Economic Obsession in Early Literary Imagination: Shakespeare, Jonson and More


  • Francis K. H. So Kaohsiung Medical University 100, Shih-Chuan 1st Road Sanmin District, Kaohsiung 807



economic concerns, mentality, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Thomas More


That revenues, profits, wealth, valuables, properties and various forms of riches can be so attractive to most people is because these resources affect the operational mode of social economy and personal well-being. As a major driving force of social development, the desire to accumulate wealth affords people the prospect of leading a comfortable life. Yet the acquisition of which may bring down other people to become poorer and creating potential social injustice. Three interrelated concepts in money spending: consumption, fear of poverty and social justice/injustice are markedly shown in some of the great minds among English writers.

In this article, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Ben Jonson’s Volpone and Thomas More’s Utopia are used to demonstrate the concerns of the early modern English mentality. Some scholars have suggested that the first two playwrights reflected the fear that their London would come to be ruled by corruption, swindling, greediness, vicious competition and unethical business practices. In this pre-capitalist economy, people are seen to adopt unfair competition and reciprocal malice in order to accumulate wealth. Entrepreneurial liberation in economic affairs sets off the dark side of hu manity in which the playwrights were most probably implicated.

To counteract this rapacious thinking, Thomas More offers his conception of a wealthy and happy worldly life. Not to attack the self-centered, bene fit gaining intentions, Utopia builds up a society that claims fairness, commonwealth, more obligations than privileges and the wiping away of vanity. Mercantilism is not denied, yet private property is contained. Written earliest among the three works, Utopia anticipates the two plays that dwell on social evils sparked by over concern for personal gains.

Generally, the three works lay the foundation of positive and negative aspects of economy in terms of production, marketing, circulation, consumption and services of the English mind of that era. The social mood borders on the financial and political matters of the bourgeois class while providing a mega-worldview as well as micro-worldview of economic concern of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries England.


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