Shakespeare and the Birth of Bourdieusian Capital

Gans, Bourdieu, Oldenburg, all that good stuff

I typically don’t post academic stuff here, but Gans/this sort of thing has actually (actually) been coming up in conversation a lot recently, and I’ve been advised that this is of General Interest (possibly even Great Importance) to the public.

Shakespeare wrote in a time of great transition as post-feudal Europe struggled with the tensions between traditional society and burgeoning capitalism, and The Merchant of Venice is among his most in-depth explorations of these dynamics. Though the play is on its face a kind of legal drama based around a transactional dispute in commercial society, the motivations and obligations that drive and constrict the characters are part of a newly complex market system shaped largely by self-determination, but also by the persisting traditional structures that predate and often supplant voluntary contracts and relations. Renaissance Europe’s transition from feudalism to modern capitalist systems afforded citizens greater autonomy and made for a much more dynamic social fabric than the rigid structures of feudal society. As this was a great source of tension in Shakespeare’s lifetime, the burgeoning of capitalism plays a central role in many of his plays, but The Merchant of Venice is a direct confrontation with these themes; not only is the merchant an ideal subject for exploring these dynamics, but the early cosmopolis of Venice exemplifies the most advanced stages of this process for its time. 

Location is a key point of inquiry into this transitional dynamic, as settings throughout the play coordinate, facilitate and become representative of different modes of social organization. With this intersection of place and capital, two analytical frameworks are helpful in exploring these dynamics: Pierre Bourdieu’s conception of the forms of capital— economic, cultural, and social— that circulate in modern market societies, and Ray Oldenburg’s notion of first, second, and third places— homes, occupational sites, and leisure space respectively— which helps to classify the varying significance these forms of capital take in specific locational contexts. In The Merchant of Venice, Venice and Belmont are dichotomized; the former is a chaotic market grappling with the forces of modernization and newly circulating forms of capital, while the latter is a relative haven where humanistic values cut through all the artifice (which Shakespeare recognizes and engages with throughout his works) as an inherent pitfall of the market system in which capital accumulation is often wrongly equated with genuine virtue.

In his 1986 essay “The Forms of Capital,” Bourdieu distinguishes between economic, cultural, and social capital as loosely quantifiable accumulations of influence which serve largely to determine individuals’ positions in society. Economic capital consists of one’s assets that are directly convertible to currency; cultural capital consists of cultural knowledge, rank and power which contribute to social mobility; social capital is one’s network of interpersonal connections who can be effectively mobilized in times of need or desire, which can be inherited through family name (Bourdieu 21, 23). Perhaps the most important distinction is that social capital is “relatively irreducible to the economic and cultural capital possessed by a given agent,” but is always at least peripherally influenced by these two other forms of capital (21). Despite this inextricability, social capital is a kind of transcendent form of capital that operates according to less utilitarian rules, and is substantially predicated on humanistic connection. It’s perhaps unsurprising in a Shakespearean play then that Antonio’s social capital— his network of friends—  comes to be his saving grace when all other hope is lost.

Though these forms of Bourdieusian capital existed in somewhat embryonic forms in pre-capitalist societies, it isn’t until various modernization processes took place that this concept takes on its full relevance. In his essay, “For the Social History of the Present: Pierre Bourdieu as Historical Sociologist,” Craig Calhoun assesses Bourdieu’s theoretical relevance across societal contexts, asserting that capitalist modernity is a key foundation for Bourdieu’s framework. Although Bourdieu “left ambiguity about when his analytic concepts were meant as universal, as general to modernity or states or capitalism, or as specific to a particular context,” Calhoun contends that his engagement with crucial instances of social transformation greatly informed his work (Calhoun 36). For Calhoun, the modernization process is pivotal:

The way state power and market expansion and intensification produced a deracination or uprooting of ‘traditional’ ways of life— specifically peasant life. Bourdieu explored how long-established practices and cultural systems worked in slow-changing societies in which neither state nor economy exerted a constant or differentiated influence [and their subsequent transition toward modern capitalist economies] in colonial Algeria, especially Kabylia, and in his own native region of the Béarn in the Pyrenees mountains of Southwest France (36)

