Books, Guest Posts, Renaissance, short stories

What Fools! by Gill Whitlock

The sky was virtually black,  and the rain was hammering down,  when Henley Street came into view on the horizon. The sense of home filled his head so that he forgot all thoughts of the dampness of his clothes or the constant dripping of raindrops onto his forehead. Home – safety, love, family – Will knew he needed to store those thoughts away in the back of his brain for future use.  The children had no idea he was coming, neither did Anne although he did often arrive towards the end of April, in time for his birthday. Indeed, the ever busy Will had hoped to send word, but Burbage had been so demanding of his time that the day for departing from London crept up on him and now, four days later, he he was entering the yard of his own home. 

Anne was in the garden as his horse approached and saw him dismount, her smile broadening as she realised who the rider was. Susanna was the first of his children to spot their father. In one swoop, she threw down the papers from which she was learning and ran outside as fast as she could, swinging the front door open with one almighty pull. Judith and Hamnet, the twins two years her junior, shrieked and screamed as they saw they had a visitor. As Judith ran through the door, she pushed aside the blossoming lilac and made straight for the rider. Will watched with amusement and love as her look changed from excited curiosity to sheer delight, as she realised her father had come. Hamnet was far more cautious, hiding behind his elder sister and peering out from her pinafore. He had none of Judith’s wilfulness or Susanna’s intellect and wit, but he was a gentle, caring, shy child who looked achingly like his father, much to his mother’s delight. 

‘Well, well, if it isn’t the master playwright home from London,’ exclaimed Anne as she rounded the corner, ‘ Will, you might have sent word! For a wordsmith, you are lax in communicating with your own family.’ She grinned, mischief in her tone. 

‘I just wanted to get home and surprise you all,’ murmured Will as he took Anne’s hand. Judith was pulling at his sleeve and demanding to be lifted. ‘Father, lift me up and hug me before I scream,’ demanded his youngest daughter, a look of consternation on her little round face. 

‘ Though she be but little, she is fierce,’ murmured Susanna as Will planted a kiss on top of her head. Susanna was only ten but so bright and capable. She already had a way with words. Will wondered if she had inherited this from him or indeed from her mother, who was a marvellous poet who had already contributed many sonnets for Will to use. Indeed, they had both laughed on many occasion when he had relayed to Anne that people had thought that the earliest of the sonnets were written by Will to his patron Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton when in fact they had been love poems from Anne to Will. Will had responded with his own sonnets to her – his dark lady – but had had to pass off all the sonnets as his own – Anne’s skill would never have been accepted by his peers for her gender precluded her from penship in her own right. 

That evening, the fire was lit as the April rain still fell on the Warwickshire fields surrounding Will’s home. Susanna brought papers to her father to consider. Her parents had been keen that all their children should read and write and as Will’s income from his plays had grown, they had engaged tutors for the children. Some of their friends had disapproved of Judith and Susanna being taught to read and write but Will had been insistent. He knew so well the power of words. 

‘Father,  I have been improving my writing – Mother talked to me about rhyme and rhythm. ‘She proudly waved a piece of paper at him; it was filled with a mix of poetry and blank verse. ‘Writing indeed, whatever next, ‘exclaimed a now exhausted Will. He could not believe the standard of her work. 

‘Did you really write this Susanna, aged 10! I must mention this to Kit Marlowe. We worked well together on the Henry VI dramas, but now I will have no need of him – Susanna can be my new assistant.’ Will laughed as his daughter looked at him with such pride.

‘Will you take me to London to see one of your plays, father? I want to see the Lords and Ladies  and to see Will Kemp perform.  

‘One day, Susanna, one day,’ murmured Will as he lifted little Judith into his lap in an effort to calm down the wilful child who had been in such a state of heightened excitement since his arrival that afternoon.

‘Susanna is going to outshine me with her words, Will,’ exclaimed Anne as she played with Hamnet and his spinning top. 

‘I have a detailed plan for a piece, father. It includes fairies and spirits and magic potions. I have even thought of character names – Puck, Oberon, Moth,’ burst out Susanna, eager to tell her father all her ideas. 

‘ Please father, can there be a donkey in it too? I do so love donkeys,’ commented Hamnet, as he looked up at his father from underneath his fringe.  

‘I think it is time for sleep now children, your father has heard quite enough for one day and he is exhausted.’ Anne rose and Will sat contentedly gazing at the flames. 


