Reflecting on Ben (as usual).

In preparing the footnotes for “Chapter One,” I’ve been re-reading a number of critical articles over the past week,[i] and lit upon Richard Waswo’s “Crises of Credit: Monetary and Erotic Economies in the Jacobean Theatre.”

Waswo takes as his departure point the number of lawsuits filed over debt in early modern England. Drawing his stats from Craig Muldrew’s Economy of Obligation, Waswo records that “the annual rate of litigation at one lawsuit for every household in the nation (over 1.1 million), never equaled since” (57). Waswo continues to discuss the continued reliance on an economy of credit in early modern England, despite the apparent lack of logic behind that system:

what remains constant in the period is that it still makes no ‘distinction between the utilitarian world of economics and a more “subjective” social world of feelings and events’. There is as yet no dismal science, no pure calculation; exchange and negotiation are material and affective — and, we may add, symbolic — at once. (57)

Waswo then goes on to discuss the similarities between monetary and social credit and trust: to persuade a potential buyer to invest in one’s business, for example, involves the same processes as those used in persuading a “mate” (whether lover or friend) to invest value in one’s body:

desire can be satisfied by whole classes of appropriate persons or objects — it is only the pure irrationality of live that invests a single individual with that power […] The splendid arbitrariness [of investing bodies with erotic value] […] is a dramatization in the erotic economy of the newly unsettling principle of the material one. What we see is not what we get, and may or may not be there , but it merely what we want. If enough of us want it, however, than our imagination invests it with supreme value, It is the principle of the dramatic economy of comedy, too: we the audience, want the happy ending, the appropriate amourous pairings or social reconciliations, and we do not much care how implausibly it may occur. (60)

Essentially, the body underneath is not essential at all: it does not matter whether a body is beautiful or virtuous, or (from the point of view of the audience watching the boy actor on stage) male or female: the individual, and then the collective, invests what kind of value they want to get out of the body.

In my analysis of Middleton’s The Roaring Girl, I posited that Middleton seems to agree with Waswo[ii], and portrays his London as a kind of simulacra: that is, a world where all value and exchanges (of bodies and other commodities) are based on series of simulations and dissimulations, of gender, of desire, of wealth and reputation. Simulations being a type of performance (or performance being a type of simulation), Middleton’s world becomes a space where females, especially, can á la Judith Butler, gain autonomy through the performance, or transversal parodying of conventional gender.[iii]

More generally, though, Waswo’s article brought to my attention a factor to which, I realise, I had not devoted enough time and consideration: that is, audience response.

While the performance of gender, desire, or economic stability and trustworthiness (if you are wooing investors) is a formulative part in deciding the worth of a body or commodity, this value is not ultimately decided by the performer: it is the buying public who chooses whether to accept or re-describe (once again) the performer’s evaluation of a body’s worth (whether it is one’s own body or the body of another). What this means, then, is that the performer must know his audience(s)/potential investors. This entails, as Waswo suggests, navigating the audience’s complex and “illogical” emotions towards individual and collective bodies and processes in society.

In The Roaring Girl, Sebastian Wengrave’s performance of love for the transvestite Moll Frith may be convincing, but it is also effective because Sebastian is able to accurately judge and play off of his father’s fear of shame when the other knights in the play learn of his son’s courtship of the sexual deviant, as Moll is labeled throughout. Sebastian uses his father’s desires (for a socially conventional marriage) to persuade him to invest in his own “Moll,” Mary Fitzallard.[iv]

Jonson, though he admits the necessity of playing to his audience’s desires in The Staple of News in the inclusion of Lickfinger the cook[v], also ultimately refuses to play this role of cook and caterer to his audience, however: though he anticipates his audience’s desire for topical gossip, in his prologue, in the representation of the merchant class who buy from the Staple of News in the play, and whom he also represents in the form of an on-stage audience of gossips around the play, Jonson serves instead a modernised version of a morality play, one which insists upon a patriarchal republic where gendered and social bodies are fixed and thus impervious to the redescription of value on which the London market depends.

Well, poor Ben: no wonder the play wasn’t that successful. A shame, as it also inventive, and offers complex reflections on poetry and the theatre itself. Too, I think Jonson is aware how conflicted the play is, which may explain why he reconsiders its themes in the next of his Caroline dramas, The New Inn.

End Notes:

[i] over the past week. Actually, you may recall I started this article last Thursday. The time is a bit out of date then.

[ii] agree with Waswo. More accurately, Waswo agrees with Middleton.

[iii] conventional gender. Feminists like Butler have used the disjuction between body and social constructs (value) to their advantage, suggesting that the individual can construct one’s social position and worth through (re)performance(s); this argument is (as you may recall from my previous articles) one of the main departure points for my analyses of women’s positions in Jonson’s masques and late plays.

[iv] Mary Fitzallard. Too, though Sebastian does redescribe social conventions a little by the end of the play, he also perpetuates them (by using Moll Frith’s outsider position in society to his advantage).

[v] Lickfinger the cook. About which the song-writer Madrigal says “He holds no man can be a poet, /That is not a good cook, to know the palates, /And several tastes of the time.” (3.1)

Works Cited:

Jonson, Ben. The Staple of News. Ben Jonson’s Plays. Ed. Felix Schelling. Vol.2. London: JM Dent, 1963. 347-425.

Waswo, Richard. “Crises of Credit: Monetary and Erotic Economies in the Jacobean Theatre.” Plotting Early Modern London: New Essays on Jacobean City Comedy. Ed. Angela Dieter Mehl and Anne-Julia Stock. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004. 55-73.

13 May 2008


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