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Katharine Eisaman Maus, Being and Having in Shakespeare
by Jonathan Sircy

Maus, Katharine Eisaman. Being and Having in Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013. 152 pp. ISBN 978-0199698004. $40.50 cloth.


Katharine Eisaman Maus takes the title for her newest book from a critic with whose work she takes issue, Margaret de Grazia. In a 1996 examination of property in King Lear, de Grazia argues that Lear presents a world where “having is tantamount to being, not having is tantamount to non-being … persons and things cannot be alienated from one another” (qtd. in Maus 4). The collection which features de Grazia’s chapter (and which de Grazia co-edited with Peter Stallybrass and  Maureen Quilligan), Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture, galvanized a critical turn from early modern subjects to early modern objects. Such a turn takes as “axiomatic” that subjects and objects are mutually constitutive, and Maus wholeheartedly agrees. Maus’s objections begin when critics like de Grazia extend that axiom to argue that “objects constitute subjects: indeed that, looked at closely, ‘subjectivity’ itself is simply a hubristic illusion” (3).

She has ethical, conceptual, and historical reasons for doing so. Following David Hawkes, Maus contends that there are principled reasons for maintaining a dynamic distinction between subject and object. Subject and object are interconnected, Maus admits, but the materialist argument that objects unidirectionally constitute subjects can result in the logical and ethical problem of treating people as things. Next, Maus copiously demonstrates that Early Modern writers had multiple legal and conceptual terms for, and consistently drew fine distinctions between, different kinds of property relations. Terms like “property” or “furniture” were “imaginatively productive” because they contained such rich significations and could describe both a person’s material possessions and non-material characteristics (9). Finally, Maus finds dubious any historical evidence for arguing that “Shakespeare and his contemporaries did not distinguish between subject and object” (5). Such a narrative posits a post-industrial “Fall into commodification” that opened up a distinction between subject and object that did not previously exist (6). Not only does this pat explanation fail to account for the complexity of the “pre-industrial” relationship between subject and object, Maus shows, but post-Englightenment discourse about identity and property is conceptually continuous with Early Modern discussions of the same topics. The connection between subjects and objects was not simply rediscovered at the end of the twentieth century.

Being in Early Modern England is deeply connected to having, especially in Shakespeare, but Maus wants to make clear how dynamic that connection is. Consequently, she focuses on “property” rather than simply “objects” as she studies five of Shakespeare’s plays. This shift in focus belies an “unashamedly anthropocentric” approach that allows her to focus both on the relationship between owners and their possessions and on the relationship between owners (15).

Maus dubs Shakespeare’s ruminations on these complex interrelationships a “poetics of property,” and shows the ways in which property—whether personal or political, moveable or immoveable, gained or lost—affects and is affected by human beings. If Maus finally admits that “[t]he simple conclusion about being and having in Shakespeare is that there is no simple conclusion,” she has done enough to show that deliberating on this question can be productive.

Based on the Oxford Wells Shakespeare Lectures Maus gave in 2010, the book moves quickly through three history plays, a comedy, and a tragedy. Maus divides her chapters according to the kind of property and relationships between property owners that Shakespeare explores, and she begins with Richard II, a play which reveals that an “offense against property … is the remote cause of the Wars of the Roses” (3). The property in question is land, the source of political authority and identity, for in the feudal period, Maus jokes, “authority comes with the territory” (19). Richard treats his land and others’ as an asset that he can liquidate for money, and when he indiscriminately grabs Bolingbroke’s inheritance, he threatens not only Bolingbroke’s identity, but the entire system on which his own sovereignty is based. Given this institutional arrangement, it seems as though Richard should completely dissolve as a character once Bolingbroke takes the throne from him. After all, in this world, “you are what you own” (27). Paradoxically, however, Richard gains “subjective complexity” and “distinctiveness” once he loses his property (32). Richard’s being only manifests itself when he loses everything he has, when he is alienated from the land that previously defined him.

Maus next explores 1 Henry IV and its central character Hal, whose personality, like Richard II’s, is constituted by his relationship to property but in a completely different way. If Richard was associated with land, Hal is associated with chattel, i.e. moveable property. Land, Maus explains, connoted continuity and stability while chattel indicated mortality and prodigality. The aristocrats living in castles dispute land, while the wastrels occupying the local tavern concern themselves with getting and consuming sack and capons. Hal is thus a version of the prodigal son, the unwise scion who exchanges a place at his father’s landed estate for money that he can spend in the city. But Hal’s being is more complex than that; he transmutes a different kind of property into a personal form of political power. His familiarity with and command over the chattel-consuming crowd foreshadows his ability to earn the respect of his subjects. Hal figures his time at Eastcheap not as a spending spree but as a merchant-like investment; he does not return to his father empty-handed, but flush with the capital of the common people’s praise. In retrospect, he can recast his consumption as upfront capital rather than sunk costs. If chattel is a more variable property than land, it affords its owner the ability to craft a personal style, and Hal is indeed unique, perhaps too much so. Maus argues that as Henry V, the formerly prodigal Hal “engineers a triumph of national amalgamation which is essentially personal rather than institutional” (36). If Hal uses moveable property to construct new kinds of political relationships, he cannot so easily transfer those relationships to his son.

