Literature and political economy

Posted by Tory Historian Wednesday, August 11, 2010 ,

Tory Historian has been wading into literary studies of a kind by reading a fascinating book by that well-known man of letters, John Gross, on Shylock (a review in the Independent). Among other many fascinating things even in the first third, Tory Historian found this aper├žu:

Between them, Antonio and Shylock represent two extreme versions of Economic Man, one benevolent, the other malign. Jekyll-Antonio embodies the fantasy that you can enjoy the benefits of economic enterprise and confer them on your society, without being competitive and self-assertive. Hyde-Shylock is the capitalist as total predator conferring good on no one except himself. They are twin aspects of the same phenomenon; and a tremendous amount of the play's energy is pent on keeping them apart.
Antonio is the merchant of the title who has trading interests all over the world and is known for lending money without interest, which annoys Shylock for the very good reason that it undercuts his own business and that of people like him.

Theoretically, lending without interest was the correct Christian attitude but, in practice, that never happened and, though there was a myth that only Jews were usurers, anyone who knows the littlest bit of Italian and, indeed, English history, knows that to be untrue. Indeed, by 1571 English law lifted even the theoretical ban on usury though interest of over 10 per cent could not be charged. In 1625 Francis Bacon wrote his essay Of Usury, which justified the practice but in the 1590s when The Merchant of Venice was probably written and 1605 when it seems to have been first performed, usury was still seen as something wicked despite its widespread existence in society. Indeed, wealthy Elizabethan England could not have prospered or, even, survived without credit, money lending and interest.

The dichotomy of the importance of wealth but the nastiness of wealth making has survived in English literature (and, frequently, in English public attitude). Dickens, as George Orwell, for one, has pointed out, wrote about all sorts of benevolent rich gentlemen who, apparently neither earned nor made money but somehow acquired it in order to do good with it. Antonio can lend money with no interest only when he has it as the play makes it clear but as is not so obvious, he presumably gets it by astute trading and hard bargaining. He may not do it personally but his agents all over the world must have done.

The play does not have a happy ending, despite being a romantic comedy. Shylock is forced to settle his money on Jessica and Lorenzo and to become a Christian, which clearly hurts him beyond anything; the aristocratic wastrel and profligate Bassanio marries Portia and gets his hands on her wealth. Tory Historian's suspicion is that within a couple of years that happy couple will be borrowing money, if not from Antonio then from Shylock, in order to keep Belmont going.

1 Responses to Literature and political economy

  1. Bettie Says:
  2. Further, existing models do not generate a bias against trade, implying that pro-trade interventions are as likely as trade-restricting interventions. The greatest contribution of the political economy literature may lie in developing a better grasp of normative economic analysis - that is, in helping design policies, rules, and institutions.


    learning

     
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