Hayden Thorpe of Wild Beasts: "The four of us don’t have pretty faces and lipstick to go on the front page of a magazine"

Rob Pollard speaks to the singer, guitarist and songwriter from the acclaimed Kendal four-piece.

During the middle of the last decade, British indie music had become artistically void. It was incredibly popular and sales were high, but bands were bereft of ideas and their output had become depressingly predictable. Thankfully, that nadir sparked a shift, with a new breed of intelligent, articulate British indie bands emerging. Bombay Bicycle Club, Anna Calvi, and, this year’s big breakthrough act, Alt-J are all flying the flag for the improved and more culturally relevant UK alternative music scene. The leading lights of this movement, though, remain Wild Beasts, a brilliant band whose work continues to prove that individuality in music is still highly revered. Here, we speak to Hayden Thorpe, the singer, guitarist and songwriter from the acclaimed Kendal four-piece, about music, politics and the crisis of emotionality in men. 

I hear there are plans for a fourth Wild Beasts album. Where are you up to with that?

Week two of getting together and making it. We’re in that honeymoon period you get to go through every time you start making a new album because that’s, in a sense, the great thing about making music, or any creative work really, is that you always have that absolute right to reinvention. And that ability to reinvent is one of the most important and invigorating things you can do really, to move on and shed that old skin. We’re just at the stage of enjoying that new lease of life and that release from old material because it’s kind of an old world to us. It describes our old selves and it feels very invigorating to refresh the page as it were. It’s much needed I think because the last album was definitely an album that was made, personally, in a transient place, so it felt as if we didn’t have a grounding or a foothold in a still world until this point. 

Your third album seemed softer and more gentle than the second. What can we expect from this one?

We always, as a rule, try and age ourselves in terms of trying to make the last album look old against the newer one. As far as how it sounds, we always try to write in terms of how we feel. It’s always a feel thing and never a conscious thing, and the beauty of not knowing is the main draw. The DNA of what we do will always remain the same, kind of unavoidably. I don’t know what kind of creature it’ll be really. And I don’t want to know to be honest. That’s what the four of us get together for is for that not knowing. I feel quite lucky that I can rely on that and take for granted that when the four of us get together in a room and play it’s going to sound like us and not like anyone else. We’ve always prided ourselves on our difference rather than our compatibility. 

I always get the impression that pop music has a tendency to be dumbed-down somewhat. I remember seeing a young Morrissey berating the fact that the pop genre was subjected to really ignorant media coverage, whilst other forms of music were packaged far more intelligently. I’ve always thought Wild Beasts may agree with that, is that how you see it?

Yeah, it’s a really strange one because I always think that insight into a culture is through its art. The problem I have now is that when I put on the radio in England, I don’t have anything that I recognise reflecting back at me. I don’t hear a culture I feel at all that I exist in. So I feel very alienated really that all this music is supposed to be speaking of our culture. This is our proudest export because, in an ideal sense, any society that has safeguarded the safety and living standards for its people enough that there’s such huge investment and importance placed on superfluous artistic activities, the kind of responsibility that follows that is to do something meaningful and creative but when I put the radio on I don’t often hear that back at myself. I only ever hear the mechanics of the corporate guillotine to be honest. I used to fight and want us to be on Radio 1 but, I have to admit, I feel that world is something I don’t really want to be a part of. 

But we do have BBC 6 Music. Do you listen to that?

Yeah, absolutely. 6 Music is the mainstay isn’t it? And even that was threatened not so long ago and that mustn't be forgotten because it mustn't be threatened again. I found it bizarre that the budget for 6 Music was absolutely minuscule versus Radio 1 and Radio 4 and rather than maybe take a snippet out of their rather luxurious indulgences, it was preferred to cut a whole kind of genre and pretend it didn’t exist. It’s a strange time. People are still very passionate and place a lot of importance on music and somewhere along the line there is a disconnect in terms of how it’s consumed what within it is valued. There’s a disconnect there between the top and the bottom I suppose. The top being, say, Simon Cowell, one of the most powerful people, and the bottom being your everyday person who wants to hear music that says something about their life. 