Will stayed some six weeks up in Stratford, but the days were not as carefree as he had intended.  About a month into his visit, he received word of Kit Marlowe’s death – stabbed in the eye in a tavern brawl. Anne was beside herself with shock and sadness. 

‘But Will, he was such a talented writer and a good friend to you. How could this happen?’ she questioned, but Will merely raised an eyebrow.

‘All may not be as it seems, Anne. Kit works for the government. I’ve long suspected he’s a spy for our Queen. Disappearing abroad seems likely to me – he had no funeral, an unmarked grave and his killer has been pardoned. No – things may not be as they seem although how he will continue to write, I have no idea. I was relying on Kit to help with a new work I have begun – now I will need to leave soon to continue that work myself. I needed the quality of Kit’s writing and we need the income from a new play.’ 

Anne knew her husband was troubled as he left for London a couple of days after that conversation, telling his wife his mind felt full of scorpions. 

Memories of Kit Marlowe’s alleged death filled Will’s mind as he made that same Spring journey home some years later.  Will had moved the family home to New Place in Stratford, but the countryside was the same, the rain even seemed the same, however he had known such grief in recent times that his whole world had shifted. Hamnet’s death from plague had hit him so hard – it had hit them all. He could barely write a scene let alone a full drama, yet Burbage kept on insisting that new material was needed.  Anne had tried to help but she had not been well for a good number of years – life’s shadows had taken their toll on her both physically and emotionally. Marlowe had never been in touch and Will had continued on his own but unable to summon the energy or desire to write. His whole mind was in turmoil: his mental scorpions had overpowered him. His work ‘Hamlet’ had been widely acclaimed but he had taken no pleasure in it. The tragedy had been in many ways a memorial to Hamnet, but Will was living a lie – he had been for some time. He had not written that play ; he had not written a full length piece for a number of years. He just couldn’t. 

For so long, Will had not been able to think of a way forward to repay the debt he so clearly owed. Luckily, Anne had immediately agreed with his eventual plan and so his entire estates and monetary wealth would pass on his death to his eldest child, Susanna, for his daughter was the writer of all his recent works – his great tragedies. She had given him the scripts with love and had demanded nothing in return. Her joy at knowing her work was to be performed was enough and she knew the secret had to be kept for her family’s sake.  He and Anne had even jokingly agreed that, in his will, he should only leave his wife his second best bed.  Burbage was always declaring that Will would be known as the greatest playwright that had ever lived and his plays would be performed for centuries to come. Will always  shook his head ruefully whenever the topic was raised. 

Susanna, now Mistress Hall, and a mother herself of sweet, intelligent Elizabeth, seemed at ease with her father’s intentions when he had discussed them with her; he explained the guilt he felt and the way in which he would repay her in his will. The world would never know of her genius, but his daughter’s talent would be there for all to see in centuries to come. Susanna had smiled and thanked her father. 

‘ I am deeply grateful but let us not think now of your will, father.  We know the full truth and that is enough for me. If no-one ever realises that truth, in years to come –  well… as I believe I have said before, what fools these mortals be!’ 

Judi Dench as Titania in Peter Hall’s RSC production of Mindsummer Night’s Dream, (1962).
Photo: David Farrell. Source Daily Mirror website..

Gill Whitlock has been coming to my monthly talks on art history. Now retired (she doesn’t look old enough), Gill was Head of Drama in a Surrey Comprehensive for nearly thirty years and worked with the RSC on their Shakespeare Schools Festival for a number of years, directing students in public performance pieces. Below is Shakespeare’s last will and testament demonstrating the accuracy of Gill’s research.


Here’s a photo of the third and last page of Shakespeare’s last will and testament so you can see his signature. Here’s the link to the National Archives where you can find the whole document.

Courtesy of our National Archives, below is their transcript of the whole of Shakespeare’s last will and testament, dated 25th March 1616 and proved 22nd June 1616, showing how Susannah benefited. If you are studying palaeography, comparing your transcription with that of the experts at our National Archives is a good test to see if your transcription is accurate. Many boxes lie uncatalogued in the basements of archives around the world, so there are still lots of documents to discover – provided you can read the writing!

