Shakespeare's last will and testament
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William Shakespeare’s last will and testament provides one of the
richest surviving documents for understanding his familial and
professional networks. The will names many of the important people in
his life, including family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors, as well
as describing specific pieces of personal property. The handwriting
does not match that of Shakespeare’s lawyer, Francis Collins,
suggesting that the will was drawn up by a clerk. The document is
written on three sheets of paper, with William Shakespeare’s signature
appended to each sheet, as prescribed in contemporary manuals.
Most individuals in early modern England did not begin writing a will
until death was imminent. Many scholars believe that when Shakespeare
sent for Francis Collins (who had also drawn up the deeds of bargain
and sale for the Blackfriars gatehouse) to draft his will, he was
almost certainly ill, although he did not die for another several
months. The signatures are written in shaky strokes of the pen,
suggestive of someone who had trouble holding a writing implement due
Scholars have suggested that the will was drafted in January, then
revised and partially redrafted on March 25 to reflect the change in
the marital status of his daughter Judith. She married Thomas Quiney
just over a month earlier, on February 10. At the top of the first leaf
January is crossed out and replaced with March. On the same leaf, a
reference to Shakespeare's son-in-law is altered to his daughter,
Judith. On the second leaf a section making provisions for Judith
"vntill her marriage" is deleted. Thus it is thought that the first
leaf was entirely rewritten and then revised, and that the second and
third leaves were merely revised.
The preamble of the will and the itemization of bequests are very
formulaic. Shakespeare left the bulk of his property to his two
daughters: Susanna Hall, his first child, and Judith Quiney. He left
money and clothes to his sister Joan Hart and her three sons (the name
of the third son, Thomas, is left blank), and plate to his
grand-daughter Elizabeth Hall, whom he refers to as his niece. The will
also makes bequests of his various properties: New Place; the house on
Henley Street in which he was born; the tithes purchased in 1605; the
Combe property; the cottage near New Place; and the Blackfriars
gatehouse in London. His monetary bequests add up to roughly £350. The
only specific objects he bequeaths are a large silver gilt bowl to his
daughter Judith; a sword to Thomas Combe, the nephew of his friend
John; his clothing to his sister Joan; and his second best bed to his
wife. Shakespeare left a gift of £10 to the poor of Stratford, as well
as bequests to his overseer, Thomas Russell, and his lawyer, Francis
Collins. He left 26 shillings and 8 pence each to his theatrical
fellows Richard Burbage, John Heminges, and Henry Condell, as well as
to Hamnet Sadler, William Reynolds, and Anthony and John Nash, to buy
Scholars have tended to focus on five main issues in the will. It has
often been noted that Shakespeare's only mention of his wife Anne
Hathaway reads as an afterthought: an interlineal insertion on the last
leaf, where he bequeaths her the "second best bed with the furniture"
(valance, hangings, linen, etc.) While this has been read as a slight
to Anne, the language was not entirely unusual. As Lena Cowen Orlin
demonstrates in forthcoming work, "best," "second-best," and "worst"
were all common descriptors in contemporary wills, used to identify
objects rather than to signify sentiment. The second best bed bequest
should not be seen as a window into William and Anne’s marriage, but as
a way to distinguish one bed from another so that his wife received the
right bed. (On the other hand, it is noteworthy if not downright odd
that Shakespeare’s wife is mentioned nowhere else in his will than in
Shakespeare’s bequest of all of his clothing to his sister Joan has
been noted as unusual, given that they were men's clothing. The
clothing was probably given to her to sell, or intended for her
husband, William Hart. As matters passed, however, William Hart died a
week before Shakespeare.
The wording of his revised bequest to Judith is thought to have
protected her as a prospective widow to account for her new marital
status. However, Shakespeare also provides his new son-in-law with an
incentive--if Quiney accumulated property, Shakespeare would match it.
Shakespeare may have been wary of Quiney, who, on the day following the
will's date, was fined five shillings by the ecclesiastical court in
Stratford-upon-Avon for fornication.
Another interlinear insertion, Shakespeare’s bequest to Richard
Burbage, John Heminges, and Henry Condell, three of the King’s Men,
confirms his association with members of his playing company to the
last days of his life. The fact that he calls them “my ffellowes” may
suggest that he still considered himself a King’s Man.
Shakespeare’s three signatures are all slightly different from one
another. Further, the signature on the first leaf is almost entirely
worn away. However, if we assume that Shakespeare was ill at the time
of signing, and that he was being asked to sign his name at the very
bottom of two sheets of paper and halfway down another sheet – not to
mention that, if bedridden, he would be writing at an awkward angle
from an awkward position – the fact that the signatures are shaky and
variously formed is not remarkable. His other three surviving
signatures show similar slight inconsistencies, suggesting that (like
some other literate men) Shakespeare was given to variation rather than
mechanical repetition when signing his name.
The will is attested at the end by Shakespeare’s lawyer, Francis
Collins, as well as four friends: Julius Shawe, John Robinson, Hamnet
Sadler, and Robert Whattcote. The executors were his daughter, Susanna
Hall, and her husband, John Hall. The overseers were Francis Collins
and Thomas Russell (the stepfather of Leonard Digges).
The original will shown here, the entry of probate, and the registered
copy survive. The probate clause in Latin at the end of the third leaf
indicates that John Hall, Shakespeare's son-in-law and co-executor,
made an oath to administer the estate on behalf of himself and his wife
Susanna, on June 22. Other associated documents, such as an inventory
of his goods, do not survive and were presumably lost with other
Prerogative Court inventories for this date in the Great Fire of London
in 1666. Another copy of the will survives at the Shakespeare
The pin-hole marks at the top of each leaf of the will are where the
three sheets were formerly attached by pins, a narrow strip of
parchment, or string.
The will has undergone a series of conservation treatments. According
to a 1913 report of the Royal Commision on Public Records, by the 1850s
the document had suffered handling damage and was repaired with
transparent paper, possibly pelure d’oignon. Then each leaf was set
between two sheets of glass in separate locked oaken frames, which were
stored in a locked oaken box in the strong room at Somerset House. At
the time of the 1913 report, visitors were permitted to view
Shakespeare's will and Lord Nelson's will in the strong room for "the
usual charge of one shilling." At some point after 1913, the will was
repaired again and lined with silk. From 1996-99, the silk lining and
old repairs were removed, and small tears on the edges were fixed. All
three leaves were lined with Greenwich repair paper and wheat starch
adhesive. They were encapsulated and sewn into a fully bound, reverse
calf, parchment binding. The binding was stored in a green buckram
slipcase with gold tooling. In 1999, the document, binding, and
slipcase were stored in a grey folding boxboard box. In 2015-16, it has
undergone further conservation: the lining has been removed and
multi-spectral imaging has taken place.
The original copy of the will was first noted by George Vertue in 1737
(Schoenbaum, p. 242, which cites British Library, MS Portland Loan
29/246, p. 19) and first printed in the third edition of Lewis
Theobald's Works of Shakespeare (1752). It was kept in the Prerogative
Office, first at Doctors' Commons, and then, when the building was torn
down in 1861, at the new Prerogative Office at Somerset House, until
being transferred in 1962 to the Public Records Office on Chancery
Lane. Since 2003 it has been maintained by the successor to the Public
Records Office, The National Archives in Kew.
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