The Reading Room

Folks is Folks

Sarah Skwire doesn’t say YOU MUST READ SHAKESPEARE…but if you do, you’ll probably learn from him. And then you can reread him later to learn more and different things. In this hour-long conversation with Sabine El-Chidiac at The Curious Task podcast, you’ll learn where to find raunchy puns, why Gordon Tullock is wrong (about Shakespeare), which of Shakespeare’s Roman plays are great for perspective on U.S. politics right now, why Adam Smith and Shakespeare go great together, and which upcoming One Fell Swoop virtual reading group has El-Chidiac excited beyond MEASURE. 
El-Chidiac voices a concern that because William Shakespeare (1564–1616) is a pre-Enlightenment creator, some will struggle to see him as a source of wisdom for a post-Enlightenment world. Skwire points out that if our core interest is in humans doing human stuff, we can find humans doing that stuff as far back as there are humans. Whether you use the words “public choice” or “incentive compatible” doesn’t matter so much as seeing that these ideas were powerful then and they are powerful now. And, if you’re a Star Trek fan like these two, you already know they continue to be powerful far into the future to members of the Federation and the Klingons (Confused? You’ll just have to listen for yourself!)
“One of the things that we can learn is that great lesson from the classical world, ‘Nothing human is alien to me.’ Shakespeare has within the plays a remarkable capacity for sympathy… A sympathy with people from around the world, from all kinds of walks of life, in all kinds of professions, in all kinds of positions, and often in the most unexpected places.”
As a big fan of Adam Smith myself (and a frequent mistake maker), I doubly enjoyed their discussion of what we can learn from Smith’s misquotations and mistakes about Hamlet Prince of Denmark and Othello the Moor of Venice. Smith references Shakespeare often in his work but not always 100 percent accurately. Skwire writes about this in, “Adam Smith’s Slips and the End of Othello.” Skwire and El-Chidiac make another appeal to hesitant Shakespeare readers: Smith and lots of other thinkers we care about thought Shakespeare was important, interesting, and worth paying attention to. (Sure, it’s an appeal to authority, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.) 
I’d add to Skwire and El-Chidiac’s appeal that reading Shakespeare will help you read Smith (and others) because understanding their references and examples is part of understanding their beliefs and the logic of their beliefs. If Shakespeare is part of the “furniture of Smith’s mind,” (as Skwire says) maybe that armchair would look good in a corner of our minds, too? Here’s more: 
“There is a tendency in classical liberalism to think of classical liberalism and of the ideas that we think are most important—freedom of the individual, free markets, free trade, free expression—all of that, all of those good things that start with the word “free” that we care about so much. We tend to think of those as coming into birth in 1776 with the conveniently simultaneous appearance of the Declaration of Independence (Sorry, Canadian listeners) and Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, right? And that sort of one-two punch of political theory and free market economic theory kind of getting born in that same moment makes that a really tempting line before which we tend to think perhaps that not that much exists [that is of import to classical liberals]... I think that cuts out a lot of enormously important work for us…”
They talk King Lear, Comedy of Errors, Henry the Fifth, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Sir Thomas More, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Richard the Third, Measure for Measure, Merchant of Venice, Taming of the Shrew, Coriolanus, Julius Cæsar. Where to find these works in the podcast are listed at the end. Plus, if you (like Skwire, El-Chidiac, and myself) are especially interested in free and open societies, there are special recommendations just for you. 
But that’s not enough for El-Chidiac! She asks for more thinkers to add to our reading list and Sarah gives her pitches for Chaucer (easier than you think and available in modern translations), John Milton (Politics! And poetry!), Dante Alighieri, Marie de France, Arthurian romances, Beowulf, the Bible, and more. 
Skwire’s not the only one who has written about Shakespeare and Smith at AdamSmithWorks. There’s also Lucia Alden’s “Macbeth's Ambition and Smith's Words of Warning,” Richard Gunderman on Iago’s Envy, and James Hartley’s Smith’s Man of System in Romeo and Juliet
I’ll end with a favorite quote from the episode that captures a lot of the heart and fun of their conversation: 
“Folks is folks. And humans are gonna human, right? And we're gonna be jealous and we're gonna be petty and we're gonna be honorable and we're gonna be better than you can ever hope us to be. And we're gonna be so much worse than you ever thought we possibly could be. And we're gonna be dumb and we're gonna be brave and we're gonna be all of these things. And so, yes, Shakespeare's very far away, but also, you know, he's right next door in a lot of ways… you go through a bad breakup and you've got Shakespeare, ‘love is merely a madness’ or you fall in love, and you've got Beatrice saying to Benedict, ‘I think that there is nothing in the world I love so well as you. Is that not strange?’ These are things that translate over time. Iago's frustration at always coming in second or third behind Othello and Cassio and, damn it, he just can't get in the room where it happens. (Willing to collaborate with Lin-Manuel Miranda. Call me.)” 
If anything in this post resonates with you, please, please check out Sarah’s monthly (and multi-year!) reading group discussing ALL of Shakespeare’s plays: One Fell Swoop. Join for one or for all and invite your friends (but maybe not Mike Huemer). 
Coming in 2024: 
Twelfth-Night: or, What You Will - Thursday, January 18, 2024, 12:00-1:30 pm EST
The Merchant of Venice - Tuesday, February 27, 2024, 4:00-5:30 pm EST
Julius Cæsar - Friday, March 15 (of course!), 2024, 12:00-1:30 pm EST
And, if you just love listening to Skwire talk about Shakespeare, you can also check out her Extras from a previous Liberty Fund virtual reading group on King Richard II, Henry IV (Part 1 & 2), and Henry V (with Yours Truly).
Mentioned in the episode: 
One Fell Swoop: Online Virtual Reading Group reading ALL of Shakespeare's plays

Sarah Skwire and Jayme Lemke’s Her Own Property:Lizzie’s Diamonds and Rosalie’s Fortune 
Sarah Skwire’s Shakespeare’s Inner Economist (which includes discussion of Gordon Tullock’s thoughts on Shakespeare)
Sarah Skwire writing on Shakespeare’s Sir Thomas More and Immigration: Even Shakespeare Knew that Kicking Out Immigrants Harms Us All
Mike Huemer’s post Why I Hate Shakespeare
Paulia Kewe and Susan Doran’s Doubtful and Dangerous: The Question of Succession in Late Elizabethan England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014; pbk 2016).
Works with asterisks have content that might be particularly interesting to the liberty-lovers reading this post. 
King Lear* 1:49; 43:26
Comedy of Errors 5:10; 1:02:35
As You Like It (“Love is merely a madness”) 22:02
Much Ado About Nothing (“I think that there is nothing in the world I love so well as you.”) 22:15
Macbeth* 35:53; 41:10
Coriolanus 53:28; 55:52