Offshore Desires

Mobility, Liquidity and History in Shakespeare’s Mediterranean

in Critical Survey


This article probes the ability of Shakespearean drama to provide expressive resources for coming to terms (conceptually, discursively) with current crises. These include both the power games of global finance, and those disasters that ostensibly concern other strands of geopolitics. The article focuses on two plays, The Comedy of Errors and Pericles, the actions of which unfold in the eastern Mediterranean – an area of the world associated, in the late modern imagination, either with mobility as pleasure (mass tourism and its apparatus) or mobility as crisis (disputed territories, the plight of displaced populations). It highlights the close bonds between prevalent modes – satire and farce in The Comedy of Errors, romance in Pericles – and the plays’ distinct strategies for representing human mobility: the sense of agency proper to acquisitive urges, the victimhood of forced displacement.

In the opening pages of his Shakespeare in the Present, the late Terence Hawkes memorably discusses the set of conditions under which, in our time, we confront texts from the past. As he describes it, reflective readers have faced, in the critical environment of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, a sustained call for historicizing their object of inquiry while hardly proving able to let go of their ‘situatedness’ as a determinant of the ‘selections and suppressions’ that regulate our dealings with the past.1 This article is emphatically grounded on a sense of contingency defined both by the challenge posed by the Shakespearian text’s ‘temporal and cultural alterity’,2 and an awareness that (again in Hawkes’s words) ‘we can only see the past through the eyes of the present’.3 From this dual perspective I want to claim the relevance of re-reading the ‘mouldy tale’4 of Pericles and the farcical extremes of The Comedy of Errors to probe the ability of different strands within the Shakespeare canon to provide imaginative resources with which we can both confront the otherness of the past and respond to the ‘urgency of now’.5

The phrase ‘the urgency of now’, when critically enlisted, stresses an imperative to respond to one’s circumstance that is pointedly temporal. Additionally, however, the ‘now’ that it urges us to act upon is also conceptual (our tools of inquiry can only be those afforded by our moment in intellectual history) and spatial (involving the contexts, the global and local dynamics that have shaped both the objective circumstance and the framework of inquiry). Indeed, this article is grounded on a rather emphatic acknowledgement of a ‘place of reading’6 concomitantly defined by several factors. These certainly include the critical mores that have prevailed in western academia – the tension, signalled above, between the urge to historicize, and the assumption that ‘the critic’s own situation in our cultural present’ is ‘a resource’ rather than an ‘impediment’ to a sound critical exercise.7 Beyond this, however, the factors that delineate my ‘place of reading’ have to include the formative particularity of my location on a western European, Atlantic but quasi-Mediterranean periphery (Portugal) with a cherished memory of the country’s expansionist early modern past;8 but also the specificity of addressing, from a liminally Atlantic locale whose language gave Early Modern English drama words for currency such as ‘portagues’ and ‘crusadoes’,9 the importance of mobility and money in the imaginative processing of the Mediterranean by an English playwright whose work has generated a global academic industry.

Such factors will largely be taken for granted in the following pages, and yet the geopolitics of academic inquiry are anything but irrelevant to this article’s double critical remit: (i) to discuss how Shakespeare, central as he was to the imaginative production of an early modern London with a growing mercantile and Atlantic maritime economy, represented a range of human transactions that he displaced to an ancient Mediterranean world of seaports and trading cities; (ii) to consider how such representations can arguably resonate with current concerns over human mobility and global socio-economic dynamics. The relevance of this link between early modern circumstances and current crises indeed increases when we realize that Shakespeare was engaging in such imaginative dislocations against a historical backdrop of considerable geopolitical change. Indeed, his work emerged from the period that witnessed what Braudel influentially called the ‘northern invasion’ of the space of Mediterranean commerce by northern European ventures, which signalled the historical shift of a sense of centrality from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.10

These geopolitical implications acquire an additional cogency in light of the growing attention to perceptions and representations of space that has marked the humanities and social sciences since the 1980s, sometimes under the name of ‘spatiality studies’ – drawing on prior contributions ranging from phenomenology and existentialism through structuralism to theories of post- or late modernity. Despite the variousness of their intellectual and ideological leanings, the combined effect of such contributions to the recent focus on space has been to emphasize that places obtain their meanings from a discursive and relational process. As proposed by the editors of an influential collection, ‘If places are no longer the clear supports of our identity, they nonetheless play a potentially important part in the symbolic and psychical dimension of our identifications’. And they add: ‘How … does space become place? By being named …. Place is space to which meaning has been ascribed’.11 The argument that this process is verbally constructed, and based on the dynamics of mutually defining relationships, rescues the ‘spatial imagination’ from the conceptual constraint of an association with stasis, and indeed binds it (as suggested by David Harvey) to a dual temporal design, articulating retrospection and anticipation: ‘The preservation or construction of a sense of place is … an active moment in the passage from memory to hope, from past to future’.12

Such remarks propose an integration of historiographic and geographic perspectives that neatly assists the immediate critical framework for a discussion of how Shakespeare represents the mobility of people and money against scenarios that challenge linear understandings of time and place. In the two plays discussed below, this happens by dislocating to Antiquity discourses and concerns that characterized the rising commercial capitalism of early modern London. What I am describing as the immediate critical framework primarily consists of the substantial scholarly tradition that has focused on Shakespeare, money and the economy, a tradition that in the final quarter of the twentieth century fostered the so-called ‘new economic criticism’, and, more recently and topically, included responses to the global financial crisis that has unfolded since 2008.13 Parallel to such scholarly responses, intersections of Shakespeare and finance have obtained a range of representations on stage and screen: productions of Timon of Athens exploring the topicality of the post-Lehman Brothers crisis, such as Nicholas Hytner’s for the National Theatre in 2012, promptly come to mind; but ‘corporate Shakespeare’ predated the events that marked and followed 2008, and included Michael Almereyda’s film Hamlet (2000), set in a rarefied New York hi-tech corporate environment. Such productions refract a sense of agon and crisis through recent financial frameworks, and they pursue this strategy by relocating the time and action of Shakespeare’s plots to western present-day (or imminent future) scenarios – the London City, Wall Street. They endorse perceptions of such locales as the epicentres of an ultra-advanced but ultimately crass finance found to hinge on a well-known paradox: the uncertainties of individual decisions (a singularity magnified, in such productions, by the generic framework of tragedy) are suffered by millions in myriad elsewheres.

