William Shakespeare: Literary Giant, Tax Dodger and Ruthless Businessman?

William Shakespeare may have hoarded food and evaded taxes, researchers say. Nicku/Shutterstock

Researchers at Aberystwyth University suggest the Bard of Avon, often considered the world’s greatest dramatist, had another life that mars the writer’s enduring legacy.

Although Shakespeare wrote plays that celebrated the dignity of the poverty stricken, documents from court and tax archives paint a different picture. The paper trail shows the playwright was a wealthy landowner who often stood before the courts for illegally hoarding food that he sold at inflated prices. He was repeatedly threatened with jail for evading taxes.

Jayne Archer, a researcher in Renaissance literature at Aberystwyth University, said, "There was another side to Shakespeare besides the brilliant playwright — as a ruthless businessman who did all he could to avoid taxes, maximise profits at others' expense and exploit the vulnerable — while also writing plays about their plight to entertain them."

Archer worked in collaboration with Richard Marggraf Turley, a professor in the department, and Howard Thomas, a professor of plant science, to examine Shakespeare's life as a businessman and farmland owner during times of great hunger and food shortages in Europe.

He "stored grain, malt and barley for resale at inflated prices to neighbours and local tradesmen at a time when Europe was suffering famines," the researchers said. And to what end? He funneled the profits into land purchases.

Through illegal and legal activities, Shakespeare was able to retire in 1613 — after a working life of only 24 years — as the largest property owner in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon.

But should his favorable reputation be nixed? Archer says we shouldn't judge the Bard too harshly; the illicit activities were his way of ensuring that his family and neighbors would not starve if the harvest failed.

"He would not have thought of himself first and foremost as a writer. Possibly as an actor — but first and foremost as a good father, a good husband and a good citizen to the people of Stratford," she said.