Representing "Commodity" in Shakespeare's Theatre

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Title: Representing "Commodity" in Shakespeare's Theatre
Author: Mercier, Stephanie
Contributor: University of Helsinki, Faculty of Arts, Faculty of Arts and Faculty of Theology
Doctoral Programme in Philosophy, Arts and Society
Publisher: Helsingin yliopisto
Date: 2019-09-20
URI: 978-951-51-5307-4
Thesis level: Doctoral dissertation (monograph)
Abstract: Over the period Shakespeare was writing there was a fundamental evolution in the meaning of “commodity” from something beneficial or serving one’s interest to something to be sold for personal profit. One important aspect of Shakespeare’s theatre is its ability to show how the new notion of “commodity” could also mean trading men and women. Commodity can, therefore, already be associated with “commodification” (OED 1974). Moreover, the process can be recognised across the social scale. The social values of early modern society as mirrored in Shakespeare’s theatre, rather than being an individual matter, are thus shown to be part of a collective process. As studies have shown, the most obvious early modern human commodity was the prostitute and, through association with the Southwark district of London, where Shakespeare’s works were being performed, so were the “hired men”, or players. Yet, Shakespeare’s theatre accords a degree of agency (the ability to make choices and act on those choices) to both, especially women, who were considered as belonging to men (either their fathers or husbands) or as prostitutes, but who are nonetheless given some space for manoeuvre by the playwright. The same cannot always be said for male characters when they come into contact with commodity. In Shakespeare’s plays, where commodity is often at the core of power relations, male authority is shown to be frail and corrupt; it becomes deviant and often makes male characters subservient to unjust laws or demonstrate dishonourable behaviour. In this thesis I show that once authority has been decentred by commodity for profit, it can be further destabilised across society. Shakespeare’s male characters are thus shown to be as objectified as their female counterparts. The phenomenon was already a familiar one within the army, since soldiers had for centuries been mere cannon fodder. It is significant that commodification also affects other male characters, who seem, at best, submissive dupes to commodity (they are either their own victims of commodity desire or gulls to commodity scams) or, at worst, commodified themselves. Even the soldier-king is not exempt from a substantial loss of agency in Shakespeare’s representation of England’s feudalistic culture being replaced by mercantilism. I approach the representation of commodity empirically and from a variety of theoretical perspectives: essentially Gender Studies, New Economic Criticism and Close Reading. I demonstrate that “commodity” was a textual and physical source of structural alteration that was itself undergoing important changes. I show that Shakespeare’s was a theatre of commodities regardless of status and rank. Moreover, Shakespeare approaches commodity from a variety of perspectives, ranging from the comic and light-hearted, to the serious, derisive, and tragic. Most importantly, as commodity becomes increasingly perceptible on stage, some characters lose sight of themselves while others better manage to adjust to the increasing predisposition for commodities. In short, I explore three essential questions: What does Shakespeare’s representation of commodity show us about early modern society? How does Shakespeare’s representation of commodity relate to wider significations of value? Why should we consider the issue on a societal rather than an individual level?
Subject: Humanities and Social Sciences
Rights: This publication is copyrighted. You may download, display and print it for Your own personal use. Commercial use is prohibited.

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