Did Shakespeare Love His Wife?
In the second episode of Let’s Talk Shakespeare, we ask “Did Shakespeare love his wife?”
The question 'did Shakespeare love his wife?' has tantalised for years, since we have very little evidence of the relationship between William Shakespeare and his wife. In truth all we know for certain is that they married, had three children, and stayed married until William's death in 1616.
In this week's podcast we discuss how William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway may have met, the unusual circumstances in which they married, what William's prolonged absence from his family while he was in London may have meant for his wife and children, and, of course, the frustratingly vague reference to his wife in his will.
We do not know for certain what Anne looked like. This painting is based on a drawing by Nathaniel Curzon on the reverse of title page of a copy of the third folio in 1708.
For years people have tried to read meaning into the reference to his wife that Shakespeare makes in his will, in which he leaves her his "second best bed". You can see this reference in the second and third lines of this near contemporary copy.
Image: Courtship of William Shakespeare by D. Woodcock, 1995
This week's guests (in order of appearance) are:
- Dr Elizabeth Dollimore, Outreach and Primary Learning Manager at the SBT
- Professor Sir Stanley Wells, Honorary President of the SBT
- Dr Tara Hamling, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern history at Birmingham University
- Professor Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute
- Ben Crystal, actor, writer and producer
Narrator: Jennifer Reid
REID: Hello, and welcome to the second episode of “Let’s Talk Shakespeare”, a podcast brought to you from Stratford-upon-Avon by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. I’m Jennifer Reid, and today I’m asking the question, “Did Shakespeare love his wife?”
The first person I spoke to about this one was Dr Elizabeth Dollimore, who is the Outreach and Primary Learning Manager at the SBT; and Liz gave me a really good summary of the arguments people have for and against Shakespeare loving his wife, and the problem we have with answering such a question at a distance of 400 years.
DOLLIMORE: I think the honest answer is that we can’t tell in this distance of time, to be honest. There’s nothing that’s personal that Shakespeare left to tell us those important questions [sic]. And even if you ask that question yourself - ‘Do you love your husband/wife/boyfriend?’ - those are big questions that are complicated and difficult to answer. For many of us, the answer wouldn’t be a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. It would be a ‘On a good day’, or, you know, ‘When we go on holiday’, or, you know, ‘When I have time’, or any of those things. So, to ask a question like that at a gap of some 400 years when we have no personal documentation of his feelings about anything, it leaves us with very, very little to go on. There’s no evidence that he didn’t like her. I mean, the things which people say about that - that, you know, he spent a lot of his time working in London - but, the counterargument to that would be, he spent a lot of time working in London so that they had money to live a better life. And many people I’m sure listening to this will know or have personal experience with very successful long distance relationships that don’t remotely mean the couple don’t love each other and may mean, in fact, that they’re able to continue loving each other in a way in which, had they spent every day together, they wouldn’t have done.
So, again, I don’t think that says very much about whether he loved her or not. The other common thing that people say is that he only left her the ‘second best bed’, but of course, the second best bed was, in most households, the marital bed. The best bed was kept for your guests. So, that might have been a romantic gesture for all one knows. Perhaps he had all his play scripts hidden in the mattress and that’s why he left it to her, but I doubt that. So, I’m afraid we don’t honestly know whether he loved his wife or not. I hope he did, ‘cause that’s nice, and I’m slightly romantic.
REID: Well, I’m a romantic too, but before we get carried away, let’s look at some of the facts. William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway when he was 18 and when she was 26 or 27, and they remained married for the rest of his life. And, of course, Anne was pregnant with their first child when they got married. Now, lots have been made of these two facts, and looking back with a modern eye, it does seem pretty unusual, but was it really?
Well, yes it was, but not for the reasons that one would first think. Back over to Liz to enlighten us.
