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10 crisp facts about money during Shakespeare’s time

Would you like to pay a halfpenny for a small beer, 1 shilling for a liter of wine, or less than 2 pounds for a horse? If you lived in 17th century England you could buy all of these and even afford Shakespeare’s First Folio, which was only £1 when it was published. Unfortunately, you would also probably earn a meager wage, possibly £2-£8 annually if you were lucky and labored as a yeoman. Actors, however, were fortunate enough to earn 6 shillings a week, which amounted to a yearly income of approximately £14. Here are 10 interesting facts about money in the world of Shakespeare and Elizabethan England.

  1. The standard rate for an author writing a play was approximately £5-6 in the 1590s. By 1616, it was up to about £10 per play. To be fair, this was over four centuries ago and £1 in 1600 would be equal to approximately £100 in 2015.
  2. In the 1600s, a performance at court would warrant a reward of £10 to the entire acting company. £10 is not much when split among an entire company of actors. However it is somewhat better than a year’s worth of wages of a provincial grammar-school master, which was around £20.
  3. Shakespeare was Karl Marx’s favorite author, and when Marx moved to England in 1849, he read Shakespeare every day. Timon of Athens proved to be an influential source in Marx’s critique of capitalist money economy, as seen in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and in Capital, Volume 1.
  4. The corn riots in the opening scenes of Coriolanus are meant to echo the actual Midland Uprising in England in 1607-1608. During this uprising, Shakespeare was a wealthy landowner from Stratford. He consistently protected his land, which was his source of income, rather than the townspeople’s rights.
  5. Shakespeare’s First Folio of 1623 was originally sold for only £1. Today, it commands a price in the range of £2.5-£3.5 million.
  6. Out of the estimated 750 copies printed of the First Folio in 1623, only 233 are known to have survived; 82 are currently in the collection of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
  7. The word ‘gold’ appears in Timon of Athens far more frequently than in any other Shakespeare play. It is mentioned 36 times.
  8. At the turn of the century in London, the cost of 1 kilogram of tobacco was over four times more expensive than the cost of Shakespeare’s First Folio. A horse cost only 10 shillings more than the First Folio.
  9. To restrict the upwardly mobile classes from imitating the aristocracy, the English government passed laws on the right to wear particular items and fabrics of clothing. The laws mandated which colors and types of clothing, fabric, furs, and trims were allowed to people of various ranks or incomes. For example, only royalty and a distinct, distinguished people could wear the color purple.
  10. The weekly wages for an actor were only 6 shillings, but at least it often included free food.

Featured Image: English silver shilling, James I, 1621-23; Clipped English silver shilling, Elizabeth I, 1558-1603 (British Museum). Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net). CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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