The world’s libraries are awash with portraits of Stratford’s William Shakespeare, contrived through painstaking, line-by-line analysis of the literary works he supposedly wrote. This is frequently clever stuff and very laudable . . . but somewhat irrelevant if you have the wrong man.
Imagine if we were to write a psychological analysis of screenwriter Ian McLellan Hunter by analyzing the text of the film Roman Holiday (1953). Prior to 1991, that would have seemed perfectly legitimate. The screenplay is obviously not autobiographical (there was nothing in Hunter’s life that would move him to write a story about a high-society figure hiding her identity!); but we had unequivocal proof that he had written the story. Hunter was known to William Wyler, the producer and director, and probably by Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, too. The posters promoting the film all provided documentary evidence of his authorship, as did the film review in the New York Times. Certainly, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences “knew” he had written Roman Holiday and awarded him an Oscar for it. I assume the representatives of the motion picture industry, applauding as he went on stage to collect his award, believed the same. It was not until some forty years later that Dalton Trumbo (blacklisted as part of the House Committee on Un-American Activities’ communist witch hunt) was finally recognized as the true author and awarded a posthumous Oscar. As Daryl Pinksen highlights in his excellent book Marlowe’s Ghost, if this can happen in the 20th century with all the media coverage, security agencies, central government records, communication channels etc., then what would be possible in the late 16th century? Moreover, if it were not for a timely intervention, we may still not know the truth and scholars would simply hold up the posters and film reviews with a condescending grin to all those that questioned these “undoubted facts."
What is often obscured, by the uncloaking of these various deceptions, is the life of the front man who, to subsequent generations, is seen merely as a parasite, taking glory for others’ achievements. This is simply not true of Hunter, for example, who was a relatively successful writer in his own right. He wrote screenplays for at least twenty movies and co-wrote various works for the theatre, one (somewhat ironically) being a musical called Foxy based on Ben Jonson’s Volpone. He also wrote for television (including Robin Hood and The Defenders).
So, what does this have to do with William Shakespeare of Stratford? Well, I am of the opinion that it is time someone sung the praises of the Stratford merchant by looking at the life we know he had, rather than the starry-eyed, romantic intellectualizing we are normally fed. It is unfair that his real achievements are completely ignored and this “square peg” has been hijacked by Stratfordian academics to fit a “round hole” they have vacant. Shakespeare of Stratford did not write Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet or the plethora of other works ascribed to him. He was a trader, an opportunist and an entrepreneur; this man was a goal-setter with a single-minded determination to succeed - and succeed he did.
William’s father, John, was a glover by trade, but also an ambitious businessman, seizing any opportunity to increase his wealth and standing in the community. We see this through his lending (at substantial interest rates) and his dealings in wool, an illegal activity for those, like John Shakespeare, not chartered by the state to do so. Anti-Stratfordians are often labelled snobs for suggesting someone of William’s background could not have the skill-set required to write the plays. I find it somewhat amusing that these accusers are oblivious to their condescension towards the skills of the entrepreneur. It is assumed, when discussing the learning of the university wits, that their abilities were honed from years of dedicated study, an opinion with which I concur. However, when it comes to trading tithes, grains, wool, land etc., it seems to be dismissed as something anyone can choose to participate in on a whim. William, we are asked to believe, was a commodity dealer, property investor and moneylender in his spare time; presumably it was an impulsive decision, displaying the same blasé attitude with which he (for no apparent reason and with no prior display of aptitude) deigned to write plays and compete with the greatest literary minds in England. I often wonder why this same course is not more frequently followed by our modern academics, if for no other reason than to fund their research projects, rather than spending time soliciting funding from wealthy entrepreneurs.
