Shakespeare a 'Ruthless' Food Hoarder

New study paints a picture of the Bard's darker side

By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff

Posted Apr 2, 2013 8:14 AM CDT

(Newser) – William Shakespeare was, of course, an acclaimed playwright—but according to researchers, he was also a grain hoarder, tax evader, and all-around "ruthless" businessman. "Shakespeare the grain-hoarder has been redacted from history so that Shakespeare the creative genius could be born," say the academics in a paper that will be presented at a May literary festival. They paint the picture of a grain merchant and landowner who got rich by buying and storing grain, malt, and barley, which he resold at higher prices during times of famine, the AP reports. He then "pursued those who could not (or would not) pay him in full for these staples and used the profits to further his own money-lending activities," according to the paper.

Shakespeare was actually prosecuted in 1598 for hoarding grain during a food shortage, and that's not all: He was also wanted for tax evasion. He was fined for both, and threatened with jail over the tax issue, reports the Telegraph, citing the Sunday Times. The AP notes that these details weren't entirely unknown, and one of the researchers says critics and scholars tend to ignore this information because they "cannot countenance the idea of a creative genius also being motivated by self-interest." But, she adds, these details actually inform Shakespeare's work: In Coriolanus, for example, the people complain when rich merchants exploit the famine in order to maximize profits; and in King Lear, "there is a very subtle depiction of how dividing up land also involves impacts on the distribution of food."

This is a Monday March 9, 2009 file of a then newly discovered portrait of William Shakespeare, presented by the Shakespeare Birthplace trust, as seen in central London.   (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
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They ne’er cared for us yet: suffer us to famish, and their store-houses crammed with grain. - A line from Coriolanus

[Shakespeare was] a ruthless businessman who did all he could to avoid taxes, maximize profits at others' expense and exploit the vulnerable—while also writing plays about their plight to entertain them. - Dr. Jayne Archer

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