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Money and the Age of Shakespeare: Essays in New Economic Criticism.

Money and the Age of Shakespeare: Essays in New Economic Criticism Edited by Linda Woodbridge New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004

"It is the premise of this volume," Linda Woodbridge writes in the introduction to her edited collection Money and the Age of Shakespeare, "that money, commerce, and economics make a good deal of difference to English Renaissance literature" (9). This premise is hardly revelatory or controversial, at least not now in the wake of two decades of scholarship on the relations between early modern English literature and the economic. In the eighties and the nineties, important studies by Jean-Christophe Agnew, Richard Halpern, Douglas Bruster, William Ingram, Lars Engle, and Theodore Leinwand helped delimit the field. (1) Those groundbreaking works have been joined in the new millennium by contributions from David Hawkes, Natasha Korda, Ceri Sullivan, and myself. (2) Woodbridge's collection takes its place amongst these studies, each of which has shown how economic matters "make a good deal of difference" to early modern English literature.

Even as Woodbridge's premise presumes some kind of critical consensus, however, that "difference" also hints at the exact opposite. Although few would quibble with her claim that the literature of Shakespeare and his contemporaries is riddled with the traces of the economic, the question of how we are to read those traces has generated a considerable divergence of focus and method, divergences readily apparent in the extant critical literature. Agnew's account of an impalpable, alienating market (for example) is very much at odds with Sullivan's vision of a personable agora; Halpern's Marxist analysis of the poetics of primitive accumulation diverges from Leinwand's more psychoanalytically inflected study of finance and affect; Korda's feminist investigation of Shakespeare's domestic economies contrasts Engle's pragmatist analysis of Shakespeare's markets of value. If early modern economic activity makes a difference to the literature of the Renaissance, then it has also generated an astonishing array of differences in the critical literature of the present. In the face of such diversity, however, the subtitle of Woodbridge's collection--"Essays in New Economic Criticism"--makes a striking claim for unity. In doing so, the volume signals its debt to Martha Woodmansee and Mark Osteen, who devised the term "New Economic Criticism" to designate not just a theme but also a new movement in literary criticism. (3) But just how much of a movement is the New Economic Criticism as represented in Woodbridge's volume? Flicking through its pages, one might share Douglas Bruster's suspicion, voiced in his typically thoughtful and thought-provoking contribution, that "with so many disparate practitioners under one tent," there is nothing "cohesive here save the tent itself" (69).

To this extent, the volume's New Economic Criticism uncannily replicates a tendency in one of its objects of study. The economic thought of seventeenth-century England has been identified since Adam Smith with a "mercantilist" canon, the writings of the so-called four Ms--Gerard Malynes, Thomas Milles, Edward Misselden, and Thomas Mun. Their body of work by no means represents a singular ideology, however, but rather a shared set of concerns that yield notably different theories of wealth, value, and the centers of commerce. The New Economic Criticism represented in Woodbridge's volume quietly presumes its own, equally disparate canon of four Ms: Marx, Mauss, Muldrew, and Marc (i.e., Shell). Marx's work shapes many of the contributors' analyses of capital and the commodity (David Hawkes's study of Herbert, idolatry, and commodity fetishism; Mark Netzloff's essay on The Merchant of Venice's lead casket and the increasingly disembodied forms of merchant capital; Valerie Forman's exploration of Twelfth Night's fetishistic elision of the material forces that enable its plot). The influence of Marcel Mauss's The Gift (1924) can be seen in the contributors' persistent engagement with the conflict between gift giving and market economies (Scott Cutler Shershow's essay on the resistance to thinking the gift in early modern and late twentieth-century discourses of welfare; Michael LeMahieu's study of the transformations of feudal largesse in Deloney's Jack of Newberry). Craig Muldrew's Economy of Obligation (1998) inflects other contributors' interest in early modern networks of credit and debt (Curtis Perry's analysis of The Comedy of Errors and its ambivalent representations of familial and commercial community; Teresa Lanpher Nugent's study of usury, counterfeiting, and credit in Wilson's Three Ladies plays and Measure for Measure; John Jowett's intriguing argument about Middleton's supposed contribution of a logic of debt, at odds with Shakespeare's logic of bounty, to Timon of Athens). And Marc Shell's Money, Language, and Thought (1982) fuels a fascination, even when it is expressed as a reaction against Shell's tidy binarisms, with verbal as much as commercial exchange (Barbara Correll's study of Autolycus's destabilizing power in The Winter's Tale, Steven R. Mentz's essay on Launcelot Gobbo's transactional economics in The Merchant of Venice).

