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The Merchant of Venice

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Sometimes listed among Shakespeare's “problem plays” because of its ambiguous treatment of issues such as religion, economics, and the role of women, The Merchant of Venice has also been a source of heated critical disagreement with regard to race. In this light, scholars have discussed not only Shakespeare's ambivalent depiction of the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, but also his derogatory presentation of minor, non-European characters such as the Prince of Morocco. Critics have debated whether this racial tension is evidence of Shakespeare's own opinions. Alternatively, some scholars have suggested that Shakespeare might have relied on his racially charged scenes to create an allegorical drama or to satirize and thereby condemn his own culture's prejudices.

Although Thomas Moisan (1987) and Stephen A. Cohen (1994) do not deal specifically with the issue of race, both critics see the character Shylock as a social outsider. Both also credit Shakespeare with using Shylock to subtly criticize his era and his fellow Europeans in their treatment of non-Europeans. Moisan, for example, argues that the play pokes fun at a European, Christian society that condemns the economics of usury even while it depends on its practice. Cohen, on the other hand, identifies Shylock as a lone and unsuccessful defender of equity and social freedoms against “royal authority”—an issue that would become increasingly important in England as the days of monarchical rule came to a close and the period of Cromwell's Commonwealth approached.

Marion D. Perret (1988) touches upon racial questions in The Merchant of Venice when he remarks that Shylock's race would have been irrelevant to Shakespeare's audience, who, he contends, would have been more concerned with the moneylender's business and religious practices. By contrast, John Picker (1994), Avraham Oz (1995), and James Shapiro (1995) all see race as a crucial issue in the play. Each stresses Europe's (and more specifically England's) fear of the outsider or non-European as a factor in the way in which Shylock is treated—first by Antonio, and later by Portia and the Duke of Venice in the trial scene. Oz observes that the treatment of Jews by European cities was, in fact, a means of enforcing power over all outsiders as well as over all Europeans who were subordinate to the local authority. Oz asserts that Shylock's bargain with Antonio represents an attempt to reverse the relationship between those who have power and those who do not. Shapiro looks at the play from a slightly different point of view: in his examination of British performances of The Merchant of Venice over the centuries, he observes that audiences and directors have struggled to accommodate Jews, whom they regard as a threatening, non-English race which is nevertheless of great economic importance. Mary Janell Metzger (1998) refers to color as a distinguishing factor for race in the play. Metzger notes the frequency with which Jessica is described as white-skinned and therefore noble in contrast to her father, Shylock, who is dark-skinned and untrustworthy. Jessica, Metzger argues, is white enough to be regarded by some of the characters as a “latent Christian”—thus “racializing” the conception of what it is to be Jewish. Kim F. Hall (1992) and B. J. Sokol (1998) discuss the treatment of other races in the play. Hall examines a brief reference in Act III to a “Moor,” or black, woman whom Lorenzo claims has been impregnated by Launcelot. These few lines, Hall asserts, highlight the English nation's preoccupation with preserving its identity and power as a race—an issue that was of much concern to Elizabethan England, deeply involved as it was at the time in colonization and commerce overseas. Sokol acknowledges the fact that such prejudice against other races and colors was legally condoned in England, but he also argues that Shakespeare employs language and characterization to reveal the Elizabethan public's actual contempt for the discriminatory laws of the land. Sokol contends, for example, that Launcelot's crude jokes about the Moorish woman and Portia's vocal relief at not having to marry the Moroccan prince are meant to reflect badly on the speakers rather than on the victims of their remarks.

The discussion of The Merchant of Venice as an allegorical statement focuses more on Shylock's religion than his race. Some early critics argued, for example, that the trial scene during which Shylock is out-maneuvered by Portia and is punished for his cruelty stands for the triumph of Christianity over Judaism. Recently, however, scholars have taken a more specific and measured view of the allegorical elements in the play. While both Susan McLean (1996) and Judith Rosenheim (1996) note that the play intentionally echoes the parable of the Prodigal Son, neither concludes that this allusion to the New Testament functions unequivocally as a condemnation of one religion over another. Instead, McLean asserts that the complex and sometimes ironic “enactments” of different parts of the parable between various characters—Launcelot and Old Gobbo, Antonio and Shylock, Jessica and Shylock, Bassanio and Antonio—indicate that there is no easy way to forgive nor any one particular road to salvation. Similarly, Rosenheim argues that the genuine father/son relationship between Old Gobbo and the prodigal Launcelot reflects a symbolic one between Shylock and Antonio, and that the power struggle that occurs between each pairing represents both the flaws and virtues of the moral values of our own time as well as of Shakespeare's. Finally, Matthew A. Fike (1994) suggests an allegorical reading of the play when he observes that unlike other comedies by Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice is filled with a sense of disappointment, be it in business dealings (Shylock and Antonio), friendship (Bassanio and Antonio), or love (the participants in the ring scene) and that in this highly complicated play, disappointment represents humanity's earthly condition as one in which flawed happiness is the only type possible.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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SOURCE: “Responses, Sources, Contexts,” in Harvester New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare: ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ Harvester/Wheatsheaf, 1988, pp. 9-28.

[In the essay below, Lyon describes The Merchant of Venice as a “controversial play.” He demonstrates that literary critics have been widely divided concerning Shakespeare's views on anti-Semitism, and concludes that the play needs to be examined not only from the point of view of Shakespeare's era, but also within the context of his other plays.]

The safest place to begin with so controversial a play as The Merchant of Venice is with effects rather than causes. In a brilliantly economical survey of the play's criticism, Norman Rabkin recently identified the essential quality of The Merchant of Venice to be its capacity to provoke a welter of diverging and opposing responses. Consequently Rabkin lamented the play's critical history as a series of strategies of evasion, determined either to dismiss the play, or through partiality and evasion, to coerce it into a thematic and tonal unity. Rabkin's crisp diagnosis of this critical tradition merits quotation at length:

Such radical disagreements between obviously simplistic critics testify to a fact about their subject that ought to be the point of departure for criticism. Instead, critics both bad and good have constructed strategies to evade the problem posed by divergent responses. Some blame Shakespeare, suggesting that his confusion accounts for tension in the work and its audience. Others appeal to a narrow concept of cultural history which writes off our responses as anachronistic, unavailable to Shakespeare's contemporaries because of their attitudes towards usury or Jews or comedy. Still others suggest that, since the plays are fragile confections designed to display engaging if implausible characters, exegetical criticism is misplaced. Though all of these strategies attract modern practitioners, they have lost ground before the dominant evasion, the reduction of the play to a theme which, when we understand it, tells us which of our responses we must suppress. The ingenious thematic critic … is licensed to stipulate that ‘in terms of the structure of the play Shylock is a minor character’ and can be ignored, or that the action is only metaphorical and does not need to be examined as if its events literally happened, or that Shylock is only a Jew, or a banker, or a usurer, or a man spiritually dead, or a commentary on London life, never a combination of these; or that The Merchant of Venice is built on ‘four levels of existence’ corresponding to Dante's divisions—‘Hell (Shylock), Purgatory proper (Antonio) and the Garden of Eden (Portia-Bassanio), and Paradise’; or that the play is exclusively about love, or whatever, and, insofar as it doesn’t fit the critic's formulation, it is flawed.

(Rabkin 1981, pp. 7-8)

Only very recently have critics (Leggatt 1974; Rabkin himself; Nuttall 1983; Berry 1985) been prepared to display at length a perplexity which may perhaps account for the reticence of so many of our great Shakespearean critics on the subject of The Merchant of Venice. The critical response to the play proves less than directly rewarding. This can be ascribed in part, as Rabkin implies, to critics' obtuseness and interpretative aggression. But it also says something more interesting about the tenacity of the play's hold on the minds of its audiences and readers. The Merchant of Venice proves an extraordinarily difficult play from which to free oneself into an adequate degree of objectivity, and criticism tends to be symptomatic of the play rather than illuminating of it. Indeed, such criticism can often seem a reactive prolongation of that unfolding of postures, positions and habits of mind which both characters and audience assume, reject and reassume in the course of the play's performance. The oddities and embarrassments which surface in the course of these critical arguments are co-extensive with those occurring in the play and amount, in themselves, to something of a comedy.

There are two predominating and opposed ways of reading The Merchant of Venice. The basic division of opinion manifests itself in a variety of ways. Thus critics divide over Shylock. Some see in him the consistent villain of the piece, and consequently celebrate the Christian lovers' triumph over him. Against this, some see in Shylock victimised humanity and, accordingly, view the play's lovers with varying degrees of scepticism which, in extreme cases, can amount to hostility. More particularly, there are two focal points in such disagreements, two rich and complex scenes where, in Act 1 Scene 3, Shylock and Antonio first agree the terms of the bond, and, in Act 3 Scene 1, Shylock declares his intention to claim his rights in respect of it. Critical debate, though lively, is circumscribed, limited to discussion of character, and Shylock's character in particular. Prior to this century, the body of criticism of The Merchant of Venice has shown this emphasis on Shylock, but has proved less rich or rewarding than that which has accrued to many of Shakespeare's other plays; it has often been occasional, prompted by particular productions of the play and reveals, as the stage history does, the predictable shift, as we move from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, in the characterisation of Shylock—from clown and villain to the figure of wronged humanity who merits our compassion. (See John Russell Brown, ‘The Realization of Shylock’, in Brown and Harris 1961, pp. 187-210.)

When we turn from critics who discuss character to those who discuss theme, we find the critical accounts broader, accommodating more of the play, but the critics remain similarly divided in their opinions and attitudes. Thus, for some critics the play secures and celebrates valued distinctions—between material and spiritual wealth; between venturing and usury; between generosity and possessiveness; between love and the law; between mercy and justice. For others the play works to quite the opposite effect, undermining such distinctions through dark and troubling ironies. And some such critics pursue what they see as the play's ironic mode to discover covert correspondences underlying the play's ostensible oppositions; hence, for example, the play's principal antagonists, Shylock and Antonio, are revealed to share the painful kinship of isolation and exclusion. These are larger discussions, not limited to a few of the play's great scenes, and exercised by questions of the relationship between the worlds of Belmont and Venice, and between the casket plot and the bond plot. As with considerations of character, however, the fundamental disagreement remains whether to regard the The Merchant of Venice as characterised by celebration or irony.

