29 June 2007

Anne Hathaway's Bed

The other day, I posted a bit about Mrs. Astor's will and her bequest of the "good mink coat". S. responded that Shakespeare had left his second-best bed to his wife. I sent that comment on to my husband; he responded with the following:

This is precisely true. William Shakespeare was a wealthy man when he died with a fairly complicated last will and testament for a person of his social class. There's been much scholarship and speculation on the meaning of his sole bequest to his wife. The short story is that he knocked-up a considerably-older Anne Hathaway when he was a kid, had a shotgun marriage, didn't really love her, left Stratford for London after only a few years of connubial bliss, and never again lived with her for an extended period of time. There is no extant correspondence between them, most likely because Hathaway could not read or write. Think of it, she never saw his work performed because she never ventured from Stratford, and was unable even to read it in manuscript! The likely love of Shakespeare's life, after his son and excluding various less-significant women sexual partners, was Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, who is possibly the "Fair Youth" of the Sonnets. This hugely-compelling love was sexually unconsummated and not homosexual in any modern interpretation. Its nature I believe is forever lost to us today and impossible to reconstruct at this distance in time, although there were economic benefits to Shakespeare and his band of players from this aristocrat-patron. It would have been a punishable crime against a rigid social status quo, and an unheard-of social and economic disaster for his family, had Shakespeare in some way acknowledged Wriothesley's place in his life, even cryptically, in his will. As such, I believe there is a bitterness at his having to remain mute in this final writ, even though he created the enduring but unacknowledged testament to Wriothesley (and a few others) in the Sonnets. So the Hathaway "second-best bed" bequest may be interpreted as a final sour slap in the face from the grave to the embodiment of a failed marriage of souls. But it is also important to understand that Shakespeare may have been advised to make at least one direct bequest to her, otherwise, had she been absent from the will entirely as was probably his wont, Elizabethan common-law practice may have applied and Hathaway could have been entitled until her death to the income from one-third of Shakespeare's considerable estate. As it was, he named his favorite daughter, Susanna, and her husband, physician John Hall, as executors of his estate for the benefit of their children. They also took care of Hathaway, I believe, until her death. Shakespeare's other daughter, Judith, was mostly excluded because he abhorred her feckless husband, Thomas Quiney, who was prosecuted for and convicted of "carnal copulation" with a woman not his wife. Shakespeare's last child and only son, Judith's twin sibling, Hamnet (ergo Hamlet), was the other truly significant love of his life. At the time of Hamnet's early death at age eleven, the insurgent Protestant social-political-economic-religious Taliban continued, in all ways imaginable, an active program to expunge the ancient, culturally-ingrained Roman Catholic power and ritual. As such, since there is little doubt that Shakespeare was a closet Catholic like many in England at the time, scholars speculate that his suffering was massively amplified by a puritanical, legally-enforced prohibition of the Catholic process of mourning and grieving to which he and his family were deeply inured. The winter voice of a father's heart broken by a son's death, unhealed by accustomed ritual denied, is made eternally present in many apotheoses of English poetry in Shakespeare's ensuing plays.

6 comments:

Furrow said...

Your husband sounds smart. He must have him some of that book learnin'.

About the love of Shakespeare's life: "Its nature I believe is forever lost to us today and impossible to reconstruct at this distance in time." That's interesting. Are there really no such relationships today? I wonder why not.

slouching mom said...

WOW. That is some fascinating history.

What did Hamnet die of?

painted maypole said...

love me some Shakespeare history! Thanks!

mayberry said...

Wow--thanks. I think he needs his own blog!

Teryn said...

How interesting -- you made my brain work! Thanks!

Eva said...

Shit, that was neat. Erudite.