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14 January 2010

What the Stuarts did for us

Bonus culture in the time of King James.

By Sebastian Gillies

Just over 400 years ago this week, Ben Jonson, John Marston and George Chapman presented their play Eastward Ho, a scandalous satire about two London apprentices, to King James I. The protagonists were hard-working and sensible Golding and the recklessly ambitious Quicksilver.

Golding marries the equally temperate Mildred, while her vain sister, Gertrude, is won over by the false promises of the penniless Sir Petronel Flash. He and Quicksilver attempt to steal Gertrude’s dowry, but after being shipwrecked on the Isle of Dogs they are sent to prison by Golding, whose financial steadiness has made him an alderman. Flash and Quicksilver are released when they have repented of their dishonesty.

Because of its mercurial capacity to transform people’s characters and circumstances, money holds a special fascination for art. The subject is usually approached in satire, partly because it is a way to dig beneath the dazzling superficiality of wealth to find the conflict beneath. And a simple parable can make the complex subject of finance intelligible to a wide audience.

So, Aristophanes depicts the god of wealth as a blind beggar; Jesus declares it easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and Chaucer’s Pardoner spins a suspenseful tale of how greed is the root of all evil. Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money and Lucy Prebble’s ENRON all treat money and the people who worship it with a mocking, sharp and scathing tongue.

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Eastward Ho speaks to our contradictory feelings about stories of money. Our moral sense requires greedy schemes to miscarry, but the real thrill comes from seeing the audacity of those who try to pull them off, as in the film Ocean’s 11.

The cast-iron puritan virtues that make the moral world of the play run like clockwork are topsy-turvy today, where failure is rewarded with bailouts and bonuses. A more satirical scenario would give bonuses to the millions of taxpayers who have propped up the banks. Non-payment of these bonuses would lead every UK taxpayer to board the next plane to Switzerland, where they would live until the banks stumped up.