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Off the Shelf: Shakespeare Examined Property and Personhood in a Changing England

• Katharine Eisaman Maus, “Being and Having in Shakespeare.” Oxford University Press.

William Shakespeare is such a studied and celebrated writer that it might seem like there could be nothing more to examine about his work.

But scholars are still hard at it. University of Virginia professor Katharine Maus of the College of Arts & SciencesEnglish department considered how Shakespeare explored issues surrounding property, inheritance and ownership when Oxford University invited her to present a series of lectures on the Bard in November 2010.

A specialist in Renaissance drama, Maus has now published a new book, “Being and Having in Shakespeare,” based on those lectures, plus an added chapter. She discusses four related history plays – “Richard II,” “Henry IV, Part 1,” “Henry IV, Part 2” and “Henry V” – along with “The Merchant of Venice,” “Henry VI, Part 2” and “King Lear.”

Several of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, including Ben Jonson, wrote “city comedies” that depicted London satirically, making fun of ordinary life and “the ways property relationships shape and distort relations among human beings” – as did Shakespeare – but Shakespeare considered property issues in a wider variety of plays, Maus said.

She argues against a recent materialist strain of literary criticism that equates people or characters with their possessions, finding that inadequate in the ways Shakespeare explores issues of property.

Part of her research has included examining legal cases of the time period, including those involving land rights and chattel property, which refers to moveable belongings such as household goods and furniture. As the feudal system of noblemen holding land changed, inheritance, which usually went to the oldest son, was not always an easy thing to work out, resulting in conflicting practices.

Maus calls Shakespeare’s depictions “a poetics of property” because he took creative liberties instead of necessarily reflecting the practices of his time. For instance, in “The Merchant of Venice,” the suitors for the heiress Portia are noblemen, but Lord Bassanio is in debt. Portia’s father, who has died, puts in his will not the stipulation that her husband-to-be must have wealth like her, but that he must pass a test of choosing one of three chests that has Portia’s picture in it to win her hand in marriage.

In the history plays, property in the form of land was entwined with questions of power and inheritance.

“‘Richard II’ is a play about what befalls a king who dares to violate his subjects’ strongly held convictions about rights in land,” Maus writes.

In the “Henry IV” and “Henry V” plays, Shakespeare’s imagined world includes an urban economy of chattel goods or moveable property. Land tenure still predominates, but “chattel transactions coexist with land tenure in a complex amalgam, just as they did in Shakespeare’s world,” she writes.

What counted as property was changing from the medieval period throughout and beyond Shakespeare’s time with the rise of the commercial marketplace. Land that had been the main indicator of status collided with merchants’ rising status because of the wealth they accumulated through business and trade. In the present day, Maus pointed out, definitions of property are also changing and contested.

Since chattels could be bought, sold and exchanged, they offered new opportunities to those who knew how to exploit them. Prince Hal, who becomes King Henry V, seems like the prodigal son, recklessly spending chattel wealth abroad instead of prudently managing land at home. Nevertheless, he returns to become a successful, powerful king.

“The Merchant of Venice,” most likely written between “Richard II” and “Henry IV, Part 1,” reimagines, in comic terms, the problem of the daughter’s inheritance and focuses on the different property obligations among kin, friends, business associates and spouses. “King Lear” also focuses on his three daughters’ inheritance in the absence of male heirs.

In the end, Maus concludes, “Shakespeare inherits a religious and philosophical tradition of thinking about people and things that is, at its base, profoundly conflicted and contradictory.

“He live[d] in a society that distinguishes emphatically and in sophisticated ways between landed and chattel property, between the entitlements of daughters and the entitlements of sons, between what one owes to kin and what one owes to friends,” she writes.

In other words, issues of property have as much to do with relationships as they do with ownership of land and other things.

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