Shakespeare’s will is an interesting and revealing document about the playwright. He made his will just four weeks before his death on the 23rd April 1616, aged 52.
Some ill-informed criticisms of the will have been made:
– ‘There are no references to any books he had’
– ‘He bequeaths his wife his second best bed’
For persons having significant property, it was usual for an Elizabethan will to have an attached inventory, which would list everything that the deceased possessed (in addition to the specific bequests in the actual will). Unfortunately, in Shakespeare’s case, the inventory has been lost, as have most others of the time. We do not know the detailed contents of the house, and if there were many, or few, books.
Further, under English Common Law, Ann would have received one-third of his final estate, as well as the right to stay at their final home – New Place – for the rest of her life. Thus bequeathing to Ann the ‘second best bed’ was simply ensuring that the bed they had both slept in became her property by right (the ‘best bed’ was always reserved for guests). Both beds would also have been listed in the inventory.
In addition, he left several monetary bequests:
To Judith, his younger daughter, he left £100 for a marriage dowry, and another £50 if she renounced any claim on a cottage in Chapel Lane (near New Place) which was owned by Shakespeare. He also left a further £150 to Judith if she lived another three years: if she died within the three years the £150 was to go to Elizabeth Hall, Shakespeare’s granddaughter.
To Elizabeth he left all his silver plate (with the exception of a silver bowl left to Judith).
To Joan, his sister, he left £30, and granted her the right to stay in one of the two houses that he owned on Henley Street, which Shakespeare had inherited from his father.
He left his three nephews £5 each.
He left £10 ‘to the poor of Stratford’.
He left various small bequests to friends, including amounts to buy rings in his memory.
Then the remainder (excluding the one-third due to Ann) was left to his elder daughter, Susanna, and her husband Dr John Hall.
The will demonstrates that at the end of his life, Shakespeare was a very wealthy individual. The value of the monetary bequests was (at today’s values) between £1-5 million in cash (depending on whether we calculate it using RPI or earnings). We then have to add in the value of the land and buildings that he owned – the latter including the exceptionally large New Place (over £1 million at current values), properties in Henley Street, and cottages near New Place. Also in 1602 Shakespeare bought an estate in Stratford for £320 (c. £2-3 million), consisting of 130 acres of fields, a farm-house, garden and orchard.
Clearly this was a self-made man, who had probably purchased New Place – the largest private property in Stratford-upon-Avon – as a kind of ‘I have arrived’ gesture. We can see that the will, and the possessions it represents, is essentially a summation of a very successful life.
The image on our front page is from the National Archives.
Shakespeare’s Will – Transcription (The inventory that would have been attached is lost.)
Vicesimo Quinto die Januarii Martii Anno Regni Domini nostri Jacobi nucn Regis Angliae etc decimo quarto & Scotie xlixo Annoque Domini 1616
In the name of god Amen I William Shackspeare of Stratford upon Avon in the countrie of Warr’ gent in per-fect health and memorie god by praysed doe make and Ordayne this my last will and testament in manner and forme followeing that ys to saye first I Comend my Soule into the hands of god my Creator hoping and assuredlie beleeving through thonelie merittes of Jesus Christe my Saviour to be made partaker of lyfe everlastinge And my bodye to the Earthe whereof yt ys made.
Item I Gyve and bequeath unto my sonne in Law and Daughter Judyth One Hundred and fyftie pounds of lawfull English money to be paied unto her in manner and forme follewing That ys to saye One Hundred Poundes in discharge of her marriage porcion within one yeare after my deceas with consideracion after the Rate of twoe shillinges in the pound for soe long tyme as the same shalbe unpaid unto her after my deceas & the fyftie pounds Residewe therof upon her surrendering of or gyving of such sufficient securitie as the overseers of this my will shall like of to Surrender or graunte All her estate and Right that shall discend or come unto her after my deceas or that she nowe hath of in or to one Copiehold tenemente with theappertenances lyeing & being in Stratford upon Avon aforesaied in the saide countie of warr’ being parcell or holden of the mannor of Rowington unto my daughter Susanna Hall and her heires for ever.
Item I gyve and bequeath unto my saied Daughter Judyth One Hundred and ffyftie Poundes more if shee or Anie issue of her bodie Lyvinge att thend of three yeares next ensueing the daie of the date of this my will during which tyme my executors to paie her consideracion from my deceas according to the Rate afore saied. And if she dye within the saied terme without issue of her bodye then my will ys and and I doe gyve and bequeath One Hundred Poundes therof to my Neece Eliabeth Hall and ffiftie Poundes to be sett fourth by my executors during the lief of my Sister Johane Harte and the use and proffitt therof cominge shalbe payed to my saied Sister Jone and after her deceas the saied L li shall Remaine Amongst the childredn of my saied Sister Equallie to be devided Amongst them. But if my saied daughter Judith be lyving att thend of the saeid three yeares or anie issue of her bodye then my will ys and soe I devise and bequeath the saied Hundred and ffyftie poundes to be sett out by my executors and overseers for the best benefit of her and her issue and the stock not to be paied unto her soe long as she shalbe marryed and Covert Baron by my executors and overseers but my will ys that she shall have the consideracion yearelie paied unto her during her lief and after her deceas the saied stock and condieracion to bee paid to her children if she have Anie and if not to her executors or Assignes she lyving the saied terme after my deceas provided that if such husbond as she shall att thend of the saied three yeares by marryed unto or attain after doe sufficiently Assure unto her and thissue of her bodie landes answereable to the portion gyven unto her and to be adjudged soe by my executors and overseers then my will ys that the saied CL li shalbe paied to such husbond as shall make such assurance to his owne use.
