By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
Shakespeare’s works are rich in allusions to coins. Such references were meant to bring his audiences into closer identification with the play by mentioning a familiar aspect of life … The Elizabethan was familiar with many foreign coins not only because of trade with the Continent, but because for centuries good gold and silver had no nationality or politics. A precious metal coin was never turned down because it was not English (Engstrom, 4).
William Shakespeare (1564–1616) was born in the 31st year of the reign of Elizabeth I (ruled 1533–1603) and died in the 13th year of the reign of James I (ruled 1603-25). England’s circulating coinage during his lifetime included 11 different denominations in silver and nine in gold (there was no copper), along with many French, Italian, Spanish, and Dutch types mentioned in the plays.
Here is the will and under Caesar’s seal
To every Roman citizen he gives
To every several man, seventy-five drachmas.
—Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 2
The drachma, a silver coin of about 4.3 grams, was Greek not Roman. The Roman silver denarius at this time was a silver coin of about four grams (although many were underweight). Some critics consider this a historical error, but Shakespeare’s source for this, the historian Appian of Alexandria (c. 95–165 CE), is specific about Caesar’s bequest: “[T]o every Roman still living in the city he gave seventy five Attic drachmas.” This sum would be several month’s wages for a laborer.
Under Roman rule, Athens still issued its own silver coins, although the high-value tetradrachm (four-drachma piece) was more common than the drachma. Caesar’s portrait denarius, issued shortly before his assassination, offended conservative Romans, who felt coins should not glorify living men.
My daughter! Oh, my ducats! Oh, my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! Oh, my Christian ducats!
Justice! The Law! My ducats and my daughter!
—The Merchant of Venice, Act II, scene 7
Venice dominated Mediterranean trade in the middle ages, and well into the Renaissance. Introduced in 1284, and minted until the end of the Republic in 1796, the Venetian ducat was a gold coin of 3.53 grams, 23-3/4 carats fine (.9896). In Shakespeare’s play, Jewish moneylender Shylock laments his daughter’s theft of his sealed bags of ducats. On these “Christian ducats”, the obverse shows St. Mark handing a banner to the kneeling ruler of Venice, the Doge. The reverse shows a standing figure of Christ surrounded by stars. Central to the play’s plot is Shylock’s loan of three thousand ducats to the merchant Antonio, guaranteed by a pound of Antonio’s flesh.
Believe me, I had rather have lost my purse
Full of crusados.
—Othello, Act III, scene 4
In 1373, the kings of England and Portugal signed a treaty of “perpetual friendship”. Trade between the kingdoms flourished, thanks to an English fondness for port wine. The cruzado (or crusado) a Portuguese gold coin of about 3.8 grams, was first issued by King Afonso IV (ruled 1438-81) who hoped to finance a crusade against the Turks. Othello, a Moor native to North Africa, would have been familiar with the rich sources of West African gold exploited by Portuguese mariners.
Ecu, Quart d’ecu
Indeed, the French may lay twenty French crowns to one they will beat us … But it is no English treason to cut French crowns, and tomorrow the king himself will be a clipper.
—Henry V, Act IV, scene 1
“French crown” was the English name for a gold coin, the ecu à la couronne (“shield with a crown”) issued from 1385 to 1640. The weight and value varied over time. The obverse bore France’s royal coat of arms, a shield with three lilies (fleurs-de-lis) topped by a crown. The reverse bore an elaborate “floreate” cross, surrounded by a Latin inscription: “Christ conquers, Christ reigns, Christ rules.”
Clipping the edges of gold coins in order to sell the clippings was an illegal, but common, medieval practice. Clipping coins bearing the king’s image was punishable as treason.
There’s a quart d’ecu for you, let the justices make you and Fortune friends.
—All’s Well That Ends Well, Act V, scene 2
The quart d’ecu, called “cardecue” by the English, was a French silver coin valued at a quarter of an ecu. The romantic comedy All’s Well That Ends Well (1603) is set in France, so the reference to contemporary French coinage is appropriate.
