Shakespeare the High Culture Cash Cow

As William Shakespeare hits the 400th anniversary of his death, he’s more popular and more profitable than ever. The industry profiting from his plays is global, growing, and enormous.

Photo Illustration by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

In April 1786, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, visiting England on a diplomatic mission, took time out to visit Stratford-upon-Avon. This was a pilgrimage; they were there to pay their respects to William Shakespeare. Dutifully Bardolatrous, they toured the run-down building where the poet was born, and attempted to find New Place, the house where he died—only to discover that it had been demolished three decades previously after its owner became annoyed by the quantity of visitors. Adams noted in his diary that a mulberry tree planted by the poet had likewise been cut down, but was “carefully preserved for Sale.” Reluctant to waste money, they cut a slice from a chair where Shakespeare was reputed to have sat: free, it seems.

230 years on–and 400 years after the playwright’s death–it is harder for tourists in town to keep such a tight rein on their pocketbooks. Not only will a family pass for the five surviving Shakespearian properties set you back a cool £69.50, the town is home to the Royal Shakespeare Company, where stalls seats go for up to £67.50 (and there are even pricier “premium” seats), and whose annual turnover is now £62m. From Othello’s brasserie to the Twelfth Night guesthouse, any number of local businesses rely on Shakespeare to turn a profit. New Place is still very much demolished, but the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has just spent £5 million turning the site into a major new “heritage attraction.”

Nor is it just Stratford cashing in. Shakespeare’s Globe is doing its best to seduce visitors to London by filling the South Bank of the Thames with outdoor screens featuring excerpts from the plays. Over in Denmark, Helsingor–we know it as Elsinore–has rebranded itself the “home of Hamlet.” Wherever there’s Will, there’s a way of making money, particularly in anniversary year.

Little wonder some talk darkly of ShakesCorp or BardBiz. Making a radio documentary for the BBC World Service on the subject, I’ve come across any number of profitable Shakespearian schemes–from the great actor-impresario David Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769, a three-day jamboree in honor of the playwright that enabled hoteliers to make a killing, to the early ’50s project to revive the dying industrial economy of Stratford, Ontario with a theater devoted to Shakespeare. Garrick’s Jubilee was a wash-out, but its Canadian successor now runs for nine months a year, and has become the town’s major employer—a fine example of Shakespearian trickledown economics.

One of the most intriguing business case studies is in India, where Shakespeare was first imported by the British in the 19th century. Originally employed as a form of colonial control–an English-style education system was imposed from the 1840s, in which the work of England’s National Poet figured heavily–the plays were rapidly adapted and translated into many different languages. In the 1880s and ’90s, producers in the rampantly competitive Parsi theater community of Mumbai ransacked them for material, turning copyright-free Shakespearian characters and plot points into appealing commercial formulas. As soon as movie technology came along, many of these flamboyantly inauthentic dramas became films, helping give birth to what became known as Bollywood. Shakespearian stories remain as popular as ever in Indian movies—and unlike in mainstream Hollywood, where to invoke high culture gives producers the jitters, on the subcontinent he is a reliable generator of box-office hits.

Related: Shakespeare 400: How The Bard Invented More Than Edison

Some have even tried to turn Shakespeare into business. One theater-maker we interviewed, the British-born Tina Packer, raised eyebrows back in 2001 by co-authoring a book entitled Power Plays: Shakespeare’s Lessons in Leadership and Management, one of numerous manuals to take their cue from the playwright’s work. Based on sessions she had run for executives, Packer and her co-author, John O. Whitney, analyzed the scripts in corporate terms, praising Henry V for his inspirational leadership style and referencing Macbeth as an example of the wannabe CEO whose hunger for power hides a lack of real vision.

When I spoke to her, Packer was unrepentant about filtering immortal texts through the colorless language spoken by PowerPoint-wielding MBAs in suits. She even had a punchline: many of these Bard-loving execs then became generous donors to the theater troupe (not entirely-coincidentally entitled Shakespeare & Company) she runs. “A lot of them get turned onto Shakespeare,” she said. “Art can’t exist in an ivory tower.”

True enough; and what’s interesting is that Shakespeare may not have scorned all this grubby talk of income streams and balance sheets. Though it’s not clear how a playwright still making his name could afford to buy New Place in 1597–it was the second largest house in Stratford, and cost around four or five times as much as the average Elizabethan dwelling—in later life Shakespeare built up a substantial property portfolio in both Stratford and London, showing a sharp eye for business as well as a perhaps surprising enthusiasm for litigation. Elizabethan theater was, in addition to being hugely competitive, highly entrepreneurial; as a shareholder in his company, Shakespeare had a powerful incentive to do well at the box office as well as artistically. Though many theatermakers died dirt-poor, a canny investor could make a huge amount of profit out of the Elizabethan entertainment business: one of Shakespeare’s great rivals, the actor Edward Alleyn, became so rich from his theatrical and bear-baiting interests he founded a hospital and a school. Possibly the only thing that would scandalize William Shakespeare about the events of 2016 is that he wasn’t getting a slice of the pie.

Related: What Are the Beast Shakespeare Movies?

In recent years, scholars have tried to get to grips with the multinational, many-headed and endlessly generative industry that is 21st century Shakespeare. Influenced by economic globalization theory, some have described him as a symbol of what the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has termed “liquid modernity,” or a model of free-flowing cultural capital along the lines suggested by the anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu. Out of copyright, endlessly reinterpretable and reinventable, his plays and poems transcend languages and borders; they are owned by no one, which means that they can be owned by anyone. Much as it is impossible to estimate the cultural impact the works have had over the last four centuries, the amount of income they have generated surely defies calculation. And while some might find the notion of spinoffs in Klingon or Bardic merch (wind-up dolls, bath toys, dolls) cringeworthy, if it helps more people encounter these astonishing and piercing works of art—so what?

Anyway, it’s time to come clean: I’ve got a book out, as well as a documentary to promote. As an American academic once sighed ruefully to me, as we discussed the impossibility of escaping Shakespeare: “You know, we’re all in the belly of the beast.” We could give the beast a name: Bardonomics.

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Andrew Dickson’s Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe is out now from Henry Holt. Selling Shakespeare is broadcast on the BBC World Service on April 23.

Related: The Year Shakespeare Wrote Lear