Money in the Age of Shakespeare
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By Michael J. Cummings..© 2012
Will you take eggs for money? (The Winter's Tale, 1.2.194)
Money is a good soldier, sir, and will on. (The Merry Wives of Windsor, 2.2.63)
He lends out money gratis and brings down / The rate of usance here with us in Venice. (The Merchant of Venice, 1.3.23-24)
Basic Currency Unit: the Penny
In Shakespeare's lifetime (1564-1616), the pound and the penny were the basic units of English currency.
In the late eighth century, Saxons coined the forerunner of the penny from silver. Because they minted it from high-grade silver, they called it a sterling. (Sterling was a standard indicating that an object contained 92.5 percent or more of silver.) The Saxons found that they could make 240 sterlings from a pound of silver. The term pound then came into use to designate a money unit worth 240 sterlings,
A sterling later came to be known as a penny; the plural form of that word was pence. Because 240 pence could be made from one pound of silver, the term pound was used to represent 240 pence.
Over time, the value of all English currency units were measured against the penny when the government created them. For example, the farthing was valued at ¼ penny; the shilling, at 12 pence. The ultimate value of all coins in circulation—including foreign ones—was based on the weight of the precious metal (gold or silver) a coin contained.
An English penny coined in 1600 would probably be equivalent to about 2 or 2½ American dollars today, considering what it could buy in Shakespeare's day: a loaf of bread, for example, or a generous portion of beer. There was no paper money.
An item in a shop would be labeled 1d if it cost 1 penny, 2d if it cost two pence, 3d if it cost three pence, and so on. (D stood for denarius, the Latin name for a metal coin of ancient Rome.) The penny and other coins were minted in the Tower of London.
The following are among the names of English coins in circulation in Shakespeare's time, along with their values.
farthing (silver): ¼ penny.
halfpenny (silver): ½ penny. Also called ha'penny.
twopence (silver): 2 pence, or 2d.
threepence (silver): 3 pence, or 3d.
groat (silver): 4 pence, or 4d. Also called a tanner.
sixpence (silver): 6 pence, or 6d. Also called a tester.
shilling (silver): 12 pence, or 1s. Also called a teston or testoon. The s after the 1 stands for solidus, the name of an ancient Roman coin. Solidus means solid.
half-crown (silver): 30 pence, or 2s/6d, referred to in conversation as two and six.
crown (silver): 60 pence, or 5 shillings.
Angel (gold): 120 pence, or 10 shillings. This coin bore an image representing the archangel Michael.
Royal (gold): 180 pence, or 15 shillings. The royal was also called a ryal or a rial.
Pound (gold): 240 pence, or £1. England began minting the pound coin after 1583. The symbol £ stands for libra, the Latin name of an ancient Roman coin. Libra can be translated as pound.
Fine sovereign (gold): 360 pence, or 30 shillings.
Money of Account
A mark was a monetary unit equal to 160 pence, but it was not an actual coin. Instead, it was a term used in bookkeeping and in making transactions. Suppose, for example, that a merchant sold an item for 13 shillings and 4 pence (13s/4d)—an amount equal to 160 pence. In such a case, a bookkeeper might have written "sold for 1 mark." A mark was thus referred to as "money of account." The pound was money of account until 1583, when England began minting pound coins.
Coins from France, Italy, The Netherlands, and other countries were also in circulation in England in Shakespeare's time. Their values were based on the weight of the precious metal they contained. Among the foreign coins exchanged were the French êcu, the Dutch guilder (also called florin), and the Italian ducat.
Examples of Money References in Shakespeare
Look, where three-farthings goes! (King John, 1.1.148)