45 Years, 45 Days: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Economics


For the next 45 days, we'll be celebrating Reason's 45th anniversary by releasing a story a day from the archives—one for each year of the magazine's history. See the full list here.

Writing in Reason's March 1997 issue, Frederick Turn explained what Shakespeare teaches us about economics:

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.