The Properties Of Shakespeare

02/09/2016 15:22 | Updated 02 September 2016

"Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May
And summer's lease hath all too short a date"

Shakespeare seems to have been as familiar with the language of leases as he was with the language of love (and no one before or since has combined this knowledge to such poetic effect).

The word "lease" does not appear once in the entire works of Shakespeare's great contemporary and rival Christopher Marlowe, yet it appears five times in Shakespeare's sonnet sequence alone and is frequently accompanied by other technical terms associated with leases.

Did Shakespeare gain experience of the real estate world during his lost years (1588 - 1592) through some sort of commercial or legal apprenticeship, or did he draw on first-hand knowledge gained once he started to make his way in London as a writer? What we do know is that Shakespeare had first-hand experience of a particularly combative lease renewal which threatened the very source of his own prosperity.

The summer of 1598 was a worrying time for the Lord Chamberlain's Men, the theatre company Shakespeare wrote for, and acted with, for his entire career and in which he was a one eighth part "sharer" or shareholder. The lease on their playhouse, The Theatre, had expired the previous year. Negotiations for a new lease with the landlord, Giles Allen, had dragged on and become fractious. When Allen's intransigence finally caused the negotiations to break down, desperate measures were called for. On 28th December 1598 members of the Lord Chamberlain's Men led by the carpenter Peter Street and a dozen or so workmen made their way to The Theatre after dark and started to dismantle it. The company had secured a long leasehold of a site on the boggy banks of the river in Southwark. It was there that The Theatre was now taken and reassembled to form part of the largest playhouse that London had yet seen. Allen, unsurprisingly, was livid and the litigation as to who actually owned the timbers of The Theatre raged on for years.

Perhaps Shakespeare was preoccupied with the episode while he was writing Henry IV Part II through that summer of 1598 giving rise to what is almost certainly the only instance in English literature of property development appraisal methodology being used as a (rather strained) metaphor for rebellion:

" .... When we mean to build,
We first survey the plot, then draw the model,
And when we see the figure of the house,
Then must we cost the rate of the erection.."

For Shakespeare, the lower middle class son of a social climbing glove maker from the country, the security and social stature that came with the ownership of a substantial property portfolio, particularly in his home town, must have carried a strong appeal. After all, this was a man who used his new found wealth to acquire a family coat of arms - even our greatest poet it would appear suffered from status anxiety. From the moment he found success, Shakespeare started to plough his profits into property.

In 1597 he purchased New Place (the second largest property in Stratford on Avon and, by all accounts, something of a "fixer upper") for £60 in silver. His acquisitions in Stratford continued in 1602 when he acquired 4 "yardlands" of arable in Old Stratford (about 107 acres) for the sum of £320; later that year he purchased a garden and a cottage on the south side of Chapel Lane facing the gardens of New Place. In 1605 Shakespeare laid out the enormous sum of £440 for the half interest in a lease of "corn, grain, blade and hay" in various hamlets around the town. This was Shakespeare's income play, yielding about £60 a year before rents and taxes (although the sketchy records of his time in London suggest that Shakespeare was never much one for paying taxes if they could be avoided).

By 1613 Shakespeare's career was starting to wane yet there was time for one last deal, the purchase of a house in Ireland Yard, Blackfriars, his first and only known investment in London. While convenient for both the Blackfriars and Globe theatres, any occupation by Shakespeare seems to have been short lived, by 1615 the records show the property as having been let to one John Robinson.

By the time of his death in April 1616, Shakespeare had amassed a very significant property portfolio, a visible manifestation of the escape from his humble beginnings for the boy made good from Stratford. Yet by 1662, his last surviving daughter, Judith, had died and the estate Shakespeare had worked so hard to accumulate was dispersed. Little of the portfolio remains today save for a few blue plaques, no matter though, the plays are monuments enough.