What ifs about Shakespeare

The Thinker, Shakespeare style

As some of you might know, I am working on notes for my own book about Shakespeare, an introduction to our beloved Bard and how to enjoy the plays. It’s a groundling’s guide to Shakespeare if you will. I do rather like that for a title.

As part of my research (and continuing education) I’m listening to various podcasts as well as reading books and academic papers. Of all of my research, I am finding the podcasts to be most informative. Sometimes I hear things mentioned, usually as an aside, that gets my imagination going. Unfortunately for me, this usually happens at work. I scribble myself a note for later use.

Some of the things I hear starts me down the path of speculation. Oh, if that is true, could this also be true? Of course, we know so little about the man we are left with a lot of holes to fill. Holes we should reserve for our own pleasure, our own entertainment value. Since we cannot prove anything, the path should be narrow and short so that we don’t venture into the wild weeds of conjecture.

I have to admit, musing on Shakespeare’s life is an entertaining intellectual exercise. When I start down the path, I find myself using my knowledge of history and Elizabethan social norms. Of course no intellectual exercise is complete without a little research. As I mentioned, the path is short, and I end up putting my thoughts aside for more useful endeavors. But I thought it would be fun to share some of my ideas as part of Shakespeare Week

I give you three What ifs about Shakespeare

I’ve taken many classes on Shakespeare and in each the subject of his relationship with his wife always comes up. Students, who hear about his gift of the second best bed in his will for the first time, assume this is a dig. They couple this with his move to London as proof that he did not love Anne. It is also assumed that Anne, being older and pregnant when they married, must have tricked him into it. This idea seems to be popular with male scholars too. In Shakespeare’s Wife, Germaine Greer argues that too many scholars paint Anne as a scheming woman who set a trap for poor young will as she is getting on in years (26 is old for women of her day). But what if it was the other way around? What if he talked her a relationship? What if it was Will, not Anne who pursued the relationship? What if he wrote this sonnet for her, as some scholars suggest?

Those lips that Love’s own hand did make,
Breathed forth the sound that said ‘I hate’,
To me that languished for her sake:
But when she saw my woeful state,
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that ever sweet
Was used in giving gentle doom;
And taught it thus anew to greet;
‘I hate’ she altered with an end,
That followed it as gentle day,
Doth follow night, who like a fiend
From heaven to hell is flown away.
‘I hate’, from hate away she threw,
And saved my life, saying ‘not you’.

Scholars believe line’s 13 and 14 seem to be puns on Anne’s name. “hate away’ sounds very close to Hathaway, and “and saved my life” could be a play on “Anne saved my life”. If this were true, then we could say she did not like him at first, yet in the end, she “saved his life” by marrying him. This would offer us a new way of looking at their marriage.

Other scholars have pointed out that Sonnet writing would not come into fashion for another 9 years. This type of poetry was started by Phillip Sydney. But that doesn’t mean we should throw out the idea that Shakespeare wrote this for his wife. Who knows, maybe he wrote as an anniversary present?

Speaking of marriage, did you know young Elizabethan married men couldn’t be apprentices? I learned this from one of the many Shakespeare related podcasts I listen to. Sadly, I failed to note which one. It was an off-handed remark about Shakespeare’s early employment or lack of. I thought, wait a minute. This may tell us something; Shakespeare, having gotten married at 18 would have had difficulty in securing employment. What if this was the reason he left for London? Not because he wanted to get away, having just been through a shotgun wedding, but because his options were limited?

The Tudor “Poor Laws, enacted in 1536, says “male apprentice must be cared for until they reach the age of 21 or marry”. Okay, new path to follow, what if, at 18 Will either hated being an apprentice (he would have started at 14) or was finally being pushed to find employment with a master by his father, chose to get married instead? What would make a man leave his wife and children in the country for the big city? Fame, money? Possibly, or maybe he had no real prospects in the country. Or maybe he did want to get way from Anne….

He’s starting to sound like a jerk. Perhaps we should leave this path all together.

Speaking of sounding like a jerk…

One of the most talked about holes in Shakespeare’s life is the explanation for why he only left Anne the “second best bed” in his will. This has been debated ever since the will was found in 1747. Scholars, historians, and critics of Shakespeare have argued over the reason for this gift. Bonner Miller Cutting sifts through them all in his essay, Alas, Poor Anne: Shakespeare’s Second-Best Bed” in Historical Perspective. He argues that given what we know about Elizabethan wills and marriage laws, this was a deliberate dig by Shakespeare. He left his estates to his daughter Susanne and her husband John. Cuttings asks, “if Shakespeare wanted to ensure his wife was well cared for but not given the best of things, why not the second best house”? It is a fair question.

The question surrounding the “second best bed” has intrigued me for a long time. It is not something I think about a lot but once in while the question pops into my head. It wasn’t until I heard an episode of the History Extra podcast did I give it any serious thought.

The episode talked about the changes in childbirth; from medieval times to the present day. It was noted that during the Elizabethan era births were moved from the marriage bed to a birthing/sick bed. As houses became bigger, rooms were given over to the infirm. Women were advised to stay in bed for three day after giving birth in order to regain their health. What, if this second best bed was the birthing bed? What if, instead of being a dig at his wife, Shakespeare gave her the bed as a token of his appreciation for her as a wife and mother?

This is all speculation of course, but it does make our favorite playwright less of a jerk and more to our liking. And isn’t that the point? We speculate about Shakespeare’s life and fill in the holes as we see fit. We want him to be perfect, just as we view his work to be. But, in reality, he was human, and as such was complicated. What we really need to do is appreciate the work, and forgive his flaws.

Bonner Miller Cutting, “Alas poor Anne”

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 145

Joseph Tanner, “Tudor Constitutional Laws”

Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

Talk to me

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