Rather than engaging with such western and fast-forwarded displacements, in the pages below I will consider the imaginative and expressive footholds that present-day audiences and readers, as witnesses and victims of global financial and social crises, can derive from Shakespeare’s own arguable relocations – in his case, eastern and regressive – of the early modern world of mobility and exchange.14 I am also opting out of that focus on individual pathos which is proper to the generic framework of tragedy to emphasize rather the communality of comedy, and how it can be modally inflected by romance and satire. I am interested in addressing how in The Comedy of Errors and Pericles Shakespeare (partly determined by his sources) dislocates transactions observed in the mercantile and monetary world around him from his western and Atlantic there and then to the Ancient world, and hence to that world’s defining locales in the eastern Mediterranean, ‘the geographical and economic birthplace of risk’.15 Further, I am interested in the referents that are activated, for present-day audiences, by representations of personal aspiration and acquisitive desire that the playwright dramatically embeds in ventures associated with seascapes that have recently acquired an uncanny topicality.

Indeed, in the two plays in question a series of hazardous sea crossings, real or presumed drownings, quasi-miraculous rescues at sea, and the uncertainties of hospitality versus hostility in coastal, mercantile cities are explicitly bound to place names from Antiquity: Ephesus, Epidamnum, Pentapolis, Antioch, Tyre, Tarsus, Mytilene.16 For Shakespeare’s original audiences, such place names may have carried the imaginative resonance Harley Granville-Barker once attributed to the toponymic litanies of Antony and Cleopatra (with its particular ‘spacious[ness]’),17 besides suggesting, through their association with navigation and trade, that the voyaging and mercantile concerns of the new economy of exchange had a long lineage behind them.18 However, this general perception could combine with a more specific recognition: the coastlines against which the plots of The Comedy of Errors and Pericles unfold had by the late sixteenth century become newly familiar to Elizabethan audiences because of the opportunities English merchants were then seizing in the Mediterranean: for some English commercial sailing, ‘a typical itinerary might include Livorno, Zante, Scandaroon (the port of Aleppo, also known as Alexandretta), Smyrna, Chios, and Constantinople’.19

Conversely, present-day audiences may be startled into an awareness of that topography and toponymy as strangely current because of the predicaments that have made them feature on the world’s screens and front pages all through the second decade of the twenty-first century. Ephesus, the ancient city near present-day Selçuk in Asia Minor, in the province of Izmir (former Smyrna), invoked by Shakespeare for both The Comedy of Errors and the ultimate reunion scene in Pericles, is today one of the main archaeological attractions in Turkey, for which in recent years operators were promising a money-back guarantee for all who were not ‘100% satisfied’20 – but, as widely reported, its appeal to visitors has suffered from its closeness to one of the most hazardous coastlines in the recent migrant crisis.21 This has been the case even more in the recent circumstances of another location of Pericles – Mytilene, on Lesbos, much discussed in 2016 for the poignant support that local populations then gave to refugees, despite their disruptive effect on their main source of income.22 But the associations between the places and place names of Shakespeare’s Mediterranean and historically recent crises of human mobility are, in fact, temporally broader than the latest developments: Epidamnum, evoked by Egeon in The Comedy of Errors as one of the trading cities of his former mercantile ventures, is present-day Durrës, in Albania, the site of a migrant crisis that, back in 1991, first acquainted readers and viewers worldwide with images of a type that have more recently become all too common.23

Seeking in Shakespeare imaginative resources for representing and better understanding the plight of migrants and refugees is hardly new, as made clear (for example) by reports of improvised productions on refugee camps.24 Rather than charting such initiatives, however, I am interested in highlighting that the expressive range of the plays includes an imagination and rhetoric of disaster associated with the coastlines of Antiquity that resonates in the dismal scenarios of the present-day crises of human mobility. All of the routes evoked in the two plays concern an area of the world marked by an ambivalence that may affect other geo-economies, but has in the eastern Mediterranean recently become evident: the same sea that is coveted and crisscrossed by affluent and willingly displaced tourists, from the middle-class amenities of crowded cruise ships to the yachts of the super-rich, has become the setting for the most serious crisis of human displacement, involving the utter disruption of community and family, impossibly risky crossings and mass drownings. The intense global reporting, filming and photographing of the migrant and refugee crises has added ethical complexities to the discussions that the topic has obtained in western media, its emotional ballast often maximized by images of young children (culminating in the controversial publication of photographs of drowned Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy found dead in September 2015 on a beach in Bodrum, recognized as having impacted, in a variety of often contrasting ways, election campaigns and government policies in the west25).

The reactions of public opinions and electorates to such events and their substantial coverage have been far from uniform, but they have in broad terms confirmed the intensity with which the recent crises of human mobility are challenging long-cherished assumptions about the structuring values of materially advanced societies – from Europe to America, Asia and Australia. Outside the more volatile ground of the global media and the instant responses they have obtained, public institutions have produced substantial overviews of such challenges, sometimes resorting to academic formats and venues to consolidate the conceptual apparatus with which to confront them.26 And indeed, prior to the disasters that have marked the second decade of the new millennium, academic and critical confrontation with the phenomena of human displacement and their broader role in shaping history and culture had already been intense, fostering pleas for the development of ‘mobility studies’ such as Stephen Greenblatt’s in Cultural Mobility: A Manifesto.27 In an earlier, online version of his opening argument, Greenblatt asked rhetorically: ‘what if mobility were understood to be the constitutive condition of culture, not its disruption?’28 This general claim was pondered in the collection with regard to the determining power that emplacement or displacement may have as regards identities, and aimed at an understanding of recent and current predicaments: ‘We need to understand colonization, exile, emigration, wandering, contamination, and unintended consequences, along with the fierce compulsions of greed, longing, and restlessness, for it is these disruptive forces that principally shape the history and diffusion of identity and language, and not a rooted sense of cultural legitimacy’.29

