All the World’s an I.P.O.: Shakespeare the Profiteer

Shakespeare’s 21st-Century Economics: The Morality of Love and Money , by Frederick Turner. Oxford University Press, 223 pages, $35.

Every economic and political system needs a philosopher to stamp the lives of the rank and file with meaning, a wise man to tell the people who they are. There could be no true Romans before Virgil or Communists without Marx. The British subconsul in India knew his Hakluyt and his Kipling. It made him stand straighter when “God Save the Queen” was played. Consider Manhattan at the close of the you-know-what. Those tired brokers folding themselves into their hired cars at the end of a long day, those legal associates calling their fiancés to say, “Sorry, dinner’s off; I’m working late on a deal.” Why do they do it? Who tells them what they do is not only necessary but right? Who gives them their identity?

Adam Smith? Too brutal. Walt Whitman? Too wacky. Tom Wolfe? Too too. Perhaps there’s no one. Perhaps there isn’t a philosopher for our giddy post-Cold War capitalism, because there can’t be. That’s what I’d say. Money moves so fast that thought simply gets out of the way. The Nasdaq is beyond the structures of discourse.

Frederick Turner, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas and the author of Shakespeare’s 21st-Century Economics , thinks otherwise. According to Mr. Turner, our muse has been hiding in plain sight all along: Time to brush up your Shakespeare.

But this is not a how-to manual like the newly published Shakespeare in Charge: The Bard’s Guide to Leading and Succeeding on the Business Stage . Mr. Turner is not handing out directions to the corner office. He’s repositioning Shakespeare as our prosperity’s cheerleader.

Mr. Turner acknowledges the evident objection. “The reader who has encountered Shakespeare in school or university may find … [this] surprising, even shocking,” he writes. Shakespeare lived in a world of words. What did he know about finance? His experience of modern markets was tempered by layers of feudal and royal perquisites. His America was an island ruled by an intellectual, a brave new world where money was unknown. Prospero, despite the name, holds a book, not a wallet.

But Mr. Turner flips the coin to show us Shakespeare as Jacobean “media tycoon.” While other playwrights lived one step ahead of the sheriff, Shakespeare was an instinctive bourgeois. An eager acquirer of property, he bought a home in Stratford, inherited another, picked up some tithe leases at a good price and capped it off with a choice building in central London. He was a partner in his own theater company. When he retired, he was worth the equivalent, roughly, of a million dollars. No Park Slope intellectual snob, Mr. Turner argues, Shakespeare’s core insight is that “human-created value is not essentially different from natural value.” In plainer language, Shakespeare loved art, nature and money.

Mr. Turner finds confirmation for his theory in the plays, which he sees as a serial advertisement for capitalism. He notes, first, Shakespeare’s luxuriant language. His vocabulary and syntax are the poetic equivalent of an Internet I.P.O. Flirtation with chaos is part of their vigor. They refute limits. Second, Mr. Turner sees the plays as espousing a free-market ethos. There is for instance The Winter’s Tale , which he reads, Keynes-like, to suggest that growth is a prerequisite for prosperity. “Contrary to the conventional wisdom,” he writes, The Merchant of Venice “actually endorses the taking of interest.” Shylock’s flaw is not greed–greed is good–but fanaticism. He forgets the market is never personal. He should have doubled his money and got out. A pound of flesh has no resale value.

Mr. Turner notes how in Shakespeare fiscal terms like “trust,” “goods” and “bond” had none of the deadness that surrounds them today. He’s right: If someone bets you “dollars to doughnuts,” you’re probably stuck with a bore on an airplane. This was not always so. Money once was the most lyrical of languages. In the opening of King Lear (King Lira?), Cordelia tells her father, “I love your majesty/ According to my bond.” Lear sees Cordelia as an ingrate unable to verbalize her emotions. Generations of critics (perhaps thinking of themselves) have seen her as an idealist, unwilling to suck up to get ahead. Mr. Turner sees her as simply eloquent. For him, she is touching on the primal stuff of life, because financial arrangements make life livable. Family and culture, not to mention comfort and affluence, are impossible without them. The “wisdom … of bonds and obligations,” Mr. Turner writes, “[is] that … spiritual and emotional ties are always embodied–even incarnated, in the religious sense–in economic relations, and economic relations are the medium out of which the highest expressions of heart and spirit emerge.” Cordelia owes her dad her love–that, beautifully, is the bottom line.

Why does Mr. Turner care about a long-dead playwright’s take on cash flow? For most of us Shakespeare is the pre-eminent poet of the English language. Full stop. His stock is a steady earner (compare with Milton, who has been practically delisted); there’s no need to boost Shakespeare’s value by erecting a statue in front of the Exchange. Besides, Mr. Turner is not a popularizer. His aim is to settle a score with the intellectual classes, who, in his opinion, turned their backs on free-market ideals to embrace the great evils of communism and fascism. From the 1930’s until 1989, the people of Eastern Europe and elsewhere lived with the results of this folly. Then, in a series of bloodless revolutions, ordinary citizens–Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, Corazon Aquino et al.–threw off communism and authoritarian government and brought their countries back to free enterprise and democracy. Mr. Turner reprises this well-known history whenever he gets a chance, sometimes sounding like a Shakespearean messenger, dressed in tights, lugging a herald’s horn, reporting on an off-stage battle. His goal is to put Shakespeare’s prestige behind this capitalist coup.

Unlike many poets, Shakespeare rarely gets pressed into service in the culture wars. It’s useful to know why, because the principal fault of this odd, intriguing book is not that it’s wrong, but that it’s arbitrary. Even an argument based on biographical fact can be misleading. The image of Shakespeare the prosperous burgher depends on the surviving legal documents–but legal documents tend to give that impression. And they’re pretty much all we have. What did Shakespeare look like? We can’t be sure. How did he compose? We have no manuscripts we can be certain are in his hand.

The plays tend to be conservative in message, but perhaps this is because acting troupes were dependent on noble and royal patronage. Shakespeare kept his head down. What did he really believe? In many cases, he’s on record both ways, sort of, depending on which critic you trust.

Truly, the plays point in all directions. If Mr. Turner is right, and the word “bond” to Shakespeare was as mellifluous as “flower,” connoting all that is good and natural in the world, why, in The Merchant of Venice , is the word spat like a curse?

And then there’s Timon of Athens , a play as far as we know, written around the same time as King Lear . Generous Timon begins rich, surrounded by friends. But they turn their backs on him when he goes bankrupt. Abandoned and bitter, he becomes a desert recluse. No warm talk of bonds, debentures and mortgages here. Timon hates the world and its artificial constructs. Only nature can be trusted. A couplet tells the story: “Who would not wish to be from wealth exempt?/ Since riches point to misery and contempt?” Not much of a mantra for day traders.