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An early copy of Shakespeare’s will

There is growing excitement in the Collections team about Shakespeare's will returning to Stratford some 400 years after it was drawn up here.

Amy Hurst

Following Shakespeare’s death, in April 1616, the will was taken to London by his executor, and favoured son-in-law, Dr John Hall, to be ratified at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC).  There it has remained, as part of the PCC archive, since June 1616.  The will itself provides many fascinating (and much speculated upon!) insights into Shakespeare’s inner circle. It also includes three of the six known surviving examples of his signature.  For further details of the upcoming exhibition, which is in partnership with The National Archives, please see our What's On pages.

Interest in the original will has brought our attention to an early transcript (SBT Archive Reference: DR59/1). This document will also be going on display soon, as part of the opening exhibition for the reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s New Place. New Place was a large property in the centre of Stratford, purchased in 1597, which Shakespeare’s will shows he left (along with other properties) to his eldest surviving child, Susanna Hall.

The phrase "In the name of God Amen" is written in bold; the rest is less clear, but is a neat script.
DR59/1 Early copy of Shakespeare’s will, sheet 1 (of 11 sheets)

The will copy is written out in a large clear hand and covers 11 sheets, as opposed to the tightly written and much amended original will, which takes only 3 sheets.  A heading note on sheet 1 reveals that that this copy was made from the register of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury “E: Registro Curia P[re]rogat’ Cant’ Extract”extract from the register of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. This copy made the reverse journey to the original will in that it was created (from the PCC records) in London and then taken to Stratford. The ‘will copy’ itself is undated - though the script and paper do confirm it approximately to the first half of the 17th century. There are a number of theories about the purpose and use of this copy: that it was an executor’s copy; or perhaps used in legal proceedings against Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna Hall, and her son-in-law, Thomas Nash (following Dr John Hall’s death in December 1635); or that it was required in concluding settlements on Dr John Hall’s estate in 1639 or Thomas Nash’s estate in 1647. While the specific function remains uncertain, it is apparent that we are looking at a period where Shakespeare’s original will was still an active legal document and that this copy was most likely used by his surviving family in the decades following his death.  In this way, it provides intriguing glimpses into the personal and financial implications of Shakespeare’s death for his immediate family.

Working together with The National Archives we're delighted to be displaying Shakespeare’s original will as part of our Treasures exhibition at the Shakespeare Centre from 16 July – 4 August.

Find out more about visiting Shakespeare's Birthplace to get up close to this unique document while you can! 

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