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  • Adapting The Liberal Lover: Mediterranean Commerce, Political Economy, and Theatrical Form under Richelieu
  • Ellen R. Welch (bio)

In the 1630s and 1640s, Cardinal Richelieu transformed the Parisian theater into an arm of the state. Through the institution of the Académie Française, patronage of his circle of Cinq Auteurs, oversight of critical treatises to discipline dramatic aesthetics, and establishment of laws to police the playhouse, the minister ensured that the theater would be “useful to the state,”1 a means of inculcating French subjects in the morals and political values that would foster the regime’s stability.2 Richelieu’s role as supreme patron and censor of works performed on the French stage in these decades has informed a vast corpus of critical work uncovering the political ideologies conveyed in individual plays.3 While these efforts have focused on topics such as kingship, sovereignty, Machiavellianism versus traditional noble values, and the formation of ideals of “Frenchness,” little attention has thus far been devoted to the theater’s engagement with [End Page 165] economic policy. This is surprising given Richelieu’s well-documented commitment to strengthening the French state’s fiscal profile.4 Scholarship on the English theater of the same period, by contrast, has produced a wealth of analyses of the transmission of economic values through the theater.5 How should we interpret this apparent silence of the French stage on the subject of trade and commerce? Was it a taboo topic, disruptive to emerging classicist poetics? Or is it a lacuna in modern criticism rather than in seventeenth-century dramatic writing, possibly the result of a sense on the part of scholars that mercantile concerns had no place among elevated classical values?

To explore these questions, I aim with this essay to illustrate one case in which the theater did serve as an arena for thinking through the cultural, moral, and economic implications of changes in French trading strategies in the mid-1630s. During the same theatrical season in which Corneille’s Le Cid sparked a furor over moral and aesthetic standards for vraisemblance and bienséance, two French dramatists proposed theatrical adaptations of another Spanish source—Cervantes’ exemplary novella El amante liberal—which addressed themes of Mediterranean commerce, religious conflict, loss, and redemption.6 The plays, both entitled L’Amant libéral, have been largely written out of French literary history, in part because they are admittedly less than stellar examples of the period’s dramatic achievements, but also because they belong to the much-maligned genre of tragicomedy,7 and because they were authored by two playwrights (Georges de Scudéry and Guyon Guérin de Bouscal) whose reputations have been eclipsed in Corneille’s overpowering shadow. From this place of marginality, however, the plays reveal quite a bit about the anxieties surrounding France’s renewed efforts to encourage their merchants to replenish the state’s coffers by engaging in Mediterranean trade. The intersection between theatrical concerns and commercial matters in these two plays demonstrates how the theater attempted to negotiate and disseminate relatively new economic theories as well as the cultural and moral values that would support them.

Mediterranean topics were a staple of French theater and fiction in the early part of the seventeenth century.8 The Renaissance rediscovery of the so-called Byzantine novel popularized stories of shipwreck and captivity set in the southern coast of the sea and supplied the plots for [End Page 166] countless tragicomedies in France in the early part of the seventeenth century. Traditionally, the subgenre’s popularity has been explained in terms of its prestigious classical heritage or its appealingly episodic structure.9 While these aspects surely played an important role in its success, it is also possible to view the preference for this type of story in a more materialist light. The familiar narrative of Mediterranean romance served as a useful frame for reconceptualizing questions of cultural and religious identity during a period of increased exchange between France and the Islamic Mediterranean following Richelieu’s adjustments to French economic policy. In his role as Superintendant of Navigation and Commerce, the cardinal sought to bolster the French state’s power and prestige in Europe by maintaining a...


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pp. 165-183
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