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Shakespeare’s Last Will & Testament: “No Legacy is so Rich as Honesty”

King’s College London Shakespeare Centre have recently announced that William Shakespeare’s last Will & Testament will be featured at the Somerset House’s exhibition, opening in 2016. It is the first time in history to be publicly displayed. It will be amongst five other rare and authentic documents signed by the infamous author, including a signed Testimony given as court evidence in a civil dispute.

These documents have been preciously stored away from public access in The National Archives. Shakespeare’s Will remains a very sought after document and has been used by many scholars to deduce personal details of his life. This document has been a gateway to understanding the playwright’s relationship with his two daughters and wife.

Shakespeare died on April 23 1616 at the age of 52. His last Will & Testament, dated March 25 1616, was signed by him in three places. Amongst small bequests to friends, theatre colleagues and business associates in Stratford and London, evidence suggests that the author had in fact revised his Will in accordance with the growth of his Estate.

One notable alteration was the removal Shakespeare’s son in law from the will after he learned that the latter had conceived a child outside of wedlock. He replaced his son in law’s name with that of his daughter Judith, to whom he bequests a sum of £100 (which in today’s monetary value is close to £20,000). Another fascinating passage in his Will, and one of the best known among scholars, is the bequest to his wife of his “second best bed”. Some argue that this passage has significance in understanding Shakespeare’s attitude towards his wife, although most agree that is it most likely a small quirk of the document. It was and is understood that under Common Law his wife had a claim to a third of his entire estate and residence.

In any case, the exhibition this exceptional document demonstrates the huge impact a Will has in securing wishes and protecting a legacy.  A significance which has sustain the test of time and will be embedded in the wonderful exposition launching in spring 2016,  all’s well that ends well.

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