William Shakespeare’s Second Best Bed

Among nerds of a certain flavor, it’s a well known fact that in his will, Shakespeare left his wife his second best bed.

That is, in fact, the only mention of his wife in his will.

What’s particularly fun about this fact is that, like much of Shakespeare’s history, it’s a matter of some contention open to interpretation.

There is strong evidence that Shakespeare and his wife didn’t get along.

Perhaps the second best bed was intended as a rude gesture, intended to show just how little he cared.

Shakespeare’s defenders, of course, bristle at the notion that their champion could have been any less than a gentleman.

The second best bed is endearing, they argue. First off, under English Common Law the widow Anne Shakespeare was entitled to a third of her late husband’s estate. Shakespeare didn’t mention this because there was no need to mention it. At the time, it was obvious and implied.

Further still, some scholars have referenced other wills of the time – “the will of Sir Thomas Lucy, in 1600,” for example, “gives his son his second-best horse.” So, it’s fine. It’s just one of those things that made total sense at the time but sounds a little crazy now.

But, of course, Shakespeare loved his wife.

Well, to be honest, I don’t really care why Shakespeare left his wife his second best bed.

But I find the process of interpreting this action fascinating.

Shakespeare is such a intriguing figure – a man of whom we know so much and yet, of whom we know so little. So many aspects of his life are open for debate – did Shakespeare really write Shakespeare? Was Shakespeare gay?

To start asking these question is to dive down a rabbit hole of strong scholarly opinions and arguments. Of people with deep opinion who will never be swayed. They’ll dig up mountains of documentation to support their point of view and even more evidence to refute all dissenters. They will argue for hours – argue endlessly – and never consider ceding any ground.

This is, I suppose, not much different from other forms of scholarly exercise, and yet, I can’t help but notice, all this fuss is over a bed.

Well, a second best bed.

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