Capitalism's Poet Laureate


Shakespeare's Twenty-First Century Economics: The Morality of Love and Money, by Frederick Turner, New York: Oxford University Press, 223 pages, $35.00

Marxist scholars have been arguing for years that Shakespeare was a creature of the Elizabethan marketplace, but Hollywood and movie audiences everywhere finally got the message in 1998 with the success of Shakespeare in Love. That immensely popular film suggested that the imaginative energy of Shakespeare's plays somehow fed off the new economic energy of the bustling Elizabethan commercial theaters. Except for box office concerns, the movie might just as well have been titled Shakespeare in Debt, since it portrays a harried author driven by financial necessities to create a masterpiece like Romeo and Juliet.

The critics who first made the connection between Shakespeare and capitalism were looking to take Shakespeare down a peg or two, but the unintended result has been to elevate capitalism. The Marxists sought to debunk the myth of Shakespeare as an individual genius by showing that he was part of a market system, collaborating with producers, directors, actors, and others in what amounted to a communal effort. But in stressing the commercial origins of Shakespeare's art, these critics undermined the longstanding Marxist prejudice that capitalism is the enemy of culture.

There are signs that the academy is finally reassessing the cultural role of capitalism and overcoming its traditional contempt for money making. Literary critic Lisa Jardine has written a revisionist history of the Renaissance, Worldly Goods (1996), in which she argues that the great cultural achievements of the period were sparked by its new entrepreneurial spirit. More generally, economist Tyler Cowen argues in his book In Praise of Commercial Culture (1998) that capitalism has been the most productive cultural force in history, a claim he documents in case studies as diverse as Florentine painting, German chamber music, and the English novel. (See "Cultivating Culture," October 1998.) Now critic and poet Frederick Turner has joined the debate with his original and provocative book Shakespeare's Twenty-First Century Economics, making analytically and seriously the point that Shakespeare in Love made intuitively and comically. Turner puts forth the audacious claim that Shakespeare was in effect the poet laureate of capitalism.

Turner, a REASON contributing editor and a professor of arts and humanities at University of Texas at Dallas, senses that the time is ripe for a re-evaluation of Shakespeare's view of commercial activity. The collapse of communism has discredited Marxist theory, and the worldwide success of market reforms has forced even professors of economics to take a fresh look at how capitalism works. Turner sees that the virtue of the free market goes beyond merely economic considerations; it encompasses a whole range of ethical and political goods.

"The market is the place where one can begin to communicate with strangers, where one can negotiate…where defeat does not mean extinction but the opportunity to pull a better deal another day," writes Turner. "It encourages a basic level of civility and requires of those who would profit by it a preparedness to take risks in trusting others….The Shakespearean theater was a kind of marketplace; and that market was one of the preconditions for the emergence of democratic politics."

Thus, when Turner looks at Shakespeare's plays, he is prepared to find the economic and ethical realms, not at odds as in so much academic discourse, but in harmony, as the playwright creates a continuum between our material and our spiritual values. (Turner presented many of these ideas in his March 1997 REASON article, "The Merchant of Avon.") For example, Turner shows that in Shakespeare's treatment of marriage, he does not divorce financial considerations from emotional ones, as a Romantic poet would. In Shakespeare, the successful marriage is a very practical matter and unites emotional and financial well-being. That is why he ultimately focuses on the marriage bond. Turner makes much of such dual meanings in Shakespeare, when such words as trust, interest, debt, redeem, and venture have at once spiritual and financial significance.

In an elegant and closely reasoned discussion of The Merchant of Venice, Turner shows how the heroine Portia uses her wealth for positive purposes, making harmony prevail in a community divided by religion. Decades of literary criticism have conditioned us to expect that any discussion of economics in literature will be Marxist in nature. But Turner repeatedly turns the tables on Marxist critics. Consider, for example, his discussion of the comic moment in Merchant when Launcelot Gobbo's old father cannot recognize his own son on the street:

"It would be easy to give a Marxist view of this episode: that the new impersonal cash and commodity exchange economy alienates family members from each other and creates a society of isolated selfish individuals. But this interpretation is too facile for the wise Shakespeare….It only takes a few minutes for Old Gobbo to recognize his son, so the alienation of city workers from their country ancestors is not really so terrible. Thus Shakespeare is implying that the mercantile city affords greater opportunities for new personal relationships, without necessarily damaging the old ones–a conclusion quite contrary to those of most critics of capitalism."

