The merchant of Avon: the best guide to 21st-century economics is a 16th-century poet.
In the realm of value the insights of poets can be exceptionally useful, for poets spend their lives making value out of combinations of words that have no economic worth in themselves, being common property, infinitely reproducible, and devoid of rarity value. William Shakespeare, for instance, became one of the richest commoners in England - a media tycoon of his day - essentially by combining words in such a way as to persuade people to pay good money for them. Poets must be always exploring the subtle chemistry of the meaning of words, and the old and new ways in which human beings come to desire and cherish that meaning.
Where poets blaze the trail, economists and business people can follow, usually without knowing who made the path in the first place. In this essay I want to make a large claim, and one that may appear fantastic to those who make a sober living: that Shakespeare can be a wise guide to 21st-century economics.
Shakespeare was a key figure, perhaps the key figure, in creating that Renaissance system of meanings, values, and implicit rules which eventually gave rise to the modern world market, and which still underpins it. Using Shakespeare's dramatic and poetic definitions of such words as bond, trust, good, commerce, market, save, value, means, redeem, dear, interest, honor, company, worth, thrift, use, will, partner, deed, fair, owe, ought, treasure, risk, royalty, fortune, venture, grace, and so on, English-speaking merchants transformed the planet and made the language of a small, cold, wet island the lingua franca of the world.
Shakespeare made us see the business company as like a theater company, a troupe of actors, whose interactions generate the plot of the play and the interest that draws the paying audience; he taught us practically how life with others is not necessarily a zero-sum game but an arena where all may profit and competition increases the payoffs for everyone. By now many other cultures and languages have absorbed those rich and peculiar notions of trade, reciprocity, the deal, and so on, and the practices of democratic politics that arise out of them. Shakespeare's economic language has survived the huge challenges of socialism, communism, fascism, and the other statisms that arose in reaction against its new vision of things.
But its positive contributions have not yet ceased, I believe. Until now they have been largely unconscious and unacknowledged, a habit of thought and feeling absorbed with the 200 or 300 Shakespearean phrases that most English speakers know but do not know they know. For Shakespeare to make his full contribution to the next century, his wisdom must be analyzed more explicitly. This has not happened so far in the area of economics because his critics and interpreters, excellent though they often were, had a notable blind spot as far as money was concerned. Until the 20th century Shakespeare critics were gentlemen scholars who aspired to the old values and lifestyle of the aristocracy, with its contempt for trade and its superiority to money matters; and in the 20th century their successors were university intellectuals whose political loyalties were usually to the left of the general population, and who, as liberals, socialists, or Marxists, likewise despised the market and its values. Thus much of Shakespeare's business wisdom has been passed over in embarrassed silence, and some major misinterpretations have crept into our understanding.
For instance, the gentlemanly and leftist dislike of usury - best defined as interest at a rate higher than one would like to pay - led to a deep and unnecessary discomfort with The Merchant of Venice. The Jewish moneylending capitalist, Shylock, was particularly difficult. The critics' values told them to despise him, as do some of the bigoted Christians of Venice in the play. Yet as good liberals, they also hated ethnic stereotypes and prejudice. They were thus forced to deny the fact that Jews of Shakespeare's time did tend to be strongly represented - and for good reason - in banking, jewelry, commodities, currency exchange, and related money industries, and to excuse what they took to be Shakespeare's anti-Semitism on the grounds that it was not as bad as that of his contemporaries.
What they ignored is that Shakespeare did not disapprove, as his critics did, of the taking of interest. In fact, he evidently regarded it as the foundation of Venetian prosperity, and he has Antonio, one of his most positive characters, invest money at interest to support the newlyweds Lorenzo and Jessica, one of whom is Jewish. Most striking of all, Shylock is punished at the end for not taking the exorbitant interest he has been offered on his bond, but insisting on the worthless pledge of the pound of flesh. In other words, Shakespeare's anti-business critics are completely blind to the implication that Shakespeare is the very opposite of the economic anti-Semite, that he regards the spread of "use" or interest as a creative and valuable, if not very exalted, form of real progress. Shakespeare himself was a large investor in bonds and other interest-bearing securities. His famous words "neither a borrower nor a lender be" are put in the mouth of the "wretched, rash, intruding fool" Polonius, the time-pleasing state bureaucrat in Hamlet who so richly deserves his rather nasty fate, stabbed while spying on a private conversation.
