Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds Business is complicated. Once you start making money, you need to think about how to invest it. And one of the great principles of investment is diversification.
Skip to 0 minutes and 20 seconds Shakespeare, by the end of the 1590s, has made enough money out of his plays to buy the second-largest house in Stratford-Upon-Avon. It’s in a state of some disrepair, so he buys it at a knock-down price. That’s a good move for a start. He’s living cheaply himself in London. We find that, whereas the other actors are all buying properties in London, Shakespeare is just renting property, often in not particularly salubrious areas. And he has a way of moving on to a new property just as the taxes are due. There are some records of the tax inspector trying to catch up with him. So he’s pretty canny with money.
Skip to 1 minute and 0 seconds And he starts investing in property more widely back in his hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon. I’m standing here in the Birthplace Trust beside a fantastic document. A very large, legal document, an indenture. And what it describes is a transaction that is typical of the complicated process of exchange and investment in Shakespeare’s time. We need a bit of the historical backstory here. Before the religious reformation, when the Roman Catholic Church was so powerful in the land, 1/10 of the value of agricultural produce went to the church. That was called a “tithe.” It was based on an old biblical idea.
Skip to 1 minute and 50 seconds Now, with the dissolution of the monasteries, the birth of the Church of England, some of those tithes passed from the church, from the college of clergy, to the local corporations. So the Stratford corporation - the town council, as we would now call it - they got the value of some of the tithes on local agricultural profits. But they didn’t collect those tithes themselves. They let out the land and allowed speculators to make a profit for themselves. So it’s a complicated transaction. Subletting also sometimes takes place.
Skip to 2 minutes and 35 seconds And this document explains how in 1605 Shakespeare pays the huge sum of 440 pounds for the right to some of the tithes in the fields around Stratford, particularly around old Stratford, the old town, Bishopton, and the Welcombe Hills. And indeed, in Shakespeare’s last years, there’s going to be a big dispute about the enclosure of the land on the Welcombe Hills, which Shakespeare gets involved in. So he pays a lot there, but he’s worked out that it’s a profitable deal. He’s going to have to pay the Stratford corporation 17 pounds a year for the right, but he’s going to get 40 pounds a year. So that’s a pretty good deal for Master Shakespeare.
Skip to 3 minutes and 22 seconds It’s a sign of his financial sophistication - the principle of diversification. He’s investing in land, agricultural commodities - as we would now call it. He builds up a buy-to-let property portfolio. This is Shakespeare, the businessman. So how does this interest in money, in profit, in diversification manifest itself in The Merchant of Venice? Well, early in the play, we meet the character of the merchant, Antonio, and he’s sad. One of his friends asks him why is he sad. Is it because he’s worried about his goods, worried about his money, his profit? And he says no, “Believe me, no; I thank my fortune for it, My ventures are not in one bottom trusted.” “My ventures are not in one bottom trusted.”
Skip to 4 minutes and 17 seconds By “bottom,” he’s referring there to the bottom of a ship. He’s referring to his overseas ventures, his trading. And he says, It’s all right. I’m not reliant on one ship. If I lose one ship– maybe to a storm or to piracy - I’m still going to be OK. I’ve diversified my trade. “Not in one bottom trusted, Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate Upon the fortune of this present year.” So Antonio recognises that fortunes change, fortunes fluctuate. He hasn’t gambled his whole estate on what happens in any one year, just as Shakespeare doesn’t gamble his whole estate on, say, what the property market is like or what the harvest is going to be like in any one year.
Skip to 5 minutes and 3 seconds He diversifies.
Skip to 5 minutes and 7 seconds But we need a word of warning here. Although, Shakespeare’s plays - especially The Merchant of Venice - are very interested in material circumstances - in money, in how people live, how they make profit, how they make money - they’re also interested in human psychology. And that’s not solely linked to material circumstance. So when Antonio explains why he is sad, he says, It’s not because of the state of my business. It’s because of the state of my mind. It is not my merchandise that makes me sad.