As is the case with the four Ms of early modern mercantilism, there are certainly potential points of productive dialogue between the four Ms of the New Economic Criticism. One of the volume's strongest contributions, Katharine Eisaman Maus's essay on Jonson's bizarre "An Elegy" draws on Marx's account of the commodity form and Mauss's theorization of the gift to illuminate Jonson's renegotiations of authorship and readership in the liminal zone between patronal and market economies. Nevertheless, the quartet of Marx, Mauss, Muldrew, and Shell hardly embodies a coherent methodology of economic criticism, let alone a singular notion of "economy." And whatever methodological continuity the four Ms may confer on Money and the Age of Shakespeare is refracted further by other divergent critical strains: legal history and philosophy (Luke Wilson's fascinating survey of monetary compensation for lost body parts and the rise of insurance; Eric Spencer's reading of The Merchant of Venice's treatment of Aristotelian notions of exchange and justice), as well as feminist anthropology and social history (Robert F. Darcy's analysis of the incestuous logic underwriting the patriarchal traffic in women in The Merchant of Venice; Natasha Korda's illuminating study of single women, the aftermath of convent culture, and Measure for Measure).

Sifting through the disparate grab bag of the New Economic Criticism, Douglas Bruster bravely attempts to lend it a provisional, if bifurcated, coherence by subdividing its contents into two major tendencies. Borrowing from Shakespeare's own language, he distinguishes between "reckoned" and "rash" versions of the movement. Whereas the "reckoned" trades in the "calculated and specific," the "rash" speculates in "the intuited and general" (69); the "reckoned" subscribes to the myth of homo economicus and the "literal" economy of Wall Street, the "rash" to homo ludens and "metaphorical" notions such as libidinal economy. Bruster suggests, if a little diffidently, that this divergence can also be a strength, so long as each tendency is prepared to take into account the other.

One might respond that Bruster's distinction is itself an example of the "reckoned," insisting as it does on a perhaps overly neat structural binary. As David Hawkes suggests, any distinction between the "reckoned," "literal" economy of Wall Street and the "rash," "metaphorical" economies of libidinal mayhem is a "false dichotomy" (83): even supposedly "literal" economies, he points out, are always already metaphorical. More problematic for a collection situating itself under the umbrella of the New Economic Criticism, however, is that the strains of "rash" criticism identified by Bruster owe much to notions of economy that are explicitly excluded from the rubric defined by Woodmansee and Osteen. As Barbara Correll notes in her astute essay, Woodmansee and Osteen take aim at post-structuralist theories of economy, particularly those of Jean-Jacques Goux. (4) Yet Goux's anarchist notion of "acephalous," non-centered economies enables a mode of critique largely missing from Woodmansee and Osteen's apolitical version of the New Economic Criticism, which valorizes the more functionalist, descriptive accounts of economy propounded by literary critics such as Marc Shell. Similarly, in reading Launcelot Gobbo's scenes as a third space that problematizes the binarism of Shell's well-known study of abundance and scarcity in The Merchant of Venice, Steven R. Mentz points out the potential "blind spots" (177) in Woodmansee and Osteen's understanding of economy. Correll's and Mentz's arguments therefore raise the question of how we are to situate their essays in relation to the New Economic Criticism that Woodbridge's collection supposedly models. Are they part of the movement, or minoritarian voices chafing against it?

One possible answer is that, at least in Money and the Age of Shakespeare, the term "New Economic Criticism" does not so much designate a cohesive movement as it suggests a complex, even contradictory array of conversations about economic and literary issues in the wake of the New Historicism. (And indeed, a sense of lively conversation--complete with polite demurrals and vigorous disagreements--pervades the volume, which had its beginnings in a seminar at the 2001 Shakespeare Association of America convention.) To this extent, the New Economic Criticism takes its place within a medley of largely theme-driven "New Isms" that likewise situate themselves in relation to New Historicist work: the New Aestheticism, the New Materialism, even the New New Historicism. (5) Instead of Bruster's opposition between the "rash" and the "reckoned," then, one might profitably distinguish the volume's contributions on the basis of how much they replicate or transform the hermeneutics of the New Historicism.

In most cases, the essays subscribe to a broadly historicist investment in discursive production and representation. Apart from Forman's essay, which shows how the economic is not represented in Twelfth Night--an approach that suggests a more Jamesonian conception of history as constitutive absence--the contributions tackle works that deal more or less explicitly with economic themes and issues. Hence many of the essays in Money and the Age of Shakespeare treat the usual suspects, that is, Shakespeare's most expressly "economic" plays--Timon of Athens, The Comedy of Errors, and The Merchant of Venice. As Mentz notes, the latter has been "the most important primary text" (177) in the emergence of the New Economic Criticism; there are no fewer than four essays in the volume that deal primarily with it (Spencer, Netzloff, Mentz, Darcy) and two others that engage it in some detail (Wilson, Hawkes). There is surprisingly little on less obviously commercially themed plays, despite Woodbridge's claim in her introduction about the ubiquity of the language of credit and debit in plays like Hamlet and Lear.