Such claims, and the ways in which they bear on our circumstance, can and should be brought to bear as well on our ability to address past representations of human displacement to shed light on current disasters – all the more so when the representations in question are part of ‘the centre of the canon’.30 And, for my reading of Shakespeare against the perplexities posed by the current combination in the same space (the eastern Mediterranean) of leisure and disaster, huge wealth and utter dispossession, I will be exploring the operative potential of two words with an ironical, indeed crass cogency, at the intersection of the literal and figurative: mobility and liquidity. Besides the evident primary relevance they have when the topic is displacement by/across stretches of water, both words have socio-economic and financial acceptations that very much apply to the critical human displacements of recent years. Sociologically, and according to the Oxford English Dictionary, mobility refers to ‘the ability or potential of individuals within a society to move between different social levels’, ‘horizontally’ or ‘vertically’, and, more specifically, to ‘the ability or potential of a workforce to move from place to place’; in financial parlance, ‘mobility’ also applies to a consideration of ‘assets’ that can be displaced with a view to obtaining a material advantage, resources that can be ‘mobilized’ and made to circulate in order to generate more wealth. This is where some of the implications of ‘mobility’ partly overlap with those of ‘liquidity’, that quality of assets or ‘securities’ that are ‘capable of being promptly converted into cash’, that will be all the more ‘liquid’ if they can be ‘categorized as near money’. The OED also clarifies that mobile/mobility and liquid/liquidity, in these understandings of the terms, find their first occurrences in the second half of the nineteenth century – reflecting, in sum, the socio-economic and financial processes and discourses proper to the heyday of the industrial age.31 Arguably at the other end of an historical process, the mobility crisis experienced in recent years by individuals and groups set afloat in the liquid element of the Mediterranean can hardly be separated from the broader vistas of the liquidity crises (the phrase becomes sinisterly ironical), and other financial disasters, that have disrupted the world’s economies especially since 2008, even when the centres of (in)decision that have determined the wayward flows of capital within the global financial order are oceanic distances (also digital distances) away.

The opening scene of The Comedy of Errors can arguably offer a first vindication of the cogency of these reflections, as the tone for the play is set by the old merchant whose name (Egeon), although he hails from Syracuse, is homophonous with the arm of the Mediterranean that stretches between Greece and Turkey. Prompted by the Duke of Ephesus, who is personally sympathetic but judicially intransigent to this mercantile interloper from an enemy city, Egeon narrates a history that spans much of the region. The blend of mercantile and personal fortunes in Egeon’s narrative leaves no room for distinctions between love and money that other moments in social history might expect to find discursively kept apart but here seem mutually validating and enhancing.32 Hence, the ‘joy’ with which Egeon credits his married life shares a verse line with his account of how ‘our wealth increased / By prosperous voyages’ (I. ii. 40–41)33 between Syracuse and Epidamnum, the comma between ‘joy’ and ‘our wealth’ allowing for both distinction and indistinction. Mobility becomes a key issue for such conflated personal and business fortunes: challenged by the consequences of ‘my factor’s death’, Egeon gives priority to ‘the great care of goods at random left’, merchandise that has to be made mobile again, set afloat in the liquid element, in order to generate wealth (or liquidity) – and he removes himself ‘from kind embracements of my spouse’ (42–44). His pregnant wife rejoins him and unburdens herself of the yield of their marriage – which compounds her husband’s efforts to secure the yield of his trade. Both, however, are scattered by the hazards of mobility, since the family finds itself on a ship abandoned by the crew and ‘sinking-ripe’ (78) (a paradoxical image of loss and fruitfulness), and then ‘splitted in the midst’ (104), with husband and wife and the two sets of twins symmetrically divided between ships from Corinth and Epidaurus. Again, toponymy performs the dual task of signifying dispersal and inscribing Egeon’s tale against the geographical span of the main arms of the eastern Mediterranean.

This general spatial breadth, the appeal of exotic place names, and maritime disaster were recurrent traits in romance, and the favour that (when appropriated by early modern drama) they enjoyed with audiences was famously confirmed by Sidney’s sneers in the Defense of Poesie at plays ‘where you shall have Asia of the one side, and Afric of the other, and … many other under-kingdoms’, and where ‘by and by we hear news of shipwreck’.34 I want to focus on shipwreck: from what otherwise would be the archaizing haze of tales of families divided and miraculously reunited, of love interrupted and many years later resumed, shipwreck stands out as a disaster with an impact on the English literary and theatrical imagination that the geographic conditions of an insular culture and the long-distance voyaging of early commercial capitalism largely explain. Materially, as Peter Grav notes, ‘One of the greatest … economic dangers faced by sixteenth-century merchants was the loss of a fully laden ship at sea’;35 imaginatively, shipwreck provided a focus for the terrors of drowning, of dissolution in the liquid element, manifested even in plays that ostensibly have little to do with the mercantile. One has only to remember the haunting imagery of Clarence’s dream in Richard III, with its visions of ‘the tumbling billows of the main’ and ‘a thousand fearful wracks’, its imaginings of ‘[the] dreadful noise of water in mine ears’, and ‘sights of ugly death within mine eyes’ (I. iv. 20–24).

Having glimpsed but escaped such fate, made imminent by the unrest of ‘the always wind-obeying deep’ (I. i. 64), and endowed with additional pathos by the ‘piteous plainings of the pretty babes’ (73), Egeon remains mobile along the coastlines of the Mediterranean, determined no longer by the ‘prosperous voyages’ (41) of earlier times, but rather by his quest for a lost son. That this mobility no longer generates liquidity is made evident when the formerly affluent merchant proves unable to bail himself out by paying the sum of ‘a thousand marks’ (22) exacted in Ephesus as ransom for an enemy alien. The elements of pathos in Egeon’s tale could be construed as outliving its archaic framework: parental grief for children who might drown, or be abruptly snatched from them, finds obvious correspondences in the globally circulated images of recent sufferings. Hence, it could be read as one of the elements in The Comedy of Errors, Act I scene i, the reception of which (four centuries later) seems to validate Terry Eagleton’s claim that human suffering is the great trans-historical constant – or rather, that there are ‘aspects of our existence which are permanent structures of our species-being .… And among these is the reality of suffering’.36 However, Egeon’s representation of paternal grief is made problematic, perhaps archaized and hence othered, by the perception that one of the pairs of twins on board that sinking ship were enslaved children, bought and taken from ‘exceeding poor’ parents, made into mobile assets and endangered on the high seas– and possibly posted beyond the pale of Egeon’s grief for ‘the pretty babes’ with their ‘piteous plainings’ (I. i. 7, 63): did these include the Dromios? This doubt arguably qualifies, for a present-day audience, the pathos of Egeon’s lot when a price is (likewise) put on his life; as it may qualify perceptions of his helplessness when abandoned with wife and children by sailors behaving with the callousness of latter-day people smugglers.

