On this day in 1616, in front of several trusted witnesses, William Shakespeare, the most venerated of English playwrights, signed his Last Will and Testament. It was drawn up only four weeks before his death, on the 23rd of April. It stipulated the required division of assets on the occasion of his passing, and contained the famous clause, “I gyve unto my wief my second best bed.”
The main beneficiaries of the will were his two daughters. Judith, the younger daughter, was bequeathed a total of three hundred pounds, to be paid in installments. Half of the inheritance was only payable should Judith survive more than three years after the death of her father. On top of this, Judith was granted permission to rent for a nominal fee one of Shakespeare’s houses in Stratford-upon-Avon, and was awarded a large silver bowl from her father’s collection.
Susannah Hall, Shakespeare’s other daughter was not left a monetary sum, but was bequeathed the majority of her father’s estate. This included several properties in Stratford and the surrounding area, as well as barns, stables, orchards, gardens, and land. It also included Shakespeare’s property in Blackfriars, London.
Other bequests were reserved for designated friends and family. His sister Joan was promised the sum of £30 pounds, while three nephews were left the sum of £5 each. Several of Shakespeare’s most trusted friends were left a modest sum in order that they might each purchase a ring in memory of their departed friend. The poor and needy of Shakespeare’s hometown were taken care of, the impoverished of Stratford-upon-Avon being left the sum of £10.
To his wife, Anne Hathaway, he left his “second best bed,” which has led some to question the nature of their relationship. But the somewhat strange bequest must be considered in the context of the era in which the will was written. It was not uncommon at this time for the wife to be left a bed, in symbolic recognition of the conjugal relationship between man and wife. Despite Anne Hathaway being excluded from the remainder of the will, it is likely that there was an understanding that Anne would have been attended to by other members of the family. The bequest of the bed was probably not intended as an insult, as some have chosen to interpret it over the centuries.
Shakespeare’s Last Will and Testament is still in existence, and remains one of the most important surviving documents associated with The Bard. None of the original manuscripts of Shakespeare’s plays or poems survive, so examples of his handwriting, and in particular his signature, are extremely scarce. The document is unique in that it is signed by Shakespeare no fewer than three times. It is currently housed in the United Kingdom’s National Archives, an invaluable fragment of Britain’s literary heritage.
Caption: Shakespeare’s Last Will and Testament is one of the few existing examples of the Bard’s handwriting.