Doubtful Gains: Risk in Early Modern Maritime Drama, 1592–1625

Benjamin D. VanWagoner

Doubtful Gains: Risk in Early Modern Maritime Drama, 1592–1625
VanWagoner, Benjamin D.
Thesis Advisor(s):
Howard, Jean E.
Ph.D., Columbia University
English and Comparative Literature
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“Doubtful Gains” argues that the concept of economic risk emerged in the early modern theater through performances of maritime peril staged at a moment of unprecedented growth for English venturing. Even as the hazards of global commerce became increasingly apparent, there existed no expression in English for risk, nor the inchoate logic by which early modern merchants attempted to manage their voyages’ losses. Yet my study shows that oceanic hazards are repeatedly worked over in “maritime drama,” an under-recognized cross-section of plays concerned with the sea, staged between the founding of the Levant Company in 1592 and the end of the Jacobean era in 1625. While the prevailing scholarly narrative has limited early modern uncertainty to inscrutable forms of “chance,” “accident,” and religious “providence,” my study shows how otherwise fragmentary knowledge was ordered in performance, implicating theater audiences in the management of new forms of uncertainty. Recovering the emergence of risk on the early modern stage has demanded not only the analysis of a new corpus of maritime drama, but a sophisticated account of economic history constructed from the archives of English joint-stock companies and attentive to the anachronism of modern risk theory. Shakespeare’s plays, at the center of my study, are complemented by the work of Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, John Fletcher, Phillip Massinger, William Haughton, and Robert Daborne, as well as a diverse collection of prose texts. I draw on pamphlets of mercantile policy, voyage journals, and charters, and a specialized archive of financial and navigational records. Constructing an archive of plays and prose that engage with an increasingly commercial global ocean, I argue that theatrical representations of maritime hazard precipitated a new discourse of risk in early modern England. Each of my four chapters shows how the theater helped shape one of those forms, which I term “maritime risks.” Scenes of shipwreck, piracy, enslavement, and news connected English venturing to economic vulnerability in increasingly systematic ways, helping to develop the logic of uncertainty which would come to be codified as economic risk. Shipwreck scenes in The Comedy of Errors, Eastward Ho, and The Tempest exemplify the period’s most typical hazard, demonstrating how spectators of shipwreck are central to reproducing the risk of disaster at sea. Encounters with pirates in 2 Henry VI, Hamlet, and Daborne’s A Christian Turn’d Turke establish risk within the many forms of negotiation demanded by early modern ventures, and the enslavement of Ithamore in Marlowe’s Jew of Malta launches my analysis of the risk to human agency posed by the sex trade in Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Finally, I address news of financial loss in Merchant of Venice and Haughton’s Englishmen for My Money, showing how risk manifests through the unreliability of staged merchant correspondence. The notion of maritime risk that emerges from these plays builds on contemporary oceanic studies while also recovering the inter-determination of oceanic space and economic reasoning everywhere evident on the early modern stage.
English literature
Economic history
Naval art and science
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Suggested Citation:
Benjamin D. VanWagoner, , Doubtful Gains: Risk in Early Modern Maritime Drama, 1592–1625, Columbia University Academic Commons, .

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