DOLLIMORE: To our eyes, it seems that she was surprisingly old, but in fact, in Tudor society, it was him that was surprisingly young. The average age of marriage in Tudor England was not what people think from Romeo and Juliet and was, in fact, about 26 or 27. The reason for that is because that was the approximate age that a man would finish an apprenticeship, and therefore have the means to gain an income and support a family. So, that was why a lot of marriages took place at that period in people’s lives. So in fact, Anne Hathaway - was she 26, 27? anyhow - she was absolutely the right age for marriage according to her society. So, far from being a spinster that was left on the shelf, she was an eligible young lady. Shakespeare, however, was a young boy! Bear in mind that the boy players on Shakespeare’s stage were sort of 14 to 19, 20, potentially, so in many people’s eyes in society he would still have been considered a boy. However, he manages to behave like a man in getting her pregnant, and I suppose that’s why they got married. And, who knows how that then turned out.
REID: So it was Shakespeare that was surprisingly young, and not Anne Hathaway that was old, as you would initially think. Shakespeare was under the age of consent to marry, and would have had to obtained his father’s permission, and they also obtained a special marriage bond that allowed them to marry more quickly than convention dictated. In fact, Shakespeare was just one of three men in the area recorded within a sixty year period to marry before they were twenty, and the only of which whose wife was pregnant. But by examining registers of birth and marriage at the time, we can see that the frequency of births less than nine months after marriage is surprisingly common. Again, Liz can tell us why this might have been the case.
DOLLIMORE: If you look at records of marriage versus records of baptism, I think the statistic is that one in three women were pregnant before they were married? Which does put a lie to people saying that they didn’t practice sex before marriage - clearly they did; you don’t need a biology lesson to know that more than one in three people - couples - must have had sex before they were married if the one in three in statistic was pregnancy rates. And you might ask yourself, how could they have lived in a society where the Bible presupposed that sex before marriage was inappropriate and yet, clearly, did it plenty of times? And the answer to that is that what constituted a marriage was not cut and dried in that society. So, in fact, many people considered themselves married in the eyes of God if they had ‘plighted their troth’, or pledged promise to one another. Now, that could be a private exchange of words, so it could just be boyfriend and girlfriend sit down and say to each other, “I plight my troth to you”, “And I do the same” - and, because, of course, they believed that God was everywhere and could see everything that happened, they then felt that that promise had been exchanged in front of God. Ergo, they were married, and they were free to do whatever it is they should wish to do. And if that sometimes resulted in the production of children, then so be it!
The Church was trying to prevent this sort of informal marriage taking place, partly because it did lead to a number of court cases. It was a very litigious society, the Tudors, they loved taking each other to court. So there were lots of court cases where they said, you know, “Thomas Rogers got me with child, he ought to be responsible.” Now, the girl then says, “Well we plighted our troth; we were married!” But of course there’s no proof of that, if they just said it; Thomas goes, “Nooo, we didn’t; of course not!”
So the Church was trying to suggest that only a marriage in church and with a witness was a marriage in the eyes of God, but society lagged behind that ideology, and for many individual people, marriage constituted merely an informal ceremony either simply between the two people or a small gathering within the home or the community that might be referred to as a ‘handfasting’ ceremony. There’s a good reference to that in Measure for Measure, actually. In the story of Measure for Measure, Claudio has got his girlfriend pregnant and is about to be punished in an unpleasant way for that, and he tries to explain it. He says, “She was fast my wife.” In other words, “We had had a handfasting ceremony, and, ergo, we were married in the eyes of God”, so he didn’t see anything wrong in sleeping with her.
REID: But, of course, people want to know what Shakespeare’s marriage was like, and it’s easy to try and read that into his plays, but we can’t know anything for sure, so, more generally, what was marriage at the time like?
Often the only records of marriages or unions that survive are dry legal documents or letters. Very little emotional evidence survives today. So it’s easy for us to imagine marriage only being undertaken for status or financial security. And so, for the last time this week, it’s back to Liz to offer an insight into Tudor marriage.
DOLLIMORE: Again, it’s very difficult to make generalisations like that. What is 21st century marriage like? Good or bad or indifferent, depending on what you make of it. So, I mean, some overviews of that might be that many people thought that it was sensible to marry for status or security and then would expect to fall in love with their spouse after the marriage. Many people thought that marrying for love was rash, because love doesn’t necessarily last, whereas I think most people today would hope to marry for love and just hope that that lasted. So, in some ways, there was quite a pragmatic view of marriage. However, I don’t think there’s any sense in which one can then generalise and say, “Tudor men and women in marriages didn’t have loving, reciprocal relationships,” because, I think, in many cases, they clearly did. There are clearly accounts of people being devastated at the loss of their husband or wife, and I think, in many many cases, just as is today, a successful marriage involved friendship and mutual support. So not terribly different, in a way, from what we might see being successful in marriages today.
