First, let's get one thing straight. This poem is not about Anne Hathaway, movie star extraordinaire. It's about Shakespeare's wife. She was named Anne Hathaway, too.
Now that we've got that all cleared up, here's a little context that might help you understand "Anne Hathaway" the poem. When Shakespeare died, the only thing that he left for his wife in his will was their "second best bed." Yup, that's right. Not the best bed. The second best bed.
This information has driven Shakespeare scholars nuts. Some assume that this was a monumental diss to Anne, that the will was a sign that he didn't love her, that they had a loveless marriage. Would you be happy if the only thing your spouse left you upon his death was the second best bed? We think not. But other scholars have come up with alternative theories. It's possible that Renaissance legal codes would automatically leave some of the estate to a man's widow. Or perhaps Shakespeare had planned for his children to support his wife after his death. No one knows for sure.
The Anne of the poem wants to dispel the idea that her husband didn't love her. She says that the second best bed was the bed that they slept in, made love in, wrote poetry in. (The best bed was reserved for guests, she says.) For the Anne of Carol Ann Duffy's 1999 poem, the second best bed is a memento of love, not a symbol of hate or disrespect. Basically, this poem is a (soft) slap in the face to all who suppose that the Shakespeares didn't love each other.
In her poem, Carol Ann Duffy speaks in the voice of Anne Hathaway herself. It makes sense that Duffy wants to give a voice to this otherwise silenced woman because Duffy herself is known as a feminist. Oh, and she's also the Poet Laureate of the UK, which is a pretty big deal, especially because she's the first woman ever to hold that post. Other people to have the title have been Edmund Spenser, John Dryden, and Lord Tennyson – recognize those names? Like we said: pretty big deal.
Why Should I Care?
Everyone loves some good gossip – even Shakespeare scholars. We all like to talk about other people, their relationships, their problems. It's just what we do.
"Anne Hathaway" is a good reminder for us that sometimes gossip is just gossip. We may know what Shakespeare wrote in his will, but we will never understand the complexity of his relationship with his wife. That's just how it is. Let's not judge, this poem says. What seems like a bad relationship may actually be a wonderful one. We might all do well to keep our noses out of other people's business (and their wills).