Frank Kermode is representative of those who emphasise celebration, and reveals incidentally the kind of oddity which typically accompanies the expression of such views:

The Merchant of Venice, then, is ‘about’ judgment, redemption and mercy; the supersession in human history of the grim four thousand years of unalleviated justice by the era of love and mercy. It begins with usury and corrupt love; it ends with harmony and perfect love. And all the time it tells its audience that this is its subject; only by a determined effort to avoid the obvious can one mistake the theme of The Merchant of Venice.

(Kermode, in Brown and Harris 1961, p.224)

The tone of this is reminiscent of that adopted by the overly brusque Antonio in his dealings with Shylock early in the play. With Kermode's earlier insistence on ‘the correct interpretation’ (ibid., p. 222), it is all the more surprising from a critic who is later to emerge as a champion of critical pluralism, and who has always emphasised the patience of Shakespeare before his interpreters. The tension between the claimed themes of harmony and love, and the impatience and intolerance with which they are urged is odd indeed. Kermode's method of argument is also interestingly representative in the way he appeals to analogies from nondramatic literary modes to ‘resolve’ the play's difficulties and thus stabilise, and perhaps falsify, the drama; in his case the appeals are to Spenser, Milton and the Bible. Barbara K. Lewalski pursues a similar interpretation of the play, with similar no-nonsense tone and similar appeals to nondramatic modes, here biblical allusion and allegory:

comprehension of the play's allegorical meanings leads to a recognition of its fundamental unity, discrediting the common critical view that is a hotch-potch which developed contrary to Shakespeare's conscious intention.

(Lewalski 1962, p.328)

But when the importing of an allegorical framework threatens to displace rather than illuminate the particularities of incident and character, might we not wonder whether drama should be subordinated to allegory in this way? We are getting remote from the experience of The Merchant of Venice.

Harley Granville-Barker has proved even more brusquely untroubled by the play in his insistence that the casket plot and the bond plot have all the unreality of fairy tales, unaware in that appeal that fairy tales and folklore rarely enjoy the psychological and sociological innocence he imputes to them (Granville-Barker 1958, Vol. 1, p.335). Concerned to assimilate The Merchant of Venice to the pattern of festivity and merriment which he discerns in Shakespearean comedy generally, C. L. Barber finds various embarrassments in pursuing this line of interpretation; Barber openly confesses his unease, but finds himself drawn into weak argument nevertheless:

The whole play dramatizes the conflict between the mechanisms of wealth and the masterful, social use of it. The happy ending, which abstractly considered as an event is hard to credit, and the treatment of Shylock, which abstractly considered as justice is hard to justify, work as we actually watch or read the play because these events express relief and triumph in the achievement of a distinction.

(Barber 1972, p. 170)

But a distinction which works only if we don’t think about it, is more likely to be a distinction undermined than a distinction made.

John Russell Brown also sees The Merchant of Venice as a play which secures distinctions—between material wealth and love's wealth. He finds the play's own sententiousness catching, but proves less than fully responsive to the drama's dynamic testing of such static aphorisms and can be led into such contortedly protective logic as the suggestion that ‘it is Shylock's fate to bring out the worst in those he tries to harm’ (Brown 1962, p. 74).

Of course, all of these critics, and many others who share the same interpretative emphasis on celebration, have valuable and substantial things to say about the play, but the oddities here suggest that their readings bear a tangential relation to The Merchant of Venice's essential nature.

Those critics who see The Merchant of Venice as an ironic play are also useful. Moreover, perhaps because they don’t pursue extraneous authorities to verify their interpretations, their readings often have the advantage that they focus more attentively and sustainedly on the drama before us. Even when overingenious or wrong-headed, the particularity of their arguments seems closer to the particularities of the play itself. But is also true that these critics are often no less biased nor odd than their opponents. Both A. D. Moody and Harold C. Goddard are aware that they are not offering interpretations from first principles, as it were, but their corrective readings often prove less surefooted than these critics might intend. Moody sees The Merchant of Venice as a play which ‘does not celebrate the Christian virtues so much as expose their absence’ (Moody 1964, p. 10), but comes repeatedly close, in his emphasising of the covert above the overt, to seeing the transparent evil of Shylock as no evil at all; Shylock's ‘villainy is almost naïve and innocent’ by comparison with the Christians' (ibid., p.29). At times Goddard loses his footing entirely and sinks into rhetoric and implausible metaphor:

Even Shylock, as we have seen, had in him at least a grain of spiritual gold, of genuine Christian spirit. Only a bit of it perhaps. Seeds do not need to be big. Suppose that Portia and Antonio, following the lead of the seemingly willing Duke, had watered this tiny seed with that quality that blesses him who gives as well as him who takes, had overwhelmed Shylock with the grace of forgiveness! What then? The miracle, it is true, might not have taken place. Yet it might have.

(Goddard 1960, p. 111)

If Professor Kermode sounded uncomfortably like Antonio, then Professor Goddard's pleading out-Shylocks Shylock, but without the villain's vengeance.

The Merchant of Venice's capacity to prompt these contradictory reactions has led critics to speculate about the circumstances of the play's composition and its creator's intentions. Initially, the focus of attention is the portrayal of Shylock. In H. B. Charlton's influential view, the anti-Semitic Shakespeare sets out to pander to prejudices common to himself and his audience but finds, in spite of himself, that his characteristic powers and intuitions lead to a humanised Shylock; ‘His Shylock is a composite production of Shakespeare the Jew-hater, and of Shakespeare the dramatist’ (Charlton 1949, p. 132). It is a powerful thesis, reiterated as recently as 1980 by D. M. Cohen, with but one alteration in its argument:

It is as though The Merchant Venice is an anti-Semitic play written by an author who is not an anti-Semite—but an author who has been willing to use the cruel stereotypes of that ideology for mercenary and artistic purposes.

(Cohen 1980, p. 63)

The limitation in such arguments lies in their often unintentionally diminishing image of Shakespeare as naïve and inspirational, a great artist almost in spite of himself. Shakespeare does not stumble on the fact of Shylock's humanity; a writer who habitually confers inner life on the characters he finds in his sources and who, as we shall see, characteristically compounds the complexities of these sources, is cultivating difficulty in a spirit of exploration. The openness which allows him to make such discoveries is matched by a resourcefulness in subduing the arising discrepancies into some degree and some appearance, at least, of artistic coherence.

Most recently some critics have emphasised, in The Merchant of Venice, not a failure of artistic unity but the dynamism of drama, and have therefore shown themselves more thoroughly admiring of the play. Ralph Berry finds it to have ‘the self-adjusting elasticity of the great play’ (Berry 1985, p. 46), and finds design in the play in its temporal shaping of the sequence of its audience's diverse responses: the play is so organised as to provoke the audience's discomfort. The boldest and most ambitious of recent critics writing on the play locate discrepancy and incoherence, not in Shakespeare's play, but in his, and our, world beyond the drama, and they thus transform talk of incoherence into praise of the play's inclusiveness. A. D. Nuttall finds The Merchant of Venice characteristic of Shakespeare's tendency ‘to take an archetype or a stereotype and then work, so to speak, against it, without ever overthrowing it’ (Nuttall 1983, p.124). But ‘Shakespeare will not let us rest even here. The subversive counter-thesis is itself too easy. We may now begin to see that he is perhaps the least sentimental dramatist who ever lived. We begin to understand what is meant by holding the mirror up to nature’ (ibid., p. 131). For Norman Rabkin, too, The Merchant of Venice in its inclusiveness, contradictions and complications, reflects the larger reality of a world itself unyielding of simple and single meanings. The ‘artistic multivalence … is the mirror of an unfathomable reality which is the source of the trouble … a reality that cannot be cut down to a single understanding’ (Rabkin 1981, p. 139-40). It misrepresents both Nuttall and Rabkin, each engaged in large considerations of Shakespeare and the nature of creativity and criticism, to adumbrate their arguments in this way and to narrow their speculations to apply only to The Merchant of Venice. Nevertheless, tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner, and we might worry that their emphasis on Shakespeare's reality and nature is at the cost of criticism and appreciation of his art, and that the play continues to trouble despite the grandeur of such exonerations: The Merchant of Venice perhaps represents a moment of integrity too questioning and insufficiently artful to contain multifarious truths within the coherence and consolation of art. Some, at least, of the irreconcilable elements in The Merchant of Venice are not shaped into telling insight, but remain unrewarding flaws, symptomatic of lines of thought discarded in the course of the exploratory process. Indeed, Nuttall's and Rabkin's arguments are not too far removed from the greater stringency of Dr Johnson who celebrates Shakespeare as the poet of nature whose incoherences and discrepancies, though natural, are incoherences and discrepancies none the less.

Like King Lear, The Merchant of Venice's provocativeness goes beyond critical response to creative redaction. Famously, King Lear spawned Nahum Tate's corrective Restoration work, The History of King Lear, and more recently, Edward Bond's Lear. The Merchant of Venice follows a very similar pattern, giving rise to George Granville's The Jew of Venice, first performed in 1701 and dominating the stage until Macklin's return to the Shakespearean text in 1741; and, more recently, to The Merchant, by Arnold Wesker, himself Jewish. What is interesting in the case of both works, given my argument for the inherently problematic and dramatic nature of Shakespeare's play, is how both redactions, though in opposing ways, simplify and clarify the issues of the original by means which also substantially reduce the dramatic power of the results. Granville's play secures Shylock as comic villain and celebrates love and friendship in the figures of Antonio, Bassanio and Portia. The most relevant omission is that of the critically contentious Act 3 Scene 1 of Shakespeare's play, where we had seen Shylock's reaction both to the loss of his daughter and to Antonio's losses; Shylock's villainy becomes much less ambiguous as a result of that omission. The now clear contrast between Shylock and the Christians is repeatedly and crudely pointed up in such moments as Shylock's aside in the scene, merely reported in Shakespeare but now dramatised by Granville, of Bassanio's and Antonio's pained parting:

… Oh my Antonio! ’tis hard, tho’ for a Moment,
To lose the Sight of what we Love.
Shylock (aside)
These two Christian Fools put me in mind
Of my Money: just so loath am I to part with that.

