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The Second-Best Bed

In the name of God amen I William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon in the county of War-wick gentleman in perfect health and memory God be praised do make and ordain this my last will and testament in manner and form following. That is to say first I commend my soul into the hands of God my creator, hoping and assuredly believing through the only merits of Jesus Christ my Saviour to be made partaker of life everlasting, and my body to the earth whereof it is made.”

With these words Shakespeare began his will, shortly before his death in 1616, bequeathing to the world a statement of his assets and naming several of his closest friends. The will appears to adopt the impersonal jargon of lawyers and thus, despite the famous “second-best bed,” to conceal rather than reveal the testator. I want to compare the will with others of the same period and to suggest that Shakespeare’s failure to observe some testamentary conventions makes his a most unusual document, one that gives us unexpected insights into his personality and even into his relationship with his wife, Anne Hathaway.

Placing Shakespeare’s will in the cultural traditions of its period, we must compare it not only with London and Stratford wills but, more specifically, with those made by testators belonging to the same social class. After the preamble of a gentleman’s will there were often directions for the funeral. John Heminges, the dramatist’s colleague for at least twenty-two years, said, “And my body I commit to the earth to be buried in Christian manner in the parish church of Mary Aldermanbury in London,” and he requested that “my funeral may be indecent and comely manner performed in the evening, without any vain pomp or cost.” Shakespeare commended his soul to God, “and my body to the earth whereof it is made.”

In itself this abruptness might have little significance—yet it needs to be seen in a larger context. A gentleman at this time would often leave a sum for the repair of his parish church, another sum for a funeral sermon or an annual sermon, and now and then for a monument—not for all but for some of these…let us call them social obligations. Shakespeare’s colleague Thomas Pope left directions in 1603 for his funeral in the parish church and “towards the setting up of some monument on me in the said church and my funeral £20.” Another colleague, Augustine Phillips, asked in 1605 to be buried in the chancel of the parish church and gave “to the preacher which shall preach at my funeral…twenty shillings.”

Shakespeare left no such bequests and this may indicate a lack of interest, or even disaffection. The haste with which his will was prepared cannot be wholly blamed for such omissions since he found time to add other small bequests, which were interlined. Moreover, he did give a generous sum to the poor of Stratford: “Item, I give and bequeath unto the poor of Stratford aforesaid ten pounds.” Some testators asked their churchwardens to distribute such alms. Shakespeare didn’t—is that significant? He remembered only one godchild in his will—is that significant?

Taken singly these points attract no attention; taken together they are a puzzle. Compare John Combe of Old Stratford, gentleman, who directed in 1612, “Item, I give and bequeath to every one of my godchildren before not named five shillings apiece.” Combe also asked to be buried in the parish church, left £60 for a tomb, and twenty shillings a year forever “to make a sermon twice a year”—evidently a more committed son of the church than W. Shakespeare.1

Before I try to explain other curious omissions it will be helpful to remind you of the story of Judith Shakespeare’s marriage and its effect on her father’s will. E.K. Chambers, though he did not know all the facts, guessed correctly, and I follow his narrative. Shakespeare probably first gave instructions for a will in January 1616; a draft was prepared by his lawyer, Francis Collins, consisting of three sheets. On March 25 Shakespeare decided to change his will—“The changes he desired in the opening provisions were so substantial that it was thought best to prepare a new sheet I.” Sheets two and three “were allowed to stand, with some alterations; and in this form it was signed on each sheet by Shakespeare.” Sheet one is “mainly occupied with bequests to Shakespeare’s daughter Judith,” so “it is reasonable to suppose that it was her marriage on 10 Feb. 1616, which determined the principal changes.”2 A lack of confidence in Thomas Quiney, Judith’s husband, could explain these changes, thought Chambers—and a later discovery proved him to be correct.

Others3 have shown that Shakespeare had cause to mistrust his new son-in-law, for Thomas Quiney was forced to appear in open court in the parish church and confess to “carnal copulation” with one Margaret Wheeler. That was to be on March 26; one day earlier, on the 25th, Shakespeare sent for Collins and had his will redrafted to protect his daughter—in effect to ensure that Quiney received none of his money, except under stringent conditions.

Other wills survive in which a member of the family is sharply rapped on the knuckles, most often a son-in-law, as in Shakespeare’s case. Elizabeth Condell, the widow of Shakespeare’s colleague, said of one bequest, “Yet so I do intend the same as that my said son-in-law Mr. Herbert Finch shall never have possession of the same; and therefore my will is that my said executors shall keep those goods in their hands for the good of my…grandchildren…unless my said son-in-law…shall first give good security.” Jacob Meade, who had an interest in the Hope theater, asked his executors to retain a sum for his daughter,

the principal to remain unto and for the only use and behoof of my said daughter, so long as it shall please almighty God that she shall live with her husband Michael Pyttes, whom I will shall have nothing to do or meddle therewith.

Shakespeare’s unloved son-in-law was put in his place even more humiliatingly. He was not mentioned by name, his very existence was not acknowledged, even though the most carefully hedged clauses of the will were clearly devised in response to his unwelcome arrival in the bosom of the family. The thought is not unlike that of Elizabeth Condell and Jacob Meade, but notice the curious phrasing. Daughter Judith was to have £150, and another £150 after three years

if she or any issue of her body be living at the end of three years…. Provided that if such husband as she shall at the end of the said three years be married unto or attain after do sufficiently assure unto her…lands answerable to the portion by this my will given…then my will is that the said £150 shall be paid to such husband as shall make such assurance to his own use.

Such husband? Who could be responsible for this phrasing, just six weeks after Judith Shakespeare married her first husband, Thomas Quiney?

The treatment of Quiney resembles that of another member of the family by marriage—William Hart, the husband of Shakespeare’s only surviving sibling, his sister Joan Hart. I think that it’s fair to say that Joan Hart’s future prospects worried her brother, almost as much as Judith Quiney’s. Her husband was an obscure hatter and, it seems, a poor relation, for Shakespeare left his sister a life tenancy of his house in Henley Street “wherein she dwelleth,” for the peppercorn rent of one shilling a year, and also £20, “all my wearing apparel,” and £5 to each of her three sons. William Hart died a few days before Shakespeare, in mid-April, a fact which could not have been known when Shakespeare revised his will three weeks earlier—therefore the absence of any reference to Hart seems odd, the more so since his sons were too young to wear their uncle’s apparel. But—we must not overlook an indirect reference to Hart. A provisional bequest to Joan Hart of £50, should Judith Quiney not live for three years, was to remain in the hands of Shakespeare’s executors, who were to pay interest to Joan, “and after her decease the said £50 shall remain amongst the children of my said sister”—in other words, was not to go to her husband. The various bequests to the four other members of Hart’s immediate family imply that Shakespeare neither loved nor trusted his brother-in-law.

Elizabeth Condell and Jacob Meade named the sons-in-law who had displeased them. Shakespeare’s will carefully avoids naming Thomas Quiney and William Hart—and names omitted, for one reason or another, seem to me a peculiarity of his will as a whole. Bequests to several friends were interlined, therefore were afterthoughts: for instance, those to Hamnet Sadler, William Reynolds, and to “my fellows John Heminges, Richard Burbage and Henry Condell.” More astonishingly, there was not a single reference to the testator’s wife in the will as first completed. Had it occurred to Shakespeare before the draft was completed that he ought to remember his friends and his wife, he could have added more clauses at a later point in the will: instead they were inserted awkwardly, and none too legibly, in between lines that were already written.

I shall return to Anne Hathaway in a moment. First, though, some other “omissions” from the will. Shakespeare, the owner of one of the largest houses in Stratford, must have kept servants. A gentleman usually remembered his servants in his will—individual bequests to some, and very often a year’s wages for all the rest. “Item, I give…unto those my servants whose names are expressed and declared in the schedule to this my will…the several sums to their names written,” said William Combe of Warwick. Shakespeare left nothing to his servants. Leading actors left bequests to each other and also, in some cases, to the hired men of the company and to their apprentices; Shakespeare left bequests to just three “fellows,” as an afterthought, a smaller number than one might have expected, and nothing at all to hired men or former apprentices, after at least twenty-two years with, basically, the same company.

Another fairly common practice at this time was to forgive all debts in one’s will, or at least small debts, or the debts of impecunious friends or relations. John Combe of Old Stratford, the “noted usurer” who bequeathed £5 “to Master William Shakespeare,” had his own way of forgiving debts—fractionally forgiving them, perhaps inspired by professional instinct. “Item, I give and bequeath to every one of my good and just debtors for every twenty pound that any man oweth me twenty shillings.” Shakespeare, who may have been a money-lender and certainly took others to law to recover debts, forgave no debts in his will.

  1. 1

    I return to Shakespeare’s relationship with his parish church on page 30. It should be added that though he may have acquired the right to be buried in the parish church when he purchased his sublease of Stratford tithes (1605), the significant fact remains that in his will he never alludes to the church or its officers or procedures, and he may well have felt that he had a legitimate grievance (cf. page 30). Again, we should not overlook Richard Davies (archdeacon of Coventry, not far from Stratford), who recorded that Shakespeare “died a papist.” Davies probably wrote his notes on Shakespeare in the later seventeenth century, and is not a reliable witness. On the other hand, Shakespeare’s parents must have married in a Catholic church, in the reign of Queen Mary, and he may have been brought up as a Catholic.

  2. 2

    E.K. Chambers, William Shakespeare, two volumes (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1930), Vol. II,p. 175 ff.

  3. 3

    See, for example, E.R.C. Brinkworth, Shakespeare and the Bawdy Court of Stratford (Phillimore, 1972), p. 80.

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