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Home :: Archive :: 1990 :: August ::
The Second-Best Bed (84)
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 1, No. 36. Wednesday, 29 Aug 1990.
 
Date:         Wed, 29 Aug 90 20:57:42 EDT
From:         Ken Steele <
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Subject:      The Second-Best Bed
 
 
As part of my bourgeois souvenir hunt in Stratford Ontario this month,
I picked up a facsimile of the Shakespeare will, which was overpriced
but I see already proves useful.  Quite clearly Shakespeare's concern
in this document was with posterity: at least two-thirds of the will is
spent providing alternatives should certain family lines end without
issue.  In an interlineated addition halfway down the final page of the
will (the will has a number of such interlineations, crossed-out lines,
etc.), just before bequeathing his "broad silver gilt bole" to his
daughter Judith, Shakespeare makes the infamous bequest: "Item, I
gyve unto my wief my second best bed with the furniture" (i.e. the bed
linens and draperies, not any additional "furniture" in our sense of the
word).  This is the *only* mention of Shakespeare's wife in the will,
and it is so clearly an afterthought and so unemotional as to embarrass
bardolaters and Shakespeare scholars alike.
 
Undoubtedly the most reliable and authoritative single source of
biographical information on Shakespeare is Samuel S. Schoenbaum's
*William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life* (or for those of us without
the resources of a major research library, *William Shakespeare: A
Compact Documentary Life*), New York: Oxford UP, 1975 (or 1977).
Schoenbaum discusses the will very thoroughly, on pages 297-306
(Compact ed.).
 
Schoenbaum slyly remarks that "His will has given rise to even more
discussion and debate than the marriage license bond."  One popular
theory about the second-best bed has always been that Shakespeare
and Anne Hathaway were ill-suited for each other.  The shotgun
wedding, closely followed by the birth of first one child and then twins,
and Shakespeare's apparent retreat to London (and the Dark Lady of
the Sonnets?), might indeed suggest a faltering relationship with his
wife -- and the insult of merely the second-best bed merely cements
this theory.  Malone was indignant that Shakespeare cut off Anne, "not
indeed with a shilling, but with an old bed."
 
The more generally-received opinion today, of course, is more
generous to Shakespeare.  Schoenbaum suggests that "no specific
provision was needed" for Anne: "English common law, [Charles] Knight
triumphantly disclosed, guaranteed the widow a life interest of one
third in her husband's estate, as well as residence in the family
domicile."  It is also possible that the best bed at New Place was
reserved for guests, and that the second-best bed was the one "rich in
matrimonial associations."  Schoenbaum observes that similar
provisions, of the second-best bed to the wife, occur in the will of
William Palmer of Leamington, and that Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of
Bedford, bequeathed his best bed not to his wife but to his daughter.
 
The final word, however, is ambiguous: Schoenbaum summarizes,
"Hence our choice between cynicism and sentiment.  The latter surely
affords the more attractive option, but this is a matter that can be no
more than inferentially resolved."  And the inference, clearly, must be
made from a careful study of Shakespeare's entire life; balancing the
pseudo-autobiography of the sonnets against what evidence we have for
his strong ties and regular visits to Stratford even at the height of his
career in London.
 
Sorry, I couldn't bring myself to give you a silly answer, although that
would doubtless have been much more entertaining.  Do seek out
Schoenbaum's biography -- it's a wonderful and informative read
straight through.
 
                                        Ken Steele
                                        University of Toronto
 
 
 
Other Sources suggested by Schoenbaum:
 
Elaine W. Fowler, "The Earl of Bedford's 'Best Bed'," *Shakespeare
Quarterly* 18 (1967): 80.
 
Anon.,  *A Brief Discourse... of the Laudable Customs of London.*
London, 1584.
 

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