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August 2, 1975

 

Numismatic News has always provided interesting perspectives in many of its features. In this except from one such feature, Charles McKay examines the use of coinage in the plays of William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s Coin References Aid Audience Identification With Plays

By: Charles McKay

The Bicentennial of America’s revolution will also be the 360th anniversary of the death of a great literary figure who has been hailed as “not of an age, but for all time.”

This was poet Ben Johnson’s tribute to one of his contemporaries, perhaps the greatest dramatist of all time – William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare has meaning for all of us, if only in a few lines we were forced to memorize in a high school English class. But his encompassing genius touched all aspects of life – including numismatics.

There was no paper money in his time, and copper coins began to circulate only the year before his death in 1616. But the Bard of Avon demonstrates a great familiarity with all the coins of his time, and his works are rich in allusion to coins.

Frequent references to various coins were intended to involve the audience into closer identification with the action on the stage by mentioning things they were familiar with.

One of Shakespeare’s favorite literary devices was the pun. Puns on coins provided a ready vehicle for the poet’s wit, and the process of minting offered opportunities to create forceful and beautiful images.

In Shakespeare’s time, coins possessed (at least were supposed to) full intrinsic value. The great master of the English language who wrote such liquid poetry, and who coined so many phrases, was quite aware of coins as individual objects. Each to be viewed and valued separately. For instance, he does not mention just a 10-shilling coin, but a Harry 10-shilling; not a sixpence, but a milled sixpence.

Shakespeare lived most of his life during the reign of the “Virgin Queen,” Elizabeth I. The average Elizabethan was familiar with many foreign coins, not only because of trade with the Continent, but because for centuries good gold and silver money had no nationality or politics. A precious metal coin was never turned down because it was not English. Conversely, many English coins circulated on the Continent; thus it was possible to explain the many references to foreign money in Shakespeare’s works. All too often, however, the great poet is criticized by numismatists for certain anachronisms.