The following is excerpted from “Shakespeare, Scrooge of Stratford,” by Katherine Duncan-Jones, originally published in The New Statesman, March 26, 2001, itself an excerpt from her book, Ungentle Shakespeare. Duncan-Jones is an orthodox Shakespearean and a confirmed Stratfordian. Was this the man who wrote “he who steals my purse steals trash?” (Italics are mine.)
It is notoriously unwise to attempt to identify a writer’s views with those of his characters, and especially so in the case of a dramatist, who must animate many different and opposing viewpoints while being personally present in all of them or none. Perhaps we should not be too shocked, therefore––and yet, to be honest, it is shocking––to discover that Shakespeare himself gave little or nothing to “Poor Tom.”
Evidence for this turns up throughout the documentary record. Four references to him as a tax-defaulter, first in the City of London, then in Southwark, in 1596-1600, show that he habitually failed to pay the parish dues that supported abandoned babies, the aged and the infirm. This can be explained away. The busy and successful playwright may never have been at home in his lodgings when the tax collectors called, and perhaps he spent so little time there that he did not feel obliged to assist the local poor. Certainly he does not seem to have established a long-term connection with a parish church in London. Harder to explain or condone is his citation in 1599 as a hoarder of 80 bushels of corn and malt in the outbuildings of his five-gabled mansion, New Place. This was a period of near-starvation for the poor of Stratford after three bad harvests in as many years.
By the end of the century, some of Stratford’s more public- spirited citizens seem to have felt that the wealthy player-poet should be compelled to do more for the needy of his native town. An old husbandman, Thomas Whittington, made a will in which he bequeathed to “the poor of Stratford” a sum of 40 shillings “that is in the hand of Anne Shakespeare wife unto Master William Shakespeare, and is due debt unto me.” The “scriptor” of this will was the town’s faithful curate and assistant schoolmaster, William Gilbard, . . . and it was probably he who devised this rather unusual bequest. . . . It suggests that Shakespeare’s wife, Anne, had been left short of money, and had turned for help to Whittington; and it also suggests that both Whittington and Gilbard felt that [William], now a major landowner in the neighbourhood, had to be coerced into diverting some of his wealth to charitable ends.
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Though it is true that Shakespeare’s name lives on . . . in Stratford, there is no evidence that he was concerned, when alive, to ensure it did so through direct acts of munificence. This becomes painfully apparent in the debate about “enclosures” that clouded the last couple of years of Shakespeare’s life. The process of “enclosing” land––of surrounding fields with hedges and ditches and turning them over to pasture for sheep––had been going on piecemeal since the late Middle Ages. As the historian Joan Thirsk explains: “To enclose land was to extinguish common rights, thus putting an end to all common grazing.” The consequence of enclosure, if insufficient common grazing was left for local cottagers, was poverty and “depopulation.”
One of Shakespeare’s friends, a wealthy Stratford landowner called William Combe, was planning in 1614-15 to “enclose” some of his lands in Old Stratford and Welcombe. Thomas Greene, a kinsman of Shakespeare’s and an attorney, was passionately determined to oppose Combe’s plans, and sought repeatedly to enlist Shakespeare’s support. This is one of the best-documented episodes in the playwright’s life, and it is not a pretty tale.
Shakespeare steadfastly refused to oppose Combe’s plans. The affair seems to have caused a falling-out between him and Thomas Greene. Although Greene was both a kinsman and a very old friend, neither he nor his children (the eldest tellingly named William and Anne) were mentioned in Shakespeare’s will. Thomas Combe, on the other hand, nephew and heir to the would-be encloser, was given the valuable and highly symbolic bequest of Shakespeare’s sword.
No attorney in this period would forget to ensure that a wealthy testator left something to the poor. So it was with Shakespeare, who left £10 “to the poor of Stratford.” However, this bequest was almost immediately followed by a bequest to his attorney, suggesting that it was indeed in response to his prompting, and not spontaneously, that the bequest to the poor was made. It is rather striking that the attorney himself, Francis Collins, was left the larger sum of £13 3s 6d. Collins had performed major services for Shakespeare. The poor, perhaps, had not, though he must have employed a number of servants and menials, none of whom rates a mention in the will. Men possessed of such wealth and property as Shakespeare was would have hoped to be warmly remembered by the local poor. [Particularly considering that his own family had spent a good twenty years in a similar situation.] A common bequest, for instance, was for new gowns to be given to poor men to the number of the dead man’s age––in Shakespeare’s case, 51––to be worn on the day of his funeral. There was also often provision for the poor to enjoy food and drink on that day. This doesn’t seem to be something that the dying playwright wanted to consider.
Originally published on 26 March 2001 in the issue “How the rich rule politics again.”