Johns Hopkins University Press
  • Derivative ShakespeareThe Merchant of Venice and Dividual Capitalism

Why another reading of Shakespeare's famous play, buried under so many strata of commentaries? Because, from its distant past, The Merchant of Venice seems to have anticipated today's generalization of financial derivatives. A derivative is "an asset . . . whose value is based on that of another asset." And in "contemporary finance," as Arjun Appadurai puts it in Banking On Words, these "chains of links" have become "indefinitely long," with the selling and re-selling of packages made of promises of promises of promises. . . . Shakespeare's play appears in retrospect as a draft of these derivative promissory chains, with its debt derived of a debt (Bassanio indebted to Antonio indebted to Shylock) or with its marriage derived of a marriage (Gratiano and Nerissa marrying if Bassanio and Portia marry). If today's financial concepts somehow "read" The Merchant of Venice, then, conversely, the play might be "reading" the crucial role that time plays in contemporary finance. Indeed, drawing on Freud and Sarah Kofman, following their derivative comments, I try to show that what is at stake is "the very riping of the time" (act 2, scene 8).

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Where from and where to are we about to derive Shakespeare?

The Latin verb derivare—from which derives the English verb "derive"—means to divert a stream of water (rivus is a brook). Then, in a sense that one could consider figurative or derived, the same verb also signifies an appropriation by someone: in his Tusculan Disputations Cicero thus writes that when a "wise man" is in charge of what is public or common, "his justice lets him divert (derivet) nothing . . . to his own home" (5.72).

In what direction shall we derive the flow of Shakespeare's discourse, then? And in view of what kind of profits?

Derivatio, the noun that corresponds to the verb derivare, indicates derivation in the grammatical sense: in the first book of The Orator's Education, Quintilian gives as an example of such "derivatives" (derivata) the word velox (swift), which could be derived from velocitas (swiftness) (1.6.38); and in the third book, he speaks of proxima derivatione verborum in order to describe a slight diversion of the words towards a neighboring meaning, as when one substitutes "thrifty" for "miser" (pro avaro parcum) (3.7.25).1 Three centuries later, we find in the sixth book of Macrobius's Saturnalia an occurrence of derivatio in the sense of an almost virtuous plagiarism: "one of the benefits of reading (fructum legendi)," he writes, is "to imitate the things you approve in others and by a timely borrowing (opportuna derivatione) to turn to your own use the words of others that you most admire" (6.2).2

We are on the threshold of a reading of The Merchant of Venice that could well resemble these appropriations or diversions of words described by Quintilian and Macrobius. But for the benefit of whom, or what? My hypothesis, my wager, is that, not unlike what happens when a lexeme derives from another, we will be able to grasp something of what is at stake in contemporary financial capitalism by recognizing its logic in Shakespeare. Of course, I will have to justify in some way such a jump in time, such an anachronism. But we can already bet on the idea that there is an analogy, an equivalence between what is at the heart of today's finance, i.e., derivatives, and rhetorical figures like metaphor or synecdoche as inventoried and described by Quintilian.

What do financial derivatives actually do? Among the many definitions and descriptions that I was able to read as a perfect novice in economics, let me quote the following, by Randy Martin:

A future is an obligation to buy or sell a particular holding on a given date, such as a crop of corn once it has been harvested or the belly of a pig upon slaughter. This future exchange is made in the present, affecting a kind of temporal analogy between what conditions of exchange will be and what they currently are. Hence futures operate metaphorically, by treating the present in respect to a particular price as if it were just like the future. An option provides the opportunity but does not mandate a future exchange. . . . Puts and calls would be used to achieve parity or equilibrium in a portfolio. Thinking about the relation between a given risk exposure and the whole market, options seek to effect a kind of integration between part and whole, a trope termed synecdoche.3

The description and classification of derivatives is as variable as that of figures in the long history of rhetoric. Not unlike the Jakobsonian reduction of the plethora of tropes [End Page 63] inherited from classical tradition to "two aspects of language," metaphor and metonymy,4 the many varieties of financial derivatives have been distributed in two main categories: on the one hand, futures are contracts obligating the two parties to sell or buy an asset at a predetermined date and price; on the other hand, options offer the right, but not the obligation, to buy or sell an asset at an agreed-upon price during a certain period of time. The 1980s saw the development of a third type of derivative contract—swaps—that allows two companies, for example, to switch the currencies in which the payments of their debt are due (currency swap); or they can exchange a fixed interest rate for a floating rate, and vice versa (interest rate swap).5 Now, as Dick Bryan and Michael Rafferty have emphasized in what remains probably the best study on the topic, it is with swaps that derivative contracts started to be cut loose from a form of risk management linked to commodity stocks in order to become mainly financial products.6 Most importantly, with the unheard-of proliferation of these contracts, what emerged was "their capacity to 'dismantle' or 'unbundle' any asset into constituent attributes," to deconstruct it, I would say, "and trade those attributes without trading the asset itself": "Derivatives are priced, bought and sold without any change of ownership of the asset to which the derivative relates."7 In sum, what circulates, what is exchanged, is not the harvest but its price to come; it is not a given capital but the interest rates that it generates.