The Penny and the Half Penny
An I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy gingerbread.
—Love’s Labours Lost, Act V, scene 1
Here is for thy pains.
No truly sir, not a penny.
—Romeo and Juliet, Act II, scene 4
During Shakespeare’s lifetime, the basis of the British monetary system was the silver penny (plural “pence”), normally the price of a loaf of bread. In Shakespeare’s Globe theater, a penny paid admission for “groundlings” who stood in the courtyard around the stage. Twelve pence made a shilling, and 20 shillings made a pound (the pound was an accounting unit rather than a coin, until the first gold pound or “sovereign” was issued in 1578).
Originally, the weight of the penny was defined as one “pennyweight”, equivalent to 1/20 of a troy ounce or 1.55 grams. Under Henry IV (1399–1413), the penny fell to 15 grains (0.97 g) of silver. And during the reign of Henry VI in 1464, it dropped to 12 grains (0.78 g).
By the reign of Elizabeth I, the penny was a wretched little piece struck in debased alloy (less than half silver), weighing 0.6 grams or less.
Beggar that I am, I am even poor in thanks, but I thank you. And sure, dear friends, my thanks are too dear a halfpenny.
—Hamlet, Act II scene 2
The tiny silver halfpenny, weighing just a quarter of a gram, was typically the price of a tankard of ale in a pub (between a pint and a quart). Under James I, the half penny bore a rose (symbol of England) obverse and a thistle (symbol of Scotland) reverse.
Come on, there is sixpence for you – let’s have a song.
—Twelfth Night, Act II, scene 3
The handsome “mill sixpence” of Elizabeth I, issued between 1561 and 1572 was the first English coinage made with a screw press rather than hand-hammered. French mint-master Eloye Mestrelle imported the machinery from Paris and set up a mint workshop in the Tower of London. The quality of the coins was excellent, but production was slow compared to hand hammering. Resistance from mint workers, fearing the loss of their jobs, eventually led to Mestrelle’s downfall and execution in 1578 for counterfeiting. It would be another century before coining machinery was adopted in Britain.
Pistol, did you pick Master Slender’s purse?
— Aye by these gloves did he … of seven groats in mill-sixpences and two Edward shovelboards that cost me two shilling and two pence apiece…
—The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act I, scene 1
This is one of Shakespeare’s more obscure coin references. The groat was a silver coin valued at fourpence. The “Edward shovelboard” was a shilling of the boy king Edward VI (ruled 1547-53). Struck in low relief, by Shakespeare’s time these coins had worn smooth and flat, making them perfect for the tavern game of shovelboard, which involved sliding coins across a table. These old coins were highly prized by players and sold for a premium.
A noble shalt thou have, and present pay,
And liquor likewise will I give to thee,
And friendship shall combine, and brotherhood.
—Henry V, Act II, scene 1
The “noble“ was a large, thin gold coin valued at six shillings and eight pence (80 pence, or one-third of a pound) first issued by Edward III in 1377, and last issued under Edward IV in 1464. By Shakespeare’s time, the gold “angel” replaced it. The weight gradually fell from about nine grams to less than seven.
The obverse bore a figure of the king standing in a ship, holding a shield emblazoned with the royal arms. The reverse bore an elaborate cross. Many references in Shakespeare to this coin play on both meanings of the word: the name of a gold piece and the quality of a person.
…They have in England
A coin that bears the figure of an angel
Stamped in gold.
—The Merchant of Venice, Act II, scene 7
First issued under Edward IV, the angel was a gold coin initially valued at six shillings and eight pence, at a weight of 5.2 grams. The value and weight varied over time, and there was also a half angel or “angelet”. The coin was last struck in 1642 under Charles I. The obverse bore a standing winged figure of the Archangel Michael slaying a dragon. The reverse shows a ship carrying the royal arms, surrounded by a religious inscription. References in Shakespeare often play on the double meaning of the word: a gold coin and a divine messenger.