Bourdieu’s engagement with “the creation of what other social theorists have called ‘modern’ society by the differentiation of state and market power and more generally the making of fields,” Calhoun says, is a significant factor in his framework (37). With modernity, the stratification of society into Bourdieusian fields— specific, differentiated arenas of exchange and accumulation— and the accompanying expansion of this underlying market logic into many domains of life, the notion of the forms of capital as fluid and exchangeable takes on its contemporary significance. The Merchant of Venice takes place during this modernization, with Venice itself exemplifying the most advanced stages of modernity for its period. The stressors the process entails serve as plot points throughout the play: Antonio’s precarity as a merchant, the cultural clash of Venice’s trade-based cosmopolitanism, the tensions between traditional and modern value systems, and the ironclad law that’s necessary to hold everything together.

Contextualizing Venice as a transitional, quasi-contemporary market society grappling with the vestiges of feudal traditions is important in this regard. Melanie Long, in her essay “Merchantry, Usury, Villainy: Capitalism and the Threat to Community Integrity in The Merchant of Venice,” explores this dynamic using anthropologist Eric Gans’ originary hypothesis regarding the creation of cultural meaning. Gans’ theory posits a distinction between societies in which cultural meaning and values are created and dispersed from a central node and those in which such meanings and values are determined through the relatively autonomous actions of individuals in what he terms “peripheral exchange” (Long). This dichotomy maps neatly onto the structural changes occurring across post-feudal European societies at the time of The Merchant of Venice, which were acquiescing to this newfound self-determination of the market economy. Employing Gans’ theory, she says:

The ritual system places authority in the sacred center as the source of meaning and thus justifies hierarchies and systems of economic distribution in terms of that center. By contrast, the disembedded or market system minimizes the role of the central authority and instead allows distribution to be determined by the exchange of signs along the periphery of the scene (Long). 

In Bourdieusian terms, under feudalism we can consider one’s accumulated capital and potential for accumulation to be largely immutable due to the rigidly hierarchical structure and low social mobility of the system. This medieval stratification— ordained by the Church, the royalty and God— is so rigid in fact that, as Calhoun suggests, this concept of the forms of capital would scarcely hold much weight within the feudal context, and only becomes truly meaningful when contrasted with the market system of autonomous actors engaging in peripheral exchange. With the introduction of disembedded market-based system and comparatively greater social mobility, these once-ingrained forms of capital are dispersed and begin to play their important roles in the dynamics of socioeconomic interaction. Social roles are no longer sacred— positional relations once determined by the Church are suddenly malleable by individual action. As such, the pressure of mutable status becomes a pervasive and newly relevant stressor in the competitive market society. This new mode of stratification makes for a distinctly individualistic, economic conception of oneself in which one’s relative capital, now directly tied to one’s cultural, social and economic competencies, plays a central role in interpersonal relations and, for the merchant, one’s livelihood.

With this emergence of the free-market and modern forms of capital, locations take on new relevance correspondent to the exchanges that take place within them. To echo Calhoun, this modernization is a crucial turning point that sets the stage for Ray Oldenburg’s thesis of the first, second and third place, which he elaborates in his 1989 book The Great Good Place. Oldenburg terms the home the first place; it is the most important and stable place, comparably predictable to the stressful world of occupations and even more so to the convival and sporadic nature of public spaces (41). The space in which one works is the second place; as the means to acquire resources it is nearly as important as the home, but lacks such comfort and relative stability. The second place, Oldenburg says, “reduces the individual to a single, productive role. It fosters competition and motivates people to rise above their fellow creatures” (ibid). The third place, on which his study focuses, refers to “a great variety of public places that host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work,” such as parks, bars, coffeehouses and other getaways (ibid). A crucial distinguishing quality of the third place, which is most important in the context of The Merchant of Venice, is the relative non-importance of status differentials associated with accumulated capital.

