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Shakespeare: all about the pounds and pence, not the poetry?

April 01, 2013|By Patt Morrison
  • Portrait of William Shakespeare, who researchers say was a tax scofflaw and grain hoarder.
Portrait of William Shakespeare, who researchers say was a tax scofflaw… (Associated Press / Lefteris…)

Oh, Will, you bad, bad Bard.

All the time I’ve been defending you from the elitists and snobs who refuse to credit the idea that you, a mere glover’s son, could have penned some of the most lyrical passages and memorable characters in the English language….

And how do you pay me back for sticking up for you and your authorship?

As it turns out, by acting like a greedy, grasping robber baron.

Amid all the centuries of grousing that the world doesn’t know very much about William Shakespeare the man, researchers at Aberystwyth University in Wales have unearthed perhaps a wee bit more that we would like to know.

Shakespeare, Mr. “I can raise no money by vile means” [“Julius Caesar”], was in fact a tax dodger, a grain hoarder and a determined debt collector [“Neither a borrower nor a lender be” -- “Hamlet”].

Nowadays, we’d call him a profiteer and a scofflaw. In Tudor England, where he was investigated for his laconic tax observances and once prosecuted for his hoarding practices, it’s a surprise that he didn’t end up swinging from a gibbet “for daws to peck at” [“Othello”]. No wonder he vigorously wrote, in “Henry VI part 2,” “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Researchers turned up archival evidence that for a decade and a half – including some very hungry years for England -- Shakespeare “purchased and stored grain, malt and barley for resale at inflated prices to his neighbors and local tradesmen.” When they couldn’t or wouldn’t pay, Shakespeare went after them full-throatedly, and the profits he did make he used “to further his own money-lending activities.”

Not all of this is new, but Jayne Archer, one of the researchers, suspects that the fact that so little of this information has made its way into Shakespeare’s public profile may be laid to “willful ignorance on behalf of critics and scholars who … cannot countenance the idea of a creative genius also being motivated by self-interest.”

Even in this, of course, Shakespeare may have been groundbreaking. Everyone knows that writing is a dicey undertaking when it comes to what they call maintaining a revenue stream. That’s how cheap, flashy novels known as “potboilers” got their name – their sales keep the soup pot boiling.

Thus it is that Shakespeare set the precedent: actors can also honorably be waiters, and writers can do a tidy sideline in real estate and wholesale foodstuffs.

There’s evidence that the memorial raised up to him in his hometown not long after his death originally showed him with an image with which his neighbors associated him: a bag of grain, not the writerly accouterments of quill and parchment added later. Four hundred years later, the tourists still make pilgrimages to Stratford because, face it, who’s going to go home with souvenir paperweights and china thimbles commemorating the Tudor equivalent of a commodities trader?

This revelation does not diminish my conviction that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. But I do take delight that it comes so close on the heels of the discovery of the skeleton of King Richard III, England’s last Plantagenet sovereign, killed at Bosworth Field by the forces of the upstart Henry Tudor, founder of the Tudor dynasty.

Richard was so utterly vilified by Tudor propagandists like Thomas More, Polydore Virgil and, above all, Shakespeare that there’s a satisfying symmetry to Shakespeare’s reputation getting blotted at the same time that Richard’s is being resurrected.

“My ashes, as the phoenix, may bring forth/A bird that will revenge upon you all.” [“Henry VI part 3”]

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