Where did Shakespeare’s money come from?
In a two-part blog, for the Royal Mint, we thought it would be good to ask two experts who have very different views about Shakespeare and how he made his money…
By Dr Robert Bearman, former Former Head of Archives and Local Studies etc. at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
What’s the mystery? From 1593 until at least 1612, William Shakespeare was an active member of the Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men), the most successful acting company of his day. He not only wrote plays for them but, more important from a financial point of view, enjoyed a share in the company’s business profits. Its records don’t survive so we have to make an educated guess as to how much this might have brought in. But, judging from patchy surviving records from rival acting companies, it was probably around £50 a year at the start of his career, rising to as much as £200 by around 1610 – but only in a year that the theatres weren’t closed due to outbreaks of plague, common enough from 1603 onwards. This was very good money: at that time a house in Stratford rarely sold for more than £100 and the schoolmaster’s annual salary was £20. So, Shakespeare was soon creditworthy, able to invest in the purchase of property: around £120 in 1597 to buy a house for his family in Stratford, £320 in 1602 for a hundred acres or so in Stratford’s open fields and £440 in 1605 for a portion of the Stratford tithes – some £900 in all, providing a decent home for his family and also some investment income (around £70-£80) to fall back on if and when he had to stop working. So, say we put his annual average income for the twenty years, 1593-1612, at £100, this would have provided more than enough for those investments, even allowing for the costs of maintaining an extra establishment in London and for buying himself into the Chamberlain’s Men, and later into part ownership of the Globe and Blackfriars Theatres – say, £200.
Behind these figures, of course, lies a human story. I don’t think there’s any doubt that his father, John Shakespeare, suffered some sort of business failure in the late 1570s. Up to that point, he may have made good money as a glover and wool dealer but from 1580 onwards, there is plenty to indicate a severe downturn in his fortunes and none to suggest a proper recovery. I know of no evidence of his involvement in wool-dealing after 1571 and, when he died in 1601, he doesn’t even seem to have made a will or to have had his personal estate formally administered. Nor, as a matter of fact, did his widow or Shakespeare’s two unmarried male siblings, surely indicating that there wasn’t much money around in the wider family. So the idea that Shakespeare might have been somehow helped on his way by a wealthy father doesn’t, in my view, have much, if anything to support it. On the contrary, it’s pretty clear that Shakespeare, in the midst of his father’s difficulties, simply made things worse by marrying too young – he was only eighteen – and quickly producing three extra mouths to feed. Marriage had ruled out a university education or an apprenticeship, at least outside the family, and so he took off, got a toehold in the theatre world, and then quite independently used his skills to carve out a career for himself in a profession by no means mainstream – not unmindful, though, of the need to resuscitate his family’s reputation in his native town.
Robert Bearman’s Shakespeare’s Money: How much did he make and what did this mean? has just appeared from Oxford University Press. (https://global.oup.com/academic/product/shakespeares-money-9780198759249?cc=gb&lang=en&)