Between the pathos of Egeon’s sentencing in Act I scene i and his ultimate rescue as part of the recomposition of his family in Act V, the plot and imagery of romance are largely suspended by the structural dynamics of a comedy modally inflected by satire against an urban landscape, rather than maritime vistas.37 Nonetheless, the play is dominated by representations of circulation and flow, of the mobility of agents and assets with a view to generating liquidity.38 These plot features are magnified into a laughable obviousness by the recurrence in the text of words for trade and finance – beginning with ‘money’, which has in Errors the highest number of occurrences (twenty-two) in any Shakespeare play. ‘Money’ is complemented by a rich lexicon that includes ‘goods’, ‘confiscate’, ‘buy[ing]’, ‘statute[s]’, ‘expense’, ‘wealth’, ‘credit’ – and, of course, ‘gold’, the word count for which shows Errors to come second only to Timon of Athens. On its own, the play’s lexical range might not have an overwhelming importance, but this level of insistence becomes conspicuous in a play that has the shortest text in the Shakespeare canon, amounting to a verbal percussion that presses home the city’s obsessive concerns. Such lexically marked obsessiveness becomes a trademark of the urban space; its deployment grows in inverse proportion to the characters’ dwindling ability to get intention and effect to match; and their hopelessness grows in direct proportion to their frantic mobility around the town. Ensuring that monetary anxieties are never out of one’s mind, that lexical recurrence becomes also a gauge of failed agency, of utter loss of control on the part of merchants otherwise overconfident in their management of their goods, capital, trade language, and the space within which they incessantly move and talk, committed to a business rhythm which becomes increasingly that of farce.39

The process is punctuated by the beatings suffered by the two Dromios, the objects of the famous pun on ‘the thousand marks’ (I. ii. 81ff). The passage links the name for a currency, hence for financial value, and the debasement of ill-treating a bondsman; even if the lot of the battered slave is denied any pathos through the emotion-suspending effect of slapstick, the pun shows money and the human at their de-humanizing interface.40 This is further emphasized by the monetarization of the closest of human relations: one of the inferences to be drawn from Luciana’s remark, ‘If you did wed my sister for her wealth, / Then for her wealth’s sake use her with more kindness’ (III. ii. 5–6), is that respect for money easily trumps other considerations. Further, the role and position of the Courtesan obtain a social acknowledgment that is fully compatible with the text’s monetary logic.

If Dromio’s pun on ‘marks’ is a nodal point for the deeper reflections prompted by what otherwise is light-hearted farce, Antipholus of Ephesus’s gold ‘chain’ – successively misdelivered, inquired after and chased around the city41 – becomes an epitome of the failed concatenations, the delusions of circulation and mobility in the protocapitalist city.42 Indeed, the pretensions of such a space are famously dismissed by Antipholus of Syracuse’s diagnosis that ‘this town is full of cozenage’ (I. ii. 97). The intensity with which material quests are involved in derision and farce suggests that there may be an element of over-earnestness in Peter Grav’s claim that ‘from beginning to end, Errors represents Shakespeare’s earliest sustained critique of societies built on economic foundations’.43 Nonetheless, the play’s satirical and farcical treatment of the cocky confidence of agents of business and finance, left helpless when their actions produce effects opposite to their intentions, is not just one of the long-standing attractions of Errors – but also one that finds a deeper resonance in current contexts of reception, marked as they are by a heightened awareness of financial crises and hence a high level of suspicion regarding self-proclaimed experts.

For western audiences, the ‘eastern’ setting, in Ephesus, of a plot so intensely resonant with the concerns of a monetary modernity could entail a sense of anachronism and anatopism. However, this perception can itself be rendered more uncertain by the higher levels of recognition that, as argued above, the recent mobility crises have imparted to the toponymy of the eastern Mediterranean. The link between the liquidity of capital that keeps businesses afloat and the liquid element that ensures the mobility of goods, but also drowns and disperses in the surrounding seas, is resumed in the closing scene by Aemilia, the Abbess. Aemilia’s first query on reasons for mad behaviour, despite her own bereavement at the loss of son and husband at sea many years earlier, curiously concerns money rather than loved ones: ‘Hath he not lost much wealth by wrack of sea?’ (V. i. 49). Her remark reminds audiences not just of Egeon’s tale in the opening scene, but also of two other passages in which maritime and liquid tropes had been employed to represent family disruption: Antipholus of Syracuse’s self-description, ‘I to the world am like a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop, / Who, falling there to find his fellow forth, / Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself’ (I. ii. 35–38);44 and Luciana’s troping of supposedly indissoluble marital bonds: ‘For know, my love, as easy mayst thou fall / A drop of water in the breaking gulf, / And take unmingled thence that drop again / Without addition or diminishing, / As take from me thyself, and not me too’ (II. iii. 134–38). The closing scene of The Comedy of Errors evokes similar imagery but also, through evidence of the power designs of the commercial city, it foregrounds the prevalent mercantile ethos of Shakespeare’s Ephesus; it binds the modes of romance and satire; it resonates with the topicality for which I have been presenting a case; and it provides me with a cue to move to a brief discussion of Shakespeare’s other play of shipwrecks and mobility in the eastern Mediterranean.

