The Origins of Theatre; Theatre, Finance and Society in Early Modern England. by Theodore B Leinwand (Cambridge, Pounds 35). English Court Theatre 1558-1642. by John H Astington (Cambridge: Pounds 37.50). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds

Article excerpt

If, like me, you have always seen Bessanio as a little sexual manipulator and social schemer, then you will enjoy Theodore B Leinwand's dazzling display of intellectual fireworks in Theatre, Finance and Society in Early Modern England where The Merchant of Venice (amongst much else) is dissected in economic terms.

The Antonio/Bessanio relationship, set within what Leinwand calls "a gauche ethos of success", suggests a kind of competition, where Antonio as a wealthy yuppie sets himself up on an equal par with the foreign princes who will, along with Bessanio, Antonio's lover, compete for Portia's hand at Belmont.

Antonio's manipulation of Bessanio's feelings soon after we see them in the play where they meet to discuss the necessary loan, is seen here as a way for Antonio to blazon forth his sadness which he uses like a chess piece. In a similar way to any rejected suitor of either sex, he too is manipulative and he uses Bessanio's feelings of guilt (leaving Antonio/falling in love with Portia) as a kind of fanfare to his sufferings.

Does Portia feel a cold blast from all this - and is Bessanio ever really hers (or anybody's come to that!) At least, it is argued here with great fluency, the announcement eventually made at the close of the play, revealing to an audience that Antonio's ships have come home again, uncovers twin interests between Belmont and Venice. Both Antonio and Portia look for a firm base within social and financial stability and in a way they coincide on these matters and somehow you feel Antonio is likely to be at Belmont most weekends in the future - business permitting - which Portia would understand.

Antonio was a gambler. Any businessman who sent out expensive argosies on perilous oceans could be called that. "The 1590s were cluttered with such bold gamblers," notes Leinwand, "and none more famous than George Clifford, third Earl of Cumberland, whose first privateering venture in 1586 was undertaken as a way of meeting huge gambling debts." These, no doubt, were the way he spent monies engendered by his estates.

Thus, "venturing" is a part of Shakespearean terminology. And so Antonio, as a Venetian merchant, would have had his counterpart in many an Elizabethan merchant promoter in whose activities Shakespeare may have held shares. But the safe arrival of Antonio's fabulously wealthy ships, which is part of the play's climax, is an Elizabethan courtier's dream scenario. In the play, "wife and prize coincide." Bessanio lives in a "comic play world," where he is the glamorous suitor compared to Antonio's drudging merchant forced to engage in usury.

But with its emphasis on the transporting of luxury goods and prize-taking from vessels which were overcome, The Merchant of Venice is perceived by Leinwand as an interesting and rewarding commercial mirror of the time. And we should remember that Portia is introduced at one point as a woman whose "worth attracts rivals from every coast." Antonio meanwhile is "a royal merchant" who backs an "adventuring" gallant. For the playgoers of the time, watching performances of The Merchant of Venice - many of them seamen, ships officers, or high risk businessmen - the play would have had an added resonance as "a felt experience of venture and thrift."

Contemporary critical writing of this kind is immensely valuable in terms of its ability both to analyse and underline the psychology of a Shakespearean text. I welcome this kind of literary analysis with open arms, since anything which can elucidate the social, economic, political and cultural history of early modern literature possesses significant repercussions for those who care about serious theatre study - textual, as well as practical theatre-going.

Leinwand moves fluently over Elizabethan mortgage payments (no building societies existed). And it seems that if mortgages were not honoured on a given date that failure led to imprisonment. …