Structures of feeling and early capitalist culture – abstract

Structures of feeling and early capitalist culture: Philip Massinger’s City Madam (1632)

The Cultural History of Emotions in Premodernity 2, Istanbul, Turkey, 29 September – 2 October 2011.

Philip Massinger’s seventeenth-century comedy The City Madam foregrounds the conflict between the pursuit of private gain and the emotion of compassion in early modern proto-capitalist culture. In this paper, I will read the play’s representation of emotions in the context of the rise of capitalism and practices of usury in the period.

In The Culture of Usury in Renaissance England (2010), David Hawkes has argued that “because of its implications for subjectivity, it seems likely that usury theory had a greater influence than has yet been recognized on literary practice, and in particular on the way the human subject was represented” (127). The aspect that I will focus on in this paper is the relation between early capitalist practices and emotions.

Raymond Williams’ concept of “structures of feeling” provides a framework in which emotions are shaped by social structures. In his framework, however, literature functions as an archive where cultural historians can find the sediments of such structures of feeling. In my reading of Massinger’s City Madam, I will emphasize that the early modern English theatre took a more active role in these structures of feeling. Because the emotions are an inseparable part of the theatre’s poetics, the plays show an acute awareness of contemporary debates about the effects of performed emotions on the audience. I will focus on the play’s exploration of the role of the theatre and the genre of comedy in shaping the audience’s emotions in this early capitalist context.


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