Carnegie Mellon University

Shakespeare and the Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism: Ecology, Reproduction, and Commodities

Author: Natalie Suzelis

Degree: Ph.D. in Literary & Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2020

This project synthesizes Marxist and feminist criticism, environmental humanities, and early modern cultural studies to provide new theoretical and historical readings of Richard II, The Comedy of Errors, Measure for Measure, and The Tempest. While critics have long assumed a kind of “primitive accumulation” in the early modern period, I introduce a framework of ecological and political accumulation that expands upon more recent theories of combined and uneven capitalist development in world-systems theory and environmental history. "Ecological accumulation” refers to centuries of landscape transformation– from waves of enclosures to the clearing of forests in the New World and the instantiation of cash crop plantations– which exhibit early tendencies of extractive global capitalism. I use the term “political accumulation” to refer to the intersecting ways that notions of gender, race, and class marshaled labor and markets into the hegemony of global capital. With this frame, I show how Shakespeare organizes notions of environment and identity across dramatic forms of capitalist transition.
In arguing that Shakespearean criticism should expand the concept of primitive accumulation to include political and ecological accumulation, this project demonstrates, as Fredric Jameson put it, not only what “critical theory has to tell us about Shakespeare, but also what Shakespeare has to tell us about radical criticism.” And in shifting the usual narrative from the development of productive forces to reproductive forces - from land, labor, and commodities, to ecology, reproduction, and commodities - I seek to provide a more robust cultural studies account of capitalist transition, and show how some of the most far-reaching cultural artifacts of this era represent, question, and reproduce these processes of accumulation across dramatic form.