According to Marx, ‘Shakespeare excellently depicts the real nature of money’. In the section on ‘Money’ in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 Marx quotes extensively from Timon of Athens
“Gold? Yellow, glittering, precious gold?
No, Gods, I am no idle votarist! ...
Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair,
Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant.
... Why, this
Will lug your priests and servants from your sides,
Pluck stout men’s pillows from below their heads:
This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions, bless the accursed;
Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves
And give them title, knee and approbation
With senators on the bench…etc
“O thou sweet king-killer, and dear divorce
‘Twixt natural son and sire! thou bright defiler
Of Hymen’s purest bed! thou valiant Mars!
Thou ever young, fresh, loved and delicate wooer,
Whose blush doth thaw the consecrated snow
That lies on Dian’s lap! Thou visible God! Etc…
Shakespeare, says Marx, stresses especially two properties of money:
1. It is the visible divinity — the transformation of all human and natural properties into their contraries, the universal confounding and distorting of things: impossibilities are soldered together by it.
2. It is the common whore, the common procurer of people and nations.
The distorting and confounding of all human and natural qualities, the fraternisation of impossibilities — the divine power of money — lies in its character as men’s estranged, alienating and self-disposing species-nature. Money is the alienated ability of mankind.
And just as Marx can use Shakespeare to analyse the power of money so Marx can be used to sum up the essence of world depicted in Timon of Athens.
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.
Shakespeare’s hostility to money and money grubbing is not confined to Timon. It is also the theme of The Merchant of Venice. This fact has largely been obscured by the controversy about the play’s alleged anti-semitism, but whether or not Shylock is an anti-semitic stereotype (I think not), he is a money lender and the judgment of Portia is not so much a condemnation of Shylock as of the logic of money lending, of usury.
If Shakespeare understands but despises the power of money his distaste for power –political power- is even more intense and pervasive. Richard III is about a man who kills, and kills and kills again, including children, to gain and retain power until he himself is killed. Macbeth is about a man (and a woman) who kills and kills and kills again, including a child, to gain and retain power until he is ‘on blood stepp’d in so far…returning were as tedious as go’er’. Hanlet is about a man who fails to gain power and loses his life because he is not capable of ruthless cold blooded murder. Prince Hal’s transformation into the man of power, King Henry, involves the repudiation of, and crushing of his own feelings for, Falstaff. Above all, Antony and Cleopatra depicts the radical contradiction between the logic of power and the logic of love.
Shakespeare’s heroes, including his tragic heroes, are people of passion – Lear, Othello. Coriolanus, Antony, Romeo etc – and often they are betrayed by their passions. His victors, those who end up holding the reigns of power – Malcolm, Fortinbras, Bolingbroke, Octavius – are not his heroes. They are secondary figures who pass quietly through the main action – like Stalin through the Russian Revolution - to pick up the crown amid the carnage. They are men of ‘cold calculation’ with ice in their veins. Psychologically they are closest to his outright villains like Iago, Goneril, Regan and Edmund.
The familiarity of all this is so striking.It is more or less impossible to contemplate Shakespeare’s plots, characters and themes without thinking of Enron and Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs and Northern Rock, Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney, Blair,Brown and Mandelson. It is forty five years since the great Polish critic Jan Kott, in the most influential book on Shakespeare of the sixties, identified the bard as ‘Our Contemporary’ [“Kott is undoubtedly the only writer on Elizabethan matters who assumes … that every one of his readers will at some point or other have been woken by the police in the middle of the night” Peter Brook, Introduction To Shakespeare: Our Contemporary].
Shakespeare was our contemporary then and is our contemporary now. It is worth reflecting on why this is the case and how it could be so. It is NOT because he offers ‘timeless’ insights into an unchanging human condition The human condition is not unchanging and there are no insights out of historical time but there are profound continuities and parallels between one historical period and another. All artists are products of their times and the greatest artists are those who, amongst other things, respond most powerfully to the deepest currents and characteristics of their epoch. This is just what Shakespeare did.
Shakespeare wrote amidst the birth pangs of capitalism – that is a society based on generalised commodity production and production for profit. The birth of capitalism was an international , not a national, process [Shakespeare is an astonishingly international writer] . It began in Italy, in the city republics of Florence and Venice, as early as the 13rh century, but it stalled there in the early 16th century, and its development continued northwards through Germany, the Netherlands and England. Its first successful live births were the Dutch Republic and Cromwell’s Commmonwealth, both in the 17th Century. Culturally it brought the Italian Renaissance, the Reformation and the Elizabethan and Dutch ‘Golden Ages’.as well the foundations of modern philosophy and science [Descartes and Galileo].
It was experienced by artists, and more widely, as a massive expansion of human freedom and development of the individual personality – compare Cimabue and Titian, Chaucer and Shakespeare – but it was also a time of bitter struggles and terrible defeats – for example the German Peasant Wear of 1525 or the sack of Rome in 1527. Moreover it was a time in which the terrible inhuman alienation inherent in capitalism could be grasped, if only intuitively, as a presentiment of the future. The supreme artists of the time – Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Rembrandt – each arise at and express different moments in this process, but each grapples in his own way with this profound contradiction.
As regards Shakespeare’s understanding of, and hostility to, money, it is necessary to understand that money was then ‘an issue’ in the way that it has seldom been since. This was because although money as such had been around for millennia, the rule of money, its all pervasive domination of society, was something new, arriving hand in hand with the development of capitalism and commodification , and therefore a matter of debate (in a way that it was not in later ages which took it for granted.) Luther, and others, made the corruption and especially the buying and selling of indulgences a key feature of their critique of the Church. At the same time John Calvin, the key ‘ideologist’ of the Dutch Revolution, wrote an article arguing that usury was NOT a sin. The Catholic Church’s condemnation of usury was rooted in its feudal opposition to capitalism and the need to keep bankers, money lenders, and aspirant bourgeois in their place.
Regarding power this was a period of the most intense struggle, or rather struggles, for power right across Europe, ranging from the feuds of the Medici and the Pazzi in Florence to the horrors of the Thirty Years War in Germany, from the 80 years of the Dutch Revolt against Spain, to the intrigues and vengeance of the Elizabethan court, and the fratricidal conflict of the English Civil War. It is the age of Macchiavelli (who Gramsci identifies as a proto – Robespierre ) as much as the age of Erasmus. At bottom this was a class struggle between the rising Bourgeoisie and the old feudal aristocracy, but at the time none of the participants or observwers could be conscious of this, or indeed achieve any rational understanding of the conflicts and this made the struggles, interpreted variously as wars of religion or purely personal ambition, seem all the more bitter and senseless.
Standing at the cusp of this historical turning point Shakespeare looks back and forward. As part of the rising middle class he relishes the richness of the moment in his language, his imagery and his characters, but he also feels keenly the loss of ‘merrrie’ feudal England and has no love at all for men of power who, he suspects, will emerge victorious from the maelstrom.
‘In my beginning is my end,’ wrote T.S. Eliot. We live now in capitalism’s end game but the contradictions that now are writ large across the globe, between use value and exchange value, production for need and production for profit, were there at the beginning and Shakespeare’s intuitive grasp of them is the reason his so relevant today.
21 August 2009