Shakespeare As Economist

The Merchant of Venice is About the Meaning of Value as Well as Justice.

Listener: 1 January 2000

Keywords: History of Ideas, Methodology & Philosophy; Literature and Culture;

Just as a successful television series for in one channel will generate an emulation series by a competing one, Elizabethan playwrights would take up another’s theme. Thus Christopher Marlowe’s popular The Jew of Malta elicited Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. But the master transcended Marlowe, as a barbaric tale becomes a meditation on the meaning of economic and social value. The reflection appears in all sorts of places: the lead casket, Bassino’s choice which gives him Portia’s hand, requires a commitment of a considerable investment: “who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath,” (not to mention Shylock’s ducats and Antonio’s bond). Their courting includes playful allusions to commerce (Bassino courts “by note”, a bill of exchange), as do other dialogues. The contrast in the trial scene between law and mercy might usefully be explored by those into the new subject of the relationship between economics and law. In the title role, Antonio the merchant, is contrasted with Shylock, the money-lender. Antonio makes his income from advances for risky merchant trading voyages where he gains a share of the profits or loses the advance. Shylock’s income derives from interest on loans.

The role of interest, popularly called “the return on money”, has long been a puzzle. Alfred Marshall suggested it had to be thought of as the reward for “waiting”. We would all like to spend more than to which we are entitled. In order to contain spending to that which is available, the impatient are penalised by being charged a premium for the opportunity to consume early, while the patient are rewarded for their waiting by being able to consume more later. The penalty to one, the compensation to the other, is the interest. Thus interest has a useful economic purpose, although many may still doubt that.

The doubts led the medieval Church to ban Christians charging interest, a prohibition against usury which many Moslems accept to this day. Christians could venture capital, as Antonio did, but only if they took the full risk of failure. Jews were also restricted from entering professions. Thus there was a market need for the money-lender, while the restriction on their opportunities left Jews filling that niche. The irony of associating banking with Jewishness is that it was Christian restrictions that put them there. It was a stroke of genius then, for Shakespeare to transform the Jew-baiting of Marlowe into a contrast of the two ways of investing, to illustrate value in another way.

It is doubtful that Shakespeare knew any Jews other than “conversios” (converted to Christianity), for they had been effectively banned from England in 1290. (Oliver Cromwell lifted the ban well after Shakespeare’s death.) So we cannot take Shylock as a representative Jew any more than we can take Marlowe’s Barabas. Over the years there has been considerable dispute among scholars as to Shakespeare’s intention – was a Shylock to be a hero-victim or a murderous villain? But it is a part of Shakespeare’s genius is that he portrayed very complex characters with conflicting characteristics (rather like ourselves). Even though we may not forgive the demand for the pound of flesh Shylock is not wholly sinning. Antonio would spit at him when passing in the street, and there are other anti-Semitic references in the play. Meanwhile, Shylock is angry with Antonio because he lends money without charging interest, thus undercutting the market. (Although being the title role, Antonio is an unconvincing businessman. The first rule is not to invest all one’s fortune in risky projects, as did Antonio when he put all of his fortune into shipping ventures. But had he been prudent, there would have been no play.) Despite the Marlovian progenitor, it is arguable that Shylock’s Jewishness is not central to the play, but consequential on the need to portray the clash between merchant-venturer and money-lender.

Shakespeare died a moderately wealthy man. He was one of the shareholders in the company of actors, and also a shareholder in the Globe theatre (putting him closely in touch with market demand, as his plays’ topics and plots imply). As Shakespeare prospered he bought investment properties which provided rental income, one of the ways around interest from lending.

It is sometimes demanded the play should not be performed because of its anti-Semitism. Such censorship would be our loss, not only because The Merchant of Venice is a good play; not only because we would miss out on the wonderful anti-racist speech which includes “if you prick us, do we not bleed?”; not only for the phrases which have entered the language (including “the devil can cite scripture”); but also because we would lose Shakespeare’s longest cerebration on the meaning of value.

His answer? Far be it for me to summarise its complexity, but I think he is saying that just as justice is about mercy rather than law, personal relations – love – are more valuable than money. But it is clear from the plot that the two can sometimes get inextricably mixed up.