(Spencer edn, 1965, p.372)

In Granville's version, the original play's sententiousness is heavily augmented, playing, as it does, into the Restoration's shrivelled sense of dramatic action as merely subservient to, and illustrative of moral statement. Granville reverses the characteristic Shakespearean process of creation to the extent that the drama is now contained by its moral sententiae, its ‘good Morals and just Thought’ as the play's Epilogue puts it (ibid., p. 401). Action once exploratory is now ornamental, and the resulting play is both stable and static. The dramatic urgency of the early scenes in Shakespeare's play is supplanted by an interpolated scene of stylised moralising in which Antonio, Bassanio and Shylock drink to Friendship, Love and Money, respectively, and this moralised tableau-like quality is further enhanced by the addition of a masque reiterating the values of Love and Friendship.

As a creative response to what he sees as Shakespeare's anti-Semitic play, Arnold Wesker's The Merchant, first performed in Stockholm in 1976, is altogether more extreme—and understandably so, given the racial identity of the playwright and the holocaust after which he writes. But the integrity of his intention is destructive of the dramatic qualities of his play, and it is unsurprising that The Merchant failed in New York and has never been performed in London.

In Wesker's version, the casket plot is but the foolish philosophical whim of Portia's father, and the love of Portia and Bassanio is marked, not by any romantic idealism, but by pragmatism and realism. Jessica runs off with the ‘sort of’ poet, Lorenzo, in similarly mundane fashion, although she later proves stouter and more articulate in Shylock's defence than Shakespeare's Jessica did. The shallowness of the young Venetians is much emphasised. Wesker's Shylock and Antonio are old friends in their mid-sixties. This Shylock dominates his play: he is tyrannically hospitable; he is a miser only in so far as he hides Hebrew books to prevent the Christians burning them, and only his daughter is treasured above these books; a committed feminist, Shylock is out to demonstrate in the education of Jessica that daughters can be the intellectual rivals of sons. Money-lending is never Shylock's full-time occupation, and he uses his wealth to function as a one-man Arts Council in the Venetian ghetto, financing art, music, literature, philosophy and architecture. His wealth is further used in helping the poor and the Jewish refugees fleeing the Inquisition. Moreover, the Jews, through taxes and forced ‘loans’, are shown to be one of Venice's principal sources of finance.

Wesker's Shylock and Antonio agree their bond reluctantly, only because the law demands it. And it is a merry nonsensical bond indeed, in mockery of the law and agreed over much mutual tickling. Later Shylock's sole reason for not abandoning the legal claims he has in respect of the lapsed bond is that others in the Jewish ghetto fear—and have cause to fear—that the Christians will use such a precedent against them in future dealings. Shylock must stick to the law to ensure the law's future protection of his people, and his reaction when Portia deploys her legal tricks is thus a relieved ‘Thank God’. Shylock pays the price of seeming to threaten the life of a Christian, and now contemplates a departure for the Holy Land.

But Wesker's corrective urge is repeatedly of a vehemence and urgency in excess of what the immediate dramatic contexts he creates will sustain, and the emphatic extremity of his message is thus intelligibile only if we look beyond the particular moments in which it is delivered to the Shakespearean play against which it is a reaction. Wesker's The Merchant has a problematic status as a work of art and is not the autonomous drama it ostensibly appears but is parasitic on the play it reviles. The characters' voices are subordinated to the single, wilful voice of the playwright pursuing his argument with Shakespeare.

For us here, Wesker's redaction illuminates the Shakespearean original in two ways. In transforming his sources, Shakespeare had rendered Shylock a more complex and sympathetic character than the villain in the various tales he used, and clearly Wesker is moving very much further in the same direction. But in one important way Wesker is reversing the effect which Shakespeare had on his source materials. Wesker returns the story to its earlier simplicity, and unravels the teasings and testings which Shakespeare's creative amalgamation of a variety of sources had produced. The result is stridently univocal and undramatic. The three centres of narrative interest—Shylock and Antonio, Portia and Bassanio, Lorenzo and Jessica—are now securely and hierarchically ordered with the Shylockian tale almost eclipsing the other two. And the questions and challenges arising from the Shakespearean interplay of narratives are thus suppressed. Wesker renders the casket test cynical so that the Portia we see there is no longer at odds with the quick-witted character we see in the trial scene. Bassanio becomes once again the godson of the Antonio figure of Shakespeare's primary source, Ser Giovanni's Il Pecorone, and Antonio ages accordingly; the further amatory tension which the love of Antonio for Bassanio had introduced into Shakespeare's play is again excised in Wesker's version. The story, now so favourable to the Venetian Jews, has in other respects come full circle and Wesker is at odds with Shakespeare not merely in attitude but in method and art. While more obviously liberal, Wesker is also less exploratory.

Wesker's play vindicates his Jew. But it is a neat irony that Wesker's play is more akin to the flatter simplicities of Shakespeare's sources than to The Merchant of Venice itself; the story can become comforting for the prejudiced and the enlightened alike only if its Shakespearean truths are simplified.

The possible sources of The Merchant of Venice are multiple and various, admit of varying degrees of probability and influence, and extend both very far back to longstanding traditions of folklore, and to near-contemporary plays, some of which are now lost. (The full facts are discussed by Geoffrey Bullough [1957], Kenneth Muir [1977], and John Russell Brown in the Arden edition of the play [1961].) What is salient is the audacity implicit in Shakespeare's combining of such diverse material, his cultivation of the problematic and the probing. Shakespeare is going out of his way to make things difficult for himself and his audiences. In Ser Giovanni's Il Pecorone, the impecunious Giannetto is dependent on his Venetian godfather, Ansaldo, to finance the amatory pursuit of a widowed lady of Belmonte, whose devised test is altogether more basically sexual and mercenary. To win her, the suitor must bed her—not an easy task, since she habitually knocks him out, prior to bedtime, with some doped wine. If the suitor fails, he forfeits all his wealth. Effectively, the lady of Belmonte is running an enterprising business. Giannetto's third attempt on the lady is again financed by Ansaldo, despite the godfather's having been bankrupted by Giannetto's two previous ventures. Ansaldo now borrows from a Jew and is dependent on a bond which, if he fails to keep it, demands the payment of a pound of his flesh. The lady's maid warns Giannetto off the wine, Giannetto successfully performs the required test—the narrative spares us any details of the lady's initial surprise but reassures us that finally she is highly delighted by his performance—and Giannetto takes charge of Belmonte. Eventually, he recalls Ansaldo's bond and realises that his godfather's life must be in danger. Giannetto returns to Venice to be followed there by his lady in disguise, and she successfully performs her tricks in the Venetian courtroom. The ring intrigue follows but is quickly cleared up in Belmonte, where godfather Ansaldo is cheerfully married off to the lady's maid.

Borrowing from other sources, Shakespeare multiplies both his cast-list and the story’s complications. Thus the Jessica story is the synthesis of elements and hints from a wide range of narratives: she owes something to Abigail, the daughter of Barabas, Marlowe's Jew of Malta; she echoes the daughter of the usurer in Munday's Zelauto, a story which, with its financial borrowings and cruel bonds, influences The Merchant of Venice in multiple ways; and Jessica derives, too, from Il Novellino of Masuccio, where a young girl plunders her miser father to run off with the youth who is his debtor. The important point here is that in The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare seems to be multiplying his young couples and to be producing a number of triangular relationships which mingle obligations and loyalties of love and money (father—daughter—lover, friend—suitor—lady). By such means he sets up testing analogies among the various centres of dramatic interest. In what ways are the relationships between, first, Jessica and Shylock and, second, Portia and her father, similar? How does Bassanio differ from Lorenzo? Do Portia's and Bassanio's attitudes to money differ substantially from those of Lorenzo and Jessica? To this end, too, Shakespeare alters the relationship in Il Pecorone between Ansaldo the godfather and Giannetto the godson, to the loving friendship of Bassanio and Antonio. And Shakespeare rejuvenates the Ansaldo figure to further that emphasis. The neatness of Ser Giovanni's original is intentionally disrupted as Gratiano now marries the lady's maid, Nerissa, and in Shakespeare's asymmetrical ending, Antonio is left in disquieting isolation. A new complicating relationship comes into play in Shakespeare's drama. In contrast, Wesker, as we have seen, firmly subordinates the various love stories to the story of Shylock, and restores Antonio to his former dignified and disinterested age.

The Jew and/or usurer who is to become Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is frustrated in courtrooms as diverse as those of Il Pecorone, The Ballad of Gernutus and Munday's Zelauto, but Shylock's antecedents are not further punished. The new emphasis on the trial of Shylock and its painful consequences for him is Shakespearean; it deepens the seriousness of the threatening villain and invites speculation about the inner condition of Shylock's future life and about the society that preserves itself by such harsh means. Characteristically, Wesker again mitigates the isolated silence of Shylock's exit from the Shakespearean play in the new image of his projected pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

But perhaps the largest change which Shakespeare makes is in the borrowing of material from the Christian allegory of Gesta Romanorum, which allows Ser Giovanni's test of virility and seduction to be displaced by the decorous formality of the casket test. The trickery of the trial scene and the sexual trickery in Belmonte in Il Pecorone are all of a piece. They belong to a coarser and simpler comic world, fabliau-like in its ribaldry. When Shakespeare imports the casket plot into his play, this bawdry gets pushed to the side of the drama and is expressed through the figures of Gratiano and Nerissa. Bassanio's wooing of Portia is conducted by way of the caskets and involves the elevated and stylised presentation of rich depths of human feeling. Fabliau-like tales concentrate on the entertaining intrigues of action, while what we might describe as the romantic elements in the narrative of The Merchant of Venice invite its audiences and readers to look beyond events to matters of morality, feeling and human worth. It is this curious mixture of kinds of story which produces the greatest interpretative puzzles of The Merchant of Venice and may afford some explanation of the play's capacity to prompt opposing responses.

