Sunday, November 2, 2014

What Shakespeare Knew About Capitalism

RW note: It's impossible to agree with everything in the below essay, particularly its Marxist framework, but it has its points, especially when Mason writes;
As for capitalism, Shakespeare had seen only the earliest form of it, yet he described it well.
In the comedies and tragedies – which are about the contemporary society the audience lived in – we are suddenly in a world of bankers, merchants, companies, mercenary soldiers and republics. The typical place in these plays is a prosperous trading city, not a castle. The typical hero is a person whose greatness is essentially bourgeois self-made...

By Paul Mason

If you could watch Shakespeare’s history plays back-to-back, starting with King John and ending with Henry VIII, it would, at first sight, be like an HBO drama series without a central plot: murders, wars and mayhem, all set within an apparently meaningless squabble between kings and dukes.

But once you understand what a “mode of production” is the meaning becomes clear. What you are watching is the collapse of feudalism and the emergence of early capitalism.

The mode of production is one of the most powerful ideas to come out of Marxist economics: it was prefigured by Adam Smith, who divided economic history into “modes of subsistence”, but in the hands of Marx himself, and subsequent historians who took a materialist viewpoint, it has shaped our view of the past.

Feudalism was an economic system based on obligation: peasants were obliged to hand part of their produce to the landowner and do military service for him; he in turn was obliged to provide the king with taxes, and supply an army on demand.

But in the England of Shakespeare’s history plays, the mainspring of the system has broken down. By the time Richard III was slaughtering his extended family in real life, the whole power network based on obligation had been polluted by money: rents paid in money, military service paid for with money, wars fought with the aid of a  cross-border banking network stretching to Florence and Amsterdam.

Once you accept that feudalism existed, and capitalism does, there’s a big academic debate about what caused the collapse of feudalism and the rise of capitalism. Shakespeare managed to get to the essence of it without having knowledge of the terms feudalism and capitalism. Feudalism was a word invented to describe medieval society once it was over, by 17th century historians.

Read the rest here.


  1. Shakespeare was a small businessman, who "suffered the slings and arrows" of the producing a successful play and stage production. As modern day capitalists do, he took advantage of a crony Royal Theatre designation.

  2. Maybe feudalism, 16th century style, may be gone but it survives in how real property is taxed in some places.