Shakespeare is a figure under perpetual analysis. His plays have been read, performed, reinterpreted and scrutinized endlessly, and historians pore over any clue as to who he really was. Yet for all this examination, common descriptions of Shakespeare’s life usually overlook the fact that he was a tax-evading, servant-owning businessman who exploited a famine to get rich.
Shakespeare cemented his role in literary history while living in London. But he also spent much of his life in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon, and this is where he pursued his capitalist ventures.
Writers and poets of the 16th century, like writers and poets of any century, had a low probability of striking it rich. Having a wife and two daughters to provide for, he began splitting his time between becoming the world’s most celebrated playwright in London and selling grain in Stratford. According to a study conducted at Aberystwyth University in Wales, Shakespeare would purchase and store grain, barley and malt, then sell the goods at inflated prices during food shortages. One of the co-writers of the study, Jayne Archer, concluded that he was "a ruthless businessman who did all he could to avoid taxes, maximize profits at others' expense and exploit the vulnerable — while also writing plays about their plight to entertain them."
Shakespeare lived during the “Little Ice Age,” a period characterized by unusually heavy rain and cold that devastated harvests and brought famine to the UK in the 16th and 17th centuries. The early 1600s saw the emergence of major peasant rebellions, mainly motivated by grain shortages and the unequal distribution of harvests. This is believed to be one of the major historical references in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. But while the play is sympathetic to the poor, Shakespeare more closely resembled the aristocracy.
“They ne’er cared for us yet: suffer us to famish, and their storehouses crammed with grain; make edicts for usury, to support usurers,” remarks a plebeian protester in Coriolanus. Here, Shakespeare may have been describing himself. Indeed, he used the profits from his grain storage ventures to start a money-lending business. He was known to aggressively pursue those who owed him a debt.
Eventually, Shakespeare became wealthy enough to buy one of the largest houses in Stratford, complete with 30 bedrooms, 10 fireplaces, servants and serfs to work the land. As he got older and richer, he did what old rich men are wont to do: he stopped paying his taxes. Records show that he was pursued by the British government more than once and even threatened with jail for withholding tax money.
Some refer to this lesser known aspect of Shakespeare’s history as his “double life.” But in his time it is doubtful that this was the dominant perception. This idea is most likely a symptom of our need to simplify historical figures down to their greatest achievements, to be willfully ignorant when it comes to the less palatable elements of our celebrated heroes. As Professor Archer points out, "Remembering Shakespeare as a man of hunger makes him much more human, much more understandable, much more complex."