Interdisciplines: Drama, Economics and Law in Early Modern England

17 October 2015

Trust Room, Fitzwilliam College


Interdisciplines: Drama, Economics and Law in Early Modern England was a one-day colloquium which examined the intersections between literature, law and economics in early modern England. As part of the broader, European Research Council-funded interdisciplinary project, Crossroads of Knowledge in Early Modern England: the Place of Literature, our speakers were attentive to the epistemic intersections between drama and economy, drama and law: how did legal, social and economic practices of the time condition Renaissance drama? How did the early modern theatre respond to, and, in turn, shape the legal and economic life of the period? 

The programme from the event is available here.


Rachel E. Holmes, Subha Mukherji, Tim Stuart-Buttle, Elizabeth L. SwannKoji Yamamoto 


Maria Fusaro (University of Exeter)
Quentin Skinner (Queen Mary, University of London)
Rebecca Tomlin (Birkbeck, University of London),
Andy Wood (University of Durham)

Final Panel Discussion:

Adrian Leonard (University of Cambridge),  Craig Muldrew (University of Cambridge), and Julie Sanders (University of Newcastle).

For practical information please contact the Crossroads Research Project Administrator .



Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge and by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ ERC grant agreement no 617849


10.15 - 10.45


10.45 - 11.00


11.00 - 13.30

Panel 1 - Poverty, Piety and Charity  

  1. Rebecca Tomlin (Birkbeck, University of London) The place of charity in 1590s drama: Edward IV and Aldgate
  2. Andy Wood (University of Durham) Work, drama and social relations in the hungry 1590s

Respondents: Jennifer Bishop (University of Cambridge), Jason Scott-Warren (University of Cambridge)

Chair: Koji Yamamoto (University of Cambridge)

13.30 - 14.15


14.15 - 16.45

Panel 2 - Venice and Law 

  1. Quentin Skinner (QMUL)  Why Shylock loses his case: judicial rhetoric in The Merchant of Venice
  2. Maria Fusaro (University of Exeter) Merchants of Venice, between drama and history

Respondents: Mary Laven (University of Cambridge), Subha Mukherji (University of Cambridge)

Chair: Andrew Zurcher (University of Cambridge)

16.45 - 17.15

Break - tea and coffee

17.15 - 18.00

Concluding Panel

Chair: Craig Muldrew (University of Cambridge)

Discussants: Adrian Leonard (University of Cambridge), Julie Sanders (University of Newcastle)

18.00 - 19.00

Drinks Reception in The Grove, Fitzwilliam College

Merchants in Venice between Facts and Fiction - Maria Fusaro (University of Exeter)

The paper will sketch the intersection between mercantile ethic and court procedure in Early Modern Venice, focussing on the peculiarities of the Venetian judicial system and how these would have affected a case such as that of The Merchant of Venice had it effectively happened.

Why Shylock loses his case: judicial rhetoric in 'The Merchant of Venice' -  Quentin Skinner (QMUL)

To understand the trial scene in The Merchant of Venice, we need to know the intellectual materials out of which it was constructed. According to the majority of recent critics, Shakespeare specifically invokes the doctrine of equity, which first rose to prominence in English legal theory and practice towards the end of the sixteenth century. I shall argue that this interpretation not only leads to a misunderstanding of the structure of the scene, but to a misidentification of what is at issue in the case that Shylock presents. The positive case I shall put forward is that we need to see the scene as much in rhetorical as legal terms. The trial hinges on Shylock’s belief that his case takes the form -- as the rhetoricians would express it -- of a constitutio iuridicalis that is absoluta. Portia is able to show that what the court has before it is not a constitutio iuridicalis at all, but rather a constitutio legalis. It is the success of this rhetorical move that forces Shylock to withdraw his case.

The place of charity in 1590s drama: Edward IV and Aldgate - Rebecca Tomlin (Birkbeck, University of London)

In 1586, the body of Sir Philip Sidney, hero of the battle of Zutphen and model of English masculine nobility, was held at the chapel in the Minories for three months before it was taken in a lavish and memorable procession, to be buried at St Paul’s. In a play staged a decade or so later, Thomas Heywood’s Edward IV (1599), it is reported that the people of London have interred the bodies of Jane and Matthew Shore in the Minories, in defiance of the orders of the king, (Richard III), and that the place where they died is now called ‘Shores’ Ditch’ in their memories. The area without Aldgate, including the Minories, Shoreditch and St Botolph’s church, is revisited throughout the play as a place where both violence and charity are practised. Recent memories are juxtaposed with history on-stage in a complex interaction between history, memory, narrative and place. Central to the play’s construction of the Shores as heroic Londoners is their participation in the city’s charitable practises. Poverty and economic catastrophe requiring relief were quotidian experiences in the early modern city, and using an archive of charitable collection petitions heard at St Botolph’s, this paper explores how alms-giving was performed in early modern London, and how it is used in Edward IV to construct early modern London as place in which civic charity is as admirable as military prowess.

Work, drama and social relations in the hungry 1590s - Andy Wood (University of Durham)

The 1590s were a decade of significant change in dramatic form and in social relations. In London in particular, it was a time of considerable stress: rising population, falling real wages, cold winters, expensive food and fuel combined to make the city and its suburbs miserable places for the poorer sort of people. This paper looks at the connection between the economic and social crisis of the 1590s and a number of (cherry-picked!) dramatic texts, most of all Henry VI Part 2 and its earlier version (as a bad quarto) The First Part of the Contention. Linking the language of social protest and class analysis in dramatic texts to outbursts of angry seditious speech by poor labouring men and women (as reported to criminal courts and the privy council), this paper suggests that the dramatic stage and the dramatic text formed spaces within which popular protest could be articulated with a surprising degree of clarity and authority.