Shakespeare's fusion of this variety of sources is not without flaw; Bassanio, for example, is introduced as Antonio's ‘most noble kinsman’, a residual detail left over from Il Pecorone, but this relationship is never again mentioned in the play. But Shakespeare's bringing together of the realism of Il Pecorone and the romantic qualities from Gesta Romanorum produces the distinctive challenge of The Merchant of Venice: the shifting nature of the literary worlds in which the various stories are played out; the uncertainties over the kinds of response appropriate to the play's various characters; and the typical tensions between the play's characters and the situations in which they find themselves. Is Bassanio out of place in the elevated world of Belmont's moral testings? Is Portia more suited to being the dignified lady of Belmont or the quick-thinking manoeuvrer in Venice? In which scene and in which world are Portia and Bassanio most truly themselves?

Again in contrast, Wesker in his version refuses to enter imaginatively into the expressive life of the casket plot convention and views it externally, as it were, as merely the mad whim of a foolish philosopher, a whim to be circumvented by some devious thought in order that a shallower and more tawdry love between Wesker's Portia and Bassanio can come to fruition.

Wesker's The Merchant illuminates the controversies which surround The Merchant of Venice in a second way. Throughout his play, Wesker is much exercised by the problem of interpretation and repeatedly off-loads undigested and undramatic lectures on Jewish history on the slender and insufficient pretext that Shylock, who gives voice to them, is a garrulous hoarder of books, much interested in his racial past. In attempting to locate some stability of attitude among the ambiguities of The Merchant of Venice, and to constrain the play's troublesome meanings, literary critics often appeal beyond literature to history and historical contexts. Although few literary historians would defend the assumption in the abstract, they often argue, in their considerations of The Merchant of Venice, as if, unlike literature, history were straightforwardly factual, unambiguous and not itself in need of interpretation. But within Wesker's play, historical information is extensively used as an honourable, if dramatically clogging, means to further Wesker's polemical argument and vindicate the Venetian Jews. Wesker's example usefully reminds us that historical argument, like art, is never merely factual and is rarely disinterested.

Arguing that Shylock is a villain, that Shakespeare and his audiences were, to a man, prejudiced against Jews, and that the practice of usury was universally reviled, though practised none the less, E. E. Stoll is representative in his naïve confidence in Shakespeare's ‘thoroughly Elizabethan taste’, ‘the popular imagination’, ‘the established traditions’ and so on. Stoll exhibits, too, a tendency to argue from origins, and in doing so, to argue The Merchant of Venice back to the cruder simplicities of its antecedents. Thus Shylock is dragged back to the Jews of medieval iconography and the Mystery plays, and to the Barabas of Marlowe's cruder, more farcical Jew of Malta—though, as Stoll doesn’t note, the Christians in that play are not shown much more favourably than Barabas himself. But, even allowing that Stoll's characterisation of the times is predominantly accurate, The Merchant of Venice may be a response to, as well as a reflection of, popular beliefs and prejudices (Stoll 1927, pp. 255-336).

One particularly neat example of history's untidiness, its tendency to complicate rather than clarify, lies in Renaissance England's attitudes to usury, an issue central to our play. But even that is not strictly true. Rather oddly, critical interpretation of The Merchant of Venice so often circles around the issue of usury when, in fact, no transaction involving usury occurs in the dramatic action of the play. (See, for example, E. C. Pettet, ‘The Merchant of Venice and the Problem of Usury’, in Wilders 1969, pp. 100-13.) Shylock is by profession an usurer, although we never see him behaving as one on stage, and none of the numerous financial dealings and misdealings in the play involve usury. Yet characters within the play judge, or prejudge, Shylock by his profession rather than by his immediate actions, and critics beyond the play—especially those who see Shylock as the villain of the piece but wish to defend the play from accusations of anti-Semitism—maintain that emphasis. This phenomenon is but one of the play's examples of the workings of prejudice and its infectiousness: judgements are formed on the evidence of, or hearsay about, the past, and such judgemental habits preclude the possibility of innocence in the present and particular. Yet it remains true that Shylock is an usurer and that usury is important to the play, even if that importance has been exaggerated. History proves less helpful than it might, and, like the play, displays an ambiguous and equivocal attitude to usury.

In 1571 English law legalised usury, despite the evidence that it was ruining the more profligate among the landed gentry caught out by the inflation attendant on the rise of commerce. In 1572 Thomas Wilson published his Discourse Upon Usury which reiterates, energetically and at length, medieval and religious hostility to the practice of usury. And this is a text much favoured by purveyors of Elizabethan World Pictures, despite, it seems, Elizabethan practice. But in the third edition of his Essays, published in 1625, Francis Bacon, writing ‘Of Usury’, takes a more sanguine and balanced view. He argues that, given human frailty, usury is a necessity and discovers not merely the disadvantages but the benefits of the practice. Between Wilson and Bacon comes The Merchant of Venice, written at some time between 1596 and 1598. It would seem that in their actions, in their discursive writings, and, indeed, in their plays, these Elizabethans do not take an unequivocally black view of usury.

In this example I am gesturing briefly at the intellectual and social history of Renaissance England. But which history are we to appeal to? If we are seeking the security of a context for The Merchant of Venice then geography conspires with history to augment our difficulties. Do we look to Shakespeare's England? Or to the history of Venice? Or, more problematically still, to the history of Belmont? Are we not rather dealing with a coalescing of various kinds of history and fiction which occurs within the dramatist's mind and which we are more likely to recover from an examination of the play, than from history books? And if we look beyond Shakespeare to the history of his audience, we might wonder whether Shakespeare plays to his audience's assumptions, or plays against them or, most likely, does both in his usual complex way.

Nevertheless, The Merchant of Venice is not ahistorical. Indeed, it is itself an historical document which contains history's complexities and ambiguities—although the play is not merely that. But The Merchant of Venice isn’t autonomous either, and if we need a context for the play, then what follows here suggests that Shakespeare's larger oeuvre answers most fully to that need. Of the same historical period, created by the same mind, and in the same literary mode, Shakespeare's other plays illuminate The Merchant of Venice but do violence neither to its individuality nor its complexity.

Marion D. Perret (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Jew: Preconception and Performance,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. XX, 1988, pp. 261-68.

[In the essay below, Perret asserts that modern directors of The Merchant of Venice are wrong in worrying about Shakespeare's anti-Semitism, and claims that the playwright might in fact have been parodying his audience's views rather than pandering to them.]

Because Bernard Beckerman was so interested in the theater, for this panel on “The Merchant of Venice: Problems of Influence” I have chosen to consider some ways in which preconceptions about Jews in Shakespeare's time and ours have influenced performance. My hope is that approaching the play through the preconceptions of its audience can reveal something about how the play, if not the playwright, works and shed some light on the problem of Shakespeare's supposed anti-Semitism.

Underlying my consideration are two assumptions. The first is that Shakespeare, consciously or unconsciously, would have taken his audience's preconceptions into account in shaping both text and performance of The Merchant of Venice. The second is that most Elizabethan playgoers and many modern ones would equate the performance they see with Shakespeare's text. In the theater the play is, effectively, what the audience sees played; what they see played depends partly upon what they notice, and what they notice depends upon their preconceptions.

As a practical man of the theater, Shakespeare must have recognized that the audience of The Merchant of Venice would bring to the playhouse certain assumptions about Jews, whom the Elizabethans would have encountered only as Marranos, apparent converts to Christianity who practiced their old faith secretly (Roth 139-43). Shakespeare would have known that most in his audience thought Jews cold-hearted usurers and crucifiers of Christ. That anti-Semitism in Shakespeare's day was not based on race (Echeruo 5-8) is important because it explains why the Elizabethans could respond to some actions, such as Shylock's conversion under pressure, differently than we do. As Jonathan Miller notes, “if the Jew's fault stems from his failure to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah,” that fault disappears when he consents to becoming a Christian (821). The Elizabethan playgoers would have paid attention not to Shylock's race but to his occupation and his religion; to both their immediate response would have been negative.

Although Shakespeare may have written the play to capitalize on excitement stirred up by Marlowe's The Jew of Malta and the trial of Dr. Lopez, this does not necessarily mean that Shakespeare intended to present his Jew as stereotypically villainous—he may instead have felt a need to show that Jews are men rather than monsters. Nor does it necessarily mean that Shakespeare intended to focus on the nature of the Jew rather than on the nature of the Christian. Marrano or Puritan, usurers in Elizabethan England were Christian, allowed by the law of 1571 to charge ten percent interest (Pettet 21); in The Description of England (1587) William Harrison speaks of usury as “a trade brought in by the Jews, now perfectly practiced almost by every Christian and so commonly that he is accounted but for a fool that doth lend this money for nothing” (as quoted in Danson 146). Theatergoers stimulated by the play into thinking about the abuse of usury would be likely to reflect as much upon the cruelty of English Christians as upon the cruelty of a Venetian Jew.

The stir caused by The Jew of Malta and the trial of Dr. Lopez does mean, however, that Shakespeare's audience had strong preconceptions of the Jew for the playwright to work with or against. Playgoers would take for granted ways in which the presentation of the Jew fit their preconceived image. Playgoers attentive enough to note ways in which the Jew did not fit their stereotype—such as Shylock's sentimental attachment to the ring given him by Leah before their marriage—would be struck by these deviations. Paradoxically, thinking in terms of stereotypes could lead the playgoer away from thinking in terms of stereotypes.

The text does not prepare playgoers to see a moneylender in Jewish gaberdine; Shylock's entrance in I.iii in exotic garb and makeup would have startled the first audience into attention. Their preconceptions about Jews, confirmed by Shylock's aside explaining his hatred of Antonio, would lead them to hear more sinister undertones to Shylock's offer than Antonio does. Shakespeare has carefully set up the sequence of what the moneylender tells us to stress certain preconceptions more than others. Shylock's first words emphasize money, and his first aside announces that he hates the merchant more for business reasons than for religious ones. Shylock's long tale about how Jacob made ewes breed, “inserted to make interest good,” irritates Antonio into insisting that the Jew get to the point; this should make the audience listen carefully for that point and consider not only how unconvincing the analogy is but also how convincing “Hath a dog money?” is. Shylock's point, “Is it possible / A cur can lend three thousand ducats?” is that self-interest should teach us to be humane to others, regardless of religion. Antonio's “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose” warns the playgoers not to judge characters only by what they say, especially by what they say about religion. The way Shakespeare in I.iii plays with preconceptions about Jews and usurers works against our seeing religion as the central issue here. Because Shylock's first scene gives the moneylender as well as the merchant an opportunity to declare his feelings about the Jew's occupation and religion, Shylock, as Danson observes, “can be judged on the basis of what he will do in the course of the play, rather than on preconceived notions” (150).

