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David Landreth, The Face of Mammon: The Matter of Money in English Renaissance Literature
by Peter Remien

Landreth, David. The Face of Mammon: The Matter of Money in English Renaissance Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. 348 pp. ISBN 978-0199773299. £32.50 hardback.

 

In a time when fortunes can simply disappear in the turbulence of the market, having never materialized as anything tangible, it is easy for us to forget the materiality of money.  In this book, David Landreth considers the dual nature of the early modern coin, valuable both for its status as precious metal (its matter) and for the sovereign’s authorizing stamp (its immaterial currency).  Landreth argues that in lieu of the discourse of political economy, which would not develop until late in the seventeenth century, Elizabethan authors Spenser, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Donne, and Nashe incorporate coinage in their works in order to posit—and, in some cases, to resolve—tensions arising from the insufficiency of existing discourses for conceptualizing the deceptively complex stuff of money.  The existing model for understanding money’s role in early modern culture at large, the discourse of commonwealth, conflates monetary policy with ontological, ethical, religious, and political concerns in a manner foreign to modern notions of economy as a discourse isolating financial transactions.  The deepened concern with money’s pervasive and often pernicious influence in Elizabethan literature was most immediately prompted by the twin crises of debasement and runaway inflation in sixteenth-century England, which highlighted an ontological rift in the ostensible unity of the coin, a disjunction between money as currency authorized by the image of the sovereign and money as precious metal.  Landreth considers how Elizabethan authors use different strategies for dealing with money’s disquieting role in such fundamental life processes as consumption, instrumentality, and reproduction.  Landreth’s book thus participates in an unexpected genealogy of political economy by delineating the generative tensions driving its development in sixteenth-century England.  The Face of Mammon is an important and timely book, relevant both for how it illuminates the often neglected historicity of money and for its strikingly original and persuasive new readings of how currency functions in some of the most studied works of Elizabethan literature.

The chapters of this book are centered on how authors respond to problems arising from money’s dual nature, as it intrudes upon the realms of ethics, politics, and ontology.  While the book progresses more or less chronologically from Spenser and Marlowe to Nashe and Donne, Landreth is more interested in analyzing the different problems that money poses in late sixteenth-century literature than he is outlining a progression of ideas.  Indeed, by focusing on a single generation of writers, many of whom respond to each other, Landreth delineates a synchronic pattern within a given historical moment rather than a diachronic progression.  The result is richly contextualized readings, thoroughly situated in both historical context and scholarship, and productively interwoven with one another.  The breadth of Landreth’s research is evidenced by the seventy-six pages of substantial endnotes.  It is not until the afterward, titled “Before Economy,” that Landreth focuses directly on the diachronic development of political economy by focusing on how the mercantilist writers of the seventeenth century—Gerald de Malynes, Thomas Milles, Edward Misselden, and Thomas Mun—worked to produce the autonomous discourse of economics as a site proper to financial transactions.  This final section isn’t as well integrated as are the previous chapters, but this is part of the point; understanding political economy as a distinct discourse, capable of separating the financial from other aspects of life, is completely alien to the holistic idea of the commonwealth.  Landreth engages a number of scholars and critical traditions throughout this book, but the influences of Richard Helgerson and Lorna Hutson are particularly apparent in the broad arc of Landreth’s argument.            

The first chapter of The Face of Mammon is clearly the most relevant to Spenserians.  In it Landreth focuses on three interrelated episodes: Guyon’s encounter with Mammon in Book II of The Faerie Queene, Marlowe’s response to this scene in The Jew of Malta, and Munera’s dismemberment at the hands of Talus in Book V of The Faerie Queene. Landreth considers how in all three episodes money mediates the encounter between the human body and the material world.  In the first episode, Mammon attempts to transform himself into a universal principle by erasing the historicity of his own material existence, and thereby wiping clean the memorial qualities of matter.  Landreth points out that this is precisely the function of currency: when it works properly its material properties are elided in the act of exchange.  For Guyon, the solution to Mammon’s totalizing rapacity becomes the act of temperate consumption in which “the boundless and perverse appetite for gold is rejected in favor of a standard of bodily need that would impose itself only minimally upon the will” (48).  In doing this, Guyon highlights the simple yet significant irony that gold cannot be ingested.  Guyon’s temperate consumption, allegorized in the House of Alma, seems to posit a solution to the problem of Mammon by privileging the mouth as the locus of contact between the body and the material world; however, Marlowe’s Barabas complicates this solution by transforming gold into the instrument of his revenge and thereby transferring the privileged juncture between body and world from the mouth to the hands, the body’s most useful of instruments.

