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The Objects in Shakespeare's Will

We have been using objects in our collections to explore the types of objects Shakespeare left to friends and family in his will.

Jessie Petheram

A significant and key part of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s collection is formed of objects from Shakespeare’s lifetime. These allow us to gain insight into the period’s social history as well as illustrating references to such objects in the plays. When it comes to Shakespeare’s will, the meaning behind what was left to whom has been much discussed and analysed, and it is not a debate to which this writer would ever presume to contribute. Our way in, therefore, is through those items in our museum collection which are representative of the bequests that Shakespeare made.

Hathaway Bed
SBT 1993-31/648 Known as "The Hathaway Bed"

Item I give unto my wife my second best bed with the furniture.

In Anne Hathaway’s Cottage stands the Hathaway bed (SBT1993-31/648), which helps us to tell the story of possibly the most famous and contentious bequest in history. It is an oak tester bed; made in England but of various dates and sources. The tester itself is mid-seventeenth century; the posts 1580-1630 and the rails and headboard from around the same period. It was not uncommon for wood and parts of furniture to be reused over and over again in this way; similarly the wood for floorboards in historic houses has originated in ships and churches. 

SBT L1995-1 Silver gilt drinking bowl c.1540
SBT L1995-1 Silver gilt drinking bowl c.1540

...I give and bequeath to my said daughter Judith my broad silver gilt bowl.

A more exquisite example of Tudor tableware is this silver-gilt drinking bowl (SBT L1995-1) from the mid sixteenth century. The bowl is on long term loan to us from Sir Edmund Fairfax-Lucy of Charlecote Park, adding a nice circularity to things due to the apocryphal story that Shakespeare was caught poaching deer at Charlecote (a painting of this incident is on display in the same room at the will [SBT 1970-7]). Shakespeare’s specific instruction that this bowl be left to Judith, when his other plate was going to Elizabeth, suggests that he held it in higher regard, or at least considered it an item worthy of individual attention. Looking at the bowl from Charlecote, if Shakespeare’s was similarly beautiful, it is understandable why.

SBT 1994-70 A gentleman's nightcap

...I give and bequeath unto my said sister Joan 20 pounds and all my wearing apparel

It has previously been noted that it seems odd for Shakespeare to have bequeathed men’s clothing to his sister, but he might have had in mind the possibility of her selling it. Naturally, we do not know precisely what Shakespeare would have worn, but there are a few examples of fine textiles in our collection, such as this gentleman’s nightcap (SBT1994-70). Dating from the early 1600s, it is a beautiful and skilful demonstration of embroidery, decorated with roses, pansies and strawberry plants. As Stephanie Appleton writes on our Finding Shakespeare blog, nightcaps weren’t just worn to bed, but were worn around the house as well during the evening, and were recognised as a symbol of relaxed domesticity.

Rapier 1610
SBT 1993-28 A swept-hilt rapier, about 1610 Mr Thomas Combe, my sword

Swords in this period were very much markers of class and status, and Shakespeare’s bequest to Thomas Combe is a subtle reminder of his rise to the standing of a gentleman. He would also have been familiar with using swords on stage during his acting career, which would likely have been a mix of the traditional English broadsword and the rapier, originating in Europe. The latter were particularly indicative of the fashionable urban gentleman, as they were intended for duelling and street fights rather than military service. In addition, the often fine crafting of rapiers marked them out as works of art, proving that the bearer was a connoisseur. This rapier (SBT 1993-28) dates from around 1610 and is of English manufacture, with a beautiful swept hilt, decorated with encrusted silver.

Memento Mori seal
SBT 1872-4 Memento Mori Seal

I give and bequeath to Hamlett Sadler 26s 8d to buy him a ring; to William Reynolds, gent., 26s 8d to buy him a ring; to my godson William Walker 20s in gold; to Anthony Nash, gent., 26s 8d; to Mr. John Nash, 26s 8d; and to my fellows John Heminge, Richard Burbage, and Henry Condell 26s 8d a piece to buy them rings.

The rings Shakespeare invites his friends to purchase upon his death would have been the type known as ‘Memento Mori’ rings. These would have born a death’s head, and probably some sort of motto in Latin or English, although the latter was less common. ‘Memento mori’ means ‘remember you must die’ and it was a frequently occurring theme in the period, appearing in paintings and various items of jewellery. The seal imprint shown here (SBT1872-4) was made by one of these rings. It was common practice to leave sums of money for your friends to purchase these rings in order to remember you (as well as remembering death). An instance of this theme appearing in art can be seen in a painting in our collection often referred to as ‘Death and the Maiden’ (SBT 1993-30), which is on display at Hall’s Croft.

Museums are founded upon objects and we are fortunate to have this opportunity to use our museum collection to visualise the kind of things that Shakespeare would have owned and which he apparently wanted to pass on to his friends and family. Whilst the man himself remains an enigma, the trappings of the period give us an insight into the society he lived in and referred to in his works.


[Further images of all the objects mentioned here can be found on our online catalogue. Some of them will also be on display in the New Place exhibition centre.]

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