Though The Merchant of Venice pleased King James so much that he ordered it played a second time during Shrovetide 1605 (Chambers 2: 332), we know almost nothing about how the play was originally presented and very little about how the audience perceived it. This is particularly frustrating because, as Styan points out, Shakespeare may have functioned like a modern director in shaping the performance (53), which would thus give us a clue as to his auctorial intentions. What contemporary evidence we have suggests that Shylock had theatrical impact out of proportion to the number of scenes in which he appears, but that this impact was not enough to change the play from comedy to tragicomedy or to give the bond plot predominance over the love plot.

There is no Elizabethan evidence that Shylock was perceived as a strong tragic element; the head- and running-titles of the first quarto (1600) call the play a “comicall Historie” (Chambers 1: 368), and Mere's list in Palladis Tamia (1598) includes it among the comedies. That the play was regarded as a comedy does not, however, mean that Shylock was originally presented as a comic villain, as Doggett played him in 1701, although the sight of Shylock with false nose and red wig and beard would work against serious or sympathetic consideration. Stage tradition cannot be indiscriminately relied upon in reconstructing the original performance. The tradition “that Shylock was intended as a comic figure,” Grebanier points out, “dates from Granville's perversion of the play” (313). The tradition that Richard Burbage was the first Shylock is questionable because the sole authority for it is some lines, presumably forged, added by Collier to the Elegy on the Death of Richard Burbadge (Furness 370). Baldwin, in working out the roles acted by each member of Shakespeare's company, assigns Shylock not to Burbage but to Thomas Pope, the “high comedian and gruff villain” of the company (246).

We might know more about Shakespeare's intent if we knew who played Shylock. If Burbage, the leading actor, played Shylock rather than Bassanio, the audience would give more, and more careful, attention to the Jew. Regardless of who played Shylock, the plot guarantees dramatic importance to the moneylender, although he appears in only five of the twenty scenes, and Shakespeare develops the moneylender's character more fully than did his source Il Pecorone.

Whatever the playwright's intention, that the Elizabethans found Shylock a powerful presence onstage is sugested by the title page of the first quarto, which announces “The most excellent Historie of the Merchant of Venice. With the extreame crueltie of Shylocke the Jewe towards the sayd Merchant, in cutting a just pound of his flesh: and the obtayning of Portia by the choyse of three chests.” Shylock is immediately individualized, pointed out by name, while Antonio, who gives the play its title, is referred to simply by his occupation.

Even so, the title page in no way indicates either that the play is focused on Shylock or that Shylock is seen as an opposite to Portia, the only other character accorded a name. The description calls attention to the casket scene rather than to Portia herself or to the intensely dramatic courtroom scene, although this must have appealed greatly in that litigious age. Instead of balancing Shylock's cruelty against Portia's charity or cleverness, the subtitles refer to Shylock's “crueltie” and Bassanio's “obtayning” of Portia—the polarity of values we have learned to see the characters as representing (Old Law/New Law, Justice/Mercy, getting/giving) appears not to have struck the Elizabethans as forcefully as it strikes us. Only in relation to Shylock does the title page draw on stereotypes: Shylock is referred to not as moneylender but as Jew, which for an Elizabethan effectively identifies his occupation, and the dominant impression of “extreame crueltie,” a popular preconception about money lenders, Jewish or Gentile, has eclipsed the fact that Shylock does not actually cut any flesh.

We naturally know more about modern preconceptions and performances than about those of the Elizabethans. Preconceptions about how Shylock should be treated come from several sources: our own experience and belief; our reading about the play; our culture's acceptance of religious pluralism and rejection of the horrors of the Holocaust. Most of what we know invites us to extend sympathy to Shylock, so that as Hunter observes, we tend to “push modern reactions to modern anti-Semitism into a past where they do not belong” (66). When reading Shakespeare, we make an effort to subordinate our preconceptions to Elizabethan ones, but while watching Shakespeare, we instinctively react as though “what Shakespeare intended does not matter—what matters is what he did”—whether or not we go on to assert, as Stoll does, that “we have as good a right as Shakespeare to our opinion of Shylock” (331). Because current preconceptions are different from the Elizabethan ones, productions of The Merchant of Venice today are often shaped defensively. Directors have to deal with our assumption or fear that the play is anti-Semitic; accusations of prejudice dog the play because our consciousness, scarred by modern persecution of the Jews, encourages a stubborn tendency to see this Jew as symbolic of all Jews.

A major reason playgoers persist in seeing The Merchant of Venice primarily in terms of Jew against Christian, or, more precisely, of Christians against the Jew, is that Shylock encourages others to regard him as the victim of religious persecution (Grebanier 179). Our sense of his being persecuted because of his faith comes partly from historical fact, partly from the way he manipulates our perception of the cause of mistreatment, and partly from our preconceptions, which lead us to undervalue the second of the two reasons, religious and economic, he gives for his seeking revenge. To the Elizabethans it mattered little whether Shakespeare presents the Jew as villainous because he is a usurer or villainous because he is a Jew. To us it matters a great deal. Since we assume that interest will be asked when money is lent and we take commercial competitiveness (but not ethical values) for granted, we pay more attention to the religious motive Shylock stresses to the Christians than to the economic motive he stresses to his fellow Jews—which the text actually emphasizes, both in number of lines and in number of characters recognizing this motivation.

This tendency to separate economic motivation, that does not catch our attention or disturb us, from religious motivation, that does, leads many playgoers to hear in Shylock's “Hath not a Jew eyes?” a plea by one man on behalf of his race, without recognizing how the moneylender shifts the ground of offense to justify his personal desire for revenge. Willy-nilly, the modern audience throws on Shylock the burden of epitomizing a long-suffering people. Shylock invites us to respond this way by adopting in the presence of Christians the attitude of Persecuted Jew. That he has been mistreated by the Christians is made clear early in the play—Antonio, who has spat upon Shylock's Jewish gaberdine, declares he may do so again—yet it is also made clear that Antonio scorns Shylock not because Shylock is an enemy of Christ but because Shylock is a usurer. Our preconceptions keep us from noting that when no Christian is around, Shylock acts like a human being who just happens to be a Jew; he no longer acts the victim of anti-Semitism.

This inability to see Shylock simply as an individual causes a disquieting clash between our preconceptions about Shakespeare and our preconceptions about Jews. None of us likes to think that our Shakespeare, Shakespeare of the comprehensive humanity, could be prejudiced. Yet Shylock's inviting us to regard him as scorned simply because he is a Jew strikes a sensitive spot in playgoers haunted by memories of the Holocaust. Understandably supersensitive, playgoers may perceive an unflattering presentation of this particular Jew as an unflattering representation of all Jews and mistreatment of the Jew by other characters as mistreatment by the playwright. To view IV.i as primarily the destroying of Shylock and only incidentally the rescuing of Antonio is to see what happens through Shylock's eyes. We need to remember that Shakespeare is neither Gratiano nor Shylock. Shakespeare, innocent of modern history and not responsible for our preconceptions, gives us a Jew who is persecutor as well as persecuted and who under pressure chooses to give up his religion rather than his money. If the audience could see Shylock as a human being who is also a Jew, rather than as the Jew, those who put on the play would be freer to find Shylock's rightful place in the delicate balance of the drama.

Long before the Holocaust, in 1911, Stoll declared that “on the popular stage … Shylock must be played pretty much as Irving played him,” that is, as a tragic figure, “though this is not Shakespeare's Shylock” (334). Only five years ago the New York Times reported that “many Shakespearean scholars and Jewish critics agree that it is not so much the play itself as how it is played that really matters” (Kakutani 30), presumably because performance can vindicate their preconception of Shakespeare as too large of soul and sympathy to have written an anti-Semitic play. What keeps The Merchant of Venice onstage today seems to be less its greatness than the challenge of presenting it in ways that diminish in performance what can be perceived as bias in the text.

There are a number of strategies for making our sympathy for Shylock seem evoked by Shakespeare. Interpretive cutting can refocus the play. In the nineteenth century the last act was frequently omitted, so the play in effect ended with the exit of Shylock, broken. Jonathan Miller's 1970 production at the National Theatre, which starred Laurence Olivier as Shylock, made the Jew almost a tragic hero by changing the primary motive for his vengefulness. This was accomplished by eliminating the explanations Shakespeare gives him in I.iii.39-42,

I hate him for he is a Christian,
But more, for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis, and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice,

and in III.i.119-21: “I will have the heart of him, if he forfeit; for, were he out of Venice, I can make what merchandise I will.” Without these lines Shylock becomes more sympathetic; it appears that he seeks Antonio's heart not because the merchant has undercut his business but because his own heart, his daughter Jessica, has been stolen from him by one of Antonio's set. For those who saw the National Theatre production without a fresh memory of the play, the loving Shylock created by interpretive cutting was Shakespeare's Shylock.

Playing against the text as well as playing with the text reshapes our sense of Shakespeare's Shylock. For example, in the version of this production televised in 1974, III.i is carefully shaped to create sympathy through sentimental vignettes of a Jew more sinned against than sinning. Shylock, hearing of the ring traded for a monkey, stoops over his wife's picture and kisses it, sobbing. Opening a desk drawer, he takes out a prayer shawl, kisses it and puts it on, covers his eyes, then lifts them to heaven. The words that accompany these actions, “I will have the heart of him,” are overpowered by the striking visual images insisting that Shylock is a devout man driven to hate by the loss of a loved one. We are invited to pity the prayer-shawled figure rocking back and forth in speechless grief without reflecting upon the words just uttered. We easily forget what we hear, that Shylock meets Tubal at the synagogue not to worship but to plan the legal butchering of a human being. We recall instead what we see, Shylock the loving father, the devoted husband, the devout man (Perret 150). Shylock is unquestionably the focus of sympathy in this production.

