How the Invisible Hand of William Shakespeare Influenced Adam Smith
Born more than 150 years apart, the two British luminaries each encountered rough receptions for their radical ideas
Virginia Woolf once noted that all Shakespearean criticism was autobiographical: the Bard’s works are a mirror in which critics see themselves. Adam Smith, the famed 18th-century economist, comes in for similar treatment, as he’s variously been portrayed as a rabble-rouser, a Marxist, a heretic, a bumbling professor, a Scottish nationalist, a rampant capitalist, a bore, a Tory and a mummy’s boy. He has been embraced with gusto by Republicans and Democrats, Brexiteers and Remainers, central planners and free marketers.
Today, we mainly remember Smith for his landmark work of political economy, The Wealth of Nations, and we regard him first as an economist and second as a philosopher. But during his lifetime, ‘economics’ existed neither as a profession nor a discipline, and he saw himself among other things as a serious literary scholar. He helped pioneer the academic study of English literature; he lectured on the arts of writing and rhetoric; and he took his most powerful rhetorical device—one that became his catchphrase and the most overused metaphor in economics—from Shakespeare.
Smith was born precisely a century after the publication of Shakespeare’s First Folio, the first authoritative collection of the Bard’s plays, including the occult play Macbeth. It’s from here that Smith found the phrase “invisible hand,” now inextricably tied to markets and capitalism.
From Act 3, Scene 2:
What's to be done?
Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck,
Till thou applaud the deed. Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day;
And with thy bloody and invisible hand
Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond
Which keeps me pale!
Smith uses the phrase once in The Wealth of Nations, once in a similar passage in his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and once in his essay on the ‘History of Astronomy’.
The Wealth of Nations also contains other allusions to Macbeth. In an important discussion of the division of labor, for example, Smith compares the types of people to the breeds of dogs: ‘By nature a philosopher is not in genius and disposition half so different from a street porter, as a mastiff is from a grey-hound, or a grey-hound from a spaniel, or this last from a shepherd’s dog.’
In act 3 scene 1 of Macbeth, Shakespeare similarly compares the varieties of people and dogs:
Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men;
As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,
Shoughs, water-rugs and demi-wolves, are clept
All by the name of dogs: the valued file
Distinguishes the swift, the slow, the subtle,
The housekeeper, the hunter, every one
According to the gift which bounteous nature
Hath in him closed; whereby he does receive
Particular addition, from the bill
That writes them all alike: and so of men.
In an excellent piece of sleuthing, literary scholars Dennis McCarthy and June Schlueter showed that Shakespeare seems in turn to have borrowed those lines and others from George North’s unpublished 1576 manuscript, A Brief Discourse of Rebellion.
The connections between Smith and Shakespeare don’t end there. In 1762 and 1763, Smith delivered at Glasgow University a series of lectures on Shakespeare and other notable authors. The timing of the lectures is important, as at the time, Shakespeare was seen as racy, irreligious and somewhat disreputable. Smith’s academic interest in Shakespeare was a rare pursuit, and even a radical one. It wouldn’t be until six years later, in 1769, that the ‘Shakespeare Jubilee’ was held at Stratford-upon-Avon. David Garrick, the greatest actor of the era, was responsible for organizing this fashionable event that involved much pageantry and gourmandizing (but no Shakespearean performances). As a result of the Jubilee, Shakespeare’s exalted status as the ‘national poet’ was assured, but Smith’s lectures, pre-dating the event, were ahead of their time.
The poet William Wordsworth claimed that Shakespeare was regarded as “a wild irregular genius, in whom great faults are compensated by great beauties.” Smith probably held a similar view. He seems to have delighted in Shakespeare’s wordplay, but the bawdier and more violent lines clashed with Smith’s mild personality and temperament. According to John Rae, Smith’s 19th-century biographer, he “thought with Voltaire that Shakespeare had written good scenes but not a good play, and that though he had more dramatic genius than Dryden, Dryden was the greater poet.”
Rae paints Smith’s attitude toward Hamlet as especially ambivalent. According to Rae, Smith quoted “with apparent approval Voltaire’s remarks that Hamlet was the dream of a drunken savage”, but on another occasion he defended the play as being “full of fine passages.”
In 1773, Smith joined Britain’s leading scientific institution, the Royal Society. Soon after, he was elected to Samuel Johnson’s exclusive Literary Club, known simply as “The Club.” Garrick was also a member, as was the eccentric Shakespearean, George Steevens, and Johnson’s future biographer, James Boswell. (During an ill-fated trip to the Continent, Smith met Garrick’s friend, the French novelist Madame Riccoboni. Her initial judgement of Smith was severe. “He speaks harshly, with big teeth, and he’s ugly as the devil. He’s Mr Smith, author of a book I haven’t read.” But her opinion improved and she wrote in glowing terms to Garrick: “Scold me, beat me, kill me, but I like Mr Smith, I like him greatly. I wish that the devil would carry off all of our men of letters, all of our philosophers, and bring Mr Smith to me. Superior men seek him out.”)
