Crowns and ducats: Shakespeare’s money and medals

19 April – 28 October 2012
A coin display in Room 69a
Admission free

This display explores the role of coins and money in Shakespeare’s works, as well as illustrating how money and medals marked the major events of the late Elizabethan and Jacobean world.

Shakespeare’s plays are full of coins, from the English crowns to the Venetian ducat, and references and metaphors were constantly related to money and coins as a way of indicating identity, legitimacy and reputation. More specifically they were used as a means of plot development, as audiences were expected to recognise the coins that were featured and pick up on messages about value, wealth and character. In The Merchant of Venice for example, which begins with the fateful loan of three thousand ducats made by Shylock to Antonio, the audience is assumed to know what a ducat is worth (about £100 today) and what the stakes are. In almost every scene that features Falstaff in Henry IV, there contains a monetary reference or joke that reflects on his character and role; from tipping with a notoriously bad coin, ‘Hold, there's a tester for thee’, to defending himself through a money metaphor, ‘Dost thou hear, Hal? Never call a true piece of gold a counterfeit. Thou are essentially mad, without seeming so.’

The role of money in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre will also be explored in this display. In many respects Shakespeare and his generation invented commercial theatre as part of a new world of public entertainment that was dependent on popular appeal whilst also firmly linked to the royal court. Medals, for example, were quite new in England and were given out and worn as signs of allegiance and fidelity, a fact that adds further bitterness to the reference Shakespeare uses in The Winters Tale when King Leontes’s jealously describes his wife as hanging round the neck of the visiting King of Bohemia, ‘Why, he that wears her like a medal hanging / About his neck, Bohemia’.

Objects on display include Nicholas Hilliard’s ‘Dangers Averted’ medal of Elizabeth I and William Roper’s print of Elizabeth, which was the first print to be dated and signed by an English artist. There is an example of the sort of money box that would have been used at the Globe Theatre; as well as a hoard of gold coins that was deposited in Essex around the time of Shakespeare’s birth which includes a Venetian ducat. Nearly every type of coin mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays, from ‘crack’d drachmas’ to ‘gilt twopences’ will also be on display.

Curator Barrie Cook said, "This exhibition began as an attempt to investigate what Shakespeare tells us about the coins of his time. What I hadn’t realised was, and what is so wonderful, is that when he talks about coins, he is as likely to be commenting on the people around him as about money."

Gold medal of Elizabeth I

Gold medal of Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard. England, c. 1580–1590.


For further information or images please contact the Press Office on +44 (0)20 7323 8394 / 8583 or

Notes to editors

  • Opening hours 10.00-17.30 Saturday to Thursday, 10.00-20.30 Fridays. The exhibition runs between 19 April – 28 October 2012.
  • An accompanying catalogue will be published by British Museum Press: Angels and ducats: Shakespeare’s money and medals, is edited by Barrie Cook paperback £9.99

The BP exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world

19 July – 25 November 2012, Admision charge, Reading Room

This display accompanies the major exhibition on the world of William Shakespeare which takes place at the British Museum during the summer of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The exhibition will provide a unique insight into the emerging role of London as a world city in the 1590s and early 1600s interpreted through objects, digital media and performance. The British Museum has collaborated with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the creative approach to the design of the exhibition, accentuating the connections between the objects, Shakespeare’s text and performance. The arrival of the Games to London provides the opportunity to reflect on how the world came to London four centuries ago, and how London perceived the world when global exchange and other aspects of modernity originated.

Supported by BP
Part of the London 2012 Festival and the World Shakespeare Festival