Shakespeare's core insight is that human-created value is not essentially different from natural value. The value that is added by manufacture, and the reflection of that value in profit, are but a continuation of nature's own process of growth and development. Consider the following exchange between the shepherdess Perdita in The Winter's Tale and the disguised king, Polixenes.
Announces Perdita: "...the fairest flowers o' th' season/Are our carnations and streaked gillyvors/Which some call Nature's bastards; of that kind/Our rustic garden's barren; and I care not/To get slips of them." She refuses to grow the gaudier summer flowers, hinting that there is something improper in their ancestry. A "slip" is a cutting, from which a new plant can be propagated or cloned.
Polixenes pursues the matter: "Wherefore, gentle maiden,/Do you neglect them?" Perdita responds, "For I have heard it said,/There is an art, which in their piedness shares/With great creating Nature."
But now she has opened up one of the perennial questions of philosophy. What she has just said is that she objects to the art of selective breeding and hybridization by which Renaissance horticulturalists transformed simple wildflowers into elaborate multicolored blooms. Those blooms could, as the great Dutch tulip breeders found, make huge profits (as well as losses). But like an ardent advocate of environmental purity in our own time, Perdita is suspicious of artificial interventions into nature. Great Creating Nature is for her a goddess like the Gaia of our own New Age philosophers: "I'll not put/The dibble in earth, to set one slip of them;/No more than were I painted, I would wish/This youth to say 'twere well, and only therefore/Desire to breed by me."
Perdita dislikes the hybrid flowers because they use their attractive looks to gain the advantage of being reproduced instead of their more modest sisters. But if Perdita is right, art itself is a profoundly questionable enterprise. The very art of drama in which she is portrayed is a fiction. And what is art? For Shakespeare the word had an enormous range of related meanings, which had not disentangled themselves from each other. It could mean "art" in the contemporary sense of what we find in an art gallery, a book of poetry, a symphony hall, or a theater. But it was also a normal term for skill or technique, and by extension for technology, machinery, and mechanical devices of all kinds. It also meant magic, alchemy, and the mystical sciences of astrology and prognostication. Or it could mean deceptive practice or cunning imposture.
The ambivalence and complexity implicit in Perdita's use of the term are surely quite familiar in our own times. At present we are struggling with the ethical and health implications of the science of genetic engineering by means of recombinant DNA. Should we buy the new genetically altered tomatoes on the grocery shelves, or drink the milk produced with the aid of bovine hormones? What about the strawberries with their chimeric pesticide genes, the experimental fruitflies with eyes growing out of their legs and antennae, or the patented strains of cancerous mice? We must balance the benefits of insulin, thyroid hormones, oil spill-eating bacteria, interferon, and gene-grown taxol against the specter of laboratory killer viruses; gene therapy for inherited diseases against sinister eugenic schemes to improve the human gene pool; in vitro fertilization and implantation against the legal and kinship dilemmas that result when the birth mother is not the same as the genetic mother.
Reading Shakespeare, we become aware that our problems are not new - Perdita's unease prefigures ours. Indeed, since the neolithic agricultural revolution, when we first began selecting plants and animals to breed future stock, we have been in the business of genetic engineering and recombinant DNA. Our humblest domestic and culinary techniques are just as "unnatural" as the activities of the biochemists. Brewer's yeast, sourdough, ginger ale plants, and cheese mites are all out-and-out examples of human tinkering with natural genetic processes. When we divide a clump of irises in the garden we are literally practicing clone technology; when we enter a pedigree dog or cat or pigeon in a show we are practicing eugenics on an entire species. Worse still, when we choose what we believe to be an exceptionally kind, intelligent, attractive, healthy, and honest person to be our mate and bear or sire our children, we are engaged in human eugenics on our own local scale. There is no escape.