After the 1623 First Folio, further editions of Shakespeare had appeared throughout the 17th century—in 1632, 1663 and 1685. (Much of the stock of the Third Folio was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.) But in the 18th-century, multi-volume octavo and quarto editions were the fashion. In 1765, Johnson produced an eight-volume edition of Shakespeare with an important preface. Steevens’ ten-volume revision of that edition appeared in 1773. Johnson and Steevens were counter-forces to the 18th-century ‘improvers’ of Shakespeare who sought to knock off some of the Bard’s rougher edges.
Notwithstanding Smith’s election to The Club, Johnson reportedly thought him dull. The pair disagreed about literature and Scotland and much else besides: manners, architecture, religion, and Johnson’s illustrious Dictionary, which Smith thought poorly organized. But Smith praised some of Johnson’s writings: According to Rae, he called Johnson's preface to Shakespeare ‘the most manly piece of criticism that was ever published in any country’. (The 1785 Dublin edition of Johnson and Steevens’ Shakespeare features an advertisement for The Wealth of Nations as well as the authorized account of Captain Cook’s third voyage.)
Shakespeare’s era was one of cultural change and cultural achievement, and its impacts were still fresh and strong in Smith’s day. Shakespeare contemporaries such as the mathematician and astrologer John Dee, the philosopher Sir Francis Bacon and the explorer Sir Francis Drake strongly influenced Smith and the other drivers of the Scottish Enlightenment. Hugo Grotius’s On the Rights of War and Peace, published just two years after the First Folio, was a key source for Smith’s work on law and economics.
Like Smith, Shakespeare was fascinated by maritime exploration and the New World: The Tempest pivots on the hazards of international commerce. (“Trade” was one of the many euphemisms that bawdy Shakespeare used for sex. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff declares he will make love to two women simultaneously: “They shall be my East and West Indies, and I will trade to them both.”)
Smith is a Scottish national treasure to the same extent that Shakespeare is an English one, but the biographies of both men contain large gaps, and people have resorted to all manner of extrapolation and fiction to fill them. There are few authenticated portraits of either man. A 1787 medallion featuring Smith’s profile is thought to be the only true likeness that was produced in his lifetime.
Just as some of Shakespeare’s plays are missing, there are also holes in Smith’s documentary record. Missing Smithian texts include his 1751 dissertation, “On the Origin of Ideas,” and his lectures on “Natural Theology.” On his deathbed, Smith instructed his literary executors to burn most of his personal papers and manuscripts. Shakespeare’s papers, too, are lost, some of them possibly burned by Ben Jonson.
As with Shakespeare, we must rely on audience members for evidence about some of Smith’s writings. Our knowledge of his “Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres” depends in large part on the spectacular discovery, at a country-house library auction, of notes made by two of Smith’s students. John M. Lothian of the University of Aberdeen made that discovery at the extraordinarily late date of 1958. Thanks to him, we can now read Smith’s views not only of Shakespeare but also of Milton, Swift, Pope, Thucydides and Tacitus.
Late in life, Smith planned to write a “great work”: a “philosophical history of all the different branches of literature, of philosophy, poetry and eloquence.” The planned work never appeared. There is much poetry in Smith’s writings, and the idea of him writing a treatise on poetry is a source of enduring fascination.
Wordsworth, though, wouldn’t have been all that fascinated. In an 1815 essay, he argues that Shakespeare and Milton were slow to find readers in the 17th century, and he suggests that some of the worst Shakespeare passages were added against his will, by “Players, for the gratification of the many.” In a note to the essay, Wordsworth calls Smith “the worst critic, David Hume excepted, that Scotland, a soil to which this sort of weed seems natural, has produced.”
Like the First Folio, The Wealth of Nations is a universal text: it is so rich, both topically and rhetorically, that the whole world can be found therein. It is rich, too, in ambiguity. Many phrases and passages permit widely divergent readings.
Smith and Shakespeare have both been accused of lacking originality. Shakespeare pilfered voraciously from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles and from the works of Chaucer, Bocaccio, Plutarch and other writers. Smith, too, borrowed heavily from earlier British and Continental sources. Apart from Grotius, he relied on Montesquieu’s The Spirit of Laws for his theories of jurisprudence; the Physiocrats for key ideas about the division of labour; and Burke and Hume for much of his philosophy. The economist Joseph Schumpeter wrote, in his posthumously published History of Economic Analysis, that “the Wealth of Nations does not contain a single analytic idea, principle, or method that was entirely new in 1776.”
Smith died in 1790. Alternately grudging and patronizing, the London Times obituary includes the memorable line – “A man who is continually going over the same ground will naturally smooth it” – and emphasizes Smith’s lack of originality: “Dr Smith's system of Political Economy is not essentially different from that of Count Verri, Dean Tucker and Mr Hume; his illustrations are chiefly collected from the valuable collection Sur les arts et metiers [Diderot's Encyclopedia]; but his arrangement is his own.”
In addition to accusations of unoriginality, both the First Folio and The Wealth of Nations have unfairly been called overrated. Both texts are infinitely rich and infinitely capable of reinvention. They contain insights that are sharply relevant to the modern world. And they are surprisingly connected to each other. Smith’s Shakespeareanism affected his ideas and, ultimately, the language and the soul of capitalism.
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