Carnegie Mellon University

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Shakespeare and the Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism Ecology, Reproduction, and Commodities

posted on 2021-04-30, 20:27 authored by Natalie SuzelisNatalie Suzelis
Shakespeare and the Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism: Ecology, Reproduction, and Commodities seeks to intervene in Marxist and feminist criticism, environmental humanities, and early modern cultural studies in showing how Shakespeare’s plays organize transitional forms
of environment and identity across dramatic form. In arguing that Shakespearean criticism should expand the concept of primitive accumulation to include political and ecological forms of accumulation, this project demonstrates, as Frederic Jameson put it, not only what “critical theory
has to tell us about Shakespeare, but also what Shakespeare has to tell us about radical criticism”
(“Radicalizing Radical Shakespeare” 328). My introduction, Dramatic Transitions: Political and Ecological Accumulation, reads Karl Marx’s tripartite theory of land, labor, and commodities back through the environmental history of capitalism, offering a new approach to early modern literary criticism through a synthesis of world systems theory and cultural studies. While Marxist theory has made much use
of the term “primitive accumulation” from Capital, Vol. 1 to describe the development and expansion of the capitalist system, I argue that the conceptual frames of combined and uneven development for ecological and political accumulation are more useful for understanding the
transition from feudalism to capitalism as a combined, uneven, and ongoing process. Showing how this process developed in the “core” of the English countryside by way of the transition debates, I argue that understanding ecological and political accumulation through reproduction– rather than
focusing on the productive forces– can provide literary criticism with a stronger account of capitalist transition, so that we might better investigate its cultural artifacts.
In outlining the early history of ecological accumulation, my second chapter, “The Bay Trees Are All Wither’d” Richard II and Ecological Trauerspiel uses the dramatic form of
Trauerspiel to show how Shakespeare’s Richard II thematically looks back upon late feudal ecology at the transition from the Medieval Warm Period to the Little Ice Age. I introduce the concept of ecological Trauerspiel to elucidate how Richard II reflects on this moment of transition, and the primitive accumulation that will follow, with a sense of mourning, especially from the prophetic John of Gaunt, who argues that this “dear, dear land” is now “leased out.” Although both Richard Halpern and Zenon Luis-Martinez have made the case for reading Richard II as
Trauerspiel, my analysis expands Luis-Martinez’s analysis of grief and Halpern’s notion of “fiscal Trauerspiel” in arguing that the fiscus of the play, its notions of time, and its allegories of grief are all indebted to the historical and ecological terrain—the literal earth—on which the play is enacted. I argue that Richard II places the land at the center of this Trauerspiel because it chronicles a process of primitive accumulation that is fundamentally ecological in nature. In moving from ecological to political accumulation, I examine the development of European absolutism from the perspective of reproduction in my chapter “Injurious Love”
Measure for Measure and the Problem of Early Modern Social Reproduction. This chapter reads early modern governmental, legal, and ecclesiastical conflicts of social and sexual reproduction back through Measure for Measure, by synthesizing notions of political accumulation from Robert Brenner, Louis Althusser, Immanuel Wallerstein, and Antonio
Gramsci. Although previous criticism has connected Measure for Measure’s political agenda to
Machiavellian values, scholars have yet to apply Althusser’s reading of Machiavelli as a modern political theorist to the play’s representation of gendered divisions of labor and the reproduction of the laboring classes. Although the play represents the Catholic city of Vienna as a stronger form
of absolutism, I argue that this problem comedy reveals more contradictions than resolutions in its representation of marriage, sex work, and the mercenary war economy of European absolutist states from the point of view of the Protestant economy of England. In moving from problem comedy to romance and farce, my chapter, Commodities of
Error: Shakespeare and the Dialectics of Comedy provides a dialectical reading of romantic and farcical conventions in The Comedy of Errors. In drawing from Michael Taussig’s account of the link between commodity fetishism and notions of witchcraft in the periphery, for example, I
show how Shakespeare depicts particularly modern conceptions of slavery and commodity fetishism through farce. While the Dromio twins sustain the play’s farcical elements, the Antipholus twins draw out a conventional romantic resolution in their family’s reunion; yet the
play’s very last lines, spoken by the Dromio twins, subtly critique the play’s romantic conventions by emphasizing the ironic equality of the Dromio brothers, due to their pure exchangeability as enslaved laborers. This commentary builds upon an undercurrent of farce developed throughout,
including the Dromio brothers’ jokes about their abuse, their comedic perceptions of witchcraft, and the ironic “unbinding” of Dromio of Ephesus at the hands of his own master. Arguing that the play’s intertwined economic and social currents are set against the backdrop of global trade, I show
how the fundamental “error” of The Comedy of Errors stems from the farcical confusion of these two sets of identical twins – two merchants and two slaves –in ways that mirror modern use and exchange value of the transatlantic commodity circuit. As this transatlantic commodity circuit accelerated the colonial development of the periphery, the extraction and circulation of labor-intensive commodities like sugar and tobacco developed early capitalism’s commodity frontiers. In mapping these frontiers onto The Tempest,
my chapter, “Born Devils” Romance and the Commodity Frontiers of Early Capitalism argues that medieval and early modern race studies can share insights with the environmental humanities in understanding environmental inequities of The Tempest as mapping painfully extractive
discourses onto Caliban’s body, the ocean, and the island in the interest of Prospero’s “profit” (1. 2. 316). I also show how notions of race from medieval travel and romance genres are repurposed in early modern travel narratives, many of which are referenced by characters in The Tempest, who
internalize these narratives’ notions of endless abundance in seeking out new landscapes to explore and exploit. I argue that The Tempest’s political ecology develops the transatlantic “green sea” (5. 1. 43) as a literal and metaphorical gateway for plantation development, energy extraction, and accumulation. My final chapter, Climate Leviathan and Tragedies of the Commons, reflects on this
history in light of the current global climate crisis, where energy extraction continues to terraform our planetary landscape and impact our climate, showing how the political and ecological accumulation of early capitalism – now reaching its limits of expansion – remains profoundly
relevant to debates around the Anthropocene, the climate crisis, and the gendered and raced inequities of world-economic growth. Together, these chapters trace the ecological and political accumulation of the global capitalist system through the emergence of environmental, gendered,
and racialized forms in Shakespeare. This account moves beyond industrial-based accounts of capitalist development and genealogies of modernity that fail to recognize a much longer environmental and cultural history of combined and uneven development from the core to the periphery in early modern capitalist accumulation. The framework of political and ecological accumulation is an important frame for Shakespearean criticism that can also help us understand
how capitalist structures produce and reproduce over centuries of expansion and development.




Degree Type

  • Dissertation


  • English

Degree Name

  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Christopher Warren

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