Mid Wales

William Shakespeare: Study sheds light on Bard as food hoarder

William Shakespeare
Image caption William Shakespeare's play Coriolanus, written at the height of the 1607 food riots, shows a famine created and exploited by rich merchants and politicians

William Shakespeare's lesser known role as an illegal food hoarder 400 years ago helps us understand him as a more complex figure, says new research.

As well as hoarding during food shortages, the Aberystwyth University study said the bard was also threatened with jail for tax evasion.

They looked at how food and hunger were reflected in Shakespeare's writing.

His play Coriolanus shows a famine created and exploited by rich merchants and politicians.

It was written at the height of the 1607 food riots.

Dr Jayne Archer, a lecturer in medieval and renaissance literature at Aberystwyth University, is the lead author of the research.

She said the poet and playwright's role as a grain hoarder during food shortages in the late 16th and early 17th Centuries were something that people had largely forgotten about him.

Over a 15-year period, Shakespeare bought and stored grain, malt and barley for resale at inflated prices to his neighbours and local tradesmen.

Dr Archer said Shakespeare should not be judged too harshly as hoarding was his way of ensuring his family and neighbours would not go hungry if a harvest failed.

"Remembering Shakespeare as a man of hunger makes him much more human, much more understandable, much more complex,'' she added.

The study was a collaboration with Prof Richard Marggraf Turley of the English and creative writing department and Prof Howard Thomas from the Institute for Biological and Environmental Studies (Ibers).

"We're interested in the role of food security and food supply in literature," Dr Archer told BBC Radio Wales.

"It was really Richard and Professor Thomas who noticed that in King Lear, hunger, the role of crops and food supplies are very important to the politics of the play.

'Exploiting'

"Shakespeare's representation of the way that crops grow, the way that they sometimes fail to grow and when there are problems with food supply are actually very realistically demonstrated."

When Shakespeare was writing, she said hunger and the way in which food was regulated by the government, and how it organised the food chain, was one of the most pressing political issues of the day.

He was pursued by authorities for tax evasion, and in 1598 he was prosecuted for hoarding grain during a time of shortage.

The research found that Shakespeare "pursued those who could not (or would not) pay him in full for these staples and used the profits to further his own money-lending activities.''

About his prosecution, Ms Archer told the BBC: "It's one of the things that we've forgotten about Shakespeare.

"As well as writing for people who were experiencing hunger, he was exploiting that need himself.

"He was using his role as a playwright and the public playhouses, gathering coin, in order to take advantage of the market when it's at its most profitable, and selling food at inflated prices to secure the long-term future for his family."

The findings are to be presented in a lecture at the Hay Festival in May.

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