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The Shakespeare We Don't Know: Business Genius and Disruptor

4/17/2016 James Shapiro

Shakespeare We Dont Know

Shakespeare’s literary and economic success depended more on business-model innovation and collaboration than most contemporary readers imagine, explains noted scholar James Shapiro.

We tend to imagine Shakespeare working solo, scribbling away alone in some garret, much as he does in that entertaining movie Shakespeare in Love, earning an independent living by writing, selling, and ultimately publishing his plays. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Contrary to popular belief, Shakespeare wasn’t paid for writing Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet and earned only a pittance when his plays were printed. His literary success and economic well-being depended instead upon his role as a shareholder in a joint-stock company, of which he was an investor and leading member for two decades. Here he excelled as an innovator—both creatively and in terms of the business of theater—navigating complex challenges that included an increasingly competitive marketplace, censorship, plague, fire, domestic instability, and the threat of foreign invasion.

While Shakespeare is celebrated today as an autonomous literary genius, he would have seen himself quite differently: as a member of a talented team, one that worked long days together, year in and year out, and responded with boldness, flexibility, and foresight to fresh challenges.

Building the infrastructure for an entertainment industry

At the time that Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, no writer in England could earn a living without the support of wealthy aristocratic or royal patrons. Professional theater, what there was of it, remained a marginally profitable business. Strolling players toured from one town to the next in search of a venue and a paying audience, for there were no permanent playhouses and hadn’t been in Britain since the Roman occupation. Actors were considered of low social status, vagabonds who were subject to being whipped and sent on their way by local authorities.

That situation changed dramatically a few years after Shakespeare was born. At that time, of the nearly 5,000,000 inhabitants of a largely rural and agrarian England, roughly 150,000 lived in a compact area in and around the walled City of London, a number that would swell to almost 200,000 by the end of the 16th century. This meant that there was a critical mass of potential playgoers. Seizing on that potential, visionary investors began converting inns into playing spaces and then constructing large purpose-built theaters. A thriving entertainment industry took root. The creation of these privately owned theaters proved to be a crucial innovation, without which Shakespeare’s dramatic output would have been impossible.

All told, in and around London between 1567 and 1642, twenty-three theaters were built. Seventeen of them were outdoor amphitheaters, while the six others were smaller indoor theaters. None of these buildings were designed to last for more than a few decades, so no more than seven or eight were standing at any one time. Two of the earliest and most important playhouses, erected in the mid-1570s, were The Theatre and The Curtain, where Shakespeare got his start as both an actor and a dramatist. The investors who built and owned these earliest playhouses divided the box-office receipts with the players who performed in them.

The sheer number of theaters, and the financial investment behind this construction boom, suggests that Elizabethan Londoners were theater-crazed. The outdoor amphitheaters could hold as many as 2,500 or perhaps even 3,000 spectators, each of whom paid a penny (roughly the cost of a loaf of bread at that time) to enter and stand or a few pennies more for a seat.

The smaller indoor theaters held perhaps 400 to 500 privileged playgoers, and their prices started at sixpence, so the box-office potential was fairly similar to that of the outdoor theaters.

Even a conservative guess would suggest that the average Londoner went to see a play at least once a month, some many times more than that. There was a great demand for new plays, as many as 20 a year for each playing company, which were then worked into the repertory of old favorites, as patrons of London’s theaters expected the actors to stage a different play every day. This demand in turn meant new career possibilities for a generation of ambitious and talented young men (acting and writing were almost exclusively done by young men), who were now able to make a living as freelance writers, paid 6 pounds a play, at a time when a day laborer earned 10 pounds a year and a schoolmaster twice that amount.

The joint-stock theater company

London’s primary structure for business organizations at the time was the long-established guild, which dated back to the 10th century. But an emerging commercial enterprise like the professional theater did not work well within the cumbersome and rigidly hierarchical structure of the guilds. The newer model that Shakespeare and his fellow actors turned to instead was the joint-stock company, coming into favor as those with capital turned to foreign trade, whose huge rewards required significant investment at a time when lending at interest was technically illegal (though that didn’t stop some, including Shakespeare’s father, from practicing what was considered usury).

The earliest English joint-stock company engaged in trade was probably the Company of Merchant Adventurers, chartered in 1553. This innovative corporate structure would allow for the rapid expansion of foreign trade, culminating in the charter to the powerful East India Company in 1600. It would also provide an invaluable model for England’s professional actors. The first and most significant innovation in which Shakespeare participated was investing in and helping to steer a new joint-stock company called the Chamberlain’s Men, which was formed in 1594.

Shakespeare would thrive as one of its founding members and shareholders. His initial share to buy in, the same 70 pounds the seven other sharers each invested, was considerable. How Shakespeare came up with this sum, whether he borrowed the money or handed over his earlier plays in lieu of cash, is not known. But what it meant was that he now received one-eighth of the half-share of all box-office earnings. The partners were all expected to act (and hired additional actors to round out the cast of 14 or so performers for the typical play). They also took care of all other demands: bookkeeping; providing and upgrading costumes and props; running concessions; dealing with the authorities; and buying new plays. In all likelihood, Shakespeare’s main contribution was supplying two or three new plays a year.