I often feel that music falls into two categories. It can either serve as a call to arms summoning the listener to action or it can provide escapism, offering an alternative world that one can get lost inside of. Do you agree with that dichotomy and, if so, which do Wild Beasts cater for?

Yes, I do, and I think we’ve slowly gone into escapism really. We’ve gone into the internal and personal, and maybe spoken about the effects that the outside has on the internal. I think we’ve always tried to reveal inner complexities rather than outer ones. I think the main reason is I find it very difficult to envisage music that is beautiful that speaks about politics. Obviously it carries a kind of weight and meaning in its own sense, but in my head I can’t quite marry those two. The corporate crisis and things like that are absolutely relevant but it’s not, for me, beautiful.

So, has the age of the political song passed or is there still room for that type of track?

I think it exists, definitely. The strange thing is I don’t think bands have to speak politically to be political. That kind of Clash/Manic Street Preachers type approach, for me, has passed. The sheer existence of certain type of music carries great political weight. Dizzee Rascal was a great example of that; just what a creative force he was, and where he came from, and his whole approach when he started out was an incredible example of what is possible. It was inspiring. But I have to say, what he has then gone and done is a great example of middle-groundedness.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

It’s hard to say really, it’s quite a strong term. Yeah, I suppose I do. But I’m also in some ways a masculinist because I sometimes do feel there are discrepancies with male opportunity and male ways of being. Women have come to really dominate certain spheres. I mean, certainly in my game, women have become the powerhouses in terms of the four of us don’t have pretty faces and lipstick to go on the front page of a magazine, and the weight and power that carries is heavy, but then also you could argue that it’s a chauvinist world that places a pretty girl on the front of a magazine. But I think actually that strength has been reclaimed by women now. It must also be noted how lowly women are represented in Westminster.

What do you feel are the most pressing issues facing men in the modern world?

I feel as though there is a crisis of emotionality. There is no kind of agreed way of being. I think there is amongst females; there’s a sense of mutual reasoning on an emotional front. Almost as if women are allowed to be emotional, they allow themselves to be emotional, they allow themselves freedom for, in the most part, truth. Whereas with men, there’s always very, very coded ways of being. I suppose I always think of masculine culture as being this ancient thing that has developed out of years and years of ways of being, whereas women have had a very recent revolution and been able to, in a sense, reinvent their way of being. So I do feel there is a certain crisis in masculinity and we could do with a revolution.

What are your thoughts on the job the coalition has done since coming to power? 

Very worrying. Have we always felt this lack of fairness and this injustice in terms of the wealthy and the rights that having wealth brings you? Or has that always been the way and I’ve just not been kind of conscious enough to take notice? Or has there been a significant shift in that? I’m not sure. I think you definitely feel the hot breath of the right breathing down your neck at the moment, in terms of money seems to be the defining symbol for who you are at the moment in our society and that to me is pretty crushing. The arts have really taken a hit. It’s very hard not to feel very embittered when the rich got their five per cent tax cut and the artistic fraternity lost so much. You then begin to wonder: what’s the state really for? Where is this mutual direction? 

What about the Labour Party. How do you feel they are faring in opposition?

I know a lot of people have said that Ed Miliband kicking up a fuss about coming from a comprehensive school is making a big deal unnecessarily, I have to say that meant a lot to me. That took me in because he’s in the vast minority in Westminster who’s from a comprehensive school. That had a profound effect on me because I do feel that brings with it a representation - an important one. You can’t blame someone for their upbringing, so if someone is born rich with money then that’s their life and they cannot be blamed for that, but what cannot be reasoned with is when someone has no willingness to rectify that difference and try to understand and inhabit someone else’s skin. Especially inhabit the skin of the people you are representing and governing and that’s a major difference because, with Cameron and Osborne, you can see that they have never once taken a moment to think lives that are being lived very differently to theirs. At least Ed Miliband has an idea of that. 

