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The Second-Best Bed

Shakespeare famously left his wife, Anne Hathaway, his 'second best bed'. But why?

What was the Second Best Bed?

William Shakespeare signed his Last Will and Testament on 25 March 1616. Anne Shakespeare (nee Hathaway), his wife of 34 years and the mother of his children, was mentioned near the end of the document:

“Item I gyve unto my wife my second best bed with the furniture”

— Will of William Shakespeare

Furniture refers to the curtains and bedcover, which formed part of the complete bed.

This bequest is not as unusual as it might seem, and it's unlikely to have been intended as the snub that it appears to us today. 

In Shakespeare's time, a bed was an expensive and luxurious item, generally regarded as a valuable heirloom to be passed down the generations rather than given to a surviving spouse. In a world where social status was highly prized, people were keen to show off their wealth at every possible opportunity. It wasn't uncommon for the 'best bed' to be kept in one of the rooms downstairs, as a way of making sure all your visitors could see how well you were doing. It was also the bed that would be offered to staying guests, so the 'second best bed' referenced in Shakespeare's will is likely to have been the actual marriage bed, the one that he and Anne shared as man and wife. 

[...] I'll to my truckle-bed. / This field-bed is too cold for me to sleep

— Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 5

An Unusual Gift

Why this is the only specified bequest to Anne, we don't know. Under medieval common law in England, a widow was entitled to one third of her late husband's estate, even if it was not specifically mentioned in the will. In practice however, most wives were mentioned, usually in terms of affection and trust, and were frequently made executrix of the will. Unusually, in Shakespeare's will we find no affectionate reference to Anne. 

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