Would you pay $15,000 for a little respect? William Shakespeare did in 1596, when he plunked down around 15 pounds for his very own coat of arms. In addition to the cash, he had to prove that his family had a long history of being upright English citizens with respectable professions, says Heather Wolfe, manuscript curator at the Folger Shakespeare Library. “It’s a early form of brand management,” she says. “You pay a lot of money to get this logo created and you put it on everything.” The original draft of Shakespeare’s coat of arms is on view as part of the Folger’s “Symbols of Honor: Heraldry and Family History in Shakespeare’s England.” That sketch is hard to read, so here is a painting of what the coat of arms probably looked like during Shakespeare’s time.
Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 E. Capitol St. SE; through Oct. 26, free; 202-544-4600. (Capitol South)
The spear was probably a play on the Bard’s name, says manuscript curator Heather Wolfe. Its fine tip represents dexterity and skillfulness. “The fact it looks like a pen might be intentional,” she adds.
Shakespeare must have been fond of falcons, as they show up more often than any other kind of bird in his plays, says Nigel Ramsay, exhibit co-curator. Falconry “was a rather grand form of hunting” and a falcon was a “rather grand creature to have on your crest,” Ramsay says.
Silver and gold are the noblest of hues. When Shakespeare requested them, “he was aiming high,” Ramsay says.
William Dethick, the official who granted Shakespeare’s coat of arms came under criticism for giving them to a mere actor. Shakespeare got to keep his arms, but Dethick was eventually forced to resign.
End of the Line
Shakespeare had no male heirs, so his coat of arms died with him. That means he spent about $750 for every year he got to use his coat of arms — not a bad deal, considering that it probably helped him shore up royal support for his plays, Ramsay says.
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