Ed Miliband has had a pretty tough time with media since he was elected leader. He seems to have been unfairly cast as a man incapable of appearing prime ministerial and leading the country but the tide of public opinion appears to be turning. What do you make of him and his prospects?

Yeah, his public persona is slightly clumsy and slightly muddled but at least it’s not been kind of masked over by this pseudo-smoothness and this kind of American-style make over. Amongst that clumsiness you can see an element of the man himself and his character and that speaks volumes. I think that was the great mistake with Gordon Brown and I hope people have learnt their lesson. Do we need a charismatic personality to lead us? Or do we need someone who’s good at their job? I hope we don’t fall into that world where  entertainment and politics scarily starts to merge. 

So, if there was a General Election tomorrow, who would you vote for?

Labour. 

Do you think there will eventually be a reaction against the concentration of wealth being so heavily skewed towards the rich?

I think we’re seeing a reaction at the moment. It’s a slow one. I don’t see any immediate revolution. I think, again, it’s the honest person paying their tax and working their arse off to pay the required tax and to make a living and those people that are doing that aren’t being treated fairly throughout society and the rich are not really meeting their fair levels. That kind of thing is becoming increasingly intolerable. I don’t know if that will happen but I hope it will. I’m very worried from my point of view because I see the arts as a very puristic way of dealing with that but even within the arts I see so much horrible hierarchy and so much money spinning. The arts are becoming an indulgence for the rich now. I have to admit I’m from a healthy, middle-class family who have given me the cushion to pursue this in the first place. I think that knowledge that when I was 16 or 17 I wouldn’t be out on the streets if I pursued this did give me that bit of leverage. What comes with that leverage is the responsibility to do something meaningful and, at the very least, heartfelt and original. I think, in the arts, heartfeltness and originality is not pre-requisite for success, it’s kind of an uncommon thing really, and you see so many bands who have obviously come from great, lifelong wealth, and instead of using that as an opportunity to do something to explore pastures new, they don’t. It seems the meaning is what other people find meaningful about their work and they’re just caricatures in a way and that’s why I’m always very surprised when I hear American accents and banjos being played because what does that say about our life, and what does that say about the person? 

People feeling disenchanted and disconnected with politics seems to be at its highest level ever. Voter turnout is low and the amount of people engaged with politics on a daily basis also appears to be quite low. Why do you think that is?

It comes from a real sense of powerlessness. There’s almost an expectation to be let down anyway. Just like with the Lib Dems. I think that was one of the nails in the coffin - that kind of mergence of left and right. Yeah, it comes from a powerlessness and a ‘what difference does my voice make’.

It seems clear that there is an anti-welfare state narrative that is very prevalent in certain sections of the media and in certain sections of Westminster. Even traditionally left-wing people now find it perfectly acceptable to bash those on benefits. Why is that do you think?

I think it’s the classic Conservative every-man-for-himself policy really. I just turned on the news today and there’s the whole law shifting in the direction of people being able to harm people who enter your home and that in itself embodies clearly that conservative policy of ‘this is my castle’. And it doesn’t make for a more functional, happier society and you can see that elsewhere in the world where a far more liberal approach leads to a far better quality of life for everyone. The wealthy don’t live in fear of the poor, and the poor don’t live in fear of being poorer. There’s more of an even playing field and there’s that cross-pollination of values that just feels better. And you can see it evidenced everywhere. Airports, for instance, I think are a beautiful example of right-wing dominance, where people with money have their own passport queue at Heathrow. So, it’s raising the standard of a citizen purely because of their financial status. Not through any good-doing, not through any deed, not through any meaningful thing other than they have the money and can afford to go into a country under different circumstances than everyone else. 

It seems that bands are making the majority of their income now through live performance. Do you feel a pressure to tour and play live?

