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Susanna Hall, for her life, and then entailed upon her heirs male ; and in default of such issue upon his grand-daughter, and her heirs male ; and in default of such issue upon his daughter Judith and her heirs male,—comes the clause relating to his wife :
"Item-—I give unto my wife my second-best bed, with the furniture."
It was the object of Shakspere by this will to perpetuate a family estate. In doing so did he neglect the duty and affection which he owed to his wife? He did not.
Shakspere knew the law of England better than his legal commentators. His estates, with the exception of a copyhold tenement, expressly mentioned in his will, were freehold. His WIFE WAS ENTITLED TO DOWER. She was provided for, as the wife of David Cecil was provided for, who, without doubt, was not "cut off” with her own plate and twenty kye and a bull. She was provided for amply, by the clear and undeniable operation of the English law. Of the lands, houses, and gardens which Shakspere inherited from his father, she was assured of the life-interest of a third, should she survive her husband, the instant that old John Shakspere died. Of the capital messuage, called New Place, the best house in Stratford, which Shakspere purchased in 1597, she was assured of the same life-interest, from the moment of the conveyance, provided it was a direct conveyance to her husband. That it was so conveyed we may infer from the terms of the conveyance of the lands in Old Stratford, and other places, which were purchased by Shakspere in 1602, and were then conveyed “ to the onlye proper use and behoofe of the saide William Shakespere, his heires and assignes, for ever.” Of a life-interest in a third of these lands also was she assured. The tenement in Blackfriars, purchased in 1614, was conveyed to Shakspere and three other persons ; and after his death was re-conveyed by those persons to the uses of his will, “ for and in performance of the confidence and trust in them reposed by William Shakespeare deceased.” In this estate certainly the widow of our poet had not dower. The reason is pretty clear-it was theatrical property. It has been remarked to us that even the express mention of the second-best bed was anything but unkindness and insult; that the best bed was in all probability an heir-loom : it might have descended to Shakspere himself from his father as an heir-loom, and, as such, was the property of his own heirs. The best bed was considered amongst the most important of those chattels which went to the heir by custom with the house. “And note that in some places chattels as heir-looms (as the best bed, table, pot, pan, cart, and other dead chattels moveable) may go to the heir, and the heir in that case may have an action for them at the common law, and shall not sue for them in the ecclesiastical court ; but the heir-loom is due by custom, and not by the common law."*
It is unnecessary for us more minutely to enter into the question before us. It is sufficient for us to have the satisfaction of having first pointed out the absolute certainty that the wife of Shakspere was provided for by the natural operation of the law of England. She could not have been deprived of this provision except by the legal process of Fine,—the voluntary renunciation of her own right. If her husband had alienated his real estates she might still have held her right, even against a purchaser. In the event, which we believe to be improbable, that she and the “gentle Shakspere ” lived on terms of mutual unkindness, she would have refused to renounce the right which the law gave her. In the more probable case, that, surrounded with mutual friends and relations, they lived at least amicably, she could not have been asked to resign it. In the most probable case, that they lived affectionately, the legal provision of dower
* “Coke upon Littleton,” 18 b.
would have been regarded as the natural and proper arrangement-so natural and usual as not to be referred to in a will. By reference to other wills of the same period it may be seen how unusual it was to make any other provision for a wife than by dower. Such a provision in those days, when the bulk of property was real, was a matter of course. The solution which we have here offered to this long-disputed question supersedes the necessity of any conjecture as to the nature of the provision which those who reverence the memory of Shakspere must hold he made for his wife. Amongst those conjectures the most plausible has proceeded from the zealous desire of Mr. Brown* to remove an unmerited stigma from the memory of our poet. He believes that provision was made for Shakspere's widow through his theatrical property, which he imagines was assigned to her. Such a conjecture, true as it may still be, is not necessary for the vindication of Shakspere's sense of justice. We are fortunate in having first presented the true solution of the difficulty. There are lines in Shakspere, familiar to all, which would have pointed to it :
“Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace; four happy days bring in
Midsummer Night's Dream, Act I. Sc. I.
The will of Shakspere thus commences :—“I, William Shakspere, of Stratford-upon-Avon, in the county of Warwick, gent., in perfect health and memory, (God be praised !) do make and ordain this my last will and testament.” And yet within one month of this declaration William Shakspere is no more :
OBIIT ANO, DOI. 1616. ÆTATIS 53. DIE 23. AP.
25 mooth Geakfposre you April
Such is the inscription on his tomb. It is corroborated by the register of his burial :
“ April 25, Will. Shakspere, Gent.” Writing forty-six years after the event, the vicar of Stratford says, “Shakspere, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting, and, it seems, drank too hard, for Shakspere died of a fever there contracted.” A tradition of this nature, surviving its object nearly half a century, is not much to be relied on. But if it were absolutely true, our reverence for Shakspere would not be diminished by the fact that he accelerated his end in the exercise of hospitality, according to the manner of his age, towards two of the most illustrious of his friends, The “merry meeting,” the last of many social hours spent with the full-hearted Jonson and the elegant Drayton, may be contemplated without a painful feeling. Shakspere possessed a mind eminently social—“ he was of a free and generous nature.”
But, says the tradition of half a century," he drank too hard” at this “
merry meeting.” We believe that this is the vulgar colouring of a common incident. He “died of a fever there contracted.” The fever that is too often the attendant upon a hot
* “Shakspeare's Autobiographical Poems.” | Dowager is here used in the original sense of a widow receiving dower out of the “revenue" which has descended to the heir with this customary charge.
spring, when the low grounds upon a river bank have been recently inundated, is a fever that the good people of Stratford did not well understand at that day. The “merry meeting” rounded off a tradition much more effectively. Whatever was the immediate cause of his last illness, we may well believe that the closing scene was full of tranquillity and hope ; and that he who had sought, perhaps more than any man, to look beyond the material and finite things of the world, should rest at last in the “ peace which passeth all understanding”-in that assured belief which the opening of his will has expressed with far more than formal solemnity:-—“I commend my soul into the hands of God my creator, hoping, and assuredly believing, through the only merits of Jesus Christ, my Saviour, to be made partaker of life everlasting."
“ Vicesimo quinto die Martii, Anno Regni Domini nostri Jacobi nunc Regis Angliæ, &c. decimo
quarto, et Scotiæ quadragesimo nono. Anno Domini 1616. “In the name of God, Amen. I, William Shakspere, of Stratford-upon-Avon, in the county of Warwick, gent., in perfect health and memory, (God be praised !) do make and ordain this my last will and testament in manner and form following ; that is to say:
“First, I commend my soul into the hands of God my creator, hoping, and assuredly believing, through the only merits of Jesus Christ my Saviour, to be made partaker of life everlasting; and my body to the earth whereof it is made.