The body has long played a role in Western perceptions of the economic. In 18th-century France, physiocrats talked of the blood-like circulation of wealth, while Scottish economist Adam Smith wrote about the “invisible hand” of the market.
In “Sick Economies: Drama, Mercantilism, and Disease in Shakespeare’s England,” Jonathan Gil Harris explores how two centuries earlier the language of disease informed the seemingly disparate spheres of drama and mercantilist writing. Whereas traditional Galenic medicine had understood illness as a state of imbalance within the body, early modern writers increasingly reimagined disease as an invasive foreign agent. The rapid rise of global trade in the 16th century, with its resulting migrations of people, money and commodities across national borders, contributed to this growing pathologization of the foreign.
Harris, a professor of English at George Washington University, examines how English playwrights and mercantilists rooted their conceptions of national economy in the language of disease. Some of these diseases—syphilis, taint, canker, plague, hepatitis—have subsequently lost their economic connotations. Others—most notably consumption—remain integral to the modern economic lexicon but have by and large shed their pathological meaning.
“Sick Economies” provides a compelling history of how, even in our own time, defenses of transnational economy have paradoxically pathologized the foreign. Harris argues that what we now regard as the discrete sphere of the economic cannot be disentangled from the seemingly unrelated domains of Renaissance culture, especially medicine and the theater.
Originally published on February 26, 2004