“In the name of God amen I William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon in the county of War-wick gentleman in perfect health and memory God be praised do make and ordain this my last will and testament in manner and form following. That is to say first I commend my soul into the hands of God my creator, hoping and assuredly believing through the only merits of Jesus Christ my Saviour to be made partaker of life everlasting, and my body to the earth whereof it is made.”
With these words Shakespeare began his will, shortly before his death in 1616, bequeathing to the world a statement of his assets and naming several of his closest friends. The will appears to adopt the impersonal jargon of lawyers and thus, despite the famous “second-best bed,” to conceal rather than reveal the testator. I want to compare the will with others of the same period and to suggest that Shakespeare’s failure to observe some testamentary conventions makes his a most unusual document, one that gives us unexpected insights into his personality and even into his relationship with his wife, Anne Hathaway.
Placing Shakespeare’s will in the cultural traditions of its period, we must compare it not only with London and Stratford wills but, more specifically, with those made by testators belonging to the same social class. After the preamble of a gentleman’s will there were often directions for the funeral. John Heminges, the dramatist’s colleague for at least twenty-two years, said, “And my body I commit to the earth to be buried in Christian manner in the parish church of Mary Aldermanbury in London,” and he requested that “my funeral may be indecent and comely manner performed in the evening, without any vain pomp or cost.” Shakespeare commended his soul to God, “and my body to the earth whereof it is made.”
In itself this abruptness might have little significance—yet it needs to be seen in a larger context. A gentleman at this time would often leave a sum for the repair of his parish church, another sum for a funeral sermon or an annual sermon, and now and then for a monument—not for all but for some of these…let us call them social obligations. Shakespeare’s colleague Thomas Pope left directions in 1603 for his funeral in the parish church and “towards the setting up of some monument on me in the said church and my funeral £20.” Another colleague, Augustine Phillips, asked in 1605 to be buried in the chancel of the parish church and gave “to the preacher which shall preach at my funeral…twenty shillings.”
Shakespeare left no such bequests and this may indicate a lack of interest, or even disaffection. The haste with which his will was prepared cannot be wholly blamed for such omissions since he found time to add other small bequests, which were interlined. Moreover, he did give a generous sum to the poor of Stratford: “Item, I give and bequeath unto the poor…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.