Sick Economies: Drama, Mercantilism, and Disease in Shakespeare's England

Sick Economies: Drama, Mercantilism, and Disease in Shakespeare's England

Sick Economies: Drama, Mercantilism, and Disease in Shakespeare's England

Sick Economies: Drama, Mercantilism, and Disease in Shakespeare's England


From French Physiocrat theories of the blood-like circulation of wealth to Adam Smith's "invisible hand" of the market, the body has played a crucial role in Western perceptions of the economic. In Renaissance culture, however, the dominant bodily metaphors for national wealth and economy were derived from the relatively new language of infectious disease. Whereas traditional Galenic medicine had understood illness as a state of imbalance within the body, early modern writers increasingly reimagined disease as an invasive foreign agent. The rapid rise of global trade in the sixteenth century, and the resulting migrations of people, money, and commodities across national borders, contributed to this growing pathologization of the foreign; conversely, the new trade-inflected vocabularies of disease helped writers to represent the contours of national and global economies.

Grounded in scrupulous analyses of cultural and economic history, Sick Economies: Drama, Mercantilism, and Disease in Shakespeare's England teases out the double helix of the pathological and the economic in two seemingly disparate spheres of early modern textual production: drama and mercantilist writing. Of particular interest to this study are the ways English playwrights, such as Shakespeare, Jonson, Heywood, Massinger, and Middleton, and mercantilists, such as Malynes, Milles, Misselden, and Mun, rooted their conceptions of national economy in the language of disease. Some of these diseases--syphilis, taint, canker, plague, hepatitis--have subsequently lost their economic connotations; others--most notably consumption--remain integral to the modern economic lexicon but have by and large shed their pathological senses.

Breaking new ground by analyzing English mercantilism primarily as a discursive rather than an ideological or economic system, Sick Economies provides a compelling history of how, even in our own time, defenses of transnational economy have paradoxically pathologized the foreign. In the process, Jonathan Gil Harris argues that what we now regard as the discrete sphere of the economic cannot be disentangled from seemingly unrelated domains of Renaissance culture, especially medicine and the theater.


At the end of 1997, newspaper readers around the world were treated to a striking journalistic diptych. Alongside reports of the outbreak of a new, possibly lethal strain of chicken influenza in Hong Kong, there appeared the first articles detailing the turmoil and collapse of East Asia’s “tiger” economies. the juxtaposition proved quite suggestive. Although the new strain of influenza turned out to be relatively innocuous, the language it generated was altogether more contagious: in a matter of days after the Hong Kong outbreak, Anglophone reporters had dubbed the economic ills afflicting nations such as Indonesia, Thailand, and Korea the “Asian flu,” or, with greater euphony, the “Asian contagion.” the tigers were thus transmuted into morbid chickens, threatening to infect the economies of the West.

The “Asian flu” metaphor reveals a great deal. First, it bears witness to the constitutive role played by the body in shaping Western perceptions of the economic. One might think also of eighteenth-century French Physiocrat theories of the blood-like circulation of wealth; the word “inflation,” which was originally a specialized medical term for “swelling”; the pathological connotations of “consumption”; Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of the market; or the organic etymology of “capital” itself. Metaphors of infectious disease like the “Asian flu” similarly disclose the corporeal images that, even in an age where the archaic logic of resemblance between microcosm and macrocosm no longer holds sway, continue to organize popular understandings of the economic.

Just as strikingly, the metaphor lends expression to deep-seated fears about the vulnerability of national markets within larger, global networks of commerce. in these fears lurks an intriguing paradox. Fundamental to the notion of the nation’s commercial health is an ambivalent conception of transnationality that works to naturalize the global even as it stigmatizes the foreign. the “Asian flu” metaphor embodies this ambivalence particularly clearly. By troping economic illness as a communicable condition that transmigrates across oceans, the metaphor attributes the cause of plunging stocks and evaporating capital around the world to specific foreign bodies rather than to global commerce it-

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