As head of legal records at The National Archives, I’ve been looking in detail at one of our treasures: Shakespeare’s original will, full of amendments, which was left in the probate court by his executor.
Shakespeare’s will was first discussed in 1747 by the Stratford antiquarian Joseph Greene. He was disappointed by it, as has been almost every other commentator since. It seems an oddly unfeeling and unsympathetic document, and is often interpreted as proof of the unsatisfactory nature of Shakespeare’s character, last years and family life.
I’ve come to two new conclusions, which are important for our knowledge of Shakespeare and his family:
- I have redated parts of the 1616 will to three years earlier, with implications for how we understand Shakespeare’s last years.
- I have placed in context those parts of his will which are cited as evidence that he was unkind towards his family, and offer a new interpretation of Shakespeare’s intentions.