Perhaps because of its contributors' considerable debts to Marxism, however, Money and the Age of Shakespeare largely resists the characteristic synchronic bias of the New Historicism. Its essays seek less to map the discursive formations of a moment than to plot diachronic shifts over time: the movements from feudalism to mercantilism and early capitalism, from gift to market economies, from communitarian to individualist ideals, from usury to interest. Paradoxically, though, this very debt frequently if quietly dispenses with one of Marxism's key tenets--a commitment not just to understanding the world but also to changing it. Those of the volume's essays that are devoted simply to recovery of the past, no matter how influenced they may be by Marx's historical analyses, strikingly contrast the two essays that offer a more Benjaminian reading of the past in order to unsettle the present. Correll turns to Autolycus to question not just the New Economic Criticism's rejection of post-structuralist theory but also the U.S. Supreme Court's theft of the 2000 election; and Shershow reads sixteenth-century discourses of charity to question U.S. understandings of welfare and, more broadly, the use value of the past: "I join my observations here with those of many other contemporary scholars and theorists who look to the past not in order to find reasons to think and do what we have always thought and done, but rather, to glimpse the negative possibility of that which has so far remained unthinkable; and even, perhaps, to think otherwise" (110). Here we might glimpse a mode of historical criticism that is neither synchronic nor diachronic but rather what we might call, in its cross-hatching of past and present, anachronic.

Shershow's remark thus raises the question of temporality, a question that is largely neglected elsewhere in the volume and, more generally, in the New Historicism. Is the infamous project of "speaking with the dead," let alone of reading the dead's account books, necessarily confined to recovery of the past (whether that past is viewed as a synchronic "moment" or as a diachronic "process")? Or does historical criticism need to recognize also how it creates the past, less in the sense of making it up than of persistently transforming the web of relations that tether it to the present time and space of its "recovery"? If in fetishizing commodities we lose a sense of their embodiment of social relations of production, we arguably do the same thing in fetishizing the past as a positive entity that is somehow quarantined from any relation to the present and the future. But perhaps economic criticism is in a unique position to think through this kind of relationality. And indeed, the best essays in Money and the Age of Shakespeare help explain how, as Michel Serres has remarked in a revealingly economic metaphor, "we are exchangers and brewers of time." (6) That is, the New Economic Criticism is perhaps most truly "new" when it sheds light on the temporalities--whether synchronic, diachronic, or anachronic--that we embed in our historical narratives in order to rework the matter of the past for a variety of uses, and profits, in the present.


(1.) See Jean-Christophe Agnew, Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550-1750 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Richard Halpern, The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation: English Renaissance Literature and the Genealogy of Capital (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991); Douglas Bruster, Drama and the Market in the Age of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); William Ingram, The Business of Playing: The Beginnings of the Adult Professional Theater in Elizabethan London (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992); Lars Engle, Shakespearean Pragmatism: Market of His Time (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); and Theodore Leinwand, Theatre, Finance and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

(2.) See David Hawkes, Idols of the Marketplace: Idolatry and Commodity Fetishism in English Literature, 1580-1680 (London: Palgrave, 2001); Natasha Korda, Shakespeare's Domestic Economies: Gender and Property in Early Modern England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002); Ceri Sullivan, The Rhetoric of Credit: Merchants in Early Modern Writing (London: Associated University Presses, 2002); and Jonathan Gil Harris, Sick Economies: Drama, Mercantilism and Disease in Shakespeare's England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).

(3.) Martha Woodmansee and Mark Osteen, eds., The New Economic Criticism: Studies at the Intersection of Literature and the Economic (London: Routledge, 1999).

(4.) Jean-Jacques Goux, Symbolic Economies: After Marx and Freud, trans. Jennifer Curtiss Gage (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 17-18.

(5.) See John Joughin and Simon Malpas, eds., The New Aestheticism (London: Palgrave, 2004). Douglas Bruster discusses what he calls the "New Materialism" in Shakespeare and the Question of Culture: Early Modern Literature and the Cultural Turn (London: Palgrave, 2003). And Patricia Fumerton coins the term "New New Historicism" in the introduction to Patricia Fumerton and Simon Hunt, eds., Renaissance Culture and the Everyday (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998).

(6.) Michel Serres and Bruno Latour, Eclaircissements: Cinq Entretiens avec Bruno Latour (Paris: Bourin, 1992). See also Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 75.

Reviewer: Jonathan Gil Harris
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Author:Harris, Jonathan Gil
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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