Thus Perdita cannot evade the fact that as a tool-using animal - the "dibble" she uses for gardening is a cunning little technological device - she must alter nature in order to survive. She needs "art" in its technological sense. How may this contradiction between nature and art be resolved? Polixenes's reply to Perdita reveals a wisdom that we would do well to take to heart. Recall that she has just disparaged the gillyvors on the grounds that there is an art that went into their ancestry. Says Polixenes:
Say there be; Yet Nature is made better by no mean But Nature makes that mean; so over that art Which you say adds to Nature, is an art That Nature makes. You see, sweet maid, we marry A gentler scion to the wildest stock, And make conceive a bark of baser kind By bud of nobler race. This is an art Which does mend Nature, change it rather; but The art itself is Nature.
In several of Shakespeare's sonnets, the idea of sexual reproduction is imaged in frankly economic terms, as an investment that earns compound interest. The sum that we invest was itself loaned to us by nature; we do wrong if we spend it on ourselves, or even invest it in ourselves at high rates of interest, for if we do, it will perish with us:
Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend Upon thyself thy beauty's legacy? Nature's bequest gives nothing but doth lend, And being frank she lends to those are free. Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse The bounteous largess given thee to give? Profitless usurer, why dost thou use So great a sum of sums yet cannot live? For having traffic with thyself alone, Thou of thyself thy sweet self doth deceive. Then how when Nature calls thee to be gone, What acceptable audit canst thou leave? Thy unused beauty must be tombed with thee, Which, used, lives th' executor to be.
Thus living DNA is like invested money, and its self-replication is like the return on an investment. The young man to whom the poem is addressed invests his genetic beauty only in himself, and pays himself the interest on the loan, which he then spends on himself. The audit on this questionable investment - death - reveals its unsoundness. The best policy is to be a rentier, so to speak, and invest in another - that is, the young man should marry a woman and have children with her. When the original business loan of life must be repaid, the profits made by using the money - one's children - remain. This is an extraordinary idea, rather breathtaking in its tough-minded equation of personal and financial values. But it also has a strange ring of truth.
In another sonnet it is quite clear that Shakespeare, who has observed the methods of livestock breeders just as Charles Darwin did over 200 years later, has already grasped the principle of evolution through natural selection:
Let those whom Nature hath not made for store, Harsh, featureless, and rude, barrenly perish. Look whom she best endowed, she gave the more; Which bounteous gift thou shouldst in bounty cherish. She carved thee for her seal, and meant thereby Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die.
Living organisms preserve their inner genetic structures, and thus conquer death and decay, by reproducing themselves into another generation. But such an answer to the problems of death and decay is as unsatisfactory to Shakespeare as it is to us. Certainly the general type is preserved by reproduction. Asexually reproducing organisms can make exact copies of themselves. But it is precisely the individuality of a loved human being that we miss when he or she is gone, and that individuality is the product of sexual reproduction, which creates a unique recombination of genes for each new birth. In other words, the process of natural reproduction that Shakespeare recommends to preserve his friend's beauty is the guarantee that his individuality, the essence of his beauty, is irreproducible.
Shakespeare's second answer to the problem of time is to eternalize his friend's beauty in poetry, in the very art by which Shakespeare mourns its passing: "But thy eternal summer shall not fade,/Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,/Nor shall Death brag thou wand'rest in his shade/ When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st./So long as men can breathe and eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."
We today are reading those lines, so the solution has worked for 400 years at least. What is especially significant is that poetry is being described as a higher form of natural reproduction. Both are what Shakespeare, in another sonnet, calls "the lines of life, that life repair." These lines of life are the lineage of a family, which replaces the dying with the newborn. But they are also, in context, the lines that a portraitist uses to eternalize the features of a sitter, and they are, most fundamentally, the lines of poetry. It is as if he has guessed that the genetic code that specifies the shape of our bodies is a line or thread, like the long thread of letters that make up a poem.
DNA is indeed a thread of nucleotides, which spell out the "words" and "sentences" of the genes, which in turn determine the proteins that make up the human body. The words in which this beautiful relationship is being conducted find for themselves a form of repeated rhymes and metrical rhythms that are able to reprint themselves in memory and books, as DNA does by peeling its double helix apart and printing the sequence of nucleotides anew upon the raw material within the cell. But poetry is a higher form of reproduction, for it can capture and preserve the mind and individuality of an organism, not just its bodily composition. Living reproduction can outwear the enduring metals and stone with which we build monuments to defy the effects of time. But poetry, which is even more spiritual, intangible, and apparently fragile, is more enduring still: "Not marble, nor the gilded monuments/Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme,/But you shall shine more bright in these contents/ Than unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time."
