Joyce Boro

title.none: Harris, Sick Economies (Joyce Boro)

identifier.other: baj9928.0509.009 05.09.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Joyce Boro, Universite de Montreal,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Harris, Jonathan Gil. Sick Economies: Drama, Mercantilism, and Disease in Shakespeare's England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. Pp. 263. $50.00 0-8122-3773-0. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.09.09

Harris, Jonathan Gil. Sick Economies: Drama, Mercantilism, and Disease in Shakespeare's England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. Pp. 263. $50.00 0-8122-3773-0. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Joyce Boro
Universite de Montreal

In this erudite and articulate book, Jonathan Gil Harris explores the complex and fascinating linguistic, conceptual, and epistemological relationships between disease and economics, demonstrating the interconnectivity of mercantilist and pathological metaphor and mode of thought and their ubiquity in early modern economic and dramatic texts. Harris's impressive awareness of medical and economic theory and history, coupled with his profound linguistic sensitivity enables him to unpack and reveal the language and discourse of the moral and economic etiology of disease. Through a series of unexpected textual groupings--such as The Comedy of Errors with Thomas Starkey's A Dialogue between Pole and Lupset and Thomas Smith's A Discourse of the Commonweal of This Realm of England--he shows how early modern drama partakes in mercantilist discourse, and he highlights its characteristically pathological lexicon.

But more than just expose this rich metaphorical and conceptual nexus, Harris illuminates how mercantilist and dramatic writing use the etiology of disease to contend with problematic formulations of nationhood and linkings of the foreign, the global, and the domestic. An overarching and particularly intriguing argumentative theme is the deployment of the language, discourse, and generic structure of romance within mercantilist discourse, suggesting that when combined with other genres the transnational, adventurous, and fairytale qualities of romance permit a valorization and ratification of global commercial enterprises, as well as an othering and demonization of foreigners and foreignness.

Sick Economies differs from previous studies of mercantilism, such as those by Mary Poovey and Michel Foucault in that it defines mercantilism as a "transnational typology" within which national and global economy are configured (6). It is, moreover, pathologically inflected and is marked by the paradoxical competition of understandings of value and disease as both endogenous and exogenous. Harris demonstrates how these competing etiologies manifest themselves in the fraught relationships and conceptualizations of the foreign vis-a-vis the domestic in terms of economic value and corporeal and moral health, which leads to the pathologization of the foreign and the othering of disease, and the simultaneous "stigmatiz[ation of] the foreign and naturaliz[ation of] the global" (19). This mercantilist pathology is configured as national, foreign, and global, and this tripartite formulation is differently nuanced from previous analyses and codings of disease which occur under a symbolically univalent, uniform typology of Disease. (In this context, Harris mentions specifically the work of Foucault, René Girard, Georges Canguilhem, and Emile Durkhem (19)). Harris's linguistic astuteness and careful reading strategies enable him to "attend to the enormous discursive productivity of these various aliments" (26) such as syphilis, taint, canker, serpego, plague, hepatitis, and consumption, showing how each disease entails a different pathology and etiology of illness, offers a unique, precise and sprawling linguistic and figurative nexus, and brings with it a methodology in which pathology, mercantilism, corporeality, value and the domestic, the foreign, and the global can be comprehended.

Sick Economies achieves its impressive objectives through an exceptional balance of close readings of dramatic and non-literary texts and wide-ranging economic and medical analyses. Detailed attention is paid to language as the nuances and polyvalencies of words are revealed. It is beautifully written; the incorporated puns and wordplay serve to reinforce the arguments. A similarly appreciated balance is the measured treatment of the dramatic and non-dramatic texts discussed. Rather than entirely sublimate the earlier, non-canonical, non-literary treatises to the later dramatic works, Harris's analyses of both groups are equally sensitive and revelatory.

After setting out his objectives and discursive and theoretical framework and concerns in chapter 1, Harris moves on to an examination of trade and syphilis in the work of Starkey and Smith, and in Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors. Through an unraveling of the figurative and linguistic potentiality of these texts, Harris uncovers their shared presentation of syphilis as both invasive and endogenous as well as their mutual deployment of these etiologies to mediate between competing attitudes towards the national implications of foreign trade. Particularly exemplary is Harris's homonymic spinning of "errors" into "hours," "whores," and "hairs," which reflects the blurring of disease, commerce, and morality within the play. It also alludes to the underlying anxiety behind contestation of the Galenic model of humoral imbalance and excessive appetite by an understanding of economic and pathological malaise rooted in foreign contagion. The Comedy of Errors and Starkey's and Smith's texts exhibit traces of "syphilitic economy"--that is an economy which "mediates between a residual moral discourse of appetitive economy and an emergent systematic discourse of global trade" and a discourse of the body as vulnerable to internal and external threats (49).

