Greece’s former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis says madness and conflict of Shakespeare’s characters might humanise economics in Kingston University lecture
Leading economist and former Greek Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis highlighted the seminal influence Shakespeare has had on his thinking as he took centre stage at the Rose Theatre.
The committed Europeanist but outspoken critic of the European Union’s establishment explored how the complexities and contradictions of the Bard’s characters have shaped his own take on economics as he delivered the sixth annual lecture of the Kingston Shakespeare Seminar, a partnership between Kingston University and the Rose.
“To a very large extent my own understanding of economics has been influenced by the inability of economists to capture what matters in human nature,” Varoufakis said.
“The language and mindset of economists is so dry. Every individual is depicted as an automaton, robot-like and lacking in emotion. And then you turn to Shakespeare – and every single character is like a republic of madness and conflict.”
Varoufakis served as Minister of Finance in the Greek government from January to July 2015, at the height of the country’s economic crisis. Famous for his negotiations with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund during bailout talks, he described what unfolded in Greece as a Shakespearean tragedy. Having failed to secure what he felt was a fair deal for his country, he fell on his sword, resigning from the government the morning after a national referendum supported massively his position but was ignored by his Prime Minister.
A mathematically trained academic economist and thinker with a deep appreciation of arts and culture, Varoufakis peppers references to the works of Shakespeare throughout his writing and speeches. He reported that observing the European Union was like watching Othello, compared German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Macbeth and enlivens his writing with Shakespearean quotations like King Lear’s cry to ‘shake the superflux’ of wealth – the title of his lecture at the Rose Theatre. Speaking ahead of the event, he hinted at the strong influence the artistic world has had on him throughout his life.
“I grew up in a country that has its own drama tradition – the ancient Greek tradition – but where Shakespeare was always appreciated as an extension of this tradition. The first time I read Shakespeare was in Greek, the first time I saw his plays was in Greece as a young teenager,” Varoufakis said.
“Yet training as an economist in England I felt I was straddling two worlds – my career was in economics, but my heart was with the Shakespearean depiction of humanity. I became fascinated by this juxtaposition – on the one hand the simpletons inhabiting the works of formative economic thinkers such as Adam Smith, who extended the philosophy of David Hume, and on the other the extremely complex model of men and women in Shakespeare.”
Born in Athens in 1961, Varoufakis moved to England at 17 to study economics – before quickly to mathematics. After arriving in the country he bought himself a copy of the complete works of William Shakespeare to improve his English and began to enjoy trips to see the Royal Shakespeare Company. During this time he became a fan of the work of Sir Peter Hall – former director of the RSC and founding director of Kingston’s Rose Theatre.
Kingston University’s Peter Hall Professor of Shakespeare Studies Richard Wilson said it was this connection that persuaded Varoufakis to deliver the institution’s annual Shakespeare lecture at the Rose – treading the boards in the footsteps of theatrical greats such as Dame Judi Dench.
“Peter Hall was one of the world’s greatest directors. He believed in the concept of bringing the arts to the people – something that very much chimes with the way Yanis’ works,” Professor Wilson said. “Yanis has a popstar following and is very charismatic – he brings economics and politics to new audiences. He’s also an example to young people of how ideas can shape the world – a true model of what a public intellectual should be.”
With a note of self-deprecation, Varoufakis said he did warn Professor Wilson that he was perhaps not the most qualified person to deliver a lecture on Shakespeare.
“Richard assured me that was what he wanted – somebody who is not a Shakespeare scholar to come and explain how the Bard’s work has affected his thinking. Well, the blame is entirely on Richard for the result – but it is such a splendid invitation, I couldn’t possibly refuse.”
Varoufakis introduction by Richard Wilson
Welcome to the Rose Theatre, and to our sixth Shakespeare Birthday Lecture, which is early for the Bard’s birthday this year, because of our speaker’s other distractions. When the great director, and Chancellor of Kingston University, Sir Peter Hall, opened this theatre ten years ago, he predicted it would be ideal for both Shakespeare and Greek drama, and he dreamed of ‘doing some Greek plays here, because this epic space is wonderful for the Greeks’. He never did. But no one has thought harder than tonight’s lecturer about what Peter Hall wrote after he staged Aeschylus before an audience of 11,000 in the amphitheater at Epidavros: ‘Look at a Greek theatre, then you might understand something about Shakespeare’.
Yanis Varoufakis says that he grew up in a country where ‘Shakespeare was always appreciated as an extension of the ancient Greek tradition’. So, it is telling that his books on the Euro crisis are dominated by the myth of the Minotaur, which is also a source of Shakespeare’s comedy about angry young Athenians, and a monster in a labyrinth: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After the financial Minotaur was wounded in 2008, he writes, Europe descended into Shakespeare’s Greek farce: A Comedy of Errors. Economists love to quote Shakespeare. Marx explained capital with Timon of Athens, and Keynes compared the Versailles Treaty to Macbeth. But tonight’s speaker is exceptional in not simply using Shakespearean scare quotes to describe how our politicians are ‘Stepped in so far that… Returning were as tedious as go o’er’, but to point a way out of this deadly maze.
The brief for this Rose lecture is simple. We ask each year’s lecturer to speak about ‘Shakespeare today’. So we invited Yanis Varoufakis because in book after book he cites Shakespeare as our contemporary, who speaks to us directly about our own times, when the language of economics is so arid or opaque. Keynes called economists ‘custodians of the possibility’ of art. But in And The Weak Suffer What They Must?, Adults in the Room, and Talking to My Daughter About the Economy, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Ibsen, and Brecht are presented as ‘custodians of the possibility’ of economics itself. Every reviewer comments on the dramatic pace and suspense of these books, and how their storytelling drive mirrors their author’s own agonistic negotiating style. He admits that even when he was reading Adam Smith, his ‘heart was always in Shakespeare’. So, I like to think that one day he will himself play Timon of Athens here in Kingston, and rail at the Rose against ‘yellow, glittering, precious gold’.
Yanis Varoufakis celebrated the election that shot him into the Finance Ministry in 2015 by tweeting Dylan Thomas: ‘Greek democracy resolved to rage against the dying of the light.’ Yet he has also written that ‘Art and music offer evidence of our darker side’, because ‘culture is drenched in blood’. So, tonight’s speaker comes to Shakespeare with a Greek sense of fate. He explains that when Greece’s creditors spoke as if ‘What’s done cannot be undone’, this meant he ‘tried to see their actions through the lens of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy’. That tragic perspective offers a unique insight into the question Shakespeare poses in his darkest Greek drama, Troilus and Cressida: ‘What’s aught but as ’tis valued?’ And it is with a sense that he can help us find true value through these plays, that I ask you to welcome Yanis Varoufakis to ‘Shake the superflux’ tonight.