In 16th-century England, wool (accounting for around three quarters of England’s foreign trade) was heavily controlled from London. John Shakespeare was involved in transactions as large as two tons of it, valued at hundreds of pounds at a time when a reasonable house could be bought for £30-£40. Trading on this scale requires a network of suppliers and customers and an awareness of volatile market conditions. Whilst the volume of wool traded in England was large, growth had stagnated by the second half of the century and the wool market was turbulent, in much the same way as the world’s stock markets are today. There were dramatic market slumps just at the time that John was seemingly most active. The years 1562-4 and 1571-3 saw particularly bad bear markets and these would have heightened John’s awareness to the fact that profit was hard won. Constant vigilance was essential to successful trading and he would have ensured William was minded of this fact. Subsequently, it seems that John’s carelessness (through either bad dealings and/or in evading the authorities) led directly to his downfall, and this too would have been an early lesson for an impressionable youngster.
John Shakespeare’s ambition for “position” within his community is clearly discernible. He was an alderman in 1565, a year after William’s birth, and was to rise to High Bailiff by 1569. Around this time, John applied for a coat of arms, reinforcing the assertion that he craved social rank. It is in this household and atmosphere that young William was raised. These values would have been instilled in him from an early age and, his actions show, they remained in focus for the rest of his life.
By 1576 (when his wool dealing brought about John’s fall from grace), William saw the effects that his father’s floundering business dealings had both on the family and his own life. John’s social standing was in tatters and he later avoided council meetings until he was eventually dismissed by the town authorities in 1586. William certainly would have witnessed his father’s humiliation, which would have taught him another valuable lesson: the value of income-generating assets and the security they bring. John had to sell property to cover his losses and focus on his glove-making business. William set out never to be in a similar position. He would avoid overt risk-taking and accumulate assets that generate income. He would protect those assets as best he could and work them to his advantage. William, we are told, was removed from school at 13 (I will not argue the point of school attendance, for the purpose of this article) and worked, in glove production, alongside his father. He was educated in the ways of business, buying raw materials and selling product on to customers. Equally important, William was learning a trade that might give him his opportunities in life.
William was married at age 18 and had a daughter shortly after his 19th birthday. He now had more reason to safeguard his future financial security and started looking for the opportunities to take advantage of his knowledge. This may have presented itself in 1587 (when it appears William was still residing in Stratford) with the visit of the Queen’s Men (one man short due to a fatal duel some days before in Thame). Perhaps William had some acting experience at this time or maybe the Queen’s Men just needed anyone to fill the less-demanding roles now vacant, as their previous, more experienced incumbent was required to replace William Knell (the recently deceased). Perhaps his ability to work leather (and sew presumably) would have been useful to a travelling theatre company to maintain its costumes, so he could fulfill a dual role. The specifics we may never know; but we do know William was probably in London connected to the theatre world by about 1593 or thereabouts.
Let us pause here to consider this man’s position. He knows (from bitter experience) that he must accumulate some wealth. He has learned, from his new associates, of the wealth of company shareholders such as Burbage and Alleyn. William would have noted that actors shared the assets - not writers. Playwrights were poorly paid and relied on the patronage of benevolent aristocrats for their day-to-day living. Moreover, when one considers the time involved in producing the sophisticated works being created by the university wits, the hourly rate would have been very unappealing to a business-minded, budding-entrepreneur like William. In fact, if he had bothered to write anything, it would have been masques for court consumption. Masques typically attracted triple the fee of a play and all for a fraction of the effort involved in a Shakespearean work. Furthermore, masque writing would have brought William to the attention of the aristocracy far more easily than playwriting, and would have sated his need for social status. Plays were predominantly fodder for the masses and, as we shall see, William was not so keen to ingratiate himself to them.
However, it would not have gone unnoticed that, though little was paid for plays by producers, few seemed to be publishing these plays for general consumption. If we were to believe the picture painted by The Arte of English Poesie, any self-respecting intellectual (with aristocratic connections) would have baulked at the idea of selling theatre plays to the masses. William, however, had no such hesitation; this would be a chance to supplement his income. The idea that this man, at this point, sat down and started writing plays to compete with a band of university educated, ground-breaking visionaries is frankly barmy. If anyone had suggested, to William, that he should study historical texts for the next several months and write plays based on them, he would have thought them insane. Why would he do that? He needs money now; he wants to start accumulating the assets he needs to secure his future. With plays just lying around, begging to be exploited, it would be a folly to consider writing new ones. Thereby, William hits on his first masterstroke. He approaches playwrights and asks them if he can sell their plays to other theatre companies and publishers. In exchange for this, William would take a hefty commission and give them money they would not otherwise have received. Authors would gladly agree and, if they wished to be disassociated with these plays, their names would remain either undisclosed or substituted for his (maybe by William himself or by the publishers, as William Shakespeare would be the only name they had available). We catch occasional glimpses of William’s play-brokering activities, such as when Henslowe’s Diary records payments to a group of writers for the play Sir John Oldcastle. It was likely William brokered the play for the anonymous first quarto in 1600. By the second printing (in the False Folio of 1619), it appears as by William Shakespeare, together with other plays William had probably brokered over the years such as A Yorkshire Tragedy, King Lear and Henry V.