Inasmuch as they disassemble or deconstruct the unity, that is to say the individual and undividable form of a commodity or an asset, derivative contracts fully belong to the historical configuration—if there is simply one configuration—described by Deleuze as "control societies." Or better: derivatives and derivative logic are the very structure, or texture, of these societies—ours—that "are taking over from [the] disciplinary societies" described by Foucault, since "individuals become 'dividuals,' and masses become samples, data, markets, or 'banks,'" in the sense of data banks, word banks, or even organ banks.8

Could it be that, with the famous "pound of flesh" demanded by Shylock as security, The Merchant of Venice belongs to this derivative or dividual logic? Could it be that this piece of flesh, "to be cut off and taken" in an arbitrarily determined part of the debtor's body,9 pertains to the general commensurability generated by financial derivatives between, say, health insurance premiums, greenhouse gas emission quotas, or weather forecasts?

In their study, Bryan and Rafferty show how derivative contracts replaced the gold standard after Richard Nixon abolished in 1971 the convertibility of the dollar to precious metal: "derivatives," they write, "permit all forms of capital . . . , at all places and over time, to be commensurated, thereby effectively breaking down the differences between different forms of money (different currencies; different interest rate profiles) and between commodities and money."10 In this sense, one could say that derivative contracts generate the general equivalence of all forms of general equivalents. Indeed, they [End Page 64] constitute what Bryan and Rafferty describe as "a new anchor for global money"; but, rather than "a single anchor," they provide "a network of anchors."11 It was this general commensurability that led Deleuze to affirm that "money, perhaps, best expresses the difference between the two kinds of society," i.e., disciplinary societies and control societies: "discipline was always related to molded currencies containing gold as a numerical standard, whereas control is based on floating exchange rates, modulations depending on . . . sample percentages for various currencies."12

A few years before he wrote these lines in his "Postscript," Deleuze insisted in The Time-Image on "the impossibility of an equivalence," the name of which would be none other than "time."13 Now, if time is thus inequivalence itself, what happens to the hypothesis that I was putting forward as a wager or a bet, i.e., that the economic logic of derivation, inasmuch as it pertains to a general rhetoric, finds its foundational trope in metaphor as analogy between present and future? What about this analogical convertibility, what about this equivalence between all forms of general equivalence towards which the derivative contracts of contemporary financial capitalism are striving?

What awaits us, in the course of a derived or derivative reading of The Merchant of Venice, is the question of what I will call, in Freud's wake, the atropic: where irreversibility doesn't allow either for tropes or analogical equivalences anymore.


He is weary, he says. Something wearies him, but it also wearies "you," he adds.

Who is speaking? And to whom?

Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice opens with the words of Antonio complaining about his sadness:

In sooth I know not why I am so sad.It wearies me, you say it wearies you;But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born,I am to learn.


"You" almost immediately turns out to refer to Salarino and Solanio, gentlemen of Venice, who surround Antonio, the merchant. But for a very short moment, one could think that Antonio is apostrophizing "us," the audience, the readers. "You," for a second, could leap over centuries.

How are we to calculate time? What is a second when it involves centuries?

These questions will haunt us in their more general form; but, for the moment, let us reduce them to an apparently simpler one: could it be that Antonio's sadness or weariness is the same as ours? Could it be that what he has to learn about being worn out, we should learn too?

Salarino and Solanio, who in a way represent us ("you") in the scene, rush to comfort Antonio. They too, they say, would be sad or weary in his situation: "Believe me, sir, [End Page 65] had I such venture forth, / The better part of my affections would / Be with my hopes abroad," Solanio sympathizes (1.1.15–17); and Salarino: "I should not see the sandy hourglass run / But I should think of shallows and of flats" (1.1.25–26). When Bassanio, the Italian lord who is about to ask Antonio to lend him some money, enters the stage later in the same scene, he too speaks of time: "my chief care / Is to come fairly off from the great debts / Wherein my time, something too prodigal, / Hath left me gaged" (1.1.126–29). Time, here, is lavish and profuse, spendthrift. The abundance of Bassanio's time apparently contrasts with Antonio's shallow future (the sandglass turned into a sandbank): as Sarah Kofman emphasized in her reading of The Merchant of Venice, "Antonio and Bassanio, who are each other's doubles, each represent one of the faces of the double-faced Janus, Time."14

Suggestive as it is, such a reading relies on the oppositional allegory of time that Janus represents: "Janus, close kin of Saturn, is invoked from the very first scene by Solanio," Kofman recalls, in order to express "the dual face of all things."15 It is true that, for Kofman, "the fates of these two divided faces of Time . . . are closely linked," since "Bassanio's fortune depends on Antonio." But their dependence or interrelatedness has to be analyzed and characterized more precisely than as what Kofman calls the "ambivalent" nature of time.16 What is at stake, as I will try to show, is an economy of time. After all, the two faces of Janus—"so that he could see what was in front of him and what was behind," writes Macrobius in his Saturnalia, or so that he could "know the past and foresee the future"—were already described by Ovid, in his Fasti, as a kind of temporal leveraging technique: "and lest I should lose time (tempora perdam) by twisting my neck, I am free to look both ways without budging."17

If we are to imagine, as Kofman suggests, that Janus watches over The Merchant of Venice, it should be as a god who not only mints coins—according to Macrobius, he was "the first to coin money"—but also speculates with time.