Turner's book is filled with this kind of sanity and clarity, moments when he makes us take a fresh look at a scene we may have read or viewed dozens of times without appreciating its significance. But his book is something far more than a series of new readings of familiar scenes; it adds up to a fundamental reconception of Shakespeare.

Turner writes, "This book makes three arguments, following Shakespeare. First, that human art, production, and exchange are a continuation of natural creativity and reproduction, not a rupture of them. Second, that our human bonds with one another, even the most ethical and personal, cannot be detached from the values and bonds of the market. And third, that there is a mysterious dispensation according to which our born condition of debt can be transformed into one of grace. These three arguments may be taken as refutations of the three reproaches to the market offered by its critics: that the market necessarily alienates us from nature, from each other, and from God." Thus the challenge of Turner's book is twofold: It invites us to rethink our view of Shakespeare, but perhaps more important, it invites us to rethink the relation of our economic to our spiritual life.

A book this ambitious is not going to be without flaws, and at times I found myself quarreling with Turner's understanding of both economics and Shakespeare. Turner's basic grasp of the virtues of capitalism is sound, and he makes many acute observations about how markets function and how they are superior to centrally planned economies. But his command of certain details of economic theory at times seems weak.

For example, Turner operates with a peculiar definition of money "as a generalized and quantified measure of the obligations that unspecified others owe me and the obligations I owe others." In a book devoted to countering Marxism, it is surprising to find a concept of money that comes perilously close to the labor theory of value. Turner's failure to understand the commodity nature of money leads him in turn to misunderstand the monetary nature of inflation, as shown by perhaps his most peculiar economic claim in the book: "A low rate of inflation is the sign that a people at large…actually trust the fairness and truthfulness of the market that gives money its value." As most reputable economists would agree, inflation is a product not of the regular functioning of the free market but of government intervention in the market: Inflation is the fall in the value of money brought about by government manipulation of currency and credit. Fortunately, Turner's occasional errors in economic theory do not invalidate his overall argument and are basically irrelevant to what he has to say about Shakespeare.

As for Turner's interpretation of Shakespeare, though I learned a great deal from it, I feel that ultimately his portrait is not true to the whole of Shakespeare. Turner gives us a comic, not a tragic, Shakespeare. In what I regard as the most profound understanding of tragedy, Hegel's, it involves the irreconcilable conflict between two goods: between the city and the family in Sophocles' Antigone, or, to take an example from Shakespeare, between the demands on Lear as a king and the demands on him as a father. But given Turner's focus on the market as a force for harmony, he is always looking for ways to reconcile seemingly antithetical realms of value.

Accordingly, he is drawn to Shakespeare's comedies and romances, in which reconciliation is the great theme. His book begins and ends with The Winter's Tale, and he devotes more time to The Merchant of Venice than to any other work, calling it "perhaps Shakespeare's most intellectually brilliant play." Even when Turner discusses tragedies such as King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra, he almost makes them sound like comedies, or at least he stresses the element of reconciliation and even triumph in their endings. Thus Turner tends to lose sight of the tragic dimension in Shakespeare, especially his profound sense of the tragic tension between aristocratic values and the new democratic values just emerging in his day.

And yet in one respect Turner himself displays a profoundly tragic awareness. For Turner, the tragedy of the 20th century has been the failure to appreciate the virtues of the market economy and the misguided turn to command economies for material salvation: "Modern ideologies of the economic injustice of the market, despite the fact that they have been disproved in theory and have failed in practice, have created a resentful poor with historically new feelings of entitlement. The planet has groaned with wars and massacres for a century as a result….The irony is that modern market economies are almost certainly much fairer than the feudal regimes they replaced."

One rarely sees this kind of clear-headed thinking about economic matters from an academic in the humanities, let alone a literary critic. Turner may give too optimistic a reading of Shakespeare, but it is hard to fault his optimism about the future of economic freedom.