew him. This interpretation of Shakespeare’s parting gift to his wife may be sentimental, but in leaving Hathaway the ‘second best bed’ he was probably making sure only she received their most intimate possession.
For some Shakespearean scholars this romantic view seems dubious, but it is commonly acknowledged that Shakespeare would have been unable to leave his wife with nothing, even if this was what he wished to do. At the time the will was drawn up, English Common Law stated that a widow was entitled to one third of her husband’s estate, and the use of the matrimonial house for life. The absence of Hathaway in Shakespeare’s will might simply have been because he realised she would be provided for anyway, and she duly went on to live in their house, ‘New Place’, until her death in 1623. Since it is likely that Shakespeare knew his wife would be looked after, the giving of his ‘second best bed’ would probably have been seen as neither uncommon nor reproachful but rather an intimate last gesture after thirty years of marriage.
Shakespeare’s other main heirs in his will were his daughter, Susanna, and her husband, Dr. John Hall, to whom he left all his remaining goods after his debts had been settled. This may have been thanks to the doctor and son-in-law for overseeing the poet’s treatment in the final days of his life. To his second daughter, Judith, he left £100 as a marriage portion, and a further £150 on which her future husband would have no claim. Along with the right to continue living in the Shakespeare family house, £30 was also left to his sister, Joan Hart. His sword and other small items were left to his friends and, finally, as was custom at the time, he left £10 to the poor of Stratford.
Shakespeare’s will gives a fascinating insight into what he thought of his friends and family, for all of whom he provided, and shows the personal value he placed on his most intimate possessions. It also reveals that, by the end of his life, Shakespeare was a surprisingly wealthy man given his relatively lowly profession.
But as far as the most controversial item in the will is concerned, we will always hope that, when he accounted for his ‘second best bed’, it was more for love than money.