Accounting For Shakespeare
by J. Wilson Mixon, Jr.; Gary S. Robson; and W. D. Sockwell
"If you can read this," the bumper sticker says, "thank
a teacher." This one might not catch on, but it's worth considering: "If
you enjoyed 'Shakespeare in Love,' thank your accountant." We don't immediately
associate the moving poetry of William Shakespeare with the accountant's
bean counting, but we should.
Genius that he was, Shakespeare did not invent the stories
that his plays bring alive; he borrowed them. He particularly borrowed
them from the Italians. Accounting techniques were also borrowed from
the Italians. While accounting, of some sort, has been with us for at
least seven millennia, the double-entry bookkeeping (dubbed "The Method
of Venice," though invented in Genoa) did not appear until about 1340.
Accounting textbooks proudly tell us that the voyages of exploration could
not have happened without accountants. The same is true of the large-scale
printing that made Italian literature available to Londoners.
In her widely acclaimed Worldly Goods, Lisa Jardine connects
commercial achievements to advancing humanism, while noting that the printing
industry was central to the spread of the Renaissance. It isn't a novel
idea that books are central to the spread of knowledge and the arts. The
point that Jardine drives home is that printing, much like any other industry,
focused directly on the bottom line rather than on social implications.
She admirably demonstrates that printing a new book was an involved and
expensive endeavor. One of several conditions necessary for such large-scale
undertakings is the careful tracking of information. This condition could
be satisfied only after the emergence of modern accounting techniques.
Many studies of commerce's history have documented just
how important formal information systems are for the organization to grow
and innovate. When discussing the progress of disarmament talks with the
former Soviet Union, President Reagan was fond of saying: "Trust but verify."
This applies to business as well as to diplomacy. A business that cannot
verify must remain a small one. Accounting makes possible the kind of
verification that allows companies to move beyond arrangements based on
kinship. Limited partnerships and corporations become possible.
The contention that the advent of printing fostered the
spread of modern accounting procedures is an important point. Equally
noteworthy is the idea that causation ran both ways. Mass printing faced
the same information tracking hurdles as large-scale shipping endeavors,
and improved accounting facilitated the rise of the large publishing houses
that undertook this enterprise.
Everyone knows that Gutenberg provided the technology for
modern printing. But Gutenberg's technology, used by the small printing
houses of the early 16th century, gave us the high-cost limited editions
so valued by collectors. It was not the famous inventor, but anonymous
accountants who made possible the evolution of an era in which books were
cheap enough to be had by the son of an alderman in the small town of
One observer at the time recognized the magnitude and implications
of this change: "The art of printing has, with incredible speed, crammed
not just Italy but the whole of Europe full to bursting with a marvelous
wealth of books." Achieving this widespread distribution implied massive
changes in the printing industry itself. Printing operations were first
and foremost businesses (and big businesses at that). The business of
printing was complex, involving (by historical standards) large supplies
of paper, the efforts of many of the period's premier scholars, the acquisition
of financial backing, and the development of sophisticated and adaptable
distribution networks. In every respect, the business of printing rivaled
that of trade with regards to its complexity and scale. Thus, it required
the type of internal and external communications that could be had only
with the use of adequate accounting procedures.
The book followed the same path to the masses as the VCR
and the personal computer. First, publishers sold expensive copies, produced
in small runs, to the wealthy. In the case of books, these were often
educated English diplomats or Italian diplomats dispatched to backwater
posts such as London. This was the pattern in the early 1500s. However,
by the end of the century publishers were producing low-cost books by
the thousands. They scoured monasteries looking for ancient manuscripts.
By the 17th century, they were buying manuscripts from contemporary writers
like Voltaire, and they printed the works of many translators.
The explosion of material written in English coincided with
another historical event. The Tudor dynasty from Wales (Henry VIII and
Elizabeth II being most prominent) settled in London, requiring all parliamentary
meetings to occur there. As one writer notes, "To London came the adventurers,
the men of ambition, the poets, the country gentlemen with money to spend,
the innocents hopeful of enlarging the 'small experience' available in
their provincial homes. One such innocent was William Shakespeare." Armed
with the knowledge that he had gained from inexpensive, mass-produced
books made possible by the methods of accounting, William Shakespeare
was ready to make his mark on the land.
So, the boisterous atmosphere so well depicted in "Shakespeare
in Love" owes much to those we often caricature as gnomes wearing green
eyeshades. Who'd have thought?
J. Wilson Mixon, Jr. is Dana Professor of Economics; Gary
S. Robson is an associate professor of Accounting; and W. D. Sockwell
is an associate professor of Economics. They all teach at Berry College.