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  • The Social Meaning of Money in Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice
  • Huey-ling Lee (bio)

With the growing interest in early modern English economic issues, money has become the focus of critical attention in recent years, as attested by Money and the Age of Shakespeare, a collection of essays that consider how Renaissance literature challenges the commensuration of money and human life even when it is saturated with “bookkeeperish, quantifying language.”1 More recently, literary critics focus on the materiality of coined money to investigate various aspects of early modern English society and culture. Certainly, the materiality of early modern money contributes to its function as the medium of both economic and social exchanges, but it barely tells the full story. As sociologist Viviana A. Zelizer argues, given its fungible, impersonal characteristics, money may indeed “‘corrupt’ values and convert social ties into numbers, but values and social relations reciprocally transmute money by investing it with meaning and social patterns.”2 In this essay, I want to focus primarily on the social roles money plays at the encroachment of market economies. Through my readings of Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday and William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, I argue that vestiges of social currency can be detected in the use of money for social purposes; that money as a form of social currency works in tandem with its use as commercial currency to deal with the changing dynamics of both inter-group as well as intra-group relations; and that, consequently, how money is used depends on the kind of relationship one wishes to form or maintain with another person or a group. [End Page 335]

Among those critics who focus on the materiality of coined money is David Hawkes, who delves into the ways in which the separation of monetary value from gold bullion provides a conceptual link between religious idolatry and commodity fetishism. He argues that it was during the early modern period that financial value became increasingly detached from its physical incarnation in precious metals and turned into “an independent force.” The autonomy of value, for most literate Englishmen, was “one manifestation of the same tendency that could be observed in religious idolatry and carnal sensuality in all its forms.” It is this “totalizing perspective” that offers “the thinkers of the early modern period” and, perhaps more importantly, Hawkes’s post-modern readers, an “insight” into “the spiritual and ethical implications of commodity fetishism that has largely been lost to our own epoch.” Such an “insight,” however, is achieved by considering money in isolation and thereby reducing its various social meanings and implications into mere “financial value,” an autonomous and nonreferential force that reverses the natural relationships of use and exchange, things and signs, reality and representation.3

Similar to Hawkes, Stephen Deng and David Landreth both emphasize the ways in which the discrepancy between extrinsic and intrinsic values of coined money opened up a space for a wide variety of social relations that were not necessarily related to exchange. Deng argues that the interactions between literary representations and the malleability of coinage inform the complex dynamic interrelations between state formation and economy.4 Landreth, on the other hand, contends that the interaction of material qualities and socially determined values in gold and silver coins enables the intrusion of these objects into the discursive debate over “the contested relations among poetics, human institutions, and material substance.”5 For Deng and Landreth, it is the peculiar material form inhabited by early modern money that allowed it, in contrast to its modern counterpart, to maintain the capacity to embody memories and social relations beyond the circuits of exchange. Their emphasis on the materiality of coins, however, implies that once money loses that malleable materiality, it would also cease being the reservoir of a value antithetical to exchange, and function effectively as a universal medium of exchange.

Zelizer’s research demonstrates, however, that even in modern capitalist America, people rarely use money simply as the reservoir of exchange value, but routinely adopt especially elaborate controls over [End Page 336] money and establish differential earmarks “when and where they are engaged...