Monday, April 4, 2011

Was Shakespeare an early advocate for spontaneous order?

Last week I completed my Early Modern Drama exam, which asked me to compare the representation of justice in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and Ben Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humour. The trend that I noticed, once I began thinking over this question, fascinated me. Is it possible that these early modern playwrights had an appreciation for the importance of spontaneous order in society?

At the beginning of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure Vienna is represented as a happy, peaceful place, which seems to be free of violent crime, scandal, and social unrest – despite the presence of brothels and the local drunks. However, during the duke’s staged absence, throughout which he remains in Vienna disguised as a friar, things begin to change. The duke leaves Angelo, his highly reputed puritanical deputy, in charge and Angelo immediately commits himself to reinforcing the law, which the duke has left unenforced for the past seventeen years. Angelo begins his eradication of unlawful sexual activity by sentencing Claudio to death for impregnating his lover, Juliet, before marriage – despite the fact that their relationship is consensual and exclusive. Claudio’s sister, Isabella, is flawlessly virtuous and about to enter a nunnery. When she is informed of her brother’s sentence she goes to Angelo to attempt to persuade him to release her brother and - in perfect accordance with Lord Acton’s statement: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” – Angelo offers to release Claudio in exchange for Isabella’s chastity. Trickery, plots, scandal, and social chaos ensue.

Angelo’s failure to impose his subjective sense of morality upon society, and the law’s disturbance of the social equilibrium, suggests that society is better off in the absence of an enforced sense of “morality”. Morality is presented as highly subjective throughout the play. Angelo’s corruption also suggests that morality is, in fact, unfixed and highlights the fact that the concept of a moral guardian is something that must be questioned. I would argue a similar belief is presented in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which the attempt to enforce an “acceptable” order over the young lovers ends in farcical chaos. Does this hold true in more of Shakespeare’s plays?

Ben Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humour suggests a similar attitude towards the importance of allowing spontaneous order to develop in society, although Jonson fully recognizes that spontaneous orders can appear extremely chaotic. Throughout the play, nearly every character has money locked in loans or gambles due to their desperate attempts to climb the social ladder. Despite the chaotic appearance of the money exchanges occurring throughout society, the fact that many characters spend incredibly far beyond their means and even the fact that many of these loans are borrowed on false premises, these actions are accepted by society and the law fails to impose any order. Fastidious Brisk, who has managed to fool the other characters into thinking he is a gentleman because of the fashionable clothes he has purchased with loans, is eventually wrongfully imprisoned for starting a riot. Once he has been imprisoned the other characters take advantage of this to demand their money all at once, leading to Fastidious Brisk’s utter downfall, while all the other characters continue to live freely and participate in the socially accepted web of lending and gambling.

Jonson might be more pessimistic about society than Shakespeare but a spontaneous order exists in Every Man Out of His Humour none-the-less. I have looked here only at two rather obscure plays but I would be interested in exploring the extent to which this holds true in early modern drama. Shakespeare and Jonson were the most influential playwrights of their day and their plays would have been seen by everyone from members of the court to prostitutes and thieves. These plays were being performed at the beginning of the 17th century, long before Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, long before anyone had heard of the “invisible hand” but I see a clear appreciation for this concept being presented by both playwrights in these plays. If this appreciation for spontaneous order is something that permeates a larger portion of early modern drama, what might we be able to speculate about early modern society?


  1. An excellent analysis. I agree that Measure for Measure is an excellent example of spontaneous order made to degrade through too much government attention. There's a paper in that.

    If you haven't read Frederick Turner's Shakespeare's Twenty-First Century Economics, you should. I will note that he doesn't discuss Measure for Measure this way, though.

  2. I would love to read that paper on Measure for Measure, do you happen to remember the title?

    Thanks for the info on Turner's book, it looks fascinating. I have a growing curiosity concerning this aspect of Shakespeare's work - it doesn't get enough attention in the classroom. I will definitely be looking into this further!

  3. There is no paper. I was suggesting it be written.