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, his 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.
Handling the will
In 2013, the artist Anna Brass made two films about Shakespeare’s will for us. 1 We looked at his original will, but – like everyone else – were not allowed to handle it. So Anna recreated the original will from a digital image, printing it full size in A3 and in colour, trimming it back to the ragged edges of the original paper, and folding it along its old fold-lines.
Carrying the facsimile around, I read it and reread it, examined the layout and the alterations, considered the different shades of ink, and created a new transcription.
And gradually I came to think that perhaps the accepted date and interpretation could be wrong.
Redating the will
Easter was early in 1616, falling on 31 March. It was a hard time for the Shakespeare family. On 25 March William Shakespeare, apparently ill, revised his will. The next day his new son-in-law, Thomas Quiney, confessed in church to fathering a child with another woman. In the next month, the family suffered two deaths: his brother-in-law on 17 April, and William Shakespeare himself on 23 April.
In late June, John Hall (William’s other son-in-law and joint executor) travelled to London with the original will to get a grant of probate. The probate court made a copy for John to take back to Stratford-upon-Avon, as authority to collect debts and distribute bequests, but kept the original to make an official copy in the register of wills. 2
Both copies accepted the changes written throughout the original, creating the impression of one smooth text. But the original will, with all its amendments, gives us a glimpse of Shakespeare in action.
The original three-page will is dated 25 January 1616, with January crossed out and replaced by March. A common view is that a new page one, altered from the old, was written in March (with January initially copied by mistake).
I’m adding another date to the mix: April 1613. I have identified page two as a page reused from a previously unknown will, written probably three years earlier when Shakespeare invested in a substantial London property, the Blackfriars Gatehouse.
I also argue that the other two pages were rewritten in January 1616, and that all three pages were slightly amended in dark ink in March 1616.
New technical analysis
The National Archives recently undertook a major new conservation of the original will; it is now much closer to its original state. Due to this conservation work and new technical analysis, we can see that the paper and ink of the three folios are not uniform, and show potentially significant differences.
We carried out multispectral analysis of the will at the British Library in January 2016. Multispectral imaging can indicate differences in the inks being analysed: those of a similar composition will only appear under certain wavelengths of light. The will was photographed under 13 wavelengths and under different filters and lighting.
The images show that the ink used for the main body of text on the first page looks more similar to the ink on the third page than that on page two. So we have pages one and three possibly written with the same ink, and page two – my proposed 1613 page – on a different paper with different ink. Another ink was used for additions across the pages, which I dated to March 1616.
Rethinking Shakespeare’s last months
Redating the will could transform our ideas of the end of Shakespeare’s life.
It is often thought that people only wrote wills when they thought they were on their deathbed. It requires considerable speculation to fit Shakespeare’s will into this scenario, leading to claims that:
- Because he wrote a will in January 1616, he must have been expecting to die; as he survived until March, his illness must have been chronic.
- He was therefore probably suffering for a long time before January.
- He retired unwillingly to Stratford to be looked after because of this illness.
I think that Shakespeare was not seriously or chronically ill, nor expecting to die, in January 1616.
People wrote wills at different times for different purposes. Shakespeare may have written a will in early 1613 for two reasons. His last surviving brother had died unmarried in February 1613, altering Shakespeare’s options. And in March 1613 he invested in a large property in London, the Blackfriars Gatehouse, which was held in trust (probably for ease of resale). The trustees needed written direction for the future – in this case, a will directing that this property should go to Susanna Hall, his elder daughter. 3
The existence of the 1613 will indicates long-term financial planning by Shakespeare with the help of his lawyer and friend Francis Collins. He adapted the settlement of his estates as circumstances changed, and he may have been doing this for years, as his property portfolio grew.
Why did he rewrite his will in January 1616?
Shakespeare’s younger daughter Judith was about to get married to Thomas Quiney, on 10 February: he was responding as a prudent and well-off parent to provide her with long-term financial security. The new first page is mostly about providing for Judith – her marriage portion of £100, a further £50, and another £150 to either go direct to her husband if he spends £100 to provide for her if he died, or to go to trustees to provide her with an annual pension if he didn’t do this.
The original top lines of page two were crossed through – they referred to Judith possibly getting married at some future date – but the rest of the page dealt with Susanna, and still stood.
