Academic journal article Multicultural Shakespeare

Economic Nationalism in Haughton's Englishmen for My Money and Shakespeare's the Merchant of Venice 1

Academic journal article Multicultural Shakespeare

Economic Nationalism in Haughton's Englishmen for My Money and Shakespeare's the Merchant of Venice 1

Article excerpt

In the last years of her reign Queen Elizabeth took actions to protect the interests of English merchants, and in particular the Company of Merchant Adventurers. These actions both responded to and in turn released a wave of economic nationalism. The English company's immediate rival was the Hanseatic League, "the northern counterpart of Venice's commercial empire" (Greenfeld 60). A powerful association of Baltic and Germanic towns, the League had enjoyed special trading privileges in England since 1474. On Elizabeth's accession, London financier Thomas Gresham advised the new Queen that Mary's policy of favoring the Hanse merchants at the expense of England's own "hath been the chiefest point of undoing of this your realm, and the merchants of the same" (Williams 5:1021), and warned her not to repeat her sister's mistakes, advice that Elizabeth heeded in earnest somewhat late in her reign. Beginning in 1576, the Hanse merchants were no longer allowed to trade in Blackwell Hall, a cloth mart and headquarters of the Merchant Adventurers. In 1597, owing to continuous pressure from London merchants, Elizabeth acted to protect England's profitable cloth export trade by finally expelling Hanseatic merchants from England. In January of the following year, in which The Merchant of Venice (1597-8) and the era's first city comedy, William Haughton's Englishmen for My Money (1598), were being performed in London, she closed down the city's Steelyard (der Stahlhof), the principal trading post of the Hanseatic merchants in England. Although these foreign merchants had already lost their old trading privileges, the closing of the Steelyard had symbolic value, underscoring the relation of England's merchant class to its growing sense of national identity.

In the remainder of this essay, I will explore the very different responses of Haughton's and Shakespeare's plays to the 1590s climate of economic nationalism and xenophobia: Haughton choosing to domesticate the foreign, whereas Shakespeare estranges the domestic. The Merchant of Venice, I will contend, is one of Shakespeare's plays that actively demystify the very idea of nationhood for which they were later made to play the role of ensign. One of the ironies of their being enlisted in the front lines of national consolidation and expansion is their exposure, during the earliest phase of European nationalism, of nationhood as a fragile and provisional construct, an imaginary unity forged by suppressing countervailing values and voices. Englishmen for My Money uneasily reassures English audiences that English identity is safe, and will be reclaimed, not bartered away in the shadow of the Royal Exchange, which plays such a vital role in the play. The Merchant of Venice, by contrast, explores divisions in a nation in the wake of symbolically conspicuous events for early modern economic nationalism, rifts issuing from a growing culture of profit. The Merchant of Venice is the comedy of a nation whose self-knowledge, like that of the merchant of the title, appears to be faltering: it "know[s] not why [it is] so sad" and has "much ado to know" itself in the wake of ongoing economic change (Merchant, 1:1:1, 7).

I

W. H. Auden (218) describes the England of Shakespeare's day as pre-mercantilist: "a society in which wealth, that is to say, social power, is derived from ownership of land, not from accumulated capital. . . .Economically, the country is self-sufficient, and production is for use, not profit." By contrast, Nina Levine sees the plays as reflecting an economy in transition. In a subtle and compelling essay on the two-part Henry IV, she contends that the plays reflect an emerging economy based upon credit: "By the beginning of the 17th century defenses of credit and commerce began to appear in print, as London merchants and tradesmen attempted to justify their place within the changing economy. Countering objections that private gain was always at the expense of the common welfare, these defenses shrewdly linked the individual's profit with that of the community" (409). …

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