Shakespeare’s Private Life

by Julian D.

This chapter is a free excerpt from Biography of William Shakespeare.

Without engaging in any level of supposition, or attempting to deduce from often elliptical sources what the nature of Shakespeare's private life was, it would be fair to leave this section nearly blank. We know he married Anne Hathaway when he was 18 and she 26 or 27, that they had three children together (two daughters and a son), and that all he left his wife in his will was his "second-best bed.”


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Without engaging in any level of supposition, or attempting to deduce from often elliptical sources what the nature of Shakespeare's private life was, it would be fair to leave this section nearly blank. We know he married Anne Hathaway when he was 18 and she 26 or 27, that they had three children together (two daughters and a son), and that all he left his wife in his will was his "second-best bed.”

That second-best bed has provoked a good deal of debate as to whether Shakespeare was particularly close to Anne Hathaway or not. Some have made a gallant attempt to argue that in fact the second-best bed was the marital bed, with the best bed reserved for guests. However, other wills of the time leave the first bed to either wives or eldest sons, meaning this is surely something of a slight on Shakespeare's part. Additionally, other wills of the time – including those of Shakespeare's fellow players in the King's Men – said tender things about the deceased's wife. Shakespeare's will contains none of this; indeed, it has no tender references to any family members. One theory stemming from this is that he was ill when the will was written, and his signatures (three of the six Shakespeare signatures we have) were forged. Despite this paltry bequest, due to being the widow, Anne was entitled to a third of Shakespeare's estate.

We know very little about Shakespeare's relationship with his children. He was probably unhappy with the fate of his second daughter, Judith, who married a shady local vintner, Thomas Quiney. A month after the marriage, Quiney was fined 5 shillings for unlawful fornication – adultery.

Judith's male twin, Hamnet, died at age 11 in August 1596. Unlike Ben Jonson, who wrote some of his most moving and timeless poetry about the death of his son, Shakespeare never wrote (at least directly) about this loss. All we may do is speculate. It is true that after this, Shakespeare's writing about personal loss acquired a depth it lacked somewhat beforehand. Witness Lear's lamentation at the death of his daughter: "No, no, no life! / Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never!" Other recent scholarship argues that his son's death lies at the heart of the tragedy of Hamlet.

An arena of Shakespeare's personal life that has attracted a good deal of attention is his sexuality. Roughly three-quarters of his sonnets are addressed to a "fair lord,” and homophobic Victorian critics had a hard time explaining lines like "my lovely boy,” "master mistress of my passion", and the sexual pun in sonnet 20: "But since she pricked thee out for women's pleasure, /Mine by thine love, and thy love's use their treasure." Shakespeare also wrote a dedication to the third Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley (pronounced Rizzley), that suggests a certain attraction: "The love I dedicate to your Lordship is without end . . . The warrant I have of your honourable disposition, not the worth of my untutored lines, makes it assured of acceptance . . . Were my worth greater, my duty would sow greater; meantime, as it is, it is bound to your Lordship, to whom I wish long life still lengthened with all happiness."

Wriothesley was a noted fop, and stirred up gossip by sharing a room with another officer and being openly affectionate with him while serving as a soldier in Ireland. Homosexuality (or rather, sodomy) was a capital offence at the time, but it seems likely the law existed mostly as a ban against public displays, given there are very few prosecutions recorded. Indeed, James I, Shakespeare's greatest patron, was well-known to fondle handsome young men while holding court. The Victorians undoubtedly were far more homophobic.

The sonnets also provide another mystery – the remaining quarter are addressed to a "dark lady,” who (if they are a real person) is almost certainly not Anne. Some have suggested that the "dark lady" was in fact a woman of African descent – descriptions of her breasts as "dun" and her hair as "black wires" are often pointed to. This is not impossible – there were certainly Black people in Britain at the time, but it is more likely he was simply bucking Elizabethan poetic convention. Breasts were almost always described as "snow white" or with some other white superlative, and hair was commonly described as "golden wires". Shakespeare was probably just trying to shock the reader by describing the voice of the sonnet's love as the opposite of what they expected.

We will almost certainly never learn much more about Shakespeare's life. It is made harder by his very invisibility in his works – there is no hint of the author behind the plays and poems, just an obvious obsession with and love of the capabilities of language.

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