Kofman's reading of The Merchant of Venice could be conceived of as a derivative reading, since it is derived from "The Theme of the Three Caskets," a 1913 article where Freud, in Kofman's words, seeks the "derivation" of an "ancient theme" in "myths, stories and fairy-tales," i.e., the "choice between three women."18 If Kofman derives her reading from the derivation that Freud in his turn painstakingly retraces from Shakespeare's play backward in history, what are we doing, reading The Merchant of Venice while reading their readings of it? Where is this chain of derivative readings leading us?

By placing our reading under the sign of a derivative Shakespeare, we are acknowledging, of course, that reading The Merchant of Venice immediately entails reading readings of (readings of) Shakespeare's play. But we are also doing something else: we are suggesting that The Merchant of Venice might be a representation or an enactment of the structure of today's finance-oriented capitalism. In other words: our wager, our speculative bet—with expectations of a theoretical return on investment—is that reading Shakespeare's [End Page 66] play could be a way of conceptualizing what is at stake in our contemporary economy. To those who might be tempted to object that this interpretative gamble is unashamedly anachronistic, since derivatives such as options or forwards are generally considered to have flooded financial markets from the 1970s onward, we could reply that they have existed well before Shakespeare's time. One often-quoted example is a passage in Aristotle's Politics (1259a) that relates how Thales of Miletus used the following "device for the business of getting wealth" (katanoēma khrēmatistikon):

Thales, so the story goes, because of his poverty was taunted with the uselessness of philosophy; but from his knowledge of astronomy he had observed while it was still winter that there was going to be a large crop of olives, so he raised a small sum of money and paid round deposits for the whole of the olive-presses in Miletus and Chios, which he hired at a low rent as nobody was running him up; and when the season arrived, there was a sudden demand for a number of presses at the same time, and by letting them out on what terms he liked he realized a large sum of money, so proving that it is easy for philosophers to be rich if they choose, but this is not what they care about.19

Aristotle's account of Thales's financial instrument is meant to prove that economic speculation is worth philosophical speculation, or vice versa. Though Aristotle considers that Thales has secured a "monopoly" (monopōlian), the interpretation of this ancient episode in terms of derivatives or options has almost become a commonplace in recent literature on risk management.20

Let us get back, then, to Shakespeare's play and, step by step, to the readings that Freud and Kofman derive of (derivations of) it.

Immediately before Bassanio requests a loan from Antonio (with the far-reaching consequences that the play unfolds), there is a remarkable passage that hints towards the temporal structure of derivatives in general as both playing with and hedging against risk in time—or better: risk as time. Let us read carefully what Bassanio says to Antonio in the form of an apologue relating his childhood practice:

In my schooldays, when I had lost one shaft,I shot his fellow of the selfsame flightThe selfsame way, with more advised watchTo find the other forth; and by adventuring bothI oft found both. I urge this childhood proofBecause what follows is pure innocence.I owe you much, and like a wilful youthThat which I owe is lost; but if you pleaseTo shoot another arrow that self wayWhich you did shoot the first, I do not doubt,As I will watch the aim, or to find bothOr bring your latter hazard back againAnd thankfully rest debtor for the first.


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The arrow can be seen as a figure for any form of speculation or bet on the future—in this case: a loan. The thin shaft with its pointed head is shot into the unknown, with no absolute guarantee of its being retrieved or returned. Now, what I would call the derivative logic consists here in speculating on this very speculation, betting on this very bet in order to somehow protect both investments against loss (in order to hedge them).

But why speak of speculation since there is no prospect of any increase or gain, of any surplus for Antonio? Contrary to what we would expect from any financial products worthy of the name, what this Shakespearian derivative arrow promises is simply the return of the same (of the "selfsame"): at best, Antonio would get his first loan back; at worst, he would remain the creditor that he already is. In other words, there is no question of any usury here, in the sense that the loans are without any interest. But, if we read Bassanio's terms to the letter, there is in fact an excess that derives from the contract he proposes. Though it is not thematized as such, though it is not the explicit object of the contracting parties' discourse, it appears in the very text of the fiduciary promises that are about to bind them together: whereas all the other lines uttered by the characters are in decasyllabic blank verse, the very one that urges the derivative speculation ("and by adventuring both") comprises twelve or thirteen syllables (depending on how "adventuring" would have been pronounced).

