The Literary Imagination
Chaucer's version is slightly unusual, in that it does not begin with the heap of gold: so it is only on turning to other versions that we see clearly that this is the most important detail in the story. The fighting and the poisoning are consequences of the money; the quest for Death with which Chaucer begins makes a brilliant ironic setting, but the story is centrally not about boasting but about greed. This is said explicitly by the Pardoner when he explains that he always preaches on the same subject, radix malorum est cupiditas; and the fact that he is himself totally dominated by greed simply adds, of course, a characteristically Chaucerian irony.
The view of money conveyed by this story is overwhelmingly moral. There is no suggestion that money is an ordinary thing, needed for the continuance of everyday social life: it is a temptation and a threat, offering dreams of unearned opulence, or bringing conflict and lurid death. There is one moment in Hans Sachs' sixteenth-century version of the story when the hermit, after fleeing the sight of the treasure, comes back, reflecting that it may be useful to the poor, but finally decides to shun it after all. This might look at first like a different attitude to wealth, but it isn't really: for even this good use suggested for it is something exceptional. Against wealth as a form of corruption is set the possibility of wealth as a way of rectifying the injustices of society: in neither case is it seen as part of normal social activity. It is there to test our moral worth: usually to corrupt, possibly to help, but always as a moral test.
There is little in common between Chaucer's tragically ironic narrative and Shakespeare's Plautine farce, The Comedy of Errors, so it will be all the more striking if we can find a resemblance in their view of money. What sort of society does the play depict? The opening scene makes it clear that Ephesus and Syracuse are both trading towns: their enmity sprang from unfair treatment of each others' merchants. Egeon, father of the twins, is a merchant, and so (we must presume) is Antipholus of Ephesus, who keeps a large establishment, lives in comfort, and is a friend of the Duke. Certainly he can hardly live on inherited wealth, since he arrived in Ephesus a foundling; but all we see of his life suggests a gentleman of leisure. No doubt there is good literary reason for this: Shakespeare wants us to see Ephesus through the bewildered eyes of the Syracusans, for whom the town is full of cozenage, is Fairyland where you talk with goblins, so he naturally peoples it with a sense of danger and a leisured class, not with sober industry. Whatever the reason, there can be no doubt of the result. We see Antipholus as master of his time whose only duty is to get home for dinner. His sister-in-law refers briefly to his meeting merchants in the mart, but she seems to think of this activity as an assertion of male independence of the home ('A man is master of his liberty') rather than as a way of earning a living. The only transaction we see him indulging in is ordering a gold chain for his wife; and the only person who handles money is the other Antipholus, who has brought it with him—and even that money is never spent, it is merely the occasion for a comic beating and a series of misunderstandings. The chain does change hands, but to the wront Antipholus, who in a world of common sense would not accept it, but who takes it as a sign of the magical wealth, the 'golden gifts' of Ephesus.
All mention of the practical functions of money has been carefully removed. We neither know nor care how Antipholus of Ephesus keeps his establishment going, and it is only the foils and social inferiors, like Angelo and Balthazar, who have the worry of paying their debts. Yet money is prominent in the Antipholus-Dromio situations, as an occasion for confusion, or as a test of good intention. The reason Angelo does not get his money for the chain is not because chains are expensive and Antipholus was extravagant, but because of the confusions of the comic plot. If we compare this with The Pardoner's Tale we can see that we have moved from tragedy to farce, but are still in a world unconcerned with the practical purpose of money.
What would an alternative view of money be like? It would see it not in moral but in functional terms: as something we take trouble to acquire, and spend with care and judgement. As something we earn in reasonable and variable amounts, over time, not suddenly and unexpectedly; and as something we need for everyday wants. Even the poisoned drink that the youngest rioter bought had to be paid for: as the ordinary, unpoisoned drink and bread that we buy every day.
To see this other view, as an extreme contrast, let us turn to Middlemarch. When Tertius Lydgate arrives in the town as an ambitious young medical practitioner, he knows it will be unwise to marry too soon. Not yet established in practice, determined to pursue his scientific researches, he has neither time nor money for domestic life: chatting to Mayor Vincy's accomplished daughter is all very well—mild flirtatious chat, laced with sexual tension but perfectly proper and (most important) non-committal. But marriage is an arrangement that changes one's way of life, and which presupposes capital and/or a regular income.
Lydgate, as we know, was caught by his own sexual susceptibility. Why did his marriage ruin his career? The obvious answer is, because his wife had neither the imaginative sympathy to share poverty with him, nor the economic sense to manage their money matters. Rosamund clearly does not understand money. When her mother is chattering to her, in a very down-to-earth way, about where to buy linen, and how to furnish a house, she remarks that Mr Vincy is not going to give any money. 'Do you think Mr Lydgate expects it?' To this Rosamund answers: 'You cannot imagine that I should ask him, mamma. Of course he understands his own affairs.' All Rosamund's education is implied in this supremely self-satisfied remark. Her bland lack of interest in Lydgate's affairs suggests feminine submission, but in a way it is feminine dominance as well: for it is this refusal to be involved with his problems that breaks Lydgate. And although Rosamund would consider it unladylike to interest herself in financial details, it would equally be unladylike not to expect the results. As George Eliot has already told us, earlier in the book, 'There was nothing financial, still less sordid, in her previsions: she cared about what were considered refinements, and not about the money that was to pay for them.'
Here is one of the central insights of George Eliot's realism: that in order to be above money, you need to have it. Rosamund is a very expensive plant; and the very fact that she has been trained not to think about expense, makes her more expensive still. In both Rosamund and her brother Fred we can see this contempt for anything 'sordid', and we can see how their upbringing caused it; yet it would be quite wrong to blame Lydgate's troubles entirely on her. Just as he would not have married her if he had looked for strength of character rather than charm and accomplishment in a wife, so he would not have allowed himself to get into such difficulties if he too had not been above such sordid matters as financial calculation.