Here we take a closer look at the exhibition’s centrepiece: Shakespeare’s will, recently conserved by The National Archives.
Shakespeare died a wealthy man, survived by his wife Anne and daughters Judith and Susanna. Parts of the will may be based on a draft from 1613, but significant changes were made in the months and perhaps even weeks before his death on 23 April 1616. The will itself is not written in Shakespeare’s hand, but it does contain three of the six surviving examples of his signature: one each at the bottom of pages 1 and 2, and one at the end, which reads ‘By me William Shakespeare’.
His financial arrangements protected his daughters, who were his heirs. Most of Shakespeare’s property, including his home New Place, was left to his elder daughter Susanna, although the will was rewritten in January 1616 to increase the provision for Judith.
His wife Anne did not need the same financial protection, as her marriage settlement – or dowry – would have protected her interests in the family property during her life. But she did receive the intriguing personal bequest of the ‘second best bed’.
The main text is concerned with the bequests of property and significant possessions, and was written in the appropriate legal language of the day. But there are also additions in darker ink, between the lines: These are Shakespeare’s personal bequests, added to the document just before he died. The presents Shakespeare gave to his family and friends – from a silver bowl to his younger daughter to money to buy memorial rings for his fellow actors – seem to reflect the recipients’ personalities and tastes, as well as Shakespeare’s relationships with them.
You can explore Shakespeare’s will below.