The playwright had a good business mind and was a canny investorby Robert Bearman / March 25, 2016 / Leave a comment
Writing a proper biography of Shakespeare is virtually impossible given the shortage of hard data about him. Actually, it’s not that limited for someone who lived 400 years ago, and who never got significantly involved in the great lives of the great aristocratic and political families. (Although some have argued, optimistically, that he enjoyed the extensive patronage of the Earl of Southampton, to whom he dedicated two poems.) The problem is that the information we have doesn’t throw much light on what sort of man Shakespeare was, or on the inner workings of his mind.
So there’s an inevitable temptation, if one is to fill a book, to write about his work and other issues associated with the Elizabethan theatre, rather than bother with the disconnected biographical information that have been unearthed. This is because these bits and pieces don’t tell us much about his creative life—and rather too much about his business interests. This is a pity because this evidence is central to any understanding of how successful Shakespeare was (or wasn’t) in terms of his career. It’s often assumed that Shakespeare died a wealthy man as would have befitted a great writer. But is this true? Exactly how rich was Shakespeare?
Shakespeare’s father John suffered business failure in the 1580s and his fortunes took a dive—as far as we know, his resources remained so stretched that he never even made a will. Shakespeare made things worse by marrying at the age of 18—before he had an establishment of his own to raise a family—and quickly producing three extra mouths to feed. He then seems to have taken off for London to seek a living in the theatre.
In his early years in London, Shakespeare did well. Between 1597 and 1605, he invested £900 in a series of increasingly ambitious purchases of real estate; to put this in perspective, a good-sized house in Stratford could change hands for £30 and a Stratford headmaster’s annual salary was £20. We can also work out that from these investments he could reckon on a return of around £75-£80 per year.
He had been able to make these investments because of the money he was making in the theatre. This was not directly linked to his playwriting—play texts at that time could be sold for as little as…