“Put money in thy purse”: Shakespeare and Investment
Much like Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part I, Shakespeare understood that with reward, comes risk and with individual risk and reward, come certain inequities. Shakespeare’s status as a rational, cautious investor distinguished him from his peers ideologically, artistically, and financially.
Unlike many of his contemporaries who spent their careers in and out of debtor’s prison, Shakespeare, while not rich, enjoyed a comfortable and stable income which came not primarily from writing, but from his personal investments. Shakespeare’s financial stability bankrolled his artistic freedom and, ultimately, secured his place in today’s canon. Though the language of immortalization in his sonnets undoubtedly betrays his aspirations for the “monument” of literary fame, his publication pattern (or lack thereof) tells a different story – one that prioritizes economics over ego. Shakespeare was well aware that the money was in the playhouse, not the print shop. His pragmatic approach to the theater industry led him to structure his career and investments to garner financial stability over literary success. Ironically, it was these very investment decisions that ensured his lasting spot as a canonical author.
The reason we have no manuscripts in Shakespeare’s hand is because he never delivered a single one to the printer. This might shock the modern reader, but the author did not live by his pen, per se. Though print publication did not pay well, Shakespeare’s shares in the Globe theater building, its acting company (the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – later the King’s Men), and his position as house playwright, paid handsomely. While publication was not directly lucrative for the dramatist, scholar Lukas Erne has convincingly argued that it did benefit the company and therefore, indirectly Shakespeare. Interestingly, however, he earned money on his plays as a sharer in the Chamberlain’s Men, not an author. The company’s main source of income came from selling theater tickets, but the Chamberlain’s Men saw the print market as a mutually nurturing, synergistic from of publication that allowed them to profit off the same product – a single script – multiple times. The sale of the manuscript to the printer was not very profitable in and of itself as intellectual property rights, copyright, and royalties did not exist in Shakespeare’s day. Instead, authors only received one lump-sum payment amounting to a few pounds. For the company, the benefit did not come from royalties, but from the free advertising provided by a print edition sitting in London’s bookstalls. Printed playbooks not only advertised the company, whose name was featured prominently on the title page, but also served as marketing for individual play revivals, as title pages were nailed up across London much like modern theater posters, driving consumers to the theaters. To paraphrase Hamlet, the play may have been “the thing” for Shakespeare’s company, but for Shakespeare, the thing was the playing company. Shakespeare was not your stereotypical starving artist. Unlike his impoverished peers – Ben Jonson, Robert Daborne, and Robert Greene to name a few – Shakespeare did not live off his ink and quill but off his investments.
While his company invested in the publication of his plays, Shakespeare did not. Instead, he invested in land. Quitting the unstable and glutted market of “luxury goods” as plays were labelled in 1604, as an investor, Shakespeare spent time and money on property – a staple, not a luxury (Yamamoto 58). Shakespeare was a risk-averse investor, and the necessity of land for tenant farmers combined with its scarcity rendered land a fairly safe investment. The dramatist saw real estate as a way to obtain multiple streams of passive income while mitigating risk. His first recorded investment was buying into the Chamberlain’s Men in 1594, if not slightly before. The profit Shakespeare generated from this initial investment, conservatively estimated to be around £50 per year, enabled him to save and reinvest in real estate repeatedly over the next two decades, typically investing in a new asset every three years (Bearman 45).
His investment interests were concentrated in Stratford, exhibiting a clear commitment to his family and a desire to provide his family with a stable source of income independent of the precariousness of public theaters. The theater was his most lucrative and unstable asset. The Crown routinely closed playhouses over the plague, censorship concerns, and political turmoil so it was never guaranteed they would remain open and, thus, profitable. Aware of this danger, Shakespeare acquired rental investments in the form of agricultural plots and tithes that provided him with stable, guaranteed, and largely passive rental income. In 1602, three years after investing in the Globe, Shakespeare bought 107 acres of farmland in Stratford which was already being leased to tenant farmers, thus obtaining immediate rental income without any personal labor (Bearman 106). Shakespeare’s pattern of investing roughly every three years reflects a cautious investment strategy based on continued investment and long-run gains, rather than short-run speculation and spurts of profit. Shakespeare was not one to overextend himself but waited until he had recouped his investment and his finances had stabilized before reinvesting his capital. Like his company, Shakespeare was interested in long-run stability and success, not short-run gains.
Shakespeare’s understanding of individual labor as a social necessity that should be justly compensated factors into Jack Cade’s fate in 2 Henry VI. Not unlike the play’s self-supporting Alexander Iden, Shakespeare sought long-term security and sustenance over excess. He preferred saving and investment over immediate gains through high-risk ventures. The dramatist’s prudent, lifelong investing and his continuous “exploitation of his creditworthiness” throughout the 1590s and into the 1600s distinguished him financially and, ultimately, artistically from his peers, putting him in a significantly better financial position than his fellow playwrights. It was this comfortable seat – a privilege earned, not given – that gave Shakespeare the freedom to pen his best drama by focusing on his own intellectual preoccupations, not the fleeting demands of his audience. Instead of prioritizing the blood and gore of Marlovian drama or revenge tragedies, Shakespeare was able to focus on questions of a higher philosophical order, like the cost-benefit analysis of suicide. To be or not to be? For Shakespeare’s Hamlet – and for the dramatist, as an intellectual exercise – that was the question. His investments were what allowed him to avoid economic angst and, instead, focus on the existential.
Erne, Lukas. Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist. New York; Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Yamamoto, Koji, et al. Taming Capitalism Before Its Triumph. Oxford University Press, 2018. Oxford Scholarship Online.
Bearman, Robert. Shakespeare’s Money. Oxford University Press, 2016.
A note from the editor:
Shakespeare's birthday was Sunday, and last week we began the first in a series of Virtual Reading Groups that will read all of Shakespeare's plays. To mark these occasions, we will be running a series of posts on Shakespeare's plays over the next several months. Join us for some reading group sessions, contribute a post of your own, or just keep coming back to enjoy the Shakespeare content!