Landreth then returns to Spenser in the final section of this chapter by focusing on how, in progressing from the individual register of ethics in Book II of The Faerie Queene to the collective realm of politics in Book V, Spenser revises his initial solution to Mammon’s rapacity. By severing Munera’s golden hands and silver feet—in what is perhaps the most harrowing episode in Spenser’s voluminous epic—the robotic Talus, Artegall’s “mighty hand” (FQ V.iv.24.4), replicates Barabas’s focus on the instrumentality of hands as the body’s interface with the material world, synecdochically represented by precious metal; what Guyon has forgotten is that temperate consumption implies the ethical use of one’s hands. Likewise, in the character of Munera the ontological distinction between the human body and precious metal (which had supplied Guyon’s solution to Mammon’s claims of universality) utterly collapses. Landreth argues that Spenser ultimately leaves us not with a solution, but with a double bind in which the “privileging of instrumentality is the vice of politics just as the privileging of consumption is a vice of ethics” (101).          

Chapters 2 and 3 then focus on how three of Shakespeare’s plays—King John, Measure for Measure, and The Merchant of Venice—utilize currency to articulate political, commercial, and existential problems.  In chapter 2, Landreth considers the interarticulation of biological reproduction and the stamping of coins in King John and Measure for Measure as a register for how the state regulates and reproduces itself. However, both plays are haunted by the specters of counterfeiting and debasement.  Landreth contends that King John is a play in which “monetized contingency” (108), explained in terms of Epicurean atomism, replaces divine providence as the driving force behind the dramatic action.  In the play, Richard’s bastard son, a counterfeit sovereign likened to “Commodity” (109), comes to embody emergent market forces that threaten to undermine providential accounts of history more typical of Shakespeare’s history plays. Turning to Measure for Measure, Landreth focuses on how the Duke purposefully “mints” a debased coin in his deputy Angelo, whose name recalls an “angel”—a golden English coin, in order eventually to profit from his deputy’s debasement, just as English monarchs profited from debased coinage.  Landreth, moreover, points to the centrality of the sovereign’s seemingly corrupting will to the functioning of the commonwealth: “Incapable of regulating its own desires for self-abuse, the commonwealth relies unhappily on the arbitrary force of sovereign measurement to redefine its pleasures through his” (148).  In chapter 3, Landreth focuses on how in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare’s most overtly financial play, the material centrality of money to the commonwealth is acknowledged only through its disavowal.  Although the play’s central characters, Shylock, Antonio, and Bassanio, continuously use coinage to articulate what they desire, they insist that the things they are using currency to express are themselves immaterial and unable to be quantified.              

Finally, in chapter 4 Landreth considers the anarchic use of coinage in the works of Donne and Nashe, the prodigal wits of late Elizabethan England.  Both writers subversively assert the waste of coinage, understood as extremely disruptive to the commonwealth, as implicated in literary production.  In his Elegies, Donne uses the dual nature of the coin in order to undertake subversive reversals of value; “The Bracelet” depicts the melting of gold coins as a way of wasting money’s immaterial properties, and “Love’s Progress” conflates the material stuff of coin with the soul, while demoting the immaterial values of both.  Similarly, Landreth contends that Nashe defines himself as an author through the “irreducible minimum of materiality: the closer the prose gets to being nothing without being able to become nothing, the more ineluctably something it is” (210).  This is particularly pronounced in Nashe’s Pierce Penniless, the protagonist of which defines himself as an empty purse, the minimal threshold of materiality, which paradoxically becomes the condition of wit’s production.          

Ultimately, Landreth’s book stands as an important and timely intervention in the fields of economic criticism and material studies, and offers fresh insight into how Elizabethan authors used money’s dual nature to give voice to a range of political, ethical, and ontological concerns before the development of the economy.  Building upon the recent work of Julian Yates, Jonathan Goldberg, Mary Poovey, and Jonathan Gil Harris among others, Landreth displays how thinking about money ontologically rather than economically can open up new ways for understanding the complex entanglement of financial exchange and the material world.  The Face of Mammon is a must read for scholars focused on any aspect of the intersection between early modern England, literary studies, economics, and thing theory; a coin, it turns out, is a particularly complex kind of thing: one that attempts to elide its very thingness when used. Attendant to the physical properties of sixteenth-century coins, Landreth interweaves literary analysis with the close examination of coins themselves, bolstered by the inclusion of a number of images.  Finally, Landreth’s book is a warning against reifying the present in an era of global capitalism: “Mammon appears [in Elizabethan literature] as a demonic invader from the future, a future that looks to our own ideological solipsism very like the present of capital” (236).  Instead, Landreth urges that we understand the extent to which ideology and materiality always inform and authorize each other in Elizabethan England as in the present.

 

Peter Remien

University of Wyoming

Comments

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43.1.4

Cite as:

Peter Remien, "David Landreth, The Face of Mammon: The Matter of Money in English Renaissance Literature," Spenser Review 43.1.4 (Spring-Summer 2013). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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