Driven out into a stormy night by his elder daughters, Shakespeare’s once proud King Lear experiences the shivering anguish of “poor naked wretches”, the underclothed and underfed, bedlam beggars and masterless men. Then, as now, such homeless and displaced people enjoyed all too little care in the community. As the bedlam beggar asks: “Who gives anything to Poor Tom? . . . Do Poor Tom some charity, whom the foul fiend vexes.” Lear seems to acknowledge, in retrospect, his obligation to do something for such marginalised individuals: “O, I have ta’en/Too little care of this!”
Some late-20th-century critics have found a socialist subtext in these storm scenes. They imply that Lear, if only he could have been reinstated and restored to health, would have transformed pre-Christian Britain into a prototype welfare state.
Perhaps those storm scenes did and do encourage audiences not to turn away from the daily anguish of the poor. 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, who may have been the man who first taught young William Shakespeare to read and write. He regularly drew up wills for the illiterate, and it was probably he who devised this rather unusual bequest. It carries two implications, both of them rather damaging to his former pupil. 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 the playwright, now a major landowner in the neighbourhood, had to be coerced into diverting some of his wealth to charitable ends.
Even after the accession of James I in 1603, and Shakespeare’s immediate enjoyment of favour as the leading King’s Men’s playwright, there is no evidence that he ever made over any of his wealth to the poor. Certainly he must have been unembarrassed about profiting from the humble toil of the yeomen and labourers of Stratford and its vicinity, for in 1605 he spent the staggeringly large sum of £440 – the equivalent of tens of thousands in today’s terms – for a share of the profits from grain, grass, mutton and wool produced in Stratford. He was also tenacious in pursuing debtors, whom he sued for repayment of small sums with the addition of substantial “damages”, or interest.
Some other men who derived their wealth from the “entertainment industry” did show concern with improving the welfare of their local neighbourhood. For instance, in just this period, the actor and theatrical entrepreneur Edward Alleyn was beginning to set up the many almshouses, schools and charitable foundations that have ensured that his name lives on in Dulwich to this day. Though it is true that Shakespeare’s name lives on, even more powerfully, 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. 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.
Can any link be found between the records of Shakespeare’s life, with their depressing testimony to his uncharitable tendencies, and his writings? Unfortunately, I think it can, but in a play so strange and disagreeable that it seems never to have been performed in his lifetime. The text may, in any case, be not quite finished. This is Timon of Athens. Unlike Lear, Timon never develops any sympathy with “poor naked wretches” through his own suffering. His misanthropy is unrelenting. He gives his faithful steward the gold he has dug up, but explicitly forbids him to share it with the poor:
Go, live rich and happy,
But thus condition’d: thou shalt build from [=away from] men;
Hate all, curse all, show charity to none,
But let the famish’d flesh slide from the bone
Ere thou relieve the beggar. Give to dogs
What thou deniest to men. Let prisons swallow ’em,
Debts wither ’em to nothing . . .
Many rich men would not be capable of being “happy” in the enjoyment of wealth on such terms. For Shakespeare even to have conceived of that image of indifference to “famish’d flesh” is chilling. We should no more assume that the “real” Shakespeare is to be found in Timon’s savage misanthropy than that he is to be found in Lear’s outbursts of pity for “poor naked wretches”. Yet there is one disturbing link between Timon’s last message to his fellow human beings and Shakespeare’s. The closing couplet of Timon’s epitaph on himself runs: “Here lie I, Timon, who, alive, all living men did hate./Pass by and curse thy fill, but pass and stay not here thy gait.” This finds an echo in the second couplet of the inscription on Shakespeare’s gravestone in Holy Trinity, Stratford: “Blessed be the man that spares these stones/And cursed be he that moves my bones.”
The gravestone message does not deliver a general curse upon mankind, only upon any sexton who may try to open up the grave at a future date; yet it shares with Timon’s epitaph a cue to visitors to move along rapidly, and not dig about in the dead man’s dust. Certainly, as I have found in writing Shakespeare’s biography, digging about in the documentary record can be a grim experience.
Ungentle Shakespeare: scenes from his life will be published on 23 April by The Arden Shakespeare (£20)