I definitely feel a pressure. For me, I’m happy to say it isn’t my favourite part. My favourite part is the creative part, the making of the music, purely because that’s the part that gives me the most meaning. That’s not to say playing live isn’t an amazing thing, but I don’t feel creativity and playing the same songs live go hand-in-hand. They’re two different worlds. So, I do feel a pressure but so be it. I’ve learnt things I never would have learnt because of the pressure to play gigs and do as many shows as we do. 

Literature appears to really inspire you in your writing process. What other art forms do you take inspiration from?

Any creative work that can move you. Not every piece does but sometimes you’ll stumble across something that will greatly move you. Even if it’s just a piece of design, say a book design, that functions and flows and works how it should. That, in itself can be really moving. Or a building even, just something that has a spirit and a depth beyond its actual possibilities. Anything that carries a spirit of its own is always greatly moving. I think that’s really what I’m always personally striving for - that invisible element, and spirit, and feeling that can’t really be generated through anything other than a human connection.

Rob Pollard is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @_robpollard

Hayden Thorpe plays at Coachella this year. Photograph: Getty Images

Rob Pollard is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @_robpollard

MATT MURPHY FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Measure for pleasure: sex, money and Shakespeare

Like sex, money is something that a lot of people spend a lot of time thinking about (and wanting more of). Shakespeare was no exception.

A hundred years ago this month, preparations for the Battle of the Somme were no impediment to national remembrance of the tercentenary of William Shakespeare’s death. He had been buried on 25 April 1616, but it was generally agreed that he had died two days earlier, on what may well have been his 52nd birthday (we can be sure about the date of his baptism in 1564, but not that of his birth). So, on 23 April 1916, St George’s Day, celebrations were staged in Stratford-upon-Avon and London. Also in Prague and Madrid, New York and Copenhagen. And, with special fervour, in Berlin. Back in the 18th century Goethe and Schiller had claimed Shakespeare as Germany’s national poet. In their adopted town of Weimar, as Germany geared up for war in 1914, the president of the Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft (German Shakespeare Society) had aligned Shakespeare to the spiritual rearmament of the German people. “O God of battles!” he had declaimed from Henry V, “steel my soldiers’ hearts;/Possess them not with fear”.

The two most notable Shakespearean publications of that tercentenary year were both published by Oxford University Press. First there was a stout, two-volume set called Shakespeare’s England: an Account of the Life and Manners of His Age. It began with an
“Ode on the Tercentenary Commemoration of Shakespeare” by Robert Bridges, the poet laureate. “And in thy book Great-Britain’s rule readeth her right,” Bridges wrote. “Her chains are chains of Freedom, and her bright arms/Honour, Justice and Truth and Love to man.” Thanks to Shakespeare – the poem proposed – the Union Jack has been hailed around the world as “the ensign of Liberty”. Shakespeare was lauded as the vessel of a kind of benign gunboat diplomacy: “And the boom of her guns went round the earth in salvos of peace.”

The book proceeded with a paean to “The Age of Elizabeth” by the aptly named Sir Walter Raleigh, Merton professor of English literature at Oxford, and then with an array of essays on almost every aspect of the culture of Shakespeare’s age, from religion, the military, education, travel and agriculture to law and medicine, commerce and coinage, heraldry and costume, city and town life, homes and gardens, sports and pastimes, rogues and vagabonds, and ghosts and witches. A century later, Shakespeare’s England remains a valuable compendium of historical lore, though it does not have much to say about the subjects that most 21st-century academic Shakespeareans focus on – women and gender, race and ethnicity, questions of cultural ecology and social anthropology.

The other OUP volume of 1916 was ­entitled A Book of Homage to Shakespeare. It contained over 160 tributes to the Bard, in more than 20 languages, contributed by scholars and writers from every corner of the globe. As Andrew Dickson reveals in his wonderful Shakespearean travelogue, Worlds Elsewhere, published last autumn, there is even an essay (written anonymously) by Sol Plaatje, the founding general secretary of what became the African National Congress, arguing that William “Tsikinya-Chaka” (that’s “Shake-the-Sword”, translated into Setswana) would one day belong to all South Africans, not just white men.

In contrast to the impassioned celeb­rations and the hyperbole of the claims about Shakespeare in 1916, the marking of the 400th anniversary of his birth in 1964 was fairly low-key. There was a set of Royal Mail stamps, a spike in academic publications, a ramping up of the annual Stratford-upon-Avon birthday jamboree, and not much more.

The two most notable books on Shakespeare published that year were modest in scale compared to the hefty tomes of a half-century earlier – though not modest in ambition. One was a bestselling biography by the historian A L Rowse, in which he announced that he had “shed light upon problems hitherto intractable [and] produced results which might seem incredible” by solving, “for the first time and definitely”, the riddles of the sonnets, as well as effecting “an unhoped-for enrichment of the contemporary content and experience that went into a number of the plays” – claims that Rowse pushed ever further in subsequent books on Shakespeare, each more hubristic and less scholarly than the last. Alas, poor Rowse: his credibility on the subject of Shakespeare’s sonnets disintegrated when another scholar noted that his case for the poet Aemilia Bassano as “Shakespeare’s Dark Lady” was based primarily on a misreading of a manuscript. He had thought it said she was “very brown” in her youth, but the actual wording was “very brave”.

The second bestseller from 1964 has stood up rather better. Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun is by some distance the best contribution (save perhaps for the wonderfully comic No Bed for Bacon by Caryl Brahms and S J Simon, published in 1941) to the never-ending genre of novels about Shakespeare. Burgess the wordsmith had a terrific feel for the verbal pyrotechnics of the young Shakespeare, but also for his rootedness in the Warwickshire countryside. Fragmentary biographical gems – such as the weirdness of Shakespeare’s brother Gilbert – are interwoven with phrases and psychological insights drawn from the plays. And there is lots of very good Elizabethan sex.

***

Sex – now there’s a subject dear to Shakespeare’s heart, but one on which 1916’s Shakespeare’s England was unsurprisingly silent. Those two hefty volumes end with a rich subject index, but “sex” is not to be found between “setting-dog” and “shadow, in muster-roll”, nor “pox” between “powdering tub” and “praemunire”. Actually, the “powdering tub of infamy” was the sweating cure for syphilis, to which Shakespeare alludes in his final two sonnets as well as in several plays, but the author of the chapter on medicine in Shakespeare’s England (Alban H G Doran, consulting surgeon to the Samaritan Free Hospital) couldn’t bring himself to use any phrase for the pox other than “contagious disease”.

Sex is an area where Shakespearean scholarship has advanced immensely in recent decades. In 1994, Gordon Williams of the University of Wales at Lampeter published an astonishingly well-researched, three-volume Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature, which enumerated the sexual double entendre of about 2,000 words and phrases in the plays and poems of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Williams also produced a spin-off in 1997 providing a comprehensive glossary of Shakespeare’s sexual language. It was never far from our hands when we were compiling the glosses for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2007 Complete Works, which one reviewer described as “the filthiest edition of Shakespeare ever produced”.

Never mind the gunboat diplomacy – a Shakespeare who is honest, funny, messy and, above all, unashamed about sex might just be a useful 400th-anniversary present to those parts of the world where ­homosexuality remains illegal (as it was in Shakespeare’s England, though that didn’t stop him celebrating homoerotic passion) or where people live in fear of the modern-day, Islamist equivalents of the Puritans in Elizabethan and Jacobean London who excoriated plays, the theatre, sexual puns, female pleasure and cross-dressed boys.

For this reason, I predict that one of the two books published in this 400th year that will spark great debate and make a difference is Jillian Keenan’s Sex With Shakespeare: Here’s Much to Do With Pain, But More With Love. Simultaneously a memoir, a work of literary criticism and a love song (to Shakespeare much more than to the other men who pass through its pages), it is an extreme example of the genre of “self-discovery through literature” that was pioneered in such books as Alice Kaplan’s French Lessons and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran.

