Bequest: why did Shakespeare bequeath his wife a “second-best” bed?

In this OUPblog series, Lena Cowen Orlin, author of the “detailed and dazzling” The Private Life of William Shakespeare, explores key moments in the Bard’s life. From asking just when was Shakespeare’s birthday, to his bequest of a “second-best bed,” to his own funerary monument, you can read the complete series here.

Why did Shakespeare bequeath his wife a “second-best” bed?

One of the Shakespeare myths is that we have proof he despised his wife: when he died, he left her nothing more than “my second-best bed.” The story developed in part because of an early transcription error. For the 1763 Biography Brittanica, Philip Nichols published a version of Shakespeare’s will taken from the official probate copy. He misread the handwritten text as “my brown best bed.” Thirty years later, Edmond Malone encountered the original will on which the probate copy had been based. Perhaps written at Shakespeare’s deathbed, the document was full of revisions and additions. For Malone, the original revealed two guilty secrets. First, the bequest to Anne Shakespeare was inserted like a grudging afterthought. Second, she received not a brown best bed but a second– best one. Malone believed that his paleographical skills had led to an explosive discovery about the Shakespeare marriage.

Malone also suspected that with the bed Shakespeare disinherited Anne, as if he had cut her off with a shilling. This Shakespeare could not do. Dower law ensured that for the length of her life Anne received one-third of all income from the substantial properties the couple had purchased during their marriage. Because dower could be overturned only when widows themselves surrendered their rights, many testators tried to bribe their wives to accept instead a capital sum of money or life tenancy in a room in the family home. As these wills show, Dower had to be invoked in order to be revoked and, by declining to mention it, Shakespeare let it stand. His daughter Susanna and her husband John Hall later sold some of his land rights, but they had to wait until 1624, the year after Anne died. Until then, Susanna controlled just two-thirds of those rights because her mother held the remaining third.

To this legacy already settled in law, Shakespeare added a bed. In the wills of his time, beds and their accoutrements appeared frequently and were often pictured in loving detail. Since Shakespeare does not describe the bedframe, mattress, sheets, pillows, or coverlet, his family undoubtedly already knew which bed he meant. A best bed might have a full headboard and a mattress stuffed with feathers, while the second bed would have a half-headboard and a mattress stuffed with flocks. “Best” and “second best” were common ways of identifying beds; one man dictated that “I bequeath to John my said son the best featherbed and to Joan my wife the second, to Robert my son the third, and to Joan my daughter the fourth featherbed.” With “second-best” a testator did not insult his legatee; not even “worst” could do that. A principal heir might receive a valuable horse, a best cloak, a whole house, and a worst bed. Nor was the best bed ever bestowed in affection. Some men who gave their best beds to their widows did so only if the women agreed “not to meddle nor make with no part of my goods.” Or the best bed might be conferred on condition that the widow vacated the family home within weeks of the testator’s death.

Since best beds were often reserved for guests, it could be that Shakespeare’s second-best bed was the marital bed. Alternatively, the bed could have belonged to Anne before the wedding. In a will in which a man assigns “three of my beds that were hers the said Margaret at our marriage,” we hear the reverberation of cover—that is, property law for Tudor husbands and wives. What had been “hers” had become “mine” by virtue of “our” marriage. We cannot know whether this was true for the Shakespeares. He adopted the first-person possessive, “my second-best bed,” because that established his authority to make the bequest, but he gave the bed no biography.

Like any man of property, Shakespeare devoted most of his will to distributing lands and houses, not furniture or objects. The few exceptions were his wearing apparel, a silver-gilt bowl, his sword, and the bed. Although these seem like random bequests, eventually I found myself wondering whether they shared a painful connection.

Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, died at age 11. Once, Shakespeare would have expected the boy to grow into his apparel. He gave the clothing to his nephews instead. He had achieved gentle status, and, since only gentlemen were entitled to wear swords, he would have anticipated passing both the status and its symbol to Hamnet. He gave the sword to the son of a gentleman friend. Pieces of plate were baptismal gifts for people of substance. Shakespeare gave the silver-gilt bowl to the twin who was baptized with Hamnet, Judith. Was the second-best bed the bed in which Hamnet was born, even the bed from which he was taken to his grave? If so, the “random” bequests were all about the lost Hamnet, as every member of Shakespeare’s family—including Anne—would have known.

Featured image: 1850 living room and bedroom in Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, CC-BY-NC-ND Image Courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

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