How did Shakespeare make his money?

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‘Shakespeare (whom you and every playhouse bill
Style the divine! the matchless! what you will),
For gain, not glory, wing’d his roving flight,
And grew immortal in his own despite…’

Alexander Pope, 1737.

Peter Thomson called ambiguity “a happy hunting ground for the critic” and ambiguity is still maintained by many around the life of William Shakespeare.

The Shakespearian mythos holds that John Shakespeare came penniless to Stratford where he prospered in business before losing his wealth. Later, his son William went to London and became rich through the theatre and thereafter made a number of investments around Stratford-upon-Avon. Among the various errors in this summary there is one that stands out – that William’s theatrical activities made him “rich”. William did indeed make a number of substantial, documented investments – house, land, tithes etc. – but it is when he made them that is of significance. The Shakespeare family investments began before William became part owner of the Globe and ended just as the Blackfriars started to generate cash.

Religion, patronage, “authorship”, publishing, court performance and touring – have all been advanced as potential explanations of “missing” Shakespeare family money.

In 1709 Nicholas Rowe called John Shakespeare a “great” dealer in wool, as court records prove. He also floated the £1000 “gift” from the Earl of Southampton, but followed it with a joke about Italian eunuchs and recorded that it was just second-hand

In the nineteenth century, James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps asked where the money came from to buy New Place, knowing it was not from the theatre.

In the twentieth century, Leslie Hotson linked Shakespeare with Francis Langley theatre owner and corrupt alnager (a City official who certified cloth) – the most useful kind of business contact for a family of illegal wool and cloth traders.

Another twentieth-century scholar, Edgar Fripp made it clear that John Shakespeare never fell from financial grace – he simply took his illegal business into the black economy.

Even the Education Service of the National Archives works

‘…to provide material that encourages pupils to challenge traditional expectations of Shakespeare. By investigating tax records … pupils are able to identify how Shakespeare avoided paying…’

In Elizabethan London, to avoid paying tax you would have to have had a humble “calling” and/or have multiple sources of income, declaring only the lowest. You would have been a lodger not a property owner or householder. You owned a country residence to furnish a “friendly” tax assessment if the London assessors caught you (payment in one jurisdiction avoided demands in another). You flitted between city and suburbs. If married, you lived alone, the family staying in the country. While in London you kept no servants or visible possessions.

In short, you behaved exactly like William Shakespeare, a “poor player”, who according to the London tax records had goods “to the value of [only] £5”.

Analysis of legal and financial records has led me to these conclusions:

1) The Shakespeare family never suffered a major financial reverse;
2) The sons worked in the family business; and,
3) Only when their business changed from trading in raw wool through regional ports to cloth through London did a representative (William) in the City become necessary.

William made “good” money from the theatre but the “fortune” came from the family.

The “happy hunting ground” is shrinking.

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David studied Law at Aberdeen University before embarking on a career in finance. Retiring in 2001, he pursued his interest in the arts studying at Plymouth College of Art & Design, Dartington College of Arts and the University of Exeter where he took his masters degree in Staging Shakespeare. He completed his Ph.D on the finances of the Shakespeare family in 2011.
  • ricardo

    what did william shakespeare get wealthy off of

  • lana

    wow so interesting William Shakespeare now to me is the most fan worthy ever

  • Iloveshakespeare

    An excellent paper, can”t wait for the book. I”ve always thought people misunderestimated (sic) Sh”s dad. Look at his meteroic rise in the local council and it”s clear he was no dumbo. He went several times to London to represent the town I seem to recall.

    How do you sit on the Catholic question? Paul and Stanley declared it conspiracy.

  • Barnaart

    Yes it will — hopefully early next year — if you are already a member of Britannica Online this link may help  Best, David.

  • Iloveshakespeare

    Very interesting and i would to read more but cannot afford to buy into the notes and queries site. WIll this be book length eventually?

  • Thomas

    Interesting. Taken further in 
    Fallow, D. (2008), ‘Like father like son: Financial practices in the Shakespeare
    family’, Studies in Theatre and Performance 28: 3, pp. 253–263, doi:
    10.1386/stap.28.3.253/3 for those who want to read further details.

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