Tradefull Merchants: the Portrayal of the Capitalist in Literature

John McVeagh

Margot Heinemann | Published in

This study of the portrayal of the capitalist in English literature over the past 500 years is valuable for its rich and detailed documentation (especially the fascinating unfamiliar quotations from less-known works), rather than for any new or profound cultural analysis. Questions of literary form or intended audience are largely ignored. Nevertheless it demonstrates in a thought- provoking way how over this long time-span our literature has more often than not shown hostility to capitalists and traders (by whose activities the society appears to live), though usually in favour of the life-style of landowning aristocrats and gentlemen-scholars, financed by the capitalism it criticises.

Late-medieval and early Tudor writers like Langland and More still assume an economically static society as the norm: thrusting merchants and capitalists are simply examples of the sin of avarice, as in the morality play Respublica or Marlowe's Jew of Malta in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama the clash between old and new attitudes is more complex. Dekker and Heywood, writing for the popular theatres, praise the new trading ventures and make heroes of Gresham, the great merchant, and Eyre, the master- shoemaker who rises to be Lord Mayor. Alongside this, however, runs the sharply hostile treatment of capitalists as usurers and bloodsuckers in plays by Massinger, Jonson and other city-comedy satirists. This 'anti-mercantile' comedy lasts into Restoration times, where the values of a socially elite theatre are smart and snobbish, and the merchant is seen as either knave or fool.

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