The Merchant of Avon

The best guide to 21st-century economics is a 16th-century poet.

(Page 2 of 3)

        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.

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  • nfl jerseys||


  • sarcasmic||

    "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers"

  • anon||

    Since there are a lot of politicians that happen to be lawyers, I'm on board with this plan.

  • ||

    "The first thing we do, let's kill all the government lawyers"


  • Almanian!||

    Since Shakespeare was a front for someone else who actually wrote the works (according to some), I think this idea is perfect, since "free markets" are a front for the "anything-but-free markets" that actually have existed through most of recorded history.

    Sooooo - whatever.

  • newshutz||

    The article on conspiracy theories on all sides of the political spectrum is not this one.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Shakespeare as a businessman is actually an inspiring example to would-be entrepreneurs - he was a much better investor and businessman than your average poet or actor. He had a share in his own theater company, making a decent profit, and he also made out OK in real-estate investments.

    But the article goes beyond this, and tries to find pro-capitalist propaganda in Shakespeare's plays and sonnets. The article even tries to extract some capitalism-friendly elements from *The Merchant of Venice.* I used to deny that the latter was anti-Jewish, because I couldn't believe Shakespeare could write anything that wasn't tolerant and multicultural. I realize now that I was mistaken.

    Occam's razor suggests a capitalism-unfriendly message for *Merchant* - if you *must* be a capitalist, don't do business with Jews, because they will try to screw you even at cost to themselves. Shakespeare had his audience in mind - paying attention to his audience is presumably the secret of his success as a dramatist - and would the audience prefer (a) a let's-be-friends parable of an unjustly persecuted Jew or (b) a comedy about a stage-Jew who tries to screw a Christian and gets his comeuppance? Reading the play tends toward the latter interpretation.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    The London audiences of the time didn't like Jews. Such Jews as lived in England at the time had a dubious legal status, because of King John's proclamation banishing Jews from the kingdom. Queen Elizabeth's doctor, Roderigo Lopez, had recently been executed for allegedly trying to poison his royal patient:

    It's hard to tell if the charges were true, since criminal procedure in those days was not exactly geared toward fairness. But the populace assumed Lopez's guilt, and a play exploiting this sentiment would presumably be popular.

  • Hawk Spitui||

    Well, cheer up. Maybe one of these days Reason will give us the article, "What Shakespeare Can Teach The 21st Century About Jews".


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