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Shakespeare learns about property rights

The footings of the outdoor London theatre in Shoreditch where Shakespeare's early plays were first performed have just been discovered by archaeologists, according to the Museum of London. The theatre, which premiered Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer's Night Dream, had a polygonal shape. It is also the place where Shakespeare made some curious and momentous discoveries about property rights.

Shakespeare's stage company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, had built their 'wooden O' just outside London because so many city officials were hostile to theatre and repeatedly shut them down. Unfortunately the players owned only the ground lease and when the lease was up, they were sent packing – leaving the costly oak theatre they had built behind.

Given the cost, it seemed impossible they could raise the money to build another theatre, suggesting that Henry V, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth might never have been written and performed. Fortunately someone took a close look at the lease and the ownership of the theatre's boards.

One frozen night in December 1598 (the mini Ice Age had set in, making the winter harsh), a score of players and carpenters, probably including Shakespeare, arrived at the Shoreditch theatre carrying hooded lanterns, saws, hammers and chisels. Once inside they began prising apart boards.

At dawn the neighborhood woke up to the sound of their hammers and saws. In an exploit unique in theatrical history they took their playhouse apart timber by timber - it was indeed theirs - and carried it by carts across the river to Bankside - some say they drove it across the frozen Thames to avoid the bridge tolls - and rebuilt it as the Globe Theatre.

On 21 February 1599, the players signed a new lease with an unusual feature that has become part of our economy's lifeblood – the lessee was not a single person but a group, each person, including Shakespeare, having a legal share in the theatre and proceeds and responsibility for bills. The Globe would be owned and operated by a company, with the investors known as householders since the word shareholder had not yet been coined.

So Shakespeare learned about property rights, and we have some fine plays as a result.

There is something intriguing about the idea that actors were among the first capitalists - if capitalism is an adequate word to describe their economy and ours. Is it?

Why should the word for setting up an independent business, buying goods and selling them or selling your services – why should that be called capitalism, when compared with your ideas and your hard work the money you invest is only a part of what you do, and perhaps not the most important part?

Producing product and sales (and sometimes inventing the product in the first place), managing and paying employees, negotiating contracts, trading, building markets - all these aspects of a business have little to do with capital, except possibly in a metaphorical sense, so why do we call this capitalism? Because it wouldn't happen without money? But really, it wouldn't happen without ideas and someone to execute them.

Even someone as profound and lyrical as Shakespeare.


The illustration from the British Museum shows a building identified as the Globe and flying the flag of England. The Museum says that's a mistake. The Globe is the building identified as a place for Beere bayting (far left). The bears ("Exit, pursued by a bear") were elsewhere.

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