Friday, April 4, 2008

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

For those of you just joining us, we are using an economic way of thinking to examine William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. We started with an introduction last week, March 28, and have been doing an act a day. Today we finish this little exercise with...

Act V
The first scene of the final act finds Romeo in Mantua. There he is met by a messenger from Verona who bears sad tidings – he has seen Juliet lowered into the family crypt. Romeo is understandably distraught, and thus sets up the only financial transaction of the play that we are privy to. Romeo seeks out an apothecary (Remember the convenient shopping?) to purchase a poison. He has chosen to join his Juliet in death and seeks a strong potion to use in committing suicide. At first, the apothecary is reluctant to provide the poison. It seems there are stringent laws in Mantua about dispensing such drugs – providing an incentive against their sale. But Romeo points out that the vendor is poor, starving, and possibly on the verge of death. In Romeo's mind, the prohibition cannot be much of a disincentive to one in such a state. He points out the hard straights the apothecary is in, and secures the poison. The transaction takes place. Romeo chooses to buy. The apothecary chooses to sell. Both choose according to incentives (Romeo wants to die, the apothecary to live). And both face possible costs of this choice in the future.

The second scene offers little in the way of choices. However, it does provide us a key insight into economics and economic thinking. We find in this scene that Friar Lawrence's letter to Romeo, outlining the plot to feign death and allow Juliet to escape to Mantua, was not delivered. Romeo is without a vital piece of information. This actually explains his harsh choice in the previous scene. Economics tells us that we make better choices if we have more information. Given the lack of a vital piece of information (Juliet is faking death); Romeo has chosen based upon incentives that do not correct. His choice, while tragic, is logical if we understand the economic way of thinking.

The final scene takes place in the graveyard. First, Paris arrives with a servant, intending to leave flowers on the grave of his late bride-to-be. Next, Romeo arrives with his friend and servant, Balthasar. Romeo dispatches Balthasar with a letter for his father, explaining his actions. He further charges Balthasar not to return before delivering the letter, under pain of death – a strong incentive one would presume. But it is not strong enough, as Balthasar chooses to stick around and keep an eye on Romeo.

Romeo and Paris then confront each other. Paris misunderstands Romeo's presence, assuming he came to defile the grave of a family enemy. Romeo does not want to fight, but chooses to do so anyway. His incentive appears to be a desire to join Juliet as soon as he can, and Paris stands in the way. Meanwhile, Paris' servant has gone for help. Additionally, Friar Lawrence arrives, hoping to intercept Romeo. He runs into Balthasar who tells him that Romeo is already in the graveyard and has been for some time. But Balthasar, under Romeo's previous incentive, declines to go with the Friar to find and presumably stop Romeo.

Meanwhile, Paris and Romeo have fought, and Paris has lost – the consequence is death. Romeo then chooses to drink his potion and dies next to Juliet. Friar Lawrence arrives too late for Romeo, but just as Juliet stirs. As she awakens, he offers the choice of going to a convent. But this is not a strong enough incentive, as Juliet wants to be with Romeo. She seeks some of the poison, and finding none, takes up a dagger and kills herself. At this point, the graveyard might as well be Grand Central Station. The watchmen arrive, the Prince arrives, the Capulets arrive and Lord Montague arrives – his wife having died of a broken heart over Romeo's exile. Friar Lawrence tells all, from his plan to spirit away a seemingly dead Juliet to join Romeo in Mantua, to the lost communications, and the death of the young lovers. The feud is ended in grief and Montague vows to erect a gold statue of Juliet, in memory of her faithfulness. As the story ends, we are left with a fuller understanding of the costs related to choices made by Romeo and Juliet under the incentives in place. Mercutio, Tybalt, Paris, Lady Montague, Romeo and Juliet all lie dead. These costs were unknown and in the future at the time the choices were made.

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