This poem is brief, yet it moves in many directions, showing the expanse of the speaker's love for her deceased husband. The sonnet is preceded by an epigraph quoting William Shakespeare's will, in which he left his "second best bed" to his wife, Anne Hathaway. In the first lines, the speaker, who we soon realize is meant to be Hathaway herself, undercuts assumptions about that bed. The bed does not need to be the best bed because, for Anne Hathaway, it becomes a fantasy world for her husband to explore and for her to observe with wonder.
The next lines explore the slippage between her and her husband's love and his writing. She compares his writing to both shooting stars and kisses. Her body, in turn, relates to his as poetic devices like assonance and echo relate to his writing; in this manner, she becomes part of his writing. She describes his touch as "a verb dancing in the centre of a noun," highlighting the hidden nature of their love for each other.
The slippage between Shakespeare's writing and this relationship becomes more explicit with the eighth line, where the speaker dreams that "he'd written me, the bed/a page beneath his writer's hands." The following lines reimagine his plays; instead of being words acted by actors, she imagines the words being acted out "by touch, by scent, by taste." Despite the intimacy of these lines, and despite the loss the speaker has recently suffered, the tone remains steady and matter-of-fact.
The speaker then turns to the supposed "best" bed, where "guests dozed on,/dribbling their prose." This line reveals that the speaker feels her husband's writing, as well as their love, was so lively and magical partially because drama and poetry both work outside of the limits of prose. This adds to the defensive undercurrent of the poem regarding assumptions made about the second-best bed; Hathaway believes her husband existed on a plane beyond the average person.
The poem comes to a climax in its twelfth line, in a fragment. "My living laughing love –" says the speaker, cutting herself off as if to preserve that image. The final, rhyming couplets of the poem are simple. The speaker compares how she holds her deceased husband in her mind to how he held her in the second-best bed. This ending feels like a promise, a way for the widow to honor her husband in death as he honored her in life.
Though this poem acts to reverse assumptions about what it meant for Shakespeare to leave his wife his "second-best bed," it seems the speaker becomes an active element of her own story only after her husband's death. In the seas that the speaker imagines their bed turned into, her husband is the one who dives for pearls; this image is a sexual innuendo implying that he sexually pleasures her, but at the same time, it highlights the speaker's passivity, since he is the one exploring, while she merely observes.
The slippage between the relationship and the writing gives the reader the difficult task of interpreting exactly what is physical, bodily love, and what is metaphor. The line "My lover's words/were shooting stars which fell to earth as kisses/on these lips" is particularly slippery. His words are shooting stars that land on earth like kisses, but because those kisses are metaphorical, they feel hypothetical, like the speaker's wishful thinking. The layered metaphor makes this part of the poem feel like a hall of mirrors; it is difficult for an outsider to see clearly the relationship between Hathaway and her husband.
In the next line, the speaker describes her body as "a softer rhyme/to his, now echo, assonance." These lines are interesting because the speaker describes herself in relation to her husband's body, as a subject of touch, not as an active participant. When she imagines herself as part of his writing, she is an arbitrary element. However, she describes her husband's touch as "a verb dancing in the centre of a noun," which seems to indicate that, even within the parameters of this metaphor, he has power to bend things like language to his will. While this poem does change the story behind the second-best bed to a story of love, it does not necessarily empower the speaker. Duffy's intentions, it seems, are not to paint a picture of an independent, powerful Hathaway but to create a version of her free of the shrewish characterizations that history has assigned her.
This sense of the speaker's powerlessness continues in the following lines, which read, "Some nights I dreamed he'd written me, the bed/a page beneath his writer's hands." The speaker here imagines herself existing only within the sphere of her dead husband's imagination. Her tone here seems wistful and romantic; she casts her devotion for her husband into even higher relief. "Romance/and drama played by touch, by scent, by taste," she continues. From these lines, a shadow of a doubt can be gleaned. The speaker wishfully binds her husband's writing into their love life, but that does not necessarily mean the two were interwoven in reality.
The next lines introduce the "best" bed, which turns out to be the guest bed. The guests who sleep there "doze on, dribbling their prose." These guests seem lethargic and do not exist as fully as the speaker and her husband. They "dribble" prose, as opposed to poetry, an image that pictures prose as like drool that comes out of sleepers' mouths, a harmless excretion. This is in sharp contrast to the romance and drama that are generated in Shakespeare and Anne's bed.
The speaker then says, "My living laughing love –" and cuts off. Before this line, though the mention of Shakespeare's will provides evidence that the speaker has outlived her husband, her tone has not been mournful. In this moment, as she considers her husband as he was, living and laughing, she seems stopped short by her pain. The next line comes as a reassurance, to herself or to her husband, that she will preserve him in his death as he preserved her in life through their love. The last two lines encapsulate the poem's ultimate purpose and meaning; by writing this poem, she writes him now as he used to write her.
The rhyme scheme of the typical Shakespearean sonnet goes as follows: abab cdcd efef gg. The Shakespearean sonnet also uses iambic pentameter; this means the lines use ten syllables, with the stress placed on every second syllable. Of course, Shakespeare's poems sometimes deviate from this strict format when the content calls for it. Similarly, "Anne Hathaway" follows some of the formal features of the Shakespearean sonnet, while deviating in important ways. The final couplet rhymes, and many lines throughout the poem have ten syllables. The meter is also strongly iambic, though the meter deviates at crucial junctures. For instance, the line "a verb dancing in the centre of a noun" disturbs the steady meter with "dancing," emphasizing the movement described.
Though the poem is devoted to remembering Shakespeare intimately, it bestows upon the speaker the power to command her own narrative.