Crowns in my purse I have, and goods at home
And so am come abroad to see the world.
—The Taming of the Shrew, Act I, scene 2
The crown was originally a gold coin issued under Henry VIII in 1526 valued at five shillings. Although small quantities continued to be issued in gold until the reign of Charles I (1625–49), it was best known as a heavy silver coin first struck under Edward VI in 1551.
“Harry Ten Shillings”
Good Master Corporate Bardolph, stand my friend and here’s four Harry ten shillings in French crowns for you.
—Henry IV, Part 2, Act III, scene 2
Henry IV reigned from 1399 to 1413. There were no 10 shilling coins during this time, so Shakespeare here makes a contemporary reference familiar to his audience. The “Harry ten shillings” was a 23 kt gold coin (falling to 20 kt subsequently) of Henry VIII first issued in 1544. Since the French crown circulated at a value of four shillings, the sum described here would have been 10 crowns. Elizabethans often needed to make such exchange rate conversions.
The standard reference on coins in Shakespeare (Engstrom, 1964) cites 22 different types specifically mentioned in the plays. Many of these are scarce, high-value gold and silver types, so assembling a complete set would be a challenge for a wealthy and patient collector. The most significant recent sale of Shakespearean coins was a Summer 2006 fixed price list from Stack’s in New York City. Hammered English coins are very popular with modern collectors, and these items frequently appear in major British and US auctions.
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 Appian, The Civil Wars, II:143 (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Appian/Civil_Wars/2*.html)
 CNG Triton VI, 14 January 2003, Lot 264. Realized $725 USD (estimate $500).
 Roma Numismatics Auction XVIII, 29 September 2019, Lot 970. Realized UK£4,000 (about $4,933 USD; estimate £5,000).
 As bullion, three thousand ducats would be 340 troy ounces of gold, worth about $510,000 USD at current rates.
 CNG Triton IX, 10 January 2006, Lot 1885. Realized $750 USD (estimate $750).
 CNG Electronic Auction 461, 12 February 2020, Lot 563. Realized $170 USD (estimate $100).
 Spink Auction 18004, 27 March 2018, Lot 378. Realized UK£170 (about $240; estimate £150-200).
 Noble Numismatics Auction 122, 19 November 2019, Lot 2932. Realized AU$100 (about $68 USD).
 Stack’s, 31 March 2008, Lot 3065. Realized $500 USD (estimate $400-600).
 CNG Electronic Auction 461, 12 February 2020, Lot 588. Realized $140 USD (estimate $200).
 Stack’s ANA Auction, 14 August 2019, Lot 21030. Realized $4,900 USD (estimate $4,000 – 6,000).
 CNG Triton XXI, 9 January 2018, Lot 1432. Realized $10,000 USD (estimate $7,500).
 The New York Sale, 9 January 2019, Lot 1050. Realized $8,000 USD (estimate $8,000).
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Dobson, Michael and Stanley Wells. Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. Oxford (2001)
Dunton-Downer, Leslie and Alan Riding. Essential Shakespeare Handbook. New York (2004)
Engstrom, J. Eric. Coins in Shakespeare: A Numismatic Guide. Hanover, NH (1964)
Ives, Herbert and Philip Grierson. The Venetian Gold Ducat and Its Imitations. New York (1954)
Johanyak, D. L. Shakespeare’s World. Saddle River, NJ (2004)
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Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works. New York (1997)
Stahl, Alan M. “Numismatics in the Renaissance”, Princeton University Library Chronicle 69 (Winter, 2008)
Stack’s. Fixed Price List. Coins of Great Britain Featuring Coins in Shakespeare. New York (Summer, 2006)
Spink. Coins of England and the United Kingdom, 46th edition. London (2011)