- Shakespeare and the Economic Imperative: 'What's aught but as 'tis valued?'
In chapters on each of five Shakespeare plays that 'directly confront . . . "the monetary mindset"' - The Comedy of Errors, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure, and Timon of Athens - Peter Grav concludes that, over the course of these plays, 'Shakespeare's view of how economic determinants influence and shape humanity seems to progressively darken.'
Reading Errors as 'Shakespeare's earliest sustained critique of societies built on economic foundations,' Grav observes that Antipholus of Ephesus thinks of his house only as a material possession, that throughout the play he is seen only in the street, never in his home, and that 'the play's primary comedic thrust hinges largely on the relentless humiliation of a smug businessman. As Antipholus appears to be exemplary of [End Page 419] his class, it becomes possible to construe his systematic dressing down as an attack on the values he embodies.' His brother, in contrast, affirms 'an alternative world of intangible, rather than material values.'
In a valuable economic/textual analysis, Grav shows that the folio Merry Wives 'foregrounds economic themes that are largely absent in the 1602 Quarto'; he posits 'a systematic Shakespearean revision.' He writes convincingly of the way economic concerns here trump romantic comedy. Contrary to scholarly consensus, Grav implies on page 55 that Shakespeare wrote Merry Wives before The Merchant of Venice (although he reverses himself on page 67). This confusion affects the book's chapter order and has implications for Grav's strongly developmental argument.
Given how much has been written on economics in The Merchant of Venice, Grav's chapter on this play is inevitably assimilative, but he still finds wiggle room for originality, making perceptive comparisons with other 'merchant' plays, especially Errors. By this chapter, however, a question is bound to start nagging readers: how do we know that Shakespeare is inviting us to disapprove of all this materialism? After all, materialists are often blessed by happy endings. Grav does not really address this troublesome issue.
The Measure for Measure chapter abounds in good insights, such as, '[T]he same Duke who condemns the buying of a whore will later advocate the buying of a husband.' Also solid is Grav's final chapter, on Timon of Athens' 'indictment of the monetary ethos.'
All five chapters on individual plays are stronger than we would expect after Grav's lacklustre introduction, which rehearses sundry well-trodden economic topics - nascent capitalism, use value versus exchange value, enclosures and other shifts in agrarian economic practice, England's burgeoning population, urbanization and urban squalor, vagrancy, downward mobility, the debate over usury, and the rest. Do students of early modern literature still need such general background? And not all of this general economic information proves relevant to individual chapters. A better strategy would have been to tuck in the economic history within the single-play chapters, as needed.
Some of the literary chapters also offer sadly shopworn observations: 'By the time Shakespeare wrote Errors, the idea of a rigid feudal status-based society had all but passed'; 'Although the landed classes generally considered commerce to be beneath them, some members of the gentry were only too willing to revive their flagging fortunes by marrying their sons and daughters into mercantile wealth.' There needs no ghost come from the grave to tell us that 'Venice was a renowned trading center.' But on the whole, the 'literature' chapters significantly out-class the introduction.
The book is well researched, although the secondary sources can feel dated: over half of the references in the bibliography are to works published before 1990. Grav's writing is not always idiomatic; for example, [End Page 420] 'the growing acceptance of usury . . . connotes that cost-benefit analysis was a valid way to interpret the world.' His mode of introducing quotations is awkward: 'as argued by Leggatt,' 'as pointed out by Kinney,' 'as put by White,' 'as pointed out by Urkowitz.' Why not 'Leggatt argues,' 'Kinney points out'? And some editor...