Saturday 28 August 2010

Shakespeare's Seminal Economics

We must find means by Trade, to vent our superfluities
[Thomas Mun, A Discourse of Trade (1621)]

All sexuality is a matter of economy
[Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus]

For some years now David Bennett has been working on a history of the connections between sexuality and economics, tracing how “the discourses of money and sex became inseparable at a certain historical moment (and quite possibly remain so)” (Bennett 1999: 288). It’s an intriguing project and, going by the rehearsals of the argument presented so far, will make a rewarding book.

The “certain historical moment”, on Bennett’s reading, occurs early in the eighteenth century. It’s from 1700 or so that discourses around masturbation change their tenor and target. But, at a 2007 seminar of Bennett’s on metaphors of “sexual spending,” his discussion started me thinking about a piece of writing from a century earlier, Shakespeare’s fourth sonnet:

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?
Nature’s bequest gives nothing, but doth lend,
And being frank she lends to those are free.
Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largesse given thee to give?
Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums yet canst not live?
For having traffic with thyself alone
Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive;
Then how when Nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?
Thy unused beauty must be tombed with thee,
Which, used, lives th’executor to be.

Is this image of the young man “spending[ing] upon” himself his “beauty’s legacy” a description of masturbatory ejaculation? As part of the early sequence of sonnets arguing for the young man to reproduce, it’s certainly surrounded by sexual imagery. Booth’s edition of the Sonnets glosses “having traffic with thyself alone” as having a sexual meaning (and echoing earlier sexual content in “all the treasure of thy lusty days” in sonnet two). The Bate and Rasmussen RSC Complete Works (surely the dirtiest-minded Complete Shakespeare to date) glosses “spend” as playing “on the sexual sense of ejaculate” (2436), and Patridge’s Shakespeare’s Bawdy offers a similar definition of spending (his quotation from All’s Well that Ends Well doesn’t bear thinking about, though). Kerrigan’s Penguin Sonnets offers no comment on spending, but does concede, rather snootily, that “some readers find in traffic with thyself a hint of masturbation; but the innuendo can be nothing more” (177).

Reader, I find that hint. What to make of it? I’m not a Renaissance literature specialist but, consulting some reasonably recent works from scholars alive to the resonances of economics and sexuality in early modern England, it’s clear that there is fascinating research being done. Shakespeare’s economic metaphors for sexual activity draw his sonnets into reflections on two of the major intellectual controversies of his time; the status of money and trade in creating value, and the proper place and movement of bodily fluids.

“Hippocrates had argued,” Jonathan Gil Harris summarises in his stimulating book Sick Economies: Drama, Mercantilism, and Disease in Shakespeare’s England, “that semen, like the froth of the sea, was a foam concocted from blood. Aristotle regarded sperma as refined blood, as did Galen. If Hippocrates and Aristotle saw semen as the end point in a process of sanguineous refinement that led to generation, though, Galen saw the semen as the origin of the male body’s perfection. The loss of semen, therefore, entailed a crippling or effeminization of the male body” (146).

Where later ideologies of gender extol sexual “spending” as evidence of masculine fullness and power, Renaissance figures are much more concerned about the imbalance an ‘excess’ of sexual spending may cause. Like pre-capitalist visions of money, part of the worry is that there just won’t be enough to go around.

There’s a 1597 translation of Aristotle, for instance, maintaining that moderate sexual activity is good:

bicause it doth expell the fume of the seed from the braine…the seed a man retained above a due time, is converted into some infectious humour (The Problems of Artistotle, cited in Smith, 87).

But then Marlowe’s Mortimer will say to Edward that “the idle triumphs, masques, lascivious shows / And prodigal gifts bestowed on Gaveston / Have drawn thy treasure dry and made thee weak” (2:2:156-8). We’re in the presence of a tension.

An added fascination is that much the same debate was going on at the same time about the status of money and trade. Did it create extra value, or were mercantilism and usury responsible for sucking wealth out of the kingdom? Bacon in his essay ‘On Usury’ summarises two arguments against lending at interest that “it is against nature for money to beget money” and that “were it not for this lazy trade usury, money would not lie still, but would in great part be employed in merchandising.” Money itself, and what finance means, is about to undergo a profound change through the English Revolution. That revolutionary process will also, in more complicated and unclear ways, transform how sexuality and the body itself is viewed.

Part of the reason for Shakespeare mixing economic and sexual metaphors, David Hawkes suggests, is that the sonnets are “guided in their reflections on homoerotic love by the conviction that sodomy and usury are homologous violations of natural teleology” (7). Hawkes argues that the sonnets “consistently deploy the imagery and logic of the usury debate in a sustained meditation on the ethical status of homoerotic desire” (97) and positions Shakespeare - the son of a money-lender and no fool himself financially - as a writer feeling the tensions of the shift in the debate on both terms.

In the same way that Bacon ends his essay by suggesting that it is “better to mitigate usury by declaration than to suffer it to rage by connivance”, Shakespeare’s economic metaphors in this sonnet seem to attempt a resolution via imagery of a contradiction that cannot be resolved at the level of ideology: nature’s “free lending” contrasts a profitable sexual ‘spending’ at interest (ie reproductive sexual activity, sperm which impregnates) with the “profitless usurer” whose spending, like Onan’s, spills upon the ground.

There has been plenty of writing produced on Shakespeare and same-sex desire and Shakespeare and economics already, but what I found so exciting about the research of Halpern, Hawkes, Gil Harris, and Smith is the way that these scholars bring both topics into conversation. For all the work on Renaissance sexuality, there’s much less on literature and Renaissance sex; the products of sexual activity, how its mechanics were viewed. These twin anxieties - about the proper place for the male body and its productions and potential productiveness, for the management of desire and about the ‘natural’ status and power of money - come together in curious ways. (Gil Harris cites several examples from early modern economic and dramatic texts where “purse”, “stones” and “jewels” are used as slang terms for scrotum and testicles).

I’ve found an awful lot of value in each of these books, and recommend them. The density of thought and allusion which can be unpacked and pondered over in a single image from one of the sonnets is another example of their power, and an interesting aside for those of us trained to think the Renaissance period in terms of the Marxist account of a social world about to come undone.


Richard Halpern, Shakespeare’s Perfumes: Sodomy and Sublimity in the Sonnets, Wilde, Freud, and Lacan. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylania Press, 2002.

Jonathan Gil Harris, Sick Economics: Drama, Mercantilism and Disease in Shakespeare’s England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

David Hawkes, Idols of the Marketplace: Idolatry and Commodity Fetishism in English Literature 1580 - 1680. NY: Palgrave, 2001.

Bruce R Smith, Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England. University of Chicago Press, 1991.

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