Monday, November 10, 2014

Shaksper’s Second Best Bed: the (almost) final chapter.


Last week I decided to look into a theory I had about the Last Will and Testament of William Shaksper, the Stratford commodities speculator, loan shark, and, after his success in these areas, investor in, among other things the Globe theater.  It is only to be expected that some Oxfordians might have a feeling of anger towards the man with whom they are so regularly beaten over the head.  For myself, I think his hustling his way to a modest fortune is, in itself, a fine example of the “new man“ of the times: largely bereft of formal schooling, full of energy and natural intelligence.

One often gets the impression that Shaksper’s reputation suffers still more in our circles because Stratfordians gleefully point out Edward de Vere’s often rash behavior.  He did, after all, kill an under-cook.  The incident is further blackened by the fact that William Cecil, deeply invested in the success of the young Earl, arranged for the death to be declared a suicide.  There is also the fact that he treated his first wife badly for reasons history can presently only guess, got one of Queen Elizabeth’s Ladies-in-Waiting pregnant, was reputed by some of his servants to be a harsh master, and bankrupted the Earldom of Oxford into the bargain.  The Stratfordian argument hardly needs recounting here: “Oxford,” they crow, “was a colossal jerk, a murderer and more.  Such a man could not be the author of the works of Shake-speare.”

“Oh, yeah!  Oh, yeah!” Oxfordians rejoin, “Well Shaksper only left his wife his second best bed!  Now that’s being a jerk.”


Addressing the behavior of De Vere must await its own essay.  What can be said in passing, is that often the greatest literature is written by people who profoundly struggled in their personal and financial lives, in many cases proving destructive to those around them as well as themselves.  The claim that De Vere’s biography excludes him is equivalent to claiming that Baudelaire did not write the poems of Baudelaire, that Caravaggio did not paint the pictures attributed to him.

If, then, we may put all of the background noise aside, an unbiased look into Shaksper’s Will might be fruitful.  In a distant way, it is part of the record relating to the theater of Shake-speare’s time.

I began my recent researches with a preliminary question that I’ve long promised myself I would answer.  When was the first transcription of the Will published and did it give us the same text as we presently find in facsimiles of the Will?



The transcript we generally accept now was first provided by the great Shakespeare scholar Edmund Malone, in the “Prolegomena” to his 1790 edition of The Plays and Poems of William Shakspeare.[1]  In a footnote to the third page of the Will, Malone mentions the, until then, standard transcription, attributing it somewhat vaguely to Lewis Theobalds.  A Ms. Bonner Miller Cutting, in her recent essay, ‘Alas, Poor Anne: Shakespeare’s “Second-Best Bed” in Historical Perspective,’ cites Samuel Schoenbaum[2] who offered an alternative attribution:

Malone attributed the mistake to Louis Theobalds, but, as Schoenbaum notes, Theobalds had died three years before the will was discovered. The rapscallion who offered the erroneous transcription is unknown, but Philip Nichols signed off on the 1763 Britannica entry, and at a minimum is a responsible party in the mistake and/or deception.[3]

With this we come upon our first finding… and our first mystery.  The Britannica of 1763 does in fact reprint the earliest published transcription of the Will.  But it is not the source of the transcript.  The first instance I could discover of the transcript was published in the introductory material to the first volume of the 1762 edition of Lewis Theobalds’s The Works of Shakespeare. It may have appeared as early as the third edition of 1752 (actually, the first complete edition) but it seems the first four editions are quite rare and I have yet to find them.


So then, Malone is somewhat vague in his attribution, one assumes, because Theobalds had died long before the 1762 edition of his masterwork went to press.  In his place, one or another of Theobalds’s dwindling number of assistants is a prime candidate to have executed the transcription.  I am not informed that Philip Nichols was among them.  Moreover, Philip Nichols took great pleasure in declaring his authorship and would not likely have let the transcription go without attribution if it had been his own.  He almost certainly took the transcript for his Britannica article from the pages of Theobalds.

It bears mentioning, however, that the exhaustively thorough Theobalds could possibly have discovered the Will, in the Archbishop of Canterbury's court records, before it was officially discovered by Joseph Greene in 1747.  If Schoenbaum’s description of the discovery is correct[4], the Will would have actually had to be discovered in Stratford, surely a frequent stop for Theobalds et. al.  In the final analysis, Greene himself transcribed the Will[5] and he is the most likely source of all published transcripts prior to Malone.

The one striking difference between Malone’s reading and that of Greene is the latter's reading of the bequest to Anne Shaksper of his “brown best bed”.  It is to Malone that we owe the fractious correction to “second best bed”.  More on that momentarily.

