Shakespeare’s Economics


The thesis of my article becomes less jarring when one realizes that a significant body of work finds economic themes in Shakespeare in general, and in Measure for Measure in particular.   Some of that work cites many of the same economic references that I have cited. 


As stated in the paper:  “That Measure for Measure is recognized to contain more coinage references than any other Shakespeare play is apparent from a review of the notes by Lever, Gibbons, and Eccles in their editions of Measure for Measure; R.J. Kaufmann ties these references together as evidence of a strong economic theme. R.J. Kaufmann, “Bond Slaves and Counterfeits: Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure,” in Shakespeare Studies III (U. Cinn. 1967), 85.”


Below, I summarize or quote (sometimes at some length) from the work of various other scholars in this area.


1.         Sandra Fischer:  Econolingua.  This out-of-print and hard to find book (which I no longer have possession of as I write this) is a dictionary of economic terms used in Shakespeare’s time.  Looking up any given word (e.g. “picture”) gives you the word’s economic meaning (“picture” being slang for “coin”), plus examples of it being used that way, in Shakespeare’s plays as well as other contemporary works.


2.         J.D. Lever, ed., Measure for Measure, The Arden Shakespeare (London: Metheun, 1965), 62 n.129: referring to the “recurrent coin image” in Measure for Measure.


3.         Rosalind Miles, The Problem of Measure for Measure: A Historical Investigation (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, Harper & Row Publishers Inc., 1976), 208:  Referring to the “coin image” in Measure for Measure that “runs throughout the play.”


4.         Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare After All (New York: Pantheon 2004), 576:  Noting the interest Shakespeare displayed in “weights and measures.”


5.         R.J. Kaufmann, “Bond Slaves and Counterfeits: Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure,” In Shakespeare Studies III:


“. . . . this is a branching variant of a more basic habitual connection:  that made between man's "mettle" and the terminology of coinage.”


“Thus we find that the opening speeches of Act I tightly incorporate the tone and theme of the play.  The Duke's opening speech is heavily imprinted with the imagery of economics.”


“The words 'figure' and 'bear' in line sixteen provide a substantial continuation of the metaphor; as J.W. Lever points out, the words suggest 'the ducal stamp on the seal of the commission.  Shakespeare further integrated Angelo into the coinage metaphor, for, 'They have in England / A coin that bears the figure of an angel Stamped in gold.' (MV, II.vii.56-57).”


“As the Duke continues his opening remarks to his old counselor, Escalus, the imagery of coinage comes to a fuller fruition.”


“The Duke notes, 'spirits are not finely touch’d/but to fine issues. . . .’ (I.i.35-36).  Lever points out, ‘“Touched” and “issues”, with “fine” (= refined) suggest the “touch” placed on gold coins of standard fineness before they were passed into circulation.’”


“Finally we see the culmination of the metaphor in the self-confident remark of Angelo" [i.e. the remark about testing his metal/mettle]


“Ernest Leisi comments on the use of the word ‘test’ in this context: ‘Originally “melting pot” (Latin testa) . . . the word acquired the force of a nomen actionis “examination of precious metals by melting.’”


“In Elizabethan usage ‘metal’ was interchangeable with the spelling and meaning of mettle.  There are reinforcing usages in Timon of Athens: ‘They have all been touch'd and found base metal’ (III.iii.6), and in King John: ‘Which, being touch'd and tried, Proves valueless.’ (III.i.101).


“The first fifty-one lines of Measure for Measure establish the basic terms of the play.”


6.         Stephen X. Mead, “‘Thou Art Changed’: Public Value and Personal Identity in Troilus and Cressida”; Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 22:2 (Spring 1992):


“As a dramatist and business man, Shakespeare knew the vagaries of the theater business and the shifting faces of currency in the Elizabethan economy.  Even in a period in which money was a frequent topic on the stage, Shakespeare distinguishes himself by using terms of coinage, currency, exchange rates, counterfeiting, and minting practices to dramatize the mutability of supposedly absolute ideals.  With the concurrent phenomena of New World exploration (and the resultant import of precious metals), increased competition in the European trade markets, trade imbalances with Asia, shifting exchange rates at Antwerp, and the depletion of domestic treasure, even the common merchant, businessman, or theater owner would be forced to bring contemporary economic wisdom to his trade.


“At this time in European literary and economic history, the traditional association of purse and person (with regard to monarchs as well as to other persons of wealth) becomes enmeshed in and complicated by contemporary anxieties concerning the very substance of wealth and value. . . .  In this study I would like to suggest that the extra literary debates over the meaning of money, wealth, and exchange show themselves in the very rupture that makes Troilus and Cressida the problematic play it is: the discrepancy between abstract ideals and manipulated commodities.  The protean nature of money, as it was experienced and in part understood by the economic thinkers of Shakespeare’s age, resonates with the characters’ understanding of themselves and one another.  Reputation – that great commodity in both Ilium and the Greek camp – is inseparable from the historical discussions of coinage, national wealth, and the mercantilist policies pursued by early modern European principalities.

 . . .


“Reputation, a product of language represented by Shakespeare in his metaphors of money, is a superimposed identity, just as the ‘intrinsic worth’ of coin is a determination of declared value.  Munro writes that ‘princes were naturally concerned to protect the integrity of their mints, their coinage, and their country’s “stock of treasure.”  Their honor and sovereignty were at stake, as well as their purse.’  Not only are money and reputation often similar; at times they can be one and the same.  In Shakespeare’s play, when someone’s reputation is altered by the language of others, that person is ‘chang’d,’ both transformed and coined.  To be coined, for currency and person, is to be a publicly declared valued that may or may not correspond to substance.  It is a move away from individual identity and toward a quantifiable function of circulation.”


. . . .


“Shakespeare’s play, I shall argue, reflects these larger economic concerns.  Moreover, Shakespeare uses contemporary economic ideas for dramatic ends.  The playwright dramatizes Cressida’s reputed falseness in economic terms to suggest that the declared value of money and reputation are constructs of a shifting human will.  Even Cressida’s identity – as it comes to Shakespeare – is a construct:   by placing the story of Cressida’s betrayal in terms of coinage, Shakespeare suggests that it is her reputation and not her character that is counterfeit.  Furthermore, words such as ‘true’ and ‘false’ have no meaning in a discourse that remains bound to a defunct system of economic values.  Cressida is not, therefore , a false coin that is exposed in a new market, when she is ‘chang’d’ for Antenor.  The central idea of Troilus and Cressida is that that happens normally, if regrettably, to a coin occurs to a character, and it occurs because the language of currency has bled through to the language of human character and identity, where it assumes an absolutism that belies the natures of both currency and humanity.”


7.        Douglas Bruster, Drama and the Market in the Age of Shakespeare (Cambridge U.P. 1992), esp. 97-117 (“‘The Alteration of Men’: Troilus and Cressida, Troynovant, and Trade”):


“In personifying two coins – the one as Troilus, the other Cressida – and endowing them with desires and traits of their own, Feste participates in what I have described in the preceding pages as the tendency of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama to objectify the personal.  Significantly, the project he hints at here would be carried out extensively in a play written during the same period: Shakespeare’s own Troilus and Cressida (1602).”


Troilus and Cressida repeatedly refers to merchants and to trade, large-scale and small, and its characters often use the language of commerce.  The heroic diction of the prologue and the coarse language of commodity in the epilogue set up two poles of dramatic language in the drama:  even as Latinity, parallelism, illeisms, and formal rhetoric appear in the play, so does the slang of the streets, satirical abuse, and mercantile talk – something several critics have noticed.  T.J. Stafford has discussed the mercantile images and commercial figures in the drama:  terms like ‘price,’ ‘worth,’ ‘value’ and ‘estimation’ come, in his words, not ‘from the exterior of the pay,’ but ‘from its thematic center.’  Douglas Wilson points out that in Troilus and Cressida ‘Shakespeare couches his philosophic theme of value in imagery of merchandising.’  Sandra Fischer places Troilus and Cressida with Othello and King Lear in a group of three plays “using economics as a secondary or supporting matrix addressing the role of money in society and the proper ‘valuing’ of human relations.”  And seeing ‘transaction’ at ‘the very core of the problem of human relationships that concerns Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressida,” C.C. Barfoot suggests that ‘this concern is signified by the prevalence of the mercantile metaphor that runs through the play.’  Of course the language of Shakespeare’s plays typically operates on many registers, as characters often use diction and images coextensive with their social station.  Almost inevitably, commercial references spring up in the language of particular characters in each play.”


(citing Douglas B. Wilson, “The Commerce of Desire, Freudian Narcissism in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida,” English Language Notes 21 (1983): 15; Sandra K. Fischer, Econolingua: A Glossary of Coins and Economic Language in Renaissance Drama (Newark University of Delaware Press, 1985) p. 29 (and noting that Fischer’s “first tier of plays in which economics play a primary role is comprised of The Comedy of Errors, The Merchant of Venice, and Timon of Athens”); C.C. Barfoot, “Troilus and Cressida: ‘Praise us as we are tasted’,” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988)).


8.         Sandra K. Fischer, “‘He Means To Pay’: Value and Metaphor in the Lancastrian Tetralogy,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 40:2 (Summer 1989):


“The metaphorical center of the Lancastrian cycle lies in a cluster of tropes that spill from the mouths of all the major characters, revealing larger concerns of political alliance, concerns with the individual in history.  It is a pattern that equates human relations with economic transactions, and at its base is an experimentation with new ways of finding identity and defining human value in the context of a quickly developing social-exchange mentality.”


. . .


“In the speech of both Henry and Hal, four structural patterns of economy and economic metaphor emerge:  the testing of language as a currency that lends value to its manipulation; the comparing of the historical ripening of time to a contract maturing; the marking of a backdrop of macroeconomic transition and the debasement of traditional values; and the asserting of the contractual basis of  all human endeavor and relation.”

. . .


Hereford’s initial complaint against Mowbray is essentially economic: Mowbray retained money given him to pay the king’s soldiers.  To this accusation Hereford adds the personal complaint of ‘false suggestions and malicious counsel’, which extends the conception of economy to the abuse of language in a consistent word-coin analogy: speaking falsely becomes a form of counterfeiting and thus a distortion or misrepresentation of reputation, a measure of human social value.”


“Hal has intrinsic ‘mettle,’ as he himself often asserts.  Because his face, when he becomes king, will be stamped on the coinage as a symbol of value, now its features themselves are a form or credit or I.O.U. – that is, an implied contract for payment.  Falstaff’s intrinsic ‘mettle’ is his wit, and this he must coin into an exchange value of multisignifying words.”

. . .


“Inheriting nobility and right rule from his father, Hal fares better than others in this time of inflation and debasement, a confusion in values caused by a confusion in true and proper government.  Thus we learn that Robin the hostler died when the price of oats rose (2.1.10-13), just as Richard was deposed partly because of economic disasters.  The civil war itself reflects economic debasement and uncertainty:  it causes, as Hotspur says, ‘bloody noses and crack’d crowns’ (that is, in one meaning, coins of a debased issue or faulty minting), and he complains that we must ‘pass them current too’ (2.3.93-94) – that is, accept them as valuable.  Strife is so prevalent that soldiers, like new coins, are stamped each season as a new assertion of might and value (4.1.4-5); and land, which traditionally lent prestige and nobility to its owner, ‘[y]ou may buy  . . . now as cheap as stinking mack’rel’ (2.4.359-60). Negation of the traditional status and power base afforded by land ownership reveals a vacuum of values for which alternative modes and more appropriate economic metaphors must be found.”

. . .


“Henry V restores intrinsic value to the kingship, being a ‘fellow of plain and uncoin’d constancy.’”


9.         Jesse M. Lander, “Crack’d Crowns and Counterfeit Sovereigns: The Crisis of Value in 1 Henry IV,” Shakespeare Studies (Annual 2002), 156:


“Rather than consider the admittedly obtrusive language of credit and debt, I want to examine a set of specifically numismatic images that serve to focus attention on the relationship between the monarch and economic value in a particularly acute manner. The language of coins and coinage, informed by the history of the English currency with its debasements, enhancements, and reforms as well as the daily practices associated with the circulation of coin, is animated by the peculiar and shifting nexus of sovereign power and economic value found in a coin.  As Posthumus remarks in Cymbeline, “’Tween man and man they weigh not every stamp;/ Though light, take pieces for the figure’s sake.” (5.4.24-25).


“The principal element in this crisis was an acceleration of inflation, an economic fact that had real consequences for all those who participated in monetary transactions. . . .  The playhouses themselves, where Shakespeare made his living by entertaining a paying audience, were both a product of this fer3ent and a contributor to it.  ‘A collective Stock Exchange of ideas,’ as well as, ‘a laboratory of and for the new social relations of agricultural and commercial capitalism,’ the new professional theater was able to profit from make-believe.  It is not surprising, then that the crisis in value that might be said to be the enabling condition of the theatrical enterprise became, at times, its subject.”


. . .


“The language of coinage, attuned to the potential contradiction between the sovereign’ stamp and the coin’s alloy, conveys the complex intertwining of value and legitimacy.”


“More intriguing is Hotspur’s assertion to Kate that ‘We must have bloody noses and crack’d crowns,/ And pass them current too” (2.3.94-95).  Crown as head, as monarchy, and as coin all coalesce in a fantastic boast that points to a connection between violence and both economic and political systems of value. The usually surreptitious act of passing cracked or deficient coin is here presented as an act of coercive, masculine force: Hotspur imagines himself imposing a new currency of wounds.  This recurrent use of numismatic language articulates, in the aesthetic terms of the history play, a crisis of value that impinges upon both the economic and the political realm.  However, the complexities of value registered by the play are ultimately resolved by a return to an aristocratic dispensation that grounds itself on the possibility of violence. By returning to an earlier historical moment in which value and sovereignty were contested, the play attempts to manage the crisis of inflation as well as the unsettling history of the Tudor coinage.”


Of particular import to the “picture in little” argument:  “Though Sydney Anglo admits that ‘the coinage was, beyond comparison, the most far-reaching medium for display of royal portraiture, dynastic badges and political epigraphy,’ he concludes that ‘it remains the most striking example of its limited efficacy.’  Nonetheless, Henry VII clearly attempted, as Elizabeth would during her reign, to use the coinage to bolster the prestige and legitimacy of his reign.”


“When Falstaff jokingly tells Hal, ‘thou cam’st not of the blood royal, if thou darest not stand for ten shilling’ (1.2.136-37), he is punning on the fact that a royal was worth, or stood for, ten shillings.  However the joke does more, it reverses the conventional view that the sovereign establishes the relationship between coin and value, suggesting instead that it is this immutable equivalence that determines true royalty.  In other words, if Hal refuses to endorse the equation between 10 shillings and a royal, then his own royalty is suspect.  Correct monetary policy – the proper equivalence between coin and value – now determines the true king.”


“The troubled (and troubling) connection between prince and coin is visible in Hal’s first scene when he reminds Falstaff that he has always paid the tab, ‘so far as my coin would stretch, and where it would not I have used my credit’ (1.2.52-53).  The metaphor of stretched coin used by the heir apparent suggests a disturbing elasticity that recalls debasement.”


Falstaff’s seemingly limitless appetite predictably leads to fantasies about limitless coining.  Attempting to avoid settling his bill at the tavern, he tells the Hostess to seek payment from Bardolph: ‘Look upon his face.  What call you rich?  Let them coin his nose, let them coin his cheeks’ (3.3.75-78).  All the coin spent on sack has magically been preserved in Bardolph’s rubicund flesh, which is now grotesquely figured as proper matter for the Mint.  When Bardolph apprises him of his debt – ‘This bottle makes an angel’ (4.2.6) – he answers: ‘And if it do, tae it for they labour – and if it make twenty, take them all, I’ll answer the coinage’ (4.2.7-8).  Both these jokes revolve around the curious way in which coins combine form and matter, image and metal.  Is coinage defined by its substance (Bardolph’s nose) or by the authority of the figure (Falstaff) who agrees to ‘answer’ for it?  Falstaff’s punning take on coinage, as well as his more general skepticism, reveals a lack of confidence in the coin’s ability to act as a stable measure of value.  Indeed his very corpulence figures inflation, and his profligate attitude is one perfectly suited to an inflationary economy in which consumption is a sensible strategy.”


10.       Frederick Turner, Shakespeare's Twenty-First-Century Economics: The Morality of Love and Money (Oxford U.P. 1999):


“But what if there is a serious question about the legitimacy of the stamp or inscription with which the raw material is impressed?  Who has the right to mint a coin?  What if the king, whose image is on the coin, is not a legitimate kin?  What makes a king legitimate anyway?  A sufficiently large number of counterfeit coins will debase a currency; a counterfeit king can debase a whole commonwealth.”


“This is not to say [Hal] is not a good king in many ways.  He has the mettle, discipline, and intelligence of a true king – his blood, in Shakespeare’s metaphor, is vigorous and potent.  He has the right metal to be king, but the inscription has been improperly acquired, and thus his coinage, so to speak, is suspect.  Shakespeare plays with this idea throughout all four plays, punning on the colloquial terms for the coins of the realm – “crown” (five shillings), “royal” (ten shillings), “cross” (the inscription on the ‘tails’ side of various coins), and ‘sovereign’ (one pound).  How can the English monarchy, Shakespeare asks, recover its legitimacy? 


11.       Jonathan Gil Harris, Sick Economies: Drama, Mercantilism, and Disease in Shakespeare’s England (U. of Pennsylvania P. 2004), 83-107 (“Canker/Serpego and Value, Gerard Malynes, Troilus and Cressida”):


“When Viola gives Feste a coin in Twelfth Night, he begs another:  “I would play Lord Pandarus of Phrygia, sir, to bring a Cressida to this Troilus” (3.1.51-52). The comparison of Cressida and Troilus to money provides a suggestive point of connection with which to begin unraveling the more substantive links between Malynes’s and Shakespeare’s texts.  Feste’s remark makes explicit what is in Troilus and Cressida a perhaps surprising subtext: Shakespeare’s play about the long-gone Heroic Age is obsessed with decidedly contemporary, mercantile issues of currency, trade, and valuation.  More specifically, both its principal female characters are coded as public yardsticks of value who, like Malynes’s public mensura, money, are nevertheless themselves subject to revaluation in the course of foreign exchange.  The play’s concern with value has attracted considerable attention from scholars, who have often viewed Shakespeare as offering a proleptic Hobbesian vision of market economy.  Troilus and Cressida’s ruminations on value, however, couched in the contradictory terms of a pathological discourse torn between exogenous and endogenous etiologies of disease, resonate much more closely with the language, concerns, and confusions of Malynes’s Canker of England’s Commonwealth.


“Malynes’s anxiety about the unregulated private origins of value is echoed through the play.”


“In insisting that any object’s value ought to be ‘precious of itself’ rather than arbitrarily derived from ‘particular will,’ Hector echoes Malynes’s complaint that the overvaluation of currencies in foreign exchange produces ‘but an imaginative wealth, consisting in the denomination and not in substance’ (sig. F6v).”


10.       Booth, Stephen, Shakespeare's Sonnets (Yale U.P. 1977)

Booth, in analyzing the last line of Sonnet 144 ("Till my bad angel fire my good one out") explains:

“Last but not least, the line activates one of the favorite Renaissance puns, that on angel meaning a spiritual being and the coin called “an angel” (see 119.9, not, MWW I.iii.50-54, etc.). The pun is activated by the splendidly comic echo of “Gresham’s Law,” an economic axiom propounded by Sir Thomas Gresham in a letter to Queen Elizabeth in 1558: “Bad money drives out good.” (p. 500.)

Earlier in his explanation of this sonnet, Booth points the reader to the "Ophelia-like ravings of the Jailer's Daughter in TNK [Two Noble Kinsmen]," which Booth says "occur[] in a context of incidental references to coins and coining." (p. 500). Of great significance to the Hamlet argument, the TNK passage includes a statement by the doctor: "How her brain coynes!", in response to the coinage imagery employed by the Jailer's daughter (who, like Hamlet, uses the word "cutpurse"). In other words, in TNK we have a character saying "How her brain coins" just after the character has used coinage imagery. In Hamlet, we have a character saying "it is the very coinage of your brain," in a scene where we propose coinage imagery has been used. The TNK passage clearly supports the proposal as to Hamlet.