"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
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
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
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.
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