What I had achieved to this point, then, was to verify that a transcript that clearly describes the text of the Will manuscript we have, appeared no later than 1747.  The genuineness of the interlineations in the manuscript of the Will, soon lost and later recovered, cannot be denied.  The transcript of 1747 includes them. The facsimiles we have, therefore, are taken from the original Will as it was drafted on the 22nd of June, 1616.  There have been no alterations, deletions or additions.

I have long wondered whether Malone’s “second best bed” was what I was reading in the interlineation that had been entered in the third page of the Will.  High quality reproductions, however, are hard to come by.  It seemed to me that the more likely reading was “crowne post-bed”.  The closely crimped lettering of the interlineation could definitely account for a single inconsistency with that reading.  I had my theories and reasons but insufficient proof.

The Age of Computers having arrived, however, I now found myself possessed of tools of increasing power with which to work.  I would one day assemble a clearer, magnified facsimile… when the time came available.  Last week the time came. 

I poured over each of the three pages checking to see precisely how the particular scribe who had written the Will formed his letters.  There are, of course, variations in the Secretary Hand between individuals.  Soon I was quite confident about how each letter was written in each of the circumstances common to taking a dictation: upper case, lower case, first letter of a word, last letter of a word, interior letter.  But, still, my case was not perfectly clear.  I loaded my scans into the basic Microsoft Paint, the photograph program that comes bundled for free in Microsoft Office software.  Suddenly I could magnify the third page and carefully erase the surrounding text.

After several “erasing trials” I discovered that I could find “crowne post-bed” but with two “slips of the pen,” one of which seemed pretty much the death-knell of my theory.  In fact, the only erasure trials that exhibited no anomalies, minor or major, revealed the phrase “second best bed”.  Malone had been correct.



After all of this, however, Ms. Miller Cutting’s essay lingered with me.  The bulk of her essay seeks to provide alternative answers to a question.  In the words of the author:

The second-best bed has remained a controversial bequest as it does not evoke the proper image of the cultivated, genteel poet/dramatist that is consistent with Shakespearean iconography. It does, indeed, invite an element of ridicule. For this reason, generations of Shakespearean biographers have searched for ways to cope with its undesirable implications.[6]

Subsequent pages list a number of ways the matter might be framed.  Some suggest less than an intimate familiarity with the law or customs of the times (I'm not sure such a thing exists as to the law and its enforcement with the lower classes).  Those that remain are a little vague.

I suggest that the Will itself provides us all the information we need in order to understand the likely reason for the paltry bequest to Anne Hathaway-Shaksper.  The house in which she had lived with her husband (when he was in Stratford), a substantial amount of money and the vast majority of all her husband’s chattel was bequeathed to Susanne.  A much smaller bequest went to the younger daughter, Judith.

Anne was 61 years of age when the Will was written.  That was quite an advanced age for persons of her economic class at the time.  Beyond the inconvenience and considerable expense of soon drawing up and probating another Will for Anne, and almost certainly in order to assure that the property was finally bequeathed precisely as Shaksper desired, Susanne was directly made the main heir.  Furthermore, only the bed and furniture was bequeathed to Anne because these were the items that furnished the room she had occupied for some time already, once her energies waned and the management of the house was turned over to Susanne (who likely had lived in New Place for all of her life, taking care of her aging parents in the end).  While the Will does not indisputably prove these as the facts, it certainly strongly suggests that this is the reason.





[1] Malone, Edmund. “Prolegomena”, The Plays and Poems of William Shakspeare (1790), Volume 1 @ 190
[2] Schoenbaum, Samuel. Shakespeare’s Lives (1991) @ 93
[3] Cutting, Bonner Miller ‘Alas, Poor Anne: Shakespeare’s “Second-Best Bed”,  THE OXFORDIAN Volume XIII, 2011, 76-93 @ 87n
[4] Ibid. Schoenbaum @ 92
[5] ‘When Mr. West of Alscot was the first, in 1747, to exhibit a biographical interest in this relic, the Rev. Joseph Greene master of the grammar school of Stratford-on-Avon, who made a transcript for him, was also disappointed with its content, and could not help observing that it was “absolutely void of the least particle of that spirit which animated our great poet.” It might be thought from this impeachment that the worthy preceptor expected to find it written in blank verse.’  The Aldus Shakespeare (1909), Volume 1, “The Life of Shakespeare,” @ 181.  This account is frequently repeated in various editions of Shakespeare.  The original source of the information would seem to be New Illustrations of the Life, Studies, and Writings of Shakespeare (1845) by the eminent antiquarian Joseph Hunter, Volume 2 @ 339-40.  Several copies of the Joseph Greene’s hand-written transcription can be verified to exist at locations presently beyond my reach.  The copy cataloged as  Landsdowne MS 721 has been sufficiently described and excerpted to verify that the interlineations existed in the copy of the Will that he transcribed in 1547 as they do in the copy we presently possess.
[6] Ibid. Miller Cutting @ 77




More from Virtual Grub Street on Shake-speare and Edward de Vere:

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