Book Review

Bruster, Douglas. Drama and the Market in the Age of Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Reviewed by Steve Deng | March 27, 2003

Drama and the Market in the Age of Shakespeare contributes to the study of the material bases of theater by examining both the development of commercial theater as a response to conditions in the market and the symbolic inscription of the market within theatrical productions. Situating the rise of commercial theater in the midst of the centralization of market culture, Bruster argues that the institutionalization of theater, while seeming to contradict the consummate dynamism and fluidity of the market, was in fact a strategic response for the protection of theater companies’ commercial interests. For Bruster, theaters became “markets in miniature” (7), sharing the essential visibility of product and the theatricality found in business practices. Moreover, dramatic inductions often alluded to the playwrights’ recognition of the exchange value in theater, as theatrical performance came to be seen as a valuable commodity being exchanged for playgoers’ money according to an implicitly contractual agreement. Finally, Bruster reads this business as part of the overall development in market culture rather than as a rebellious and marginalized response to central London culture. Theater became a significant participant in the development of an increasingly centralized market culture, and its symbolic inscription of market practices and mythologies became a “poetics of the market” which should be analyzed according to market, in addition to aesthetic, logic.

Of particular fascination to Renaissance dramatists was the transformative power of markets and money. Markets even seemed to assume a placeless quality, though the concentration of market activity in London may be explained by the rapid increase in population, which provided a customer and labor base for the expansion of market activity. Moreover, this population growth was essential to the success of commercial theater, which was supported by the sheer numbers of people wanting to take in a performance. Yet problems of overcrowding also affected the theater, such as the threat of plague, an outbreak of which would temporarily close theaters, and the threat of replacing the theaters with much needed tenements to house the surplus population. As Bruster makes clear, playhouses were not immune from general economic conditions and decisions that affected the London populace. And as a result, a “materialist vision,” explained by Bruster as “the collective focus of many dramatists on the essence of the physical world and its often demanding claims upon the foundations of urban existence” (38), came to be inscribed in theatrical productions, which were less concerned about place, as emphasized in the generic separation of “city comedy,” than about the particular, seemingly placeless, practices governed by market logic.

The “materialist vision” played a particular role in the recognition of commodity value even in categories not directly associated with commodity markets. For example, Bruster finds in the fascination with cuckoldry, especially the versions with the “wittol” who permits his own cuckolding for some personal gain, a “metaphor of gendered labor (expressed, for example, in the two meanings of the word “husband,” the labor of childbirth and the persistent references to one’s occupation (another double meaning)) and economic relations” (49), or an expression of the exchange economy transferred to the realm of personal relations. There are reasons, Bruster argues, why cuckolds are often merchants and merchants are often cuckolds. Included among these are the facts that money often gets in the way of reproduction and that marriage is often based on ownership. The view of women as possessions whose exchange value might increase a husband’s symbolic capital constitutes the flip side of another practice which gave material objects an independent identity. This practice is particularly evident in the use of stage properties; from the sixteenth to the seventeenth centuries we see a shift from props being used to signify something about a character or relation between characters to “a source of interest in their own right, as the center of a purity discourse which worked to equate subject and object on the material plane” (65). The shift occurs because of a process Bruster calls “commercial inscription,” which is “a reifying process that…marks objects with human identity, and qualifies subjectivity with characters of and reliance upon the objective” (65). The process can be seen at work in the genre of farce, where misplaced and rediscovered objects go hand in hand with misplaced and rediscovered identities.

But “commercial inscription” may be found in both tragedy (Othello) and comedy (Bartholomew Fair and Troilus and Cressida, in which, according to Bruster, a commercialized Troy becomes a prefiguration of commercial London), and the sheer number of examples Bruster finds shows the persistent presence of the market in Renaissance drama.

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