Copied from the National Archives website.
This is the text of the whole will, but the image we’ve [TNA] published shows just the third page.
Vicesimo Quinto die Januarii (struck through) Martii Anno Regni Domini nostri Jacobi nucn Regis Angliae etc decimo quarto & Scotie xlixo Annoque Domini 1616 Testamentum Willemi ShackspeareRegistretur
In the name of god Amen I William Shackspeare of Stratford upon Avon in the countie of Warr’ gent in perfect health & memorie god by praysed doe make & Ordayne this my last will & testam[en]t in manner & forme followeing That ys to saye first I Comend my Soule into the hands of god my Creator hoping & assuredlie beleeving through thonelie merittes of Jesus Christe my Saviour to be made partaker of lyfe everlastinge And my bodye to the Earthe whereof yt ys made. I[te]m I Gyve and bequeath unto my sonne in L[aw] (struck through) Daughter Judyth One Hundred & ffyftie pounds of lawfull English money to be paied unto her in manner and forme follewing That ys to saye One Hundred Poundes in discharge of her marriage porc[i]on within one yeare after my deceas w[i]th considerac[i]on after the Rate of twoe shillinges in the pound for soe long tyme as the same shalbe unpaid unto her after my deceas & the ffyftie pounds Residewe thereof upon her surrendering of or gyving of such sufficient securitie as the overseers of this my will shall like of to Surrender or graunte All her estate and Right that shall discend or come unto her after my deceas or that she nowe hath of in or to one Copiehold ten[emen]te with theappertenances lyeing & being in Stratford upon Avon aforesaied in the saide countie of warr’ being parcell or holden of the mannor of Rowington unto my daughter Susanna Hall & and her heiries for ever. Item I gyve and bequeath unto my saied Daughter Judyth One Hundred & ffyftie Poundes more if shee or Anie issue of her bodie Lyvinge att thend of three yeares next ensueing the daie of the date of this my will during which tyme my executors to paie her considerac[i]on from my deceas according to the Rate aforesaied. And if she dye within the saied terme without issue of her bodye then my will ys & and I doe gyve & bequeath One Hundred Poundes thereof to my Neece Elizabeth Hall & ffiftie Poundes to be sett fourth by my executors during the lief of my Sister Johane Harte & the use and proffitt thereof Cominge shalbe payed to my saied Sister Jone & after her deceas the saied L li shall Remaine Amongst the children of my saied Sister Equallie to be devided Amongst them. But if my saied daughter Judith be lyving att thend of the saeid three yeares or anie issue of her bodye then my will ys & soe I devise & bequeath the saied Hundred & ffyftie poundes to be sett out by my executors and overseers for the best benefitt of her and her issue and the stock not to be paied unto her soe long as she shalbe marryed and Covert Baron by my executors & overseers (struck through) but my will ys that she shall have the considerac[i]on yearelie paied unto her during her lief & after her deceas the saied stock and condierac[i]on to bee paid to her children if she have Anie & if not to her executors or Assignes she lyving the saied terme after my deceas provided that if such husbond as she shall att thend of the saied three yeares by marryed unto or attain after doe sufficientlie Assure unto her & thissue of her bodie landes answereable to the porc[i]on by this my will gyven unto her & to be adjudged soe by my executors & overseers then my will ys that the saied CL li shalbe paied to such husbond as shall make such assurance to his owne use. Item I gyve and bequeath unto my saied sister Jone XX li & all my wearing Apparrell to be paied and delivered within one yeare after my deceas. And I doe will & devise unto her the house with thappurtenances in Stratford where in she dwelleth for her naturall lief under the yearelie Rent of xiid Item I gyve and bequeath unto her three sonnes William Harte (name omitted) Hart and Michaell Harte ffyve pounds A peece to be payed within one yeare after my decease to be sett out for her within one yeare after my deceas by my executors with thadvise & direccons of my overseers for her best proffitt untill her marriage & then the same with the increase thereof to be paied unto her (struck through). Item I gyve and bequeath unto her (struck through) the saied Elizabeth Hall All my Plate (except my brod silver and gilt bole) that I now have att the date of this my will.Item I gyve and bequeath unto the Poore of Stratford aforesaied tenn poundes; to Mr Thomas Combe my Sword; to Thomas