The Mysterious Case Of The Second-Best Bed

Over the past few centuries, a great deal of light and heat has been generated over a statement made by Shakespeare concerning the bequeathing of the second-best bed in their Stratford-upon-Avon home to his widow Anne Hathaway Shakespeare:  “Item, I give unto my wife my second best bed with the furniture.”  Today, I would like to briefly examine the controversy that has taken place over this reference, introduce some relevant comparative analysis with another 17th century will that includes the same striking item of giving the widow of the man writing the will the second-best bed he owned, and giving some suggestions for future research.  It is my belief that this brief note will be at least a modest contribution to the field of Atlantic history and an encouragement to future writers to seek a better mastery of relevant sources before attempting to use a brief note in a will as a way of psychoanalyzing a man who has been dead for more than 400 years in the absence of sufficient context.

Generally speaking, those who have written about the mysterious case of Shakespeare’s second best bed have fallen into two camps.  One camp has speculated that Shakespeare wished to slight his widow and have posited that bequeathing to her the couple’s second-best bed was one more in a long series of slights against her that included her long abandonment and his likely unfaithfulness during his years as an active London actor and playwright.  Others, however, have viewed the gift as being more sentimental in nature, speculating that the second-best bed was the one that they had used, reserving the best bed for honored guests, and that this was the bed the couple slept together on, thus having some deep personal meaning for the couple.  Generally speaking, this second group of people also has a high degree of optimism about Shakespeare as a husband [1].  We are presented, therefore, in the writings on Shakespeare’s will concerning the second-best bed with a brief and obscure comment that induces the writer to provide their own view of the marriage between William and Anne Shakespeare but that is not presented with a great deal of historical context.

Rather by chance, and not by design, I recently read a book edited by the noted Atlantic historian Bernard Bailyn, The Apologia of Robert Keayne, containing the will of a 17th century Puritan merchant whose appealing and fascinatingly neurotic attempts at self-justification make this book a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the religious history of seventeenth century Puritan merchants.  Of particular interest is the fact that this obscure merchant bequeathed to his wife precisely the same second-best bed in their household:  “Item.  I give and bequeath to my loving wife, Mrs. Anne Keayne, over and above her third part of my land and houses, the benefit and profit whereof she is to have during her natural life…and besides those books that she commonly makes use of for her own reading, and besides her own wearing apparel of all sorts, I give and bequeath to my said wife one feather bed and bedstead with a feather bolster and one pillow, two white blankets, one rug, two pairs of sheets, two pillowbears, with a pair of curtains and valence suitable to her own use, not the best of all that I have in my house but the…second or next to the best of all, if there should be any material difference between them (29).”

What is to account for this striking similarity of two seventeenth century people specifying that their widows should receive their second-best beds.  If we only have one bed to deal with, we have an idiosyncratic individual quirk that is easy to explain as a personal reference.  When we have two references, though, on both sides of the Atlantic, what we have is the makings of a pattern.  To my knowledge, I am unaware of there being any systematic search of the wills of Englishmen on both sides of the Atlantic in the seventeenth century concerning how many of them specified that their widows should get the second-best bed in the house.  Nor am I aware of there being any studies on the nature of generosity among the class of seventeenth century merchants that specified that a well-proportioned house should have at least two of the highest quality beds, one of them which would suffer the wear and tear of being used by the couple and the other being reserved for honored guests.  It is clear, though, that since we can point to there being multiple cases of the second-best bed being given to the widow of a man writing a will, that there is something worth investigating here.  I do not know what poor graduate student in Atlantic history or the study of Shakespeare will be induced to undertake this close reading of the relevant textual body of seventeenth century English wills, but such a study is likely to be profitable in providing a context for what is bequeathed in the wills of that time.

After all, there are some striking similarities between William Shakespeare and Robert Keayne that are worth investigating that suggests a target for research.  Both of these gentlemen lived in the seventeenth century, although they died about forty years apart or so.  While there are some distinct differences between them concerning their religious beliefs, as Keayne was a loyal Puritan and Shakespeare’s family has the strong suspicion of being recusant Catholics, there are many similarities as well.  Keayne was highly interested in property speculation and was accused of usury and deeply interested as well in books and education, and was a noted merchant within his provincial society.  Shakespeare too springs from a provincial merchant’s family in Stratford-upon-Avon, his father was a glovery, and Shakespeare’s signatures are known from his own involvement in various litigation, and he too was known for his savvy investments in property in London as well as Stratford.  There are many similarities, therefore, between these two men, and it is quite possible that their behavior regarding the second-best beds in their homes springs from certain codes of conduct among upwardly mobile provincial merchants concerning hospitality to guests, or perhaps even more general cultural mores from the seventeenth century that we are simply unaware of at present.  It would be worthwhile, though, for someone to research this matter so that our knowledge may replace the speculation that has existed hitherto concerning Shakespeare’s will and the mysterious case of the second-best bed.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/02/03/book-review-the-shakespeare-conspiracy/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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