Item I gyve and bequeath unto my saied sister Jone XX li and all my wearing Apprell to be paied and deliv-ered within one yeare after my deceas. And I doe will and devise unto her the house with thappurtenances in Stratford where in she dwelleth for her naturall lief under the yearelie Rent of xiid
Item I gyve and bequeath unto her three sonnes William Hart—Hart and Michaell Harte ffyve pounds A peece to be payed within one yeare after my decease to be sett out for her within one yeare after my deceas by my executors with thadvise and direccons of my overseers for her best proffitt untill her marriage and then the same with the increase thereof to be paied unto her.
Item I gyve and bequath unto her the said Elizabeth Hall All my Plate (except my brod silver and gilt bole) that I now have att the date of this my will.
Item I gyve and bequeath unto the Poore of Stratford aforesaied tenn poundes; to Mr Thomas Combe my Sword; to Thomas Russell Esquier ffyve poundes and to ffrauncis collins of the Borough of Warr’ in the countie of Warr’ gent. thriteene poundes Sixe shillinges and Eight pence to be paied within one yeare after my deceas.
Item I gyve and bequeath to mr richard Hamlett Sadler Tyler thelder XXVIs VIIId to buy him A Ringe; to William Raynoldes gent XXVIs VIIId to buy him a Ringe; to my godson William Walker XXs. in gold; to Anthonye Nashe gent. XXVIs VIIId in gold; and to my ffellowes John Hemynges, Richard Burbage and Heny Cundell XXVIs VIIId A peece to buy them Ringes.
Item I Gyve Will Bequeth and Devise unto my Daughter Susanna Hall for better enabling of her to performe this my will and towardes the performans thereof All that Capitall Messuage or tenemente with thapper-tenaces in Stratford aforesaid called the newe plase wherein I now Dwell and two messuags or tenementes with thappurtenances scituat lyeing and being in Henley Streete within the borough of Stratford aforesaied. And all my barnes, stables, Orchardes, gardens, landes, tenementes and herediaments whatsoever scituat lyeing and being or to be had receyved, perceyved or taken within the townes and Hamletts, villages, ffieldes and groundes of Stratford upon Avon, Oldstratford, Bushopton and Welcombe or in anie of them in the saied countie of warr And alsoe All that Messuage or tenemente with thappurtenances wherein one John Robinson dwelleth, scituat, lyeing and being in the blackfriers in London nere the Wardrobe and all other my landes tenementes and hereditamentes whatsoever. To Have and to hold All and singular the saied premisses with their Appurtenances unto the saied Susanna Hall for and during the terme of her naturall lief and after her deceas to the first sonne of her bodie lawfullie yssueing and to the heiries Males of the bodie of the saied Second Sonne lawfullie yssyeinge and for defalt of such heires Males of the bodie of the saied third sonne lawfullie yssye ing And for defalt of such issue the same soe to be Reamine to the ffourth sonne, ffythe, sixte and seaventh sonnes of her bodie lawfullie issueing one after Another and and to the heires Males of the bodies of the saied ffourth, ffythe, Sixte and Seaventh sonnes lawfullie yssueing in such mamer as yt ys before Lymitted to be and remaine to the first, second and third Sonns of her bodie and to their heires males. And for defalt of such issue the saied premisses to be and Remaine to my sayed Neede Hall and the heires Males of her bodie Lawfully yssueing for default of…such issue to my daughter Judith and the heires of me the saied William Sahckspere for ever.
Item I gyve unto my wief my second best bed with the furniture; Item I gyve and bequeath to my saied daughter Judith my broad silver gilt bole.
All the rest of my goodes Chattels, Leases, plate, jewles and Household stuffe whatsoever after my dettes and Legasies paied and my funerall expences discharged, I gyve devise and bequeath to my Sonne in Lawe John Hall gent and my daughter Susanna his wief whom I ordaine and make executors of this my Last will and testament. And I doe intreat and Appoint the saied Thomas Russell Esquier and ffrauncis Collins gent to be overseers herof And doe Revoke All former wills and publishe this to be my last will and testament. In witnes whereof I have hereunto put my Seale hand the Daie and Yeare first above Written.
Witness to the publishing hereof: Fra: Collyns, Juilyus Shawe, John Robinson, Hamnet Sadler, robert Whattcott.
By me William Shakespeare
Probatum coram Magistro Williamo Byrde legum doctore Commissario etc xxiido die mensis Junii Anno domini 1616 Juramento Jahannis Hall unius executorum etc. Cui etc de bene etc Jurati Reservata potestate etc Sussane Hall alteri executorum etc cum venerit etc petitur.