In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Katharine Maus of the University of Virginia explores the sixteenth-century view of property as revealed in the works William Shakespeare.
Katharine Maus is the James Branch Cabell Professor and Associate Chair of English at the University of Virginia. Her primary teaching and research interest is English literature of the Renaissance and she recently published, Being and Having in Shakespeare. She received her Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University.
Dr. Katharine Maus – Shakespeare’s View of Property
Sixteenth century England was a time and place of jarring economic change. Although England was still an agrarian society, manufacture and trade were increasing rapidly, making cities wealthier and more powerful. Prices skyrocketed because of the increased demands of a growing population. At the same time, wages for many laborers declined sharply, producing a starker gap between the rich and the poor.
The writers of the English Renaissance were keen observers of these changes, and the great dramatist William Shakespeare is no exception. In my book, Being and Having in Shakespeare, I consider some ways Shakespeare represents problems of wealth, poverty, and the right use of property. For instance, the tragedy Richard II, based on English history, concerns a king who is deposed after he infringes upon the property rights of his subjects. This play and its sequels, the Henry IV plays, consider how property rights sustain the power of the king, but at the same time, limit his power over his subjects.
Whereas the history plays raise questions about the intersection of property rights and political power, the comedy The Merchant of Venice considers property from a domestic viewpoint. The Merchant of Venice focuses upon the different property obligations a person has to kinfolk, to friends, to business associates, to spouses, and to offspring. Later in his career Shakespeare revisits similar questions in his tragedy King Lear. The play considers what it means to bequeath and inherit property. It also asks what, if anything, rich people owe to people who have nothing. In the twenty-first century, our political systems and material circumstances seem very different, yet many of these questions still resonate for us today.
Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.