What Are We Worth? – Michael Sandel with Illinois Humanities + Chicago Shakespeare Theater

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“Gold? Yellow, glittering, precious gold?” utters Timon of Athens in the fourth act of Shakespeare’s play. “Thus much of this will make / Black white, foul fair, wrong right, / Base noble, old young, coward valiant.” Though they don’t necessarily shed any light on the playwright’s own beliefs, Timon’s words demonstrate that Shakespeare clearly had a mind for money. Through a variety of voices in his plays and poems, he contemplated its value, its meanings and its dangers in an era of nascent capitalism. Indeed, in The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation, the literary critic Richard Halpern recognizes the pivotal economic moment Shakespeare’s England, a moment which witnessed the beginning of a radical transition from political sovereignty toward the surplus value of the market. Following Halpern’s lead, researchers have taken great pains over the past two decades to understand the peculiar, distinctly non-modern characteristics of economics in Shakespeare’s time and the way Renaissance-era market values are reflected in his works.

And yet, although the world of emerging capitalism familiar to Shakespeare is in many ways strikingly different from our own, the playwright’s works still speak to us. This perhaps was the greatest take-away from “What Are We Worth: Shakespeare, Money, and Morals,” a single-night Illinois Humanities event at Chicago Shakespeare Theater featuring dramatic readings from Shakespeare and an engaging conversation led by Harvard Professor of Political Philosophy Michael Sandel. Sandel has been called “a rock-star moralist” in Newsweek and “the most famous teacher of philosophy in the world” in The New Republic. With a handful of interesting debates and moral dilemmas as examples, he guided the evening’s packed house through a series of complex questions about the purpose of money and markets, ethics, and the ways Shakespeare’s plays help bring these questions into relief.

Preceding this conversation was a sequence of staged readings by seven Chicago Shakespeare Theater actors: all Shakespeare, all on the subject of money. Dressed not in costume, but in street clothes that brought the playwright’s words into a visually modern context, the performers delivered a mix of monologues, exchanges, and an extended scene—the choice of caskets from The Merchant of Venice. In this play, the actors reminded us, the distinctions between money, affection and power can be difficult to disentangle. Offering a counterpoint to Portia’s extravagant Belmont, however, was a desperate exchange from Romeo and Juliet. Here, Romeo buys illegal “mortal drugs” off the Apothecary, only to declare that gold is “worse poison to men’s souls” than poison itself for the harms it causes in the world.

Shakespeare’s lines, spoken aloud in the theater, set the stage for the conversation to follow. With his engaging, yet colloquial style, Sandel (listed not as “speaker” in the program, but rather “moderator”) gave the Chicago Shakespeare Theater the intimate feel of a seminar room. Adding to this effect was Jeremy McCarter, a former student of Sandel’s, who elegantly ushered the evening’s program from the staged readings to the interactive lecture. McCarter wasn’t the only former Sandel disciple in the room, however. “You haven’t called on me since 1983!” exclaimed one audience member called upon during the program.

At the program’s opening, Sandel proposed we have witnessed a quiet revolution: we have changed from a market economy to a market society, in which almost every aspect of life—familial, medical, educational, legal, civic—is for sale. Withholding direct judgment on these developments, at least at the outset, he guided the audience through a series of situations, asking his auditors to slow down and reflect for themselves. Should there be a free market for human organ donations? Would it be a good idea to offer cash incentives to students for good grades—$50 for an A, and $30 for a B, for instance? With these questions, Sandel urged his listeners to interrogate their own assumptions about the ways money influences our human lives and relationships. (While most in the crowd responded “no” to a free kidney market, cash-incentive schooling resulted in a split.)

It was in the end, after these thought-experiments, that Sandel’s argument emerged in full force. Parting ways with economists, he claimed that in the domain of human behaviors and social norms, the practice of buying and selling may change the meaning and value of norms. Referring to the “skybox” effect, in which sports arenas become increasing­ly luxurious and segment local populations of spectators into a hierarchy, Sandel’s conclusion seemed nostalgic, and idealistically so—nos­tal­gic for a democratic past that has often escaped us, but remains worth pursuing. In keeping with Illinois Humanities’ excellent public pro­gram­ming, the evening’s event offered a challenging and provocative series of questions, truly furnishing for the audience a “theater of learning.”


Andrew S. Keener is a doctoral candidate in English at Northwestern University, where he researches drama, literary translation and the publication and use of bilingual dictionaries and grammar books in Renaissance England. He also has interests in rare book exhibit curation and computational approaches to language and literature. He holds an MA in English from North Carolina State University and a BA in English from Boston College. Read More…