This textual increase produced by the metrically irregular line cannot be a priori attributed to or appropriated by anybody: neither Antonio, nor Bassanio, not even Shakespeare considered as the "selfsame" signatory who stages the trajectory of the arrows and the line of credit that they might open or trace.21 Antonio's reply to Bassanio seems to acknowledge this textual texture of the speculative surplus that they are already generating while still negotiating what will soon amount to a contract:

You know me well, and herein spend but timeTo wind about my love with circumstance;And out of doubt you do me now more wrongIn making question of my uttermostThan if you had made waste of all I have.Then do but say to me what I should doThat in your knowledge may by me be done,And I am prest unto it: therefore speak.


When Antonio thus reproaches Bassanio for letting his speech become unnecessarily long, he could be referring to any discursive excess, including the additional syllables of an unexpectedly extended line: what does one do when one adds useless or irregular metric units if not "spend . . . time" by producing a textual excrescence? It is this superfluous temporal expenditure that Antonio compares to the unthrifty consuming of his wealth ("if you had made waste of all I have"); and, conversely, the timely management of words or sentences ("do but say to me what I should do") would consist in keeping the role of language to a minimum, in tending towards the ideal of the "fair speechless messages" that Bassanio evokes a few lines further, i.e., the signals he [End Page 68] receives from the "fair" Portia—who is said to be "fairer than that word," fairer than the word "fair" (1.1.161–63). But even if Antonio seemingly praises a straightforward discursive logic that short-circuits derivations and deviations, he himself will soon urge Bassanio towards the derivative way of obtaining money: "try what my credit can in Venice do," he says (1.1.179), thus offering Bassanio a credit on a credit (in both senses of the word: a credit based on Antonio's reputation; and a loan made possible by another loan).22


The dialogue between Antonio and Bassanio not only produces a textual excess or surplus; it also brings about the first occurrence of the word hazard ("bring your latter hazard back again"), a word that will play such an important role later on, in the scene that Freud analyzed as "the suitors' choice between the three caskets."23 Before reading Freud's reading of this scene (and Sarah Kofman's reading of his reading), before letting ourselves be caught in a chain of derivative readings, let us note that if Portia's suitors are required to "hazard" their wealth, it is because of a protecting scheme, a hedging arrangement devised by her dead father, as Portia explains to her first suitor, Morocco:

In terms of choice I am not solely ledBy nice direction of a maiden's eyes.Besides, the lottery of my destinyBars me the right of voluntary choosing.But if my father had not scanted me,And hedged me by his wit to yield myselfHis wife who wins me by that means I told you, . . .


Since the hedging means in question—the device imagined by Portia's father to guarantee her against the losses she could incur by way of her marriage—is the focus of Freud's attention, it is worth recalling it. In Morocco's words:

This first [casket] of gold, who this inscription bears,"Who chooseth me, shall gain what many men desire."The second silver, which this promise carries,"Who chooseth me, shall get as much as he deserves."This third dull lead, with warning all as blunt,"Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath."How shall I know if I do choose the right?


The possibility of a winning move in this lottery (if the suitor chooses the casket that contains Portia's picture, she will be his) is underpinned by a monetary analogy, for the image of the fair lady embedded in the precious metal immediately evokes the numismatic production of value, as Morocco makes clear: [End Page 69]

. . . They have in EnglandA coin that bears the figure of an angelStamped in gold; but that's insculped upon:But here an angel in a golden bedLies all within. . . .


Now, when Freud reads this scene, his first move is to recognize in it "an ancient theme, which requires to be interpreted, derived and traced back to its origin" (welches nach Deutung, Ableitung und Zurückführung verlangt) (291).24 In order to consider Shakespeare's scene as a derivative based on an underlying narrative, Freud has to secure the convertibility of a number of its elements or traits; and he does so by reading them as reversals or interchanges similar to those that occur in dreams. Whereas in the ancient tales unearthed by Freud it is a woman who chooses between three men, in The Merchant of Venice there is "an inversion of the theme," since it is a man who chooses between three "symbols of what is essential in woman," i.e., the casket as "symbolic substitution" (292). The rhetorical swaps of a motive with another continue beyond this first combination of inversion and substitution: when Freud asks, further on, "why must the choice fall on the third?" (293), it is "thanks to a displacement" that he is able to convert the dullness or dumbness of the lead casket into a figure of "Death itself" (296). By a new turn, Freud then effects yet another conversion: the triad within which a choice has to be made becomes the triad of "the Fates (die Schicksalsschwestern), . . . the third of whom is called Atropos, the inexorable" (296).

Atropos—meaning literally in Greek "without turn," i.e., the one that cannot be turned around, whose actions or decisions cannot be reversed—is the third of the Moirai, the one who cuts the thread of life. In the underlying theme out of which The Merchant of Venice is derived, Atropos represents not only one of the possible choices among three but also what Freud calls "a wishful reversal" (eine Wunschverkehrung): "Choice stands in the place of necessity, of destiny" (299). This final trope—a trope that pretends to turn or convert Atropos, i.e., the Untropable, the Inconvertible herself—thus hints towards the ultimate possibility of hedging against the ineluctability of the absolute loss of death.

