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.
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.
...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.
...I give and bequeath unto my said sister Joan 20 pounds and all my wearing apparel
...to Mr Thomas Combe, my sword
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.