November 22, 2010
Dick Whittington and the "Theater of Capitalism"
Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Kenneth Anderson has a thread about plays that "express or comment in some important way on the economic conditions of capitalism." Here's my own thought:
From a historic perspective . . . one of the most influential plays is the 1605 production of Dick Whittington and His Cat. I believe it to be the first pro-free-enterprise play in English history, with a poor-but-honest-and-hardworking hero (rather than a lost prince or orphaned nobleman) who makes a fortune AND makes everyone else better off by engaging in voluntary international trade.
The change in viewpoint between, say, The Merchant of Venice – where the only way for a poor man like Bassanio to get rich is to marry wealth — and Dick Whittington is striking. The world of King James and his courtiers (the first audience for Merchant) was the static one of inherited wealth and noble honors. But the world of the merchants and artisans in the cities was changing dramatically.
The poor-but-honest man who succeeds by his own merits became so clichéd in the Horatio Alger era that it’s hard to understand just how radical it was at the time.
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