‘And every fair from fair sometime declines,” wrote William Shakespeare in Sonnet 18: All beautiful things must in the end lose their beauty. Shakespeare’s own reputation has lost quite a lot of it lately. According to new research by three academics at the University of Aberystwyth in Wales, the playwright—perhaps the greatest poet of the human spirit—was also “a ruthless businessman [who] did all he could to avoid taxes, maximize profits at others’ expense and exploit the vulnerable.” The final years of the 16th century saw a series of wet summers and failed harvests; Shakespeare responded by hoarding grain at his house in Stratford in order to sell it at inflated prices during the inevitable famine. He was also repeatedly threatened with prosecution for tax evasion.
The response, at least in the press, has been surprisingly vocal. Fox News called Shakespeare a “tax cheat,” and Forbes described “a money-grubbing food speculator.” The Sunday Times in London called him “a famine profiteer” and, in its headline, “Bad Bard.” These revelations about Shakespeare are not wholly surprising—Katherine Duncan-Jones’s 2001 biography, “Ungentle Shakespeare,” makes clear the playwright’s lack of charity and reports, too, his reluctance to pay the taxes he owed. But the sense of betrayal is keen: that a playwright celebrated for his endless empathy and insight turns out to have been so ungenerous in person.
We have been thinking of Shakespeare in an exalted way for centuries. From the time of the Romantic poets, who celebrated Shakespeare’s “myriad-mindedness,” scholars have seen the playwright as a man gloriously unattached to practical worldly concerns. The great Shakespeare critic Stephen Greenblatt begins his most recent book on Shakespeare with the claim: “Shakespeare as a writer is the embodiment of human freedom.” Everyone, it seems, wants to see Shakespeare as free from the grubbiness of business and compromise.
It is an attractive portrait, but it is also misguided—and overlooks something important about both the man and the plays. When thinking of matters of the human heart, Shakespeare wrote like a miser. It is precisely his mean-mindedness—not his Romantic myriad-mindedness—that makes him such a great playwright.
The plays are precisely those we might imagine a tax dodger or famine profiteer to write. They are dazzling because they abhor sentimentality, and because their emotional richness is built upon the same miserliness we see in his business practices. It may not be pretty, but it is one source of Shakespeare’s power.
In the famous opening scene of “King Lear,” the old king has decided to retire. He calls upon his three daughters to declare their love for him; in return, they will receive a share of the kingdom. The first two do so, each swearing that their love is beyond any human counting: “Dearer than eyesight, space and liberty,/ Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare.”
This is a quintessential pronouncement on love, as something without price. The problem is who says it. The first two daughters are villains: sadistic, unfaithful, and condemned by every generation of audiences and readers who come to the play. It is Cordelia, the third daughter, who is the heroine. She refuses to express any such boundless love for her father because, she explains, she is reserving—we might call it hoarding—half for her future husband (she cannot “love my father all”). She insists, that is, that the emotions are a commodity—and therefore subject to the rules of economics. In its presentation of Cordelia, the play approves of an accountancy of love.
This knowledge that emotions have a price runs through the plays. “Romeo and Juliet” ends not, as is sometimes thought, with the heartbreaking death of the two young lovers, but rather with the vow, by their grieving parents, to commemorate these lovers in the best way they know: by building a pair of gold statues, for love can be represented by gold. (One might object that this is ironic; if so, the irony undercuts the whole play’s presentation of love as transcending pragmatic concerns.) The only time that Hamlet expresses his love for Ophelia is after she is dead and in competition with her brother: “I lov’d Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers/ Could not with all their quantity of love/ Make up my sum.” Love has a total, and its limits are what make it valuable.
The examples continue: each one troubling, for they blur the boundary between love and money, and they hint at an uncomfortable truth. In “The Merchant of Venice” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” characters begin by speaking of love but find themselves using the language of money; in the sonnets, which are perhaps the most famous cycle of love poetry in the English language, seduction is an economic proposition. This is not simply to say that Shakespeare views the human heart with unsentimental realism, although of course he does. But something more than this: The plays insist that human relations are marked by the laws and forces of this world. This attitude might lead a man to write “King Lear,” and it also might lead him to hoard grain from his neighbors in a time of famine.
Everything can be divided—this is Shakespeare’s great insight. Nothing is so whole that it may not be cut into parts, given away slowly, measured out. This is true of the kingdom in “King Lear” and it is equally true of the love of his daughter, weighed like grain. It is true of our own responses to the plays, for their magic lies in their power to divide our sympathies. They hoard up love. They distribute riches in a time of scarcity, when prices are high, when kindness is rare. Their poetry is economic.
He did not have to write this way. Shakespeare’s most celebrated contemporary and rival was Ben Jonson, who wrote plays designed to teach his audiences moral lessons, to stir them into outrage. In the prefaces he added to his plays, Jonson frequently expressed his hope that the theater could be a morally improving, didactic art form, one which would teach us to better ourselves. Shakespeare, on the other hand, never suggests any possibility of improvement. Those who are wicked—and in his imagining we are all a little wicked—will remain so. Was he a hoarder, ruthless, opportunistic? Of course. This sensibility is what makes him so startlingly modern, and it his great gift to us.
Daniel Swift teaches at the New College of the Humanities in London and is the author of “Shakespeare’s Common Prayers.”