It is the kind of book about Shakespeare that would have been inconceivable, in the full sense, in 1964, let alone in 1916. We have feminism – from its first shoots in the essays of Virginia Woolf through the full flowering of écriture feminine in the late 20th century – to thank for the eruption of the personal voice and self-conscious reflection on sexual identity into Shakespearean criticism. I know of few straight men who would dare to write a book as brave as this one.

What’s it about? Shakespeare and spanking. My first reaction was quizzical, but Keenan swiftly won me over, with her brisk prose, her playful self-flagellation and, above all, her perceptive attention to the nuances of Shakespeare’s language.

Think about it: if our claim about Shakespeare is that he speaks for all of us, that he addresses every dimension of human ­experience, is it surprising that a reader preoccupied with the symbiosis of desire and pain should find things in the plays with which to identify? Keenan’s heroine is Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which she rightly describes as “a play about sexual awakening and sexual exploration . . . at its core, a play that grapples with questions about sexual freedom, self-determination and consent”. When Demetrius tells Hel­ena that he can in no circumstances love her, she replies:

And even for that do I love you the more:

I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,

The more you beat me, I will fawn on you.

Use me but as your spaniel; spurn me, strike me . . .

This rather turns Demetrius on. When all the story of the night is told, he and Helena are a couple.

Speaking for myself, I don’t “get” the whole BDSM thing. I suppose I’ve always assumed that it comes from childhood trauma: the Victorian poet Swinburne was a masochist because he was constantly whipped at Eton, that sort of argument. But great art – and good criticism – can teach you that choices unimaginable to you may be embraced by other people. Shakespeare’s greatness lies precisely in his capacity to enter into other minds, to show spectators and readers what it might be like to be a person with very different emotions, experiences and desires from our own.

Thus, Keenan offers a powerful reading of The Taming of the Shrew, proposing that the “taming” (which involves physical as well as verbal abuse) is a game in which the woman is complicit from the start. After all, the first sexual spark jumps between Kate and Petruchio in their opening encounter when they share a joke about cunnilingus. As Keenan puts it, “To Petruchio, Kate comes first (in every sense of the phrase).” The play itself takes place within a frame (the Christopher Sly plot) which is there to remind the audience that the whole thing is a fantasy, a piece of wish-fulfilment. Most of us are uncomfortable with the taming narrative because it seems to involve beating a witty and independent woman into physical submission and marital subservience. For Keenan, by contrast, Kate isn’t “broken” at the end of the play, she is broken at the beginning (by her father, by the patriarchy). She is liberated at the end: “If she and I be pleased,” says Petruchio, “what’s that to you?” Keenan (who is just occasionally a little too glib) adds, “I couldn’t put it better myself.”

The discourse of command and obedience, the sound and tingle of the slap, the hand beneath the foot: it’s all a game, and one that both parties enjoy to the full. In readings such as this one, the critic works with the dramatist to loosen the stays of the vanilla spectator and the middle-aged, heterosexual male scholar.

Shakespeare uses the word “beat” or “beaten” nearly 300 times. Of course the context is often that of military defeat and equally often of wanton cruelty. But sometimes it is comic knockabout and just occasionally there’s a dynamic whereby pain is pleasure, as when Cleopatra says: “The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch,/Which hurts, and is desired.” Such lines are true to a dimension of human experience and it is cause for celebration when a writer as original, witty and self-deprecating as Keenan takes them seriously.

***

Like sex, money is something that a lot of people spend a lot of time thinking about (and wanting more of). Shakespeare, it seems, was no exception. My second pick from the plethora of quatercentenary publications could hardly be more different in tone or style from Sex With Shakespeare, but it will without doubt prove indispensable to future scholars and biographers. While Jillian Keenan has been spanking her way around Spain and Oman, Robert Bearman, a sometime archivist at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, has been closeted in Stratford-upon-Avon examining tithe-holdings, tax assessments of the value of moveable goods, notes on the storage of malt, property conveyances and monographs with such titles as Warwickshire Hearth Tax Returns: Michaelmas 1670. The results, in his book Shakespeare’s Money, are as rewarding, in their way, as Keenan’s frisky textual entanglements.