Page three was rewritten because it contained the signatures of witnesses, which would need to be retaken.
What happened in March 1616?
It has been a common view that the entire first page was rewritten in March to make Judith’s provision more secure against her husband.
In this interpretation, Shakespeare’s state was worsened when his new son-in-law Thomas Quiney was accused in March of fathering an illegitimate child. He roused himself on his sickbed to write Thomas out of the will on 25 March.
My view on this? First of all, these provisions for Judith weren’t changed in March. These are January provisions for the immediate future of her February marriage, but also for any number of potential futures. Judith could die, with or without children. Her husband could die, and she might remarry. Her first or future husband could provide for her widowhood, but if he did not, her father would.
All this has often been misunderstood as grudging to Judith and mistrustful of her husband, when really it is a father trying to protect his daughter beyond his own death. Thomas Quiney’s own family showed the need for this kind of forethought: his father had been killed in 1602 leaving a widow and children.
In late March however, I think Shakespeare did get seriously ill quite suddenly. A small number of additions in a darker ink were inserted into the will at this point, including the change from January to March. These were the bequests of mourning rings to his friends in London and Stratford, and the bed to his wife. So at this point he thought he was ill enough to die, and probably deteriorated over the next four weeks.
The Stratford story about Shakespeare’s death, current in the early 1660s, was that he died of a fever contracted after drinking with his fellow playwrights Michael Drayton and Ben Jonson. Often dismissed, maybe this needs to be thought about again. A typical death from fever, with delirium and coma, would have meant there was little opportunity to add anything more to his will as Shakespeare got progressively sicker. 4
Did Shakespeare hate his family?
A general (but not unanimous) view is that Shakespeare’s will shows him to have been sour, unemotional and unkind, with a dysfunctional family. From this much more has been extrapolated:
- Judith was resented for out-living her twin brother Hamnet. She was probably uncared-for, unlike his elder daughter Susanna Hall – his favourite, and the lucky recipient of his wealth.
- Shakespeare made no provision for his wife Anne, except for the slighting bequest of the second-best bed.
- He had probably lost affection or respect for Anne years ago, if he ever had any – after all, she was older than him and pregnant when they married. No wonder he had abandoned his wife and three children to live in London.
But the will was written as a business document, about a future transfer of property to come into effect on his death. It was not a deathbed declaration, and was no place for expressions of affection. Sourness or coldness can’t be read into the formal language of such a document.
What can be inferred by looking at the bequests of rings for his friends and the bed for his wife, added in March 1616, was that when seriously and suddenly ill Shakespeare wanted to give personal mementos to people who mattered to him. These are tokens of affection from a man facing the prospect of his death.
What did Shakespeare intend in his will?
Much of the current understanding of Shakespeare’s will comes from not just confusion about its date, but also misunderstanding the contemporary legal background. After intense discussions with David Foster (a PhD student in legal history at The National Archives), more background can be sketched in here. 5
The vast complexities and sophistication of 16th- and 17th-century law and litigation are still daunting for researchers (quite understandably). Yet there are excellent guides to light the way. In particular, Amy Erickson and Tim Stretton, looking at women defending their rights in the courts of Chancery and Requests, make it clear that at this time there were standard methods to protect daughters on marriage and wives on being widowed. 6
Shakespeare’s intentions in his will need to be judged against this background. How could a man with no male heir, two daughters and a wife who might outlive him, provide them all with security and yet safeguard the family’s hard-won social status?
It looks as though Shakespeare was a provident man with a sense of familial ambition: having gained the landed estates needed as a gentleman, he wanted them to stay united as a patrimony in the family. Without a will, the usual rule of inheritance if a man had daughters but no son, was to treat them as joint or co-heirs, splitting the inheritance of land equally. However, ‘usual rules’ were often variable, depending on local manorial customs.
Shakespeare did not divide his lands equally. He used his will to leave his land and leases to his elder daughter Susanna Hall and to any potential sons she might have. He treated Susanna almost as a surrogate son, while still treating Judith as a daughter. Judith was left a substantial bequest of cash – generous for a daughter, but not equal. 7
It’s possible that he was influenced by a local manorial custom from Rowington in the forest of Arden here, where the eldest daughter inherited if no son existed. Judith was given £50 for surrendering any possible right to a cottage in Stratford, held of the manor of Rowington. Was Shakespeare himself living within a local expectation and memory of strong women in the forest of Arden taking the part of men?