The geographic vistas summoned by the text of Pericles through toponymy are broad but consistent – and fully in line with my earlier argument for their current visibility: Tyre, Antioch, Tarsus, Mytilene, Pentapolis and Ephesus. These points on the map of the eastern Mediterranean define a space that contains the hazardous sea crossings in the play; but this space is both archaized and magnified through the allegorical drift by which Gower construes the basin of the eastern Mediterranean as co-extensive with ‘the world’, since Pericles’s ‘careful search’ is described as unfolding within ‘the four opposing coigns / Which the world together joins’ (III. 0. 16–18). Together with the abundant imagery of maritime disaster, this concurs towards the prevalence of pathos in a text insistently marked by ‘the wayward seas’ (IV. iv. 10) ‘where, when men been, there’s seldom ease’ (II. 0. 28), by emotionally charged incidents such as a birth at sea during a storm (III. 0) followed by an (apparent) death on board and a sea burial (III. i.), and by allegorizations, as in Marina’s summation of her fate: ‘Born in a tempest when my mother died, / This world to me is as a lasting storm’ (IV. i. 17–18).

Some of the tropes in Pericles that resonate with current perceptions of challenges posed by the topography featured in the play involve long-standing commonplaces with a striking longevity. A particular case comes up in Act I scene 4, when Pericles, on his arrival in Tarsus, addresses the governor and reassures him about his intentions. The dynamics of the scene hinge on the long historical perception, shared by early modern audiences, that seaborne arrivals more often than not involved predatory violence (plunder, rape, enslavement); hence, the assurance given by Pericles that, on the contrary, his ships bring relief to the starving city. He adds:

And these our ships, you happily may think
Are like the Trojan horse was stuff’d within
With bloody veins expecting overthrow,
Are stor’d with corn to make your needy bread,
And give them life whom hunger starv’d half dead.
(I. iv. 92–6)
Through one of the most ancient of tropes, Pericles acknowledges the fears of those starving in Tarsus, and stresses that he and his companions are not the Homeric Trojan horse.45 The cultural conditions under which his statement can be received today, however, include conspicuous uses of that particular image to represent an antithetical situation: the fears of intrusion and disruption entertained by more prosperous communities wanting to wall themselves against the arrival of starvelings from the sea asking for their food. The trope has been explicitly used by vocal proponents of a ‘fortress Europe’ (or fortress America) attitude towards the feared encroachment of migrants. An article entitled ‘The Trojan Horse of Refugees in Europe’, posted in early February 2016 on an English-language Russian online journal, argued that ‘countries either have to relinquish some of their universal values by disregarding some of the recognized human rights and freedoms, or the clashes between the two cultures will progress to tragic atrocities’.46 Across the Atlantic, on a variety of occasions since late 2015, Donald Trump has concurred, declaring that Syrian refugees accepted for asylum in America are ‘a Trojan horse’, and arguing for the containment of refugees on Syrian territory that could be ‘bought’ for that purpose.47 The trope has also been applied to the migrant and refugee phenomenon widely across the blogosphere.

If trade and money, with their attendant discourses, seemed to determine the representational range of The Comedy of Errors both in its romance framework of voyaging and in its satirical/farcical take on the modern urban space, in Pericles, however, the language and incidents of romance, their archaic import enhanced by the Gower choruses, are suspended to allow money to take a centre-stage position just for a couple of scenes in Act IV. In their language and circumstances, they offer as stark a contrast as they could to the rest of the play, since these are the notorious Mytilene brothel scenes – which remind us, in fact, that in Shakespeare ‘the brothel [often] stands for all systems of commercial exchange’.48 The transactions that occupy the three pimps offer a risible and brutal epitome of the dynamics of the proto-capitalist western urban space – even if nominally dislocated to the shores of Asia Minor. By comparison, the Courtesan’s house in The Comedy of Errors is an abode of gentility.

In other terms: in The Comedy of Errors the coexistence of elements of romance and elements of an urban setting that is modern in the business-like manner of its socio-economic arrangements becomes laughable for their surprising compatibility; thus (as pointed out above), the Abbess, leader of a contemplative community, reveals a mindset so determined by the monetarized world of action that the prime reason that occurs to her for anyone to become deranged is financial loss. The rationale of exchange is so pervasive that there is a seamless movement between the various areas of life and experience. Thus, when Antipholus of Ephesus brings guests home for lunch he is doing business by other means, and his discomfiture at finding himself locked out of doors is explicitly construed as bad for business, since it harms his reputation and credit.49 Visiting the Courtesan instead of having lunch with his wife appears as an alternative that is hardly transgressive: as a character in Massinger’s The City Madam (1632) was to put it with regard to prostitution and marriage, ‘The commoditie is the same’ (III. i. 80–81).

In Pericles, however, the farcical import of the Mytilene brothel lies in its utter incompatibility with the circumstances and language of the rest of the play, marked by voyaging that at no point appears mercantile or materially acquisitive, and only in the ‘relief’ episode in Tarsus involves an explicitly material dimension. In stark contrast to this, in the harbour town of Mytilene hard-nosed business defines the dialogue of Pander, Bawd and Bolt, marked out by its bawdy prose from the blank verse of other scenes and the rhymed tetrameters of the Gower choruses. Pander’s initial injunction – ‘Search the market narrowly’ (IV. ii. 3) – still employs the word in its physical, topographical sense; but the remark that follows – ‘We lost too much money this mart’ (IV. ii. 4) – already inflects the synonym towards a measure of abstraction, closer to that present-day usage we recognize when we are prompted to ‘study the market’ or ‘compare the market’.

The boisterous laughter prompted by the low-life scene is qualified for present-day audiences by the fact that their trade is in human flesh. If this sets the scene at an ethical distance, the opening imperative to ‘search the market’ reflects a recognizable commercial crisis: the brothel suffers from lack of liquidity because it is running out of stock – their stock being also their human resources. As the Bawd candidly puts it, ‘We were never so much out of creatures’, and her brazen description materializes the problem as much as it renders it obscenely clear: the remaining ‘poor three’ whores ‘with continual action are even as good as rotten’, and there is thus an absolute need to invest in ‘fresh ones, whate’er we pay for them’ (IV. ii. 6–11). Deathly venereal disease is bluntly acknowledged and found to victimize foreigners – before the age of sexual tourism – by reifying them as dead flesh: ‘The poor Transylvanian is dead that lay with the little baggage’; ‘she made him roast meat for worms’ (IV. ii. 19–22). The precariousness of their business may, incidentally, be represented in terms that evoke the play’s prevalent seafaring dangers – ‘The stuff we have, a strong wind will blow it to pieces’ (IV. ii. 16–17); but the language of trade and money punctuates the dialogue with mock seriousness, as the Pander philosophizes that ‘our credit comes not in like the commodity, nor the commodity wages not with the danger’ (27–28).50 Bolt buys Marina from the pirates (a case of ancient human trafficking); and this bit of business is enveloped in the practices and language of professional traders: the payment of a non-returnable deposit (‘my earnest’, 41) secures the deal, agreed for the total sum of ‘a thousand pieces’ (48), which the brothel expects to get back by auctioning her virginity in the market.

