What would Shakespeare think about cryptocurrencies?

Public Domain. Source: Wikipedia

Shakespeare was a keen observer of human nature. From Hamlet to Macbeth to The Tempest, he spins stories of self-deception, overgrown ambition, and illusions. In his personal life he seems to have taken a lesson from his father’s rise and fall. John Shakespeare was a successful glover, selling fancy gloves to members of the Elizabethan court. He rose from being a simple tradesman to the mayor of Stratford by the time his son William was a teenager. But he ran into difficulties, and had to mortgage his wife’s estate just ten years later to make ends meet.

Shakespeare himself worked away as a playwright and actor, and when he had the opportunity to invest in his own acting company, The Chamberlain’s Men, he did so – likely through borrowed funds. After accumulating a more capital, he bought the second largest home in Stratford-upon-Avon and converted an adjoining property into a pub.

In Julius Ceasar, Shakespeare writes;

There is a tide in the affairs of men

Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

Shakespeare was no stranger to taking advantage of opportunities where he found them. But what would he think about the digital innovations we’ve recently seen? We know that in his own time Shakespeare faced powerful political and economic forces, in part driven by the discovery and exploration of the New World. But what would he think of changes to the economy: to banking, investing, and even the nature of money itself?

For that insight, we can look to his most “commercial” play, The Merchant of Venice. In this comedy, the hero Antonio – the Merchant – is bound to the anti-hero, Shylock, by a loan secured by Antonio’s own body – a pound of his flesh. Despite his attempts to diversify his risks by loading goods into different vessels, Antonio’s shipments appear to be lost at sea. Shylock demands either payment of the loan or forfeiture of the security. Antonio is prepared to lose his life.

Scene from the play. Source: Folger Shakespeare Library

The notion of an unbreakable blood-bond enforced by the court is monstrous, but the play’s heroine, Portia, is equal to the task. In her judgement speech, she states:

The quality of mercy is not strained

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

Finance, Shakespeare seems to say, must be personal. It must make the borrower and lender more human, not less. Many trends in digital finance seek to anonymize transactions. Shakespeare would be skeptical of such trends.

Indeed, while his plays aren’t hostile to innovation, Shakespeare places all new enterprises in a human context. Investors are human, after all, and subject to human emotions. In Henry V, two very different characters exude optimism – one to his disappointment, and the other to great fortune. At the beginning of the play, the heir to the French throne insults Henry’s claims to French territory by giving him a gift of tennis balls, implying that Henry was merely playing at being king. On the eve of battle, the French are dismissive:

What a wretched and peevish fellow is this king of England to mope with his fat-brained followers so far out of his knowledge.

At almost the same time, Henry is inspiring his dispirited troops with his St. Crispin’s Day speech:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he today that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition.

Confidence is good, confidence is essential in any ambitious undertaking. But not overconfidence. That can lead people to overextension and disaster.

Gold coin struck in honor of Henry V. Source: Wikipedia

Finally, Shakespeare’s plays often involve daring ventures, with men and women both taking risks to achieve their goals – often romantic goals, but sometimes political or financial ends as well. In Romeo and Juliet, Friar Lawrence is a confidante of Romeo’s. When the young Montague confesses that he loves Juliet – a Capulet – and wishes to marry her with all haste, the Friar counsels

Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast.

The irony, of course is that Romeo too often acts in haste, to his own ruination. In the final scene in the cave, especially, he assumes that Juliet is dead, when she is merely in a drug-induced coma. In his despair he takes a poison draught – thus condemning Juliet to a suicide of despair when she awakens.

Planning is good, but plans often go awry. It’s critical to move carefully and deliberately when we undertake a new venture.

What would Shakespeare make of Bitcoin? He wouldn’t be surprised, that’s certain. Many of Shakespeare’s plays present continual change and innovation. In perhaps his most forward-looking drama, The Tempest, the heroine Miranda exclaims, when she understands the broader world in which she lives:

O, wonder!

How many goodly creatures are there here!

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,

That hath such people in’t!

Sketch of Miranda by George Romney. Source: Wikipedia.