A talk by Amanda Bevan, National Archives

Thursday 18 August 2016
Senate House Library
Part of the 'Shakespeare: Metamorphosis' season

Review by Jamie Weisz, MA Early Modern History

Aside from his work, arguably the most discussed aspect of Shakespeare’s legacy has been his will. We can learn a lot about people and the past through wills. What possessions did someone have? Who was the most important people in a persons life? What were their spiritual beliefs? How did inheritance law work in the past? With these things considered, a talk with Amanda Bevan, an archivist from the National Archives, was always going to be interesting and offer a new take on Shakespeare’s will from a totally different perspective.

Since its rediscovery in the 1740s, Shakespeare’s will continues to excite and baffle historians to this day. Some commentators have assumed that Shakespeare was a spiteful man, indicated by the bequeathment of the “second best bed” to his wife, who isn’t even referred to by name in the will. However, Bevan argued that by common law she may have been entitled to nearly a third of his estate anyway. The bed is singled out, after all, as a gift and would have held a lot of sentimental value to William and Anne, being the bed that they probably slept in together.

Suggestions that Shakespeare was a cold-hearted, unloving man towards his family have been further fuelled by the items bequeathed to his daughters, Susannah and Judith. Susannah, who had married the successful doctor John Hall, was left with plenty of the household possessions. On the other hand, it has been assumed that following a premarital scandal that Shakespeare hastily edited his will to exclude large amounts of his fortune from passing to Judith on the assumption that her husband, Thomas Quiney, could not be trusted with it.

In this light, the most original and fascinating part of Bevan’s talk was the conclusion achieved through a transcription made by Bevan of the will. Suspicions about the timing of writing were arisen by a discrepancy appearing on the second page of the will. And sure enough, scientific analysis – firstly by conservators at the National Archive, and then multispectral analysis at the British Library – confirmed that the second page had indeed been written on different paper and using different ink.

This discovery throws up a number of things that may need reconsideration. Aside from guessing what Shakespeare died from (based on the time it took for him to draft the will), we may need to change our assumptions about Shakespeare’s attitudes towards his family. The £150 bequeathed to Judith in trust may not have been such a bad deal for her after all.

A packed room listened intently to Bevan’s talk about her investigation which was a tour de force in archival curiosity, leaving much to think about in terms of how we use evidence when accessing the past. The copy at the National Archive is only display there until September 3rd, when it will be taken back into storage to protect it from light damage, ensuring that people can continue to be curious for years to come.