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Why Shakespeare’s will doesn’t thrill

An exhibition of Shakespeare-related documents could have used technology differently

Anna Baddeley | February 4th 2016

In early 1616, a dying William Shakespeare signed the final copy of his last will and testament, famously leaving his “second best bed” to his wife, Anne Hathaway. Now, 400 years later, visitors to London’s Somerset House can see the will for themselves, along with five more documents that shine a light on Shakespeare’s life and work. A collaboration between King’s College London and the National Archives, “By Me William Shakespeare: A Life in Writing” uses court papers and royal account books to narrate key episodes from his career.

The selection of rat-nibbled, but now expertly preserved, handwritten papers can be found in the Inigo Rooms, situated in the basement of the building which – in its first incarnation – saw the staging of Shakespeare’s early plays and later housed his will. The nest of chambers is organised by theme, giving alternate views of Shakespeare as a businessman, a (possible) thief and rebel, a royal servant and a family man.

One of the more intriguing documents on show relates to the Earl of Essex’s failed attempt to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I in 1601. The night before the abortive coup, the earl’s supporters paid the Lord Chamberlain’s men to stage “Richard II” – a play that does not end well for its autocratic protagonist. Augustine Phillips, testifying on behalf of the actors, convinced the court that their actions had been more mercenary than subversive. That Shakespeare avoided arrest (or worse) owes much to his popularity with the queen. 

The last page of Shakespeare's will, with his signature on the bottom right

Seeing Shakespeare’s signature (four out of the six extant signatures are here) does send a tiny shiver down the spine. Sadly, though, these half-dozen documents don’t bring you much closer to the man. As Jonathan Bate noted in “The Genius of Shakespeare” two decades ago, the problem is not so much the scarcity of documentary evidence (“There are over 50 documents relating to Shakespeare, his family, and his acting company in the London Public Record office alone”). Rather it is the limitations of what official records can tell us about a human being: “We do not learn very much from them about his character as it affects what we are interested in: his plays.”

The curators have tried hard to put the exhibits in context – dredging up examples of other 17th-century wills and finding a ring similar to one that might have been used in a wedding Shakespeare witnessed when he lodged at Silver Street in London in 1604. 

Technology can add an exciting dimension, and, to their credit, the exhibition organisers commissioned the creative agency 59 Productions to make a digital installation. Unfortunately, the result – an animated map of London showing important sites from Shakespeare’s career – is atmospheric but frustratingly slow, not to mention tricky to read for people with less than 20:20 vision. Money might have been better spent on an app, along the lines of the outstanding “Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist”. Designed to accompany an exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery in 2012, it let users watch interviews with experts and reverse and translate the mirror writing in Leonardo’s notebooks.

Something similar – an app or a touch screen within the gallery – could have made this Shakespeare exhibition come alive. It would have been helpful to be able to zoom in on the documents, to click on certain lines and have their relevance explained and, crucially, the handwriting deciphered. As informative as the labels in this exhibition are, the lack of transcripts makes the exact contents of the documents inaccessible to those unused to reading Jacobean scrawl.

Audio could also have been used in an interesting way. One of the documents – Shakespeare’s deposition in the courts over a disputed dowry payment – contains some of the only evidence of how he might have spoken. It would have been nice to hear an actor read this, especially in a Midlands accent.

These reservations should not stop people going to the exhibition; however you’ll get most out of it if you already know a bit about Shakespeare’s life, or have a particular interest in conservation. The rest of you might do better staying at home and studying the digital facsimiles on the exhibition’s website.

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