Freud's speculation yields what he himself describes as a profit: "There are motive forces in mental life which bring about replacement by the opposite in the form of what is known as reaction-formation; and it is precisely in the revelation of such hidden forces as these that we look for the reward of this enquiry [more literally: the gain or benefit of our work: den Gewinn unserer Arbeit]" (299). The surplus thus produced is made possible, as we have seen, by a general convertibility that should be understood against the backdrop of an analogy already explored by Freud in his 1905 book on the Witz, where he developed at length "a comparison between psychical economy and a business enterprise."25 When conversions by means of turns or tropes allow for a return on investment and a hedging against loss, it seems as if rhetoric were but a form of economics; or, conversely (i.e., if we convert the terms), it seems as if economics were but a form of rhetoric.

How could there be tropes for Atropos? But how could there not be tropes for Atropos, the untropable that can therefore only be troped, displaced, substituted, swapped, [End Page 70] deferred, futured? This double and paradoxical question is precisely what is at stake in Sarah Kofman's reading of Freud's reading of The Merchant of Venice. For, on the one hand, she insists on irreplaceability precisely where Freud relies on the possibility of a substitution; and, on the other hand, she generalizes replaceability without limits: "The theme of the choice between three metals cannot actually be replaced by that of the choice between three women," she writes, seemingly setting limits to Freud's tropology, but continuing the very same sentence as if this limitation could be seamlessly understood as a generalization: "because the three metals are not merely components of the caskets, the supposed symbols of women; each of them, with its ambivalence, is embodied in one of the three main characters: Antonio, Bassanio, and Shylock."26

Irreplaceability appears as the converse of a substitutability more general than Freud's, then; and its name is Time, or, more precisely, the duplicity of time, as Kofman explicitly states further on: "To join Freud in privileging the theme of the three caskets . . . is therefore to misrecognize the more general 'theme' of ambivalence, the double face of time, the condition of all conversions, of all reversals. A theme which cannot be substituted for any other (qui ne se substitue pas à un autre), which is not a theme like any other." In sum, The Merchant of Venice is "a drama of conversion in all its forms," from the monetary to the religious, against the backdrop of an arche(in)convertibility named Time.27

This is why Kofman's reading (of Freud's reading) of Shakespeare's play repeatedly insists on timeliness; commenting on the Freudian interpretation of the three caskets, she writes: "Making the right choice primarily means essentially taking one's time (prendre le temps) as Bassanio does, doubly aided, both by Antonio's recommendations . . . [a]nd by Portia who, for fear of losing him, attempts to delay his choice, to slow down time, to let Bassanio take his time (de faire traîner le temps, de laisser à Bassanio prendre tout son temps)."28 This economy of time—giving time to the other who takes it and makes it fruitful or profitable—is the explicit object of Antonio's and Portia's lines, then; but they have to be read more carefully or slowly than Kofman does.

Firstly, it should be emphasized that we never hear directly Antonio's recommendations to Bassanio; of their dialogue about speed and time, we only have an indirect or derived quotation in Salarino's words:

I saw Bassanio and Antonio part:Bassanio told him he would make some speedOf his return: he answered, "Do not so.Slubber not business for my sake, Bassanio,But stay the very riping of the time."


Why does it matter that the injunction to let time ripen is a quotation?29 What is at stake here is far from a mere textual matter, since quotationality as such—in other words: a derivative form of discourse—pertains to that which is being quoted, i.e., "the very riping of the time." For quoting, as a deferral or postponement, already supposes the ripening in question. [End Page 71]

The other passage Kofman quickly alludes to—without mentioning that Freud also commented upon it30—has to be read even more slowly, taking even more time to ponder or weigh the import of what Portia says while urging Bassanio to take his time:

I pray you tarry, pause a day or twoBefore you hazard, for in choosing wrongI lose your company; therefore forbear a while.

. . . Beshrew your eyes!They have o'erlooked me and divided me:One half of me is yours, the other half yours—Mine own, I would say: but if mine then yours,And so all yours. O these naughty timesPuts bars between the owners and their rights!And so though yours, not yours. Prove it so,Let Fortune go to hell for it, not I.I speak too long, but 'tis to peize the time,To eche it, and to draw it out in length,To stay you from election.

(3.2.1–3, 14–24)

Bassanio should defer the risk he is taking, says Portia, and her speech contributes to this very deferral by weighting time ("to peize" comes from the French peser) or augmenting time ("eche" is a variant spelling of "eke": to increase, add to, lengthen). But, above all, her discursive supplement (akin to the irregular and supplemental metric units added by Bassanio when he was speculating with two arrows) creates the intervallic space where her daydreaming provisionally hedges against the uncertainty of a lottery that was meant to protect her.31 The probability of loss is shared, distributed: it is as if Portia's fantasy were dividing her into tranches with different risks and maturities. Split in two, she is half Bassanio's and half not, but even this other half is promised to him, only by derivation, with a delay or detour ("if mine then yours"). Thus, in a way and up to a certain point, Portia seems to be guaranteed against bad luck ("Let Fortune go to hell for it, not I").

