All’s well that spends well
John Kenneth Galbraith once said that artists know nothing about economics, and economists know nothing about art, so they will have little to say to each other. The same remark might be made about economists and literary scholars. The practice of literature and the methods used by literary theorists would seem to be far removed from the hard realities of money, finance and market exchange that are the daily concerns of economics. But such a superficial proposition would miss the point. Even the most cursory examination of the evolution of literary and economic theory over time reveals many interconnections. A variety of examples can be seen of the ways in which the state of the economy and the interpretation of it in economics have influenced literature; at the same time, one can point to the functions of literature in shaping and reflecting our understanding of economic behaviour.
To study these relationships more closely, where better to start in this year of Shakespearean overkill than with the Great Man himself? Shakespeare is an exemplar both of the influence of individual economic circumstances on processes of literary production, and of the effect of the wider economic context on the content and impact of literary works. At a personal level, his career illustrates clearly the ways in which the market for a writer’s output affects the quantity and nature of the work produced. Perhaps the image of a great artist as a genius oblivious to the financial realities of everyday life persists in the popular imagination, but Shakespeare was far from such a case. He lived at a time when the theatre was becoming more professionalized and there was a growing market for plays. The theatre industry in London was marked by competition between production companies whose business models, in present-day management speak, were attuned to the opportunities of the marketplace. Shakespeare rode the wave with skill and determination such that at his death in 1616 he was both the most famous and most financially successful playwright of his time.
He lived at a time of significant economic transformation, when the social and cultural relations that had previously informed economic life were being replaced by an economy based on market exchange operating through the exercise of private and institutional power. Land was increasingly being expropriated, with many smallholders obliged to become beggars, tinkers and pedlars. In 1607 Shakespeare’s home county of Warwickshire witnessed a series of riots against enclosure. But such demonstrations were unable to prevent the transformation of peasants into labourers; smallholders, forced off their land and compelled to live by selling their labour for money, gave up control over their lives to an external authority in a manner equivalent to slavery. Shakespeare’s success was due in no small measure to his ability to reflect these changes in his plot, characterization and language, and in so doing to connect with the preoccupations of his audiences.
In his book Shakespeare and Economic Theory, David Hawkes documents these transitions. In a text rich with illustrations drawn from both the plays and Sonnets, Hawkes shows not only how Shakespeare was fully aware of the economic circumstances in which his work was being received but also how this awareness informed his writings. Hawkes depicts the transformation of the economy during the late sixteenth century by reference to the ancient Greek distinction between household economy, which incorporated social and cultural relationships, and the more specialized discipline of chrematistics, which focused on what we would regard as purely economic transactions. He interprets the transition as one from a system based on use value to one where exchange value, derived from market processes, predominated. Throughout Shakespeare’s writings there are numerous references, both positive and negative, to the effects of these processes. He used economic terms such as commodity, price and value in ways that shaped their meaning to accommodate his observations of the world in which he lived, shifting them from their earlier ethical connotations and bringing them more in line with commercial and fiduciary usage.
Although his language reflected the times, the question remains: where did the man himself stand on the implication of these trends? Hawkes contends that although a character such as Shylock is allowed to express clear and cogent pro-market arguments, the playwright “never abandoned his conservative suspicion of autonomous financial value”. His personal beliefs allowed him to sound warnings about the development of market society that seem more apposite than ever in the market-dominated world we inhabit today.
In keeping with its title, Hawkes’s book discusses the relationship between the tradition of Shakespeare criticism and developments in the history of economic thought. Much of the author’s attention is devoted to Karl Marx, whose love of Shakespeare and familiarity with the dramatis personae of the plays is well known. Yet paradox abounds. Shakespeare was a member of the bourgeoisie, not a social class that Marx admired, and there are obvious difficulties in applying a Marxist class analysis to Shakespeare’s writings. Nevertheless, his treatment of economic relationships in his plays, his use of economic metaphor and depictions of economic phenomena such as money, had a profound influence on the formulation of Marx’s economic theories.
