Shakespeare from an Economic Perspective


While economics and literature might seem like the two opposing ends of a spectrum

of subjects, more often than not, they are closely related. The evolution of literature,

movements and trends in history, the rise and decline of a particular genre can be interpreted

in terms of change of material conditions and used for the study of the economic structure of

a certain time period. Essentially, the literature of a certain time holds up a mirror to its socio-economic conditions. Another factor, not to be discounted, is how literature plays an

important role in not only representing public opinion, but also shaping it; it is a

representative as well as the product of a period’s socio-economic conditions. 


Considering the economic conditions of the sixteenth century, it is evident how the

Elizabethan society saw a conversion from feudal to capitalist systems of rent. By 1500, the

population of most areas of Europe was increasing after almost two years of decline and/or

stagnation. New commodities, many of them imported from recently discovered lands,

enriched the material life of people. Not only trade, but also the production of goods,

increased as a result of the new ways of organization and production. Most historians locate

in the sixteenth century the beginning, or at least maturing, of Western Capitalism. 

During this period, as Shakespeare saw the advent of capitalism, it reflected in his

writing. It is obvious how social inequality, inequity, divide, and commodification are the key

themes of his writing. His plays offer a clear account of Elizabethan ambiguity regarding the

dawn of capitalism. As we delve deeper, the same ambiguity displays Marxist and socialist

undertones. 

1. The Tempest - The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last complete play, focuses mainly on the

character Prospero and his struggle for revenge. Set on an island, we progress through

the play and find that Caliban, the original inhabitant of the island, had been enslaved

by Prospero when the latter found refuge on the same.

While this storyline hints strongly at colonization and the discovery of new lands, it

also explores the relationship between Prospero and Caliban. It displays how social

inequality, Caliban’s resentment against the social divide and Ariel’s quest for

freedom convey the sixteenth century common man’s distaste for the dawning

capitalism.

Topics like avarice for power, social inequity, and tension caused by misuse of power

and inequality display to the readers strong Marxist ideologies. 

2. King Lear - King Lear presents a setting in which England was moving from a feudal

to a more mercantile based economic system. Shakespeare discusses the connection

between power and having private property.

In the play, King Lear conducts a competition amongst his daughters to decide who

would succeed him to the throne. This form of a competition can be linked to the rise

of a competitive economic relationship in society due to the rise of capitalism. In

highlighting the negative effects of western capitalism and commodification,

Shakespeare presents both Marxist ideologies and a reflection of Elizabethan mistrust

against capitalism.

King Lear addresses the political issues related to the challenges of controlling the

food supply, the injustice of land ownership, and the stewardship of natural resources.

All of these address both—the principles of Marxism and the economic paradigm

shift of the sixteenth century. 

3. The Merchant of Venice - The Merchant of Venice focuses mainly on money and

property. Trade and mercantilism very clearly characterize Venice, the historic

maritime republic and the city in which most of the play’s activities take place.

As the play progresses, we realize that Antonio is a symbol of the ideas of capitalism

and is considered a part of the bourgeois class who obtained their wealth through

mercantilism and trade. This is a clear indication of the merchant class gaining power

and wealth through overseas trade, which was another emerging aspect in sixteenth

century England. 


More than a century after Shakespeare’s death, the period from 1848 to 1852 saw

Karl Marx immersed in a detailed study of French politics and Shakespeare’s plays; a

study which resulted in his theory. As he read through Shakespeare’s writing, he

recognized the negative effects of capitalism and commodification through a sixteenth

century lens. As we observe these Marxist ideologies in Shakespeare’s plays, it shows us

how society once went through an economic paradigm shift, the reactions and results of

which are reflected in both Shakespeare and Marx’s writings. In conclusion, we can state

that Kenneth Muirdid did not exaggerate in saying, “Shakespeare was one of the spiritual

god parents of the Communist Manifesto.”

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