Shakespeare: scofflaw or man of his times?

shakespeare taxes

The Los Angeles Times’ take on the recent report that William Shakespeare didn’t like to pay taxes and sought to profit from an archaic form of commodities trading says as much about the Times’ view of the world as it does about life in Elizabethan-era England.

The Times picked up on a report from researchers at Aberystwyth University in Wales that claims the Bard of Avon was a grain hoarder and was pursued by authorities for tax evasion.

Profits from his actions were channeled into real estate deals, enabling Shakespeare to become a large landowner.

The Times calls Shakespeare a conniving character, a tax dodger and a profiteer. What it fails to do is add some economic context to its story.

While focusing on claims that Shakespeare “a tax dodger who profiteered during times of famine,” the Times makes just a brief mention of the fact that there was no copyright laws in Shakespeare’s time, meaning he could expect no future royalties from his works.

Instead, the publication manages to whip up a little class envy while portraying the playwright as little more than a thug:

“By combining both illegal and legal activities, Shakespeare was able to retire in 1613 as the largest property owner in his hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon,” according to the Times. “His profits – minus a few fines for illegal hoarding and tax evasion – meant he had a working life of just 24 years.”

The Associated Press, on the other hand, uses the research to present a more nuanced view of Shakespeare and his era.

It’s important to remember, according to the wire service, that Shakespeare “lived and wrote in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, during a period known as the ‘Little Ice Age,’ when unusual cold and heavy rain caused poor harvests and food shortages.”

“I think now we have a rather rarefied idea of writers and artists as people who are disconnected from the everyday concerns of their contemporaries,” said one of the researchers, Jayne Archer, a lecturer in medieval and Renaissance literature at Aberystwyth. “But for most writers for most of history, hunger has been a major concern – and it has been as creatively energizing as any other force.”

Of course, the question remains as to how Shakespeare’s endeavor to buy up grain when it was more abundant and sell it for a profit during times of scarcity is any different from today’s shrewd commodities trader?

Would it have been better if he’d not stored up the grain, so that during hard times even less supply was available?

The BBC also managed to view Shakespeare in something other than black and white.

It paraphrased Archer as saying the literary great “should not be judged too harshly as hoarding was his way of ensuring his family and neighbours would not go hungry if a harvest failed.”

“Remembering Shakespeare as a man of hunger makes him much more human, much more understandable, much more complex,” she added.

(HT: Carpe Diem)


3 thoughts on “Shakespeare: scofflaw or man of his times?

  1. You may call this as poetic license, I am glad he could thus find time to write, for otherwise, the world would have become poorer in quality of literature he contributed!

  2. Pingback: LitStaff Pick: Our Favorite Shakespearean Quotes - LitStack

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