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William Shakespeare, the Grain Hoarding Tax Dodger

April 7, 2013
List of titles of works based on Shakespearean...

William Shakespeare, looking rather plump during a famine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This probably wasn’t the kind of news that fans of William Shakespeare wanted to hear.  There was no newly-discovered manuscript of a never-before-read comedy.  It wasn’t long-lost video footage of Shakespeare ranting at his men-dressed-as-women-actors messing up their lines (yeah, video footage is probably not going to happen). 

Instead, the public found out that William Shakespeare (author of Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s dream, Taming of the Shrew, and a few sonnets) hoarded grain during times of famine and cheated on his taxes

As far as celebrity bad behavior goes, this wasn’t so heinous.  This might not even qualify as a SHOCKING REVELATION.  The United States exists because a bunch of colonists were trying to dodge England’s taxes.  Perhaps Shakespeare was American ahead of his time.  Maybe England’s tax system back then was fair, but I doubt it (I could be wrong).  I bet the tax system was that you owed what the tax collector said you owed.  There might not have been a 60,000 page code like there is now in the U.S., but I’m guessing there were some inconsistencies in who got which deductions and how much. 

I’m not even sure hoarding grain is such a bad thing.  During a famine, somebody was going to control how food was distributed, whether it was government or merchants (or Shakespeare).  Selling grain for high prices during a famine was better than not having any grain at all during a famine.  That sounds callous, but back then , it was probably an either/or situation; if you had food, you sold it for high prices (or consumed it yourself), and if you didn’t have food during a famine, then you were out of luck (unless you were friends with somebody like William Shakespeare). 

I suppose Shakespeare could have evenly distributed his hoarded grain to every starving person during a famine, but they still would have starved, just maybe a few hours (or days) later.  I’m just glad I didn’t live back then.  This is one of those situations where I don’t want to prove that my theory is right (or wrong).

And maybe grain hoarding really was that bad. 

Supposedly, historians and scholars have known about Shakespeare’s (alleged) tax evasion /grain hoarding and have intentionally kept this out of the public eye in order to maintain his reputation.   Scholars shouldn’t try to hide unpleasant facts about writers (especially since writers need to write about unpleasant topics in order to be interesting).  

What would it take to make people stop reading Shakespeare anyway?  It would take something worse than tax evasion or grain hoarding.  Shakespeare would have had to have murdered somebody, or spent the night with children, or spoken out against gay marriage.  It would take a lot to make people stop reading Shakespeare. 

However, it didn’t take much for me to stop reading Shakespeare.  Once I didn’t understand what was going on or what the characters were saying, I stopped reading Shakespeare.  That was probably in the opening scene of whichever play I was reading.  I don’t like reading Shakespeare, but I enjoy seeing his plays performed by actors/actresses who know what they’re doing. 

Taming of the Shrew by Augustus Egg

I’m pretty sure “Zounds! What mounds!” wasn’t in this version of The Taming of the Shrew. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd were brilliant in The Taming of the Shrew (on the television show Moonlighting).  I don’t think that version was completely accurate, though.  I once skimmed through the entire play looking for Petruchio’s line “Zounds!  What mounds!” but I couldn’t find it anywhere.  It must have been improvised.  I bet Shakespeare hated it when actors improvised during a performance. 

I wouldn’t want to mess up a line in front of William Shakespeare, especially during a famine.

  1. It would have been worse if Shakespeare didn’t hoard grain and died of starvation.

    • I was going to add that starving to death might have kept Shakespeare from paying his taxes, but England probably had a steep inheritance tax back then (again, I’m just guessing).

  2. That’s some interesting news. I guess it proves that even people we idolize were human.

  3. This all makes sense. The man from Stratford would do this but not Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford and the real author of the Shakesperian canon.

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