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William Shakespeare came from a modest start but finished life living in the largest house in Stratford-upon-Avon, with a coat of arms and a series of shrewd business investments to his name.
So was William Shakespeare a businessman, as well as a writer?
Shakespeare the Businessman
Jayne Archer, a lecturer in Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Aberystwyth University has uncovered information from historical archives that point to Shakespeare being a shrewd and ruthless businessman. With her colleagues Howard Thomas and Richard Marggraf Turley, Archer discovered documents that showed Shakespeare to be a grain merchant and property owner whose practices caused some controversy in his lifetime.
The academics believe that much of Shakespeare's business savvy and company ventures have been obscured by our romantic view of him as a creative genius who made his money through acting and writing plays. The idea that Shakespeare gave the world such wonderful narratives, language, and all-around entertainment, makes it difficult or uncomfortable to consider that he was motivated by his own self-interest.
Shakespeare was a grain merchant and property owner and for over 15 years he bought and stored grain, malt, and barley and then sold it on to his neighbors at inflated prices.
In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, a blight of bad weather gripped England. The cold and rain resulted in poor harvests and consequently famine. This period was referred to as the 'Little Ice Age'.
Shakespeare was under investigation for tax evasion and in 1598 he was prosecuted for hoarding grain at a time when food was scarce. This is an uncomfortable truth for Shakespeare lovers but in the context of his life, times were hard and he was providing for his family who would have had no welfare state to fall back on in times of need.
However, it is documented that Shakespeare pursued those who could not pay him for the food he provided and used the money to further his own money-lending activities.
It was perhaps galling for those neighbors when he came back from London and brought his lavish family home, "New Place."
Links to Plays
One could argue that he did not do this without a conscience and that perhaps this is demonstrated in the way he portrayed some of the characters in his plays.
- Shylock: Shakespeare's portrayal of the moneylender Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is not a kind one. Perhaps Shylock personifies Shakespeare's own self-loathing for his profession? Shylock is eventually humiliated for his greed as a money lender and all that he owns is stripped from him. Perhaps with the authorities pursuing him, this was a real fear for Shakespeare?
- Lear: King Lear is set at a time of famine and Lear's decision to divide his land between his daughters would have impacted on the distribution of food. This may reflect a preoccupation with the powers that be and their ability to impact the lives of their citizens to the point of what they put in their bodies.
- Coriolanus: The play Coriolanus is set in Rome at a time of famine and the riots that ensue would have reflected the peasants uprising in 1607 in the Midlands where Shakespeare lived. Shakespeare's fear of hunger may have been a major motivation for him.
Shakespeare saw his own father fall on hard times and as a result, some of his siblings did not receive the same education that he did. He would have understood how wealth and all its trappings can very quickly be taken away.
At the same time, he would surely have understood how lucky he was to have received the education he did in order to become the savvy businessman and famous actor and writer he became. As a result, he was able to provide for his family.
Shakespeare's original funeral monument at Holy Trinity Church was a bag of grain which shows that he was also famous for this work during his lifetime as well as his writing. In the 18th century, the bag of grain was replaced by a pillow with a quill on it.
This more literary depiction of Shakespeare is the one that we prefer to remember but perhaps without the economic successes in his lifetime relating to grain, Shakespeare would not have been able to support his family and pursue his dream of being a writer and actor?