It is Marina’s arrival that signals the irreconcilable nature of the romance and satirical strands in Pericles.51 The first textual marker of this intractability is the couplet that Marina sets up against the bawdy and monetarized prose of Act IV scene ii, binding, through rhyme, an image of her defining marine origin with a vow of impregnable chastity: ‘If fires be hot, knives sharp or waters deep, / Untried I still my virgin knot will keep’ (IV. ii. 138–39). This assertion of essential worth comes to trump, in a risible way, the contingencies of the market as verbalized in the brothel – partly because of the pimps’ ineptness. And yet Marina’s success in keeping herself out of the sex market and its inexorable exchange nexus involves triumphing over the lust of increasingly distinguished customers, who describe with a ludicrous religious fervour how she converts them – ‘I am for no more bawdy houses. Shall’s go hear the vestals sing?’ (IV. v. 6–7) – and indeed represent their conversion as a case of cancelling the mobility of desire: ‘I am out of the road of rutting for ever’ (IV. v. 9).52

Marina’s ultimate triumph over the mobility of lust, however, coincides with her encounter with the governor of Mytilene himself. Lysimachus initially seems to dismiss her beauty in a casual-sounding remark that evokes the (stereotypical) undiscriminating lust of sailors: ‘she would serve after a long voyage at sea’ (IV. vi. 40–41). Lysimachus inquires in succession after her ‘trade’, her ‘profession’, her condition as ‘a gamester’ and ‘creature of sale’ (62, 68, 71, 74). However, their dialogue evolves from prose, proper to a trading relation, to verse, which the play’s decorum associates with heightened values and, indeed, with the ‘gold’ with which the governor ultimately rewards her condition as ‘a piece of virtue’ (111), a phrase that echoes the brothel’s previous purchase of her for ‘a thousand pieces’. Towards the end of the scene, Bolt himself has become convinced of the practical wisdom of bailing the virgin out of the brothel for his personal profit as an extortionary impresario, pimping her talents rather than her body. And the conditions unfold towards a reunion and recognition scene, which, after a plot structured by voyages ‘from bourn to bourn, region to region’ (IV. iv. 4), the previous Gower chorus had pointed towards with the closing line: ‘And think you now are all in Mytilene’ (IV. iv. 51).

The final act, by opening with a sailor from Tyre meeting one from Mytilene, reminds audiences that this convergence at a (today notorious) seaport on Lesbos involves yet another sea crossing, but one that sees Pericles immobilized by grief at the supposed deaths of his wife and daughter. In Errors, Egeon was ransomed from execution by the social and material consequences of being reunited with his family; Pericles is rescued from stasis and stupor into the interpersonal dynamics of discourse and the mobility of normal living – and this happens through the agency of a daughter ‘born at sea’ (V. i. 147) and named after that accident, brought from Tarsus to Lesbos by pirates – and hence ‘found at sea again’ (V. i. 187). Marina’s effect on Pericles, during the recognition scene, is also troped in maritime terms: ‘this great sea of joys rushing upon me’, threatening to ‘o’erbear the shores of my mortality / And drown me with their sweetness’ (V. i. 182–84).

The play’s final sea crossing means that Pericles locates its scene of family reunion in Ephesus, the same location as The Comedy of Errors; and, again, a long-lost wife and mother is found to have survived under a contemplative guise – now a votaress of Diana. The outcome sees the characters ready to take yet again to the liquid element across their ‘world’ in the eastern Mediterranean – to Pentapolis for the wedding of Marina and Lisymachus, who will then sail on to Tyre, where they will ‘reign’ (V. iii. 82). The Ephesus of Pericles allows for the final conditions for utter bliss to be promised to all characters, but, unlike in the Ephesus of Errors, the happy ending is not ostensibly buttressed by a modern discourse of monetary wealth and civic reputation. And yet the chain that leads to Pericles’s happy ending of unqualified romance crucially includes the play’s only spot where people and goods (people as goods) are brutally inserted in a mock replica of the proto-capitalist dynamics of exchange: the brothel. The Mytilene microcosm for ‘continual action’ is crucial for the happy ending: it is because she is brought as a saleable asset to the Mytilene market and faces the challenge posed by the brothel that Marina has to excel in her proselytism of virtue; it is because the virgin lives in the brothel that Lisymachus meets her and is captivated by her, thereby graduating from whoremonger to prince charming; it is because she threatens the pimps with ruin that Marina is allowed to reveal her exalted talents to all the worthies of Mytilene and be judged the mythical wise virgin who can cure a king. From this derives the recognition scene on board Pericles’s ship, and later the second recognition scene and full family reunion in Ephesus.

Ultimately, in either play, though by different representational means, forms of mobility that directly or indirectly hinge on monetary dynamics (and either prior or ongoing sea crossings), prove decisive for characters to see their desires gratified; and this on locations that, today, are the unlikeliest venues to offer happy endings to those that land on their shores. This awareness does not cancel, however, the ability of these two plays to provide us with imaginative footholds for pondering and expressing the dismal geopolitics of our age; even if, in their final blissful scenes, the visitors or denizens of Ephesus in The Comedy of Errors and Pericles would surely be enough like today’s satisfied tourists not to claim their money back.


Research for this article was supported by FCT (Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia) through CETAPS (Centre for English, Translation and Anglo-Portuguese Studies – Ref.UID/ELT/04097/2013).


Terence Hawkes, Shakespeare in the Present (London: Routledge, 2002), 2.


Cary DiPietro and Hugh Grady, eds, Shakespeare and the Urgency of Now (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 1.


Hawkes, Shakespeare in the Present, 2.


