Would Shakespeare be employable today?

What would William Shakespeare be able to do workwise if he were alive today? Or Irving Berlin for that matter? And why are our masters so concerned about the chimera of full employment?

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare is generally acknowledged as the leading playwright not only of his generation but of every generation since, in English or any other language. Both dramatist and comedy writer, he penned a mean sonnet too. Imagine though if he were to turn up at a London job centre, What sort of work would he be offered? Try to visualise the following:

Clerk: Mr Shakespeare, my colleague tells me that you’ve just arrived in the capital to seek your fortune, but in the meantime you’re looking for something a bit less ambitious.

Shakespeare: Yes, that’s right.

Clerk: Are you married?

Shakespeare: Yes, to Anne Hathaway.

Clerk: Oh, just like that famous actress.

Shakespeare: Really? I am an actor.

Clerk: Oh. Do you have your EQUITY card?

Shakespeare: My what?

Clerk: Your EQUITY card, you know, the actor’s union, or guild I suppose you’d call it.

Shakespeare: No, I don’t.

Clerk: That’s a shame, you won’t get any work without it. I suppose we could fit you up with some temporary work in the meantime. Do you speak French or German? There is always telesales work going for people who are fluent in European languages.

Shakespeare: No, but I am fluent in Latin.

Clerk: Not much call for that I’m afraid, unless you want a career in medicine. You don’t speak Italian as well, I suppose?

Shakespeare: No, but I am not interested in acting anymore, I want to write plays. I have written plays.

Clerk: Oh very good.

Shakespeare: I have written Romeo And Juliet, and I want to see it published and performed.

Clerk: That’s already been done, I’m afraid. Mark Knopfler wrote about them over thirty years ago.

Shakespeare: But I want to be recognised as a playwright. That is what I do.

Clerk: Ah, to be or not to be a playwright, Mr Shakespeare. That is the question, but without an EQUITY card, contacts at the BBC, that sort of thing, you’re dead in the water. I don’t suppose you have a trade?

Shakespeare: I do. My father was a glove maker.

Clerk: I’m afraid there’s no call for bespoke gloves anymore. The best I can offer you is a job washing up in the local greasy spoon at minimum wage. I don’t suppose you’d be interested in that?

Shakespeare: But my plays are my life, and my horoscope tells me they will make me immortal.

Clerk: Hmm, well, if you want people to read them, there is a website I can recommend; it published a poem of mine last year, and the last time I looked no less than 98 people had read it. Well, viewed it anyway. You won’t get paid I’m afraid, but money isn’t everything, is it? Now, about that greasy spoon job...


Okay. Shakespeare is a bit antiquated. How about someone fairly modern? Irving Berlin died as recently as 1989. What sort of reception would he get if he turned up at the same job centre?

Clerk: Yes, Mr Berlin, isn’t it?

Irving Berlin: It’s Baline, actually, but my friends call me Izzy.

Clerk: Oh I see, it must be a spelling mistake.

Berlin: It was. On the sheet music.

Clerk: Sheet music?

Berlin: Yes. I just sold a song.

Clerk: Oh, really. How much did you get for it?

Berlin: 75c.

Clerk: Oh, I see. Hmm, well, you won’t be able to pay your rent with that, will you? Even allowing for the hundred year time lag and inflation. What sort of job were you looking for Izzy?

Berlin: I was hoping to get a position as staff lyricist. Ted Snyder offered me that post with his company but it’s a bit of a long commute.

Clerk: Yes, I suppose so. What instrument do you play?

Berlin: Piano.

Clerk: Oh, which school of music?

Berlin: None. I only play in the one key.

Clerk: Oh, I see. Well the thing is, you have to perform live nowadays; nobody buys records anymore, not with the Internet. You were lucky to sell that song really. What’s it called, by the way?

Berlin: It’s a dialect song; it’s called Marie From Sunny Italy.

Clerk: Oh dear, that’s probably too racist. I’m not saying it is racist or that you’re a racist but you know what it’s like nowadays. I don’t suppose you’d consider waiting on tables?


That didn’t work out very well either, did it? Okay, let’s try one more. Chuck Berry is not only still alive but he’s still playing. Obviously because of his great age and a health scare awhile back he doesn’t gig that often, and it isn’t like he needs the money, but imagine if he had turned up at the job centre just before he broke through with Maybellene.

Clerk: Mr Berry, I gather you’re looking for work.

Chuck Berry: Yes sir, I am.

Clerk: What sort of work?

Berry: I was looking for a recording contract.

Clerk: Hmm, that’s a bit difficult nowadays: Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be.

Berry: I always prefer to say You Never Can Tell.

Clerk: Quite right Mr Berry, but we can’t assume the best here, I’m afraid. Ah, I see you have a professional qualification: beautician.

Berry: Yes sir.

Clerk: Poro College of Cosmetology, very impressive. It’s a bit dated. What made you decide to become a beautician?

Berry: Well sir, after I came out of prison in 1947 I figured I needed a trade, especially as I soon had a wife and child to support.

Clerk: Prison. Oh dear, I’m afraid the only beautician’s post we have at the moment requires an enhanced criminal records check, but if you’d like to drop in next week...


According to a report in the London freesheet Metro on March 9, a 21 year old from Folkstone, Nicholas Peters claimed to have applied for 1300 jobs in 26 months, and to have been offered only 10 interviews in that time. He left school at 16 with 4 GCSEs, grades C & D. Although that story may be exceptional, it is not that exceptional. Many older people who have been made redundant simply give up looking for work because they are on the scrap heap, and know they are.

The mythical encounters above with Messrs Shakespeare, Berlin and Berry may sound humorous, but they have a serious message. These men are three of the greatest cultural icons not simply of our age but of any age. William Shakespeare helped make English the lingua franca of the known universe. More than any other songwriter of the 20th Century, Irving Berlin shaped American music. In its own way, the influence of Chuck Berry has been just as significant as that of Shakespeare; give it time, and it will be. Yet by today’s standards, they are all virtually unemployable. How crazy is that? Yet the craziness continues. Another, more recent report in Metro, May 11, 2012, page 25: £200,000 spent by Clegg’s fund to create one new job, by Adam Radnedge – for those who appreciate a full citation.

According to this article, up to that amount has been spent to generate one new job in order to boost the economy. Businesses are said to have received £1.4 billion from the Regional Growth Fund. Nick Clegg appears to have believed this would have had what is alluded to here as a snowball effect, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. The snowball appears to have melted.

It is always difficult to know how seriously to take these sort of claims but it is evident that the government has been pouring money down the drain. Notice they can give this money to companies, but not to the so-called unemployed.

There is, indeed always has been, one certain way of creating full employment: war. This was stated by economist Richard D. Wolff, and applauded rather foolishly by Gilbert Frankau in 1933. One would assume the latter changed his mind sometime prior to VE Day 1945.

Obviously no one in his right mind wants war, including Barack Obama and Ron Paul, but not necessarily the rest of a future Republican Administration. If we don’t want war, and we are at least capable of acknowledging the futility of pursuing polices that are intended to promote full employment, then clearly people who don’t have jobs need another source of income, in particular Basic Income.

We can but live in the hope that one day the penny will drop, with Nick Clegg, and every other politician and economist who might just be worth the candle.

[The above op-ed was first published May 15, 2012.]

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