Weigh not the bard
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Shakespeare'S had bad press lately. Researchers at Aberystwyth University have found that he was a "ruthless businessman", a tax-evader and a black-marketeer who hoarded food in a time of scarcity. For these lapses, he was dragged to court and nearly thrown into jail. He is also accused of extracting tithe from starving peasants, all the while dashing off powerful lines about their plight. Fled is the immortal bard. William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon had money on his mind rather than eternal verities.
The tongue-clicking about his business acumen is inexplicable, considering that reams have been written about the commercial success of his plays. It is no secret that Shakespeare went about his plays the same way Subhash Ghai or David Dhawan would go about directing their movies: there must be romance, comic relief, a fight scene, something for everyone. He also owned shares in the Globe and Blackfriars theatres. It was crucial to him that his plays draw "bums on seats", as Rowan Atkinson so elegantly put it. As for his felonious tendencies, truth is, before Shakespeare became the poster boy for creative genius, he was an Elizabethan dramatist. More often than not, the Elizabethan dramatist was not a nice man to know. A list of Shakespeare's contemporaries may be mistaken for a rogues gallery.
There was Christopher Marlowe, killed in a B&B at Deptford, where he had been spending a convivial evening with England's most notorious spies. Sweet Kit Marlowe, dandy and playwright, had no trouble blending into the shadowy world of espionage, spying on Catholics for a newly Anglican English crown. A suspected double agent, he was also implicated in a counterfeiting racket. It is rumoured that he planted false evidence on fellow-playwright Thomas Kydd, who was then tortured and tried for atheism. Harold Bloom encourages you to imagine Marlowe as Barabbas from The Jew of Malta: "As for myself, I walk abroad a-nights,/ And kill sick people groaning under walls." Then there was Ben Jonson, eight years younger than Shakespeare and a protege. Unfazed by a stint at Fleet Prison for "Leude and mutynous behavior", Jonson killed a man in a duel and escaped the gallows on a technicality. Robert Greene, who famously dismissed Shakespeare as an "upstart crow", matched his rival in pecuniary misdemeanours. He cast off his wife, he says, after having spent all the "marriage money which I had obtained by her". But he died leaving a cordial note for his "Doll", asking her to make good on his debts.
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