The phrase was memorably Ben Jonson’s in ‘Ode to Himself; see C. H. Herford, Percy and Evelyn Simpson, eds, Ben Jonson, vol. VI (Oxford: Clarendon, 1948), 492.


As acknowledged by DiPietro and Grady (Shakespeare and the Urgency of Now, 2), the phrase was originally coined by Martin Luther King and has been much used since in a variety of public contexts.


The phrase is an extrapolation of what the late Irish poet Seamus Heaney called ‘the place of writing’, an acknowledgement of locales as determinants of our perceptions and inscriptions – Seamus Heaney, The Place of Writing (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1989).


Hugh Grady recollects how Hawkes and himself, as proponents of ‘presentism’, predicated it on the shared ‘assumption that the critic’s own situation in our cultural present is a resource for, rather than an impediment to, a productive and insightful reading of Shakespeare’: see Hugh Grady and Terence Hawkes, Shakespeare and Impure Aesthetics (Cambridge: CUP, 2009), 236.


The traditional historical narrative of seafaring prowess and ‘discoveries’ has been challenged, contextualized and reconceptualized by more recent scholarship, but ‘expansion’ remains the centrepiece in the historiography of Portugal’s early modern maritime and proto-imperial protagonisms. Concomitant to that narrative of Portugal’s contributions to extending European knowledge of (and power over) the world, the country’s particular situation within the European context has often been pondered, the best-known thesis about Portuguese geographic identity stressing that it is poised on the border between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean: see Orlando Ribeiro, Portugal, o Mediterrâneo e o Atlântico: Estudo Geográfico (Coimbra: Coimbra Editora, 1945). This (today, much favoured) argument for liminality has often been extended, as in descriptions of the country as part of ‘the Mediterranean Atlantic’ – Paul Butel, The Atlantic (London: Routledge, 1999), 45.


The Jew of Malta I. ii. 245; Othello III. iv. 26.


Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, trans. Siân Reynolds, vol. 1 (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), 615–42.


Erica Carter, James Donald and Judith Squires, eds, Space & Place: Theories of Identity and Location (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1993), xii.


David Harvey, Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996), 306; my emphasis.


For a recent overview and in-depth discussion of the topic’s various strands, see David Hawkes, Shakespeare and Economic Theory (London: Bloomsbury, 2015). Earlier studies that have proved inspiring to this article include: Douglas Bruster, Drama and the Market in the Age of Shakespeare (Cambridge: CUP, 1992); and Linda Woodbridge, ed., Money and the Age of Shakespeare: Essays in New Economic Criticism (New York and Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). Besides Hawkes’s work, studies that reflect the post-2008 developments with a relevance to my argument include Richard Halpern, ‘Bassanio’s Bailout: A Brief History of Risk, Shakespeare to Wall Street’, SEDERI 24 (2014): 27–45.


As particular cases of what Douglas Bruster has described as ‘the tendency of the Renaissance theaters to collapse distance and difference’: see Bruster, Drama and the Market, 32.


Halpern, ‘Bassanio’s Bailout’, 31.


Ephesus is in Asia Minor and Mytilene on Lesbos (also off Asia Minor); Tyre is a port in present-day Lebanon, while Antakya and Tarsus are just to the north of it, in south-east Turkey; Pentapolis is associated with the coast of Cyrenaica, in present-day Libya.


Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare (1930; London: Batsford, 1958), vol. 1, 367.


For Peter Grav, ‘reading Ephesus as the London that Shakespeare lived in – a city in which mercantile influence was pervasive in the 1590s – does not seem that large a stretch’ – Peter Grav, Shakespeare and the Economic Imperative: ‘what’s aught but as ‘tis valued?’ (New York: Routledge, 2008), 33.


Daniel Vitkus, ‘“The Common Market of All the World”: English Theater, the Global System, and the Ottoman Empire in the Early Modern Period’, in Global Traffic: Discourses and Practices of Trade in English Literature and Culture from 1550 to 1700, ed. Barbara Sebek and Stephen Deng (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), (19–37), 26. Walter Cohen also points out that ‘during the 1580s, England established consuls in leading cities of the Ottoman empire, including Aleppo, Alexandria, Algiers, Damascus, Tunis, Tripoli in Syria, and Tripoli in Barbary’, and he argues that ‘the pattern of allusion’ of Shakespeare’s geography ‘produces almost a global feel’ – Walter Cohen, ‘The Undiscovered Country: Shakespeare and Mercantile ‘Geography’, in Marxist Shakespeares, ed. Jean E. Howard and Scott Cutler Shershow (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), (128–58), 130, 132.


Ephesus Ancient City, (accessed 23 February 2017).


‘Refugee Boat Sinks near Izmir, 61 Dead’, Hurriet Daily News,, 6 September 2012; ‘Turkish Tourism Hit by Security Concerns’, Deutsche Welle, 10 August 2015, (both accessed 23 February 2017).


The Guardian, ‘Lesbos: A Greek Island in Limbo over Tourism, Refugees – and its Future,, 24 March 2016; Lesvos Solidarity, (accessed 23 February 2017).


Migrants at Sea, (accessed 23 February 2017,); ‘Thousands of Albanians Flee Aboard Ships to Italy’, The New York Times,, 6 March 1991 (accessed 23 February 2017).


‘War, Migration and Revenge: Shakespeare is the Bard of Today’s World’, The Guardian,, 30 October 2015 (accessed 23 February 2017).


The impact of this event was discussed in major media outlets on the first anniversary of the drowning. See: ‘Looking Back at Alan Kurdi and Other Faces of Syrian Crisis’, The New York Times,, 2 September 2016; ‘The Death of Alan Kurdi: One Year on Compassion for Refugees Fades,’ The Guardian,, 2 September 2016; ‘“Photo of My Dead Son Has Changed Nothing”, Says Father of Drowned Syrian Refugee Boy Alan Kurdi’, The Telegraph,, 2 September 2016 (accessed 23 February 2017).


For example, the European Commission has published a ‘policy review’ entitled ‘Research on Migration: Facing Realities and Maximising Opportunities’ (2016), (accessed 23 February 2017); and a ‘conference report’, Understanding and Tackling the Migration Challenge: The Role of Research (2016), (accessed 23 February 2017).


