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WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE a loan shark? A tax dodger? Worse yet, a hedge trader?
Or was he merely a man of his Elizabethan times? And the greatest dramaturgist of all time?
In a paper to be presented at the Hay Festival (see http://goo.gl/ELlwT) in May, researchers at Aberystwyth University in Wales will argue Shakespeare was all of the above. Alas, some in the mass media have reported this with the zeal of a college freshman condemning filthy capitalism.
By contrast, The Christian Science Monitor, April 1, 2013, offers a balanced appraisal of the research (see http://goo.gl/z9D3f). It cites Jayne Archer, lecturer in medieval and Renaissance literature at Aberystwyth, as the principal researcher in the study. She says that, over the years, scholars have willfully ignored Shakespeare’s business savvy, perhaps through snobbery. She sees no contradiction in “a creative genius also being motivated by self-interest.”
During the 16th century, the onset of the “Little Ice Age” (which was to last 300 years) brought unusual cold to northern Europe, with heavy rain, poor harvests and inevitable food shortages. For a 15-year period of this, Shakespeare bought and stored grain, malt and barley for later resale. And, indeed, in 1598 he was prosecuted for hoarding these foodstuffs in time of shortage.
At the same time, he gave these concerns dramatic life in Coriolanus, set in ancient Rome that was being wracked by famine. And, in King Lear, dissention among the king’s three daughters arises from injustices of distribution, real and imagined.
Researcher Archer cites other records indicating that Shakespeare “pursued those who could not (or would not) pay him in full for these staples and used the profits to further his own money-lending activities.”
These were business practices in Elizabethan times, just as they are now. And, what with the era’s entertainments of public drawing and quartering, a little bit of hardheaded usury seems pretty tame indeed.
And wasn’t Shylock’s deal of “a pound of flesh” in The Merchant of Venice rather more harsh than asking for simply cash in full?
Shakespeare became a property owner of stature in his native Stratford-upon-Avon. It shouldn’t be surprising that he’d be caught up in court actions of one sort or another in this especially litigious age.
Said Archer, “He would not have thought of himself first and foremost as a writer. Possibly as an actor—but first and foremost as a good father, a good husband and a good citizen to the people of Stratford.”
She offered an interesting historical example in this regard. The original funeral monument, erected in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church in 1616, showed Shakespeare holding a sack of grain. In the 18th century, a new memorial replaced the grain sack with a tasseled cushion and quill pen.
As co-editor John Simmons notes in The Bard & Co., Shakespeare keeps more people in employment than General Motors. This book collects essays by 26 business writers, each taking a different play to illustrate Shakespeare’s relevance to today’s corporate world.
Jess Winfield’s My Name is Will is a time-warp romp of Shakespeare as a real person—and a closet Catholic—in Elizabeth’s Protestant England. Great fun.
On an only slightly related note, Elizabethan plays often end an act with a rhymed couplet. I offer one here: “And now ’tis time that I should up and gitt/To ponder all the nonsense I’ve just writt.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013