Feudal and Bourgeois Concepts of Value in The Merchant of Venice

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Author: Burton Hatlen
Editor: Michelle Lee
Date: 2005
From: Shakespearean Criticism(Vol. 87)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,671 words

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[(essay date 1980) In the following essay, Hatlen offers a Marxist reading of The Merchant of Venice, maintaining that the playwright questioned both feudal and bourgeois concepts of value.]

Twentieth-century historians such as R. H. Tawney and Christopher Hill have demonstrated that a profound economic, social, and cultural revolution was taking place in England during Shakespeare's lifetime.1 How did this revolution affect Shakespeare's art? Was he a "conservative" defender of the dying feudal order? Or was he perhaps a "progressive" spokesman of an emerging bourgeois civilization?

In the 1930s and 1940s scholars devoted a good deal of energy to debating such questions as these, and by the early 1950s a consensus on this matter had apparently emerged: Shakespeare was, such critics as Theodore Spencer and E. M. W. Tillyard persuasively argued, a "Christian humanist," a defender of a traditional, hierarchical world view.2 This Conception of Shakespeare has been, in the last two decades, subjected to attack from many quarters; most contemporary Shakespeareans would, I suspect, agree that the Spencer-Tillyard description of Shakespeare's world view is at the very least simplistic.3 Yet rather that seek a more accurate view of Shakespearean scholarship has in the last two decades largely busied itself with smaller, more easily resolvable questions of language, form, and theme. The one significant exception to this general tendency is Marxist literary scholarship, and the insistence of such critics as Robert Weimann, Paul N. Siegel, and Arnol Kettle that we must see Shakespeare within the context of his moment in history has made Marxist criticism, in my judgment, the most vigorous and fruitful of the various current tendencies in Shakespearean studies.4 However, it must also be recognized that Marxist scholarship has not yet achieved a consensus of its own on the question of Shakespeare's relationship to his epoch. Some Marxists, including Siegel, have continued to accept the Spencer-Tillyard conception of Shakespere as a "Christian humanist"5; others, such as Annette Rubenstein, have seen him rather as a "progressive" spokesman for all the bourgeoisie;6 and still others have regarded him as a representative of (in some phrases of Zdanek Anikst quoted by Siegel) "a cross-section of the nation's progressive elements," and have argued that he does not "express the interests of any one particular Estate over and above any other."7 My own (equally Marxist, I believe) approach to Shakespeare differs from all of these, for I see Shakespeare not as a spokesman for any one ideology but rather as an acute critic of all the ideologies current in his time. In this essay I shall seek to develop this conception of Shakespeare by focusing on his treatment of one central question, the nature of value, in one particular play, The Merchant of Venice in the attempt to show that the play, rather than inviting us to accept one or another of these ideas of value as "true," dramatizes the consequences of the two modes of thought here at issue--and thus, by implication at least,...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420063681