"Crack'd Crowns" and Counterfeit Sovereigns: The Crisis of Value in 1 Henry IV

By Lander, Jesse M. | Shakespeare Studies, Annual 2002 | Go to article overview

"Crack'd Crowns" and Counterfeit Sovereigns: The Crisis of Value in 1 Henry IV


Lander, Jesse M., Shakespeare Studies


 
   Money has the advantage of presenting me immediately the lurid face of the 
   social relation of value; it shows me value right away as exchange, 
   commanded and organized for exploitation ... money has only one face, that 
   of the boss. 
 
   --Antonio Negri 

A PERVASIVE ATMOSPHERE of venality has often been noted in 1 Henry IV. The denizens of Eastcheap are not exceptional in their focus on pecuniary matters: the play opens with a dispute between the King and Hotspur over the payment of ransom that soon blossoms into rebellion. King Henry, as Hotspur reminds Blunt, "Knows at what time to promise, when to pay" (4.3.53), and Prince Hal uses the same language when he plans to "pay the debt I never promised" (1.2.204). (1) Worcester argues that the king's strict accounting makes reconciliation an impossibility: "The King will always think him in our debt ... Till he hath found a time to pay us home" (1.3.280-83). This language does more than suggest that certain characters are adept at calculating their debts--it connects the language of economic value to the question of disputed sovereignty.

Rather than consider the admittedly obtrusive language of credit and debt, I want to examine a set of specifically numismatic images that serve to focus attention on the relationship between the monarch and economic value in a particularly acute manner. The language of coins and coinage, informed by the history of the English currency with its debasements, enhancements, and reforms as well as the daily practices associated with the circulation of coin, is animated by the peculiar and shifting nexus of sovereign power and economic value found in a coin. (2) As Posthumus remarks in Cymbeline:" 'Tween man and man they weigh not every stamp; / Though light, take pieces for the figure's sake" (5.4.24-25). (3) Though David Scott Kastan has observed, with some justice, that the play is "about the production of power," it is also about the production of value. (4) While the discourse of sovereignty and the proliferation of power are now familiar themes (especially in readings of the history plays), questions of value, particularly economic value, have been given less attention. (5) However, an examination of the relationship between power and value made visible by the language of coinage reveals 1 Henry IV, and the history play more generally, to be an aesthetic response to the crisis of value that roiled the world of late sixteenth-century England.

The principal element in this crisis was an acceleration in inflation, an economic fact that had real consequences for all those who participated in monetary transactions. But to this mysterious and disorienting price spiral, one must add the dislocations caused by three changes in official religion all in the course of a single generation, an increasing awareness of what was called the New World, the early stirrings of modern science, and the advent of novel technologies. The playhouses themselves, where Shakespeare made his living by entertaining a paying audience, were both a product of this ferment and a contributor to it. "A collective Stock Exchange of ideas," as well as, "a laboratory of and for the new social relations of agricultural and commercial capitalism," the new professional theater was able to profit from make-believe. (6) It is not surprising, then, that the crisis in value that might be said to be the enabling condition of the theatrical enterprise became, at times, its subject. (7)

Lacking a philosophical concept of value, never mind a fully formed theory of value, the culture of early modern England deployed the term value in a range of religious, ethical, economic, and political contexts. (8) The complexity of this situation is well illustrated by an example from the Geneva Bible. The Gospel of Matthew, which sets out to establish the transcendent value of the kingdom of heaven, the "perl of great price," consistently supplies marginal notes giving the English values of the coins mentioned.

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