Chapter 3 is marked by another unusual textual yoking: the interrelated concepts of taint and usury and explored in Gerard Malynes's Saint George for England Allegorically Described, The Dutch Church Libel, and Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Harris describes how the mercantile lexicon of infection resonates in these three texts as the engage with the "alienability of money and identity across national borders" (51, 53). Differing from earlier studies of The Merchant of Venice, usury, and Jewishness, Harris explains how the category of the "Jew" participates in the rhetorical signification of usury, and how the usurer--linked to the Jew as a transnational hybrid of contamination--is configured as an indeterminate palimpsest which destabilizes, fixes, and confounds typologies of identity, and which is used in the creation and tainting of the myth of a pure national identity.

The semantic shadings and pathologies of canker and serpego, diseases believed to be both endogenous and invasive, are examined in relation to parallel concerns regarding the creation and origins of value and disease in chapter 4. Both Malynes's Canker of England's Commonwealth and Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida engage in the problematization of the cross-border migration of disease and value. The creeping, devouring nature and language of canker and contamination infects these texts as they question whether disease and value are internally or externally rooted. While the play explores these etiologies it fails to provide a clear answer, suggesting that pathology and mercantilist worth "are indeterminately humoral and ontological, endogenous and invasive" (88).

The effects of economic developments on dramatic figurations of disease are explored in relation to Ben Jonson's Volpone in chapter 5. Looking at the play in tandem with Timothy Bright's medical and Thomas Milles's economic writings, Harris exposes a common disquietness regarding cross-border trade since it is viewed as simultaneously constitutive and contaminating of the domestic body politic. This manifests itself through the language and treatment of plague as transmigratory and as derived from the nascent global economy, which alludes to the contemporaneous shift from a Galenic and Aristotelian medical science of humors and elements and from an understanding of plague as divinely ordained, to a vision of plague as a pathology that transmigrates between bodies and nations. In Volpone, this ontological configuration of disease is enhanced by a satirical treatment of the doctrine of the transmigration of the soul.

Pirate drama's corporeal language of treasure and its preoccupation with castration and the concomitant language of blood flow and circulation are the subject of chapter 6. In addition to these linguistic commonalities, Thomas Heywood's The fair Maid of the West, Philip Massinger's Renegado and the mercantilist writings of Malynes and Edward Misselden's pamphlet war exhibit shared concerns with treasure, the exchange of capital, and the conception of the state. The physiological effects of castration, linked to liver function within the Galenic system, provided these writers with a language of economic pathology suited to the exploration of topical issues and anxieties regarding the flow of commerce and the relationships between the state and independent trade ventures. Again, as in previous chapters, economic advances are shown to impact upon notions of corporeality and disease; Harris compellingly demonstrates how "early modern medicine and mercantilism shaped each other's horizons of discursive possibility" (162).

Chapter 7 disengages the entwined polyvalencies--pathological and mercantilist--of consumption as articulated in Thomas Mun's economic treatises and Thomas Dekker's and Thomas Middleton's The Roaring Girl. Similarly to other medical and economic discursive points of contact studied by Harris, consumption "pathologizes foreign bodies [as] it also ratifies global connectedness as the basis of the healthy nation state" (164). Mun's pathologically infected theorization of economic consumption is figured as a wasteful depletion of the body politic, fuelled by domestic appetite; but, such contamination is also positively nuanced in that it provides a controlled and economically advantageous encounter with foreignness. Paralleling Mun's writing, in which consumption is linked both to foreignness and to desired individual gain, The Roaring Girl is a departure from Middleton's earlier wasteful and pathologically delineated articulation of consumption. Consumption is the play's theme and specific ontological condition through its presentation of the disease as both pathologically and economically healthful and wasteful. The play's various characters' consumptive activities only reinforce heir lack and they further oppose them to Moll, whose consumption is consummate--it is the "mark of a unique hermaphroditic plenitude" (182).

Sick Economies is a development from Harris's Foreign Bodies and the Body Politic (Cambridge 1998), itself a reworking of his doctoral thesis. As he reveals in the acknowledgments to Sick Economies the earlier study "neglected the important pathological vocabulary of the period's mercantilist literature (261) and was not sufficiently informed by economic history and theory. With this new book, Harris certainly redresses the balance, providing his readers with astute economically, pathologically, and linguistically inflected readings and analyses of early modern drama and culture.