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September 25, 2002

Economic History of Shakespeare


Given my previous discussion of cities and their artistic “golden ages,” I thought it might be entertaining to look at the economic underpinnings of a cultural high water mark. I chose Elizabethan London during the golden age of English theater. My discussion is largely based on Peter Hall’s book, “Cities in Civilization” (which I would definitely recommend.)

Peter Hall

London was Europe’s most dynamic city at the end of the 16th century. It had grown from approximately 120,000 people in 1550 to 200,000 in 1600. (In comparison, Paris had only 70,000 people in 1600.) And London's growth had paralleled that of England, which had doubled in population between the 1520s and the 1640s. The English economy grew even more rapidly: agriculture prospered because of the significant increase in demand for food, and London became the leading center of the international woolen cloth trade after Antwerp was sacked in 1576. The overall European money supply had grown rapidly as a result of the gold and silver being brought in by Spain from Latin America; the resulting inflation had proved good for capitalists because it lowered the cost of labor and debt. The great merchants had prospered mightily during this “Age of Exploration”--a prosperous London merchant could earn 2-3000 pounds a year, making him the financial equal of an aristocrat. The total volume of trade increased rapidly in the early 17th century, notably between England and the countries around the Baltic, the Mediterranean, India and the Americas

17th Century Globablization

During this period the upper middle and middle classes were visibly prospering. Increased social mobility seems to have led to the breakdown of social tradition. Education was on the rise, with the number of students at Oxford and Cambridge growing from 450 a year to nearly 1000 a year between 1575-1642, far in excess of the growth in the numbers of the aristocracy. And this democratization of education happened despite the rising cost of a university education: 20 pounds a year in 1600. (For comparison, a common laborer earning minimum wage made about 8 pounds a year--in the unlikely event that he worked steadily throughout the year ) The number of active lawyers tripled between 1570 and the 1630s; the Inns of the Court where they were trained was a center of theatrical activity and the students were active playgoers.

London was the epicenter of all the new economic activity. The city’s new affluent class demanded entertainment. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 had left the English with a sense of infinite possibilities and confidence. Continental travel became a fad, and the classical manuscripts brought back from Europe and translated into English were hugely significant for English culture generally, and, of course, its theatre.

Acting troupes started putting on so many plays (using converted inns as outdoor theaters) in London during the 1560s that the city authorities took notice, fearing riots or the plague (not without reason--the theaters were shut down every ten years or so during outbreaks.) In the 1570s the City of London banned these inn-theatres, but the Crown responded by protecting the acting troupes with aristocratic sponsorship, and even gave a Royal patent to one group, sponsored by the Earl of Leicester. They were known as the Chamberlain’s Men and were led by James Burbage, a former carpenter. This group, armed with their patent, signed a lease in Shoreditch in 1574, half a mile outside the City, and built the Theatre (apparently leaving the city fathers fuming.)

English theater's greatest visionary (& carpenter): James Burbage

A year later a second public theater, The Curtain, was built, also in Shoreditch (a principal thoroughfare). A third theatre was built in 1580 at Newington Butts. In 1587 a fourth playhouse, The Rose, in was built near the Thames in Bankside; this was the first theatre at which a Shakespeare play was staged. The fifth playhouse, The Swan, seating 3,000 people(!) was built at the western end of Bankside in 1595. In 1598 James Burbage got into a dispute over the lease at the Theatre, and pulled it down, carting the timber over to Bankside, where he used it to build the Globe. These Bankside theatres allowed audiences access by boat; the water taxi men claimed they transported three or four thousand people to the theatres every afternoon. In the late 1590s yet another theatre, the Fortune, was built in the western suburbs so that access would be convenient for the court, the houses along the Strand, and for City dwellers by foot or carriage.

Burbage's Revolutionary Business Model

The other theatre entrepreneurs followed Burbage’s design for his Theatre. In opposition to the existing private theaters (which were small, comfortable and roofed-in) he made it large and available to everyone. Likewise Burbage set his general admission price at one penny, making the cost of a play no more than a mug of beer. This was risky, given the amount of borrowed capital in the business (Burbage financed the building by mortgaging the ground lease); the Theatre was valued at 666 pounds. But it paid off. The total day’s take at the Theatre in 1585 was estimated at 10 to 12 pounds (obviously 1,000 to 1,200 admissions.) By the 1590s the number of seats that three different companies could fill was about 8-9,000. In 1629, when Paris was only getting around to constructing its second public playhouse, London already had 17.

The London theaters represented a revolution in culture; they were apparently the first capitalist businesses in the world built entirely around entertainment. The heart of this cultural business model was the actors company, in which a group of actors invested money in a common stock of properties, costumes and plays. Each company of actors obtained finance from an impresario, who got a share (usually 50%) of the box office. Shakespeare was 10% owner not only of the Chamberlain’s Men but also of the Globe (that is, the building and real estate itself.)

Theaters were “big business” for the time. Costs included hundreds of very expensive costumes (velvet cost 1 pound a yard), plays (which if bought freelance were usually purchased outright for about 6 or 7 pounds), the salaries of "extras" and minor actors on stage and the salaries of about 30 paid hands (including musicians, actors, prompters, bookkeepers, stage keepers, and wardrobe keepers) behind the scenes. Hundreds of playbills, pasted up around the City, served as advertisements. The range of business affairs was so complex that each company had an administrator, usually called an actor-manager.

All the companies ran a repertory system; no play was given two days in succession. One performance of a play per week was the max. Between 1576 and 1616, at least 800 new plays were performed on London’s stages. During the 1590s and the 1600s, some 900 plays constituted the bulk of the offerings; no less than 850 of these came from only 44 authors (who had obviously turned pro.) Successful actors companies needed a constant supply of plays; and because this was a competitive world, they were willing to pay for them. Actor’s companies and impresarios scoured the countryside for poets. John Lyly, George Peele, Thomas Lodge, Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe were recruited from the universities. It became common for playwrights to work under signed contracts, in which they agreed that they would only write for the company, provide a fixed number of plays each year, and not publish any until at least the end of the contract. In this, as in many other things, Shakespeare was the pioneer; he seems to have been the first such contract writer.

And how well did the writers do out of this? According to Peter Hall,

Scattered evidence suggests that the professional playwrights earned more than usual rates for writers or those in related professions; certainly, more than they could have made as schoolmasters or curates, the obvious alternatives.

And as for Shakespeare (author, actor, producer, investor) himself? Estimates seem to vary between 200 to 700 pounds a year. And he appears to have been a good businessman: he owned all the plays he brought with him when he joined the Chamberlain's Men, and made a good deal of money off them.

Bill S., Elizabethan entrepreneur and occasional author

So just keep all this in mind next time you attend a Shakespearian play—what you are seeing was NOT created as “art for art’s sake.”



posted by Friedrich at September 25, 2002



Posted by: DANIEL THOMAS on May 2, 2003 09:20 AM

During this time, there were 12 pence in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound, so there were 240 pence in a pound, not 100 as there are today after the currency has been "decimalized."

Thus, a day's take of 10 to 12 pounds would be 2,400 to 2,880 people--not 1,000 to 1,200.

Posted by: Roger Sweeny on February 14, 2004 10:16 AM

Great post. Just thought that I would tack on Alexander Pope's version of Shakespeare not being "art for art's sake":

Shakspeare (whom you and every playhouse bill
Style the divine! the matchless! what you will),
For gain, not glory, wing'd his roving flight,
And grew immortal in his own despite.

- Imitations of Horace (ep. I, bk. II, l. 69)

Posted by: Jim Leitzel on February 14, 2004 10:00 PM

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