There’s a certain amount of literature about how to be a good wife or a good husband, which, to our eyes, sounds very a stereotype - so, for instance, “a good wife should always remember to whom she speaks, and that her husband is above her in hierarchy and status”. However, that was written by a guy who did not have a successful marriage, and who had written several other rather extreme conduct books, and I don’t think can be taken to be a recipe for the average Tudor marriage in any way, shape, or form. There were also a sense that the man should be the one who provided the security, who worked hard to provide wealth or status or security for the family/for the wife, but again, I’m sure that that didn’t reflect itself in more than some Tudor marriages. There are certainly examples of Tudor marriages where it was the wife who was the breadwinner - she took in sewing, and work, and things like that - and the man didn’t particularly become the income earner in that household. So I think Tudor marriages were many and various just as our own are today.
REID: So we know that at some point, in the late 1580s, William Shakespeare went to London, and this is often used as evidence as him leaving his wife, abandoning his young family in Stratford - [Anne] would have, of course, had three children at this point - and packing off to London to seek his fame and fortune. But this is not exactly correct, as Professor Stanley Wells told me.
WELLS: He went to London, it’s true. He must have spent a lot of time in London. Equally, however, it’s my belief that he spent a lot of time in Stratford too. Some people talk about him as if, somehow, he left Stratford for London (in the late 1580s) and only came back here towards the end of his life when he stops writing plays. I think that’s nonsense; he buys a big house here in 1597 for his wife and family, and he bought land here, he bought the ties, he invested a great deal in Stratford. So it’s my belief that he came back to his family as frequently as he could, probably during Lent - which is the period when the theatres were closed for six weeks - and at any other time that he could manage it. So, there’s no reason why Shakespeare shouldn’t have gone on seeing his wife and family quite frequently during the period that he was mainly based in London, and then of course, for the last three years of his life he writes no plays during that period, and there's reason to suppose that he spent even more time back in Stratford with his wife and family during that period, and we know that he died here.
REID: The one other piece of evidence that we have of William and Anne’s relationship is the reference he makes to her in his will, bequeathing her his ‘second best bed’. And again, this has been interpreted lots of different ways, but mainly as a bit of an insult. Dr Tara Hamling from the University of Birmingham explained to me what this really means, and also expands a little bit upon Shakespeare going to London.
HAMLING: I think it’s fascinating that people think or worry about whether or not Shakespeare loved his wife. The thinking is that Shakespeare didn’t love his wife, and that comes from just one piece of evidence, and we have very little evidence about Shakespeare’s thoughts, feelings, attachments beyond his imaginative writing, but we do have his will! and his will makes this tantalising reference to a bequest to his wife of the second best bed - and its fixtures and furnishings and that basically means the curtains attached to the bed. So we can imagine quite a grand standing test-a-bed with curtains - something quite substantial that Shakespeare is leaving his wife. But it’s the way that the bequest comes in sort of almost incidentally, sort of ‘Oh, by the way, let my wife have her bed’, that has kind of led people to infer that this means that he didn’t really care for his wife - he made no other apparent provision for her within the will, so this seems like a really insulting bequest. But, it’s absolutely conventional of the time. Husbands almost invariably left - where they needed to make some kind of specific bequest to their wife - would leave them bedding of some kind; linens, and also items of furniture that they themselves brought with them to the marriage.
So there were plenty of other wills that make similar bequests. I think it’s the lack of any other reference to his wife that makes people kind of question the relationship. But, in Shakespeare’s will, he had no need whatsoever to make reference to his wife, because the expectation would be that she would carry on living in the house and using all of his goods until her death. In fact, we think she did, we think she carried on living at New Place in Stratford until her death in 1623 - so, in a way, it would have been better if he had made no reference to his wife whatsoever within the will and then everybody would’ve been happy, it’s fine, they had a perfectly happy relationship, as far as we know.
