Greed and ‘Women Beware Women’

By Linda Davies

Programme note for the 2010 revival of Women Beware Women by Thomas Middleton at the National Theatre, London, directed by Marianne Elliott

“Three great forces rule the world; stupidity fear and greed.” Einstein could have been describing the murky urges underlying Middleton’s play nearly four hundred years ago, and equally the forces that still appear to rule the world today.

In Women Beware Women, greed was a contagion. Now it’s an epidemic, as most recently and dramatically demonstrated by the bankers and their monstrous credit crunch, aided and abetted by the greed and stupidity of those who purported to govern and regulate them. But why is greed so timeless? Perhaps Gordon Gekko, in the movie Wall Street, best expresses the evolutionary imperative of greed:

Gekko sanctifies greed.

In Women Beware Women, greed is stronger than love.

At the outset, Bianca is passionately, seemingly selflessly in love with Leantio. For him, she has “forsook friends, fortunes…” yet she declares: “There is nothing that can be wanting to her that does enjoy all her desires… I am as rich as virtue can be poor.” Presaging Thoreau:

That man is richest whose pleasures are the cheapest.

Henry David Thoreau

Yet Leantio, neither believing nor trusting his good fortune in ensnaring his ‘choice treasure’, his ‘jewel’, knows that “temptation is a devil will not stick to fasten upon a saint.” Like many a businessman away on a business trip, he worries: “What assurance of restraint then?” He is reassured by his mother’s presence. “Old mothers know the world… when sons lock chests are good to look to keys.”

He still worries about the corrupting influence of greed and cautions his mother: “I pray you do not teach her to rebel… to rise with other women in commotion against their husbands for six gowns a year.”

Of course, if you are a WAG, hooked up to a championship footballer, then six gowns or six ‘must-have’ handbags are part of the trade; endless handbags and fashions for her, but possibly endless liaisons for him, with the girl of his best friend, or just any attractive woman lured into his orbit.

Even if you didn’t go into it with the idea of such a trade, there is the ever-present risk of the corrupting power of wealth and position.

The Duke uses both to seduce Bianca. He offers her “wealth, honour… She that is fortunate in a Duke’s favour lights on a tree that bears all women’s wishes… why weep away whole years in wants… come, play the wise wench and provide for ever.” He believes his wealth and position will prevail, and why wouldn’t he? They did, just as Tiger Woods’ did. They gave him access and justification:

I convinced myself that normal rules did not apply. I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled. Thanks to money and fame, I didn’t have to go far to find them.

Tiger Woods

But why the compulsion to acquire? Why acquire another ‘must-have’ handbag, or another conquest, or another company, a jet, and then a larger jet? Shopping produces for many consumers a ‘high’. We are goaded by the ancient caveman promptings where acquisition meant survival. We are provisioning in the aisles of Tesco’s or the boutiques of Bond Street. We acquire, we survive. And we spread our seed as far and wide as we can to ensure propagation of the species. The old brain, the hypothalamus, tweaks our strings and we dance.

But why should greed still be so keenly felt in an era of plenty amongst those who surely have enough?

“It’s not a question of enough,” explains Gekko. “It’s a zero sum game, somebody wins, somebody loses.”

It’s a kind of sport, as beloved now by the ambitious Livia who orchestrates Bianca’s seduction. In plotting with her the equally manipulative Guardiano observes: “T’would prove too much worth in wealth and favour to those should work [The Duke’s] peace.” Livia is delighted to play the role of a female Pandarus.

Why? Because it is fun, as well as potentially rewarding in terms of wealth and power. Bianca’s mother-in-law, thinking she is just commenting on Livia’s skill at chess, observes: “You are cunning at the game.”

Livia responds: “It will be found so… she that can place her man well.”

How like some corporate or political players, scheming and manipulating behind the scenes. Livia succeeds because of Bianca’s own susceptibility to greed.

And of course, today as in Middleton’s play, you can also attempt to draw upon the majesty of the law to “hide your acts from sin-piercing eyes.” In Women Beware Women, Hippolito and Isabella attempt to use the sanctity of her impending marriage to the Ward to hide their own love. Today you can try, but possibly fail, as did John Terry, to take out an injunction to prevent the press from revealing your sins.

But the most majestic means of veiling acts from scrutiny was devised by the bankers and facilitated by their political masters, too busy enjoying the lavish tax takes to look too closely at exactly what the bankers were doing.

Bernie Madoff, Nick Leeson, Allen Sandford and the long list of financial fraudsters were able to profit because of the pervasiveness of greed. Investors’ heads were turned by attractive and seemingly relentless year on year returns. Some were duped and relied on advisers whose own scrutiny was dulled by the prospect of fees. Bank chairmen were too busy thrilling to their enormous profits to scrutinise the fraudsters’ trading too closely. Had they never heard the expression ‘too good to be true’?

Politicians too looked the other way. The City of London in its finest hour was contributing 27% of the UK’s tax take. So the politicians were disinclined to interfere. Why mess with the Golden Goose? Untrammeled, the bankers played on.

It wasn’t just the fraudsters who benefited. The ‘ordinary bankers’ did too. Securitisation was their tool of choice. What better way to veil “your acts from sin-piercing eyes,” than to shunt your excess liabilities off balance sheet through some clever derivative instrument. Intoxicated from decades of gambling with what’s known in the trade as Opium – OPM, Other People’s Money – it was so easy for them to succumb to greed, to make that trade and not worry about the risk when it was other people’s money they were risking.

Add to that the hubris inherent in their belief that they had conquered the future. Myron Scholes and his Black Scholes model meant the uber-bankers thought they knew the future. They could quantify it, risk assess it, price in the risk premium. They could hedge themselves. And where the marble and glass-palace players led, so the High Street followed.

Personal borrowing rocketed to fund that ‘must-have’ bag, or the extension to the house, or the bigger house acquired on a 110% mortgage.

The bankers thought they had conquered risk, captured the future, could deal with whatever vagaries it threw at them.

Trading with OPM and further distancing themselves from the repercussions via securitisation made it Other People’s Problem. A world without consequences removed the brake of self-interest from greed. But then came the Black Swan event – high-impact, hard to predict, rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations. The global financial system teetered. Governments across the globe propped it up to the tune of £4,473 billion of taxpayers’ money, according to the Bank of England.

And so in Women Beware Women, the unexpected brings the players down; the wrong person drinks from the poisoned goblet. The master-manipulator is outmanoeuvred and loses all.

The unexpected happens, chaos intervenes, and like the bodies littering Middleton’s stage, the corpses of the financial victims litter the world stage.

Nothing’s changed.

The stage just got bigger.

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