Shylock, portrayed by Ermete Novelli circa 1900 / Photo courtesy of Appleton's Magazine
Robert Appelbaum,  February 24, 2015

The Merchants of Europe

Shylock, portrayed by Ermete Novelli circa 1900 / Photo courtesy of Appleton's Magazine
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Unfortunately, Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice provides one of the best models for understanding the drama of the debt crisis in Greece today. I say “unfortunately” because, after all, the (sympathetic) villain of the play is Shylock, a Jew whose very Jewishness Shakespeare makes into part of the problem. But the conflicts between justice and mercy, between national government and international commerce, and between the obligations of debt and of humanity, are no less present in the current crisis than in Shakespeare’s wonderful play of the 1590s.

A main theme of Merchant is the conflict between justice and mercy. A merchant named Antonio is unable to pay back a debt of three thousand ducats to the money-lender, Shylock. “I will have my bond!” shouts Shylock, and his “bond” is this: either Antonio pays back the money he owes, or Shylock gets to take from Antonio a “pound of flesh” to be cut from Antonio’s body “nearest his heart.” When the due date passes, the situation worsens. Even when someone promises to pay the debt on Antonio’s behalf, or even two or three times the debt, Shylock refuses, insisting that by law he is entitled to his pound of flesh. Shylock will not allow himself to be motivated by either self-interest or by compassion. There will be no boon for the creditor, nor mercy for his debtor—only the exaction of a form of justice.

“Justice” is of course a slippery term. The real justice that Shylock demands is revenge for all the insults and vexations that the anti-Semitic Antonio has levelled against him. But underneath this real justice is a principle. No one, according to the target of Shylock’s ire, can “deny the course of law.” A debt is a debt, and must be repaid. Not even the highest-ranking political officials can intervene. As Antonio puts it,

For the commodity that strangers have

With us in Venice, if it be denied,

Will much impeach the justice of his state;

Since that the trade and profit of the city

Consisteth of all nations.

In other words, if once the principle of the need to repay all debts is abridged, the very principle that sustains the prosperity of the city of Venice will be undermined.

Such has been, in fact, the publicly stated argument of the EU with regard to Greece. A bond is a bond, and must be repaid. To forgive the bond would undermine the “justice” of the European economy. That is why, according to German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, there has been “no alternative” to the austerity plan through which the European powers require Greece to pay its debts—first by accepting new loans from the IMF and others, and then by using the loans to pay back European banks for earlier loans while cutting government expenditures to the bone. “New elections change nothing about the agreements that the Greek government has entered into,” said Schaeuble. “Any new government must stick to the contractual agreements of its predecessors.”

The paradox is stunning. If Baffler contributing editor David Graeber is correct, the management of debt and its contractual relationships is an essential function of the state; in fact, the management of debt, by violence if necessary, is a prime reason for the existence of the state. But both the Shakespearean character and the German finance minister claim that the state is powerless in the face of debt. The sovereignty belongs to the creditor, according to their viewpoint; it does not belong to the state that makes the lending possible in the first place. And so, as Shaeuble and other European honchos have insisted, “elections change nothing.” There is no democratic process that can override debt—on the contrary, debt overrides democratic process.

This is no news to many Europeans. The EU isn’t really a democracy; it’s a bureaucracy run by, and for the sake of, the rules established to make it function as a bureaucracy, such that “all nations” can do business together under its leadership. But what about that deep and disturbing realm of affect, of personal motives and destructive driving factors that also operate beneath Shylock’s aggressive behavior? Is there not something else that underlies the bureaucrats’ demand that Greece hand over its pound of flesh—even if the extraction of that flesh may end up killing the debtor? Is there no appealing to mercy? Is there no appealing to the simple idea that if you kill your debtor by cutting into his flesh, you are operating not only against your debtor’s interest, but also against your own?

So far, though the Syriza government continues to find ways to keep the proceedings going—and even tried to claim victory at the end of the last, disastrous session of negotiations—the answer seems to be no. “Greece has finally realised that it cannot turn a blind eye to reality,” said Volker Kauder, a leader of Germany’s ruling conservative party, the CDU. Schaueble added: “Being in government is a date with reality, and reality is often not as nice as a dream.”

By reality, of course, the German officials mean: the power of money over humanity, of Germany over Greece, of creditors over debtors, of banks over governments, of financiers over democracy, and of pitiless aggression over leadership and compassion.

Robert Appelbaum is professor of English Literature at Uppsala University, Sweden. His most recent book is Working the Aisles: A Life in Consumption (Zero).

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