Recent research into William Shakespeare by literary scholars indicates that he may have been a great dramatist, but he was truly the Bad Bard when it came to paying his taxes.
Earlier this month, it was reported that researchers Jayne Archer, Howard Thomas and Richard Marggraf Turley of Aberystwyth University in Wales uncovered documents containing some previously overlooked details of Shakespeare’s life that cast him in the light of a ruthless businessman. According to a paper that the academics plan to deliver next month at a literary festival, Shakespeare not only was accused of tax evasion by the authorities, but as a large landowner and grain merchant he was also prosecuted in 1598 for hoarding grain in the midst of a food shortage. One would have thought that he could have deducted the popcorn at his Globe theater as a legitimate business expense.
“Shakespeare the grain-hoarder has been redacted from history so that Shakespeare the creative genius could be born,” the researchers wrote, according to the Associated Press.
Shakespeare lived during a time that was considered a miniature version of the Ice Age, in which cold weather and heavy rains frequently led to food shortages. But despite his own tax problems, he in turn went after customers who could not pay their bills.
“Over a 15-year period he purchased and stored grain, malt and barley for resale at inflated prices to his neighbors and local tradesmen," the researchers wrote, saying the Bard “pursued those who could not (or would not) pay him in full for these staples and used the profits to further his own money-lending activities.”
The academics’ findings may shed light on the circumstances in some of Shakespeare’s plays, including “Coriolanus,” which is set against the backdrop of protests over grain-hoarding in ancient Rome. “King Lear” also contains some echoes of that theme, with famine and the distribution of land among Lear’s daughters part of the action. “The Merchant of Venice” also offers the character of Shylock the money lender, who is portrayed as the villain of the play.
In terms of taxes, there are a number of references to the dreaded word and variations on it. Thanks to the Shakespeare concordance at OpenSourceShakespeare.org, we’ve tracked down some of them. In “Hamlet,” Ophelia’s father Polonius remarks shortly before his untimely demise, “My lord, he’s going to his mother’s closet. Behind the arras I’ll convey myself to hear the process. I'll warrant she'll tax him home.” Polonius didn’t have to worry about taxes for much longer after Hamlet discovered him hiding behind the curtain.
The character of Helena in “All’s Well That Ends Well” recites a passage worthy of Wesley Snipes. “Tax of impudence, a strumpet's boldness, a divulged shame,” she says. “Traduced by odious ballads: my maiden's name sear'd otherwise; nay, worse—if worse—extended. With vilest torture let my life be ended.” A not unfamiliar feeling for those taxpayers who are forced to file for an extension after tearing out their hair trying to figure out the 1099 forms they've received in the mail.
In “Much Ado about Nothing,” there are echoes of a tax protester in the words of Leonato. “Faith, niece, you tax Signior Benedick too much; but he'll be meet with you, I doubt it not,” he says. The character of Balthasar too has his own thoughts on taxes in the same play. “O, good my lord, tax not so bad a voice to slander music any more than once,” he intones. This passage seems to anticipate the music of another Willie, Willie Nelson, who was forced to record an album in 1992, "The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories?" just so he could pay off millions of dollars in tax debts.
In “Richard II,” the character of Lord Ross sounds like he is ready to join the Tea Party. “The commons hath he pill’d with grievous taxes, and quite lost their hearts: the nobles hath he fined for ancient quarrels, and quite lost their hearts.”
In “As You Like It,” Jaques says, “Let me see wherein my tongue hath wrong’d him: if it do him right, then he hath wrong’d himself; if he be free, why then my taxing like a wild-goose flies, unclaim’d of any man.” Sounds kind of like those yearly announcements the IRS puts out about all the billions of dollars in unclaimed tax refunds they have available.
Ulysses in “Troilus and Cressida” has some words that Congress might pay heed to today. “They tax our policy, and call it cowardice, count wisdom as no member of the war, forestall prescience, and esteem no act, but that of hand. The still and mental parts that do contrive how many hands shall strike, when fitness calls them on, and know by measure of their observant toil the enemies’ weight. Why, this hath not a finger’s dignity.”
Shakespeare was no doubt ahead of his time in the concept of self-taxation, deciding like many large corporations and their tax experts today what he thought he ought to pay in taxes. As the character of Angelo in “Measure for Measure," observed, “Thus wisdom wishes to appear most bright when it doth tax itself.”