Though these sorts of environments— homes, places of business, leisure spaces— predated the modernizing processes of capitalism, with modernity and the dispersion of Bourdieusian capital from the central, sacred node of feudalistic determination, they take on new social significance, respectively: living spaces typified by stable, traditional kinship hierarchies; dynamic arenas of socioeconomic competition; and refuges from such hierarchy and competition for the newly autonomous citizen of the free society. Oldenburg briefly acknowledges the collapse of feudalism as this kind of turning point: English coffeehouses, he says, offered “unprecedented democracy among the English, [and] were commonly referred to as levelers, as were the people who frequented them and who relished the new intimacy made possible by the decay of the old feudal order” (47). The transition into the market society of the free citizen created the conditions for the third place to fulfill its modern role as an equalizing refuge from the status hierarchies that arise from capital differentials. Regarding The Merchant of Venice, the dichotomy Shakespeare creates between Venice and Belmont can be viewed as a large, economically competitive and hierarchical second place versus and the small, humanistic and intimate third place.

The play’s title, The Merchant of Venice, is of course important as well, as it gives explicit primacy to the role of the merchant as a subject within the leading cosmopolitan marketplace of the time. The merchant holds a distinct position in this Bourdeiusian conception of Venetian society, internationally renowned for its orientation around trade. The merchant is a sole actor whose capital— social, cultural, and of course economic— all intermingle and determine the outcome of their business. As the merchant’s expansive second place, Venice can be seen as a nexus of Bourdieusian fields, or spheres of capital exchange. The mercantile Venetian must maintain good social standing in order to facilitate their trading (a critical point in Antonio’s deal with Shylock), leveraging their cultural proficiencies and positions alongside their economic competencies. We might even say the merchant is an ideal Bourdieusian subject in this regard: the merchant’s identity and reputation— largely determined by accumulated forms of capital— is directly tied to their prosperity and survival. In the case of Antonio, whose network of social capital comes to play a pivotal role (in no small part due to his Christianity) in mobilizing Portia to mount a legal defense and emancipate him from Shylock’s bond, it’s this non-economic capital that plays the most important, literally life-saving role of all. Still, despite the dynamism of capital, Venetian society remains shaped by traditional structures that predate, orient, and even transcend market relations.

Due to its international, multi-ethnic character, Venice must leverage some control over the implicit discriminations that skew capital relations and could otherwise discourage commerce. This is the basis for the strict rule of law in Venice: arbitrating and maintaining order to facilitate the market. This is why Antonio, having internalized this system as immutable, recognizes his demise as all but inevitable when he is unable to fulfill his debt to Shylock; the Duke cannot deny the law because to do so will compromise Venice’s reputation and capacity for international trade, as “the profit of the city consisteth of all nations” (Shakespeare 3.3.26-31). The law must be upheld because the law serves as a basis for the prosperity of Venice; material wealth and the maintenance of the market is given priority over the life of the Christian Antonio. Even when the Duke himself recognizes the gratuitous cruelty that upholding the law entails, evidenced in his pleading with Shylock to rescind his bond and “forgive a moiety of the principal,” he ensures the legal process continues nevertheless for the city’s sake (4.1.25). The Duke is at somewhat of a loss, understanding that the power of the law now rests solely with Shylock as executor of his contract, and that the law must be upheld no matter the consequences. 

But despite these attempts at cosmopolitanism via a secular law under which all are considered equal, the influence of scriptural law remains a fundamental governing force in that it determines the roles Jews and Christians can play in the market. Christians’ being biblically forbidden from usury is what relegates Jews to the frowned upon but nevertheless important business of usury in Venice. As pointed out by Roy Booth in his “Shylock’s Sober House,” “Jews were allowed some privileges because their convenient mastery of the business forbidden to Christians, money-lending, made them a vital source of royal revenue” (26). Shylock has a relatively unique position within the market, then: his trade is mercantile by nature, but unlike the comparatively autonomous Christian merchant, his social and cultural capital are fixedly deficient as a Jew. This tripartite structure— market, law, and religion— is complex in that, despite modernizing processes that break from traditional feudal system and offer relative autonomy, this autonomy is unevenly apportioned according to traditions that nevertheless persist into modernity. Venetian society remains a place of constraint then, especially for those directly involved in the mercantile lifestyle. Merchant and usurer alike are subject to the stresses of the capitalist logic on which one’s prosperity and reputation is precariously founded, to the rigidly persistent discriminations of religious differences, and to the rule of law that would sacrifice the life of its citizens to maintain material prosperity. 

