The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.238 Friday, 22 July 2016
Date: Friday, July 22, 2016
Subject: Shakespeare’s Will
Shakespeare’s Will: A New Interpretation
Tuesday 5 April 2016
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.
Handling the will
In 2013, the artist Anna Brass made two films about Shakespeare’s will for us. 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.
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.
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