Of Bondage: Debt, Property, and Personhood in Early Modern England.
Amanda Bailey's examination of debt bondage contributes significantly to a growing body of scholarship on early modern global economics. Arguing for an expansion of the "parameters of the 'new economic criticism'" (12), Bailey traces the proliferation of the bond as an instrument of credit in a cash-strapped early modern English economy, suggesting that the body increasingly came to function as collateral where debt and forfeiture proved the rule rather than the exception. To this end, Bailey focuses her study on the early modern theater, arguing that because bonds were used to finance dramatic productions, that the stage "was uniquely positioned to stage" the developing narrative of "the possessed person" (3): the collateralized body seized upon forfeiture of the bond and the corresponding moral and ethical problem of debt itself.
Chapter 1 focuses on Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, arguing that the play wrestles with changing conceptions of property exchange. Due a chronic shortage of currency, early modern England increasingly relied on credit in the form of the bond to finance its everyday needs. Such credit was based on trust, creating an implicit link between the borrower and the lender. In the case of Timon, whose bonds are overdue and credit all used up, "the bond anchors value in his person" (43). Yet, as Bailey further argues, debt proves "the pretext of belonging" (47), for when "no longer subject to the logic of the bond, Timon is dislodged from the entanglements of commitment, shared history, and collective responsibility" (47).
Bailey next explores Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice as a study of debt rather than usury, arguing that the "play is fueled not by the machination of a predatory usurer but by the desperation of an insolvent debtor" (52). Here Bailey points to the dilemma of early modern English society, forced to grapple with a rising number of debt suits. Bond forfeiture increasingly resulted in recourse against the debtor's body: "the body of the debtor, like that of the slave
... conceived as quasi property" (63). While not the pound of flesh Shylock demands, the early modern legal system did allow for incarceration in cases of bond forfeiture. While Bailey makes a viable argument for Merchant of Venice as a debt rather than usury play, her conclusion that Shylock's "new status as a Christian allows him to assume a productive role in an economy that does not bar him from the contractual privileges of debt bondage" proves less convincing (69). The fact remains that his identity as Jew necessarily excludes his participation in a debtor/creditor economy based on trust. Given the mistrust and suspicion attending converso Jews in early modern England, I find it difficult to agree that forced conversion could lead to a reform of Shylock's lending practices.
In chapter 3, "Michaelmas Term and the Problem of Satisfaction," Bailey examines the "law's gradual drift toward regarding the lender-borrower dynamic as a transaction between persons" (76). Here she reads Middleton's text in the context of legal debates over the issue of consent in economic obligations as depicted in Slade's Case, which "made the hand the fulcrum on which to measure the relationship of body, will and contract" (85). This, in essence, led to the privileging of the signed, written bond over informal verbal agreements. Because, however, the creditor did not own the body of his debtor, contractual consent could prove illusory because the signature that signified consent could be denied.
"Freedom, Bondage, and Redemption in The Custom of the Country" examines Fletcher and Massinger's Mediterranean play in light of the early modern practice of indenture. Bailey argues here that "indenture functioned both as a labor contract and a prima facie debt: Its promissory element was subtended by the logic of capias ad satisfaciendum, the writ that allowed for the detention of the body of the borrower in the event of nonpayment" (9899). As she notes, indenture became the means by which young men "earned" passage to the colonies in exchange for a period of servitude. The play takes its title from the language written on the indenture, which signified that the conditions of such servitude were subject to local practice rather than English statutory law. Bailey argues that the male prostitution depicted in Fletcher and Massinger's work comes to represent "the brutal effects of a market economy on the impressed young man" (109).
Bailey's final chapter examines two prison narratives--Middleton's A Trick to Catch the Old One and Massinger's A New Way to Pay Old Debts--to argue for debtor as economic agent: one who participates, in other words, in his own incarceration. Noting the increase in the number of debt cases between 1560 and 1640, Bailey examines the plight of the debtor, whose stay could prove an indefinite one. While prison life was at once "degrading and reformatory" (118), it offered at the same time an opportunity to "sharpen one's rhetorical skills" (124). "Wit in the pit," in the context of the play, offers psychological, if not physical liberty, limiting the control the legal system exerts over the body of the debtor.
Bailey acknowledges that her book was originally about slavery (145). Her subsequent transition to a study of how the body came to be viewed as a form of property to secure debt bonds is laudable and, indeed, an important contribution to the field of early modern economic studies. It is here, however, that I question Bailey's conscious, stated decision to limit if not exclude economic writings in a book focused on the bond as economic instrument. It seems, as she herself notes "surprising, perhaps remiss" (15), for as she continues, "a history of debt is a history of money" (15). The inclusion of contextual, early modern economic documents could, in my opinion, only enhance this otherwise well-conceived study.
Reviewer: STEPHANIE CHAMBERLAIN
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
|Previous Article:||The Face of Mammon: The Matter of Money in English Renaissance Literature.|
|Next Article:||Occult Knowledge, Science, and Gender on the Shakespearean Stage.|