Luckily for (most of) the play’s characters, there’s Belmont: a place in which both the materialist market logic around which Venetian society is structured and its quasi-religious legal constraints are subverted. It’s first important to distinguish, however, between the two locations within Belmont: Portia’s home and the garden in which the final scene takes place. For much of the play everything within Belmont takes place in Portia’s home, within which Portia is bound by the will of her recently deceased father, who had preemptively laid out plans to help ensure her a proper husband. Portia’s home is the most extensive examination of the first place in the play, and it is an archetypal first place: rigidly structured and stable, working according to its own internal kinship laws of familial hierarchy. Yet unlike Venice, these laws are not punitive, and not adhered to out of fear or force. In spite of any reservations Portia might have about her situation (“Is it / not hard, Nerissa, that I cannot choose one nor refuse / none?”) she abides by her familial obligation (Shakespeare 1.2.24-26). Portia’s bondage is ultimately voluntary, and is upheld out of respect for her father’s good intentions, which are affirmed by Nerissa: “Your father was ever virtuous, and holy men at / their death have good inspirations” (1.2.27-28). This is a far cry from the ‘hard’ constraints of Venice, which are in place to ensure material prosperity— not because of any intrinsic goodness as is the case with Portia’s father.

It’s through the casket game that Portia’s father’s virtuous intentions are elaborated, and that many of the core values that come to typify Belmont are made explicit. The failures of both the Prince of Morocco and Arragon are the failures of the values most associated with cosmopolitan Venice. Each demonstrates a facile interpretation of the game’s logic, which brings to light their fixations on wealth, nobility and rank— or in Bourdieusian terms, economic, social and cultural capital— as opposed to the more intimate, humanistic values that Portia’s father believes she deserves. First, the Prince of Morocco suggests his aristocratic blood and wealth are reasons in and of themselves for Portia’s hand— “A golden mind stoops not to shows of dross … I do in birth deserve her, and in fortunes,”—  and asserts a false link between appearance and inner beauty: “Never so rich a gem / Was set in worse than gold,” (2.7.20, 32, 54-55). For his materialism and his pride in blood and rank, he’s censured in his loss: “All that glisters is not gold … Gilded tombs do worms infold” (2.7.65, 69). Then, following Morocco, the similarly prideful Prince of Arragon denigrates the masses, recalling the hierarchy that typifies the competition of the second place, Venice: “I will not choose what many men desire, / Because I will not jump with common spirits / And rank me with the barbarous multitudes” (2.9.30-32). He too is censured: “There be fools alive, iwis, / Silvered o’er, and so was this” (2.9.67-68). 

That the rejected suitors are princes is a crucial point here. These titles— great cultural and social capital embodied in rank and royal name— imply nobility yet betray their haughty and materialistic nature. They are both subsequently rejected, and the undecorated Bassanio is chosen instead— a direct refutation of both cultural and the abstracted social capital embodied in royalty. This direct engagement with economic, social and cultural capital is Shakespeare’s recognition of the dubiousness of leveraging wealth, blood and rank as signs of worth in and of themselves. Such signifiers are ultimately proxies that suggest, but by no means guarantee noble and intrinsic goodness. Bassanio, despite lacking such rank, nobility and wealth, wins Portia’s hand by supplanting the importance of such things, particularly materialism:

Therefore, thou gaudy gold,

Hard food for Midas, I will none of thee;

Nor none of thee, thou pale and common drudge

‘Tween man and man (3.2.101-104).

