After four centuries, the spirit of William Shakespeare broke his silence to grant us an interview.
The only caveat was that we stuck to questions about personal finance, of all things. It seems earlier requests were ignored because he had no appetite for revisiting his life and career. That said, what clinched it was probably the promise of a pint and a pickled egg at the George Inn – an old haunt of his just around the corner from the Globe Theatre, in Southwark, south London.
When he finally swept up to the snug corner table I’d reserved, Shakespeare looked like one of the capital’s many out-of-work actors employed to usher tourists on to ‘Elizabethan England’ guided tour buses. He apologised for being late, explaining it’s an occupational hazard for the deceased. I asked what he’d like. ‘I would give all my fame for a pot of ale,’ 1 he said, and off I went to the bar.
A few minutes later, I found him nestled in a chair near the fire. We chinked pots and England’s greatest playwright got the ball rolling: ‘I like not fair terms and a villain’s mind. 2 You pay a great deal too dear for what’s given freely.' 3
After pausing for a gulp of ale, he added: ‘We have seen better days.’ 4
Was he referring to lousy bank rates or easy-access to credit? I wondered, while the Bard lit his clay pipe. He was afforded more thinking time when an eagled-eyed bartender appeared. I wasted no time in pointing out that this was an e-pipe, and challenged him to detect any scent of tobacco. He couldn’t and scurried off.
Shakespeare didn’t seem to mind the intrusion. His brow was crossed with thoughts of debt and the difficulties plaguing the over-indebted. ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be.’ 5
Smoothing his breeches and, frankly, looking a little smug, he said: ‘Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.’ 6 Certainly, I said, borrowers must take responsibility for their actions, but there is little incentive to save given interest rates are flatlining. Perhaps this leads people to take out loans and use their credit cards?
As someone who had worked himself into the ground, Shakespeare found easy access to credit abhorrent and had little sympathy for people who got into debt. ‘I can get no remedy against this consumption of the purse. Borrowing only lingers and lingers it out, but the disease is incurable,’ 7 he said. Polishing off the last of his pickled egg, he added: ‘I must be cruel, only to be kind.’ 8
I wasn’t sure whether I agreed with him. After all, people work hard and if they are on top of their finances and can afford to repay it, then perhaps it’s OK to take out a loan – to finance a much-needed new car, for instance. It’s good for the soul, I said, quoting Ecclesiastes 8:15: ‘I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.’ 9
This didn’t go down too well with Shakespeare, who sniffed: ‘You speak an infinite deal of nothing. The devil can cite scripture for his purpose.’ 10 Warming to the subject, he added: ‘Can one desire too much of a good thing? 11 He that wants money, means and content is without three good friends.’ 12
While he spoke, Shakespeare opened his purse and pulled out a groat. I insisted he put his money away, telling him it was no good here, and that it would be my honour to stand him another drink. At first he resisted this, saying: ‘Money is a good soldier, sir, and will on.’ 13
But I assured him that the bar staff would not accept his groat, and headed off before he could reply.
When I returned, my guest was transfixed by a few lads playing on a fruit machine over in the far corner of the bar. “Do you disapprove?” I asked. ‘The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us,’ 14 he said, before adding as a loud groan emerged up from the lads: ‘The game is up.’ 15
The fruit machine crew gave us a dirty look, before sloping off. Shakespeare carried on regardless. ‘There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.’ 16
So, some people are blessed with good fortune and others aren’t. I asked him: “Are you lucky, sir? Would you gamble?” ‘O, that way madness lies; let me shun that.’ 17
If gambling was off limits, was anything else? Shakespeare rolled his eyes. Apparently, he hates DIY, he doesn’t see it as a worthy investment opportunity and considers it a waste of time.
‘Why so large a cost, having so short a lease, does thou upon your fading mansion spend?’ 18
Fair enough, I said, but surely your view is coloured by 400 years of inhabiting one very cosy, sparse pad. ‘The very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream’ 19 is all he had to say.
It was at this time I began to notice a change in my guest, who seemed to be fading slightly. I asked if he was well, and he answered: ‘Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed. The dear repose for limbs with travel tired.’ 20
While Shakespeare rose to lift his heavy, embroidered cape from the nearest hook, I took a moment to reflect on my extraordinary meeting with arguably the world’s greatest playwright.
He may have been dead for ages, but his views were as current as ever, I thought as he exited, pub door left.
‘Farewell,’ he said as he disappeared. ‘God knows when we shall meet again.’ 21 Make that an ‘if’, I thought, before heading to the bar for another pot of ale and a pickled egg.
- 1 Henry V ,Act III, Scene ii
- 2 The Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Scene iii
- 3 The Winter’s Tale, Act I, Scene i
- 4 Timon of Athens, Act IV, Scene ii
- 5 Hamlet, Act I, Scene iii
- 6 Hamlet, Act III, Scene i
- 7 Henry IV Part 2, Act I, Scene ii
- 8 Hamlet Act III, Scene iv
- 9 The Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene i
- 10 The Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene iii
- 11 As you like it, Act IV, Scene i
- 12 As you like it, Act III, Scene ii
- 13 The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act II, Scene ii
- 14 King Lear, Act V, Scene iii
- 15 Cymbeline, Act III, Scene iii
- 16 Julius Caesar, Act IV, Scene iii
- 17 King Lear, Act III, Scene iv
- 18 Sonnet 146
- 19 Hamlet, Act II, Scene II
- 20 Sonnet 27
- 21 Romeo and Juliet, Act IV, Scene iii