Every great drama needs a villain, but the trouble with the Greek debt crisis is that there are so many to choose from. Writing for the Baffler, Robert Appelbaum finds a guide in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice:
“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.’”
In Appelbaum’s scheme, Antonio represents Greece; Shylock, the masters of the Eurozone; and the ‘pound of flesh’, the austerity programme that Greece was forced to agree to.
It’s a powerful analogy. On the one hand, the pound of flesh will likely kill the debtor, but on the other hand it is no more than what the creditor is entitled to:
“No one, according to the target of Shylock’s ire, can ‘deny the course of law’ …
“…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.”
In other words, the masters of the Eurozone have decided to make an example of Greece – which explains why so little ground was given in the recent negotiations. Appelbaum quotes the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble:
“New elections change nothing about the agreements that the Greek government has entered into… Any new government must stick to the contractual agreements of its predecessors.”
This, argues Appelbaum, is a truly Shylockian philosophy:
“…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… There is no democratic process that can override debt—on the contrary, debt overrides democratic process.”
It must be said that there are problems with this whole analogy. For one thing, there’s the troubling and complex anti-semitism of Shakespeare’s most controversial play (which Appelbaum acknowledges from the outset). But also there’s the fact that the analogy, though compelling, is inexact.
Like any sovereign country, Greece can default on its debts. This would mean leaving the Eurozone, of course; nevertheless, the Greeks can always walk away. If Antonio had had this option, the Merchant of Venice would have been a much shorter play.
In claiming that “debt overrides the democratic process” Appelbaum overlooks the fact that debt is two-way relationship and that, while the Greek voters have made their opposition to austerity clear, German voters are equally clear about their opposition to another bail-out.
Furthermore, it’s not just the Germans. Other countries – like Slovakia – are also adamantly opposed to writing off the debt. Despite being poorer than Greeks, the Slovaks have stuck by their commitments and are outraged by the idea that a richer country should get special treatment.
Shylock can only get us so far in understanding this mess. However, there is one literary guide who does get us to the heart of the matter – a gentleman by the name of Micawber.