Yet another strategy for avoiding any appearance of modern anti-Semitism, blackening the Christians rather than whitewashing the Jew, is used by Miller in his 1981 BBC production. As he points out in his introduction for television, “The Christians are shown to be just as merciless and heartless as the unjust Shylock.” The audience is forced to recognize that the inclination to torture knows no religious boundaries by the presentation of III.i, where the Christians cruelly make sport of a Jew whom they accuse of cruelty, and IV.i, where a Jew torments a Christian by insisting on the letter of the law, then is tormented by another Christian in the same way. To see Solanio lunge mockingly at Shylock's genitals when the Jew complains of the “rebellion” of his “flesh,” then Salerio lock his arm around Shylock's neck, choking off protest, is to be shocked into feeling for the Jew's vulnerable humanity. To see Portia standing behind Shylock, her hand holding his on the knife, insisting as he had insisted that he take his pound of flesh, is to be shocked into thinking about the Christian's inhumanity.

The approach of favoring neither Christian nor Jew calls attention to rather than mutilates what is in the text. While the insistent emphasis on flaws can make the characters and their world so unattractive that the comedy loses any sense of joy and light, as did the 1973 Rabb production (Novick 1, 5), the 1981 BBC production shows that such heaviness is not necessary. That we have, in general, come but a little distance from the Elizabethan expectation that performance should indulge preconceptions is suggested by the kind of objections I have heard made to the BBC production. Some felt the Jew should have been presented more positively, given more dignity; none felt the Christians should have been presented less negatively. The time is yet to come when performances of The Merchant of Venice, shaped without reference to the audience's preconceptions about Jews, can fully realize the text's painful richness.

Works Consulted

Baldwin, Thomas Whitfield. The Organization and Personnel of the Shakespearean Company. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1927.

Chambers, E. K. William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1930.

Danson, Laurence. The Harmonies orThe Merchant of Venice.” New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1978.

Echeruo, Michael J. C. “Shylock and the ‘Conditioned Imagination’: A Reinterpretation.” Shakespeare Quarterly 22 (1971): 3-15.

Furness, Horace Howard, ed. The Merchant of Venice. A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare. 13th. ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1888.

Hunter, G. K. Dramatic Identities and Cultural Tradition: Studies in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1978.

Grebanier, Bernard. The Truth about Shylock. New York: Random House, 1962.

Kakutani, Michiko. “Debate Over Shylock Simmers Once Again.” New York Times, 22 Feb. 1981, pt. 2: 1, 30.

Lelyveld, Toby B. Shylock on the Stage. Cleveland: Western Reserve Press, 1960.

Miller, Jonathan. “Shakespeare and the Modern Director.” In William Shakespeare: His World, His Work, His Influence. Ed. John F. Andrews. 3 vols. New York: Scribners, 1985. 815-22.

Novick, Julius. New York Times, 11 March 1973, pt. 2: 1, 5.

Perret, Marion D. “Shakespeare and Anti-Semitism: Two Television Versions of The Merchant of Venice.Mosaic 16 (1983): 146-63.

Pettet, E. C. “The Merchant of Venice and the Problem of Usury.” Essays and Studies 31 (1946): 19-33.

Roth, Cecil. A History of the Jews in England. 3rd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964.

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Ed. David Bevington. 3rd ed. Glenview: Scott, 1980. 260-91.

Stoll, Elmer Edgar. Shakespeare Studies. New York: Ungar, 1942.

Styan, J. L. Shakespeare's Stagecraft. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1967.

Kim F. Hall (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Colonization and Miscegenation in The Merchant of Venice,” in Renaissance Drama, Vol. XXIII, n.s., 1992, pp. 87-111.

[In the essay below, Hall focuses on lines in Act Three of The Merchant of Venice which describe Launcelot's impregnation of a black woman. Hall argues that this brief passage underscores a major theme of the play: the fear of racial intermingling that occurs when a country such as Elizabethan England makes imperialistic inroads into other countries.]

Samuel Purchas introduces his popular collection of travel narratives, Purchas His Pilgrimes (the 1625 sequel to Richard Hakluyt's Principal Voyages), by recounting the virtues of trade. He equates the benefits of navigation with Christian charity and leads his reader into the collection proper by envisioning a world converted to Protestantism:

… and the chiefest charitie is that which is most common; nor is there any more common then this of Navigation, where one man is not good to another man, but so many Nations as so many persons hold commerce and intercourse of amity withall; … the West with the East, and the remotest parts of the world are joyned in one band of humanitie; and why not also of Christianitie? Sidon and Sion, Jew and Gentile, Christian and Ethnike, as in this typicall storie? that as there is one Lord, one Faith, one Baptisme, one Body, one Spirit, one Inheritance, one God and Father, so there may be thus one Church truly Catholike, One Pastor and one Sheepfold?

(1: 56)

Charity may not begin at home, but it certainly ends up there, as the charitable cause of conversion redounds to the economic benefit of the English world. The initial ideal of “commerce and intercourse of amity” among many types of men is replaced by a vision of global unity that denies difference just as Purchas's own language does. (The singular construction [“one Lord, one Faith”] subsumes difference when it replaces the “and” that allows differences to exist simultaneously [“Jew and Gentile”].) English trade, rather than fostering a mixing of cultures, will eradicate religious differences, as well as cultural and gender differences, under one patriarchal God.

Purchas's glorified version of the end of English colonization similarly serves to efface the multivalent anxieties over cross-cultural interaction that permeate English fictions of international trade. In uniting economics and Christian values, Purchas highlights the fact that colonial trade involves not only economic transactions, but cultural and political exchange as well. The anthropologist Gayle Rubin notes in her influential feminist critique of Lévi-Strauss, “Kinship and marriage are always parts of total social systems, and are always tied into economic and political arrangements” (207). Likewise, the exchange of goods (or even the circulation of money) across cultural borders always contains the possibility of other forms of exchange between different cultures. Associations between marriage, kinship, property, and economics become increasingly anxiety-ridden as traditional social structures (such as marriage) are extended when England develops commercial ties across the globe. Extolling the homogenizing influence of trade suggests that English trade will turn a world of difference into a world of Protestant similitude. However, it leaves unspoken the more threatening possibility—that English identity will be subsumed under foreign difference.

It is this problem of “commerce and intercourse,” of commercial interaction inevitably fostering social and sexual contact, that underlies representations of miscegenation in the early modern period.1 In addition to addressing domestic anxieties about the proper organization of male and female (particularly about the uncontrolled desires of women), the appearance of miscegenation in plays responds to growing concerns over English national identity and culture as England develops political and economic ties with foreign (and “racially” different) nations. This essay will draw on Purchas's dual sense of the all-encompassing nature of trade encounters and colonialism's alleged homogenizing power to suggest the significance of a brief instance of miscegenation in Shakespeare that has been insistently ignored by critics.

Although the most central—and most commented on—problem of difference and trade in The Merchant of Venice is between Jew and Christian, more general anxieties about the problem of difference within economic exchange are encapsulated in an instance of miscegenation never staged. In act 3, the audience witnesses a joking interchange between Shylock's servant, Launcelot, and Lorenzo and Jessica about their mixed marriage:

Nay, you need not fear us Lorenzo, Launcelot and I are out,—he
tells me flatly that there’s no mercy for me in heaven, because I am
a Jew's daughter: and he says that you are no good member of the commonwealth,
for in converting Jews to Christians, you raise the price of pork.
I shall answer that better to the commonwealth than you can the getting
up of the negro's belly: the Moor is with child by you Launcelot!
It is much that the Moor should be more than reason: but if she be less
than an honest woman, she is indeed more than I took her for.


The Arden edition of Merchant helpfully notes that “this passage has not been explained” and suggests, “Perhaps it was introduced simply for the sake of the elaborate pun on Moor/more” (99n35). Their joking conversation no doubt parodically reflects the investment of the commonwealth in sexual practices. Nonetheless, it also begs the question of the difference between Lorenzo's liaison with a Jew and Launcelot's with a Moor. The Renaissance stage abounds with jokes about bastards: if Launcelot's fault was merely the getting of another, there would be no reason to emphasize that this invisible woman is a Moor. In his Black Face, Maligned Race, Anthony Barthelemy notes that this exchange reflects ideas of the licentiousness of the black woman typical of the time (124).2 However, it may be that this pregnant, unheard, unnamed, and unseen (at least by critics) black woman is a silent symbol for the economic and racial politics of The Merchant of Venice. She exposes an intricately wrought nexus of anxieties over gender, race, religion, and economics (fueled by the push of imperial/mercantile expansion) which surrounds the various possibilities of miscegenation raised in the play.


Before moving into the play itself, I would like to sketch out some of these anxieties over miscegenation by examining one of the play's possible “sub-texts” (Jameson 81). In 1596, despite her earlier support of English piracy in the slave trade, Queen Elizabeth expressed concern over the presence of blacks in the realm. She issued a proclamation to the Lord Mayor of London which states her “understanding that there are of late divers blackmoores brought into this realme, of which kinde of people there are allready here to manie” (qtd. in Fryer 10) and demands that blacks recently brought to the realm be rounded up and returned. This effort was evidently not very successful, as she followed up that proclamation with another order of expulsion:

… whereas the Queen's Majesty, tendering the good and welfare of her own natural subjects greatly distressed in these hard times of dearth, is highly discontented to understand the great numbers of Negars and Blackamoors which (as she is informed) are crept into this realm since the troubles between Her Highness and the King of Spain, who are fostered and relieved here to the great annoyance of her own liege people that want the relief which those people consume; as also for that the most of them are infidels, having no understanding of Christ or his Gospel, hath given especial commandment that the said kind of people should be with all speed avoided and discharged out of this Her Majesty's dominions. … And if there shall be any person or persons which are possessed of any such Blackamoors that refuse to deliver them in sort as aforesaid, then we require you to call them before you and to advise and persuade them by all good means to satisfy Her Majesty's pleasure therein; which if they shall eftsoons willfully and obstinately refuse, we pray you then to certify their names unto us, to the end Her Majesty may take such further course therein as it shall seem best in her princely wisdom.

(Qtd. in Jones, Elizabethan Image 20-21)3

While such critical attention as has been paid to this document concentrates on the attempt to discharge Moors from the realm and uses the attempt itself to prove the existence of a viable black presence in England (Newman, “And wash the Ethiop white” 148), the terms of the proclamation demand special attention. The image of large numbers of Moors having “crept into this realm” suggests that they suddenly appeared of their own volition (despite having been “fostered and relieved” here by unnamed residents).4 The proclamation then lays the fault of this invasion at the foot of Spain, a country already suspect for its past history of interracial alliance.5 The rest of the document is concerned to prevent contact between these “creeping” invaders and “her own liege” people despite its contradictory contention that Elizabeth's own subjects are the ones “possessed” of blackamoors to the detriment of the state.

