A month before his death in April 1616 William Shakespeare sent for his attorney and dictated the terms of his will. He must have suspected or feared that he was nearing his end, although the fever that killed him didn’t take a real grip until the last week and, indeed, the night before his death he was still eating and drinking with friends.
Shakespeare’s will is very much a conventional will, expressed in the language of lawyers, properly witnessed and registered, and it accounted for everything Shakespeare had owned. There is one item that commentators have reflected on through the years: the only place his wife is specifically mentioned is in the item in which he leaves her his second best bed. Some commentators have seen that as a lack of affection or a kind of contempt but if you think about it, it must have been his most intimate possession. It was customary for wealthy people to keep a guestroom with the best bed in the house in it. The second best bed was where he and his wife would have slept together, made love, given birth to their children, and where Shakespeare would have died. Leaving it to her ensured that whatever else happened it belonged to her now and no-one could take it away from her. He knew that she would be looked after, and indeed, in terms of the English Common Law of the time she was entitled to one third of his estate and the use of the matrimonial home for life. There was no point in mentioning it in the will. She continued to live in the house until her death in 1623.
Apart from his wife, Anne , his main heirs were his daughter, Susanna, and her husband Dr John Hall . After everything that was mentioned in the will all the rest of his ‘goods, chattels, leases, plate, jewels and household stuff’ went to them – after hisdebts and funeral expenses had been discharged.
His second daughter, Judith , who was unmarried, received £100 for her marriage portion and another £50 if she renounced any claim to the Chapel Lane cottage, which Shakespeare had previously purchased, near New Place . She was to receive a further £150 on which her future husband would have no claim unless he settled lands on her to the value of £150. If she had failed to live another three years the £150 would have gone to his granddaughter, Elizabeth Hall . He also left Judith a silver bowl, probably a bowl that she was already using as her own or that she had particularly liked.
Shakespeare left £30 to his sister, Joan Hart . She was also allowed to continue living in one of the two houses on Henley Street for a nominal rent. That was one of the houses Shakespeare had inherited from his father in 1601. Each of Joan’s three sons received £5.
He left all his silver plate to his granddaughter, Elizabeth , except the silver bowl left to Judith.
Shakespeare remembered his friends in his will. He left his sword and other small items to local friends. His lifelong friend and neighbour, Hamnet Sadler , received the money to buy a memorial ring. He left 26 shillings and 8d to each of three business partners and fellow actors, John Hemynges , Richard Burbage and Henry Cundell , so that they could buy rings.
Finally, Shakespeare left £10 to the poor of Stratford .
So how wealthy was William Shakespeare?
It is almost impossible to work out what the equivalent of each of these sums of money would be worth today, but if we were to look at how much Londoners were paid at the time of Shakespeare’s death we could get a rough idea. Skilled workers in the City, and actors in the top London theatres, for example, earned about £13 a year, whereas these days this type of work earns around £50,000.
By that reckoning, Shakespeare’s three nephews would have inherited about £12,500 each – not a bad little inheritance from an uncle. Judith’s £300 was the equivalent of about £750,000. With all his money and properties you can see how wealthy Shakespeare had become by the time of his death. When you think that an average theatre ticket cost about 2.5pence (£0.025) it’s almost unbelievable that it added up to so much wealth, considering that Shakespeare was only one of several partners in all his theatrical activities. Could Shakespeare have been bigger than Andrew Lloyd Webber?