Sarah Skwire’s perceptive essay nicely describes the situation that faced me, and that I was attempting to remedy, when I sat down to write Shakespeare’s Twenty-First Century Economics (Oxford University Press, 1999). In my book I traced the evolution of Shakespeare’s economic thought through his sonnets and many other plays, including the Henry plays, several of the comedies and tragedies, and two of the last plays, thus attempting to rectify the tendency to cherry-pick The Merchant of Venice for Shakespeare’s economic opinions.
How to read this greatest of all literary geniuses after two centuries of scholars and critics who, from totally different standpoints, roundly despised the commercial culture of which Shakespeare, the great Elizabethan media tycoon, was so vital a part?
English literary criticism began in the eighteenth century when university-educated gentleman scholars (often with bourgeois ancestry and money) founded their great journals, such as The Spectator, The London Magazine, The Critical Review and the Edinburgh Review, implicitly challenging the old aristocracy for the mantle of cultural leadership. To prove their refinement, they had to emulate and surpass their superiors in rank in the genre of contempt for money and trade. They must be above all base commercial interest, not because—like aristocrats—they already had ancient wealth, but because of their membership in the morally nobler republic of letters.
And they were, in fact, very good critics on the whole, as evidenced by the work of Pope, Johnson, Addison, Hazlitt, Coleridge and others of their ilk. But their blind spot was the “dark satanic mills” of capitalism that were already on the brink of making England and the nascent United States the freest, wealthiest and most egalitarian societies in the world. Some of the intellectuals of the time, like the bona fide aristocrat the Earl of Shaftesbury, Bernard Mandeville, Adam Smith, and the framers of the American constitution, were well aware of the importance of commerce as the foundation of any practicable free society. But they did not, on the whole, write literary criticism.
When the first English departments arose in Britain in the nineteenth century—English literary scholarship and criticism as a legitimate academic discipline—they had to do so in the teeth of the traditional fields of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew literature. And as the field developed into the twentieth century, and the universities expanded to take in a flood of new students from the middle and lower classes, the gentleman scholars (who were never very numerous) were edged out by a new breed of bright modernist lefty intellectuals. They hailed from the grammar schools, often without a family history of literary study and the comfortable love of the classics that comes with it. Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim is a fine fictional study of this process of change. The G.I. Bill had a similar effect in the United States. The angry young men (and women) shared only one thing with their gentlemanly predecessors: contempt for business, trade, and finance. But their contempt was not aristocratic or even pseudo- or wannabe-aristocratic (though it was important to them to be seen as culturny, as the Russians say). They despised capitalism on ideological grounds, and wanted to bring it down, as it, Marx averred, had brought down feudalism.
So, as Skwire points out, they selected for praise only the most anti-capitalist works in the oeuvres of the great writers—or rather those that could be construed as such. Sometimes, as I will show later, they actually distorted them by their interpretations, whether consciously or unconsciously. When dealing with great works that could not be fitted into the anti-capitalist story, they either simply ignored those aspects that wouldn’t work for them and concentrated on psychological, moral, or aesthetic issues, much like their gentlemanly forebears—or they castigated the writers as pawns or masters of the oppressive hegemony of money, power, and culturally massaged knowledge. Writers were either closet revolutionaries or dead white Eurocentric phallocentric logocentric males.
Shakespeare was naturally a principal battleground for this Manichean struggle. And The Merchant of Venice is, ironically, the fulcrum of the conflict. I say ironically because it was precisely in the period that National Socialism was in the process of liquidating the Jews as “capitalist bloodsuckers” that the critics were turning the play into an allegory of economic oppression and class struggle. What I showed in my book was that the critics simply had not grasped the plot of the play—they had blanked out what would not fit into their schema of it. They called it a “problem play” when the problem was their own. What was the problem? It was that they had four interpretations of it, each of which satisfied their preconceptions, but which radically contradicted one another:
1. Evil capitalist Venice hounds poor Jewish Shylock to death.
2. Anti-Semitic racist Shakespeare unjustly paints Shylock as an evil capitalist, vs. good interest-free proto-socialist Antonio and patriarchally oppressed but liberated Portia. (Capitalists are evil but Jews are not necessarily capitalists.) We should share our money like gay Antonio and feminist Portia, not charge interest for loans like (unjustly labeled as Jewish) capitalist money-breeder Shylock.
3. Racially tolerant Shakespeare depicts Shylock as forced by anti-capitalist Venetian Christian anti-Semitic prejudice to become an evil capitalist to support himself, thus tragically bringing upon himself the stigma of evil capitalist.
4. Perhaps ignorant Shakespeare does not realize how evil capitalism is after all, but wiser modern critics with the benefit of hindsight can recognize how Shakespeare has, with his poetic insight, innocently and unwittingly uncovered the evidence to condemn his proto-capitalist position.
These interpretations plainly have one assumption in common, an assumption that is the root of the confusion: the evil of capitalism, in essence the practice of charging a rate of interest for the use of one’s money by another (interest when one does it oneself, usury when someone else does it to oneself). But in the play what actually happens is that Shylock refuses to take interest payments on the loan he proffers, both at the outset of the play and then later at the trial. Antonio, who initially, and very uncapitalistically, gives interest-free loans to his friend, ends up lending out at interest the half-share of Shylock’s estate of which he has been made the trustee on behalf of Shylock’s heir, his daughter Jessica. Antonio has obviously repented of his earlier precapitalist ways, by which as a mercantilist (a distinction apparently invisible to the critics) he had conducted his trading adventures (uninsured and with no risk management).
If the play ends happily, at least for some, it is because Venice has reluctantly adopted the free-market egalitarianism and anti-racist policies that are characteristic of capitalism. Far from being racist, the play evidently takes it as perfectly suitable for the Moroccan prince to woo Portia, for Italian Christian Lorenzo to marry Jewish Jessica, and for Launcelot the servant to be expected to make an honest woman of the negro girl he has gotten pregnant. And it is the free-market ethos of Venice that forces the unwilling prince of that city to grant fair hearing to all the characters. Furthermore, Shakespeare gives us in the parasite Gratiano a portrait of a Venetian racist almost as repulsive that other one, Iago, who torments heroic black Othello to death in the eponymous play. Gratiano, as his name implies (“gratuity”), is the essence of that snobbish insider old-boy network of free favors and gift exchange that has always been the enemy of the free market.
The critics are also blind to the historical implications of the fact that the play focuses upon the important change in European economic ethics, in which interest (or by its nastier name, usury) was gradually becoming acceptable. It was only when interest was permitted that banking could free up capital for true economic and technological progress, manage the risk of productive entrepreneurship, and eventually enfranchise hundreds of millions of people across the globe. Significantly, Dante consigns both usurers (who in medieval scholastic terms make breed that which by nature should not) and homosexual lovers (who in the same terms put organs meant to breed with to use for unnatural purposes) to the same circle in Hell. So Shakespeare’s solution to the competing claims of male-male and male-female love at the end of the play is, like his qualified acceptance of the value of capitalist finance, a distinct revision of the Sharia-like morality of the past.
So the critical history of The Merchant of Venice is an elegant example of the way that great literature, in itself almost always liberating to the human soul and the human community, can be distorted into supporting socialistic control. Luckily, all is not lost; a new generation of libertarian literary critics is setting the record straight. A fine example is Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture, a collection of essays edited by Stephen Cox and Paul Cantor (Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2010), which extends the sort of discussion I have outlined here to a variety of important literary works.