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The London Playwright




Graham Phillips examines the monument that

now stands on the site of what was once New Place, Shakespeare's home in Stratford.

In London William Shakespeare made no secret about being a playwright.  However, in the capital he lived a very different lifestyle to that of the wealthy Stratford grain merchant.  In Stratford-upon-Avon he is recorded as making large sums of money dealing in grain, while in London at exactly the same time he was seemingly eking out a living as a poorly paid playwright and actor.  In Stratford he lived in a luxurious house and owned a number of other properties, while in London he lived in squalid, single-roomed, rented accommodation in some of the poorest districts in the capital.  In Stratford he acted as a money lender, lending considerable sums of money; in London he was constantly being sought by debt collectors for relatively small sums of money he should easily have been able to pay.  Something mysterious was going on: at the very least, Shakespeare was living a strange double life.


There are many records that evidence the extent of this seemingly bizarre double life; here are just a few for the years 1597 and 1598:


 4 May 1597

A document called The New Place Fine, now housed in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Records Office in Stratford-upon-Avon, records that William Shakespeare bought a building called New Place, the second largest house in Stratford, for £60.  Money was worth extraordinarily more then than it is today.  The equivalent sized house would now probably coast around a million pounds.


 15 Nov 1597

Documents in the Public Records Office in London record that tax collectors in Bishopsgate in East London (where Shakespeare was living in a small rented room) list Shakespeare the playwright as being sought by the authorities for failing to pay five shillings.    This would probably be the equivalent of around £100 today.  (Public Records Office, Exchequer, King’s Remembrancer, Subsidy Roll, E.179/146/354.)


 4 Feb 1598

Shakespeare is listed in Stratford-upon-Avon as holding 80 bushels of grain.  That is around 3000 litres by modern reckoning: an entire barn-full. (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Records Office, Misc. Doc I, 106.)


 1 Oct 1598

In London, Shakespeare is again wanted for tax evasion in Bishopsgate.  This time a warrant is issued for his apprehension for the non-payment of 13 shillings and 4 pence (about £250 by today’s standards).  More interesting still is that the Exchequer tax records estimate the total assets of William Shakespeare the playwright – that is everything he supposedly owned in all the world - as valuing only £5.  (Much less than £2000 by today’s standards).  (Public Records Office, Exchequer, King’s Remembrancer, Subsidy Roll, E. 179/146/369.)


25 Oct 1598

In Stratford-upon-Avon a Richard Quiney writes to Shakespeare asking for a loan of £30 -around £12,000 by today’s standards.  (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Records Office, MS. ER 27/4. The tax went unpaid until 1600, when an unnamed benefactor in Winchester eventually settled the debt on Shakespeare’s behalf, although in Stratford he continued to grow richer, within a couple of years buying a further 107 acres of land and a cottage.



Two Different Men?




The so-called Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon where Shakespeare is said to have been born.

 Was the man said to have been here in 1564

 really history's most celebrated dramatist?

These are just a few of the dozens of surviving records concerning William Shakespeare that indicate this strange double life.   The most astonishing fact of all to emerge from all this is that in Stratford-upon-Avon there is no record indicating that anyone knew that Shakespeare had a writing or theatrical career of any kind.  There is no evidence that he was ever, during his lifetime, known as an author, poet or dramatist.  Indeed, except for his wealth, no one seems to have regarded William Shakespeare as important in his home town.  In the Stratford burial register his son-in-law is given the epitaph “most skilful physician”, whereas Shakespeare’s reads simply “a gent”.  Even Shakespeare’s relatives give no recognisable indication that they were remotely aware of his literary activities.  His son-in-law, for example, had his own books published, but never once does he mention Shakespeare.  It is certainly odd that we find no indication whatsoever that anyone in the Stratford community was touched by the William Shakespeare whom his fellow playwright Ben Jonson called the “soul of the age”.  That is, of course, unless this was not the same William Shakespeare.



Maybe it's because he's a Londoner


Was William Shakespeare the grain merchant who lived at New Place and was buried in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church one and the same as the playwright and actor working in London?  The name Shakespeare was a fairly common name during Elizabethan times, as was William.   The reason that fans of Shakespeare’s works homed in on the Warwickshire Stratford in the late 1600s in the first place was because of the playwright Ben Jonson’s reference to Stratford in the preface to the First Folio.  He did not, however, specifically refer to Stratford-upon-Avon or Warwickshire  (See here, Line 269).   As the playwright Shakespeare spent most of his working life living in various locations in East London, perhaps the Stratford in question was what is now the East London district of Stratford where the Olympic village is being built.  In Shakespeare’s day it was a small village called Stratford Langthorne, outside the then city limits, less than five miles from Bishopsgate where Shakespeare the playwright is recorded as living while in London.



Map showing Elizabethan London, and the locations of Bishopsgate and Stratford.


Will’s Will


There is only one real piece of evidence to link the Stratford-upon-Avon grain dealer with the London playwright, and that is in the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare’s will.  In it there is a very brief mention of his fellow actors in the London theatre company.  However, this will did not surface until the 1730s, and might have been a fake to help bolster the Shakespeare tourist industry that was rapidly becoming established at the time in Stratford-upon-Avon.  This will has never been subjected to modern scientific testing to determine its authenticity.  At present Graham is hoping to persuade the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, who now own it, to have it scientifically dated: so far, without success.