What Shakespeare now does is graft the new, cultural form of reproduction upon the old, biological form: "And, all in war with Time for love of you,/As he takes from you, I engraft you new." Thus, poetry is to living reproduction what living reproduction is to the enduring hardness of the stone and metal out of which we build monuments to defy time's decay. Poetry is grafted onto natural inheritance, so that both the generic and unconscious elements of what we wish to preserve, and also the individual and self-aware elements, are protected. And poetry is in a sense the purest form of manufacture - it makes out of the most valueless raw material of all, breath, a valuable good.
Shakespeare is proposing a kind of gardening economics, a technique of growing value rather than extracting existing stores of it embodied in raw materials or the metabolic capital of the laborer. The brilliant achievements of the 19th-century Industrial Revolution gave us our most precious resources: the 5 billion people now living and the library of technical knowledge upon which all future progress must be based. But the Industrial Revolution achieved these feats in rather the fashion of a fetal bird in the egg, by drawing down the world's yolk-sac of fossil fuels, high grade ores, topsoil, and perhaps even its peoples' accumulated cultural discipline and moral/aesthetic traditions.
Its methods came from the science of thermodynamics, and its major power source, steam, involved the burning of complex molecules to release their energy. If we see the world in thermodynamic terms, as containing a limited stockpile of free energy which is exhausted by its use to do work, and dissipated into the irretrievable form of waste heat - if the increase of entropy with time is the last word on the subject - then the 19th-century strategy of seizing natural resources and exploiting them makes perfect sense. But if complex intercommunicating feedback systems at the edge of chaos can generate emergent new forms of organization, as such distinguished new scientists and philosophers as Ilya Prigogine are now saying, and as Shakespeare suggests, then a different economics suggests itself, one which can increase the net amount of value in the world.
Shakespeare's concept of value creation is, I believe, remarkably prophetic. Industry today need no longer "burn" increasing amounts of natural order to force its will upon matter and turn out its mass-produced product. Contrary to the prophecies of the doomsayers, the world's requirements for energy seem to be leveling off, and even dropping in the more advanced economies, as market-driven efficiencies emerge. Of course, we will always need energy, just as do the other processes of nature. But we may become able, like a full-fledged bird, to live off the land rather than the fat of our thermodynamic egg.
The power requirements of the Internet are minuscule compared with those of an equivalent exchange of material parcels of information. Industry is discovering the far-from-equilibrium situations that crop up throughout nature, finding ways to "tweak" existing natural processes so as to bring about economically desirable results. Tinkering with a few genes in a test tube, we create immunities that save thousands of bushels of crops from pests and diseases. Industry is making extensive use of catalytic chemistry, chaotic mixing processes, and the like - those processes in the inorganic world that anticipate the ingenious economy of life. Just as microscopic chips of silicon can now efficiently control the roar of a mighty tractor engine, so we can use the efficient leverages offered to us by nature itself to harness the grand natural forces of our living universe.
Industrial chemistry loves to exploit those states of matter at the boundaries between the solid, liquid, gaseous, and plasma states or between different crystalline or chemical configurations, where, far from equilibrium, only a small change of temperature, light, chemistry, or pressure can produce large results. Those results include metals with useful properties, self-adjusting sunglasses, liquid crystal displays, efficient fuel injection, or highly sensitive measuring devices such as the home pregnancy test. The raw materials of the new technology are plentiful and easy to extract: carbon, sand to make silicon chips, air, water. Biotechnology may one day develop perennial cereal crops that will not need tractors to plough them or even, perhaps, petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides. It took a huge expense of coal and oil and iron ore to develop the cybernetic control systems that now require only a few ounces of silicon and a tiny flow of current to maintain, and which are in turn radically diminishing our need for fossil fuels and ores.
