Monthly Archives: April 2014

Boy Made Good

Did you know Master William Shakespeare was an astute businessman?

 

Only recently has light been thrown on the playwright’s business activities. And it seems William was a bit of a spendthrift; court records show his readiness to chase any debt owed, but also illustrate he was adept at moving out of digs just as his tax became due. Unlike fellow playwrights and actors he never bought a house in London but rather invested his hard-earned cash into land and property around Stratford-upon-Avon, his home town. There are even records showing he was active as a kind of Elizabethan commodities broker, buying grain during harvest-time and storing it so he could sell when the price was high.

 

So why haven’t we heard of Shakespeare & Co Ltd? Well the academics who recently unearthed this information say it was deliberately ‘buried’ in order to enhance his literary achievements. It seems certain academic snobs wanted to conceal the fact that our creative genius got his hands dirty with ‘trade’.

 

We English have a rather two-faced attitude towards ‘trade’. Napoleon Bonaparte called us a ‘nation of shopkeepers’ because he knew how deeply the insult cut. But we inherited the notion that business, the profitable act of buying and selling, is somehow less worthy (than merely pillaging?) from the Norman conquerors who invaded our shores in 1066. Once they became overlords they put their military prowess into coercing us natives, stealing local assets and sharing out the land gratis. Apparently it wasn’t their custom to pay the going rate for goods or services either. Thus, eventually, we had the Magna Carta.

 

When the Tudors took power (1485) they totally mistrusted the old nobility (particularly those with cherished Norman bloodlines) and actively promoted able men from any class to run the country. Henry VIII’s court was the first to appoint more ‘ordinary’ citizens than knights, and his daughter, Elizabeth I, never doubted the sense of engaging self-made men. And the new regime didn’t spurn trade, it absolutely embraced it.

 

So William Shakespeare was born at a time when England was a dynamic melting pot of change. And that change was fundamental to the creation of a new form of entertainment called theatre. London was thriving, a place where anyone willing to embrace opportunities could, and did, make a profit. And in contrast to other playwrights Shakespeare didn’t aim his work solely at the educated elite; his plays mirrored life; each multi-layered drama resonates with the full strata of society. And being a shareholder in this new venture was crucial to his creative acumen. He quickly realised that weaving stories which appealed to rich and poor (and just about everyone between) meant he couldn’t fail to fill his theatre, and thereby earn greater profits.

 

And like many budding entrepreneurs, as soon as he’d earned enough money he purchased a fine coat of arms (a fist shaking a spear) because it put his name firmly on the map of respectability. William didn’t anticipate fame; he just wanted his family to have better status. No doubt his father’s failings meant William never risked putting all his eggs into one basket. Shrewd, canny, ambitious, he understood the value of money because he worked hard for every penny. It was an asset, never a gift.  

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The Glove-maker’s Apprentice

I’ve been working through an on-line study course, part of a new international learning directive, with www.futurelearn.com. The ten week course studies one particular writer’s life through his work, using evidence from contemporary sources. If I tell you his story can you guess his name?

 

Born into a small town in middle England his early years were lived ‘over the shop’ of his father’s glove-making business. Clearly his father was seeking to improve his lot, having abandoned the family farm to learn a trade and, like many budding entrepreneurs, ascended the local social ladder, becoming member of the town council and eventually holding a status akin to mayor. This last role earned his son a free education at the local grammar school, sure means of ensuring his offspring could aspire to the next rung of social improvement. However the glove-maker’s world came tumbling down when he overreached himself. In the quest to grow bigger profits he dabbled in dark waters, such as money-lending, and attempted to break into markets to which he held no title. Which is when the corporate authorities stepped in and threatened to have him arrested.

 

It must have been devastating for the whole family, losing their status, but for the eldest son it meant the end of his education. He lost any chance of going to university and all the advantages that pathway promised. Bang went the boy’s future.

 

And worse was to come. A powerful local landowner called Sir Thomas Lucy spotted him poaching game on his property, and made it known he was going to catch him and put him in irons. And, at just eighteen years old, he got an older woman pregnant. All his hopes and dreams must have seemed crushed as he walked up the aisle.

 

But as eldest son it seems he was determined to restore his family fortunes and seemingly, as soon as he was able, he travelled down to London to seek his fortune. He didn’t have a trade but he’d learned to live by his wits, probably having the need to talk his way out of trouble on many an occasion. And when he got to London he quickly tagged onto a new and exciting industry called theatre. Before too long he’d earned a reputation as a ‘jack of all trades’, acting, directing and writing plays for a prominent group of players who had the good fortune to sometimes perform for the queen. Critics made fun of his country accent and rival playwrights looked down on him because he hadn’t earned a degree from Oxford or Cambridge but he had a gift for re-working well-loved stories and turning them to gold.

 

But then, just when it seemed he’d found his place in life, all London theatres were forced to close their doors indefinitely, due to an outbreak of plague, and anyone who was anyone abandoned the city for their country estates. The ‘jack of all trades’ found himself out of work and in serious need of a patron, so he turned his pen to poetry. Again he didn’t aim at creating anything original, just re-worked the classical myth of Venus and Adonis to make it appeal to a particular audience. In fact he was fishing for a very particular audience, one who would be charmed by his use of a liberal pen, because this well-educated and exceedingly handsome aristocrat was about to come into a fortune.

 

And this is where the writer’s run of bad luck turned. One of his former grammar school friends, Richard Field, had become a printer and he agreed to publish the poem. Using a form of flamboyant sales talk almost certainly mastered in his father’s glove shop the writer penned a graceful introduction to his work. And the young Earl of Southampton was duly flattered.

 

 

I KNOW not how I shall offend in dedicating my unpolished lines to your lordship, nor how the world will censure me for choosing so strong a prop to support so weak a burden only, if your honour seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised, and vow to take advantage of all idle hours, till I have honoured you with some graver labour. But if the first heir of my invention prove deformed, I shall be sorry it had so noble a god-father, and never after ear so barren a land, for fear it yield me still so bad a harvest. I leave it to your honourable survey, and your honour to your heart’s content; which I wish may always answer your own wish and the world’s hopeful expectation.

Your honour’s in all duty,
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

.Image The Earl of Southampton aged 21

 

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