Although chronic food shortages occurred throughout Elizabeth's reign and certainly seemed to be a goad to plantation and exploration, her naming of “these hard times of dearth” suggests that both of the expulsions occurred in the context of very immediate state concerns. England from 1594 to 1597 saw dramatic declines in grain harvests (the staple of the lower-class diet), culminating in the famine of 1597. Indeed, much of northern Europe (although, interestingly, not Italy) suffered from famine and starvation from 1595 to 1597. Although the famine in England hit hardest in the northwestern parishes, its effects were felt throughout the realm, as Andrew Appleby notes, “It is abundantly clear, however, that the grain harvest was the heart of the English economy … and that its malfunctions were felt, with disastrous results, throughout the kingdom” (137). Private citizens, the Privy Council, and the general public showed concern over the unavailability of bread even in the earliest of those years. These “dear years” carried with them a range of other social dislocations: a reduction in baptismal and marriage rates, a rise in mortality and civil unrest, and, significantly, the unemployment of servant classes. Key government measures were issued in proximity to both expulsions and indicate that the famine generated a degree of class conflict. Elizabeth's order to make starch from bran rather than grain needed for food was issued in the same month as the first order of expulsion. Another proclamation, ending price-fixing and compelling the landed classes to remain in the counties because “her majesty had thus determined for relief of her people to stay all good householders in their countries, there in charitable sort to keep hospitality” (Hughes and Larkin 172), was issued a few months later.

Equally important in the expulsion order is the reference to the religion (or lack of religion) of the Moors, which is based on the supposition that they are a logical group to cut off from state resources because they have “no understanding of Christ or his Gospel.” In this time of crisis Christianity becomes the prerequisite for access to limited resources. Certainly, Elizabeth's evocation of the religious difference of the Moor would seem to support the common view that religion, not race, is the defining mark of difference in early modern England.6 I would argue, however, that even though religion is given as a compelling reason for excluding Moors, emphasizing religious difference only clouds the political reality that the Moors' visibility in the culture made them a viable target for exclusion. In other words, it is their physical difference in association with cultural differences (a combination that is the primary basis for the category “race”) that provokes their exclusion—not just their religion.

In Elizabeth's proclamation we see what may be a source of the threat posed by Launcelot's Moor. In times of economic stress, visible minorities very often become the scapegoat for national problems. The proclamation shares with Merchant an alarm over unregulated consumption. Launcelot's evocation of the scarcity of food through his jesting over the rising price of pork reveals a similar unease over limited resources. Thus, famine, one of the more specific rationales for English colonial plantation and expansion, becomes here associated with the black woman. Ultimately both texts draw on and reproduce the same racial stereotype. Just as the image of the black female as consumer of state resources in the twentieth-century United States is statistically inaccurate but politically powerful, so may the black presence have been a threat (albeit small) to white European labor, which is magnified by its very visibility.7 This sense of privation produces an economic imperative in the play, which insists on the exclusion of racial, religious, and cultural difference. With the finite resources of a Venetian (or Elizabethan) society reserved for the wealthy elite, the offspring of Launcelot and the Moor presents a triple threat that in this world is perceived as a crime against the state. Their alliance is perhaps even more suspect than the ominous possibility of a marriage between Portia and the prince of Morocco, since it would produce a half-black, half-Christian child from the already starving lower classes who threatens to upset the desired balance of consumption. The pun on “Moor/more” further supports this image of the black woman as both consuming and expanding and is particularly striking in a play where the central image is the literal taking of flesh and where Christian males worry throughout about having “less.”

The acute sense of privation amid plenty is signaled through Merchant's ubiquitous images of starvation that are interwoven with the incessant eating in the play. Walter Cohen sees Launcelot as integral to the play and notes in particular the way he “systematically and wittily misconstrues Lorenzo's apparently straightforward order that the kitchen staff ‘prepare for dinner!’” (210). Launcelot's first move is to remind Lorenzo of the servants' hunger: “they all have stomachs” (3.5.44). Earlier, he claims that he is starving in Shylock's employ: “I am famish’d in his service. You may tell every finger I have with my ribs” (2.2.101-03). Shylock's version, “The patch is kind enough, but a huge feeder” (2.5.45), may reinforce the idea that these outsiders literally starve rightful citizens, yet it also suggests a Christian appetite out of control. Bassanio, describing his poor finances, suggests bulk without sustenance in saying that he lost wealth, “By something showing a more swelling port / Than my faint means would grant continuance” (1.1.124-25). Finally, Antonio, in reminding Solanio of Venice's strict commercial laws, laments, “These griefs and losses have so bated me / That I shall hardly spare a pound of flesh / Tomorrow, to my bloody creditor” (3.3.32-34).

The associations with eating and starvation link outsiders, particularly Shylock, with one of the most compelling tropes of colonialist discourse: the cannibal.8 Cannibalism was a source of as much anxiety as fascination for the traveler; it seemed to be one of the final lines drawn between the savage Other and the civilized self (Cheyfitz 42; Hulme 81-83; Kilgour 5-7). The reasons given for imperial plunder by Bertoldo in Philip Massinger's The Maid of Honour suggest that much of this obsession springs from a sense that the dividing line is not as clear as one might like:

Nature did
Designe us to be warriours, and to breake through
Our ring the sea, by which we are inviron’d;
And we by force must fetch in what is wanting,
Or precious to us. Adde to this, wee are
A populous nation, and increase so fast,
That if we by our providence, are not sent
Abroad in colonies, or fall by the sword,
Not Sicilie (though now, it were
more fruitfull,
Then when ’twas stil’d the granary of great Rome)
Can yeeld our numerous frie bread, we must starve,
Or eat up one another.


In specifically ascribing to the English an aggression and ferocity that are the essence of European definitions of the cannibal (Hulme 83), Bertoldo hints at the tentativeness of that division. The movement of the passage also suggests a blurring of boundaries: the opening image of the breach of England's geographic insularity which releases the energies of a warlike nation rapidly moves into an evocation of violent, desperate want which could easily turn in upon itself. Massinger skates a fine line between identity and difference in allowing his character to suggest that imperial expansion is the only thing separating the civilized Englishman from the cannibal and that the dangers of cannibalism lie on either side of England's borders. His metaphor is similar to an earlier and more specific reference to English want in Richard Hakluyt's Discourse of Western Planting. In this attempt to persuade Elizabeth to adopt a plantation policy, Hakluyt associates cannibalism with another marginalized group—the unemployed. He warns Elizabeth:

But wee for all the Statutes that hitherto can be devised, and the sharpe execution of the same in poonishinge idle and lazye persons for wante of sufficient occasion of honest employmente cannot deliver our common wealthe from multitudes of loyterers and idle vagabondes. … [W]e are growen more populous than ever heretofore: So that nowe there are of every arte and science so many, that they can hardly lyve one by another, nay rather they are readie to eate upp one another.


The troping of cannibalism links actual shortages of food with the need to promote colonial trade in a way that also provides a compelling metaphor for the loss of communal identity in such trade. The desire to make contact with and to exploit Others always carries with it the possibility of engulfment. Such fears of erasure are embedded in metaphors of eating, but the figure of the cannibal specifically locates such fears within a framework of colonial trade and religious difference.

The language of eating in The Merchant of Venice situates Shylock within this framework by merging images of cannibalism with older accusations of blood libel. He claims, “But yet I’ll go in hate, to feed upon / The prodigal Christian,” and Gratiano describes him, “thy currish spirit / Govern’d a wolf, who hang’d for human slaughter—” (4.1.133-35).9 According to Maggie Kilgour, feeding from (or eating with) the Other is a perilous involvement which carries the risk of being eaten by the Other:10

To eat in a country is potentially to be eaten by it, to enter into a false identification by being absorbed by a foreign culture—what we call “going native”—and so be prevented from returning to a place of origin in which one is truly at home. The opposite of returning to one's own hearth is ultimately to be subsumed totally by a hostile host.


Shylock's reluctance to eat with the Christians displays the fear of “be[ing] subsumed … by a hostile host,” but in terms that ratify the reciprocal Christian fear of being consumed by a guest/alien who has been allowed into the home/country. Economic exchanges with an outsider like Shylock open up Venice to sexual and commercial intercourse with strangers; this breach brings with it the threat of economic upheaval and foreign invasion. Social activities such as eating and marriage resonate because of the already permeable borders of the Venetian economy. In defending his insistence on the completion of a legal bond, Shylock comments on the assumed rights of the Venetians to “bond” and to preserve their racial purity in a speech laden with references to problematic communal activities:

You have among you many a purchas’d slave,
Which (like your asses, and your dogs and mules)
You use in abject and in slavish parts,
Because you bought them,—shall I say to you,
Let them be free, marry them to your heirs?
Why sweat they under burthens? let their beds
Be made as soft as yours, and let their palates
Be season’d with such viands?

(4.1.90-97; emphasis added)

Rhetorically, Shylock exposes the fears of a chauvinist culture by revealing the Venetians' problematic economic position, suggesting that, in such an open system, the slaves among them may just as well become sons-in-law.11 The passage may also tie the problem of eating with colonial trade in the reminder (“let their palates / Be season’d with such viands”) that the search for spices for aristocratic palates provided much of the momentum for foreign trade. His questions allow for a provocative glance at Queen Elizabeth's dilemma. Producers of labor are also consumers, and the blacks that she wants to exile are a presence precisely because of the increased economic expansion she supported.

