Thursday, October 1, 2015

Will's Will

Lately I've been thinking about investments, and because these turned out pretty well for William Shakespeare, I've been wondering, WWWD -- What Would William Do in today's markets? Of course, I have no idea, though I'd like to think he would sign up for one of those expensive weekend seminars that use his plays to instruct people in making fiscally savvy business decisions (see my post on this, "Shakespeare Profiteers Make Out Like Bandits!," below). I also hope he'd use a chunk of his earnings to contribute heavily to the arts, and to various charities like Doctors Without Borders and UNICEF, but alas, all that we know of him suggests he kept as much of his money as he could for himself, though we do know he once loaned someone ten pounds, because he was careful to make a record of it.

Yes. As Katherine Duncan-Jones pointed out in her biographical work Ungentle Shakespeare, Shakespeare was a tightwad. In his Stratford barn, he hoarded grain to capitalize on times of bad harvest, and no evidence suggests that he was the type to stand his fellow players a round of drinks. There is of course no evidence to
the contrary, but since this blog is entitled "Shakespeare in Fiction and Fact," I find myself entitled to speculate that W. S. was extremely fond of his cash box, and that he put a tremendous amount of effort into preserving what he'd earned through the sale of plays, the patronage of King James, and the part-ownership of two London playhouses and a Stratford property, so that he could pass a wealthy estate on to a male heir who, alas, never materialized, or never materialized for long. And in this, I should add, Shakespeare was a typical early-modern middle-class English gentleman.

Will died in 1616, four centuries ago next year. His will, dated March 25, 1616, was brief. He left twenty pounds to his sister, "and all my wearing apparel." Now, that's interesting. Perhaps that's where Virginia Woolf got the idea, expressed in A Room of One's Own, that Shakespeare's sister might have yearned to be Shakespeare. I like the idea of a cross-dressed Ruth Shakespeare, gallivanting around Stratford in her elder brother's doublet and galligaskins. Shakespeare left five pounds (in today's terms, perhaps twenty-five hundred dollars) to each of his three male nephews, twenty shillings to his godson, and nearly all his plate to his granddaughter Elizabeth, daughter of his eldest child, Susanna. Ten pounds to the poor of Stratford (the folks he'd helped into poverty by driving up the price of grain in 1607). His sword (he was such a swashbuckler) to a friend, and some money to the lawyers. A few more shillings to his actor friends, and some rings for remembrance, a nice custom we no longer observe. Infamously, Shakespeare's only stipulation regarding his wife Anne was that she should receive his "second-best bed with the furniture," which probably doesn't mean anything like what it has been made to mean by "biographers" who missed their calling as novelists. (Such writers will remain nameless, except to say that they're Stephen Greenblatt.) Certainly Will didn't leave Anne destitute. By common law, she inherited a life interest in a third of the estate and to continuing residence in their fine Stratford manor, New Place. It would appear that Anne and her daughters were quarreling about the furniture, and Anne was behind the bed-and-furniture behest. Maybe.

The saddest thing about the will is the effort its author put into it to keep his estate intact, according to the English system of primogeniture. Shakespeare understood the sometimes desperate financial plight of "younger sons to younger brothers," to quote Henry IV's Falstaff (who has impressed a few such penniless men into his troop of foot soldiers). Still, Shakespeare did not challenge the custom by which elder sons (like himself) passed their estates on to eldest sons, down the line for, hopefully, perpetuity. Shakespeare's problem was, he had no sons. His own had died twenty years before he lay on his own deathbed. Lacking a male heir, he made a will which entailed his estate successively all the way down to the seventh son of his eldest daughter, and beyond this to the sons of her daughter, and of her sister (Shakespeare's youngest daughter, Judith). But Susanna never more children that a single daughter, who -- the last of Shakespeare's lineal descendants -- died childless in 1670. Judith had two sons, but they both died without offspring -- including the one she'd named "Shakespeare."

So whither went Shakespeare's wealth? In time it was dispersed among various collateral descendants. In time, even New Place burned to the ground.

But that's not as sad as it might be, since Shakespeare did leave a few plays lying around in London, not to mention some sonnets. And as far as those poems are concerned, we can be grateful that Shakespeare lived in an age before the terms "copyright" and "literary executor" meant anything at all.

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