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To you I owe the most: tales of debt from Shakespeare’s England to the present day

During the COVID-19 pandemic, people have been paying off credit card debt in unprecedented numbers. Without travel or commutes, some households have been able to spend less and save more. Yet for many others, reliance on credit has become more necessary than ever. Furloughs, job losses, and reduced work for the self-employed have slashed incomes and increased emergency borrowing. Longstanding debts and periodic payments—student loans, rent—continue to fall due like clockwork. In the US, large hospital bills have left COVID-19 survivors and grieving families dealing with medical debt.

Our debts today are largely owed to institutions: to banks, schools, hospitals. Sometimes, they are owed to companies that do nothing but buy and manage debt. In Shakespeare’s England, debt was just as necessary for day-to-day life as it is now—maybe more so—but rather than faceless corporations, debts were owed to other people. Though instruments of credit were becoming increasingly sophisticated, particularly for the trading classes, the majority of debts remained interpersonal. They couldn’t be alienated, bundled, bought and sold as they are now. They were bonds with social and emotional content alongside their economic function. As a result, extending credit was a matter of personal rather than institutional assessment. It was a matter of trust. Sometimes it was a matter of love.

In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the spendthrift young gentleman Bassanio describes his terrific indebtedness to his biggest creditor, who is also his dearest friend:

’Tis not unknown to you, Antonio,
How much I have disabled mine estate
By something showing a more swelling port
Than my faint means would grant continuance.
Nor do I now make moan to be abridged
From such a noble rate. But my chief care
Is to come fairly off from the great debts
Wherein my time, something too prodigal,
Hath left me gaged. To you, Antonio,
I owe the most in money and in love,
And from your love I have a warranty
To unburden all my plots and purposes
How to get clear of all the debts I owe.
(1.1.129–41)

Bassanio’s “swelling port”—an extravagant lifestyle marked by fine clothes and costly socializing—has saddled him with “great debts.” The largest of these are owed to Antonio, from whom Bassanio now hopes to borrow again: one last debt in order to pull off one last performance of wealth. He plans to win a wealthy bride and pay back his debts with her patrimony. Bassanio does not have good credit in a general sense. He cannot borrow on his own from the moneylender and proto-bank, Shylock, who knows him for a prodigal. But he can draw on Antonio’s purse and, when that’s empty, on his credit. So long as Bassanio can count on Antonio’s love, he can create debt in his name.

Bassanio is something of a fairytale figure, even for sixteenth-century England: a prodigal not ruined by debt but replenished by it. His financial mismanagement has consequences for other people—Antonio nearly dies; Shylock suffers unthinkable humiliation—but Bassanio himself emerges unscathed. To the last, his awareness of precisely what he owes to whom remains hazy, fuzzed-out by his sense that incurring debt is the same as being loved.

Face-to-face lending was not always such a cozy affair. Thomas Lodge’s An Alarum against Usurers (1584) tells the story of a young gentleman who, like Bassanio, trusts those who offer money and love. In Lodge’s tale, a predatory merchant sends a broker to seek out the young gentleman, befriend him, and declare: “If you want money, you have credit.” This offer is akin to Antonio’s promise: “My purse, my person, my extremest means / Lie all unlocked to your occasions” (1.1.145–6). Unlike Antonio, though, the broker lures the young man into legally binding debts with severe penalties. He ends up disinherited, alone, imprisoned. He is only freed when the merchant takes him on again, this time in the role of a broker himself, offering friendship and credit to other impecunious heirs.

In Shakespeare’s play and Lodge’s tract, debt lends itself to narrative because a debt is a bond between people, a relationship. This relationship might be idealized, as it is in parts of Merchant of Venice, or it might be revealed as hollow and predatory, as in An Alarum. Either way, for these early modern writers, debt was social, and debt made for a good story.

These days, debt is harder to pin down in personal, narrative terms—harder, but not impossible. Speculative fiction by Gary Shteyngart and George Saunders captures the feeling of credit’s pervasiveness: at once an enabling condition of ordinary life, and looming, amorphous threat. In a more realist vein, photographer Brittney Powell’s The Debt Project offers vivid glimpses of lives shaped by debt. Each entry in the project is a portrait of an individual accompanied by a handwritten note detailing their debts’ amount and source: “$450,000 / Bad mortgage, Job Loss in 2005”; “$40,000+ in debt … I owe for student loans, as well as medical bills”; “120,000 / School loans / Evictions / Toll Charges / Legal fees / Medical Bills / Ex husband.” Occasionally, more of the story comes in: “I am not proud of this debt,” writes one subject. Writes another: “debt is a kind of dread … i wake up every day & try to be a person. to afford to be a person. who feels like me.”

These are snapshots, not chronicles. But they remind us that debt remains a driving force in countless lives. Debts may no longer be interpersonal in the way they once were; The Debt Project only shows one set of faces: all debtors, no creditors. But as these portraits tell us, debts still shape persons, coloring everything from their daily experiences to the arcs of their lives.

Feature image by Ehud Neuhaus

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