His company would be a great success story. Unlike rival companies, which often (as we know from surviving records) dissolved or came to blows (sometimes fatal ones), the Chamberlain’s Men proved to be an exceptionally harmonious team. When one of its original members and comic stars quit five years after the company’s formation, the partners sustained the loss and quickly went about finding a replacement. From the generous bequests they left to each other in their wills, we can sense just how tight-knit this company remained, for decades. The founding members who remained in the company, including Shakespeare himself, reaped significant profits and all died wealthy. It proved to be the most successful theater company in Elizabethan and Jacobean England and—judged in terms of talent, repertory, and profits—perhaps of all time.

Actor-owned playhouses

Five years after the company’s formation, and clearly thriving, Shakespeare and his fellow shareholders determined that the status quo was not good enough. For one thing, they remained dependent on their landlord at The Theatre and likely chafed at surrendering to him half of the profits. When their landlord decided that he wanted to convert the building to other uses, they faced the possibility of eviction. They knew, though, that while their landlord owned the property on which the theater sat, they owned the structure itself. They met this challenge aggressively, arriving at the site of the playhouse armed to the teeth when they knew the owner was away for Christmas. A team of carpenters hired for this venture dismantled the expensive timber frame, loaded it on wagons, and transported it away. The following summer it would be rebuilt across the Thames River, in Southwark, on an empty plot that they had rented, and rechristened The Globe Theatre. Their old landlord sued the Chamberlain’s Men, but unsuccessfully. If not for their bold move, the course of English drama would have been markedly different.

Shakespeare’s personal fortune was enhanced as well, for, in exchange for an additional investment in the building and maintenance of the new theater, he was invited to become its part owner. For the first time, actors owned the theater they played in, and from now on Shakespeare earned his money from two revenue streams: as shareholder in a company and part owner of a very successful playhouse.

The move was also (and no doubt intentionally) a blow to the company’s main rival, the Admiral’s Men, who performed at The Rose playhouse, a stone’s throw from where The Globe was erected. Within a year, the Admiral’s Men would abandon the neighborhood and move to London’s northern suburbs.

As successful as The Globe Theatre proved to be, playing was highly profitable only during the warmer and sunnier months that ran from late spring through early autumn. Recognizing this, in 1608 Shakespeare’s company acquired another playing space, the intimate and candlelit Blackfriars Theatre, built in the heart of London, allowing the actors to perform indoors during the inclement winter months and outdoors at The Globe during the warmer ones. Shakespeare would be a part owner of this theater as well.

By then, the branding of his playing company was complete. A decade earlier, one playhouse experience was pretty much like another. No longer. The shift can probably be dated to the turn of the century, when the Chamberlain’s Men branded themselves as different and more upscale by abandoning the jig—a bawdy singing and dancing act—that had followed every Elizabethan play and would continue to be wildly popular in other outdoor playhouses. While Shakespeare’s company was flexible and responsive to what playgoers wanted, it steadfastly refused, in contrast especially to the playhouses in the northern suburbs, to pander to audiences; it preferred to challenge them with plays that broke new ground. Perhaps the best example of this can be found in Shakespeare’s two greatest plays: Hamlet and King Lear. There were in fact older and popular Elizabethan plays called Hamlet and King Leir already on the boards. Shakespeare chose to revisit each of these stories, undertaking a gut renovation of these increasingly dated plays, offering in his own renditions more knotty, timely, and rewarding dramas, ones that spoke with greater insight and urgency to his increasingly sophisticated audiences.

Innovative responses to crises and competition

It would be a mistake to imagine Shakespeare’s story as a steady and uninterrupted march from one success to another. Far from it. Given the instability of the times, he and his fellow shareholders faced repeated setbacks, and it is worth looking at the ways in which they responded to the most challenging of these. Theirs was far from a risk-free investment.

The Spanish, whose Great Armada had been foiled in 1588, threatened invasion repeatedly over the course of the following decade and, had they succeeded, would have put an end to England’s heretical theaters. Shakespeare and his company also had to walk a careful line between eluding government censorship and still providing audiences with the information they craved. There were no newspapers in Shakespeare’s day, and, other than royal proclamations and public sermons, there were no competing ways of obtaining news or exploring pressing social and political concerns. It is no coincidence, for example, that so many of Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies of the 1590s explore the problem of political succession at a time when the unmarried Queen Elizabeth was approaching her end (and had forbidden any explicit discussion of who would be the nation’s next ruler).

