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 £5—but to his having laid out around £100 to buy himself into the Chamberlain’s (later the King’s) Men, the theatre company he worked with until his resignation around 1613. This entitled him to a share in the company’s business profits, further boosted when in 1599 he laid out an unknown sum to buy a share in the new Globe Theatre. Exactly how much these investments brought in is less certain. The financial records of his company have not survived but fragmentary evidence from other sources have been used to come up with a figure in the region of £200 in a good year—a “good year” being one not interrupted by the theatre closures due to outbreaks of plague, something that became increasingly common from 1604/05 onwards. Putting these figures together (ie, adding in the £80 derived from his property purchases) we come up with an annual figure of around £280.
This was a very good income but did it make him wealthy? I find it difficult to make the case that he even managed to break into the ranks of the minor local gentry in the moderately-sized town of Stratford-upon-Avon. This is most obvious in the marriages of his two daughters (and co-heirs), Susanna in 1607 to John Hall, and Judith in 1616 (at the unusually ripe age of 31) to Thomas Quiney. Susanna’s intended was a physician and was just about qualified to style himself a gentleman, but he was a second son and brought nothing with him in terms of tangible assets. Judith’s husband was the third son of a mercer who failed to settle any money on his bride at the time of the marriage, nor apparently afterwards. These would not be the sort of marriage partners thought appropriate for the daughters of an aspiring gentleman. Other town gentry were marrying into local families of similar status, or making sure their daughters did. But after Shakespeare’s death, neither of his sons-in-law, whose wives had inherited almost all of Shakespeare’s real and personal estate, lived out his life as a man of independent means.
Shakespeare’s will also indicates that he was not flush with cash. He charged his estate with money bequests totalling some £350. This, of course, was a substantial sum, but not as much as at least five other local Stratford gentry and a wealthy tradesman, who left up to £1700 in similar bequests. This may not be the whole story, of course, but bearing in mind the evidence of his daughters’ marriages, we must be careful not to exaggerate his financial resources at the end of his life.
The year 1605, when he made his last major investment in real estate, marked a financial highpoint. Though he lived for another 11 years, he made no further purchases, except for the rather odd case of the so-called Blackfriars Gatehouse in 1613: and even here, though this cost him the comparatively modest sum of £140, he didn’t have all the money to hand, leading to a mortgage of the property until he could come up with the balance.
It was also at this time that he surrendered his theatre shares, his major source of income. Why he did this is not clear though some capital would have ben released in the process. Without his theatre income, he would have been thrown back on his much smaller investment income, which does something to explain some of the steps he took later in life to safeguard this, particularly in the well-documented case of an attempted enclosure of some of the town’s old open fields which would have threatened his income. The proposed enclosure threatened his investment income derived from his purchases of property rights in the area, leading him to take prompt action to make sure his interests weren’t undermined—sensible enough in the circumstances but a bit too business-like for some.
Shakespeare, then, was a well-to do gentleman when he died, but not a wealthy one. In financial terms, though, he probably did a little better than his fellow shareholders in the King’s Men—apart from the considerable fortunes were being made by theatre owners and managers—people such as Philip Henslowe and, to a lesser extent, Richard Burbage. His rival Ben Jonson, who did make a substantial fortune, shunned the role of sharer in a theatrical company, benefiting instead from aristocratic patronage and the large fees he was paid for devising lavish court entertainments, something Shakespeare never did.