By Bart van Es
The twenty-third of April 1564, or a day or two earlier, saw the birth of William Shakespeare, and on that same day fifty-two years later, also in Stratford, he died. This congruence of dates lends some credibility to the account given by the local vicar many years later of the way the playwright spent his final hours:
Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting and it seems drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.
These fellow poet-playwrights were close members of Shakespeare’s social circle. Drayton is recorded receiving treatment in the medical diaries of Shakespeare’s son in law, Dr. Hall, and it was Ben Jonson who composed the leading epitaph on the ‘sweet swan of Avon’ for the complete edition of his plays. There is good reason, then, to imagine this company toasting Shakespeare’s fifty-second birthday on or around 23 April 1616.If we imagine that this party really happened, how would Shakespeare have related to these fellow dramatists? Oddly, some biographers paint a dark picture of Shakespeare’s retirement—imagining his alienation, marital troubles, and even conjuring a diagnosis of syphilis. Beyond the rather cutting bequest of a ‘second best bed’ to his wife, Anne, however, there is no basis for such a negative assessment. Shakespeare was famous: his plays were still in the repertory and more than half of them (and all of his poems) were also available in print. If fame was not enough, there was also money. We are used to thinking of Shakespeare as set apart from his generation by his genius; we are less used, perhaps, to thinking of him as set apart by his wealth.
Pure talent will only take us so far as an explanation for this special position. Jonson was a great poet, but grumbled that ‘of all his plays he never gained two hundred pounds’. Professional writers of the age, popular or otherwise, suffered continually from a lack of money. Almost all had acute financial troubles and even successful playwrights such as Drayton or Jonson left no substantial wealth at the time of their death. The reason that Shakespeare would have been able to celebrate his fifty-second birthday in style (and leave a very substantial inheritance afterwards) can be traced to a decision that he had made twenty-four years earlier.
Unlike any of his contemporaries, Shakespeare had invested in London’s public theatre. In an age before copyright, this was arguably the smartest financial decision that an artist had ever made. In the summer of 1594 (already established as a famous poet) he had bought a one-eighth share in a company of actors, becoming a Fellow in the newly formed Lord Chamberlain’s Men. He became a joint decision maker at their meetings and a joint owner of their costumes, performance properties, and plays. Before this time Shakespeare (like Drayton or Jonson) had pitched his plays to multiple acting companies, getting a fixed fee when he made a sale. Afterwards, as a shareholder, he had a continuing income from the performance receipts of his plays and those of others. No literary playwright had ever been in this position. Though Shakespeare must have laid down the equivalent of around a year’s income to make this investment (probably through borrowing), it very quickly made him very rich.
Prior to 1594 there are indications that Shakespeare’s family were suffering from financial problems; there are certainly no signs of growing wealth. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, however, proved a successful venture, growing with speed into the nation’s dominant acting company. The profits from gate receipts and court payments were distributed among the eight sharers, performers who employed hired actors and hired playwrights at fixed rates. All of the founding sharers became wealthy and the great house at which the playwright died in 1616 was one early reward of the decision that Shakespeare made. This mansion (with ten fireplaces, the second largest house in Stratford) was bought for cash in 1597. Shakespeare carried out substantial renovations and had resources enough to extend the garden, buying extra land and demolishing a cottage to get this done. The year after he still had spare money for other investments, including a stock of malt. From 1594 onwards there is a steady record of Shakespeare’s ever-growing prosperity. Indeed, within two years of becoming a sharer, he had begun the expensive business of procuring a gentleman’s coat of arms.
The contrast between Shakespeare’s wealth and that of those who might have joined him for his birthday party remains oddly under-reported. In 1600—as Shakespeare continued to acquire land, tithes, and additional property (including a 10% stake in the Globe)—Jonson was imprisoned for debt. Debtor’s jail was a common abode for the playwrighting profession: Chapman, Dekker, and Middleton, to name but some, suffered the same fate. While it’s tempting to conclude that Shakespeare’s financial pre-eminence is simply justice (reflecting his superior talent) there is case for thinking of matters the other way round. His position as a shareholder also brought special artistic privileges. After 1594 (unlike his contemporaries) Shakespeare wrote for one company and without immediate financial pressure; he could specify the actors who would perform the roles he created; and he had a long-term stake in the life of his plays on the stage.
If Shakespeare did toast his birthday with Jonson and Drayton on 23 April 1616 he did so from a privileged position. Above all else, he had the year 1594 to thank for that. He could look out over what was now known as ‘the Great Garden’ of New Place, the owner of other property, including a residence in the exclusive Blackfriars district of London. Reason enough to hold a ‘merry meeting’ and ‘drink deep’.
Bart van Es is Lecturer in English at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of St Catherine’s College. He has previously written books on Edmund Spenser and has a special interest in the writing of history in the Renaissance. Shakespeare in Company is his first work on drama and was supported by the award of an AHRC Fellowship.
Image credit: Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, John Faed [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons