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.