Tough negotiator: William Shakespeare. Academics say the Bard was a ruthless businessman who grew wealthy dealing in grain during a time of famine.

Tough negotiator: William Shakespeare. Academics say the Bard was a ruthless businessman who grew wealthy dealing in grain during a time of famine. Photo: Getty Images

LONDON: Hoarder, moneylender, tax dodger - it's not how we usually think of William Shakespeare.

But we should, according to a group of academics who say the Bard was a ruthless businessman who grew wealthy dealing in grain during a time of famine.

Researchers from Aberystwyth University in Wales argue we can't fully understand Shakespeare unless we study his often-overlooked business savvy.

"Shakespeare the grain-hoarder has been redacted from history so that Shakespeare the creative genius could be born," the researchers say in a paper due to be delivered at the Hay literary festival in Wales in May.

Jayne Archer, a lecturer in mediaeval and Renaissance literature at Aberystwyth, said that oversight is the product of "a wilful ignorance on behalf of critics and scholars who I think – perhaps through snobbery – cannot countenance the idea of a creative genius also being motivated by self-interest".

Archer and her colleagues, Howard Thomas and Richard Marggraf Turley, combed historical archives to uncover details of the playwright's parallel life as a grain merchant and property owner in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon whose practices sometimes brought him into conflict with the law.

"Over a 15-year period he purchased and stored grain, malt and barley for resale at inflated prices to his neighbours and local tradesmen," they wrote, adding that Shakespeare "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."

He was pursued by the authorities for tax evasion, and in 1598 was prosecuted for hoarding grain during a time of shortage.

The charge sheet against Shakespeare was not entirely unknown, though it may come as shock to some literature lovers. But the authors argue that modern readers and scholars are out of touch with the harsh realities the writer and his contemporaries faced.

He lived and wrote in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, a period known as the Little Ice Age, when unusual cold and heavy rain caused poor harvests and food shortages.

"Remembering Shakespeare as a man of hunger makes him much more human, much more understandable, much more complex," Archer said.

"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 the playwright's funeral monument in Stratford's Holy Trinity Church reflected this. The original monument erected after his death in 1616 showed Shakespeare holding a sack of grain. In the 18th century, it was replaced with a more "writerly" memorial depicting Shakespeare with a tasselled cushion and a quill pen.

Associated Press