William Shakespeare is often thought of as one of the greatest writers in the English language. His plays have been translated into every major language, and are performed more often than any other playwright. Shakespeare’s writing also affected the way the English language evolved, and several words and phrases, such as ‘all’s well that ends well’, ‘with bated breath’ and ‘a foregone conclusion’ have moved into everyday use.
This lesson gives you the chance to look at primary sources concerning Shakespeare, including his will and information about his taxes.
William Shakespeare, also known as the ‘Bard’, was born in Stratford-upon-Avon on April 23rd 1564. It is thought he married his wife, Anne Hathaway, in 1582, although we have no specific marriage certificate. He pursued a career as an actor, poet and dramatist in London. His now famous plays were performed widely during his lifetime, often at the purpose-built Globe Theatre in London on the south bank of the Thames. The first folio was published in 1623, with 154 sonnets, 37 plays, and 2 long poems. It is suggested that his friends put it together in case others tried to copy Shakespeare’s work and claim it as their own. Since then, he has become internationally renowned as the world’s greatest ever playwright.
On 25 March 1616, William Shakespeare made his will, signed ‘by me, William Shakspeare’. He probably died in April, after finalising his will over the preceding months, but scholars are unsure of the exact date of his death.
Shakespeare’s will itself is a matter of debate. The last will and testament helps us to learn about Shakespeare at the end of his life, providing us with minute details about his final wishes. The source evidence in this lesson shows that he was a man of considerable wealth by the time he died, and that most of it was left to his eldest daughter, Susanna Hall. The will also provides us with three of only six surviving samples of his signature.
The issue of leaving his ‘second best bed’ to his wife appears insulting and mean to us today. Many scholars believe that Anne Hathaway would have received a considerable inheritance outside the will that would have left her financially secure, making the bed a poignant and personal gift. Some explain that the ‘second best bed’ was actually the bed in which William and his wife Anne would have slept, as the best bed would have been kept for guests only. Others describe this as a direct insult to his wife, yet there are also suggestions that leaving a bed to your wife was actually a magnificent gift, as all the valuable bed linen and fine materials would be included. Finally it has also been proposed that a wife would always get the second best things, with the best reserved for a son or daughter.
This lesson provides pupils with evidence about Shakespeare that differs from the traditional ‘greatest playwright of all time’ material that many will be used to. Useful for students studying life in Tudor times both from a History and English perspective, this lesson helps pupils examine Shakespeare as a person rather than a world famous writer. The material encourages pupils to challenge traditional expectations of Shakespeare. By investigating tax records together with his last will and testament, pupils are able to identify how Shakespeare avoided paying his tax and to develop their own theories about his final wishes. Clearly providing excellent cross-curriculum links with English and Drama studies, this lesson is invaluable to those studying Shakespearian times.
This lesson can form part of History studies relating to Tudor and Elizabethan times. As part of the National Curriculum requirements for History, this lesson offers breadth of study coverage for Britain 1500-1750 (9), specifically social changes. This lesson could also be used as part of the KS3 English curriculum as an introduction to Shakespeare.
Image : Engraving of William Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout from the first folio edition of plays, 1623
Source 1 : PROB 1/4
Source 2 : E 179/146/354
Source 3 : E 179/146/369
Source 4 : E 372/455
The Shakespeare Resource Centre
Information and links about Shakespeare and his plays
Find out more about Shakespeare’s purpose built theatre
Information and photographs of Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s home town