Thursday, April 3, 2008

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

Scene one begins with Paris at the cell of Friar Laurence. They are soon joined by Juliet. It seems that the Friar’s cell is a popular destination. Paris and Juliet exchange greetings and talk about the impending marriage. Then he leaves. Upon which, Juliet begins speaking of a wide variety of alternative choices to marrying Paris. Unfortunately, they all seem to end with her dying. The Friar feels that the cost in all of these may be too high. He offers one more choice. She should agree to marry Paris, but on the eve of the wedding, take a potion that will make her appear to be dead. Once she’s placed in the family burial chamber, Romeo will come and take her away to live in with him in Mantua. We see a new choice to be made with the incentive being a new life with Romeo. What is the cost? It’s in Mantua. (Actually, I hear Mantua is quite nice – convenient shopping, nice restaurants, good schools…..)

Back at Casa Capulet, we open scene two with another party to plan. This one will be the wedding feast for Juliet. Juliet enters the scene and indicates she has chosen to acquiesce to her father’s judgment after being shown the errors of her ways by Friar Lawrence. Although it is a complete fabrication, it basically lays out a plausible incentive structure for a choice to agree to marry Paris. Although it is a ruse, it is a skillful ruse – the church and dad’s judgment being strong incentives, at least to dad. And so scene two presents two choices by Juliet: one actual (to lie to her father) and one apparent (to submit to the logic of her father and Friar Lawrence). The incentive structure is still life with Romeo. And that structure is now making it easier for Juliet to choose.

At the beginning of scene three, we find Juliet and her nurse choosing her wedding attire. Lady Capulet joins them briefly, and Juliet dismisses both saying she desires to be alone with her thoughts and prayers. She then focuses on the potion given to her by Friar Lawrence. And in the course of choosing to drink the potion, she lists a number of possible costs or consequences that may lie in the future. "What if the potion doesn’t work – will she end up married? Or will she resort to a dagger? What if the Friar has tricked her and substituted a poison to kill her and save his reputation? What if she wakes in the tomb before Romeo arrives and suffocates?" In her mind, these are possible costs attending the choice to drink the potion. But her strongest incentive is to be with Romeo. In her mind, the possible costs are outweighed by the possibility of life with her love. So she chooses to drink the potion.

Scene four, on the other hand, offers little in the way of decision-making, unless we include Lord Capulet’s choice to stay awake all night supervising the preparation of the wedding feast, while the servants, his wife and Nurse are doing all the work.

In scene five, we see the costs to others of Juliet's choice to drink the potion. (In economics we would talk about externalities – costs borne by others outside the action.) Juliet did not think of how the feigned death would affect her parents, Paris, and the others involved in the wedding plans. But here we see that costs of a choice are in the future – and not always foreseen. And so, we go to the final act.


Anonymous said...

Dear Jim:
Pardonnez-moi, but you need to get a life.

Tim Schilling said...


It's Tim, not Jim.

And I have one. Very nice, thank you. I appreciate your value judgment, however.