In order to account for the shift between Richard II and I Henry IV, Maus hypothesizes that “something intervened” to cause Shakespeare to rethink the “problems of personality and personhood” (59). That “something,” Maus argues, was The Merchant of Venice. In Merchant, the history genre and its political relationships give way to comedy’s less fact-bound deliberations on economic and interpersonal transactions, and Maus spends two chapters discussing how Merchant uncovers the gender divide in inheritance laws as well as the conflicting personal loyalties between family members and friends. In Chapter 3, Maus shows how daughters problematically demanded a property transfer upon marriage rather than at the father’s death, and Portia and Jessica, two daughters who are only-children, expose the problem such a system could cause, and illustrate how both Portia’s father and Shylock attempt to maintain control over both their daughters and their property.

In Chapter 4, Maus details how Merchant’s characters desire affection that cannot be reduced to pure economic exchange. This supplement or excess comes in the form of friendship and its promise of a relationship with considerations beyond mere social responsibility (e.g. routinized mercantile or kinship transactions). The play invokes the Christian concepts of “grace” and “mercy” to portray friendship’s ability to transcend the material property so closely associated with familial relations. But just as Christianity consistently relies on material metaphors to establish the superior worth of spiritual goods—Jesus, for example, instructs his disciples to store up “treasures in heaven”—so too does Merchant reveal that personal relationships must be clothed in “this muddy vesture of decay,” the tainted world of material goods (96; 5.1.63). Thus, while Maus reads the reconciliation of Antonio, Portia, and Bassanio without cynicism—male friendship and companionate marriage, she contends, are not mutually exclusive—she admits that the happiness in Belmont gets funded at Shylock’s expense.

Maus concludes the book by zooming back out from the personal trials of Merchant to the national concerns of 2 Henry VI and King Lear. In two chronologically disparate plays, Maus investigates the figure of the noble “vagabond” and how that identity relates to property relations and social organization. In 2 Henry VI, Shakespeare exposes the nation’s nobility as self-interested pirates while the play’s real vagabond, Jack Cade, lays claim to royal lineage and possessions. The result is the cyclical and violent displacement of property. The play pessimistically represents the law, Maus argues, as both a solution and problem. On the one hand, an “efficient legal system restores the goods to the ‘proper’ owner”; on the other, “the law that institutes property can easily seem a fiction designed to maintain the power of the rich at the expense of the poor” (111). This is Maus at her most explicitly political.

In King Lear, we encounter the clash between political authority and land ownership, prodigal and obedient children, male and female inheritors, and material and spiritual property. Of course, the most important clash is the one staged between being and having, between Lear’s identity before and after he gives his land away to his daughters. All of these conflicts, Maus argues, “complicate, almost to the extent of annihilating, the powerful connections be­tween property and power as they have been asserted in many of Shakespeare’s other plays” (112). Initially the play seems to support Margaret De Grazia’s view that characters’ identities are inseparable from their property, that love and property are inextricably connected. However, Maus contends that as the play progresses, characters’ ability “to separate love, and the intrinsic worth of loved persons, from their material circumstances appears … as a form of nobility” (120). While de Grazia reads Lear’s lost sanity out on the heath as proof that his sane, stable identity is tied to his property, Maus finds Lear’s deliberation on Poor Tom as “the thing itself” to be “as insightful” as it is “crazy” (3.4.98; 125). Like Richard II, Lear becomes more subjectively complex in the wake of being alienated from his property. He encounters others who have real material needs and responds not with the violence of 2 Henry VI but with empathy. But if Lear gains a being that extends beyond having, so too does Edgar discover that having cannot restore being. By the time Edgar regains his inheritance and receives the title of king from Albany, the kingdom’s desirability and the identity that comes with asserting political authority over it has been “emptied out” (130).

Ultimately, Maus’s book functions best as a provocation rather than a definitive statement about the Early Modern relationship between personhood and property. A Spenser scholar, for instance, will not find obvious applications for Maus’s arguments. Such wider applicability—even for other plays in Shakespeare’s corpus—would smack, one suspects, of the “reductive models” Maus describes as “seductive but misleading” (130). More broadly, Maus’s topic feels as informed by contemporary economic realities as by current scholarly debates. Maus gave her lectures in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, and the widespread Occupy movement emerged in-between her original lectures and the book’s publication. She does end her book’s most explicitly political argument by remarking, “In Henry VI, Shakespeare often seems close to the insights of late twentieth century critical legal scholars, who emphasize the way the law reinforces the power of elites, although he does not apparently share their reformist convictions” (111-112). This provocative but unsupported claim comes at the end of her book’s least developed section, a furtive glance down a road Maus decided not to take. Such explicit contemporary engagement would not have been unthinkable for Maus. After all, she concluded her previous monograph, 1995’s Inwardness and Theater, with a meditation on how the concepts of “privacy” and “authenticity” reared their ugly head in the sex scandals that rocked Bill Clinton’s presidency and Clarence Thomas’s judicial confirmation hearing. There is certainly an opportunity for cross-pollination between Early Modern and contemporary property scholarship.

Maus even buries a starting point for that investigation in a Chapter 1 footnote: “There is a rich literature, so far little consulted by ‘materialist’ scholars of early modern England, in the fields of law and political philosophy on the concept of property … concerned with hot topics in our own day” (34). This contemporary exigency for Maus’s book seems just as crucial—and as productive—as the critical one involving scholars like Margaret de Grazia, and I hope this book is not Maus’s final word on the subject. 


Jonathan Sircy
Charleston Southern University



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Cite as:

Jonathan Sircy, "Katharine Eisaman Maus, Being and Having in Shakespeare," Spenser Review 44.1.17 (Spring-Summer 2014). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
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