Currency conversions

It's credit where due, says Tom Rutter, in this account of the monetary context of the Bard's work

October 16, 2008

In the introduction to this book, Peter Grav relates it to the "new economic criticism", "a stream of literary criticism... that deals specifically with viewing works through a fiscal lens", particularly at the level of metaphor and trope. Critical terminology aside, however, Shakespeare and the Economic Imperative is a work that in some respects seems strikingly old-fashioned.

For one thing, Grav asserts early on his belief that "the recovery of probable meaning is an achievable goal", expressing a positivism of outlook that is comparatively rare in Early Modern studies. For another, he argues that this goal can be achieved through analysis of historical context (notably the transition from feudalism to capitalism), a sense of how texts and contexts relate that aligns him more closely with old than with new historicism. Finally, he is a firm believer in authorial intention, referring (for example) to the "underlying intents" of Timon of Athens. His argument is that five of Shakespeare's plays in particular - The Comedy of Errors, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure and Timon of Athens - not only reflect but "directly confront what might be termed 'the monetary mindset'" that was becoming increasingly embedded in Early Modern England.

I would quibble with Grav's repeated view that these five are the only plays to take on this mindset directly, given that Coriolanus, for example (which Grav never mentions), begins with protests over the price of grain. However, focusing on such a small number of plays enables him to produce detailed, chapter-length readings of the sort that advanced undergraduates interested in economic themes in Shakespeare are likely to find helpful. Grav manages to synthesise a good deal of secondary material, which means that his book, for all its retro qualities, gives a good sense of current thinking in the field.

Furthermore, there is much here that will be of interest to research students and academics. In particular, I would highlight Grav's comparison of the Quarto Merry Wives with the Folio version, which he finds to be both more subversive of its New Comedy underpinning and more cynical about the economic side of courtship, differences he ascribes to authorial revision. The chapter on Merchant offers a sustained and direct account of how in both Venice and Belmont, "practically all aspects of interpersonal relationships seem tainted by the scent of money", not excluding the relationship of Antonio and Bassanio, while the discussion of Measure shows Shakespeare's Vienna to be similarly pervaded by exchange values. Grav is sensitive to the financial overtones present in the play's religious vocabulary, and convincingly argues that the idea of exchange shapes the play's structure, bed-tricks, head-tricks and all.

Given that in his final chapter, however, Grav compares the putative contributions of Shakespeare and Middleton to Timon of Athens, setting Middleton's city comic satire against Shakespeare's misanthropic nightmare, it is strange that he doesn't discuss the hypothesis propounded by John Jowett and enshrined in the Oxford edition of Middleton, that the other playwright also contributed to Measure.

Shakespeare and the Economic Imperative is not a ground-breaking book, but it is an accessible piece of work that engages with its chosen texts at a detailed textual level. Its central argument that Shakespeare's plays are permeated by a concern with the effects of the cash-nexus on human relationships is convincingly made. It will be interesting to see whether its stress on authorial intention, and its assumption that contexts are there to help us understand texts, are a one-off, or whether they herald a more general flight from some of the theoretical tangles of new historicism.

Shakespeare and the Economic Imperative: "What's aught but as 'tis valued?"

By Peter F. Grav
Routledge, 216pp, £60.00
ISBN 9780415963169
Published 21 March 2008

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