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  • Tragicomic Redemptions: Global Economics and the Early Modern English Stage
  • Aaron Kitch (bio)
Tragicomic Redemptions: Global Economics and the Early Modern English Stage. By Valerie Forman. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. Pp. vi + 280. $59.95 cloth.

Beginning with the observation that many tragicomedies associate their redemptive possibilities with overseas trade, this lucid and engaging study makes many new connections between economics, religion, and genre in early modern England. Forman focuses on the concept of investment, a controversial idea invoked by some early modern authors to explain how the loss of wealth or bullion should be understood as an expenditure leading to gain. The concept also connotes Christ's sacrifice of his life in order to redeem mankind, a kind of felix culpa that Forman terms "proleptic prosperity" (15). In detailed readings of a range of plays, Tragicomic Redemptions shows how redemption not only rights a wrong, but also provides "prosperous return" (13) in the form of material gain over and above that which was invested.

As in other recent work on early modern economics and literature, Forman's book reasserts the importance of religious thought for economic ideas and practices, reading redemption as a Christian version of surplus value. She resists simplistic analogies between literature and history—plays function here as "models" for early modern citizens who seek to manage "material challenges presented by shifting economic and social forces" (17). Part 1 analyzes Shakespearean comedy in terms of its refusal to imagine the productive potential of investment; The Merchant of Venice (circa 1596) and Twelfth Night (1600) avoid engaging "historical forces" (63) and fail to understand closure dialectically (although Twelfth Night leaves open the possibility of doing so). Forman then demonstrates how Pericles (circa 1607) offers a more dynamic economy of credit, exchange, and profit for the nonproductive emphasis on scarcity and charity in Merchant. In the triumph of a charitable Pericles over a self-consuming and incestuous Antiochus, Pericles transforms a traditional model of Christian redemption into an explicitly economic system where temporary losses ultimately bring profit (64). The incest between Antiochus and his daughter becomes an economic problem—what Forman wryly calls excessive "commerce with the self " (79)—and offers to block healthy circulation of marriage partners just like an embargo on circulating trade. The play responds by transcending the disavowals of romantic comedy with its conventional closure in marriage to offer a more open-ended and dialectical vision of exchange that is compatible with global economic expansion. Where some see Pericles as a play about redemption from sin, Forman reads it as an expression of the need to redeem loss, converting the moral dilemma of incest into an economic matter. This becomes the model of the tragicomic genre for Tragicomic Redemptions, one in which the "averted tragedy is transformed into the profitable resolution" (78).

Forman then reads Shakespeare's most famous tragicomedy, The Winter's Tale (circa 1609-11), as a meditation on the theatrical potential for recreation as investment. Here, Hermione's magically resurrected statute signifies a kind of surplus [End Page 607] grace that "overcompensates" (20) for the play's deficiencies. Where Pericles reconfigures scarcity as productive of future profits, The Winter's Tale transforms loss into profit in a material sense—Forman's most forceful example of an "economics of redemption" (88). The play self-consciously reflects on itself as a work of tragicomedy that depends on various forms of "'recreation'" (86). It stages a conflict between various models: for Leontes, nothing produces only nothing; for Polixenes, nothing multiplies uncontrollably. Perdita—whose name alludes to her plot function—arrives in Bohemia with a sum of gold large enough to turn a shepherd into a gentleman. This gold symbolizes the "expenditures necessary to an economy of overseas trade and investment" (94). But Perdita merely represents loss redefined as expenditure; it is the roving trickster Autolycus—the offspring of the god of commerce and the market in Mercury—who enables the play's theatrically oriented materialization of profit.

Part 2 extends the book's scope to analyze England's Eastern trading partners. Drawing on Elizabethan defenses of trade, Forman argues that trade actually becomes a source of liberation in Fletcher's Island...


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pp. 607-609
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