Weigh not the bard

Shakespeare had money on his mind. So did most Elizabethan dramatists

Written by Ipsita Chakravarty | Published: April 6, 2013 12:36 am

Shakespeare’S had bad press lately. Researchers at Aberystwyth University have found that he was a “ruthless businessman”,a tax-evader and a black-marketeer who hoarded food in a time of scarcity. For these lapses,he was dragged to court and nearly thrown into jail. He is also accused of extracting tithe from starving peasants,all the while dashing off powerful lines about their plight. Fled is the immortal bard. William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon had money on his mind rather than eternal verities.

The tongue-clicking about his business acumen is inexplicable,considering that reams have been written about the commercial success of his plays. It is no secret that Shakespeare went about his plays the same way Subhash Ghai or David Dhawan would go about directing their movies: there must be romance,comic relief,a fight scene,something for everyone. He also owned shares in the Globe and Blackfriars theatres. It was crucial to him that his plays draw “bums on seats”,as Rowan Atkinson so elegantly put it. As for his felonious tendencies,truth is,before Shakespeare became the poster boy for creative genius,he was an Elizabethan dramatist. More often than not,the Elizabethan dramatist was not a nice man to know. A list of Shakespeare’s contemporaries may be mistaken for a rogues gallery.

There was Christopher Marlowe,killed in a B&B at Deptford,where he had been spending a convivial evening with England’s most notorious spies. Sweet Kit Marlowe,dandy and playwright,had no trouble blending into the shadowy world of espionage,spying on Catholics for a newly Anglican English crown. A suspected double agent,he was also implicated in a counterfeiting racket. It is rumoured that he planted false evidence on fellow-playwright Thomas Kydd,who was then tortured and tried for atheism. Harold Bloom encourages you to imagine Marlowe as Barabbas from The Jew of Malta: “As for myself,I walk abroad a-nights,/ And kill sick people groaning under walls.” Then there was Ben Jonson,eight years younger than Shakespeare and a protege. Unfazed by a stint at Fleet Prison for “Leude and mutynous behavior”,Jonson killed a man in a duel and escaped the gallows on a technicality. Robert Greene,who famously dismissed Shakespeare as an “upstart crow”,matched his rival in pecuniary misdemeanours. He cast off his wife,he says,after having spent all the “marriage money which I had obtained by her”. But he died leaving a cordial note for his “Doll”,asking her to make good on his debts.

Elizabethan England was not an easy place for writers. Feudal patterns of patronage were receding but a literary market had not yet formed. As political power became more centralised and aristocrats moved to the court,London became the place where fortunes were made. And the theatre was one of the few places you could make a living in writing. Shoreditch,believed to be Shakespeare’s first London address,teemed with actors,spies,thieves,prostitutes and poets,according to the author Charles Nicholl. It was in these narrow streets that the dramatists had to fight for a living. The professional writer did not pen verses in dreamy isolation. He was part of the hoi polloi and writing was a commercial project.

The Elizabethan dramatists mostly came from families of modest means. Eking out a living in the city,they all knew hunger. In Coriolanus,the lines about the cavernous belly that takes in food while the limbs,eyes and other parts labour away speak of the body politic of an oppressive state. But it is also an image of hunger,the “gulf” that yawns in the middle of the body,always insatiable. Writing,for these dramatists,was a way out of hunger and into a better social position. The best way to secure this social position was to own land. When Shakespeare retires to Stratford,he is an admired playwright,a landowner and a “gentleman”,hardly the lyre-toting poet of popular imagination. If Marlowe is Barabbas,I offer you Antonio from The Merchant of Venice as Shakespeare: a man of business who strikes questionable deals,a merchant with the soul of a bard.

ipsita.chakravarty@expressindia.com

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