In addition to his timeless observations on love and death and empire and pretty much every other aspect of the human experience, Shakespeare devoted quite a bit of ink to money and how it affects us. It compels us do despicable things and make terrible decisions. It gets bad characters elected to high office. No, there’s really nothing good to be said about money — unless you’ve got a lot of it.
These are paraphrases; the Bard’s words had a bit more bite. And on Monday night, at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, actors including Matt Damon, Alan Alda, Vanessa Redgrave and Christine Baranski recited money-themed passages from Shakespeare’s plays.
Afterward, Harvard professor Michael Sandel, author of What Money Can’t Buy, observed that when it comes to our relationship with money, not much has changed in the 400 years since Shakespeare lived and wrote.
“Money changes the nature of a transaction,” he told the audience. “Shakespeare was onto this in ways that many of our economists are not.”
Here are some of Shakespeare’s more memorable passages on money and how it makes hypocrites of us all.
On hating the rich:
From King John, Act 2, Scene 1
And why rail I on this Commodity? But for because he hath not woo’d me yet: Not that I have the power to clutch my hand, When his fair angels would salute my palm; But for my hand, as unattempted yet, Like a poor beggar, raileth on the rich. Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail And say there is no sin but to be rich; And being rich, my virtue then shall be To say there is no vice but beggary. Since kings break faith upon commodity, Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee.
On the way money changes everything:
From Timon of Athens, Act 4, Scene 3
Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair, Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant. Ha, you gods! why this? what this, you gods? 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: this is it That makes the wappen’d widow wed again; She, whom the spital-house and ulcerous sores Would cast the gorge at, this embalms and spices To the April day again.
On money’s power to deceive:
From The Merchant of Venice, Act 2, Scene 7
O hell! what have we here? A carrion Death, within whose empty eye There is a written scroll! I’ll read the writing.
All that glitters is not gold; Often have you heard that told: Many a man his life hath sold But my outside to behold: Gilded tombs do worms enfold.
On what goes through our minds during big, important purchases:
From Romeo and Juliet, Act 5, Scene 1
Who calls so loud?ROMEO
Come hither, man. I see that thou art poor: Hold, there is forty ducats: let me have A dram of poison, such soon-speeding gear As will disperse itself through all the veins That the life-weary taker may fall dead And that the trunk may be discharged of breath As violently as hasty powder fired Doth hurry from the fatal cannon’s womb.
Such mortal drugs I have; but Mantua’s law Is death to any he that utters them.
Art thou so bare and full of wretchedness, And fear’st to die? famine is in thy cheeks, Need and oppression starveth in thine eyes, Contempt and beggary hangs upon thy back; The world is not thy friend nor the world’s law; The world affords no law to make thee rich; Then be not poor, but break it, and take this.
My poverty, but not my will, consents.
I pay thy poverty, and not thy will.