Sunday 11 March 2012

William Shakespeare - Workaholic and Businessman by Barbara Mitchelhill

Whilst I was writing Road to London, I had to view William Shakespeare through the eyes of Thomas Munmore, my thirteen year old protagonist. Thomas lived in Stratford-upon-Avon at the height of Shakespeare’s success and would have regarded this local hero as a superstar in the way that today’s teenagers would fawn over their pop idols or their football stars.  Thomas must have heard the common gossip about the younger William who was probably regarded as a Jack-the-Lad, marrying in haste to a woman eight year’s older and gaining a reputation as a poacher.  Tittle tattle said that he had been caught poaching and had fled Stratford to become an actor in London – a daring thing to do when actors were seen as little more that rogues and vagabonds.

William Shakespeare

Thomas must have found that very exciting particularly when he had made such a success of his life.  Only five years after leaving his home town, he had written sonnets so popular they would have topped Waterston’s Best Sellers’ List and his plays were performed for the Queen Elizabeth herself – the equivalent of winning an Oscar.  Like many of Manchester United goal scorers, Shakespeare bought himself a large house – the second finest in Stratford with five splendid gables and ten fireplaces (the equivalent of central heating).  With this amount of wealth on display, what boy wouldn’t want to follow in his hero’s footsteps?

A sketch of New Place, Stratford-upon-Avon.

But William Shakespeare’s wealth did not come from his plays.  None were published in his lifetime and royalties and performance rights had not been invented. He would have been commissioned to write plays for a flat fee of around £6 for both the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and the Admiral’s Men, two of the most successful acting troupes.  He wrote in the way that Alan Ayckbourn writes plays today for the group of actors in his theatre in Scarborough.
But Shakepeare’s talent was not only for acting and writing.  He was also a shareholder in the theatre and I couldn’t resist putting my favourite story about Shakespeare’s financial exploits into Road to London. 

Richard Burbage
Soon after he arrived in London around 1592, he joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and became an actor-shareholder.  The troupe performed at London’s first theatre – named The Theatre - which had been built by James Burbage (the father of the actor, Richard Burbage, who was one of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men).  But the land on which The Theatre was built was leased from Giles Allen and when the lease ran out, the men quarrelled and Giles Allen refused to renew it.  This meant that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men had to move to temporary accommodation at the nearby Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch.  Two years later, James Burbage died having failed to resolve the problem of the lease thus leaving the Theatre in Allen’s hands.  Now The Lord Chamberlain’s Men were in danger of becoming homeless.

Richard Burbage discussed the matter with the five actor-shareholders which included William Shakespeare and they all agreed to provide 10% of the buildings costs for a share of the profits.  They set about looking for land to rent and, in December 1598, found an inexpensive plot south of the river in Southark and signed the thirty-one year lease.  They also decided that, as James Burbage had built The Theatre, they had the right to dismantle it and use the materials to build the new one.

The frozen River Thames
The weather was bitterly cold that winter and a great snowstorm blanketed the city just after Christmas.  But the shareholders had to move quickly before Giles Allen returned from the country where he was visiting his family.  Together with a number of workmen, the shareholders gathered in Shoreditch and began work on dismantling The Theatre.  A crowd of onlookers soon gathered and friends of Giles Allen arrived to protest and they attempted to stop them but supporters of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were determined that they should continue.

The Globe Theatre, Bankside.
Each piece of the timber frame from The Theatre was marked and transported to the site.  Some say they were taken across the frozen Thames on wagons but this is unlikely, given the weight of the timbers.  They were reassembled on Bankside to build the theatre that was to be named The Globe.  But even with the timbers in place, the cost of building would be considerable.  Buying tiles for the roof was out of the question and so the cheaper option of thatch had to be used.  This was a mistake in view of the fact that the thatch caught fire in 1613 and the Globe was burned to the ground.

Shakespeare’s initial investment of £70 was a large sum in 1599, but the yield would be great
 – about £100 per annum.


Mark Burgess said...

Barbara, a fascinating post! What would £70 be in modern terms? Quite a few thousand, I imagine. I'm looking forward to reading Road to London...
[Do you remember The King's Sock?!]

Anonymous said...

It's never easy to compare modern prices, but a country gentleman at this time might have income of £50 - £100 a year and would be among the better off. A village priest might have income (including the value of tithes) of £10-£20 a year and labourers might earn £1-£2 a year.
Given average wage is something like £28000 today I'd guess £70 probably translates to At least £200,000

Linda B-A said...

All this is fascinating, Barbara. I am tempted to search out my Shakespeare in Love DVD. I might understand the background a little better now. £6 flat fee and no royalites...One day, when time travel is possible, it would be gratifying to go and visit Will Shakespeare and tell him what the future holds. Very helpful comment from Anonymous, above, too.

adele said...

Love this post Barbara! And you will love Jude Morgan's THE SECRET LIFE OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE which is coming out on April 21st. I reviewed it for Awfully Big Blog Reviews and will email you the link! Your book sounds ace, I must say....

Alex said...

Very nice essay on Shakespeare and the Globe (the new one is a favorite place to visit when I am in London.) I am very much looking forward to reading your new book Road to London.

H.M. Castor said...

Me too! Great post - thank you, Barbara.

michelle lovric said...

So interesting. And I've always thought that there was no reason why creativity and business cannot flourish together.(Not that I'm expecting any deathless verse from the current generation of bankers.)

Mary Hoffman said...

I believe Shakespeare was given a thousand pounds by the Earl of Southampton, which was an enormous sum in the 16th century!

Penny Dolan said...

Really interesting information - though rather sad to be reminded that writing so rarely makes money.

Road to London sounds a great story - and thanks for the reminder about that Shakespeare title, Adele.

Mefinx said...

Reading this brought back happy memories of Stratford and the MA I recently finished at the Shakespeare Inst. I wrote a dissertation on Shakespeare as a character in children's novels, so your work sounds right up my street. (I always like it when books about Shakespeare don't entirely overlook the Stratford background.)

Linda said...

Fascinating background to your new book, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

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