It’s in the move to the garden for the consummation of the play, however, that we see Belmont embody the playful, easygoing and convivial atmosphere of the equalizing third place. In the garden, the mercantile logic of Venice, the cultural hierarchies of rank and nobility, and even the constraints of religion and familial obligation are cast off for the growth of new relationships based on mutuality. First, and perhaps most strikingly, the garden is where Jessica and Lorenzo elope. The final scene opens with their poetic musings on nature, music, and their love for one another. This immediately distinguishes Belmont’s garden as a sensuous place free from two of the most dominant social forces in the play: kinship relations and religious obligations. Jessica escapes Shylock’s home which, contra Portia and her comparably loving familial dynamic, is situated in Venice. Shylock’s household reflects its location, and is tainted with materialism and the worst of the city’s maliciousness. Jessica, though she recognizes the severity of casting off Judaism, familial relations (and the negative cultural and social capital they entail in Venice) and her father’s home, nevertheless curses her father for his unscrupulous ways:

Alack, what heinous sin is it in me

To be ashamed to be my father’s child!

But though I am a daughter to his blood,

I am not to his manners (2.3.16-19).

This stands in stark contrast to Shylock’s frantic pleas when his house is nearly forfeit for his crimes, offering his life instead and equating the two: “You take my life / When you do take the means whereby I live (4.1.372-373). In this context it’s no surprise that Shylock is so protective over his house, his first place and likely his sole refuge from the cutthroat arena of the Venetian market to which he, unlike Jessica, is otherwise bound. Still, it’s not until the couple arrives in the garden of Belmont that they feel fully at ease, and with this the garden’s romantic, liberated atmosphere is established. 

For the play’s close we see the fallout of Bassanio and Graziano’s oathbreaking, having given away their rings to the ‘lawyers’ who’d saved Antonio. The method by which they come to give up the rings is particularly important. At the Venetian court, a disguised Portia uses a kind of materialist logic against Bassanio in convincing him to part with his ring, suggesting Bassanio’s vow is a fabrication to keep his ‘gift,’ which she instead deserves for her labor:

That ‘scuse serves many men to save their gifts.

An if your wife be not a mad-woman,

And know how well I have deserved the ring,

She would not hold out enemy for ever (4.1.440-443).

She makes it clear that her act was not one of beneficence— Christian or otherwise— but instead a transaction that reasonably deserves material compensation and supercedes his alleged vow1. Disguised as a legal clerk, Nerissa follows through as well, using the same logic to take her ring back from Graziano. This intrusion of materialism, stripping the rings of their sacred character and viewing them as profane material wealth, is a subtle but notable indictment of the transactional logic that increasingly governs Venetian society. Here even a sacred vow is reducible to economic capital, and, once paid, the ‘anonymous’ lawyers can ostensibly separate entirely without any further involvement in the drama of the characters’ lives.

In Belmont, however, Bassanio and Graziano are forgiven for this error. It’s this remediation in fact that solidifies their bonds with one another, as the men are playfully interrogated and made to examine and re-declare their love. In good faith, Portia and Nerissa recognize the context of the oath-breaking: that Bassanio and Graziano couldn’t help but submit to the demands of the clerks who had saved their friend’s life— such transactionality is the law in Venice, both formally and informally. The convivial, humanistic environment of Belmont’s garden is conducive to the flourishing of relationships, and as such is a fitting place for human error— especially such well-intentioned error— to be understood and forgiven, and for oaths of love to be reaffirmed.

