Friday, 14 September 2012

Did Shakespeare Love Anne Hathaway?

Was Shakespeare's marriage to Anne
Hathaway happy?
Does the portrayal of love and marriage in Shakespeare's plays tell us anything about his own relationship? Is the cryptic 'second best bed' in Shakespeare's will anything other than the bequeathment equivalent of a slap in the face?

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
Perhaps Anne Hathaway didn't like the hustle and bustle of London, or maybe she was worried about diseases, such as the plague, which spread much more rampantly in crowded cities and had claimed the lives of nearly 25% of London's population in 1563.

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.


  1. he died on his bday

    1. Well, it's impossible to say for sure, because we don't know exactly what day he was born - only what day he was baptised. Based on the baptism date of the 26th of April, we assume his birthday was around the 23rd.

      But in any case, if he didn't die on his birthday, it must have been fairly close to it.

  2. It was the best bed! The "second" refers to the condition of it. Meaning it was worn a bit. One researcher checked out the wills of the period and even found one with a reference to the "worst" bed!
    All she got was the best bed, because that is where he found her with Christopher Marlowe.
    He was already secretly married to one Barbra Swift in 1589. All of these can be confirmed by just looking around and at the facts of William Shakespeare's life.

    1. Hello, Graham.

      I'd never heard or read the theory that 'second' referred to the fact the bed was worn (as in second-hand presumably?). That's an interesting thought. Either way, I don't think leaving her the bed was an insult.

      I'm not entirely sure I agree with you that Anne Hathaway and Christopher Marlowe being caught having a roll in the hay in said bed can be confirmed by "just looking around". Surely, that can only ever be conjecture? It's an appealing thought, though. Makes Shakespeare's life seem almost as dramatic as one of his plays...or a modern day soap opera!

      And when you say, he was 'already' secretly married, I'm not sure what you mean. He married Anne in '82, so he wasn't already married then. Perhaps you just meant, by the time he wrote his will, he'd committed bigamy. I'd read about the possibility of him marrying another woman, Anne Whateley, but that marriage licence is so close to the Hathaway one, that I'm inclined to think there was an error. But who knows?

      In any case, I'd never heard of him getting hitched to a lass by the name of Swift. I'd be intrigued to learn more about that if you have the info handy.

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. We have all of William Shakespeare records of birth marriage and death due to because one man was very good at keeping records. Even his baptism was down to the fact he made the Stratford Vicar copy all the old register into a new one! In fact he was that good he became Archbishop of Canterbury. His name was John Whitgift and he was in charge of the clergy of Shakespeare's neck of the wood. He was at the time of Shakespeare's marriage the Bishop of Worcester. This was a man who took recording keeping to the extreme. The Hathaway document is him making certain that the marriage was legal, or at least covering himself in the event it wasn't. The Hathaway marriage paper isn't actually a marriage certificate. Just a bond saying that the marriage can take place.
    On the other hand the Whateley marriage dated the day before makes it clear that a licence had been issued. So the one before says that one has been issued and the other dated the day after says one can be issued.
    As you can imagine this is confusing. But it can be explained. John Whitgift virtually invented what we would call the bishops transcript. As a humble bishop he sent his official to collect the register of Temple Grafton. He did this because the vicar of Temple Grafton was an old Catholic man. Well known for performing marriages of under age people. Now the one thing John hates is Catholics. He hates them when a bishop and he hates them even more when he has risen to Archbishop.
    If you read the entry of the Whateley marriage (it's in latin) it says "became known" a licence between William Shakespeare and Anna Whateley of Temple Grafton. The crucial word is that "became known". In latin its "emanavit". I checked with Kate Welch of the Shakespeare Institute and she confirmed it meant that.
    This shows the clerk copying from another register entries into the present one. Probably on the day before the second document turns up. Now the original entry in the register could be anything up to a year or more old. So when Shakespeare turns a second time in the bishops documents he was asking to be married again to another woman. I think that the first woman had died. My suspicion is the daughter of John Shakespeare, who died in 1579, was not William's sister, but his first wife!

    The third wife crops up in a book by Charlotte Stopes called Shakespeare's Family (1901). You can find it on the Internet Archive. On page 122 you can find an entry of marriage of William Shakespeare of Hatton (very close to Stratford) to Barbara Stiffe on Jan 6 1589. In the same register we find children from the marriage and one dated 1596 calls him a gent. Meaning he had a Coat of Arms, just like the Bard! But Of course the only Coat of Arms issued was to "the" William Shakespeare. I have not heard of another William Shakespeare being granted a Coat of Arms. I did send an e-mail to the College of Arms to check, but I didn't get a reply!
    Stopes herself didn't make the link and thought it was just a namesake. It could be too if the man was granted a Coat of Arms. But surely a Shakespearian scholar would have found that man's heraldic connection by now and we would all know about it. It's curious too that the William who marries in 1589 does not style himself Gent then and only at the same time does as the Bard get his grant does our other William too!
    Barbara Shakespeare dies in 1610, Stopes makes no mention of the burial of her husband.

    1. Hello again, Graham. That's all really interesting stuff. Thanks so much for sharing.

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