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This poem is taken from a collection by Carol Ann Duffy called “The World’s Wife”. In this collection, Duffy writes a number of dramatic monologues from the perspective of women who have been traditionally silenced in history, mythology and fiction. A dramatic monologue is a poem that is spoken by a character. For example, she writes a poem about a modern day Medusa, allowing us to think more sympathetically about a woman whose story normally presents her as the villain in a story about a heroic man. The monologues are essentially giving a voice back to these women, and at the same time allowing us to see the men in their lives from a different view point.
Anne Hathaway was the wife of William Shakespeare. She was nine years older than her husband, who married her when she was pregnant with their first child. They spent long periods of time apart; he went to London to work in the theatres whilst she stayed behind in Stratford upon Avon. When Shakespeare died, the only present he left his wife in his will was the second best bed in the house. Many scholars have seen this as confirmation that the couple had become estranged, and that this parting gift was meant to be a snub on Shakespeare’s part. There has been much speculation about the great loves and muses in Shakespeare’s life but very few people think that Anne Hathaway was one of them. In the film Shakespeare in Love Anne Hathaway, whom we never see, is nothing more than an inconvenience to her husband, getting in the way of his search for a true muse who will inspire him to produce a masterpiece.
Carol Ann Duffy uses her poem to try and challenge these stereotypical assumptions about Shakespeare’s wife. She reimagines the gift of the second best bed, not as a petty demonstration of marital discontent, but as the place where husband and wife experienced their most romantic and intimate moments. By doing so, she makes us question the relationship between Anne Hathaway and Shakespeare, and the wife’s contribution to the work of her husband.
Language and Imagery
Much of the imagery in this poem is sexual and allows us to see the relationship between husband and wife as one that is both spiritually and physically fulfilling. From being a mundane gift to a neglected spouse, the bed in Anne’s eyes is transformed into “a spinning world/of forests, castles, torchlight, clifftops, seas”. Duffy creates a magical world of romance and intrigue, with subtle nods towards key elements in Shakespeare’s own plays, such as the forest and castle in Macbeth or the sea of The Tempest. She creates a fantasy landscape where Shakespeare’s writing and his love for Anne are intertwined. Shakespeare’s words become “shooting stars which fell to earth as kisses/on these lips”. His words are stars up in the sky that everyone can see and admire, but his poetry is also something intimate that only Anne can experience and fully comprehend. For her, his works are something physical that she can touch, an experience of Shakespeare that nobody else can have.
Duffy further develops this notion by using the language of poetry to describe the lovemaking between Anne and Shakespeare. Sex and poetry are interwoven as his touch becomes “a verb dancing in the centre of a noun”. Anne imagines she is a product of her husband’s imagination, written into existence through their passionate exchanges, whilst the second best bed functions as “a page beneath his writer’s hands”. She is his ultimate muse, not just inspiring him to produce great works but actually becoming them. Rather than living in an atmosphere of hostility, the couple lives in a world of “romance and drama”, brought into being through their physical and emotional love for each other.
It was customary in Shakespeare’s time to give up the best bed in the house for guests. Anne imagines the guests in the next room, “dribbling their prose”, whilst herself and her husband create poetry and drama. Anne and Shakespeare inhabit a world full of senses, “played by touch, by scent, by taste”, whilst all the guests are able to do is dribble. The poem concludes with Anne claiming that all her memories of her husband are stored “in the casket of my widow’s head”. He is preserved not in a coffin or urn, not even in his writing, but in the thoughts inside Anne’s head, implying that the real William Shakespeare was a man that only his wife could ever truly know.
The poem is written in the form of a sonnet. Shakespeare’s most famous poems about love were written in this form, and Duffy’s choice here suggests that this poem is both a homage to Shakespeare’s romantic sonnet and at the same time a re-examining of the poet and playwright from a different angle. Whilst she keeps the rough outline of the sonnet, Duffy does not use the traditional rhyme scheme that all Shakespearian sonnets follow; ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. She keeps the rhyming couplet at the end, but otherwise her lines are only loosely joined together through assonance, for example “world” and “words”. The lines are softly and subtly joined together, as if to echo the physical relationship between Anne and Shakespeare. Duffy’s choice to subvert the form of the sonnet emphasises that these are the words of his wife and represent her own insight into her husband, an insight that cannot be shared or replicated by anyone else.
The poem is rich in metaphors, such as the “spinning world” of the bed or the “lover’s words” as “shooting stars”. The metaphors allow the world of Shakespeare’s poetry to intertwine with the physical reality of his marriage to Anne. Enjambement is used to allow the lines to flow into each other, again implying the deep and intricate connection that existed between Anne and Shakespeare. The sibilance in lines such as “shooting stars which fell to earth as kisses”, allow Duffy to evoke the sense of Shakespeare’s words sweeping across the sky in an arc that begins and ends with Anne. The alliteration in “living laughing love” allows the words to dance across the page, suggesting the effervescence of the poetic relationship between the pair and is suitably juxtaposed with the dull “dribbling” of the prose of the guests. The poem contains a great deal of verbs such as “dancing”, “dive”, “dozed” and “dribbling”. The verbs help to suggest that the couple’s relationship is an active and passionate one.
This is a poem about love and one that could usefully be compared to Shakespeare’s own sonnets on the topic, in particular Sonnet 130, where he compares his mistress to the standards normally required of women in poetry, and concludes that even though she is not the divine goddess other poets write about, to him she is just as beautiful in spite of, or maybe even because of, her human imperfections. “Anne Hathaway” is about a marriage where the couple create their own romance, one that does not involve conforming to other people’s expectations. The poem allows the reader an insight into a relationship of mutual love and respect, where the couple create a retreat from the rest of the world through poetry, a world which is symbolised by the second best bed. The power of literature and the imagination is hence a central idea in the poem. The poem creates significance around the bed which can only be truly understood by the couple themselves. The poem is hence in one sense about reinventing material objects.
Another theme that runs through the poem is Anne’s loss of her husband and her genuine grief. A reader might perhaps expect Anne Hathaway to be angry and resentful, permanently overshadowed and side-lined by her husband, but Duffy’s Anne is only full of admiration and love for her husband, cherishing her precious memories that nobody else can share. Although Duffy gives Anne a voice, she actually subverts the reader’s expectations through the emotions expressed by the character. This is in contrast to another poem by Carol Ann Duffy, “Havisham”, where Miss Havisham from Great Expectations remains bitter and vengeful towards the lover who jilted her. There is no such anger or resentment in this poem, only a widow grieving a beloved husband. “Anne Hathaway” allows us a different perspective of Shakespeare, a man sometimes represented as a philandering husband who put his writing above all else. We instead perceive him as a devoted husband, who saw writing not as something separate to marriage, but as something deeply embedded within it. Therefore another key theme in the poem is the true identity of William Shakespeare, a man about whom scholars still know surprisingly little. By presenting this poem in the voice of Anne Hathaway, Duffy wants us to appreciate that Anne was a central part of his life, as well as a passionate, creative and articulate woman in her own right.