Shakespeare Hoarded Grains And Resold It For Profit During Famine
It's hard to think of William Shakespeare as anything but the author of some of the most stirring and populist plays of the 16th and 17th centuries, but he was also a grain hoarder, profiteer, and tax evader. Centuries after his death, Shakespeare's more cutthroat qualities were sanded down and lost to time until he became the kindly man from Stratford who wrote Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and the Scottish play.
Your ignorance of the bard's bloodthirsty business practices isn't on you; they were ignored by scholars for hundreds of years until 2013, when researchers from Aberystwyth University in Wales delivered their findings to the Hay Literary Festival in Wales, exposing the ugly truth about the world's most beloved playwright. Jayne Archer and her colleagues, Howard Thomas and Richard Marggraf Turley, combed England's historical archives for information about Shakespeare's life outside of the theater and found that when he wasn't writing the most famous plays in history, he spent most of his time hoarding grain and lending money during a dark time in England.
More Like "Shakes-Profiteer"
In Shakespeare's heyday, the world was experiencing what we now know as the "Little Ice Age," a time of extremely cold and wet winters that ruined harvests from Europe to North America. During this trying time for Europeans, Shakespeare hoarded as much grain as possible to resell for a higher price. The researchers from Aberystwyth University explain:
Over a 15-year period, he purchased and stored grain, malt, and barley for resale at inflated prices to his neighbors and local tradesmen ... [Shakespeare] pursued those who could not (or would not) pay him in full for these staples and used the profits to further his own money-lending activities.
A Man Of Leisure
During Shakespeare's era, there was no such thing as copyright law, so a playwright had no hope of collecting royalties from his work. The theater was essentially Shakespeare's side hustle; he primarily made his living as one of Warwickshire's wealthiest landowners. He funneled the money from grain hoarding into land and real estate, which allowed him to collect rent and make money from a variety of endeavors beyond his writing. All in all, his illegal hoarding and real estate portfolio enabled him to live a life of leisure that only included about 24 years of work.
Shakespeare's methods of making money may have been wildly unethical, but researchers believe that the Bard did what he did because he saw his father lose everything and refused to suffer the same fate. Of course, we all live with some level of financial anxiety; that doesn't make it okay to price-gouge starving families. While this provides some possible insight into his decisions, those decisions were, indeed, very gross.
His Own Characters Renounced Him
Shakespeare was clearly in a unique position to understand the plight of the common people during the Little Ice Age, to the point that their anger worked its way into much of his art. It's most evident in Coriolanus, a tragedy about the life of Roman leader Caius Marcius Coriolanus set in a Rome destroyed by famine and featuring food protests similar to the peasant uprising of 1607 that took place in the English Midlands. In Act 1, Scene 1 of Coriolanus, a character laments:
They ne'er cared for us yet: suffer us to famish, and their storehouses crammed with grain; make edicts for usury, to support usurers; repeal daily any wholesome act established against the rich, and provide more piercing statutes daily to chain up and restrain the poor.
It would seem Shakespeare had some self-esteem issues.
When Shakespeare passed away in 1616 at the age of 52, he was mourned by the entire community, but not as a writer. The funeral monument erected for this complex man in Stratford featured him holding not a quill or a scroll but a big bag of grain. Still, he got a statue, and there aren't a lot of writers who can say that. Even though he was a well-known baddie who hoarded grain during one of the worst eras in history for farming, he was still revered. Strangely, as his posthumous reputation changed, so did this statue. In the 18th century, the bag of grain was replaced with a tasseled cushion and quill pen.
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