William Shakespeare's last will and testament among key documents going on public show

By Culture24 Reporter | 09 December 2015

Six of the nation's most important Shakespeare documents will go on show in London next year

A photo of a piece of old paper with black ink writing on it
From citizen and businessman to family man, servant to the King and even possibly thief and subversive, Shakespeare's life in London - including this will and testament - is portrayed in Somerset House's exhibition opening in 2016© Crown copyright, courtesy The National Archives
William Shakespeare’s will and testament, a testimony given by the playwright in a dispute over a dowry more than 400 years ago and a grant of four and a half yards of red cloth, made to him by King James I, will go on display together in public for the first time.

Four of Shakespeare’s six known signatures appear in a set of six scenes from Shakespeare’s life, the most daring of which might be the court papers following the daring “theft” – which curators say could have involved Shakespeare himself – of materials from a rival theatre across the Thames in the creation of The Globe theatre.

A photo of a piece of old paper with black ink writing on it
© Crown copyright, courtesy The National Archives
Witness statements from the 2nd Earl of Essex’s rebellion against Elizabeth I, when Robert Devereux failed to overthrow the Queen, illustrate the political use of Shakespeare’s work in the exhibition at Somerset House next spring. The conspiracy is thought to have been partly driven by Richard II, with Essex popularly linked to Bolingbroke, who opposes a tyrannical king in the play.

“The documents in this extraordinary exhibition offer unique insight into Shakespeare’s life and that of his fellow actors and playwrights,” says Professor Gordon McMullan, the Director of the London Shakespeare Centre at King’s College London, which has been part of an “unprecedented” collaboration with The National Archives to present the “priceless” papers.

“They represent the core of our knowledge of his biography – his interactions with officialdom, whether law cases, records of performance at court, tense examinations over potentially treasonous activity, disputes over rent, marital tensions, or the end of a life.

“Together, these records – which are unlikely to be on public display again in our lifetimes – give us the opportunity to reconstruct Shakespeare’s life.

“We are privileged to have the chance to share the curation of this wonderful exhibition.”

By Me: Six highlights from the exhibition

Removal of the Globe from Shoreditch to Bankside (documents created 1601-2, refer to incident in 1598-99)

A photo of a piece of old paper with black ink writing on it
© Crown copyright, courtesy The National Archives
This document from Star Chamber - the judicial arm of the King’s Council - reveals the unusual origins of The Globe.  Richard Burbage and his fellow actors, possibly including Shakespeare himself, built the Globe from materials removed from The Theatre, another playhouse on the other side of the river from The Globe. The document refers to “the violent theft” of the building and reveals the origins of The Globe - the source of Shakespeare’s financial success - in this property dispute.

Testimony Regarding Globe Performance of Richard II and Essex Rebellion (1601)

A photo of a piece of old paper with black ink writing on it
© Crown copyright, courtesy The National Archives
These witness statements recount the events of the unsuccessful rebellion led by Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex against Elizabeth I and reveal how Shakespeare’s work was used in politically subversive ways. Essex was popularly associated with character Bolingbroke, who leads a rebellion against a tyrannical king in an event dramatised by the play. A performance of the play was commissioned by Essex’s co-conspirators, a fact revealed in the testimonies used to convict them of treason.

Grant of Red Cloth to Shakespeare and Others for Participation in James I’s Coronation Procession (1604)

A photo of a piece of old paper with black ink writing on it
© Crown copyright, courtesy The National Archives
Listed in accounts from the coronation procession of James I and VI, this grant of four and a half yards of red cloth from the King to Shakespeare reflects his status as one of the King’s servants and the point when the playwright’s career began to flourish in a major way. This ceremony followed designation of the troop as the King’s Men a year earlier in 1603.

Account Listing Plays Performed at Court (1604-05 and 1611-12)

A photo of a piece of old paper with black ink writing on it
© Crown copyright, courtesy The National Archives
Royal accounts of the Master of Revels reveal which plays were performed at court over a particular season, including those performed over the Christmas period. These accounts, copies of which were submitted to the Exchequer, allow for the dating of when Shakespeare likely wrote A Comedy of Errors, Measure for Measure, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Love’s Labours Lost and Othello and show that Shakespeare’s company performed for the King more than any other company – illustrating his privileged position and success.

Shakespeare gives evidence in a dispute over a dowry (documents written in 1612 but refer to events of 1604)

A photo of a piece of old paper with black ink writing on it
© Crown copyright, courtesy The National Archives
Shakespeare provided evidence in court when his then landlord, Christopher Mountjoy, failed to provide his son-in-law, Stephen Bellott, with a dowry for his daughter’s hand. Shakespeare is likely to have played a role arranging this marriage and may have even performed the handfasting – or betrothal – of the couple. This document recording his testimony also includes his earliest recorded signature. This episode in Shakespeare’s life may have influenced the plot of Measure for Measure, the first recorded performance of which was just few weeks after the marriage of Stephen Belott and Mary Mountjoy. Themes in the play address abstinence, dowry, and marriage – all themes of this case.

Will and Testament of William Shakespeare (1616)

A photo of a piece of old paper with black ink writing on it
© Crown copyright, courtesy The National Archives
Shakespeare died on April 23 1616. His will, signed by him in three places, is indicative of his familial and social relations. Shakespeare died a wealthy man. Evidence indicates that he revised his will as his estate changed. Just before his death, Shakespeare added personal bequests to his will including the gift of a silver bowl to his daughter, memorial rings to his actor friends in London, and his second best bed to his wife. Shakespeare also left most of his property to his eldest daughter, although his will also indicates he hoped to establish a male legacy.

  • By Me: William Shakespeare – A Life in Writing is at the Inigo Rooms, Somerset House, London from February 3 – May 29 2016. Book tickets online at bymewilliamshakespeare.org.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three places to discover Shakespeare in

Shakespeare's Globe, London
The faithfully reconstructed theatre hosts an extensive exhibition about Shakespeare and the theatre of his day.

Shakespeare's Birthplace and the Shakespeare Centre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Five Shakespeare Houses in and around Stratford-upon-Avon, all directly linked to Shakespeare.

Compton Verney, Warwick
The current exhibition, Shakespeare in Art: Tempests, Tyrants and Tragedy, focuses on those pivotal Shakespeare plays which have motivated artists across the ages, from Singer Sargent, Fuseli, Watts and Romneyi to Tom Hunter and other contemporary artists, exploring the enduring appeal of the Elizabethan playwright. Until June 19 2016.
Latest comment: >Make a comment
Oh, dear. You failed to report that the infamous will contains nothing that indicates the life of a writer. Or, that the rings left to his "fellow actors" were interlineations inserted *after the fact. Sound fishy? No wonder Henry James believed "the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world.”

What was left out of the will? Expensive books, plays, manuscripts, unfinished works, personal costumes or
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