Shakespeare's reasoning endorses the tweaking and readaptation of natural processes for human purposes. Those natural processes, however, are but precursors and simpler versions of the much more deeply self-referential and multi-leveled processes we find in the human world. The market is just such a complex system. The market is the drama of concrete human interaction, the theater of the world. Only highly nonlinear, turbulent, and far-from-equilibrium processes, as the market is, could produce such complex and individuated entities as human personalities and cultures.
Anthropologists and ethologists are now revealing the elaborate web of short-term and long-term economic exchanges that happen within human and animal families; babies are made human by the exchanges they enter into with their parents and close kin. For Shakespeare economic exchange is the embodiment of human moral relations. Unlike our own cruder ethical systems, resulting from the combined assaults of Puritan iconoclastic highmindedness, Enlightenment reductionism, Romantic moral sentiment, and Marxist paranoia, Shakespeare does not make a strict distinction between personal rights and property rights. For him personal love cannot be divided from the bonds of property and service that embody it. When King Lear demands the unconditional love of his daughters - that is, a love that is not mediated by reciprocal material relations - his two corrupt daughters Regan and Goneril are quick to offer it, swearing they love him "more than eyesight, space, and liberty;/ Beyond what can be valued, rich and rare."
But Cordelia, the good daughter, refuses to offer such love: "I love your majesty/According to my bond, no more nor less.../...Good my lord,/You have begot me, bred me, loved me. I/Return those duties back as are right fit,/Obey you, love you, and most honor you." She goes on to point out that when she marries, half of her love and duty will then be owed to her husband.
Though tactless, Cordelia is expressing a wisdom we should pay attention to. If the world is as 19th-century science suggested it was, a deterministic machine that is running down, then the only ethical kind of love would be one that was purely disinterested, a Kantian dispassionate self-sacrifice that gave the advantage over to the other in the struggle to seize and exploit the diminishing stockpile of order. Only thus could one escape the deterministic motivations embedded in our own nature, which would render every interested decision void of freedom and ethical responsibility. But Shakespeare's world, as we have glanced at it in The Winter's Tale and the sonnets, is one in which human freedom is not the avoidance of natural motivation but the capacity of creative action; the net amount of value naturally increases, and human creativity accelerates that increase. Both the lover and the beloved can prosper.
The "bond" that Cordelia offers is a combination of reproductive, material, and emotional/spiritual exchanges. In As You Like It, Shakespeare defines marriage as a "blessed bond of board and bed," in which three "b" words, blessed (the emotional and spiritual element), board (the material element), and bed (the sexual and reproductive element) are likewise combined in a fourth, the bond of the nuptial contract. Most important for us is the way in which the intangible elements of the contract can be cashed, or in Shakespeare's suggestive word, "redeemed," in material terms.
For Shakespeare, value must be embodied to exist, just as the inscription denoting the sovereignty of the mint and the denomination of the coin must be embodied in the intrinsic value of the specie of which it is made. We do not need to embrace the gold standard to understand that paper or electronic money must likewise be based, though at more removes, upon such backing as a gross national product and the consent of the community to the legitimacy of the minting authority.
In The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare correctly implies that the word market is cognate with the word mercy. But how can the market be merciful? Isn't it counterintuitive that mercy - and merci, the French word for thanks - should come from the same linguistic root as mercenary, merchant, mercantile, commerce, and market itself? What does the legendary ruthlessness of the marketplace have to do with the free gifts of compassion? If, using the excellent etymological supplement to the American Heritage Dictionary, we follow the etymology of this root back to its Etruscan origins, we find the same ambiguity all the way down. The Old French merci meant forbearance to someone in one's power; the Late Latin merces meant reward, but also God's gratuitous compassion. The Latin merx meant merchandise, in the sense that merchandise was something under the purview of the god Mercury, patron of commerce. All these words derive from the name of the god Mercury.
Mercury is an extremely interesting god in this context: As well as being associated with markets, he was the divine messenger, the god of travel and of thieves, and the psychopomp, that is, the god who conducted the souls of the dead to their final destination, whether Hades or the Elysian Fields. Perhaps we can make sense of him thus: As the spirit of communication and exchange, he is that which allows whole systems of connected feedback to come into being. He is thus the patron of change, since systems can change only to the extent to which they can communicate within themselves and with other systems.
