In a status society, such as early modern Europe, the development of the market economy threatened social hierarchies. At a time when religion was the source of power, priests and warriors strove to protect themselves from what was a foreseeable attack going to the very root of their domination, which was jeopardized by the potentialities of the capitalist economy. They therefore developed religious, legal and moral tools to counter capital accumulation and interest-bearing loans in order to break the motor of capitalism. Avarice, one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and usury, which was punished by excommunication, were the moral weapons used to exclude those from the community who hoarded money or who charged, however little, interest on loans. But whereas greed, the disease of market exchange, was considered one of the Seven Deadly Sins, prodigality, which lies at the heart of aristocratic exchange, was considered one of the Seven Heavenly Virtues. Contemporary theatre, with its misers and spendthrifts, is a perfect place to hear echoes of the struggles between the antagonistic values in society, and to follow the way in which individuals reacted to the conflicts that these struggles provoked.
The essay is based on literary works reflecting behaviors that could also be echoed in judicial archives and in texts from writers of the time. It analyses plays from Shakespeare (Timon of Athens, The Merchant of Venice), Ben Jonson (Volpone) and Molière (The Miser).