The foresight of William here should not be understated. Arts in general had prospered since an earlier relaxation in censorship and a shift of focus from the church as being the main source of funding for visual and written works. The theatres were gaining huge popularity thanks to a number of factors, not least the quality of new works being produced by Marlowe and others. However, this would count for nothing without an audience, which grew from a burgeoning population with disposable income. Though published plays may have to sell through two or three editions to prove profitable, perhaps publishers too saw that this might be increasingly possible. Education flourished alongside Protestantism and publishing went through a boom in the latter part of the 16th century. Around 800 books were printed in the 1520s compared to 3000 in the 1590s and many of these seemed to trickle down to the lower levels of society. For example, 8% of Canterbury household inventories, in the 1560s, listed books. By 1620, that figure had risen to 45% and William was quick to recognize this although, conspicuously, he did not appear to follow the trend, for William did not mention a single book in his detailed will. That said, if I had made my millions by selling ladies underwear, I would not necessarily find it suitable for my personal use! Plays were simply another commodity to William and he knew what to do with commodities.
This idea catapulted the now 29-year-old William into the big league and enabled him to purchase a share in a theatre company, his first major asset and a considerable income-earning asset, too.
As with most successful traders, William was very familiar with his "products" and knew their “unique selling points” by rote. As such, he would be the perfect point of reference for George Buc, when he sought information about the origins of these plays. Specifically, when Buc wanted an author’s name, for the anonymously published George a Greene, whom else would he turn to but the trader in anonymous plays, William Shakespeare? Buc simply wrote (in his copy of the play) that it was written by a minister “Teste W. Shakespea” (as testified by W. Shakespeare). Some have questioned the authenticity of this reference to Shakespeare by Buc. I see no reason to doubt its validity, although the dates ascribed to Buc’s various inscriptions on his 1599 copy of George a Greene are still open to debate.
This was only the start and William continued to accumulate assets, which would both generate income and re-establish the social standing of his family directly. He purchased New Place in May 1597, the second largest house in Stratford, and probably revelled in the fact that it was built and occupied by Hugh Clopton (financier of Stratford’s Clopton Bridge) and a former Mayor of the City of London. Stratford’s largest house was occupied by John Combe, one of William’s few identifiable friends, and a useful one at that (the only kind of friend that would interest William). Combe was a “devilish usurer,” perhaps with whom he could discuss interest rates on loans to the local residents and thereby maximize returns. His completion of the quest for a family coat of arms (commenced by his father nearly 30 years earlier) finally realized his goal of restoring his family’s respectability.
Having secured a share in the theatre company, William was not required to spend all his time living and working in London and was therefore able to devote himself to expanding his business interests back in Stratford. He would have spent many hours developing business relationships for dealing in grains and keeping abreast of commodity prices to avoid the pitfalls to which his father fell foul.
It is sometimes assumed that William is buried in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church due to either his social status or even his supposed literary achievements. In fact, the reason is that he purchased a 21-year lease to some of the tithe privileges (formerly owned by the Collegiate Church, based there until the Reformation) for £440 (yielding £43 per annum net) in 1605. Therefore, William secured a right to be buried there because he had a share in the revenues and administrative duties of the church. Even in death, William would continue his quest for status.
