The Social Meaning of Money in Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice


Huey-Ling Lee


This article, through its reading of Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, argues for the importance of money’s social meaning in early modern England. Rather than considering money in isolation and thereby reducing its various social meanings and implications into mere “financial value,” it investigates the ways in which the use of money for social purpose works in tandem with its use as commercial currency. Depending on the kind of relationship one wishes to form or maintain with another person or a group, money is used differently to deal with the changing dynamics of both inter-group as well as intra-group relations at the encroachment of market economies. In The Shoemaker’s Holiday, although the accumulation of monetary wealth is embraced by all as the means to achieve success and prosperity, it is lauded only when the commercial gains are then transformed into beneficial resources for social solidarity against alien foes. Even in Shakespeare’s play, money is employed first and foremost to cement personal bonds and attachments between the Venetian Christians against the Jew who embodies the alienating market force. In both plays, the flow of money ultimately serves to underwrite or initiate social relations within the same group. Particularly when the encroachment of the market threatens to rip apart the existing social fabric, some symbolic operations such as a ceremonial feast or gift exchange are performed to transform money from commercial currency into social currency for the maintenance of social cohesion and the reproduction of the long-term social order.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.