They say that money makes the world go round. And Shakespeare’s time was a hugely important moment in the history of money, the history of capitalism. In many ways, our whole modern world of trade, of globalisation began in Shakespeare’s time. What we’re going to explore this week is how much money Shakespeare made, what he did with his money, and how money is important in his plays, one play in particular, The Merchant of Venice, his great play about money and money lending. The short answer to the question about Shakespeare and money is that he did very well indeed.
As we saw when we were looking at the history of the theatre companies, he made the smart move of becoming the in-house writer for the acting company and taking a share of the profits. He was a shareholder, a classic capitalist thing to be. As we also saw, he spent the money building up his property portfolio, in particular, here in Stratford-upon-Avon. So even though he was working in London, he remained involved with Stratford society. Here in the exhibition room at the Birthplace Trust, I’ve been given the great privilege of opening up one of the cases and taking out one of the most precious documents that we have.
It’s incredibly thrilling for me to be holding in my hand the only surviving letter written to Shakespeare. So what is this letter? What does it tell us about Shakespeare and money? Well, it’s from Richard Quiney. The Quineys were close family friends of the Shakespeares. Indeed, later there would be Quiney-Shakespeare connection by marriage. Shakespeare’s daughter Judith married a Quiney. Richard Quiney, in the 1590s, a time when Shakespeare was working and making money in the London theatre, had become high bailiff of Stratford, that role which Shakespeare’s father had once had. But Stratford was in trouble with the central authorities over the payment of its taxes.
It was one of those disputes between local government and national government that is all too familiar today. So Quiney goes to London to try to sort out the affairs. Stratford’s also in trouble because there’s been a big fire. And he’s racking up expenses for himself. So what does he do? He writes to Shakespeare, the family friend who he knows is a wealthy fellow townsman. This is what he writes. “Loving countryman, I am bold of you as a friend, craving your help with 30 pounds” 30 pounds was a lot of money in those days. “upon Mr. Bushell’s and my security or Mr. Mytton’s with me.”
So immediately he’s saying lend me 30 pounds, but you will have security for it, either from me or from these other people, who Shakespeare knows. And then he goes on a bit later in the letter. “You shall neither lose credit nor money by me.” You shall neither lose credit nor money by me, a line in a letter to Shakespeare, here in my hand. But that almost sounds like a line out of The Merchant of Venice, the obsession with credit, with money, the question of money lended. And at the end of the letter, on the back of the page, we see the address on the reverse, “To my loving, good friend and countryman, Master William Shakespeare.” So Shakespeare is lending money.
Now, that’s interesting because money lending was a very controversial issue at the time. It was believed that Christians should not make money out of money lending. Lending money at interest, which was known as usury, had long been frowned upon by the church. But of course, lending money at interest is the whole basis of credit, of banking, of modern capitalism. Historically, because of the church’s worry about the morality of lending money at interest, it was left to outsiders to become moneylenders, Jews, of course, most notably. But in Shakespeare’s England, also other immigrants, Hugo or Lombard immigrants, in London were involved in the process of money lending, of giving credit.
In The Merchant of Venice, which, as we will see, is a play that is really in a way as much about London, Shakespeare’s England, as it is about Venice– In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock the Jew makes his money by lending at interest. When we first see him he’s doing a calculation about raising up the gross, as he calls it, working out the rate of interest, the period of months he’s going to lend on a particular loan that he’s given. And he’s introduced to Antonio by Bassanio. Bassanio is in pursuit of a loan. Shylock doesn’t like Antonio. This is what he says.
“I hate him for he is a Christian, but more for that in low simplicity he lends out money gratis and brings down the rate of usance here in Venice.” So immediately, the play is setting up hostility and opposition between Christian and Jew. But Shylock says the main reason that he doesn’t like Antonio is not the fact that Shylock is a Jew, Antonio is a Christian, but that Shylock lends money at interest and thus makes money, whereas Antonio is lending money gratis, lending money without charging interest.