Moving beyond Marx and Marxism, the book provides a wide-ranging and readable account of the influence of Shakespeare on the development of economic and literary scholarship into the modern era, drawing together various intellectual trajectories that lead in the late twentieth century to the so-called New Economic Criticism, a loosely circumscribed field concerned with the relationships between aesthetics, economics and literary forms (and apparently important enough nowadays for its name to be capitalized). Writers in this field look particularly to the formal similarities between economic and literary representation, the connection between financial and linguistic signifiers, and the correspondence between exchange processes in the economic and linguistic spheres. Literary critics working in this arena treat economic logic as an imaginative form in its own right, and by recognizing a metaphorical interpretation of economic concepts, they are able to analyse them in the same terms as in literary discourse. While literary scholars have been mulling over these questions, it has been pointed out that connections also run the other way – economists often use rhetorical devices to present their economic arguments in literary form. With such propositions the circular relationship between literature and economics is complete.
John O’Brien uses the New Economic Criticism as the starting point for his approach to the business corporation, the object of study in his book Literature Incorporated: The cultural unconscious of the business corporation, 1650–1850. He sees the corporation both as a historical entity set up for commercial purposes and as an imaginative construct, tracing its evolution from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century through a variety of literary texts and other forms of writing. He plays on the word “incorporation”, a trope which implies a relationship between human bodies and larger organizational systems representing collective interests. The corporation, he suggests, is “an abstraction that gathers up a long history of institutions and practices as varied as city governance, guild organization, state-sponsored colonial exploration, money lending, insurance, slave trading, and university funding”. O’Brien deals at length with all of these, identifying key moments in the development of the business corporation and the cultural context surrounding it over the 200 years of his title. His sources range across economics, political theory and law, and the literature he refers to includes British and American poems, plays, essays, novels and short stories. The canvas is vast and the writing dense – some paragraphs run to well over a page – but the detailed examples of the links, especially between works of fiction and the economic and social realities of the time, make for interesting if occasionally exhausting reading.
The final chapter deals with the banking crises that affected Britain from the 1820s to the 1840s as reflected in a range of imaginative writing from that period. The author notes ruefully that he was working on the book during another banking crisis, the global financial turmoil of 2008. In the modern era, the corporation has become a central agent in the economic system, “one endowed with an assertiveness and power that would probably have surprised its early modern inventors and theorists”. The time is right, O’Brien suggests, to rethink some basic assumptions about relationships between commercial entities and the rest of society. Perhaps contemporary novelists, playwrights and poets can help us in that task.
The New Economic Criticism surfaces again in Dominic Shellard and Siobhan Keenan’s introductory chapter to their edited volume Shakespeare’s Cultural Capital: His economic impact from the sixteenth to the twenty-first century. The editors note the influence that this area of literary and economic endeavour has had on Shakespeare studies, citing a number of books published in recent years that deal variously with the economics of sixteenth-century theatre, Shakespeare’s concern with economic issues such as usury, and the nature of his political and economic language. Their own volume purports to fill a gap in this avalanche of scholarship – the essays they have commissioned engage in essentially pragmatic terms with the direct and indirect economic impact of Shakespeare and his legacy. The book’s title pays homage to Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological concept of cultural capital, defined as an individual’s inherited or acquired cultural competence, whereas the book’s orientation actually owes more to the notion of cultural capital as understood in economics – in this case interpreted as the intangible cultural asset that Shakespeare represents. This priceless resource delivers not only a continuing stream of pure cultural value for humankind, but also commercial benefit in a variety of forms, not least to the UK advertising and tourism industries. Occasionally the pursuit of economic gain can compromise the cultural integrity of the Shakespearean image – in her chapter on Shakespeare in film, for example, Deborah Cartmell shows how the film Shakespeare in Love (1999) “announces itself through the use of the name, while at the same time throwing away the writing”.
The financial potential of the Shakespeare brand is referred to in several chapters which discuss its use in marketing beer, its importance to the regional economy of Stratfordupon-Avon, its role in promoting British culture globally with flow-on benefits to international trade and commerce, and its sudden appearance as a stimulus to visitors to Leicester following the recent discovery there of the remains of Richard III. In a chapter on corporate sponsorship, Susan Bennett dissects the motives of multinational companies that profit from the use of Shakespeare’s name when they support performances and exhibitions ostensibly for cultural and altruistic reasons. Her concern is with the values created or “co-produced” by such sponsorship, and she concludes that “we have a responsibility to pay much more attention to the national and corporate values and goods that lie behind sponsoring Shakespeare”.
All three of these books point from their differing perspectives towards the interrelationships between literature and economics. It is noteworthy that none of the books’ authors, editors, or contributors is an economist, reflecting the fact that interest in these connections has come almost exclusively from scholars in the arts and humanities rather than from social scientists. There is much scope for this imbalance to be rectified, if only economists could recognize the rich possibilities for dialogue with their literary colleagues.