Beyond the general ambivalence or convertibility emphasized by Kofman—under the sign of Janus, "the dual face of all things, the real 'theme' of the Merchant of Venice"32—Shakespeare's play could ultimately be gesturing towards a generalization of what Deleuze named the dividual, as the underlying condition for an extended derivative logic.


There is in The Merchant of Venice what we could call an all-permeating aesthetics of finance, in the sense that financial operations are staged as pervading every instant and aspect of life. Even moments of a seemingly perfect and simultaneous exchange are caught in derivative chains. Thus, when Bassanio comes "to give, and to receive" after choosing the lead casket (3.2.140), when he kisses his newly won bride and seals their [End Page 72] marriage as the performative act of conversion par excellence—"Myself, and what is mine, to you and yours / Is now converted," says Portia (3.2.164–65)—we shouldn't forget that this marriage, on the one hand, was made possible by a debt (even a derived debt: Bassanio indebted to Antonio indebted to Shylock); and that, on the other hand, it triggered in turn a new derivative possibility, a derivative marriage, so to speak, between Nerissa and Gratiano ("I got a promise of this fair one here / To have her love, provided that your fortune / Achieved her mistress," he declares to Bassanio [3.2.211–13]).

But, at work in Shakespeare's play, there is also what we could describe as a financialization of aesthetics—aesthetics in the transcendental use of the word: if, as Kant writes in his Critique of Pure Reason, "time is the a priori formal condition of all appearances in general,"33 if it is time that makes every experience possible, then the very nature or texture of what happens to us is bound to change when our relation to time is woven by futures, options, or swaps, these modern Moirai that spin our fates.

We began our derivative reading of The Merchant of Venice with Antonio's inaugural words: "It wearies me, you say it wearies you" (1.1.2). Complaining about his fatigue and sadness, he was wondering "what stuff 'tis made of." For a second, we in turn wondered whom he might be addressing as "you" and if his weariness, leaping over centuries, could be ours. Salarino and Solanio then rushed in, so to speak, in order to fill the gap, to supply a cause for Antonio's weariness and to occupy the place of the addressees ("you"). But their suggestions don't seem to hold: when Antonio declares that "my merchandise makes me not sad" (1.1.45), Solanio has to come up with another explanation, and it is time, time itself as the "two-headed Janus" (1.1.50).

Portia too complains at the beginning of the next scene: "By my troth, my little body is aweary of this great world," she says (1.2.1); and we soon discover that her weariness derives from the lottery devised by her father for her betrothal, both as a speculation with and a hedging against time.

Now, after reading Kofman reading Freud reading Shakespeare, we could say that Portia's and Antonio's fatigue is not simply empirical, that it is not a contingent tiredness resulting from the vicissitudes of a plot (the one having merchandise out at sea and the other having to worry about her matrimonial status). Their tiredness is rather the affect that results from a certain economy of time, from the merchandization or commodification of time itself.34

Antonio and Portia experience the conditions of experience in a time of dividuals and derivatives. But we should immediately add that such a time does not simply come, as Deleuze seemed (or feigned) to believe, after the societies of sovereignty and discipline described by Foucault. The history of dividuality itself appears divided, and the genealogy of derivatives is itself derived.

It began a long time ago; and it is yet to come. [End Page 73]

Peter Szendy

Peter Szendy is David Herlihy Professor of Humanities and Comparative Literature at Brown University and musicological advisor for the concert programs at the Paris Philharmony. He is the author of The Supermarket of the Visible: Toward a General Economy of Images (2019), Of Stigmatology: Punctuation as Experience (2018), All Ears: The Aesthetics of Espionage (2016), Apocalypse-Cinema: 2012 and Other Ends of the World (2015), and Kant in the Land of Extraterrestrials: Cosmopolitical Philosofictions (2013). He curated the exhibition The Supermarket of Images at the museum of the Jeu de Paume in Paris.


1. Quintilian, The Orator's Education, vol. 1, 180–81; vol. 2, 114–15; translation modified.

2. Macrobius, Saturnalia, vol. 3, 2–3.

3. Martin, "From the Critique of Political Economy to the Critique of Finance," 192.

4. See Roman Jakobson, "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances." Martin refers to the "discussion of literary tropes" in Hayden White's Metahistory (Martin, "From the Critique of Political Economy to the Critique of Finance," 284n8). White distinguishes metonymy and synecdoche in the following way: "Through Metonymy (literally, 'name change'), the name of a part of a thing may be substituted for the name of the whole, as in the phrase 'fifty sail' when what is indicated is 'fifty ships.' With Synecdoche, which is regarded by some theorists as a form of Metonymy, a phenomenon can be characterized by using the part to symbolize some quality presumed to inhere in the totality, as in the expression 'He is all heart.'" This is the reason why White characterizes metonymy as "reductionist" and synecdoche as "integrative." For White, metaphor subsumes the other tropes: "Irony, Metonymy, and Synecdoche are kinds of Metaphor" (White, Meta-history, 34).

