Michaeline: Where There’s a Will

Yesterday, April 23, was the death anniversary (and some say the birthday) of William Shakespeare. Of course, he’s remembered for being one of the greatest writers in the English language, but it’s entirely possible that he was buried as a businessman – a local boy who had done well in London and had property to disperse.

Portia, Bassanio, Gratiano and Nerissa in Renaissance clothing.
A scene from The Merchant of Venice — a play by Will that also involves a father and a will. Next on my reading list, as a matter of fact! (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

The Conversation has a 2016 article describing Shakespeare’s death and funeral as a “non-event” compared to other famous writers who were commoners. And there’s an interesting article by the BBC and the British Council (also 2016, I think) that describes how a four-month scientific analysis of the will from 2015 to 2016 sheds new light on various theories about Shakespeare and his family.

And that was the end of Shakespeare, the man, but only the beginning of Shakespeare, the literary giant. So, in my brain, one thing leads to another. Shakespeare’s will was considered by scholars to be a variety of things: some conjectured a snub of his wife with the bequest of his “second-best bed” to her; some thought it showed a distrust of his second daughter Judith and her new husband (who had just been convicted for unlawfully impregnating

a local woman, who then died and was buried with her child).

Whew, poor Judith was the stuff of soap operas! (Her sister married a doctor. Imagine the sibling rivalry . . . .)

The will makes a great inciting incident for a story or novel.

One of my favorite Georgette Heyer novels is Cotillion, which starts with the reading of a will . . . only this time, the old man in question is alive, and nasty, and gleefully looking forward to the fighting and wrangling of his heirs. (If you enjoy a lot of Heyer, you’ll probably remember Kitty and the grandnephews who she must choose from to inherit: Jack, Freddy, Dolph and Hugh.)

Three ladies at a ball, it looks like. Public domain photo on the cover of Georgette Heyer's Cotillion
Multiple dancers change partners and whirl around in the cotillion of courtship. (Image via Goodreads)

We know that it’s a trope to start a novel with a problematic will, and let the drama and plot spin out from there, right? But for the life of me, I couldn’t remember another story that involved such an inciting will. Well, TV Tropes to the rescue! The Cotillion will is one of the “On One Condition” tropes; in this case, Kitty has to marry a grandnephew in order to inherit.

TV Tropes, of course, has dozens of “Will and Inheritance Tropes” so it’s a good way to spark a little inciting incident in a writer’s brain. (Mandatory timesuck warning: Going to TV Tropes can involve spending 200 percent more time than you intended looking up odd and interesting stories and tropes. Enter when you can spare the time.) Do you have a favorite “It Started with a Will” story?

6 thoughts on “Michaeline: Where There’s a Will

  1. Cotillion is one of my favorite Heyers, and I love the reading of it by Phyllida Nash. 🙂 The ending, though, is the best, for Uncle Matthew snubs them all!

  2. The reading of a will is a great place to launch a story, but the only will story I can think of right now is the film “Knives Out,” which is not exactly about what happens after a will is read. But the will does feature prominently, and it’s generally just a really fun movie. 🙂

  3. I read a lot of mysteries, and wills tend to feature prominently in many of them as the reason for the murder–either an heir who doesn’t want to wait for nature to take it’s course or someone who wants to eliminate the other heirs so they can have everything.

    In contemporary romance, one of the novels I enjoyed years ago was Rachel Gibson’s Truly Madly Yours , which featured a will that required the heroine to move back to her hometown for a year in order to get her share of the inheritance and required the hero to not touch the heroine for that same year in order to get his share. As you might guess, that caused Trouble.

    • THANK YOU! That must be where I got the feeling that the reading of the will was very, very commong — it’s a big part of many mysteries.

      And thanks for the contemporary romance rec! It does seem that there are quite a few romances that use the trope.

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