Sunday, 9 December 2012

The business portfolio of William Shakespeare

Elizabethan England was a land of high inflation and unemployed.
But there were also business opportunities in the developing
capitalist system.

Image: Engraving by Peter Bruegel.

If the financial crisis is bad today, in Elizabethan times it was infinitely worse.

Inflation was breaking all records, prices were rising steeply, and wages were at their lowest in real terms for 300 years.

Elizabethan society had Poor Laws and there was 
a Poor House in parishes overseen by 
Justices of the Peace.

But all was not gloomy. It was a good time to invest in land and property. Usury was a profitable venture. And there was a burgeoning demand for entertainment. And Shakespeare had a finger in them all.

Built in 1595, the Swan theatre was an entertainment
arena for plays, bear bating and swashbuckling.

As a shareholder in his theatre company Shakespeare generated capital which he could then invest in property and land deals. 

In 1602 he bought lands in Old Stratford, and in 1605 he bought a lease in Stratford and in three hamlets nearby. He bought New Place, the biggest house in Stratford. And his new wealth was able to procure for him his own coat of arms from a snobbish College of Heralds.

New Place - Shakespeare's Stratford residence.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

But it is Shakespeare’s moneylending which causes the most debate and controversy. 

In 1604 he sued his Stratford neighbour Philip Rogers over a debit of just £4. And four or five years later he pursued one John Addenbrooke for an unpaid loan of £6.  

In 1598 one Richard Quiney wrote a letter to his
'Lovinge good ffriend and contreymann Mr Will Shackespere' 

asking for a loan of £30. It is not known if Shakespeare 
replied to the letter
or that he even received it.

There were attempts to ban usury completely, on the grounds that it was forbidden in the Bible. 

But a developing capitalist system, and the financing of voyages of trade and discovery, made it an indispensable part of a new order than was emerging. 

And it is perhaps in these terms that Shakespeare could justify his actions, if indeed he wanted to justify them at all.

The vessel Red Dragon was used by the East India Company 
in trade with the East Indies.
It is believed that Hamlet was performed
onboard the ship in 1607.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Shakespeare's life was one of contrasts. A poet and actor on the one hand, an astute businessman on the other. 

Were these contradictions in his mind when he wrote The Merchant of Venice, itself a play of contrasts in which the action alternates between the magical island of Belmont with its fairy-tale princess, and the world of Venetian commerce with its usury and business deals? 

Was the poet-actor-businessman Shakespeare questioning his own values in the play? 

Warren Mitchell's Shylock was one of the highlights 
of the BBC TV Shakespeare 

Of course we can never know for certain what was passing through the mind of a man as complex as Shakespeare, and who lived 400 years ago, and in an age in which people's view of the world may have been very different to our own. 

And is it even important to know? As a character in Joyce's Ulysses states:

...when we read the poetry of King Lear what is it to us how the poet lived?

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