Photographer: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Proof That Shakespeare Wasn't a Cold-Hearted Husband

  • New tests on playwright's will reveals dating of alterations
  • `Second-best bed' may have been sentimental gift to wife Anne

New analysis of William Shakespeare’s will suggests that the playwright’s famous bequest of his “second-best bed” to his wife, Anne Hathaway, was a sentimental gesture made a month before his death, rather than a cold snub.

Britain’s National Archives spent four months restoring the will to allow it to go on display in London as part of an exhibition marking 400 years since Shakespeare’s death. In the course of that, archivists performed a series of tests on the three-page document, establishing that it was written in at least three sittings, possibly some years apart.

The final alterations were made a month before Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616. At this point, he inserted onto the final page what was to become one of his most notorious lines: “I give unto my wife my second-best bed with the furniture.” This, the only reference to her in the will, has been viewed by some scholars as a cold gesture. Amanda Bevan, legal-records specialist at the archives in London, disputed this view.

“Some people think the corrections and additions were mistakes or afterthoughts, but as we can now date some of these to March 1616 it makes these last-minute gifts more poignant,” she said in a statement published by the archives Tuesday. “He may have known he was dying in March and added these personal items for family and friends to what had been up until that point a very businesslike document. The second-best bed was certainly not a slight on Anne, as the best bed would have stayed with his house” in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Daughter’s Marriage

As well as X-raying the will, the archivists used specialist cameras to examine it under light outside the visible spectrum. They concluded that the second page is all that remains of a 1613 version, which Shakespeare altered in January 1616 in anticipation of his daughter Judith’s imminent marriage. He made more changes two months later.

“It has been argued that he retired to Stratford as he was gravely ill, but he was clearly staying engaged with business matters,” said Katy Mair, specialist on early modern records at the archives. “It appears he was concerned about his financial legacy and that of his family throughout his life, as shown by the redrafting of his will.”

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