Shakespeare Was a Talented and Artful Tax Dodger

By Teresa Ambord

When you hear the name William Shakespeare, you probably think of world-class writing laced with cunning humor and powerful drama. That's the Shakespeare of our collective memory. By the time he died, he was also the largest landowner in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon, but he didn't get there through the success of his plays.
 
Back then, there was no copyright protection, which meant there was no real expectation of future income. So it wasn't his clever writing that brought him financial success. He had a few other tricks up his sleeve . . . most of them not too pretty. Take a look: 
  • Shakespeare was a hoarder of precious grains – malt and barley – during a time of severe food shortages. He stockpiled it illegally, jacked up the prices, and sold it back to the tradesmen. For that, he faced numerous legal threats, but on he went. 
  • He used some of his profits to become a formidable money lender, who hotly pursued those who owed him. 
  • He used his money to buy up a great deal of real estate. 
Oh, and one more way he padded his wealth . . . when it came time to pay taxes, he didn't. More threats of legal action, this time from the tax collector.
 
Put all that together, and he must have made a nice sum. Not only was he a major landowner, he also retired after a working life of only twenty-four years. Not bad. 
 
So how is it that the profile of Shakespeare as a shrewd, and dishonest, financial wizard was not well known? One researcher – Jayne Archer – explained it this way: The real persona was pretty much "redacted from history so that Shakespeare the creative genius could be born." 
 
Archer and fellow researchers at the Aberystwyth University in Wales combed the archives looking for little-known details of Shakespeare's life. Archer told The Sunday Times of London, that the lack of copyright laws to protect his future income "drove him to dodge taxes, illegally hoard [food], and act as a money-lender." 
 
Archer goes on to suggest that this side of him makes him more interesting. "Remembering Shakespeare as a man of hunger makes him much more human, much more understandable, much more complex."
 
Here are some tidbits uncovered during the research into Shakespeare's dealings: 
  • On November 15, 1597, tax collectors in Bishopsgate, East London (where Shakespeare rented a small room), listed Shakespeare as being pursued by authorities for the payment of five shillings (about 152 US dollars today).
  • On October 1, 1598, Bishopsgate authorities were again after him for tax evasion, with a warrant for nonpayment of 13 shillings and 4 pence (less than 381 US dollars today). At that time, Shakespeare's total assets were valued at about 2,000 pounds today, or 3,045 US dollars.  
Records show that Shakespeare's tax debt went unpaid until 1600 when a "benefactor" stepped in to pay it on his behalf. All the while, the playwright continued to grow richer, buying up 107 acres of land and a cottage, a clear indication that it wasn't lack of funds that kept him from paying, but a well-developed scorn for the system. In short, he had other things to do with his money.
 
For Shakespeare, all's well that ends well.
 

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