Whilst William Shakespeare’s illustrious body of work provides many insights regarding his attitudes towards love, riches and familial strife, relatively little is known about the personal life of England’s most celebrated playwright.
One document, however, has fueled centuries of speculation in terms of Shakespeare’s relationships with his wife and children: the writer’s last will and testament.
New technical analysis of Shakespeare’s will conducted by researchers at The National Archives will perhaps finally put to rest the controversy surrounding the Bard’s most infamous bequest: that of the second best bed. For hundreds of years, it has been assumed by many that Shakespeare did not harbour much affection towards his wife Anne Hathaway, due to the seemingly paltry inheritance she received upon his death.
In his will, Shakespeare divided his assets predominantly between his two surviving children, Susanna and Judith, with Susanna receiving the bulk of the estate. His only provision for Anne read:
Item I gyve unto my wief my second best bed with the furniture
Quite understandably, for many years this was interpreted as evidence of Shakespeare’s disdain for his wife. Charles Knight, an early biographer of Shakespeare wrote:
The bitter sarcasm of the bequest by which he remembers her afterwards, all prove beyond a doubt both his separation from the lady early in life, and his unfriendly feeling towards her at the close of it.
However, new x-rays suggest that this provision was actually an affectionate addition to the document -a token of the Bard’s sentimentality, as opposed to spite. As senior archivist Amanda Bevan explains, researchers at the British Library carried out "multispectral analysis" of the will, and using near-infrared light found significant "differences in the inks". The results suggest that the second page of the document was written years before pages one and three, thus refuting the existing theory that the will was drafted in one sitting. Bevan further argues that these pages were rewritten in January 1616, and once again amended using a darker ink in March of the same year, just one month before Shakespeare’s death. So, what’s the significance of all this? Bevan writes:
What can be inferred by looking at the bequests of rings for his friends and the bed for his wife, added in March 1616, was that when seriously and suddenly ill Shakespeare wanted to give personal mementos to people who mattered to him. These are tokens of affection from a man facing the prospect of his death.
Indeed, whilst the notion that Shakespeare was indifferent towards his family has always been popular, Bevan’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s will is supported by numerous scholars. Dr Hannah Crumme highlights the theory that the second best bed "could have been the marital bed", as the best bed in the house "was reserved for guests". Therefore, despite being an objectively inferior place for Shakespeare’s widow to rest her head, its sentimental value rendered it a precious treasure.
This idea has even made its way into literature, with the eponymous narrator of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Anne Hathaway describing the bed "we loved in" in highly romantic terms -as a "spinning world/of forests, castles, torchlight, cliff-tops, seas".
It should also be noted that 16th century English family law dictated that widows would automatically receive an income from their late husband’s estate, in addition to being permitted to reside in the marital home for the rest of their lives. It’s thus unlikely that Shakespeare intended for his wife to be left with nothing.
The new revelations regarding Shakespeare’s will are certainly aptly timed -with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death less than a fortnight away -it’s reassuring to hear that England’s most idolised writer picked up his pen for perhaps the last time in the name of marital affection.