203 Barbary Apes: Misadventures in Global Capitalism and the Geography of Time in Shakespeare's England
One of the peculiarities of early global trade, from a modern perspective, is the fact that information moved at more or less the same speed as goods. As the distances over which trade was conducted increased dramatically, delays in news and miscommunications also increased. Sometimes the consequences were comic, as with a disastrously mistaken order by a London merchant for "2o[r]3" apes in 1637. More often, however, they threatened to undermine financial markets. A mercantile venture was always, in some sense, a wager against the future. When trade occurred over vast distances, much of that future had already happened; European markets were thus constantly catching up to a future whose dimensions were as much geographical as temporal. The immediate result was a profusion of financial instruments designed to manage and control risk, including aleatory contracts, loans, and investment strategies. More broadly, developments in trade wrought fundamental changes in the understanding of causation, probability, fortune, and even time itself. In this essay I trace some of the connections between the early modern global financial markets and developing attitudes toward causation and probability. These attitudes are clear, I argue, not only in works like The Merchant of Venice where economics plays a key role but more subtly and profoundly in tragedies like Hamlet and Macbeth.