In many respects, Bearman’s scrupulous and comprehensive trawl through the archives confirms the familiar story. John Shakespeare, the playwright’s father, rose to a position of some prominence as a tradesman in Stratford-upon-Avon but then fell into financial difficulty. William went to London to try to improve the family fortunes, as well as to earn money to support the wife he had got prematurely pregnant and his three young children. After a slow start as a bit-part player, he found his niche as the rewrite man, patching, improving and eventually displacing old plays in the repertoire. In 1594, he and his fellow actors became sharers in a joint stock company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

The combination of aristocratic patronage and business acumen – a share in the profits as opposed to the piecework payments on which other dramatists relied – allowed Shakespeare to purchase the title of “gentleman” and to buy a large house back in his own town (at a knockdown price) by the late 1590s. In the early 1600s, when the theatres were struggling through closures prompted by the plague, Shakespeare spent more and more time in Stratford-upon-Avon. The pace of his writing slowed as his property portfolio grew. When he died in 1616, his status was such that he could be buried inside the parish church, and a monument was raised in his honour some time after.

Bearman is especially illuminating on the intricacies of the transaction that marked the high point of Shakespeare’s financial fortune: his purchase in the summer of 1605 of a half-share in the lease of a portion of the Stratford tithes. Bearman explains how, following the Reformation, the tenth part of agricultural produce traditionally due to the parish rector became a commodity that could be bought and sold (a modern analogy might be the futures market). Shakespeare paid the very considerable sum of £440 for his entitlement. Bearman never tries to translate early-modern values into present-day equivalents, which is an impediment for the lay reader, but I would say that this equates to about £100,000.

At this point, though, the author questions the usual narrative. He notes that after 1605 Shakespeare made no other significant capital investments of this kind. A prosperous man would have kept on growing his property and investment portfolio. Furthermore, the marriages of Shakespeare’s two daughters in later years were not to wealthy or well-connected men, as they would have been if he had achieved unquestionably prominent status in his community. And, by comparing the bequests in Shakespeare’s will to those of the other lesser gentry in Stratford at the time, Bearman shows that he was by no means a rich man when he died.

Though wealth is always relative, and the dying Shakespeare still had the big house and the best and second-best beds, Bearman’s careful weighing of the evidence does suggest a trajectory of decline, as opposed to continuing prosperity in the last decade of the playwright’s life. He also points out that the notion of Shakespeare’s voluntary “retirement” to Stratford is anachronistic. Puzzles remain: why did he sell his lucrative shares in the playhouses and the acting company? What exactly were his intentions in purchasing a property in London in 1613, never having done so while he was living and working there? Above all, why did the pace of his writing slow, and why was it that, from 1612 to 1614, his only works were partial contributions to plays in which the younger dramatist John Fletcher increasingly took the upper hand?

One possible answer might connect money back to sex. From 1603 onwards, a deep vein of sexual disgust runs through several of Shakespeare’s plays – notably Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida and parts of King Lear and Pericles. Again and again, there are images of sexually transmitted disease. Furthermore, there are fragments of biographical evidence from this period suggesting a whiff of scandal around Shakespeare’s name. He stopped acting with his company early in the reign of King James. And then there is the hair loss. And those references to the sweating or powdering tub in the sonnets. People with marks of the pox were kept out of the royal presence. Could it be that when King Lear – with its startling images of female genitalia as a sulphurous pit – was performed before the king at Whitehall on Boxing Night 1606, a syphilitic Shakespeare was in exile out in the country, on a path of bodily decline to that premature death on his 52nd birthday, 400 years ago?

Jonathan Bate’s “The Genius of Shakespeare” is newly republished as a Picador Classic

Sex With Shakespeare: Here’s Much to Do With Pain, But More With Love by Jillian Keenan is published by William Morrow (352pp, $25.99). Shakespeare’s Money: How Much Did He Make and What Did This Mean? by Robert Bearman is published by Oxford University Press (196pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism