The Vexed Question of Shakespeare’s Second Best Bed

Inside the house at Henley Street, along with half-a-dozen other visitors, we stood in the upstairs room in which Shakespeare was born, and gazed at his mother’s bed.

 DSCN0631 DSCN0630 DSCN0632 DSCN0629

Someone asked the guide whether this really was THE bed–the actual bed in which Shakespeare was  born? Well, it’s not the real deal, but it’s either a copy of the real or a bed that had once belonged to someone of that period….  We all looked at the cradle alongside the bed.  It looked old–very, very old. But no, baby Shakespeare had never nestled in that cradle. Apparently that, too, was either some other baby’s of that period, or a replica. It was all a set-up. These items had been placed in the room for effect. I stood and gazed  at the bed and the cradle, but they didn’t exude atmosphere, no glow emanated from these items. For me, there was no poetic aura surrounding these items of furniture. I didn’t know anything about the people who had once slept in them, I didn’t even know their names or who they were, or what importance they had in the grand scheme of things that their bed and this cradle should grace the room where Shakespeare had been born. But the thought that these items may not have been some other family’s possessions at all, and were possibly only replicas, was even worse. Whichever way I looked at the situation, for me these two items  held no meaning.  Oh, I was so disappointed, and I felt so incensed by the whole business. I was SO ticked off at not getting to stand and gaze at Shakespeare’s birth bed and savour the real thing.

DSCN0634

The one saving grace for me was, I was standing in the room where Shakespeare’s mother had, all those many hundreds of years ago, laboured to bring the most celebrated bard in English history into the world. Mary Arden (below left) gave the literary world a great gift.

Mary (Arden) Shakespearew

It seemed to me that beds were the interest of the day because this then led to a number of people asking why Shakespeare left his wife only his “second best bed” in his will, and not his very best bed.

The young guide told us this: Back in those times the best bed was kept in the guest room where distinguished or honoured guests slept–it was a mark of respect, you wanted your guests to be comfortable. The husband and wife who owned the house slept in the second best bed. The second best bed was the marriage bed, and was always shared by the husband and wife. The second best bed was a symbol of married unity and love [or it was supposed to be anyway], it was regarded as having great psychological, emotional, and spiritual value, and it was also valued for more earthly reasons, what Hamlet in Hamlet Act III:II calls “country matters”:

HAMLET:
Lady, shall I lie in your lap?

OPHELIA
No, my lord.

HAMLET
I mean, my head upon your lap?

OPHELIA
Ay, my lord.

HAMLET
Do you think I meant country matters?

OPHELIA
I think nothing, my lord.

HAMLET
That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.

OPHELIA
What is, my lord?

HAMLET
Nothing

Back in Shakespeare’s day, when the son of a well-off family married it was traditional for the young man’s parents to give the young couple two beds as a wedding present: a best bed, and a second best bed. When Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, they went to live with Shakespeare’s parents in Henley Street, Stratford, [the house we were currently visiting].  Shakespeare’s parents gave them only a second best bed as a wedding present. The young couple had no need for a best bed since they were living with Shakespeare’s parents in their house which was already well furnished with a best bed in the guest room.

Another of the guides took a different  spin on the tale of the bed: Shakespeare’s parents couldn’t give the young newly-weds  their own first best bed (this is not the best bed of the guest room) because they themselves slept in it–it was their marriage bed and you didn’t sleep in someone else’s marriage bed or take it for your own, and you certainly didn’t give it away to anyone, not even your son, and certainly not as a wedding present.  Shakespeare’s parents’ first best bed had been given to them by Shakespeare’s father’s parents as a wedding present of a second best bed.  So Shakespeare’s parents gave Shakespeare and his bride, Anne Hathaway, either their second best bed or another   second best bed as a wedding present, because whichever way it went that second best bed had never before been used as a “marriage” bed [or not that anyone knows of anyway]. Marriage beds were very expensive items back then, probably worth as much as the cost of a house, or so we were told by the guides.

Some historians have gone to all sorts of lengths to say that Shakespeare willed his wife only his second best bed through spite, that the marriage was unhappy, that his willing act was a mark of contempt.  My question is: how would anyone really know whether they were happy or not since Shakespeare was essentially a very private person in regards to his family and personal matters, and nothing much of any depth is known about his marriage to Anne Hathaway? Besides, no one other than a couple themselves really knows what goes on behind their closed (bedroom) doors, and Shakespeare and his wife do not appear to have left any enlightening letters on the subject. Imagine the mayhem and mad scramble there would be if any such letters did come to light. The historians and literary scholars (me included,) would be all over it quicker than anyone could say Shakespeare!

I found this on the net:

Item: I give unto my wife the second best bed with the furniture

The only mention that Shakespeare specifically makes of his wife was to leave her his “second best bed.”

It is, however, understood that it would have been her right, through English Common Law, to one-third of his estate as well as residence for life at New Place…

I also found this snippet:

Shakespeare probably left his wife the furniture because she was probably planning on staying in that house until her death.

It seems to me that Shakespeare’s willing could have been an act that demonstrated his love for Anne–what a romantic gesture it was to leave her their marriage bed, and to make specific mention of a symbol of married unity and love. It has also been suggested by some, that Anne Hathaway was a wealthy woman in her own right.

I have read all sorts of arguments for and against the willing of the bed, and I listened to what the guides in Shakespeare’s house in Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, had to say about the matter that Friday in May just gone. But much to my disappointment we didn’t see Shakespeare’s second best bed in Henley Street,  so I turned to the net and found images. Shakespeare’s second best bed is an ornate four-poster that is as wonderfully and beautifully carved as his courting chair.

Sh's bed 2

William Shakespeare

Image | This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s