William Shakespeare

Lesson at a glance

What can we find out about his life?

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.


1. Take a look at these extracts from Shakespeare’s will, 1616.

  • Write down what Shakespeare’s bequests were to the following people:
    • Susanna (eldest daughter)
    • Judith (second daughter)
    • Joan Hart (sister)
    • Joan’s three sons (nephews)
    • Elizabeth Hall (granddaughter)
    • the poor of Stratford
    • Mr Thomas Combe (friend’s nephew)
  • Who, in your opinion, is missing from the list above?
  • Who is put in charge of the will (the executor)?
  • What does Shakespeare leave to his wife?
  • Is there anything to suggest even this bequest is an afterthought?
  • Many experts suggest that this is in no way an insult – suggest three alternative explanations for Shakespeare’s gift

2. This is an extract from a certificate made by the tax commissioners showing a list of people living in St Helen’s Bishopsgate, who had not paid their tax in November 1597.

  • How much are Shakespeare’s goods valued at?
  • How much tax does Shakespeare owe?
  • This source shows ‘defaulters’ – what do you think this means?
  • What has happened to Shakespeare? Why hasn’t he paid his tax?

3. This is an extract from a list made by the tax commissioners of people living in St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, who had not paid their tax in October 1598. (This area of London was close to Shoreditch where the Lord Chamberlain’s company of actors performed.)

  • What is the difference in time between Source 2 and Source 3?
  • How much tax does Shakespeare now owe?

4. This entry (in Latin) is in the main account of the Exchequer (Pipe Roll) of 1599-1600, and shows details of what Shakespeare has owed for tax since 1597 when he was last known to have lived in St Helen’s, Bishopgate.

  • The money owed by Shakespeare is now the ‘business’ of’ whom?
  • What does this evidence suggest?
  • What do you think Shakespeare has been up to between 1597 and 1599?

5. In 1561, Shakespeare’s grandfather left a personal estate of £83 7s 6d. looking at the bequests in his will, what does this suggest about William Shakespeare’s success? What do you think happened to his finances throughout his life?


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.

Teachers' notes

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

External links

The Shakespeare Resource Centre
Information and links about Shakespeare and his plays

The Globe
Find out more about Shakespeare’s purpose built theatre

Shakespeare’s birthplace
Information and photographs of Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s home town

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Lesson at a glance

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