Sixteenth century money and coinage

Coinage and forgery

Money in the era of Shakespeare

In Shakespeare's time, and for a couple of hundred years beyond, money was physically worth its nominal Clipped shilling, photo by Mike Peel, available through Creative Commonsvalue; that is, a shilling coin had to contain a shilling's worth of silver. Forgers, or counterfeiters, would try to pass false coins, and it was also a common crime to clip round the edges of a coin to remove some of the metal: eventually coins had milled edges to prevent this. Coins were also stamped with an image of the ruler's head on one side, and another image on the reverse.
In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare uses the image of making a fake coin to describe an illegitimate baby:

Ha? These filthy vices! It were as good
To pardon him that hath from nature stolen
A man already made, as to remit
Their saucy sweetness that do coin heaven's image
In stamps that are forbid. ‘Tis all as easy
Falsely to take away a life true made,
As to put mettle in restrained means
To make a false one.


A coin current in Shakespeare's time was the 'angel' - a coin which bore the image of the Archangel Michael defeating the devil in the form of a dragon.


A way of testing whether a coin was false was to weigh it, to see how much silver or gold it contained. Shakespeare links this idea to the biblical instruction: 

‘With what measure ye mete it shall be measured to you again' (Matthew 7:1-2)

– in other words, the weight you give to others will be apportioned to you.  Characters could be 'weighed' and found wanting.

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