shakespeare’s history plays
In the Tudor period there were two ways of making coins: hammering and milling, a newer method that was introduced in the reign of Elizabeth I.
Hammered coins were made by placing a flat, round, blank piece of metal between two dies which were then struck with a hammer. The man who struck the coins was called a moneyer. Hammered coins were never perfectly round and could be clipped easily. Forgers would collect clippings from lots of coins, melt them down and forge new coins. The punishments for being found guilty of forging coins included the removal of fingers, hands or ears!
Under Elizabeth I, the method of milling coins was introduced to England from France. Coins produced in this way were called mill money. The metal used to make the coins was flattened into a strip by heavy rollers which were powered by a wind or horse-driven mill. Coin blanks were then cut from the strip and stamped by dies in a press. It was also at this time that coins began to show their date of issue.
Milled coins were of better quality than hammered ones because they were more regular in shape. Coins are still produced in this way today, albeit sans horses and wind.
There were more denominations of coins minted in Elizabethan times than there have been at any other time in history. Altogether twenty different coins were in use, all made of gold or of silver.
As you see, there are gold coins on display. Gold coins came in different varieties:
2 shillings and 6 pence
2 shillings and 6 pence
Half pound sovereign
The basic denominations were pounds,shillings and pence. The written abbreviation for pound is £, for shilling is s, and for penny/pence is d. (Pence, not pennies, is the plural of penny).
12 pence make 1 shilling
12d = 1s
(1s = 5p nowadays)
20 shillings make 1 pound
20s = £1
Shakespeare makes numerous references to money and coins throughout his works. In the comedy The Merchant of Venice (1596), The Moroccan Prince makes reference to a specific coin:
[…] They have in England
A coin that bears the figure of an angel
Stamped in gold (2.7).
Another fascinating usage of the term ‘coin’ appears in the tragedy Julius Caesar (1599). Brutus and Cassius are trying to lead an army together, but they keep fighting. In this passage, Brutus accuses Cassius of failing to send him money, which he urgently needs to pay his soldiers:
[…] I did send to you
For certain sums of gold, which you denied me:
For I can raise no money by vile means:
By heaven, I had rather coin my heart,
And drop my blood for drachmas, than to wring
From the hard hands of peasants their vile trash
By any indirection: I did send
To you for gold to pay my legions,
Which you denied me: was that done like Cassius? (4.2).
drachmas = a type of money or currency
peasants = farmers, or poor people
indirection = devious means
legions = companies of soldiers
Here Brutus demonstrates his nobility by claiming that money ought to be properly sourced rather than taken by force from the already impoverished people. He would rather sacrifice his own heart and blood to raise gold in an honourable fashion.
Can you find references to coins and money in the plays or poems with which you are familiar?
The design that you see here was produced by Tibor Reich for the Birthplace Trust in 1964. Reich depicts the kingship, battle and heraldry that resonate throughout Shakespeare’s history plays.
There are ten English history plays published in the First Folio, not counting the anonymous Edward III. Shakespeare wrote about English kings from the incompetent King John all the way through to the majestic Henry VIII. In all of these plays, Shakespeare is fascinated by kingship and the way in which leaders are torn between duty and conscience. In King John, the king has to decide between pleasing the Pope of Rome or claiming his lands in France. In Richard II, the rebel Bolingbroke has to decide whether it is better to live in banishment and injustice or to rise up against his own cousin the king to take the crown. Such decisions are momentous, and Shakespeare allows his audiences to explore the humanity of these great historical figures.
This is an extract from Henry IV, Part II. Henry is plagued by his conscience after having deposed his cousin, Richard II. In this moving and desperate speech, Henry feels envious of his subjects who are able to escape from their troubles through sleep, whilst he suffers with insomnia. His guilt and melancholy lead him to make one of the most quoted observations about kingship in Shakespeare’s plays, ‘uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’:
KING HENRY IV
How many thousand of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee
And hush’d with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,
Than in the perfumed chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?
O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile
In loathsome beds, and leavest the kingly couch
A watch-case or a common ‘larum-bell?
Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast
Seal up the ship-boy’s eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude imperious surge
And in the visitation of the winds,
Who take the ruffian billows by the top,
Curling their monstrous heads and hanging them
With deafening clamour in the slippery clouds,
That, with the hurly, death itself awakes?
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. (Henry IV, Part II, Act 3, Scene 1)
Reich’s design emphasises the grand display of monarchy. They have striking crowns, shields and flags, all of which would have been recognisable symbols of particular kings and queens. Shakespeare loved to write about battles in his history plays. He takes a look at the honour and pride felt by kings in fighting for their country.
The following extract is the most quoted, recognisable and even iconic battle cries from Shakespeare’s canon. It comes from Henry V, when Henry and his army are about to siege Harfleur. Henry calls on his men to ‘stiffen the sinews’ and to overcome any anxiety and fear with courage and fortitude. He speaks directly to the noblemen, and then addresses the ordinary men or ‘yeomen’ whom he claims have every right to fight for and be proud of their cause. This speech represents great courage in the face of war, and it shows how a great king can become one with his subjects: