In All’s Well that Ends Well (3.7), Helena devises a plan to ignite the affections of her husband, for which she needs the help of her new acquaintances, a widow and her daughter. The widow is naturally suspicious, but Helena persuades her by offering to pay for her daughter’s marriage:
To marry her I’ll add three thousand crowns
To what is passed already.
WIDOW: I have yielded.
How should the actors say the last two lines? It’s not enough for Helen to speak the financial inducement in a routinely cajoling tone of voice, and for the Widow to reply in the tone of ‘Oh well, then, all right’. For 3000 crowns was a lot of money. A crown was a gold coin of varying value in different countries, but in the England of Shakespeare’s time it was worth about 5 shillings, a quarter of an old pound. 3000 crowns was therefore about £750.
According to the National Archives (2005) site, £1 in 1590 is equivalent to £125.29 today; by 1600, this had fallen to £100.64; and by 1610 to £97.88. For my purposes, an approximation will do: x100. A similar result emerges if we compute earning power: £100 in 1970 would have been £1.0.10d (£1.4) in wages in 1600. Taking into account inflation over the past ten years, these equivalents will be somewhat greater today.
So, Helena was offering the widow about £75,000 in today’s money. No wonder she yields so readily. The point is missed unless we get a ‘wait for it’ pause after ‘add’ in Helena’s offer and a truly amazed (‘gulp’) reaction. And it illustrates just how much Helena wants her husband back.
Who else gets offered such a sum? 3000 crowns is a king’s recompense – the annual sum given to young Fortinbras by his uncle for services rendered (Hamlet, 2.2.72). It’s the significant sum that Varro’s servant tells us his master is owed by Timon (Timon of Athens, 3.4.30), though Lucius is owed far more (5,000 crowns). That’s a lot: 5000 is close to the entire budget of the Master of the Revels (£1558) for 1572.
On that basis, we can see why Orlando was miffed by his bequest (As You Like It, 1.1.1-4):
As I remember, Adam, it was upon this fashion
bequeathed me by will but poor a thousand crowns,
and, as thou sayst, charged my brother on his blessing
to breed me well—and there begins my sadness.
That was a mere £250 (= £25,000 today), not enough to keep him in the manner to which he’d like to become accustomed. It’s the sort of figure you’d give if you were ransomed (2 Henry VI, 4.1.15) or if you were offering a reward for a rebel like Jack Cade (2 Henry VI, 4.8.64).
As the sums get larger, the dramatic contrast gets greater. Here’s Bagot talking to Aumerle (Richard II, 4.1.15-17):
I heard you say that you had rather refuse
The offer of an hundred thousand crowns
Than Bolingbroke’s return to England,
How big an offer would that have been? According to the King in Love’s Labour’s Lost (2.1.127-135), it’s equivalent to half the cost of a war, and a significant part of Aquitaine.
Madam, your father here doth intimate
The payment of a hundred thousand crowns,
Being but the one half of an entire sum
Disbursèd by my father in his wars.
But say that he, or we—as neither have—
Received that sum, yet there remains unpaid
A hundred thousand more, in surety of the which
One part of Aquitaine is bound to us,
Although not valued to the money’s worth.
That’s £2.5 million today. Bagot should be impressed.
So should Petruchio, when he hears what Katharina’s dowry would be (The Taming of the Shrew, 2.1.118-124)
PETRUCHIO: Then tell me, if I get your daughter’s love,
What dowry shall I have with her to wife?
BAPTISTA: After my death the one half of my lands,
And in possession twenty thousand crowns.
PETRUCHIO: And, for that dowry I’ll assure her of
Her widowhood, be it that she survive me,
In all my lands and leases whatsoever.
Petruchio might then say that last speech in a very impressed tone, for he’s being offered half a million (in today’s money). Baptista must be doing very well, for he gives away money like water – another half a million at the end of the play (5.2.112-116). It would seem he can’t pay enough to be rid of Katharina:
Now fair befall thee, good Petruchio!
The wager thou hast won, and I will add
Unto their losses twenty thousand crowns,
Another dowry to another daughter,
For she is changed, as she had never been.
These people have money to burn, and large sums are involved. What was happening at the other end of the scale?
Here we see some derisory sums being traded. When Monsieur le Fer offers Pistol 200 crowns (Henry V, 4.4.44), it doesn’t seem much for a life, though it impresses Pistol, for it was equivalent to about four years’ pay for a soldier (or an actor). And Petruchio is dismissive when he hears Lucentio’s suggestion for a wager (The Taming of the Shrew, 5.2.70):
HORTENSIO: What’s the wager?
LUCENTIO: Twenty crowns.
PETRUCHIO: Twenty crowns?
I’ll venture so much of my hawk or hound,
But twenty times so much upon my wife.
LUCENTIO: A hundred then.
Twenty crowns is, as it were, a fiver, in Petruchio’s eyes. It’s a casual bet (Henry V, 4.1.218):
KING HENRY: Indeed, the French may lay twenty French crowns to one they will beat us…
On the other hand, depending on the circumstances, it’s not to be sneezed at. It’s always interesting to compare figures with the sums that Shakespeare and his contemporaries used in their own business dealings. For instance, 20 crowns was the sum he bequeathed in his will to each of the three sons of his sister Joan.
Small sums have to be seen in perspective, of course. How generous is King Edward being when he rewards the poor Frenchmen (King Edward III, 4.2.29)?
Go, Derby, go, and see they be relieved.
Command that victuals be appointed them,
And give to every one five crowns apiece.
That’s just £1.25, which doesn’t sound much, but 300 pence would keep a person in food for a couple of months. A thousand pounds apiece today.
And when Adam offers his master his savings, that is a huge amount for him (As You Like It, 2.3.38):
But do not so. I have five hundred crowns,
The thrifty hire I saved under your father…
He had saved £125 – about £12,500 today. As a servant, he would have been paid between 5 and 10 pence a day – between £10-15 a year. Nearly 80 now, he’s been part of the establishment for about 60 years (as we read at 2.3.71). He’d have earned between £600 and £900 in all, during that time. So he was putting away perhaps a quarter of his wages each week, on average. A thrifty man, indeed. And he is prepared to give it all up for Orlando.
This post is an adaptation of an article that originally appeared as part of a series in the magazine of Shakespeare’s Globe, Around the Globe (2012).
Featured image credit: ‘Coins’ by J.Dncsn. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.