5. On swaps, see also Martin: "a swap is an exchange of two different revenue streams in order to balance contrary risk exposures. Swaps . . . are now used by banks and firms to trade off exposures to regulation, like minimal reserve holdings. Swaps have also been used to offset some perceived negative effect like carbon emissions, creating exchanges in rights to pollute known as cap and trade. Whether by getting around regulations or reducing negative externalities such as pollution, swaps operate according to the trope of irony, where the part stands in a negative or contrary relation to the whole. In practical terms these basic forms of derivatives are themselves combined and parsed into all manner of specialized financial instruments, such as swaptions, which further tie particular risk exposures to the movement of the market as a whole" ("From the Critique of Political Economy to the Critique of Finance," 192–93).

6. "From the 1980s, there was a rapid expansion of derivative products that . . . apply to non-storable products, especially to financial instruments. Not only did futures and options markets begin to be dominated by transactions on financial instruments, but new types of derivative contract emerged that were, from the outset, financially oriented and could not be understood through the discourse of commodity derivatives. The most important of these was swaps." Bryan and Rafferty include swaps in the category of forwards, a category that also comprises futures, "similar to forward contracts but . . . standardised so as to permit trading on organised markets" and so as to "be on-sold" (Bryan and Rafferty, Capitalism with Derivatives, 48, 46).

7. Bryan and Rafferty, 52.

8. Gilles Deleuze, "Postscript on Control Societies," 178, 180. In Banking on Words: The Failure of Language in the Age of Derivative Finance, Arjun Appadurai writes that "contemporary finance lies at the heart of these dividualizing techniques, because it relies on the management and exploitation of risks that are not the primary risks of ordinary individuals in an uncertain world, but the derivative or secondary risks that can be designed in the aggregation and recombination of large masses of dividualized behaviors and attributes" (110).

9. Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, 1.3.145 (references are to act, scene, and line).

10. Bryan and Rafferty, Capitalism with Derivatives, 132.

11. Bryan and Rafferty, 133.

12. Deleuze, "Postscript on Control Societies," 180.

13. Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, 77–78. I expand my reflections on this page by Deleuze in The Supermarket of the Visible: Toward a General Economy of Images, 23–25.

14. Kofman, "Conversions: The Merchant of Venice under the Sign of Saturn," 153.

15. Kofman, 153. Kofman quotes Solanio's lines: "Now, by two-headed Janus, / Nature hath framed strange fellows in her time: / Some that will evermore peep through their eyes [since their eyes are narrowed by laughter], / And laugh like parrots at a bagpiper [laugh without reason even at the melancholy sound of the bagpipe]; / And others of such vinegar aspect, / That they'll not show their teeth in way of smile" (1.1.50–55).

16. Kofman, "Conversions," 155, 156.

17. Macrobius, Saturnalia, vol. 1, 74–75; Ovid, Fasti, 12–13.

18. Kofman, "Conversions," 142.

19. Aristotle, Politics, 54–57.

20. "If derivatives are understood in the very general form of 'sales of promises,' where a contract is assigned before the date of performance, futures can be traced to ancient Mesopotamia. . . . Options have ancient origins as well, as they can be traced back to Thales of Miletus, who, expecting an exceptional olive harvest, paid the owners of the mills in advance for the right to use them and negotiated the fee in advance. As in all option contracts, if his prediction were wrong he would only have lost the sum advanced" (Elena Esposito, The Future of Futures, 113). See also, among many other occurrences, Robert E. Whaley, who writes that "an example of early derivatives use appears in Aristotle's Politics" (Derivatives: Markets, Valuation, and Risk Management, 11).

21. In her edition of The Merchant of Venice, Molly Mahood remarks: "If the metre is intentionally irregular, Shakespeare is using it to make Bassanio sound hesitant. But the irregularity may be a sign of 'foul papers'" (76n142). My Shakespearean friend and colleague Karen Newman—whom I warmly thank for her valuable insight—reminds me that the very notion of "foul papers" has been criticized as a desire "to fix the origins of the early printed versions upon single agents," i.e., upon Shakespeare as "author" (Paul Werstine, "Narratives about Printed Shakespeare Texts: 'Foul Papers' and 'Bad' Quartos," 86).

