Yesterday was the 400th anniversary of the death of the greatest Englishman who ever lived, and it is part of his greatness that we tend to see in him what we want to see. I am no different from anyone else in this respect. And, like everyone else, I am convinced that what I see is indisputably true – in this case, a likeness between Shakespeare’s occupation and my own. I am a hack: that’s to say, I churn out articles for money. So was Shakespeare: he wrote for money, too.
Needless to say, the resemblance is vanishingly marginal. My memory will die soon after my death, while Shakespeare’s will live for as long as English is spoken. Nor is it quite right to call him a hack. It would be more accurate to say that he worked as one. It describes what he did, not what he was. None the less, his life story – how he came to earn a living, and how his earning of it changed – is a remarkable one: almost as much so, in its own way, as some of those he wrote. For it is not only the tale of Shakespeare the hack. It also tells how Shakespeare the hack became Shakespeare the capitalist.
When I first started reading Shakespeare’s plays, I had a mental picture of how he wrote them. I imagined him at his desk, scribbling away with a quill pen on parchment, conjuring up his masterpieces in solitude. This is what might be called the romantic view of Shakespeare, perhaps more common a century ago than now. It is Shakespeare as Keats: the lonely poet at work. But this is to misunderstand what Shakespeare did and how he worked. Yes, Shakespeare was a poet – the author of Venus and Adonis, of the Rape of Lucrece, of the Sonnets. And, yes, he doubtless wrote on his own, probably often at night, amidst an electricity-less blackness which was so much darker than our own today. “How far that little candle throws his beams!”
But he will have scratched away at the midnight hour precisely because he was so busy by day. Shakespeare the hack was also Shakespeare the actor. And the story of actors and plays in the Elizabethan and Jacobean age, of which his was part, is one that falls into three sections.
The first is that of Shakespeare’s childhood and youth. Actors were disreputable. Their status was low. They required a licence to perform in a town, and could be punished if they did so without one. They were little different from, and could be treated as, “rogues, vagabonds and sturdy beggars“.
The second stretches into his middle age. Theatre gained escape velocity. It took off. It exploded into urban life and culture. It became the only form of mass communication other than sermons (which helps to explain why some churchmen disliked it so much). Theatre and politics were thus entangled from the start, and their meeting was a dangerous one. Thomas Kyd, author of The Spanish Tragedy, was tortured: the authorities suspected that he had helped to pen “divers lewd and mutinous libels”. Kit Marlowe, who Shakespeare first imitated and later surpassed, may have been murdered. Shakespeare himself and his company were lucky to escape the consequences of putting on a production of Richard II. The play shows the monarch’s downfall and death. The company were compelled to stage it for supporters of the Earl of Essex, who were planning a rising against the government. “I am Richard II, know ye not that?” Elizabeth is supposed to have complained to her archivist.
But if theatre was perilous it could also be lucrative. It was the Hollywood of its day. The actor Ned Alleyn, who could “tear a cat upon a stage” reciting Marlowe’s “high astounding terms” – his performance as Tamberlaine was a sensation – became immensely rich. He founded Alleyn’s school. (And also owned brothels.)
Shakespeare raked in less than Alleyn. But he made enough to buy the second-largest house in his home town, Stratford-upon-Avon, which he would have passed as a boy on his way to school. He also traded grain, malt and barley, as many others from the town also did, evading tax and hoarding illegally, as they would have done too. This is the third part of Shakespeare’s story.
What marks him out from others who accumulated wealth is not so much the amount but the method. He and his company were pioneers in shareholding – in other words, taking shares in theatrical ventures and dividing up the profits. This freed him from reliance on wealthy patrons and gave him more control over his plays.
As Peter Ackroyd writes, “it was a theatrical version of the “joint stock company”. Later, Shakespeare became a “house-keeper” – a co-owner of the Globe playhouse itself, and thus among those who took half of the proceeds from ticket sales, or the equivalent. Shakespeare the actor was also Shakespeare the capitalist. But to imagine him piling up cash on his own would be as false as to picture him penning blank verse in isolation. Theatre was a collective enterprise. Although some of his plays were among the first to carry an author’s name, they would have been regarded not as his own property but his company’s. Indeed, were it not for some of his fellow-actors publishing his plays after his death – the First Folio – we might never have heard of him at all.
He constantly re-worked material. Henry V, for example, grew out of an earlier play, The Famous Victories of Henry V. Then there was co-authorship: for the recent production of Pericles at today’s Globe, the play was credited to Shakespeare and his co-writer, George Wilkins. Shakespeare seems to have been rated by fellow authors for his writing of crowd scenes: he was commissioned to produce one for The Book of Sir Thomas More. Later collaborators included Middleton and Fletcher. Of course there is development in Shakespeare – from the early comedies through the great tragedies to the last plays of reconciliation, forgiveness and the triumph of time.
But the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – the company which became the King’s Men, no less, and in which Shakespeare served – would have been keeping a jealous eye on their rivals, the Admiral’s Men, and vice-versa. Shakespeare’s company put on Richard III. Their competitors countered with Richard Crookback. But the Admiral’s Men got in first with a Troilus and Cressida. So Shakespeare rushed out his own version. Shakespeare in Love captures the period flavour. He would have been driven as much by the need to dish the competition as the urge to craft imperishable art.
Were he alive today, Shakespeare would be haggling over his fees, buying and selling property, angling for an honour (he eventually gained his family a coat of arms, which may be the subject of an in-joke in Twelfth Night) and, no doubt, reviving in modern form his ancient practice of evading tax. Shakespeare the conservative. Shakespeare the socialist. Shakespeare the feminist, the philo-semite – the bisexual whose texts welcome Queer Theory. All these interpretations project our own age and assumptions backwards. But mutable and ambiguous though he is, certain truths are pinnable-down. Shakespeare was an actor, a hack, a genius and, in practice if not necessarily in sympathy, a capitalist. Which helps to explain his presence – and the absence of Cameron, Obama, Corbyn and all the rest of them – this morning on ConservativeHome.