Commodity Fetishism in Richard Brome’s A Mad Couple Well Matched and its Sources
Bradley D. Ryner
Arizona State University
Ryner, Bradley D . "Commodity Fetishism in Richard Brome’s A Mad Couple Well Matched and its Sources". Early Modern Literary Studies 13.3 (January, 2008) 4.1-26<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/13-3/rynecomm.htm>.
Winner of the 2008 Literature Online Prize
A clerk seduced the wife of a nobleman for the price of his cloak,Variations on the “lover’s gift regained” story were transmitted orally throughout early modern Europe, and the narrative survives in Italian, French, German, and English texts.
And secretly carried away her pepper-mill.
The next day he returned, bringing back the pepper-mill, and in the husband’s presence
He said, “Give me back my cloak; I bring back your pepper-mill.”
“Give it to him,” the husband said; the wife answered, “I will
Give it to him, but he will not grind again in our pepper-mill.” (280-1)
Nicholson’s nearly exhaustive examination of the “lover’s gift regained” tradition has demonstrated that Boccaccio’s major innovation was to make his characters members of the “mercantile bourgeois,” who trade in money rather than the “miscellaneous objects of barter,” such as the pepper-mill, common in earlier versions of the narrative (217). Because the money-form, in Marx’s words, is a socially agreed upon “universal equivalent” that allows all other commodities “to represent their values as magnitudes of the same denomination” (188), it operates equally well in Gulfardo’s above-the-boards dealings with Guasparruollo and in his under-the-covers dealings with Guasparruollo’s wife. The presence of money in the narrative provides a means of implicating the husband directly in the exchange between his wife and her lover without forcing Boccaccio to worry about selecting a commodity that the merchant would be likely to lend Gulfardo and that Ambruogia would also desire. To this extent, Nicholson is correct in arguing that “commerce and sex” are “closely allied” in the Decameron (218). Despite this close allegiance, however, the narrative depends on a sharp differentiation between the legitimate business transaction between Gulfardo and Guasparruollo and the illicit transaction between Gulfardo and Ambruogia.
Gulfardo [a German soldier] borrows from Guasparruolo [a Milanese merchant] a sum of money equivalent to the amount he has agreed to pay the latter’s wife [Ambruogia] in return for letting him sleep with her. He gives her the money, but later tells Guasparruolo, in her presence, that he has handed it back to his wife, and she has to admit it. (587) )
You know that you lent me two hundred florins when you departed, for a certain transaction of mine, and I, not being able to spend them, brought them to lady Sofia, your wife, as you told me, in the presence of this servant of mine; and since this was a great service to me, although I did not spend them, I want you and Lady Sofia to accept these eels and this tench and enjoy them for my sake, not because of the service but for our friendship. (Benson and Andersson 317)By contrasting objects given as compensation for “service” [servizio] with objects given out of “friendship” [domestichezza], Bernardo distinguishes the domain of economic obligations from the domain of emotional obligations, to which sex ought to belong. He thus mocks Sofia’s belief that she had successfully moved sex from the latter to the former domain by making it a vendible service. In actuality, the only “service” that has legitimately been sold at the end of the story is short-term money lending. Bernardo makes this clear by subsequently repeating that Pircosso did him “a great service [servizo]” for which he “will always be obliged” (Benson and Andersson 317). Sofia attempts a coded assertion of the validity of her arrangement with Bernardo by replying, “Dear me, don’t be obligated thus; you know that I am Pircosso’s wife and therefore you should be obliged to me as well as to him” (Benson and Andersson 317). However, Bernardo denies being under any obligation to Sofia by virtue of her gender. He says, “Lady, in our regions the husbands wear the trousers and reverence is owed to them, and I wish to observe the law of my country; and therefore I will always be obliged to Pircosso and not to you for the borrowed money” (Benson and Andersson 319). In this way, the licit agreement between the male characters explicitly supersedes and voids the illicit agreement between Sofia and Bernardo. As in the Decameron, the female character is punished for commodifying sex by having her control over that commodity alienated from her.
