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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Bedsteads

Object 4 - A fresh take on the Hathaway bedsteads from Elizabeth Sharrett; who is studying for a PhD in English Literature at the Shakespeare Institute.

Elizabeth Sharrett
Hathaway Bed
The 'Hathaway Bed' at Anne Hathaway's Cottage

“How bravely thou becomest thy bed, fresh lily,
And whiter than the sheets!”

In Shakespeare’s Cymbeline the contents of Innogen’s bedchamber are recorded by the evil Iachomo as proof, however falsely, of his violation of her honour. Among the items listed in his inventory are the “tapestry of silk and silver; the story Proud Cleopatra” and andirons of “two winking Cupids”. In contrast to the detailed descriptions of these two items Iachomo cursorily mentions “Th’adornment of her bed".  At first glance this sparse reference reveals little about its appearance, however, such a statement may have conjured a more detailed and precise mental picture for Shakespeare’s audience.

Adornment on beds, such as that found on the carved Hathaway bedstead at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage  reflected the fashionable Flemish style, popular in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. The Hathaway bed has a carved headboard, adorned with hybrid human and animal figures known as caryatids and atlantes, and the bedposts and tester (or canopy) are covered with carved flowers and geometric designs. This imagery associated with fertility and regeneration might serve to symbolise the three major rites of passage—birth, marriage, and death— each of which took place in beds.

Hathaway Bed headboard detail
Decorative headboard of the 'Hathaway Bed'

When we think of Elizabethan bedsteads, we tend to imagine something quite grand like the Hathaway example. However, was this the type of bed in which baby William Shakespeare was born?  Probably not.

A more likely candidate is the one on display in the next room at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage; the decidedly less impressive, uncarved, four-poster tester bedstead This is more representative of the type of bed that a craftsman from the middling sort, such as John Shakespeare, William’s father, could have afforded. Worth about 10 pounds, this bed would have consumed a hefty portion of John’s average yearly income at around 40 pounds.

There was probably little structural difference between the “best bed” and the infamous “second best bed” in William’s childhood home. What distinguished them was not their similarly plain frames, but rather the quality of their hangings or curtains. John Shakespeare would have literally dressed up his “best bed” with textiles in rich colours, possibly also embroidered with images of flora and fauna, creating a simulated “flowery bed” of the kind evoked in Midsummer Night’s Dream.