22. As Shylock recalls, Antonio's loans are usually without interest: "He lends out money gratis, and brings down / The rate of usance here with us in Venice" (1.3.36–37). But since "all [his] fortunes are at sea," Antonio has "neither . . . money nor commodity / To raise a present sum" (1.2.176–78). Hence his exceptional request to the usurer: "Shylock, albeit I neither lend nor borrow / By taking nor giving of excess, Ye t to supply the ripe wants of my friend [Bassanio] / I'll break a custom" (1.3.53–56). The credit obtained by Antonio in order to grant a loan obeys the Deuteronomic rule of charging interest only to enemies—a rule reformulated by Ambrose in his De Tobia as follows: ubi jus belli, ibi etiam jus usurae (where there is the right of war, there also is the right of usury, 15.51.6–7). Antonio says to Shylock: "If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not / As to thy friends, for when did friendship take / A breed for barren metal of his friend? / But lend it rather to thine enemy, / Who if he break, thou mayst with better face / Exact the penalty" (1.3.124–29). On the Deuteronomic rule, see my "Usury," in Political Concepts: A Critical Lexicon,, 2017.

23. Freud, "The Theme of the Three Caskets," 291; hereafter cited parenthetically.

24. I slightly modify the English translation: Ableitung literally means "derivation."

25. Freud, "Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious," 156.

26. Kofman, "Conversions," 153; italics mine.

27. Kofman, 161–62.

28. Kofman, 153.

29. A quotation, we should recall, is both a citation and an evaluation, the setting of a price.

30. To be precise, Freud quotes at length an article by Otto Rank, "Ein Beispiel von poetischer Verwertung des Versprechens," Zentralblatt für Psychoanalyse 1, no. 3 (1911), 109–10: "A slip of the tongue (Versprechen) occurs in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice (act 3, scene 2), which is from the dramatic point of view extremely subtly motivated and which is put to brilliant technical use (technisch glänzend verwertetes)." See Freud, "The Psychopathology of Everyday Life," 97–98.

31. Remember what she says to Morocco: "Besides, the lottery of my destiny / Bars me the right of voluntary choosing. / But if my father had not scanted me, / And hedged me" (2.1.15–18).

32. Kofman, "Conversions," 153.

33. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 180.

34. It is therefore close to what Deleuze termed "exhaustion": "Being exhausted is much more than being tired. . . . The tired person can no longer realize, but the exhausted person can no longer possibilize" ("The Exhausted," 152).

Works Cited

Ambrose, Saint, Bishop of Milan, and Lois Miles Zucker. S. Ambrosii De Tobia: A Commentary with an Introduction and Translation. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America, 1933.
Appadurai, Arjun. Banking on Words: The Failure of Language in the Age of Derivative Finance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Aristotle. Politics. Translated by H. Rackham. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959.
Bryan, Dick, and Michael Rafferty. Capitalism with Derivatives: A Political Economy of Financial Derivatives, Capital and Class. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Cicero. Tusculan Disputations. Translated by J. E. King. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927.
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.
———. "The Exhausted." In Essays Critical and Clinical, translated by Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco, 152–74. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
———. "Postscript on Control Societies." In Negotiations, translated by Martin Joughin, 177–82. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.
Esposito, Elena. The Future of Futures: The Time of Money in Financing and Society. Cheltenham UK: Edward Elgar, 2011.
Freud, Sigmund. "Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious." In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, edited by James Strachey, vol. 8. London: The Hogarth Press, 1960.
———. "The Psychopathology of Everyday Life." In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, edited by James Strachey, vol. 6. London: The Hogarth Press, 1960.
———. "The Theme of the Three Caskets." In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, edited by James Strachey, 12:289–301. London: The Hogarth Press, 1958. Originally published as "Das Motiv der Kästchenwahl," in Werke, 10:23–37 (London: Imago Publishing, 1946).
Jakobson, Roman. "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances." In Fundamentals of Language, 67–96. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1971.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Kofman, Sarah. "Conversions: The Merchant of Venice under the Sign of Saturn." Translated by Shaun Whiteside. In Literary Theory Today, edited by Peter Collier and Helga Geyer-Ryan, 142–66. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990.
Macrobius. Saturnalia. Edited and translated by Robert A. Kaster. 3 vols. (books 1–6). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.
Martin, Randy. "From the Critique of Political Economy to the Critique of Finance." In Derivatives and the Wealth of Societies, edited by Benjamin Lee and Randy Martin, 174–98. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.
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Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Edited by Molly Mahood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Szendy, Peter. The Supermarket of the Visible: Toward a General Economy of Images. Translated by Jan Plug. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019.
Werstine, Paul. "Narratives about Printed Shakespeare Texts: 'Foul Papers' and 'Bad' Quartos." Shakespeare Quarterly 41, no. 1 (1990): 65–86.
Whaley, Robert E. Derivatives: Markets, Valuation, and Risk Management. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2006.
White, Hayden. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.
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Mike Nelson


Installation view, Tate Britain, 2019

Photo: Matt Greenwood

Courtesy the artist and 303 Gallery, New York; Galleria Franco Noero, Turin; Matt's Gallery, London; and neugerriemschneider, Berlin.

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