It sounds like the sort of character who would have been deeply unpopular in one of his plays. William Shakespeare was a 'ruthless businessman' and tax dodger, researchers have claimed.
Although he wrote plays that championed the rights of the poor and the needy, archived documents show the playwright was actually a wealthy landowner repeatedly dragged before the courts and fined for illegally stockpiling food and threatened with jail for evading taxes.
He 'stored grain, malt and barley for resale at inflated prices to neighbours and local tradesmen' at a time when Europe was suffering famines, the academics said, and channelled the profits into land purchases.
They added that Shakespeare did all he could to 'avoid taxes, maximise profits at others' expense and exploit the vulnerable – while writing plays about their plight'. And his approach of 'combining both illegal and legal activities' meant he could retire after a working life of only 24 years.
Researchers at Aberystwyth University carried out an academic study looking into Shakespeare's 'other life' as one of Warwickshire's biggest landowners and have uncovered the less than savoury side to Britain's greatest playwright.
The allegation he exploited famine has also led to suggestions that his Coriolanus, for years regarded as a plea for the starving poor, was in fact his way of trying to expunge a guilty conscience.
Jayne Archer, a researcher in Renaissance literature at Aberystwyth University, said in the Sunday Times: 'There was another side to Shakespeare besides the brilliant playwright — as a ruthless businessman who did all he could to avoid taxes, maximise profits at others' expense and exploit the vulnerable — while also writing plays about their plight to entertain them.
'Shakespeare is remembered as a playwright, but there was no copyright then and no sense that his plays could generate future income. That drove him to dodge taxes, illegally hoard [food] and act as a money-lender.
Coriolanus depicts a famine created and exploited by rich merchants and politicians to maximise the price of food and includes the lines: 'They ne'er cared for us yet: suffer us to famish, and their store-houses crammed with grain.'
It has now emerged that as Shakespeare wrote the play at the height of the 1607 food riots, he was himself hoarding grain. As one of the biggest landowners in Warwickshire, he was ideally placed to push prices up and then sell at the top of the market.
In a paper, the academics wrote: 'Over a 15-year period Shakespeare purchased and stored grain, malt and barley for resale at inflated prices to neighbours and local tradesmen.
'In February 1598 he was prosecuted for holding 80 bushels of malt or corn during a time of shortage. He pursued those who could not pay him in full for these staples and used the profits to further his own money-lending activities ...
'Profits were channelled into land purchases. He also acquired tithes on local produce, including "corn, grain and hay", allowing him to cream off the profits from others' manual work.
'By combining both illegal and legal activities, Shakespeare was able to retire in 1613 as the largest property owner in his home town, Stratford-upon-Avon. His profits — minus a few fines for illegal hoarding and tax evasion — meant he had a working life of just 24 years.'
Shakespeare's experience as a rich landowner at a time of famine may be reflected in plays such as King Lear, which depicts an ageing monarch trying to divide his lands, and the food they produce, between his daughters.
Professor Jonathan Bate, the Shakespeare scholar and provost of Worcester College, Oxford, said Archer and her colleagues had performed a valuable service in setting Shakespeare's work in the context of the famines and food shortages of the period.