Knowing Shakespeare fiddled his taxes tells us nothing. And don’t say it makes him ‘human’

It's beginning to look like a horrible nature fires the creative spark

Share

I’m trying to decide if I give a damn.

About Shakespeare being a filthy-rich capitalist, a tax-evader, a grain-hoarder who waited for a famine and then sold wheat to the starving of Stratford at hugely inflated prices, a person who fiddled his expenses and didn’t separate his garbage, a user of private medicine who swore in the presence of children, a landlord who charged his tenants an extra £15 a week for every bedroom they didn’t need and a further £30 a week for every bedroom they did, a playwright who didn’t write his own plays, a paedophile (“Come hither, boy”), a racist (“black is the badge of hell”), a benefits cheat, in short an all-round bastard, using that word affectionately to connote someone you can’t help but like despite his being an anti-Semite, a misogynist, an adulterer, a bisexualist, a bully, a man who spat in the river Avon, and a shit.

We have researchers at Aberystwyth University to thank for some, if not all, of these findings. They say their discoveries about Shakespeare’s ruthless business practices make him more interesting and complex, and accuse those of us who hitherto knew nothing of them of burying our heads in the sand. “Shakespeare the grain-hoarder has been redacted from history,” they say, “so that Shakespeare the creative genius could be born.” This is the product of “a wilful ignorance on behalf of critics and scholars, who... perhaps through snobbery... cannot countenance the idea of a creative genius also being motivated by self-interest”. All of which, as they say at the BBC, needs unpacking.

First of all, it’s a bit self-damaging to accuse us of not hitherto knowing what it has taken their extensive, no doubt costly, and I hope conscientious, researches to unearth. If it was all out there for us to know already, what exactly have they been scratching about to find?

Secondly, is there anyone left who really thinks that creative genius is incompatible with self-interest? Every week, another biography tells us what self-interested swine Homer, Virgil, Dickens, Hemingway, Vonnegut, Heller, Kingsley Amis, etc were to the poor mutts unfortunate enough to love them, marry them or be born to them. Indeed, it’s beginning to look as though a horrible nature is precisely what fires the creative spark, which is sad for those of us who would love to be creative geniuses but are too nice.

I see it as a sign of a superior sensibility that I can't even read a bank statement

That there remains a snobbery about business I concede. It’s one thing to allow an artist we revere to have been a monster in his intimate relations, but the idea of his having an accountant is difficult to swallow. Let Byron have his way with his half-sister – his art required it. But who wants to think of him sitting in his palazzo in Venice filling in his VAT forms and being reminded by Shelley to submit information relating to supplies to customers within the European Union on a separate piece of paper?

Because of some fallacious association of art with a socialist conscience, we baulk at artists being interested in making a profit. I say “we” because I am no better. I see it as a sign of a superior sensibility that I can’t even read a bank statement. So I salute the Aberystwyth However Many for reminding us that Shakespeare had a living to make and didn’t shy from whatever that took. Secretly I still veer towards the superior sensibility position and suspect there is so much melancholia in Shakespeare’s plays because paperwork, like red wine, is melancholy-inducing. But I accept he might just have known that melancholy sells.

That said, I remain unconvinced that his being a grain-hoarder makes him “much more human, much more understandable, much more complex”. Human is a discredited word. It has come to denote no more than the frailties we share. But exceptional strengths are what make us human, too, more human in truth – in particular, the exceptional ability to imagine humanity and express its essence. So you tell me, reader, how the humanity of the man who wrote “This Duncan/Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been/So clear in his great office, that his virtues /Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against/The deep damnation of his taking-off” is augmented by his being revealed to be a tax-evader?

Piffle, too, is the suggestion that Shakespeare is made more understandable by our seeing his accounts. Between understandable meaning ordinarily base like the rest of us, and making a virtue of understanding nothing, there is little to choose. But the only understanding I see a value in possessing in the case of Shakespeare is an understanding of the poetry. What makes for poetic genius is a side question, but even that is not going to be explained by the wisdom of his investments.

All this is manna from heaven for the contextualisers who love to show that every line in Shakespeare is a topical allusion incomprehensible if you haven’t done the history or, better still, read their notes. Now we know that Shakespeare hoarded grain, we gain a fresh insight – don’t ask me what it is – into the grain riots in Coriolanus. If there was famine to hoard food against that explains all the going hungry in King Lear.

Thus do the plays come alive to us in new ways. Poor Tom was a-cold because the temperature dropped dramatically in the months Shakespeare was writing Lear. Macbeth ’gins to be aweary of the sun because the temperature rose again later in the year, setting off the great Jacobean melanoma scare. As for Mark Antony describing the beds i’ the east as soft, Shakespeare knew that because he was importing cotton sheets and pillowcases from Egypt. Illegally, of course.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Lada became a symbol of Russia’s failure to keep up with Western economies  

Our sanctions will not cripple Russia. It is doing a lot of the dirty work itself

Hamish McRae
The Israeli ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, has been dubbed ‘Bibi’s brain’  

Patrick Cockburn: Israel's propaganda machine is finally starting to misfire

Patrick Cockburn
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments