Playing for Profit: Staging Self-interest in Early Modern England

Alden, Lucie, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Maus, Katharine, English, University of Virginia

My dissertation, Playing for Profit: Staging Self-interest in Early Modern England, uses the works of Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, William Shakespeare, and Thomas Middleton to examine conflicting conceptions of self-interest in early modern drama. My research combines economic, theater, and book historical methodologies with close literary analysis to examine how the playwrights responded to London’s growing markets in their works and career decisions. Scholarship has long highlighted the financial rhetoric employed in early modern texts. Yet, scholars have rarely stopped to question the economic ideologies undergirding this moneyed language or how understanding the early moderns’ shifting economic perspectives can enhance our knowledge of the texts produced. Examining these works from the vantage point of social and economic exchange illuminates the dramatists’ divergent stances on individual choice, agency, and humanity’s capacity for cooperation. Necessitating a close engagement with questions of genre, commerce, and law, my dissertation challenges current scholarship by redefining the relationships between competing dramatists, the texts produced, and the producers and consumers of those works.
The first chapter of my dissertation juxtaposes Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta with Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to elucidate the authors’ contradictory conceptions of self-interest and human networks. With no reliable rule of law in Malta, order can only be regained through the reimposition of an inflexible tyrant, offering a grim picture of human cooperation. In Merchant, however, the maintenance of a reliable legal system and codified property rights allows citizens to reach more horizontal solutions through legal negotiation and exchange. Chapter 2 follows the political actions of Duke Vincentio and Prince Hal to posit that Shakespeare viewed self-interest as a positive force that could create socially beneficial solutions when harnessed appropriately. The chapter places Shakespeare and Adam Smith on the same intellectual trajectory by arguing that the seeds of Smith’s impartial spectator are already present in Shakespeare’s Duke Vincentio. Chapter 3 focuses on Shakespeare’s unique position as house playwright, shareholder, and investor in The Globe. I analyze how his personal investments shaped his approach to risk and reward, community engagement, and social welfare as seen in his sympathetic but pragmatic portrayal of the Cade rebellion in Henry VI, part 2. The final chapter explores Jonson’s cynical view of self-interest, tracing his persistent rejection of the commodification of playtexts and vilification of greed throughout his corpus, particularly in Volpone and Bartholomew Fair. I contrast Jonson’s repudiation of commercialization with Middleton’s enthusiastic embrace of the commodified play, marshalling the exceptional theatrical history of A Game at Chess to illustrate Middleton’s commercial savvy.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Shakespeare, theater history, early modern drama, book history, self-interest, capitalism, economic history, political economy, Adam Smith, invisible hand, public good, Ben Jonson , Cristopher Marlowe, Thomas Middleton, King's Men, The Globe, pragmatism, Theory of Moral Sentiments
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