Shakespeare's Money: How Much Did He Make and What Did This Mean?

Shakespeare's Money: How Much Did He Make and What Did This Mean?

Shakespeare's Money: How Much Did He Make and What Did This Mean?

Shakespeare's Money: How Much Did He Make and What Did This Mean?

Synopsis

There is no doubting Shakespeare's literary genius, immortalised in his published work. However, statements along these lines are frequently followed by laments of how little is known about this life. This is true if we wish to know about Shakespeare's movements on even a month-by-month basis, or about his working practices and relationships with his theatrical fellows. However, too great an emphasis on this dearth of material not only leads to ill-informed comment that this is somehow 'suspicious' but also tends to downgrade the importance of what material has survived, often dismissed instead simply as evidence of his business dealings which have little bearing on his creative work. However, this material does at least help us to evaluate how successful Shakespeare was in earning a living in a profession which, in his day, was far from mainstream. By calculating his income from theatrical sources and exploring how this affected his financial circumstances and his ability to invest for his and his family's security, we can come to a better understanding of his social standing at different periods in his life, the most obvious evidence to his late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century contemporaries of his success. Shakespeare undoubtedly died a man of comfortable means, but, as this book demonstrates, there is little to justify claims that he died possessed of great wealth. The circumstances of his daughters' marriages are a sufficient indication that he had not achieved true gentlemanly status. Other evidence suggests that he had not broken convincingly into the ranks of leading figures even of a small market town. Moreover, following a period of increasing prosperity, these 'business records' also reflect a declining income during the last ten years or so of his life and of his efforts to safeguard his assets. On the other hand, when compared with his father's business failure, mainly the result of a loss of credit, it is clear that, consciously or unconsciously, Shakespeare had the good sense or foresight not to over-reach himself.

Excerpt

Much of my working life has been spent in the cataloguing and arrangement of archive material and in its interpretation as evidence of past events. In the process I have inevitably come to feel that, if the documentary evidence is not there, then there is little point in speculating about what might have happened. Even the evidence we do have is not always reliable or sufficiently definitive, but at least something survives on which to base an argument as opposed to a hypothesis dependent on the discovery of new data. As it happens, and as is repeatedly pointed out, the evidence for a study of Shakespeare’s life is very limited, but I have chosen not to lament this shortage of material or to give vent to customary expressions of frustration; rather to take a positive attitude towards what evidence we do have to interpret one particular aspect of his life which is not often discussed, namely to what degree did Shakespeare prosper financially and what place in society did he thereby come to occupy. After all, to his contemporaries this would have been the most immediate measure of his success; and indeed, is the best-documented aspect of his career.

Several people have read drafts of what follows and I am very grateful for their comments, particularly from David Ellis, Mairi Macdonald, James Shapiro, and Martin Wiggins. Stanley Wells has also been generous with his time and advice. The staff at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Library and Archive, where the bulk of the original documentation I have used is safely lodged, have been very helpful, as have those at The National Archives, the Folger Shakespeare Library and the College of Arms, particularly in their prompt and efficient supply of images. I have also benefited from the frequent use of the facilities offered by the Shakespeare Institute (University of Birmingham) Library. David Kathman has generously supplied me with copies of unpublished material and John Taplin’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the genealogy of Shakespeare’s local contemporaries has been invaluable. But it would be remiss not to include posthumous tributes to . . .

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