As mentioned earlier, William followed his father’s practice of money lending and was not averse to using the legal system to recover unpaid debts as they fell due.In 1604, he sued the apothecary, Rogers, for an unpaid debt. From August 1608 until June 1609, William pursued John Addenbrooke through the courts for the sum £6 (plus 24s damages). When Addenbrooke absconded, William sought to recover the full amount from Addenbrooke’s surety, the blacksmith Thomas Horneby. William purchased land near Stratford (including 107 acres from his fellow “loan shark” John Combe). In the winter of 1597/98, he owned 80 bushels of grain (or 640 gallons - showing the extent of William’s Stratford-based commodity trading within four or five years of arriving in London) which he hoarded during a famine, appearing to have no regard for the suffering of his fellow Stratford residents.
Amusingly, we are asked to believe that this man also wrote the sensitive, heartfelt and heart-rending plays and sonnets of the author Shakespeare. Can you really imagine our William, aged 33, writing Romeo and Juliet – a passionate love story about a girl roughly the same age as his own daughter? Moreover, we are asked to accept that William didn’t even bother publishing more than half the plays he wrote; valuable assets were simply left abandoned somewhere to gather dust – by the same man who sold stone to the Stratford Corporation for 10d. Can these two men really be the same person?
When he died, William did not have a single manuscript because assets were used to the full; and he had long since sold any rights he may have held. He did not own a single book because they held no interest for him. Time spent reading was time not earning money. It was about as fruitless a pastime as writing plays; after all, what did men like Robert Greene, Thomas Kyd or even the great Kit Marlowe get out of it? No, William had entered the theatre world as a trader and had shown that he could make it pay. He was one of the survivors.
Creators of true art focus on little other than the art itself. They have a burning desire to create, to the exclusion of all else. Great entrepreneurs have many of these same qualities: a single-minded and unwavering desire to create wealth, to which they are fully dedicated. Academics that have spent their entire lives in school have no spare time, or inclination, to develop and build a diversified business portfolio (even though, legitimately, they might see themselves as intellectually superior). Yet they imagine that a hard-nosed, multi-disciplined businessman could, and would, devote the thousands of hours of research and practice required to become proficient at writing dramatic blank verse. I am here to tell you that such a supposition is wrong.
This is the final insult to both great playwrights and this exceptional (albeit ruthless) entrepreneur. To suggest that a boy could go to school from ages 7-13, subsequently work as a glove-maker in Stratford for maybe nine years, and still write the detailed, historically aware and exquisitely perceptive works of Shakespeare is, to put it mildly, disrespectful to academics everywhere. Similarly, to say that the achievements of this successful entrepreneur, starting from such a low base and culminating in such financial success, could be achieved, in his spare time, by a prolific writer of the most sophisticated and brilliant plays, is a huge misapprehension (let alone a real stretch of the imagination) and I take exception to it.
© Anthony Kellett, July 2009
Miscellaneous Documents, Birthplace Museum, Stratford.
Miscellaneous Documents, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Records Office.
Bucholz, Robert and Newton Key. Early Modern England, 1485-1714. Wiley-Blackwell, 2003.
Greene, Robert. Groat’s-Worth of Wit (1592).keir cutler
Honan, Park. Shakespeare: A Life. Oxford, 2000.
Kozuka, Takashi and J.R. Mulryne. Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson: New Directions in Biography. Ashgate, 2006.
Lee, Sidney. A Life of William Shakespeare. Smith, Elder & Co., 1915.
Lee, Sidney. Stratford-on-Avon from the Earliest of Times to the Death of Shakespeare. Lippincott, 1907.
Phillips, Owen Hood. Shakespeare and the Lawyers. Methuen, 1972.
Pinksen, Daryl. Marlowe’s Ghost. IUniverse, 2008.
Puttenham, George. The Arte of English Poesie (1589). Cornell, 2007.who wrote shakespeare?
Rowse, A.L. and John Hedgecoe. In Shakespeare’s Land. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1986.
Thomson, Peter. Shakespeare's Professional Career. Cambridge, 1992.keir cutler video
Zell, Michael. "Accounts of a Sheep and Corn Farm, 1558-60." AgHistRev 27, 1979, p. 122.
Also by Anthony Kellett: "Shakespeare's Anonymous Death" and "Shakespeare Scholars: A Lament"
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