The merchant has purchased services from his wife for cash; the monk has received the same services as a donation; the dressmaker has made a credit sale and received the cash therefore; and, most interesting of all, the wife has effectively ‘sold’ her services twice, once in return for clothes (a fixed, but depreciating asset) and once in the form of a donation. (103-104).All of the characters’ books balance in the end not because of “creative bookkeeping,” but because of the unique nature of sex as a commodity. The wife can sell herself twice, under different circumstances, to two different men. In her agreement with the monk, her body is given a cash value. The monk concludes this agreement by saying, “I wol brynge yow an hundred frankes.” / And with that word he caughte hire by the flankes” (198-202). Just as this pun converts the wife’s “flanks” into “francs,” the pun on “tail” and “tally” that concludes her agreement with her husband converts her body into credit. Upon being given a value, her body is metaphorically transformed into currency before dissolving into the abstraction of credit. Helen Fulton, who makes convincing connections between the tale’s sexual transactions and the practice of selling money via bills of exchange that was coming into use in England at the time Chaucer was writing, argues that “the plot of the Shipman’s Tale rests on a commercialism which is so over-determined that it becomes humorous—the buying and selling of goods leads to the buying and selling of money, from where it seems a small step to the buying and selling of anything at all, including wives, friends, and sexual favours” (318-319). I would argue that whereas Boccaccio’s major innovation was to bring money into play in the narrative, Chaucer’s innovation was to make the transformability of one commodity into another (a process that is central to monetary economies) central to his narrative. Especially when compared to its predecessors, the ease with which the wife’s body is transformed into a vendible commodity is shocking in the Shipman’s Tale.
In the twelfth century, so renowned for its piety, very delicate things often appear among these commodities. Thus a French poet [Guillot de Paris] of the period enumerates among the commodities to be found in the fair of Lendit, alongside clothing, shoes, leather, implements of cultivation, skins, etc., also ‘femmes folles de leur corps’ [‘wanton women’]. (178 n. 1)In the marketplace, everything—including people who lack the power to resist market forces—has a price. In this account, as in Boccaccio’s and Sercambi’s stories, the act of commodifying sex results in losing agency, “lack[ing] the power to resist man.” Anything that lacks power to resist becomes interchangeable with everything else—clothing, tools, and sex can be transformed into any other commodity by the people who possess them.
Since money does not reveal what has been transformed into it, everything, commodity or not, is convertible into money. Everything becomes saleable and purchaseable. Circulation becomes the great social retort into which everything is thrown, to come out again as the money crystal. Nothing is immune from this alchemy, the bones of the saints cannot withstand it, let alone more delicate res sacrosanctae, extra commercium hominum. (Marx 229)To clarify what he had in mind by the res sacrosanctae, extra commercium hominum [consecrated objects, beyond human commerce], Marx tells us in a footnote:
With the Phoenicians, a trading people par excellence, money was the transmuted shape of everything. It was, therefore, quite in order that the virgins who at the feast of the goddess of love gave themselves to strangers should offer to the goddess the piece of money they received in payment. (229, n. 41)We should, of course, be skeptical of Marx’s armchair-anthropologist reading of ancient Phoenician ceremonies, but the historical veracity of this narrative is less important than the ends to which Marx puts it. The story is a parable of the capitalist economy, in which even things that should remain personal, singular, irreducible—sex and religion—are made into exchangeable commodities. In this way, Marx’s exploration of “commodities and money” in Part I of Capital, like Chaucer’s Shipman’s Tale before it, is designed to produce shock at the ease with which commerce erodes the distinctions between sex, money, and commodities.
Ha, ha, ha. Here’s a busi[n]esse!Claiming that adultery is a universal vice, Lady Thrivewell only becomes outraged when she learns that her husband has been grotesquely overcharged for indulging in this vice. “[A] hundred pound a time?” she exclaims incredulously, “How rich would Citizens be, if their wives were all so paid, and how poore the Court and Country!” (17). Lady Thrivewell’s point of view is perfectly in keeping with the play’s other characters, all of whom view sex primarily through an economic lens and secondarily, if at all, through a moral lens.
