The Bard as businessman

The first collected edition of William Shakespeare's plays is displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in west London on March 6, 2013.

Shakespeare may not seem a suitable subject for a business show, but think again. A group of literary researchers at Aberystwyth University in Wales, say that Shakespeare was a businessman to his fingertips, strongly motivated by money and not as lofty or magnanimous in his financial dealings as you’d expect.

“This was a man who lent money and pursued people through the courts when they did not repay on time,” says Jayne Archer, a lecturer in medieval and Renaissance literature at Aberystwith. “He also took out loans from other individuals and did not repay them.”

Clearly the Bard did not obey Polonius’ injunction in "Hamlet": “Neither a lender nor a borrower be.”

And he wasn’t always full of “the milk of human kindness” either. Jayne Archer and her colleagues say that the so-called Swan of Avon engaged in some unscrupulous commodity dealing, stockpiling grain at  a time of near famine in England.

“He buys an illegal quantity of grain and of barley to sell at a later date at inflated prices, probably in the late winter, early spring when people are at their most desperate for food," says Jayne.

Grain hoarder, money lender and -- the historical record shows -- a tax evader, too. This doesn’t fit with the popular image of Shakespeare as a wise and generous chronicler of the human heart.

Indeed, these revelations make the playwright sound both ruthless and sleazy.

But Jayne Archer’s co-researcher, Prof. Richard Marggraf Turley, says we should not judge Shakespeare too harshly. We should bear in mind that he was struggling to survive and prosper in a dog-eat-dog environment. He was driven by a powerful desire to rescue and protect his family’s fortunes after his father’s business failed. And we should dismiss the romantic notion about what motivates a towering talent like Shakespeare.

“This is the idea that great artists -- geniuses -- are solely driven to write for art’s sake. That is not a view of Shakespeare that his contemporaries would have recognized,” says Marggraf Turley.

Writing plays, running a theatre, buying land, and dealing in grain...Shakespeare was -- first and foremost -- in it for the money.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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