Russell Esquier ffyve poundes & to ffrauncis Collins of the Borough of Warr’ in the countie of Warr’ gent. thirteene poundes Sixe shillinges & Eight pence to be paied within one yeare after my deceas. Item I gyve and bequeath to mr Richard (struck through) Hamlett Sadler Tyler thelder (struck through) XXVIs VIIId to buy him A Ringe; to William Raynoldes gent XXVIs VIIId to buy him a Ringe; to my godson William Walker XXs in gold; to Anthonye Nashe gent. XXVIs VIIId to mr. John Nash XXVIs VIIId in gold (struck through) & to my ffellowes John Hemynges, Richard Burbage & Heny Cundell XXVIs VIIId A peece to buy them Ringes. Item I Gyve Will Bequeth and Devise unto my Daughter Susanna Hall for better enabling of her to performe this my will & towardes the performans thereof All that Capitall Messuage or tenemente with thappertenaces in Stratford aforesaid called the newe plase wherein I nowe Dwell & two messuags or ten[emen]tes with thappurtenances scituat lyeing and being in Henley Streete within the borough of Stratford aforesaied. And all my barnes, stables, Orchardes, gardens, landes, ten[emen]tes and herediaments whatsoever scituat lyeing & being or to be had Receyved, perceyved or taken within the townes & Hamletts, villages, ffieldes & groundes of Stratford upon Avon, Oldstratford, Bushopton & Welcombe or in anie of them in the saied countie of warr And alsoe All that Messuage or ten[emen]te with thappurtenances wherein one John Robinson dwelleth, scituat, lyeing & being in the blackfriers in London nere the Wardrobe & all other my landes ten[emen]tes & hereditam[en]tes whatsoever. To Have and to hold All & sing[u]ler the saied premisses with their Appurtenances unto the saied Susanna Hall for & during the terme of her naturall lief & after her deceas to the first sonne of her bodie lawfullie yssueing & to the heiries Males of the bodie of the saied first Sonne lawfullie yssueinge & for defalt of such issue to the second Sonne of her bodie lawfullie issueinge & of [struck through] to the heires Males of the bodie of the saied Second Sonne lawfullie yssyeinge & for defalt of such heires to the third sonne of the bodie of the saied Susanna Lawfullie yssyeing & of the heires Males of the bodie of the saied third sonne lawfullie yssueing And for defalt of such issue the same soe to be Remaine to the ffourth, sonne (struck through) ffythe, sixte and seaventh sonnes of her bodie lawfullie issueing one after Another & and to the heires Males of the bodies of the saied ffourth, ffythe, Sixte and Seaventh sonnes of her bodie lawfullie yssueing one after Another & to the heires Males of the bodies of the saied ffourth, fifth, Sixte & Seaventh sonnes lawfullie yssueing in such mamer as yt ys before Lymitted to be & Remaine to the first, second & third Sonns of her bodie & to their heires males. And for default of such issue the saied premises to be & Remaine to my sayed Neece Hall & the heires Males of her bodie Lawfull yssueing for def[ault of]…[damaged]…such iss[u]e to my daughter Judith & the heires Males of her bodie lawfullie issueinge. And for defalt of such issue to the Right heires of me the saied Willm Shackspere for ever.Item I gyve unto my wief my second best bed with the furniture; Item I gyve and bequeath to my saied daughter Judith my broad silver gilt bole.All the Rest of my goodes Chattel, Leases, plate, Jewels & household stuffe whatsoever after my dettes and Legasies paied & my funerall expences discharged, I gyve devise & bequeath to my Sonne in Lawe John Hall gent. & my daughter Susanna his wief whom I ordaine & make executors of this my last will & testam[en]t. And I doe entreat & Appoint the saied Thomas Russell Esquier & ffraunci[s] Collins gent. To be overseers hereof And doe Revoke All former wills and publishe this to be my last will & testam[en]t. In Wit[n]es whereof I have hereunto put my hand the Daie & Yeare first above Written. By me William Shakspeare (signed)Witnes to the publishing Hereof (signed)Fra: CollynsJuliyus ShaweJohn RobinsonHamnet SadlerRobert WhattcottProbatum coram Mag[ist]ro Willi[a]mo Byrde legum d[o]c[t]ore Commissar[io] etc. xxiido die mensis Junii Anno d[omi]ni 1616 Juram[en]to Johannis Hall unius ex[ecutorum] etc. Cui etc. de bene etc. Jurat[i[ Res[er]vata p[o]t[est]ate etc. Sussanne Hall alt[eri] ex[ecutorum] etc. cum ven[er]it etc petitur Inm ext
Transcription of Shakespeare’s last will and testament held in the National Archives, Kew, London. Courtesy of National Archives, London.

2 thoughts on “What Fools! by Gill Whitlock”

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