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Could Shakespeare Survive in Hollywood?

If William Shakespeare were alive today, he might be in real estate.

Shakespeare made some money as a writer over the course of his career. But longtime Shakespearean actor Patrick Stewart notes that his real wealth seems to have come from owning shares in The Globe Theater, as well as a substantial amount of property.

"He was a capitalist, no doubt about that," Stewart says.

Today, Shakespeare's works are in the public domain. But as a living playwright, he would be collecting thousands of dollars in royalties -- just as Neil Simon does -- from the hundreds of productions of his plays in the United States alone.

One theater director in Denver, for example, said that his company's five-week run of Measure for Measure produced ticket sales of $470,000. Shakespeare's royalty would have been about 10 percent, or $47,000. That's just one theater in a medium-sized market.

As for publishing, Shakespeare Incorporated would stand to sell several million books a year. Last year in the United States, Shakespeare titles sold more than 775,000 copies. Shakespeare is translated into more than 100 languages; publishing royalties would rake in at least $10 million a year.

Shakespeare would have been popular in Hollywood, too. Like Stephen King, the Bard has spawned a cottage industry of film and television productions. They don't always make money but, a little like Woody Allen movies, they are seen as prestige opportunities for big stars.

Kenneth Branagh, who has immersed himself in Shakespeare's canon as an actor and director, probably wouldn't have been nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for his unabridged version of Hamlet. Then again, Shakespeare himself would now find himself vulnerable to charges of plagiarism.

Barbara Hodgdon, author of The Shakespeare Trade, notes that only three of Shakespeare's plays contained plots that weren't borrowed from somewhere else.

"So if he were writing in that way today," Hodgdon says, "he would certainly need a team of lawyers to handle lawsuits."

Another scholar, Reinventing Shakespeare author Gary Taylor, thinks the Bard would have made an ideal scribe for shows such as The Sopranos or Deadwood. Those shows, like many of Shakespeare's plays, revolve around men and power struggles.

Deadwood creator David Milch, however, says that he wouldn't even take Shakespeare's calls -- unless he had a really powerful agent.

In the end, it's possible to imagine Shakespeare both as a rich, multimedia juggernaut, or the victim of Hollywood power-plays.

As Hollywood insider Bernie Brillstein put it, "Shakespeare? He's too talented to be successful in today's market."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.