Would somebody heard you faith: nay of five hunderedThat now might overheare us (I meane not onlyGallants, but grave substantiall Gentlemen)Could be pick’d out a twelve good men and true,To finde you guilty, I would then condemne you,But such a Jury must be pannell’d first. (16)
If objects are granted the power to create and define erotic identity, as they are in city comedy, then the greatest aphrodisiac of all is the power of the object in its most abstract form: cash. In the play, female homoeroticism is simply another example, extreme for being previously untapped, of the ways people exploit one another for economic advantage. Money tropes sex, just as sex tropes money. (30)This statement perfectly describes those elements of A Mad Couple Well Matched that follow Chaucer in emphasizing the convertibility of cash, goods and sex into one another. However, it is also important to note the elements of the narrative that Brome adds to problematize this convertibility.
I would like to thank James Dean for his guidance on what I thought at the time was going to be an essay on subjectivity in Chaucer’s Shipman’s Tale and Franklin’s Tale, but which ultimately became part of this article. I am also grateful for the chance I had to discuss my ideas for this article with members of the 2006-2007 Arizona State University Institute for Humanities Research faculty seminar on “Trading Values,” directed by Juliann Vitullo and Diane Wolfthal, and with members of the “Richard Brome and Caroline Drama” seminar directed by Eleanor Lowe and Lucy Munro at the 2007 meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America. This article benefited greatly from suggestions made by its two anonymous readers.
Spove finds “no obvious literary source for the incidents in A Mad Couple,” but speculates that “like some of Middleton’s realistic comedies, the play probably draws on jest-books, rogue-pamphlets, and anecdotes, as well as real people and events” (v). Steggle examines the play’s relationship to the genre of comedy as a whole.
 The first, second, and tenth stories of the eighth day of the Decameron are all versions of the “lover’s gift regained” narrative. However, I focus exclusively on 8, 1 because it has the most in common with A Mad Couple Well Matched.
 Scholars have long debated the possible relationships between Sercambi’s tale and those by Boccaccio and Chaucer. Although two eighteenth-century documents suggest that some of Sercambi’s novelle (perhaps including Avarice and Lust) may have been in circulation as early as 1374, the earliest extant collection of Sercambi’s Novelle cannot be dated any earlier than 1400 (Scattergood 569). My choice to discuss Sercambi between Boccaccio and Chaucer is based on the thematic development of my argument, not the chronological sequence of the texts.
 Carol F. Hefernan provides a succinct overview of the, now largely discredited, argument that the Shipman’s Tale was based on a lost French fabliau and argues persuasively for the direct influence of Decameron 8, 1 on the Shipman’s Tale. See also Nicholson 220-222.
 For debates over the moral coloring of Chaucer’s representation of exchange, see Adams, Fulton, Patterson, Schneider, and Silverman. Rogers and Dower argue that whether one sees the story as celebratory or critical of the market will largely depend on whether one follows Marx in seeing value as ultimately grounded in human labor or whether one follows the Austrian School in seeing value as ultimately subjective.
 Dale and Elizabeth Buckmaster have noted that the medieval reader would have associated ‘taille’ and ‘taillynge’ with the “obvious and lewd image” of “the commonly used six-inch or longer tally stick,” and that a more sexually explicit association might be made if one envisioned the “forked tally,” which was cut to grip a companion tally stick (115).
 He notes that the market activity of both rich and poor increased as the average person’s lifespan increased because households were able to engage in production and consumption “for a longer period, permitting more opportunity for the accumulation of goods and for the credit of individual households to expand without being interrupted so often by death” (36).
 She notes that “[l]uxury commodities circulated throughout society from the merchant who imported them, to the retailer who sold them, the purchaser who bought them, the client who presented them to his patron, and the poor who wore them as second-hand goods” and that “[s]hopping offered agency and sociability to men and women of all incomes” (2, 27).
 Cf. similar bawdy puns on “stop that gap” and “accommodated” in Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (I.ii.109) and Shakespeare’s 2 Henry IV (III.ii.61-73) respectively.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
© 2008-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).