Usury: To what extent can the attack on Jewish money-lending be seen as a projection by a Christian culture, long ambivalent about charging money at...

Usury

To what extent can the attack on Jewish money-lending be seen as a projection by a Christian culture, long ambivalent about charging money at interest, but now doing so, given it's necessity in an age that increasingly depended upon the investment of capital

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teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would agree that Merchant expresses the Christian world's projection of its own ambivalence or anxiety about interest charging onto the Jews. The larger society was increasingly adopting usury as it moved more fully from a barter to a cash economy and from a local to a global economy. If Shylock, as representative of the Jews, is characterized as money hungry, more concerned with turning a profit than helping other human beings, and angry at Christians for undercutting the usury market by making interest free loans, it's startlingly clear that the Christians in the play are also centrally concerned with money and profit. The play's plot is set into motion over Bassanio's urgent need for money. The marriage plot also concerns Christian men, including Bassanio, pursuing Portia, at least in part, for her fortune, which could be seen as profiting from Portia's misfortune in being subjected to a bizarre marriage plan. Some of the Christian unease with usury was with profiting at another's misfortune, but this was happening all the time in other ways as money poured into Europe that was often plundered from other (and "othered") cultures. It is easy to project changes in economics that make the dominant culture uncomfortable onto an evil Other. While this speech also helps condemn Shylock (if he is human, he should feel more compassion towards others), Shakespeare suggests both the humanity and scapegoating of the Jew when he has Shylock say:

"I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer,
as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?"
(III.i.58-64).

 

krishna-agrawala | Student

I really don't have sufficient knowledge about the nature and extent of attack on Jewish money-lending by christian or any other group of people to, to justify making any comments on it. However in this case there are some general principles involved that have a bearing on these issues, and which point towards forces that shape the course of events. I would like to put forward my understanding of those general principles.

The concept of what is considered right and what is considered wrong in a society changes with time. These changes occur partly in response to changing requirement of different times. Let us tale the simple case of intellectual property rights. Today it is considered unethical and to violate anyone's intellectual property. This right is now defined by law in most of the countries today, and is protected by law. However a few centuries ago the concept of intellectual property did not exist. This concept was developed and introduced in modern societies as a means to encourage people to generate new knowledge.

The case of usury is also similar. There was a time when perhaps charging interest on money lent to others did more harm than good to society, and at that times it was right to condemn this practice. Today, charging and paying of interest serves many useful purpose like, directing surplus resources of individuals to productive activities conducted by large enterprises, and providing a means of income to old retired people.

In view of this we need to not take harsh view of a section of society for following a practice that their ancestors condemned many centuries ago. By the same logic, it might be right to tale a more understanding view of people practicing money lending business in earlier time. It is quite possible that they did serve some useful purpose though people who did not understand this continued to be prejudiced against it.

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The Merchant of Venice

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