Stephen Greenblatt, ed., Cultural Mobility: A Manifesto (Cambridge: CUP, 2009).


Greenblatt, Cultural Mobility,, accessed 30 April 2016.


Greenblatt, Cultural Mobility, 2.


See Harold Bloom’s famous epithet for Shakespeare: The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (New York: Harcourt, 1994), 45.


All citations in the lines above refer to OED Online, (accessed 25 February 2017).


This mutuality of money and the emotions is often discussed as reflecting the ‘troubled transition from an economy based around use-value to a society organized around the pursuit of exchange-value’ – Hawkes, Shakespeare and Economic Theory, xiv. Theodore B. Leinwand also remarks on the rapport, in the period, between the language of ‘credit, debt, mortgages, and venturing’ and that of the emotions – Theodore B. Leinwand, Theatre, Finance, and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge: CUP, 1999), 3.


All Shakespeare citations refer to the latest Arden editions of the plays in question.


Katherine Duncan-Jones, ed., Sir Philip Sidney (Oxford: OUP, 1994), 134–35.


Grav, Shakespeare and the Economic Imperative, 36.


Terry Eagleton, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), xii.


This combination of satire and the urban demonstrates ‘the basic receptivity of late Elizabethan and early Jacobean audiences to the satiric strain as expressed in the materialist vision’ – Bruster, Drama and the Market, 39.


For Peter Grav, ‘The Comedy of Errors seems at times to be as concerned with the vagaries of commercial exchange systems as it is with mistaken identities’ – Grav, Shakespeare and the Economic Imperative, 28.


The characters’ frantic dynamic is reminiscent of the working of a mechanism that is out of order but cannot be stopped – and hence of Henri Bergson’s famous dictum on the ‘mechanical rigidity’ to which human mobility is reduced in order to generate laughter – Henri Bergson, Laughter (1900; Rockville, MD: Wildside Press, 2008), 6 and passim. The compulsive nature of movement in the play is matched by a compulsive deployment of language, and the language of money: David Landreth notes how semiotics has discussed ‘the discursive character of money and the monetary character of discourse’, and the process by which ‘Mammon grows ever chattier over time’ – David Landreth, The Face of Mammon: The Matter of Money in English Renaissance Literature (Oxford: OUP, 2012), 41. The farcical mismanagement of their best interests by the characters of Errors, as they try to go about their business, also becomes an illustration of what Bradley Ryner has called ‘the tension between conceptualising the individual as controlling economic transactions and conceptualising the individual as controlled by impersonal economic forces’ – Bradley Ryner, Performing Economic Thought: English Drama and Mercantile Writing, 1600–1640 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2014), 78; and Ceri Sullivan has pointed out that ‘drama is at the heart of the genres produced by credit, fictions produced for financial effect where merchants regard their selves in instrumental terms’, and that satirical laughter ‘is an aggressive ranking device which indicates withheld credit’ – Ceri Sullivan, The Rhetoric of Credit: Merchants in Early Modern Writing (Cranbury, NJ: Associated UP, 2002), 122.


The pun is a striking example of how ‘the commodification of the personal marked the drama of this period with new energy’ – Bruster, Drama and the Market, 42.


The chain becomes the objective focus for a strand of the plot that has featured prominently in the play’s critical processing. Curtis Perry highlights, as regards the structural relevance of this prop, ‘the connection between farce and commodity culture’ – Curtis Perry, ‘Commerce, Community, and Nostalgia in The Comedy of Errors’, in Money and the Age of Shakespeare, ed. Woodbridge, (39–51), 49.


Cf Bruster, Drama and the Market, 75–77. Curtis Perry suggests, further, that the relative informality of earlier networks of credit, on the basis of forms of trust and financial interdependence, created the conditions for intense anxiety whenever any of the links in such networks proved problematic – Perry, ‘Commerce’, 40.


Grav, Shakespeare and the Economic Imperative, 53.


This passage is ‘one of the few places in that play [The Comedy of Errors] that offers the kind of subjectivity effect we expect from Shakespeare’ – Perry, ‘Commerce’, 39–40.


For Valerie Forman, Pericles posits an economy that ‘rewrites the defensive categorizations in which poverty is foreign and wealth is native, thus defusing … [a perception of] threats posed by foreigners … by imagining contact with other countries as a source of productivity rather than as a form of violation’ – Valerie Forman, Tragicomic Redemptions: Global Economics and the Early Modern English Stage (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 20.


Ekaterina Ryzhkova, ‘The Trojan Horse of Refugees in Europe’, New Eastern Outlook, 5 February 2016 (accessed 23 February 2017).


Maggie Haberman, ‘Donald Trump Questions Whether Syrian Refugees Are a “‘Trojan Horse’”, New York Times,, 16 November 2015 (accessed 23 February 2017).


Hawkes, Shakespeare and Economic Theory, 104. The historically perceived homologies (and exchangeability) of people and money, through the materiality of the coin, are also noted by David Landreth: ‘Situated between the material and the social worlds, the coin bears a strange, even parodic likeness to the human bodies among whom it changes hands’ – Landreth, The Face of Mammon, 6.


Craig Muldrew has extensively argued the conditions under which ‘the early modern economy was a system of cultural, as well as material, exchanges in which the central mediating factor was credit or trust’ – The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1998), 4 and passim.


‘Shakespeare’s usages of “commodity” allow us to observe the word settling into its modern meaning’ – Hawkes, Shakespeare and Economic Theory, 99.


As pointed out by Bradley Ryner, ‘a play’s economic thought comes into particular relief when two genres run into one another or when a play draws attention to its own generic construction’ –Ryner, Performing Economic Thought, 167.


Valerie Forman offers a sustained reading of the economic implications of Pericles’s redemptive design, but she acknowledges that ‘some of Marina’s profit making in the brothel scene might seem hyper-redemptive and thus potentially parodic’ – Forman, Tragicomic Redemptions, 83.

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Contributor Notes

Rui Carvalho Homem is professor of English at the University of Oporto, Portugal (Universidade do Porto). He has published extensively on contemporary early modern English drama, Irish poetry, and intermediality. As a literary translator, he has published versions of works by Shakespeare, Marlowe, Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin.


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