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Shakespeare the skinflint

The miser bard’s ruthlessness was what made him great.

‘And every fair from fair sometime declines,” wrote William Shakespeare in Sonnet 18: All beautiful things must in the end lose their beauty. Shakespeare’s own reputation has lost quite a lot of it lately. According to new research by three academics at the University of Aberystwyth in Wales, the playwright—perhaps the greatest poet of the human spirit—was also “a ruthless businessman [who] did all he could to avoid taxes, maximize profits at others’ expense and exploit the vulnerable.” The final years of the 16th century saw a series of wet summers and failed harvests; Shakespeare responded by hoarding grain at his house in Stratford in order to sell it at inflated prices during the inevitable famine. He was also repeatedly threatened with prosecution for tax evasion.

The response, at least in the press, has been surprisingly vocal. Fox News called Shakespeare a “tax cheat,” and Forbes described “a money-grubbing food speculator.” The Sunday Times in London called him “a famine profiteer” and, in its headline, “Bad Bard.” These revelations about Shakespeare are not wholly surprising—Katherine Duncan-Jones’s 2001 biography, “Ungentle Shakespeare,” makes clear the playwright’s lack of charity and reports, too, his reluctance to pay the taxes he owed. But the sense of betrayal is keen: that a playwright celebrated for his endless empathy and insight turns out to have been so ungenerous in person.

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