Today, William Shakespeare is acknowledged as one of the most important writers in the English language, of any era, and perhaps the best of all time… but many people still want to know: ‘was Shakespeare rich’?
Throughout his life, Shakespeare penned at least 38 plays and more than 150 poems that varied from short sonnets like ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ and longer form poems like ‘Venus and Adonis’.’ Since Shakespeare’s death in 1616, his plays have become far better-known than his poems and have been performed consistently. Some of the best-known and most commonly read are Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Despite how Shakespeare is viewed today as a ground-breaking literary genius, he was not as rich in his lifetime as one might expect. There is very little information about Shakespeare’s life and financial situation, but some documents have survived that detail his business and financial dealings, and give insight into how wealthy Shakespeare may have been:
- By 1595 Shakespeare bought himself into the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a group later known as the King’s Men for around £100. He worked for this group until 1613, only three years before this death. He took a share of the companies business profits, which were further bolstered when he bought into the Globe Theatre. It’s estimated that Shakespeare would have made around £200 per year from his stake in the Globe Theatre and the acting troupe.
- Shakespeare appears to have invested much of his earnings into real estate, investing around £900 in a number of increasingly sizable property purchases. One of these was New Place in Stratford, which was the biggest residential property in the town at that time. It’s estimated Shakespeare made a return of around £75-£80 per year from his property investments.
- In addition to his theatre and property investments making Shakespeare around £280 per year.
- Shakespeare enjoyed the extensive patronage of Henry Wriothesley the Earl of Southampton, to whom he dedicated two poems –‘Venus and Adonis’ and ‘The Rape of Lucrece. It’s quite possible Shakespeare received significant funds from Henry Wriothesley, but there are no known records of this.
- At his death, Shakespeare’s will charged his estate with money bequests totalling approximately £350. Whilst this amount was significant at the time (an average-sized home in Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford was valued at around £30), it’s probably fair to say that Shakespeare was well off, but not super-rich.
When considering whether or not this amount of money made Shakespeare “rich,” it’s helpful to consider the marriages of his two daughters, Susanna and Judith. The former married a second son without assets, and the latter married the third son of a mercer. These two matches were not what one would expect from the daughters of a “gentlemen” of means.
Often considered alongside Shakespeare and his wealth is Ben Jonson, a far wealthier contemporary writer who lived around the same time. He, unliked Shakespeare, acquired aristocratic patronage and worked for the court, providing entertainment for which he was paid large fees.