The Self-Made Man: William Shakespeare
Most of you remember William Shakespeare as a guy who wrote what felt like hundreds of plays featuring words like o’er and s’blood, and only ended when either everyone died or all the men were dressed like women for no substantive reason.
That’s not far off, really. But Shakespeare was also, as a lot of modern employers and entrepreneurs are discovering, a very successful businessman at a time when being one was pretty difficult. I mean, sure, it’s hard to get a business going today, but at least our plumbing is both indoors and below ground. That’s more than what he had to work with, let me tell you.
Shakespeare, as you may know, was the company playwright for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a troupe of actors who split profits and debts between them as a company, of sorts. When Shakespeare became a member of the group, he got in on the profit-sharing, and was one of the investors in the Globe Theatre, which the company built for themselves in 1599 to stage their productions. When the company took over the Blackfriars indoor theatre a few years later, Shakespeare got a cut of that, as well.
It was a good thing, too. Back then, much like today, writers got paid jack squat for their work and relied on patronage to keep their bills paid. What little money there was in writing was made writing masques (i.e. overproduced variety shows designed to flatter whoever paid for them) for the court, which had the additional benefit of introducing playwrights to members of the aristocracy.
Shakespeare, though, had other ideas. The Globe not only gave him a place to stage, and sometimes act in, his own works, but it was a stable investment for him; he was making money for himself, not someone else. With a solid foundation under him and no obligations to a patron, he was free to cater to the ignorant masses as much as he wanted, which turned out to be a profitable business model.
It’s also been said that Shakespeare went into business as a middleman between other playwrights and theatrical companies or publishers, and took a commission for brokering deals between them. If true, that would have definitely bolstered his finances, which were already pretty well bolstered by his playwriting, acting, property investments (which included holdings in Stratford), and his poems, which were commissioned for hefty sums once he’d made his name in theatre.
Shakespeare’s success only further infuriated his rivals, especially the university-educated writers of that time who were already annoyed that a comparatively uneducated man would dare compete with them on their own turf. One of them, Robert Greene, wrote a pretty harsh critique of Shakespeare in 1592, basically accusing him of plagiarism and sneering at the idea of an actor writing plays for himself and his friends. Good thing Greene isn’t around to see modern theatre, then.
Besides, there’s a reason why you’ve heard of Shakespeare and not Robert Greene; Shakespeare worked harder and smarter, and proved that it was possible to make money as an independent artist if you were smart and took full advantage of your partnerships. It’s also important that this side of him gets some press, because if he wasn’t such a good businessman, his name and legacy wouldn’t have endured for 400 years, or however long it’s been. It certainly wasn’t the strength of his comedies that carried him this far, that’s for sure. I’ve been to funerals that were funnier than The Winter’s Tale.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.