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Dame Usury: Gender, Credit, and (Ac)counting in the Sonnets and The Merchant of Venice


This essay analyzes the gendered bonds of credit that feature so prominently in the Sonnets and The Merchant of Venice in relation to the historically emergent figure of the female moneylender. Women were among the most prominent lenders of money at interest in early modern England and were in the vanguard of the transition to formal instruments of credit such as bonds. The wills of theater people and other documents of stage history reveal that women were active in the culture of credit surrounding the commercial stage, as they were in the culture at large, lending money at interest to actors and playing companies in need of ready cash. This gendered landscape of urban credit offers a compelling context within which to understand Portia’s lexicon of (ac)counting, as well as her emphasis on exactitude in the trial scene. Contemporary accounting treatises maintained that justice in debt litigation relied upon such precision and encouraged an ethos of virtuous Christian exactitude grounded in the new math of abstract ciphering. Shylock’s rigor, by contrast, is less exact than it is exacting. His passion for vengeance at all costs clouds his judgment and ability to reckon. His obduracy, impenetrability, and unaccountability are associated not only with the materiality of Old Testament law of the flesh, but also with the materiality of the old math, with its reliance on the abacus or counter table.

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