Documenting the life of an icon: Shakespeare at 400 years

Shakespeare, Life of an Icon, the first of four special exhibitions at the Folger Shakespeare Library in 2016, offers a fresh and intimate perspective on William Shakespeare as the London playwright, bestselling poet, and man from Stratford. This once-in-a-lifetime assemblage shares the documents that show us Shakespeare the man, four hundred years after his death.

Final Concord
Final concord between William Shakespeare and Hercules Underhill. Shakesperae’s copy and Underhill’s copy. Manuscript, 1602. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Above, what might look like a strange jigsaw puzzle with its wavy-cut edges is actually a real estate agreement. After Shakespeare purchased New Place, the second-largest house in Stratford-upon-Avon, from William Underhill, this “final concord” between Shakespeare and Underhill’s son in 1602 ratified the purchase.

A seemingly routine legal record, the document actually marked the conclusion to some horrific events. Just two months after Shakespeare purchased New Place from William Underhill in 1597, Underhill was poisoned by his oldest son and heir, Fulke. He was hanged in 1599, leaving behind a younger brother, Hercules. Once Hercules came of age, Shakespeare prudently protected his title to New Place by paying Hercules to reconfirm the purchase, resulting in the document shown here.

According to the custom of the time, the indenture, which is written in Latin and in a style of handwriting unique to the Court of Common Pleas, consisted of three copies on a single piece of vellum, which were subsequently cut apart on wavy lines and distributed to the parties involved: one copy for the buyer, one for the seller, and one for the court. In the event of a later dispute, they could be fitted back together in order to prove their authenticity.

Foot of fine (court copy). Manuscript, 1602. Courtesy The National Archives.
Foot of fine (court copy). Manuscript, 1602. Courtesy The National Archives.

The buyer’s and seller’s copies are part of the Folger Shakespeare Library collection, and the court’s copy belongs to The National Archives. The three pieces are reunited for the first time in over 400 years for Shakespeare, Life of an Icon, on display at the Folger through March 27. The exhibition, curated by Heather Wolfe, the Folger’s curator of manuscripts, is also a jigsaw of sorts. Fifty of the most important manuscripts and printed works related to Shakespeare’s life and career—some of which have never been exhibited in the United States, and some of which are on public display for the first time ever—are the pieces by which we see the whole: a man who left a legacy so rich that it endures four centuries later.

These documents can also be viewed on Shakespeare Documented, a new online resource.