A critical reading of Duffy’s Shakespeare poem
Carol Ann Duffy, born in 1955, is the UK Poet Laureate, a post she has held since 2009 and will hold until 2019. Her 1999 collection The World’s Wife contains a number of poems written about the female other halves of famous male figures from history and literature – everyone from Eurydice (Orpheus’ lover in Greek myth) to Charles Darwin’s wife. ‘Anne Hathaway’ is one of the finest poems in this volume, so we thought we’d offer a few words of analysis and interpretation of this popular Carol Ann Duffy poem. You can read ‘Anne Hathaway’ here, where it is reproduced by kind permission of the author.
A bit of background first before we get to our analysis of Duffy’s poem. Anne Hathaway was, of course, the wife of William Shakespeare; the pair married in 1582 when Will was still a teenager and Anne was nearly ten years older. Shakespeare left Anne in Stratford-upon-Avon at some point in the late 1580s (probably), and proceeded to make a name for himself as an actor and playwright upon the London stage. Stratford remained his first home, however, and he bought the biggest house in the town, New Place, with the profits he made from his canny business investments, and it was in Stratford that he was buried in 1616. His will famously – or infamously – mentions just one item to be left to poor Anne: the couple’s ‘second best bed’. This has often been interpreted as a slight, and evidence that Shakespeare did not love his wife. Others, however, have suggested that the will doesn’t mention all the other possessions the Bard probably left his wife because they would be dealt with separately, and that the ‘second best bed’ – far from being a snub – refers to the married couple’s own marital bed, with the best bed in the house being reserved for guests. Carol Ann Duffy follows this latter interpretation in ‘Anne Hathaway’, quoting the notorious line from Shakespeare’s will as the epigraph to her poem.
A brief summary of ‘Anne Hathaway’, then. Anne Hathaway is the speaker of the poem, and tells us that the bed she shared with her husband was a world where his imagination would run riot, and where Shakespeare would romantically woo and entertain Anne with his sweet words and kisses. Anne uses terminology from poetic writing and analysis – echo, assonance, verb, noun – to describe the way her body complemented her husband’s, hers echoing or completing his, their two selves in perfect harmony. Anne does, however, paint herself as the more passive figure in the marriage: whilst not entirely devoid of agency, she is nevertheless an ‘echo’ to her husband, and his touch is the ‘verb’ – the one doing the action, in other words – while she is the ‘noun’. Yet Anne also portrays herself as imaginative, recalling how she sometimes dreamt that she was the product of her husband’s work, as though she’d been created, like a poem or play, on the white sheets of the bed (which suggest the white page of a different sort of sheet, namely a sheet of paper). While this creative magic was going on in their ‘second best bed’, Anne tells us, their guests were slobbering into their pillows in the ‘best’ bed in the house. While Anne and Will are described as poetry, their guests’ sleeping is ‘prose’. Anne concludes by saying that she holds fond memories of her husband’s way with her in their marital bed, tenderly remembering him just as he tenderly held her in their bed.
The poem’s form is highly significant, given its subject matter. Written in fourteen lines and ending with a rhyming couplet, Duffy’s poem calls to mind the sonnet form that Shakespeare himself made so popular. However, Duffy’s rhyme scheme is not employed as rigidly as in Shakespeare’s sonnets, which are rhymed ababcdcdefefgg. So it might be more useful to understand Duffy’s poem in relation to the Shakespearean sonnet, suggesting that poetic form while not slavishly following its ‘rules’. ‘Anne’s’ sonnet echoes and suggests her husband’s more famous poems, then, but is also its own poem and only vaguely follows the conventions of the Shakespearean sonnet. Nevertheless, the first four lines do suggest the abab rhyme scheme of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, with ‘world’ chiming with ‘words’, and ‘seas’ tenderly brushing up against ‘kisses’.
As well as the suggestive use of the sonnet form, ‘Anne Hathaway’ also contains a number of allusions to the plays of Shakespeare: ‘forests’ in line 2 suggests the Forest of Arden in As You Like It as well as the woodland setting for A Midsummer Night’s Dream; castles feature in many of Shakespeare’s history plays as well as in others such as Hamlet and Macbeth; King Lear contains a memorable clifftop scene; the description of Shakespeare diving for pearls (line 3) conjures up the song from The Tempest, about the dead body supposedly lying at the bottom of the sea: ‘Full fathom five thy father lies … Those are pearls that were his eyes.’ The image of Anne’s head being a ‘casket’ in the poem’s penultimate line recalls the three caskets from The Merchant of Venice, in which Portia decides that she will marry whichever of her suitors chooses the right casket.
‘Anne Hathaway’ is a fine example of a Carol Ann Duffy poem which responds to the literary canon not only through its subject matter but also through its form, language, and allusions – as our analysis of her poem has endeavoured to demonstrate. What do you think of Duffy’s poem? And which of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, if any, might it be productive to place it beside?