Shakespeare the capitalist

One of the many unfortunate legacies of Romanticism (there were some fortunate ones as well) is the mystification of the artist, as if, say, a literary genius were some ethereal sensitive soul far above the crass material realm of everyday life.  Whereas in reality, actual literary geniuses–like Chaucer, Jane Austen, Dickens–tend to be of solid, down-to-earth middle class stock.  That certainly was true of William Shakespeare.  Recent research into the abundant records of his business dealings show him to have been a rather ruthless capitalist.From Jill Lawless:

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.

“Over a 15-year period he purchased and stored grain, malt and barley for resale at inflated prices to his neighbors and local tradesmen,” they wrote, adding that Shakespeare “pursued those who could not [or would not] pay him in full for these staples and used the profits to further his own money-lending activities.”

He was pursued by the authorities for tax evasion, and in 1598 was prosecuted for hoarding grain during a time of shortage. . . .

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.”

She said the playwright’s funeral monument in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church reflected this. The original monument erected after his death in 1616 showed Shakespeare holding a sack of grain. In the 18th century, it was replaced with a more “writerly” memorial depicting Shakespeare with a tasseled cushion and a quill pen.


HT:  Jackie

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  • fjsteve

    Of course! One would have to be possess more than a bit of ruthlessness in order to carry out such an elaborate plan as to fake one’s own death and create an entirely new identity, then have the hutzpa to go on to become a famous playwright under his new persona! But then, as a former spy, Marlowe would certainly have had the means to pull of such a stunt.

  • Cincinnatus

    I’m skeptical of your assertion that good writers “tend” to be of middle-class, bourgeois extraction. Some great writers have been from the commercial classes, of course. But a brief mental survey of the “Western canon” reminded me that most great writers have, in fact, been decidedly aristocratic.

  • tODD

    Cincinnatus (@2), I would bet that most writers, good or bad, have tended to be of whatever class afforded decent chunks of free time in an era. Historically, this would have made for mostly aristocratic writers, with middle-class writers increasing over time — and, with the industrial era, even the poorer able to add to the corpus.

  • fjsteve

    tODD, the free time and the education which, the further back in time you go,weights more heavily towards the aristocratic classes. It’s difficult for the illiterate to become great writers.

  • SKPeterson

    I suppose we would need to define the Canon and then we could scrutinize the class of each author and what would mark one as lower, middle or upper in whichever culture we were viewing.

  • SKPeterson

    For example, Martin Luther was decidedly middle class, but he was associated with the Church. So too, some of the giants of English literature. What do we do with members of the diplomatic corps like Chaucer or Milton? Are they aristocrats or upper middle class? What about Dante or Machiavelli?

    One might make the rather obvious observation that the rise of capitalism allowed for more leisure to produce, as well as more demand for, works of literature and theatre and music thus allowing for less aristocratic authors to emerge.