Where did Shakespeare’s money come from (Part 2)?
By Dr David Fallow
In an earlier post, Dr Robert Bearman put over the traditionally received view of where Shakespeare’s money came from, and how he made it. Here, Dr David Fallow, an economic historian and financial expert (University of Exeter), makes a compelling revisionist case for how Shakespeare acquired his wealth…
Since the earliest Shakespearian biographies scholars have queried how William Shakespeare made his money and speculated on how important wealth was to him. In 1709, the scholar, Nicholas Rowe, in his introduction to Shakespeare’s works, made reference to a substantial “gift” (£1000) from the Earl of Southampton (something that the former Poet Laureate, William Davenant liked to talk about). Twenty years later, Alexander Pope wrote of Shakespeare seeking ‘gain not glory’ becoming ‘immortal’ almost by accident. Into the twentieth century, the rags-to-riches fable grew, recounting how the Shakespeare family fell into poverty before our hero marched to London and won greatness and wealth on the boards.
Shakespeare, almost uniquely, had multiple strands of theatrical income: playwriting, membership of The King’s Men, and as a part-shareholder in the Globe theatre itself. However, careful financial analysis reveals that his total possible earnings from even these investments falls far short of his known wealth; substantial as his theatrical earning were, the accounts simply do not balance. Moreover, timing is also crucial as several key investments in land and property were made before theatrical income could have supplied the cash.
Between 1597 and 1605 he purchased almost £1000 of investments in and around Stratford-upon-Avon over and above the costs of maintaining his family in the country and himself in the city. Borrowing costs were generally high and alternative theatrical sources of income cannot fill this gap. Scholars such as Peter Thomson have estimated Shakespeare’s annual theatrical earnings at £55 reappraising known data on audience attendance and ticket costs (Shakespeare’s Theatre, 2nd edn, 1992, p. 34). This total does not include Shakespeare’s earning as a playwright.
In 2008, I embarked on a comprehensive financial analysis of the Globe theatre’s costs and income, concluding that, in line with Thomson’s estimation, Shakespeare earned approximately £52 a year (again excluding his income as a playwright). Playing companies such as The King’s Men bought plays outright, paying around £6 for each work. Once sold, playwrights had no on-going financial interest in their work beyond a one-time bonus of the gallery receipts for the second night of a new play’s performance. Shakespeare averages two plays per year adding another £20 to his income. However, if cash had been borrowed to finance joining the King’s Men as a sharer or part owner of the Globe itself, this reduces the value of his earnings by about £12 a year. This would bring annual earnings down to £60 p.a. – still a handsome wage compared to the £12-17 of an artisan or the £10-20 of a schoolmaster.
My research has led me to conclude that in order to understand William Shakespeare’s wealth, we need to examine his father’s illegal wool broking activities. I explored this in the chapter ‘John Shakespeare’ in The Shakespeare Circle (2015), and present the full analysis in my forthcoming book, Shakespeare: For Gain not Glory, which determines the playwright’s income and expenditures across his entire professional career. (http://www.cambridge.org/us/academic/subjects/literature/renaissance-and-early-modern-literature/shakespeare-circle-alternative-biography)
At a time when almost all playwrights, poets and writers of his time died in or near poverty, William Shakespeare died landed, titled and wealthy. This suggests that the genius of the stage was equally adept with his cash.
How do you think Shakespeare made his money? Did it come from his father’s significant wool-dealing? Or his aristocratic patron, the Earl of Southampton? How far are you convinced that it only came from his theatre share-holding? It is certainly an important question that anyone interested in Shakespeare’s life needs to address carefully…