Skip to 5 minutes and 46 seconds And then, he says a little later - again, to his friend, Gratiano - “I hold the world but as the world– A stage where every man must play a part, And mine a sad one.” It’s a fascinating line. So often, when Shakespeare talks about the world as a stage, human beings as players, he takes us to the core of the things that he is interested in. Everybody plays a part. It’s as if Antonio is saying, The part that has been written for me is that of the melancholy man, the sad man. I’m sad simply because I’m sad. That’s how I’m made. Whether I’m rich, whether I’m poor, whether I gain profit, whether I suffer loss, I’m just sad.
Skip to 6 minutes and 34 seconds That is how it is. So that’s a warning that we need to be careful about the process of trying to overanalyze the motivation of Shakespeare’s characters. Some readers, spectators, critics, theatre directors, actors would argue that the reason that Antonio is sad is because he has strong homosexual tendencies that cannot be realised in the heterosexual world of the Venice of the play - indeed, by implication, of Shakespeare’s England. There does seem to be a strain - a very strong male-male love - in the character of Antonio, as in some of Shakespeare’s other characters. But it’s a mistake, I think, to proceed from that to an overly psychoanalytical approach. We should always take the text at face value.
Skip to 7 minutes and 33 seconds Antonio is sad because he’s sad. That’s just how he is. We’re not going to somehow unpack that through some kind of hidden psychological complexity that is perhaps more something that we derived from our modern, post-Sigmund-Freud way of thinking. We need to attend closely to the plays, to read the text. Similarly, in thinking about the character of Portia, the wealthy lady whom Bassanio is going to woo. We learn that Portia has been left with a considerable fortune. The notion of inherited wealth was tremendously important in Shakespeare’s England. Why did people want to build up wealth? So that they could hand it on to their descendants. In the case of Portia, she’s an heiress.
Skip to 8 minutes and 28 seconds There’s no sign that she has a brother who inherits the estate, and that means the father has to think very hard about the conditions of his daughter’s marriage and the whole business of the choice of three caskets is bound to that idea. Essentially, what Portia’s father has done is create a device to keep gold-diggers, fortune-hunters away. “In Belmont,” says Bassanio, “is a lady richly left; And she is fair, and fairer than that word, Of wondrous virtues.” And he then gives an account of Portia, speaks greatly of her wealth, but also speaks of her virtues. And it’s interesting there that the language that is used to describe Portia makes a number of comparisons to classical times, to the ancient world.
Skip to 9 minutes and 27 seconds Remember when we were looking earlier at the influence of Shakespeare’s education on his work, there’s an expectation that his audience knows something about the key characters of the ancient world. In that first speech of Bassanio’s, look at it closely. Portia is compared to Brutus’ Portia, the daughter of Cato. That’s the virtuous, moral, upstanding wife of Brutus - who, of course, is a character whom we see in Julius Caesar, a play that Shakespeare wrote just a year or so after The Merchant of Venice. And then, Bassanio goes on to describe her as being like the Golden Fleece in the story of Jason and the Argonauts.
Skip to 10 minutes and 14 seconds Indeed, when he finally wins Portia, he says, We have won the Fleece. He compares himself to Jason. But there’s a nice irony there because there is a sense that Jason - although a heroic figure as he goes in quest of the Golden Fleece - the Golden Fleece in the classical myth is also something of a fortune-hunter. Shakespeare, as always, is complicated in his ironies. Bassanio is the lover, the young hero of the play, but is he fully worthy of Portia? Is there a sense that actually he is something of a fortune-hunter, a man on the make? It’s a fascinating play, The Merchant of Venice, isn’t it? Shakespeare seems to be writing himself into so many of the characters.
Skip to 11 minutes and 5 seconds Is the melancholy aspect of Shakespeare there in Antonio, the fortune-hunting aspect of Shakespeare in Bassanio, the moneylending aspect of Shakespeare in Shylock? He is at once all of his characters and none of his characters, at once throwing himself into imagining what it’s like to be these people and holding himself apart, adopting an ironic stance towards them.