Anne Shakespeare is usually considered to have been badly done by: she was not mentioned in her husband’s will except for the famous bequest of the second-best bed, often interpreted as an insult. However, by custom, the first-best bed was always an heirloom, going with the main house to the heir. Anne was also left the bed outright, not just for the term of her life, which meant that she could dispose of it how she chose.
Many Shakespearean scholars also doubt that she was entitled to any property outside the will, extrapolating from an influential study of a Cambridgeshire village. 8
Somehow the particular custom of this village – that a widow lost her life interest in her late husband’s property if she remarried – has been extended by others westwards to the Midlands and to all forms of land-holding and to widows who did not remarry. Anne is therefore often said not have had any rights to her husband’s property after his death.
But was Anne left unprovided for? No: the extensive work of Erickson and Stretton makes it clear that a widow had a prior claim, before the heirs, to a life interest in her husband’s property. She would either have her customary dower rights (to a third of all lands) or a jointure (a more recent method, of income from specified lands), plus enjoyment of her household and personal goods. Anne’s lifetime rights took priority over the enjoyment of the full property by the heir: Susanna only received her full inheritance after her mother’s death in 1623.
Anne was not named as executor, but this does not mean she was hated or incapable. Susanna and her husband John were the executors, with the duty of paying out Judith’s marriage settlement, and acting as potential trustees for Judith: they were better placed to do this than Anne, by age and by role. Susanna was left with a lot of work to do (just as an eldest son would have been), raising capital for Judith and paying her interest.
If Anne’s rights had been withheld by Susanna, Anne could have gone to the court of Chancery like many other widows of her time – and we would have had much more evidence about the Shakespeare family.
Is there any more to tease out of the will?
Yes, lots more. David Foster and I will be presenting it at the World Shakespeare Congress study day at The National Archives on 8 August, and publishing it in the journal ‘Archives’ in late 2016.
- 1. The films are freely available: the first is This Holy Shrine and the second is Backwards Divination. ↩
- 2. The registered copy is TNA: PROB 11/127/771. The original is TNA: PROB 1/4. ↩
- 3. The terms of the will are cited in the indenture of 10 February 1618, which transferred the property to a new set of trustees (from the London-based John Jackson, John Heminges and William Johnson to the Stratford-based John Green and Mathew Morrys: Folger Shakespeare Library MS Z.c.22 (45)) ↩
- 4. The ‘typhoid state’ occurs classically with typhoid and typhus fevers but is also seen in other infectious diseases. Clinical descriptions of this state as ‘muttering delirium’ or ‘coma vigil’ refer to the peculiar preoccupied nature of the stupor. Picking at the bedclothes and at imaginary objects … are characteristic, as is muscular twitching… There is strong evidence that the death of Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry V is a vivid description of the typhoid state’: A [Abraham] Verghese, ‘The “typhoid state” revisited’, American Journal of Medicine 1985 Sep;79 (3):370-2. ↩
- 5. Any misunderstandings here are my own. ↩
- 6. Amy Erickson, ‘Women and Property in Early Modern England’ (1993); Tim Stretton, ‘Women Waging Law in Elizabethan England’ (1998). See also Lloyd Bonfield, ‘Devising, Dying and Dispute: Probate Litigation in Early Modern England (2012) and H J Habakkuk, Marriage, Debt and the Estates System: English landownership 1650-1950’ (1994), for later developments. For a good recent overview, see Tim Stretton and Krista Kesselring, ‘Married Women and the Law’ (2013). ↩
- 7. This included the possibility of a long-term annual income to be raised by Susanna. Depending on how Judith’s life turned out, she was due between £350 and £635 (the latter if she held an annuity until she died in 1662). Using the multiplier of 1:200 suggested by Nicholl in 2007, this was worth between £70,000 and £127,000 – so more than this today. See Charles Nicholl, ‘The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street’ (2007), p xviii ↩
- 8. Margaret Spufford, ‘Contrasting Communities: English Villagers in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries’ (1974), p 112. ↩