In The English Usurer, or, Usury Condemned (1634), John Blaxton writes of the “usurer,” “Every Bond he takes of others, enters him onto a new obligation to Satan: as he hopes his debtors will keepe day with him, the divell expects no lesse of himselfe. Every forfeit he takes, scores up a new debt to Lucifer: and every morgag’d land he seizeth on, enlargeth his dominion in hell” (44). In Doctor Faustus, Lucifer’s aim is to “Enlarge his kingdom” (2.1.39), and he does so by sending Mephistopheles out to acquire the capital of human souls he needs. After his successful temptation Eve in the garden of Eden, Milton’s Satan remarks off-handedly, “A world who would not purchase with a bruise?” (10.500). This thesis explores representations of devils as capitalists and capitalists as devils in texts ranging from Thomas Wilson’s anti-usury treatise, A Discourse Upon Usury (1571) to Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Anti-usury authors inveigh against “usury”—by which was meant a broad range of what we now would call capitalist practices—and ascribe its existence and its detrimental effects to the devil. As capitalism emerges in early modern England, the anti-usury authors are not alone in their anxious treatment of the quickly changing economic milieu. This anxiety, I argue, makes its way into Marlowe’s drama and Milton’s epic as well. Marlowe’s play warns against bourgeois social-climbing and the tendency, created by capitalism, to commodity everything—including the soul itself. Milton’s epic similarly casts Satan as a capitalist—and capitalism as satanic. Milton also offers faint intimations of a divine economy which requires of the postlapsarian faithful productive labor with a grateful mind; Milton reminds the reader to have faith in “the meaning, not the Name” (7.5).
Drawing on the economic theory of Marx, as well as current scholarship that is concerned with the interconnections between early modern religious thought and emergent capitalism, I demonstrate that Renaissance subjects perceived the rise of capitalism with apprehension. The texts I examine are fraught with anxiety; I read them as expressions of a culture’s fear that early modern England, with its burgeoning capitalist economy, was indeed the devil’s playground.