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.

The will itself was not written in Shakespeare’s hand but may have been drafted by his lawyer Francis Collins, or possibly by  Collin’s clerk. The three page will contains three of the six surviving examples of his signature, which authenticated the will.

Shakespeare’s will was very much a conventional will, expressed in the language of lawyers, properly witnessed and registered, and taken to London to the Prerogative Court of Canterbury to be legally validated on 22 June 1616. The will accounted for everything Shakespeare had owned.

Shakespeare's will

Shakespeare’s will

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.

Shakespeare's Will: Who got what?

Shakespeare’s Will: Who got what?

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 his debts 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?

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5 replies
  1. Peter Roberts
    Peter Roberts says:

    Why was there no mention of his works, manuscripts, folios? Did people inherit copyright the same as they do today?

  2. Browneyedgirl1522
    Browneyedgirl1522 says:

    Only a man could look at this and think Mrs Shakespeare wasn’t completely humiliated at the reading of this will. One line. One item. With her name not even mentioned. If she were to receive one third through Common Law, then he would not have specifically mentioned his daughter as receiving everything else. A complete burn to poor Mrs Shakespeare!

  3. Walter sandtner
    Walter sandtner says:

    the testament of Shakespeare is the best prove that the Stratford-upon-Avon-Shakespeare (SuAS)is not the author of Shakespeare`s plays.The testament speaks in detailed manner of all kind of things, but no word of a library, of books and before all of the plays. If the SuAS would have been the author, there would at least some indication on who should own the manuscripts.
    Kind regards
    Walter Sandtner

  4. John Patrick Keating
    John Patrick Keating says:

    As we are approaching the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, perhaps a slander against his name might be at long last corrected. In so many articles, talks, books, documentaries, etc., mention is made of the bequest of his second best bed to his wife, thus stinting her. The implication denigrates Shakespeare’s character
    and suggests an unhappy marriage.
    Shakespeare had to leave his wife his second best bed: he kept his best bed, the grave, for himself. The testator of the will remained a poet even unto death.

    John Patrick Keating

  5. j lague
    j lague says:

    “Could Shakespeare have been bigger than Andrew Lloyd Webber?”

    Could Shakespeare’s wealth have been amassed by blackmailing a person of high standing?
    Could his mysterious death have been due to poisoning? Could the fact that Ben Jonson…who wrote the eulogy included in the first folio and who was named in an anecdote as one of those who was drinking with Shakespeare just prior to his death…was awarded a sizeable pension in the year of Shakespeare’s death be anything other than a coincidence?
    Could this piece of speculation on my part be any more far-fetched than a good many theories about the elusive man from Stratford that have been generally accepted as sound?


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