The other little bit of influence is the idea that, because Shakespeare lived away from home and, you know, soon as he could he left Stratford and went off to London to go and have this amazing career as an actor and playwright. And that’s problematic because, what else would Shakespeare have done? He’d been educated in Stratford; he now had the ability to do something with his brain; his father had been a glover - presumably Shakespeare had decided against taking up his father’s trade - so in order to make good on his abilities, on his new training, Shakespeare had to go to some big centre, and the obvious place to go - and where an awful lot of his fellow countrymen went - was, obviously, to London, where all the opportunities were - the opportunities not just in the theatre, but across all different careers. So most people of rising/middling status in this period would have looked to London and looked to pursue their career in London, whether that’s in trade or in writing, and for Shakespeare it happened to be in writing and acting. But, you know, plenty of other people went to London regularly, would have spent an awful lot of time away from home; so actually, you could turn it around and say that Shakespeare must have loved his wife, because he took the pains to go to London to earn enough money to make good and then return to Stratford and be able to buy up a nice home for her, look after her, and, you know, provide for his family.
REID: When I popped down the road to the Shakespeare Institute to chat with their director Professor Michael Dobson, he talked a bit about the ‘second best bed’ as well, but he was able to explain to me how Shakespeare’s will compares to his contemporaries and peers in the theatrical world.
DOBSON: At the end of his life, in his will - this is a very controversial document, and much reinterpreted - but she isn’t mentioned until one of the very last clauses of the will, which is that very notorious one, you know: “To my wife I leave the second best bed, with all the hangings.” And, some biographers try to make out, “Well… the best bed would have been the guest bed; the second best bed must have been the one they slept in, so that’s sort of a kind of affectionate souvenir of their married life of sleeping together that he’s passing on,” but actually, if you look at the wills of other people Shakespeare knew, especially other people in the theatrical profession, they are totally different in what they say about their wives. There is no theatre will of the period that’s half as mean or cold towards the wife as Shakespeare’s is. You know, people like Burbage, they say things like, “I make my wife - my trusty and well-beloved wife - my sole executor, end of.” You know, that’s often the only clause in the will. And some of them say, “My dear late departed wife, I want that particular dress to go to my daughter, and I want this thing that’s my dear souvenir of my lovely wife to go to-” you know, they actually take the opportunity to say nice things about their wives in their wills. Shakespeare conspicuously doesn’t. His will is mainly about leaving stuff to his daughters and making sure that his daughter Judith’s dodgy husband Thomas Quiney can’t get his hands on her money. Anne Hathaway is very much an afterthought in that will.
REID: So that’s a quick run-through of what we do and don’t know about Shakespeare’s marriage. The last clip for today is Ben Crystal - and Ben is an actor, writer, and producer - and he spoke very differently than the others about Shakespeare’s ability to love. A slight apology for the quality of this clip - we recorded this in a park in London, so you might be able to hear the sounds of the city in the background.
CRYSTAL: There’s no way that you could write what he wrote without having an incredible understanding of… humanity, of nature, of the human heart, of the human condition, of the way that people work, the way that they don’t work, of what it is to love, to lose, to yearn, to be jealous, to have that almost sixth sense connection with someone. And I say ‘almost’ definitively, unless he was a sociopath, because if he did write all of that stuff and he didn’t feel love, then, you know, I mean, that would make him even more preposterously amazing than we already think he is. And, you know, we can try to ascribe our 21st century or 20th century ideologies to what we think marriage is and should be, but, you know, he went away and he made a lot of money, and he brought a lot of that money back to Stratford. And his plays are filled with the idea of the missing woman, and the missing mother, and a yearning for family, and a loss of children and these kind of things, and it’s very easy to get caught up in the romantic image of what Shakespeare might have been and what his attitudes to life and love might have been, but we have no reason to really think that he was anything other than a loving husband - who also had great affairs and sex and encounters with people in London just like everybody else did.
REID: Well that’s time out for this week. Thanks to Liz, Stanley, Michael, and Ben, and thank you to the Friends of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust who make this podcast possible.
Thanks for listening, and do join us next week when I’ll be asking, “When did Shakespeare go to London?”