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  • Sick Economies: Drama, Mercantilism, and Disease in Shakespeare's England
  • Ernest B. Gilman
Jonathan Gil Harris . Sick Economies: Drama, Mercantilism, and Disease in Shakespeare's England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. 264 pp. index. bibl. $49.95. ISBN: 0–8122–3773–0.

This valuable study focuses on the intersection of "pathology and economy" in Shakespearean England. The "medical and the mercantile" were, Harris argues, mutually constituting discourses, each helping to "create the other's horizons of textual and conceptual possibility" (3). Disease provides a language in which to diagnose the nation's commercial ills while, correspondingly, disease could be configured in economic terms — as a commodity imported along the same routes that carried the diverse goods of England's expanding global trade.

The book emphasizes the economic side of this discursive equation. For Harris, the conjoint discourse of "sick economies" marks, and gives imaginative form to, the emergence of early English mercantilism. His chief "economists" avant la lettre are Gerard Malynes, Thomas Milles, Edward Misselden, and Thomas Mun — early seventeenth-century writers little known to literary critics but familiar to economic historians as "the four Ms" — whose works document the shift from a view of England as a self-sufficient economic body to a broader and more porous "mercantile" definition of the nation as engaged with, and against, other nations in a competitive global game.

This view is reinforced on the other side of the equation by a parallel move from a Galenist conception of disease as an imbalance of humors within a closed bodily system to a more modern (and more paranoid) view of disease as contagion exposing the "body's vulnerability to invasion and infection by external foreign bodies" (15). Communicable disease is thus "increasingly seen as an exotic if dangerous commodity, shipped into the nation by merchants, soldiers, and other alien migrants" (17). Diseases took on national origins (syphilis as the "French pox," dysentery as the "Irish disease") reflecting the "growing global networks of trade, migration, and information, which brought different nations into tranformative contact" (17). The book thus argues "both that our modern notions of economy have a decidedly pathological provenance and that our modern notions of disease cannot be disentangled from the development of transnational capitalism" (27–28).

Turning then to the "mercantilist drama" of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, Harris casts a wide net to suggest the economic implication of a range of [End Page 736] early modern afflictions: syphilis and trade in The Comedy of Errors; "Canker/Serpego and Value" in Troilus and Cressida; "Hepatitis/Castration and Treasure" in The Fair Maid of the West and The Renegado; and "consumption" (in both senses) in The Roaring Girl. To my mind, the most interesting chapters are those on The Merchant of Venice and on Volpone. In the former, a "modern, mercantilist problematic of transnationality" finds its symbolic counterpart in "the Jew," a tainted and hybridized multinational who figures England's new economic culture, with all its attendant anxieties. The chapter on Volpone explores the reverse process: how the growth of a global economy provides Jonson with a language to imagine the plague as an "imported commodity" (108). In this reading, the otherwise puzzling excursus in the play on Pythagoras's doctrine of the transmigration of souls makes sense as a way of imagining "the migratory nature of individuals, commodities, and diseases in a mercantile universe" (117). In both disease and commerce, this vision of universal itinerancy signals an epistemic shift away from qualities and humors "to the new mechanistic philosophy of quantifiable matter in motion" (110).

Sick Economies finally has more to say about economics than sickness. It tends to mix all manner of diseases — not only plague and pox, but consumption, hepatitis, "taint," "canker," "serpego" (a skin condition) — into the same discursive soup, eliding distinctions in the ways these maladies were constructed, as well as the historically vexing issue of "infection." It also barely acknowledges the theological framework supporting, or increasingly failing to support, all speculation about disease in the period. It may be that in the triangulation of disease, economics, and divinity, one can read the ultimate failure of religious discourse to accommodate the insoluble moral problems it sets for...


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pp. 736-737
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Archived 2009
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