|Was Shakespeare's marriage to Anne |
Although a writer's work (unless it's autobiographical) is never an effective method of judging his or her life, beliefs and perceptions of the world, it's a leap we seem incapable of avoiding. This is especially true when it comes to someone, like Shakespeare, whom we know relatively little about. So, the temptation, naturally, is to assume that Shakespeare's own opinion of marriage is reflected in his work.
What do we Know of Shakespeare's Marriage
Facts are few and far between concerning Shakespeare's relationship with Anne Hathaway. What is known for sure is that she was eight years his senior; their wedding was arranged very quickly, because Anne had fallen pregnant; and when Shakespeare moved to London to become a playwright, Anne and the children remained in Stratford Upon Avon.
None of this tells us much about the state of their relationship or whether they loved each other. We can make assumptions based on the shotgun wedding (at which time Shakespeare was only eighteen), and the fact that they lived apart. However, we don't know why or how this arrangement came about.
|Perhaps Anne Hathaway didn't want to live in London|
It is possible that the distance between them indicated their marriage was not a happy one, but it is also possible that Anne Hathaway said, "Look, Will, London isn't for me, but you go follow your dream, babe." or words to that effect.
And, of course, we don't know how long they spent apart. We don't know whether Mrs Shakespeare and the kids came down to visit, and we don't know how regularly Shakespeare returned home to Stratford. So what little we do know about Shakespeare, tells us even less about his relationship with his wife.
The Portrayal of Marriage in Shakespeare's Plays
As mentioned above, looking into an author's work for clues about his or her own life is sometimes wishful thinking. But given that we have so little to go on, it is tempting to explore Shakespeare's plays and poetry for hints as to the state of his own marriage.
|Would Petruchio and Katharina |
really have a happily ever after?
In Shakespeare's comedies, we don't see many married couples - lovers who marry at the end of the play, yes, but men and women who are already married, not so much. And, although the weddings (sometimes multiple) at the end of a Shakespearean comedy is indicative of a happily ever after, there's a sort of ominous undertone to many of the pairings.
For example, do we really think that Petruchio and Katharina will have a happy existence together? We may hope that they will, we may even imagine that they do, but, if they were a real couple, would they stand much chance of a blissful, long life?
|The Macbeths are Shakespeare's happiest |
couples - although they're not showing it here
And then, of course, there's marriage in Shakespeare's tragedies and histories, which can be roughly divided into two categories. One, a union of social convenience/necessity, such as Anne and Richard III or Regan and Goneril neither of whom seem to love their husbands. Two, a happy, loving pairing that operates as a partnership, such as Othello and Desdemona or Brutus and Portia. Of course, the problem is that in these examples, the relationships are doomed. Arguably, the happiest married couple in all of Shakespeare's work is Macbeth and Lady Macbeth....and look what happened to them.
So, it seems as though Shakespeare gives us a pretty grim view of marriage.
However, it is worth mentioning that in a time when marriage was very much viewed as a social function, Shakespeare places an emphasis on marrying for love. The King of France takes Cordelia, despite her loss of dower, because he loves her. Desdemona, Hermia and Juliet run away to marry the men they love, rather than the men their fathers would choose for them.
In other words, more assumptions can be drawn from Shakespeare's work. And yet, conclusions still cannot be reached as to the state of his own marriage.
The Second Best Bed
|Why did Shakespeare leave his wife 'the second best bed'?|
One of the most infamous phrases written by Shakespeare, doesn't come from any of his plays or his sonnets. In his will, Shakespeare bequeaths only one item to his wife: the second best bed. Much has been made of this and many people have various opinions as to what 'the second best bed' means: is it an insult? was the second best bed a piece of furniture that belonged to the Hathaway family?
Personally, I favour the view that, during the era, a household's best bed would be reserved for guests. Consequently, the second best bed would have been the one that Shakespeare and his wife shared. It was the marital bed and, therefore, imbued with sentiment. In addition, beds were expensive, particularly luxurious ones, sometimes costing the same as a small home. So, Shakespeare's second best bed was probably no insignificant, cheap piece of crappy furniture.
But why did Anne only receive the bed? Well, there is a theory that law of the time dictated that a wife was automatically entitled to a third of her deceased husband's estate. If true, there was really no need for Shakespeare to spell out any further bequests. However, this theory is disputed by others, who speculate as to whether the couples' children would have been responsible for financially supporting their mother or if Anne Hathaway was, in fact, financially secure in her own right.
So, Did Shakespeare Love Anne Hathaway?
It is, of course, impossible to say with any degree of certainty whether Shakespeare loved Anne Hathaway or vice versa. Neither can we begin to guess how happy or otherwise their marriage may have been. However, I don't believe that Shakespeare's will indicates any hostility to his widow. In fact, I think of his bequest as a sentimental and romantic gesture.
I also believe that, if anything of Shakespeare's own convictions are present in his portrayal of marriage within the plays, it is that the happiest marriages are founded in love rather than any social arrangement. We'll leave the fact that these relationships do not remain happy (for a variety of reasons) to one side for a moment.
If you'd like to find out more about Shakespeare's life and works, check out What's It All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.