Historians know precious little about the life of the author who gave the world 37 theatrical masterpieces (and possibly further plays which are of disputed ownership) which are of such unique intrinsic value that they are taught as an independent part of the English curriculum. The Royal Shakespeare Company is dedicated to their ongoing performance, and The Globe Theatre in London and the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon (among others) are venues which specialise in hosting performances of these tours-de-force. But historians know surprisingly few details about the man behind the theatrical magic. Other than various property deeds which show his economic dealings, we know little about his own thoughts and relationships as his personal papers have not survived the intervening centuries.
From baptismal and burial records, we know that Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon. We do not know the exact date, but it is celebrated as 23 April 1564. His death is also uncertainly recorded as being on the same date – 23 April 1616 when he was 52. One of the few documents that we do have relating to his personal matters is his Will which was drafted about a month before his death in which he declared that he was “in perfect health & memorie, god be praysed.” This is a fairly standard form of declaration in Tudor wills, so it doesn’t necessarily indicate that the Bard was in good health and he could possibly have been suffering from a lingering illness. Certainly, this was a redraft of a Will from January 1616, so mortality was clearly on his mind. But again, this was not particularly unusual in the early seventeenth century when it must have been perceived that death was potentially around every corner. Historians have debated endlessly about what the contents of this Will – and the changes from earlier Wills – can tell us about Shakespeare as a man and what we can glean about his character from its three untidy pages. The final March 1616 Will stated that:
- There are a few gifts to friends and colleagues;
- Shakespeare’s younger daughter Judith was to receive £100 “in discharge of her marriage porcion” (i.e. as her dowry) and a further £50 if she was to relinquish the Chapel Lane cottage to her sister; and the right to the income on a further £150 if she or any of her children were still living after 3 years – and the Will expressly denied any rights in this money to Judith’s husband Thomas Quiney unless he were to give Judith lands of equal value. Judith was also given “my broad silver gilt bole”;
- The other major bequest of the Will is that Shakespeare’s eldest daughter Susanna – together with her husband John Hall (a respected doctor) – was to receive the residue of the Estate, all the “goods, chattels, leases, plate, jewels, and household stuff whatsoever.” Shakespeare was a wealthy man at the time of his death and this residue would have included three houses and land in Stratford;
- However, written between the lines of the Will, in an almost illegible hand that took scholars decades to decipher, is the much quoted bequest to Shakespeare’s wife Anne: “It[e]m I gyve unto my wief my second best bed w[i]th the furniture” – she is to receive his second best bed.
Shakespeare’s Will was proved on 16 June 1616 and thus immediately became a document of public record. And over time it has become a document of public and historical fascination: just why would England’s father of letters have chosen to structure his affairs in this strange and seemingly partisan manner?
Some historians have posited that Susanna was simply Shakespeare’s favourite child and thus was to receive the bulk of the estate. Others have suggested that Shakespeare had withdrawn from Judith because she reminded him too much of her much-loved twin Hamnet (Shakespeare’s only son) who died aged 11, possibly of plague.
Others note that the bequest to Judith was changed in the January version of the Will to essentially make sure that her new husband could not get control of any bequeathed money – this is possibly after it was discovered that Thomas Quiney had fathered a child by another woman. But possibly this was simply pragmatism and paternal protectiveness on Shakespeare’s part – Amanda Bevan, head of legal records at the National Archives suggests that Shakespeare was simply trying to ensure that Judith had independent means of support should anything happen to her husband, “it is a father trying to protect his daughter beyond his own death”.
Perhaps in making Susanna the primary beneficiary of his estate, Shakespeare was trying to establish her as the new head of the family – it is known that she and her husband took up residence in New Place (Shakespeare’s final home) upon his death, and Germaine Greer has suggested that this was part of an explicit business agreement between Shakespeare and Susanna’s husband John. And as part of this arrangement, it is entirely possible that there was an express condition that Susanna and John were to be responsible for the care and maintenance of Anne and Judith, so a form of secret trust perhaps.
And what of poor Anne? For decades, scholars have taken her exclusion from the Will as callousness, or evidence of the fact that the couple had grown apart due to Shakespeare’s long absences in the playhouses of London. That she didn’t merit even the best bed (merely the second best) has been oft read as a marital slight, a snubbing that has echoed down the ages. However, a bed was a valuable asset, and there may be a good reason that it was only the second best-bed: it would probably have been usual for the best bed to pass with the primary residence (to Susanna). Or, as Maggie O’Farrel imagines in one of the most recent fictional recreations of Shakespeare’s life – perhaps Anne just preferred it. Perhaps it was the bed she was married in and had her children in. Perhaps she liked the colour. Perhaps it was more comfortable. We will never know for sure. Rather than being a snub, perhaps this was to ensure that Anne received what was truly important to her as hers outright.
What is often skipped over though when considering Anne’s apparently paltry inheritance, however, is that far from being left with nothing, custom would probably have dictated a life interest of sorts for her in the estate of her husband. Historians Amy Erickson and Tim Stretton each assert that widows had a right to the use of property ahead of the heirs. These would either be traditional dower rights (to enjoy 1/3 of all the property) or a jointure (income from specific lands) as well as the right to use the house and chattels within it. This would mean that as well as having an outright interest in her bed (and beds could be worth about as much as 1/5 of the value of a small cottage – and unlike modern furniture, would keep their value), Anne would also have had the right to use her husband’s estate until her death in 1623 at which point the legal interest would have passed to Susanna. So far from being a meagre inheritance, Anne would in fact have been well provided for by her husband’s estate.
But while historians can fill in many of the gaps and can tend to confirm or dissuade us from opinions about what specific gifts Shakespeare made to his various relatives might mean, we will never know for sure. These historical musings are little more than scholarly gossip – postulations and extrapolations based on snippets extracted from a single document. And it is almost certain that, in the absence of the Will, many of the assertions of cruelness, desertion, coldness and dereliction that have been levelled at England’s most famous literary figure simply would not have ever come to be. That single three-page document has, as a document of public record, provided untold historians countless hours of work, filled countless journal pages, and intrigued armchair historians since its discovery in 1737. Matters that Shakespeare would have considered private have become infamous and have coloured how history remembers him.
And in many ways, little has changed. Even today, if a Will is required to go through probate, it becomes a document of public record and anyone can request a copy. This means that, should you wish to favour one child over another, or snub your widow with a bequest of a paltry piece of furniture, history (or at least the neighbours) can read it and judge you for it. And this is notwithstanding that the picture painted by the Will might not be the full picture – the disinherited child may have been gifted a small fortune during your lifetime, but this would probably not be reflected in your Will. You may have significant jointly owned property with your spouse which would accrue to her automatically on death and, again, there would be no reason that this would be noted in your Will. Not to mention that sometimes the public record office is simply not where you would choose to have your private and family arrangements presented for anyone prepared to pay the £1.50 to obtain a copy of it.
There is, thankfully, a solution for those who value their privacy in making their Wills: the discretionary trust. As long as there is a trustee who can be appointed and be relied upon to make the decisions that the Testator would wish, this form of trust allows significant testamentary privacy. The trade-off is certainty of outcome against privacy (as well as some tax considerations), but the right trustee and an appropriately worded expression of wishes gives the Testator significant privacy against the prying eyes of the neighbours, the media, social media and, ultimately, history.