William Shakespeare’s lesser known role as an illegal food hoarder 400 years ago helps us understand him as a more complex figure, says new research.
As well as hoarding during food shortages, the Aberystwyth University study said the bard was also threatened with jail for tax evasion.
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She said the poet and playwright’s role as a grain hoarder during food shortages in the late 16th and early 17th Centuries were something that people had largely forgotten about him.
Over a 15-year period, Shakespeare bought and stored grain, malt and barley for resale at inflated prices to his neighbours and local tradesmen.
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He was pursued by authorities for tax evasion, and in 1598 he was prosecuted for hoarding grain during a time of shortage.
The research found that Shakespeare “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.”
About his prosecution, Ms Archer told the BBC: “It’s one of the things that we’ve forgotten about Shakespeare.
“As well as writing for people who were experiencing hunger, he was exploiting that need himself.
“He was using his role as a playwright and the public playhouses, gathering coin, in order to take advantage of the market when it’s at its most profitable, and selling food at inflated prices to secure the long-term future for his family.”
No doubt Shakespeare was prosecuted under the engrossing and forestalling laws rightly excoriated by Adam Smith in Chapter V of Book IV of Wealth of Nations (“Digression Concerning the Corn Trade and Corn Laws.”) Laws which Smith demonstrated actually contributed to dearth and famine. As Smith clearly showed, rather than being exploitative, the speculative storage of grain reduced the likelihood and severity of “dearth”. So rather than warranting Prof. Archer’s tsk-tsk-ing about exploitation, taking advantage of the market, blah blah blah, this is another reason to admire Shakespeare. “Tak[ing] advantage of the market when it’s at its most proitable, and selling food at inflated [by what measure can you tell the prices are inflated, pray tell, Prof. Archer?] to secure the long-term future for his family”-that’s the invisible hand in action. Adam Smith would have no doubt approved, and when it comes to economics, bet on Adam Smith over a MedLit prof. Every. Time.
The BBC piece (and other articles describing Archer et al‘s research) mention Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, in which there is a conflict between patricians and plebleians over Rome’s stocks of grain during a famine. Note, however, that there is a major difference between state-controlled grain stocks, and a competitive storage market. In the play, the patricians are paternalistic, claiming that they allocate stocks in the interest of the people. But one patrician, Marcius, says that those plebleians who serve the state (by fighting in the army) can get all they need. In other words, the system described in Coriolanus is one in which grain is allocated on the basis of political considerations, rather than a competitive process.
But no doubt such subtleties are lost on Medieval Lit profs.
Though Prof. Archer and her colleagues are no doubt shocked and dismayed by their findings, they make me admire Shakespeare even more. An incomparable artist who could also do business. And in the bargain, improve the allocation of resources and reduce the threat of famine, though that was not his explicit intention. Well played, Will. Well played.