Monday, March 31, 2008

An Economic Way of Thinking about Romeo and Juliet - Act One

This week, as an adjunct to the Collegiate School production of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, I'm going to provide an economic way of thinking about the play. In last Friday's introduction, I stated the four economic principals to be used in this brief diversion. Here they are, as a reminder:
1) People choose.
2) When choosing, people respond to incentives.
3) Choices have costs.
4) The costs of our choices lie in the future.

Act 1
The general environment of Verona, the main setting of the play, provides us with some insight as to the incentives in place. Specifically, we can see what the types of institutions (rules and organizations) are in place that directed choices. These institutions provide incentives for certain choices.

As we discover in the first scene, Verona is a town affected by a feud between the houses of Montague and Capulet. The feud seems to lend itself to frequent fights between the families of the two houses. And we gather that previous injunctions (if any) have not provided an incentive to all to keep the peace. Three members of the opposing houses (Gregory, Sampson and Abram are itching to fight. Another, Benvolio, tries to intervene, but is himself challenged by Tybalt. This brings the guards and the prince, who choose to up the ante.

The prince’s decision that further fights may see the respective heads of house forfeit their lives seems to be a significant disincentive – at least to old Montague and old Capulet. Whether that is a disincentive to younger and more distantly attached members of the house is something we shall see. Later in the same scene, Benvolio meets up with his friend and cousin Romeo, son of old Montague. Romeo is love-struck by a girl named Rosaline. But she has chosen not to submit to his wooing. Consequently, he’s depressed. Why would she not choose him? Unfortunately, we don’t meet Rosaline so we don’t understand her decision-making. We must assume that she decides for good reason. She sees some benefit in going the way she has chosen. Maybe she sees no upside in getting involved with a member of a family that is constantly disturbing the peace. One could certainly make a case that the relationship would seem to have the potential for a short life and a tragic end if Romeo ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But so far, people choose (to fight); people respond to incentives (and the positives of fighting outweigh the negatives, at least for some); choices have costs (because the fighting continues, the prince is royally angered – bad pun); and the costs lie in the future (further fighting will result in heavy justice on the heads – literally – of each household).

In scene two, old Capulet is beset by Paris, a young man seeking the hand of Capulet’s daughter, Juliet. Capulet begs that Paris wait a year or so for Juliet to experience more of life (she’s only 14 at the time), and that Paris “woo her” properly. Essentially, Capulet is establishing some rules for Paris – a type of institution. Benvolio and Romeo manage to get themselves invited to a party (they’re crashing, really) hosted by the Capulets. It seems that Rosaline will be there, along with a number of other eligible bachelorettes. And Benvolio feels confident that if Romeo sees fair Rosaline in the company of other young ladies, Rosaline will suffer by comparison. Essentially, Benvolio is taking advantage of an institution to influence Romeo’s decision-making.

Therefore, this second scene provides us with more examples of people choosing, (Paris and Romeo are the erstwhile choosers); and of people responding to incentives (Paris being given a signal that his suit may be more favorably entertained if he waits, Romeo offered an opportunity to survey the field – to examine the choices – which he accepts, if for no other reason than he may get to see Rosaline). This choice has consequences in the future. And the consequences drive the rest of the play.

The third scene sees Lady Capulet, Juliet, and Juliet’s nurse discussing whether Juliet should consider a marriage proposal from Paris. Incentives to choice abound, and the nurse adds to the discussion by discussing Juliet’s infancy.

Scene four (a rather short scene) finds Romeo and Mercutio on their way to the Capulet party. And Mercutio is offering all kinds of incentives to get Romeo to dance with the ladies at the party. But none of the incentives is strong enough to alter Romeo’s decision to stand by and be miserable. While we know people respond to incentives, evidently none of those offered by Mercutio are sufficient incentive to motivate Romeo, who chooses not to dance.

A somewhat longer scene five finds our two party-crashers at Casa Capulet, and fair Juliet has caught Romeo’s eye. Unfortunately, Romeo has caught Tybalt’s eye, and Tybalt would like to make short work of Romeo. But the prince has provided an an incentive to choice -- death to the heads of the hosues caught fighting. This is sufficient. Capulet remembers that choices have costs and responds to the incentive. He chooses to let Romeo stay and enjoy the hospitality. Meanwhile, Romeo and Juliet have seen each other and are captivated. They debate whether to give in to their feelings, but both soon lose the debate. They choose to give in to their emotions and kiss. Their incentives are the feelings they experience at the sight of one another. And, as we shall see, the incentives are strong. Nevertheless, they respond to the incentives. Romeo and Mercutio then take their leave. And both Romeo and Juliet find to their dismay that their choices have a cost. They have fallen in love with members of an enemy house. This presents a further incentive (negative) to any future decision-making.

I welcome your comments.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i think that this is very well worded. and it was done very nice and in many ways romeo and juliet fit into economics