Shakespeare the Businessman

William Shakespeare is considered by many to be the finest writer in the English language and perhaps one of the best in any language. His plays have been performed, read, studied and translated into every major language in the four hundred years since he wrote them. Shakespeare’s literary works and influences are well known. Less well known is his personal life and his business affairs. As a recent study from Aberystwyth University has shown, Shakespeare was a ruthless businessman and even a tax evader. I read the story in Yahoo News.

Hoarder, moneylender, tax dodger — it’s not how we usually think of William Shakespeare.

But we should, according to a group of academics who say the Bard was a ruthless businessman who grew wealthy dealing in grain during a time of famine.

Researchers from Aberystwyth University in Wales argue that we can’t fully understand Shakespeare unless we study his often-overlooked business savvy.

“Shakespeare the grain-hoarder has been redacted from history so that Shakespeare the creative genius could be born,” the researchers say in a paper due to be delivered at the Hay literary festival in Wales in May.

Jayne Archer, a lecturer in medieval and Renaissance literature at Aberystwyth, said that oversight is the product of “a willful ignorance on behalf of critics and scholars who I think — perhaps through snobbery — cannot countenance the idea of a creative genius also being motivated by self-interest.”

Archer and her colleagues Howard Thomas and Richard Marggraf Turley combed through historical archives to uncover details of the playwright’s parallel life as a grain merchant and property owner in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon whose practices sometimes brought him into conflict with the law.

Actually, none of this is much of a surprise to anyone who has read a decent biography of Shakespeare. He was well known, in his time for being a shrewd and wealthy man. We think of Shakespeare as a writer that writes in an archaic language and who only scholars would care to read. In fact, Shakespeare was popular with Elizabethan and Jacobin audiences. He was the Steven Spielberg of his day and audiences flocked to see plays put on by his company. Thus, he became a wealthy man.

Shakespeare did not actually make his fortune by writing plays. Except for pirated versions, his plays were not published until after his death. No theater company published their plays because publishing plays did not earn nearly as much money as performing them and they did not want their competitors profiting by their efforts. He made his fortune as a part owner of his theatrical company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men or later the King’s Men. Shakespeare was not trying to create great art which would last the ages. Writing plays was a matter of business for him.

This was long thought to be the only portrait ...
Is this the face of a hoarder and tax-evader? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shakespeare led a rather frugal life in London and used most of his earnings to buy property and investments in his home town of

Strafford upon Avon. His wife and children stayed behind as he made his living at London and although he did visit his home, Shakespeare spent much of his life away from his family. Perhaps they felt the living he was able to provide for them was adequate compensation for an absent husband and father. Because Shakespeare was careful with his money, he died a wealthy man, unlike many of his contemporaries in the literary scene, and he was able to give his family a generous inheritance when he died.

I notice that many of the news reports on the Aberystwyth University study are fairly critical of Shakespeare’s business dealings. They shouldn’t be. Shakespeare was trying to do the best he could to get ahead in a hard world.

Archer said the idea of Shakespeare as a hardheaded businessman may not fit with romantic notions of the sensitive artist, but we shouldn’t judge him too harshly. Hoarding grain was his way of ensuring that his family and neighbors would not go hungry if a harvest failed.

“Remembering Shakespeare as a man of hunger makes him much more human, much more understandable, much more complex,” she said.

“He would not have thought of himself first and foremost as a writer. Possibly as an actor — but first and foremost as a good father, a good husband and a good citizen to the people of Stratford.”

After all, a poor, struggling Shakespeare might not have given the world his marvelous plays.

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