With no clear successor to the throne named, England faced the possibility of civil war or foreign invasion. That crisis was averted when Queen Elizabeth was peacefully succeeded by King James of Scotland. The regime change turned out to greatly enhance the fortunes of Shakespeare’s company. Its stability and accomplishments during its first decade paid off, as did its connections to powerful figures in the land, for the Chamberlain’s Men was chosen to be James’s own playing company, renamed the King’s Men. This new status provided the company with important political protection as well as visibility at court (though very little in the way of financial support: the players made their money from public performances and were paid only a token fee for playing at court).

Censorship remained a peril for any professional dramatist. Shakespeare managed to write the politically topical plays that audiences craved, but unlike his rivals—including Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, and John Marston—he never fell afoul of the authorities when doing so. Yes, some plays put on by his company (including one about an assassination attempt on the life of King James called The Tragedy of Gowrie) were pulled from production; yes, the company was called in to explain why it had performed Richard II on the eve of an unsuccessful coup, but the members talked their way out of trouble; and yes, Shakespeare was forced to change the name of the comic hero of Henry IV from Oldcastle to Falstaff (having apparently angered an influential descendent of Oldcastle at court), but these were minor setbacks, quietly and successfully handled.

Deadly outbreaks of plague were a more serious threat to the health and livelihood of Shakespeare and his fellow actors and would cut substantially into profits. The Chamberlain’s Men had in fact formed as a group in the immediate aftermath of an outbreak of plague in 1592–93 that killed 10,000 Londoners. While the company was fortunate that the next decade remained largely plague-free, a terrible outbreak occurred in 1603—wiping out as much as a seventh of the city’s population. Lesser outbreaks would recur for the next eight years, leaving the theaters closed for extended periods, sometimes a year or longer: although the authorities didn’t know what caused plague, they saw that it spread quickly in crowds and so closed the playhouses when there were more than 30 or 40 recorded deaths from plague in a week. Shakespeare’s company responded by touring the safer provinces. The company’s cash reserves meant that it was able to ride out closures that badly weakened some of its competitors (especially the children’s companies, which couldn’t tour and who for a time had become a major threat to the company’s dominance).

Another setback was self-induced. When Shakespeare and his fellow investors had built The Globe Theatre, they had cut corners by covering the roof with thatch rather than with more expensive (and less flammable) tiles. It would prove a costly decision. In 1613, during a performance of Henry VIII, a cannon was fired from the stage that set the thatched roof on fire. While nobody was hurt—and the valuable play scripts were rescued—The Globe burned to the ground. It took a significant capital investment on the part of the co-owners to rebuild it, but that was swiftly done. Since we have no record of Shakespeare’s involvement with his company after this date, he may well have decided at this time to sell back his share and retire rather than reinvest so heavily in a new building. The rebuilt Globe, like other playhouses in London, stood until the 1640s, when the puritanical Parliament, with the nation edging toward civil war, decided to put an end to public playing.

Literary innovation: Flexibility and risk taking

When discussing how Shakespeare’s writing changed over time, it is tempting but misguided to isolate innovations that derive from his literary interests from those that derive from the economic and competitive demands of the theater world. Biographers like to speculate that the changes in the trajectory of Shakespeare’s works stem from his volatile emotional state: he was in love when he wrote Romeo and Juliet, depressed when he wrote Hamlet, and so on. There is considerably more evidence that the changes in his style over the years owe more to his recognition that if he didn’t respond to what audiences wanted, his popularity and the economic health of his company would suffer.

One of Shakespeare’s undervalued gifts was his ability to recognize when creative innovations were needed to keep up with, if not co-opt, competitors in a fairly ruthless literary marketplace. He did so in small and large ways. Two examples must suffice. When Ben Jonson’s popular satiric comedies threatened to displace Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, Shakespeare responded by introducing satiric and Jonsonian characters, like Jaques in As You Like It, into his work and by making his comic worlds darker and edgier. And Jonson was also invited to write plays for Shakespeare’s company.

Shakespeare’s response to two up-and-coming young dramatists of the early 17th century, Thomas Middleton and John Fletcher, offers an even more telling example of his adaptability. The former was skilled at writing citizen comedy, the latter at tragicomedy (increasingly popular genres in which Shakespeare had not excelled). Shakespeare chose collaboration rather than confrontation and teamed up with Middleton to write Timon of Athens and with Fletcher to write three late plays: Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and the now-lost Cardenio. In doing so, Shakespeare not only responded to the changing tastes of his audiences but also helped secure a stronger role in his company for talented young writers. Fletcher would later succeed him as the company’s principal playwright.

Unlike his great fictional hero, Henry V, Shakespeare was able to pass on what he had learned, ensuring the continued success of his company. He was rewarded by his partners seven years after his death in 1616, when two of the original shareholders—John Heminges and Henry Condell—immortalized Shakespeare by seeing into print 36 of his plays, half of which had never been printed before, in the remarkable volume, the First Folio of 1623.

About the author: James Shapiro is Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where he has taught since 1985. He also teaches leadership at Columbia Business School and is on the board of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

This excerpt was drawn from Shakespeare’s mind for the future: A modern-day tale, a collection of articles marking the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. For the full collection, click here.