But this isn’t to say that Belmont is a complete break from Venice and the Venetian mindset— it’s a bit too romantic to assume these characters will neither return, nor continue to have commercial interests in Venice. But this kind of temporary escape, both spatially and spiritually, is the character of the third place. That it’s inextricable from the first and second places is what gives it its distinct and pleasant otherness. It’s defined as much by its own qualities as that which it’s an escape from, and is meant as a place to step back and reaffirm what’s meaningful in humanity. In this sense, the third place is quintessentially Shakespearean. With all this, one likely wonders about the presence of such places in Shakepseare’s life. Martha Carlin, in her essay “‘What say you to a piece of beef and mustard?’: The Evolution of Public Dining in Medieval and Tudor London,” traces the early history of such places in his locale. Though restaurant-style meals only began to be served in the 1400’s, by Shakespeare’s lifetime dining out in such public establishments which catered to people of all classes was the norm (Carlin 199). Throughout England there are any number of long-standing pubs that claim (with varying degrees of evidence) that Shakespeare was a frequent patron. Regardless of proof, given his characteristic humanism it’s not unbelievable that he would’ve found himself at home in such places. Beyond the basic tavern and inn however, Oldenburg traces the opening of the first of many community-oriented coffeehouses in Shakespeare’s Christendom to several decades after The Bard’s death: 1650 in Oxford, by a man remembered only as Jacob— a Jew, ironically enough (184).

Shakespeare’s masterful documentation of early capitalist ethics and developing civic dynamics in The Merchant of Venice offer us a clear lens into the effects wrought by modernization in his lifetime. Shakespeare’s Venice is a microcosm of the capitalist arena, within which the characters clash and contend with the modern and the traditional. In this sense, the play is a prescient examination of the intrinsic complexity of the modern cosmopolis— cautionary yet somewhat optimistic about the emancipatory nature of modernization. Bourdieusian theory is distinctly applicable here because at its core an elaboration of human relations, but ultimately rests on this modern conception of the human as an autonomous socioeconomic actor— an emergent notion which Shakespeare extensively examines, at times critiques and others exalts. The merchant, at once autonomous in their fate yet inextricably bound to the socioeconomic system in which they live and work, exemplifies this emergent dynamic in both a Shakespearean and Bourdieusan sense. Perhaps more important however is the characterization of the site of the play’s happy resolution, Belmont, a third place rife with Shakespeare’s characteristic humanism. The relationships that are sparked, the suitors who are thwarted, the obligations and oaths that are upheld and reaffirmed— all this serves to champion the value of interpersonal bonds, which bloom in Belmont and stagnate in the capitalist marketplace of Venice. With all that being said, it seems like no coincidence that Bassanio had to leave Venice to find love. And perhaps this is also why Antonio, having been bound so long to Venetian society by his prosperous trade and newly bound once again with the sudden return of his ships, remains alone.

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  1. This interaction is particularly interesting in regard to different dynamics of exchange in pre-modern vs. modern economies. A financial transaction (such as a disguised Portia demanding a ring as payment for her legal work) is a “complete” transaction in that it absolves both parties of continual indebtedness, whereas in certain pre-capitalist economies such exchanges resulted in social obligations of reciprocity. While according to traditional socioeconomic forms Antonio would simply be hugely indebted (and thus socially bound) to the lawyer and community for this critical assistance, in the quasi-modern market of Venice the anonymous lawyer (anonymity being another important symbol of the atomization entailed by complete/disconnected, financialized transactions) seeks material payment before ostensibly leaving, never to be seen again.

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Booth, Roy. “Shylock’s Sober House.” The Review of English Studies, vol. 50, no. 197, 1999, pp. 22-31.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Forms of Capital.” Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology 

of Education, 1986, pp. 241–258.

Calhoun, Craig. “For the social history of the present: Pierre Bourdieu as Historical Sociologist.” 

Bourdieu and Historical Analysis. Politics, History, and Culture, edited by Gorski, Philip 

S., Duke University Press, 2013, pp. 36-67.

Carlin, Martha. “‘What say you to a piece of beef and mustard?’: The Evolution of Public Dining in Medieval and Tudor London.” Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 71, no. 1, March 

2008, pp. 199-217.

Long, Melanie. “Merchantry, Usury, Villainy: Capitalism and the Threat to Community Integrity 

in The Merchant of Venice.” Anthropoetics: The Journal of Generative Anthropology, 

vol. 17, no. 2, 2012, http://anthropoetics.ucla.edu/ap1702/1702long/. Accessed 16 May 

2021.

Oldenburg, Ray. The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, 

and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. Da Capo Press, 1997. 

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice, edited by Jay L. Halio, New York, Oxford UP, 2008.

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