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AbstractThis essay situates Shakespeare’s two most ‘economic’ plays, The Merchant of Venice and Timon of Athens, in the context of contemporary debates on usury and other relevant aspects of the market economy that ushered in the transition from a feudal economy to a capitalist one in sixteenth-century England. The debates resulted in the statute of 1571 that legalised money-lending, provided that it did not exceed a maximum interest rate, fixed by the State, of 10%. This settlement was the result of a cultural as well as ideological compromise between Christian and market values that legitimised a capitalist economy while at the same time defusing its disruptive aspects. The author argues that Shakespeare’s two plays offer a dramatic reflection on the advent of a market-based economy in England and the cultural negotiations underpinning it; a reflection that also involves a critical examination of the social relations, in both the public and private spheres, that emerged alongside the new market economy. The Merchant of Venice discloses the real political and class-determined nature of the compromise underlying the 1571 statute, whereas the later Timon of Athens shows the historical inadequacy of this settlement in the light of the increasing dominance of the market, which was progressively imposing its own ideology and dictating its own politics.