Merchants, the "middlemen" of human exchange and often the carriers of news, information, new science, and socially disruptive ideas and diseases, take Mercury to be their leader. The marketplace is the place where both goods and ideas are exchanged, and thus it bears the god's name. Naturally all the illegitimate and cheating forms of communication and exchange - lying and stealing - are also under his aegis. Mercy is kin to thievery; both are unjust. Naturally, too, Mercury conducts human consciousness - itself the product of the internal communication of self-awareness and the external communication of exchange with other human beings in the marketplace of life - across the greatest threshold of change, from life to death.
When we look at some of Mercury's other attributes and associations, he becomes more interesting still. He gives his name to the metal that is liquid, quicksilver, that cannot be held in one place but runs away. Mercy - the things of Mercury - is essentially liquid, as we have already seen. In alchemy, mercury was one of the two primary opposites, sulphur - a solid - being the other, whose true union through the evolutionary process of alchemical metamorphosis might produce perfect gold. Mercury's planet was the harbinger of the two great diurnal changes, day into night and night into day, and thus the link between the day world and the night world: Again, Mercury is the reconciler of opposites.
Most interesting of all, he is the possessor of the caduceus, the snake-entwined rod, that ancient and modern symbol of life and its transformative powers. This talisman represents the reconciliation of order and stasis (the rod) with chaos and change (the snakes). The rod is solid, and is often the symbol of justice; the snake is associated with liquid, and is the great symbol of transgression. The snake itself symbolizes the polar opposites of death and healing (its venom can kill or cure), and change and immortality (it changes its skin and thus rejuvenates itself). Like the serpent of Eden, it is the breaker of the status quo, the opener of new perspectives, the originator of new levels of being and consciousness. The caduceus as a whole represents the pairing or twinning by which reproduction takes place, and the transfer of information by which the shape of the parent is communicated, replicated, and immortalized. It so happens that the double helix of the two snakes is an exact model of the shape of the DNA molecule. This is not just a coincidence, for the double helix is perhaps the best intuitive diagram of any feedback process, and DNA is the feedback process of feedback processes. Uncannily, in the symbol of the caduceus the ancient icon makers anticipated the modern discovery of the structure of DNA. Kindness, in both the moral sense and the biological sense, emerges from the kinship bonds that DNA creates.
So the mercy of the market is real. Those who in the Marxist tradition persist in seeing the market as impersonal and merciless are comparing it by implication with the intimate world of uncounted cost and unquestioned trust that they believe exists in the family, in a friendship, in a traditional tribal village, or in a nonprofit organization dedicated to some higher voluntary purpose or liberal art. Perhaps the market is less forgiving than such communities, though anthropologists, sociologists, and novelists have charted the often ruthless politics and unyielding cruelty of families, villages, and universities. But communities of this kind are not the alternative to the market, nor has the market shown any sign of putting an end to them - they flourish still as they always did, and their sphere in society is proportionately no smaller in relation to the market than it ever was.
There are only two real alternatives to the market. One is the way that communities actually treat strangers and outsiders, and the way communities traditionally treat each other, when they are not trading with each other or governed by a higher authority: that is, by enslavement, murder, and war. The other is the utopian rule of an abstract justice in which there could be no room for mercy, since any communication or gift or exchange other than the application of the law would amount to corruption and favoritism. As F.A. Hayek argues, the market is the place where one can begin to communicate with strangers, where one can negotiate, where there is time to haggle and latitude for error, where a loan can be prolonged because the lender wants his money back, where defeat does not mean extinction but the opportunity to pull off a better deal another day. It encourages a basic level of civility, and requires of those who would profit by it a preparedness to take risks in trusting others, even if the risk taking is the margin for error in the quantification of risk when one is estimating the interest one should charge on a loan.
The Shakespearean theater was a kind of marketplace; and that market was one of the preconditions for the emergence of democratic politics. In fact we could even say that true democracy is the political expression of the Shakespearean market.
Contributing Editor Frederick Turner is a poet, a theorist of the links between the sciences and the humanities, and Founders Professor of the Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas. His most recent books include April Wind (University Press of Virginia) and The Culture of Hope (The Free Press). He is working on a book on Shakespeare's economics, to be published under Doubleday's Currency imprint.
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|Title Annotation:||William Shakespeare|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1997|
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