New insight into Shakespeare’s life revealed through scientific analysis of his will

Image of Shakespeare’s will as seen by the human eye

Shakespeare’s will as seen by the human eye (470nm spectrum) – all text is visible on all three pages (Crown Copyright The National Archives, Image created by the British Library Board)

We have carried out innovative archival and scientific research into the will of one of the world’s greatest ever playwrights: William Shakespeare.

Paper and ink analysis never before carried out on the 400-year-old document shows that page two was drafted at a different time to the first and last pages, and that significant changes were made in both January and March 1616 as his – and his family’s – status changed. Initial results from this scientific research reveals Shakespeare as canny businessman who revisited his will several times in order to keep it up to date and secure a financial legacy for his family.

The new research will force scholars to reassess what is understood by the will as serious doubt has been cast over several accepted theories, including:

  • Shakespeare had been ill for some time and had retired to Stratford where he wrote his will, in one sitting, as he lay dying
  • he distrusted his daughter Judith and her new husband Thomas Quiney and changed his will to stop Quiney from benefiting
  • he was mean or indifferent to his wife Anne and only left her the ‘second-best bed’

Conservators at The National Archives treated the will over a four-month period from September 2015 to January 2016, removing a heavy paper backing and some earlier repairs made with silk, to return the document’s appearance to closer to its original state. This allowed close analysis of the paper using x-ray technology and near infrared light for the first time. Experts at the British Library then carried out multispectral imaging of the will, exposing the manuscript to ultraviolet, visible and infrared rays as a specialised camera captured images not visible to the human eye.

The National Archives’ Legal Records Specialist Dr Amanda Bevan believes page two to be the surviving section of an earlier will. It appears pages one and three were written in January 1616 and then updated with some personal bequests, including the second best bed, in March 1616 – one month before Shakespeare died.

This month marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. His will is currently on display at ‘By me William Shakespeare: A life in writing, a unique collaboration between The National Archives and King’s College London, at the Inigo Rooms, Somerset House East Wing.

Watch videos about our conservation of Shakespeare’s will or read more on our blog.

Tags: by me william shakespeare, conservation, shakespeare's will, william shakespeare