Valerie Forman. Tragicomic Redemptions: Global Economics and the Early Modern English Stage. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2008. 279pp. ISBN 978 0 8122 4096 2.

Ernst Gerhardt
Laurentian University

Ernst Gerhardt. "Review of Valerie Forman, Tragicomic Redemptions: Global Economics and the Early Modern English Stage.". Early Modern Literary Studies 14.3 (January, 2009) 9.1-7 <URL:>.

  1. Given the current global economic crisis and subsequent spate of government bail outs, Valerie Forman’s study of seventeenth-century tragicomedy’s formalization of economic loss and redemption feels timely, perhaps eerily so. In this book, Forman identifies a formal parallel between seventeenth-century tragicomedy and economic though, particularly Thomas Mun’s articulation of a balance-of-trade economic theory. Countering accusations that overseas trade diminished the England’s resources by depleting its bullion, Mun argued that any loss of bullion was but temporary: money engaged in foreign trade ultimately was “turn[ed] into wares” and then back into money, “and so by a continual and orderly change of one into the other [people] grow rich…for they that have wares cannot want mony” (qtd. Forman, 153). Or, as Forman puts it, any “money sent out of the country is only misrecognized as loss because it is actually transformable into profit” (108). Forman connects Mun’s balance-of-trade theory with the financial metaphors underwriting the doctrine of the fortunate fall: Christ’s delivery of a profit, humanity’s salvation, could only occur with humanity’s initial (albeit, in retrospect, fortunate) loss of God’s grace. Via this connection, Forman contends that overseas trade was understood by some in the seventeenth century to be a redemptive endeavour, the profit generated by such trade not only redeeming any initial expenditure or loss but also increasing English wealth.

  2. Early seventeenth-century tragicomedy formalized this redemptive process in advance of Mun, revealing seemingly tragic losses to be recoverable, redemptive, and profitable expenditures. If the export of bullion was “misrecognized as loss” then so too are tragicomedy’s opening deaths, voyages, and captivities: tragicomedy reveals such losses as expenses which are more than paid back in the end. Forman thus suggests that genre be read as a formalization of an imagined economy and identifies the plays’ conclusions as a balancing-of-accounts. While comedy concludes with a net loss, tragicomedy concludes with a net gain: in comedy, “Though part of what is lost is found again, what is found does not exceed what is lost, as it does in the tragicomedy; in other words, the loss is not itself fortunate” (9). Forman tests this hypothesis in a study of seven plays, beginning with two comedies (The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night) that she understands to be “stepping stones” to true tragicomic form and concluding with John Webster’s parody of tragicomedy, The Devil’s Law Case.

  3. As they dramatize both a redistribution rather than a restoration of wealth as well as a foreclosure of contact with the alien or foreign, The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night leave “no way to imagine gain that is not at the expense of another or the result of divine generosity” (46). Such an economy is fundamentally at odds with the “real mystification, or ruse of capitalism, [which] is that is productive, that value is created, and thus that one can gain without anyone else’s losing, because value is created through the mere circulation of money and goods” (45). The economies imagined by these comedies’ conclusions remain too insular to be truly profitable.

  4. Turning to Pericles and The Winter’s Tale, Forman identifies the “ruse of capitalism” with the tragicomedies’ transformation of loss into gain. Thus, Pericles episodically enacts the expansion of a series of insular or closed economies, introducing foreign trade—and the potential for loss—to closed economies in which alternations between internal dearth and surplus occur. Pericles recasts sin first as loss then as expenditure and thereby refigures the Christian logic of redemption in economic terms: losses are redeemed to the extent that they are transformed into gain. The play thus fuses redemption and profit in the idea of overseas trade: redemption and profit are contingent on an initial loss—the sending-out of Pericles himself as well as of money—which returns bearing excess value. Where the structure of redemption in Pericles is episodic, in The Winter’s Tale it is continuous, with Leontes’s exposure of Perdita transformed from sin to expense. Ultimately, Perdita’s return from overseas ruptures the closed penitential economy of Leontes’s court by bringing redemption and profit home.

  5. In the second part of the book, “Eastern Engagements,” Forman discusses two tragicomedies of the 1620s, John Fletcher’s The Island Princess and Phillip Massinger’s The Renegado. While the earlier tragicomedies stage the production of gain out of loss, these later tragicomedies stage the redemption of overseas trade itself. Forman contends that English trade with the East Indies, in which England competed with other European powers, was based on an ideological vision of global trade in which nations were to trade freely with one another in order to supplement each other’s deficiencies in their own natural commodities. Such a model opposed the colonial one of England’s trade competitors and cast non-compulsory trade (as opposed to trade by compulsion) as “a form of redemption” which “redeems Indian goods from the hold of the Portuguese….and imagines a repair of the fallen distribution” of tradable commodities (120). Forman thus reads Fletcher’s tragicomedy as a rejection of “the colonial model and all of its costs in order to reform it into a model in which exchange is both prosperous and liberating” (135). Eastern trade itself becomes redemptive.

  6. While The Island Princess recasts the redemption from captivity as a release of goods into the profitable freedom of overseas trade, Massinger’s play depicts the release of trade from its disruption by pirates. The Renegado not only “imagin[es] a future in which trade between the Europeans and the Ottomans can proceed smoothly and profitably” but also “highlight[s]…some of the contradictions that emerge from the attempt to imagine equitable profit in a world that has only begun to imagine the idea of capital growth” (184).

  7. Forman’s argument is exciting and provocative, particularly in its suggestive delineation of the relationship between economic theory and dramatic form. The close attention Forman pays to her selection of plays adds compelling detail to her argument. Forman’s book should instigate further studies of tragicomedy’s formal relationship to the imagined economy. Other tragicomedies, particularly earlier ones, require consideration in light of the terms Forman outlines here, as do other articulations and imaginations of the commonwealth economy. Moreover, the global context that Forman gestures toward demands a rounding out by consideration of the tragicomedies looking west rather than east or even of those looking inward to the pastoral rather than outward to the foreign.

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© 2009-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).