As critics have often noted, the language of commerce and trade permeates the Venetian world. This mercantile vocabulary is tied to an erotic vocabulary in much the same way as Titania's description of her Indian votress in A Midsummer Night's Dream links the pregnant maid and Indian trade. Like his companion, Bassanio, Antonio begins the play in a melancholy mood; Solanio attributes his sadness not to love, but to the possibility of economic disaster: “Believe me sir, had I such a venture forth, / The better part of my affections would / Be with my hopes abroad” (1.1.15-17). Echoing the eroticized discourse of actual merchant adventure, Solanio's discussion of Antonio's afflictions as “affections” locates the erotic in the economic, particularly as he makes Antonio's fear of losing his ships sound much like the fear of losing a lover:12

should I go to church
And see the holy edifice of stone
And not bethink me straight of dangerous rocks,
Which touching my gentle vessel's side
Would scatter all her spices on the stream,
Enrobe the roaring waters with my silks. …


Solanio's displacement is all the more resonant in its religious overtones and its hints at a loss of Christian belief. Foreign adventure proves a dangerous distraction as the stones of the Christian church provoke reminders of the beguiling hazards of trade.

The potential dangers of Antonio's mercantile involvement with foreign Others, read as seductive sexual union, are offset by the rejection of difference in the golden world of Belmont. Bassanio's discussion of his intent to woo Portia suggests an interesting inversion of Antonio's economic adventures. The narrative of his romantic quest is filled with economic metaphors, and his description of Portia makes it obvious that there is an unfavorable balance of trade on the marriage market. Rather than bringing wealth into the country, suitors are coming to Belmont to win away Portia's wealth, as Bassanio notes:

Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth,
For the four winds blow in from every coast
Renowned suitors, and her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece,
Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchos' strond,
And many Jasons come in quest of her.


While Antonio participates in the expansion of Venice's economic influence, Bassanio insulates the sexual economy of Venice from foreign “invasion.” In language closely approximating Bassanio's, his competitor, the prince of Morocco, “a tawny moor” (and, we presume, a Muslim), frames his own courtship as colonial enterprise and religious pilgrimage when he chooses caskets:

Why that’s the lady, all the world desires her.
From the four corners of the earth they come
To kiss this shrine, this mortal breathing saint.
The Hyrcanian deserts, and the vasty wilds
Of wide Arabia are as throughfares now
For princes to come view fair Portia.
The watery kingdom, whose ambitious head
Spets in the face of heaven, is no bar
To stop the foreign spirits, but they come
As o’er a brook to see fair Portia.


Morocco reveals the peril of such international competition for wealth (and beauty). The test demanded by Portia's father expands the sex/gender system by opening up the romantic quest to foreign competition, as it were, inviting both the possibility of miscegenation and of another race absconding with the country's money and its native beauty. Morocco explicitly raises this idea and associates it with England:

They have in England
A coin that bears the figure of an angel
Stamp’d in gold, but that’s insculp’d upon:
But here an angel in a golden bed
Lies all within.


At the very moment in which he loses the game by making the wrong choice, Morocco raises the specter of a monetary and sexual exchange in England with the image of Portia as an angel in a golden bed. Although the metaphor would seem to deny the comparison (“but that’s insculp’d upon: / But here … ”), Portia is imaged here as the literalized coin of the realm. She, as object of an expanded sex/gender system, can like a coin be circulated among strangers.

The boundaries of Portia's island are hardly impregnable: the surrounding water “is no bar” and no more than a “brook” to outsiders; Portia herself is the open “portal” to Venetian wealth. The sexual and the monetary anxieties of a Venetian state that is open to alien trade are displayed and dispelled in the casket plot, which allows Portia to avoid the threat of contact with others. The prince of Morocco is thus able to attempt to woo but ultimately to lose her. He also loses his right to reproduce his own bloodline, a right not explicitly denied the other suitors (Shell 72). The momentary threat posed by the prince's wooing is dispelled, as is the larger cultural threat posed by the sexuality of the black male. The denial of his fertility should perhaps be looked at in juxtaposition with the fertility of Launcelot's Moor: the prince's sexuality denied, Launcelot then has license to replace him as the Moor's “cultural partner” and to appropriate her body.

The Morocco scene is only the most obvious example of the exclusionary values of Belmont. Portia derides all other suitors for their national shortcomings, reserving her praise for her countryman, Bassanio (a man who at first glance seems to have little to recommend him). Interestingly, the joking about the effects of intermarriage is preceded by the prince of Morocco's attempt to win Portia and Portia's deliverance as he chooses the wrong casket. Portia's response to her narrow escape, “A gentle riddance,—draw the curtains, go,—/ Let all of his complexion choose me so” (2.7.78-79), is typical of the generally negative attitudes toward blacks prevalent at the time, but, in true Belmont fashion, in no way reveals the political and economic implications of her aversion.13

The economic issues which underlie the romantic world of Belmont rise to the surface in Venice, where there appears to be a real cash-flow problem. Most of the Christian men, it seems, are on the verge of bankruptcy. Bassanio reveals his monetary woes in the opening of the play, “’Tis not unknown to you Antonio / How much I have disabled mine estate” (1.1.122-23). Despite Antonio's denial, his funds are stretched and the possibility of his financial ruin is evoked from the very beginning. Tellingly, Antonio has no hope for a legal remedy from his bargain because strangers in Venice have certain economic privileges:

The duke cannot deny the course of law:
For the commodity that strangers have
With us in Venice, if it be denied,
Will much impeach the justice of the state,
Since that the trade and profit of the city
Consisteth of all nations.


In Antonio's case, the very openness of Venetian trade has negative effects for the city's males. The protection Venetian law should afford its “own natural subjects” is weakened by the economic imperatives of mercantile trade.

In contrast to the males, the women are associated with an abundance of wealth. As we have seen, Portia comes with a large fortune and Lorenzo “steals” two thousand ducats along with a jewel-laden Jessica. The comic resolution of the play is not merely the proper pairing of male and female, but the redistribution of wealth from women and other strangers to Venice's Christian males. Portia's wealth goes to Bassanio, Antonio's is magically restored through her agency, and, most importantly, Shylock's is given over to the state through a law unearthed by Portia/Balthazar:

It is enacted in the laws of Venice,
If it be proved against an alien,
That by direct, or indirect attempts
He seek the life of any citizen,
The party ’gainst the which he doth contrive,
Shall seize one half his goods, the other half
Comes to the privy coffer of the state.


The law that allegedly gave advantage to aliens is counteracted by a law that repeals that advantage. More than providing an object lesson for Shylock, “hitting him where it hurts,” as it were, the punishment makes sure that the uneven balance of wealth in the economy is righted along racial and gender lines. Antonio's modification of the sentence only highlights this impulse, as he insists that his portion of Shylock's money be passed down “unto the gentleman / That lately stole his daughter” (4.1.380-81). Lorenzo's final expression of gratitude to Portia, “Fair ladies, you drop manna in the way / Of starved people” (5.1.294-95), typifies the tonality of the play. Portia does indeed drop manna (which she redistributes from the city's aliens) upon the males of Venice: she is the bearer of fortunes for Bassanio, Antonio, and Lorenzo.

Economic alliances in the play are made with expectations of one-way exchange, which is often troped through conversion. Thus Bassanio and Antonio stress Shylock's “kindness” when making the deal in order to give Shylock the illusion of a communal interest and identity rooted in Christian values. Antonio takes his leave, claiming, “The Hebrew will turn Christian, he grows kind” (1.3.174), a phrase which only serves to remind Shylock and the audience that his “kindness” is still contingent. The pun on “kind” used throughout this scene reminds us that the courtesy and “kindness” shown in the play's world is only extended to those who are alike and judged of human “kin” by Christians. Shakespeare also demonstrates how selective such inclusion can be when the duke, in an attempt to make Shylock forgo his bond, invites him into the community, not by imagining a shared humanity, but by creating a cultural hierarchy which stresses Shylock's difference: “From stubborn Turks, and Tartars never train’d / To offices of tender courtesy” (4.1.32-33). Such rhetorical moves only emphasize that the power of exclusion and inclusion rests with what Frank Whigham calls the “elite circle of community strength” and that the outsider is powerless to determine his status within that group (106-07).

The imagery associated with Shylock in the play reveals an ongoing link between perceptions of the racial difference of the black, the religious difference of the Jew, and the possible ramifications of sexual and economic contact with both. We can see clearly how the discourses of Otherness coalesce in the language of the play.14 In claiming that Chus is one of his countrymen, Shylock gives himself a dual genealogy that associates him with blackness, forbidden sexuality, and the unlawful appropriation of property.15 Obviously, Shylock's recounting of the Jacob parable has its own cultural overtones and serves to highlight his religious difference.16 However, his incomplete genealogy is further complicated by the fact that Jacob, the progenitor of the Jews, robbed his brother, Esau, of his birthright as eldest brother.17 Both Jews and blacks become signs for filial disobedience and disinheritance in Renaissance culture. In the two biblical accounts of blackness, Chus (or Cush), the son of Ham, is born black as a sign of the father's sin. A popular explanation of blackness recounted by George Best in his description of the Frobisher voyages shows the problem of disinheritance:

and [Ham] being persuaded that the first childe borne after the flood (by right and Lawe of nature) should inherite and possesse all the dominions of the earth, hee contrary to his fathers commandement [to abstain from sex] while they were yet in the Arke, used company with his wife, and craftily went about thereby to dis-inherite the off-spring of his other two brethren: for the which wicked and detestable fact as an example for contempt of Almightie God, and disobedience of parents, God would a sonne should be borne whose name was Chus, who not onely it selfe, but all his posteritie after him should bee so blacke and lothsome, that it might remaine a spectacle of disobedience to all the worlde.

(Hakluyt, Principal Navigations 3: 52)18

Like Shylock's genealogy, Best's narrative gives disobedience and disinheritance a crucial role in the formation of difference. In reading Jews and blacks as signs for theft from rightful heirs, such genealogies may have supported the notion for the English reader that these “aliens” usurp the rightful prerogatives of innocent (pre-Christian) victims. (In other words, forcible seizure of their property is excusable because their ownership is suspect.) The Ham story is a bit more problematic because Ham, the originator of the sin, was himself white. Only his offspring, Chus, bears the burden of the original sin, and the blackness thus becomes a reflection of the nether side of a white self. These biblical “sub-texts” help support the play's central action: a circulation of wealth to an aristocratic, male elite that is predicated on the control of difference. Aliens must be either assimilated into the dominant culture (Shylock's and Jessica's conversions) and/or completely disempowered (Shylock's sentence). Their use as explanations for racial difference allows for the organization of property, kinship, and religion within an emerging national—and imperial—identity.


Since the Venetian sex/gender system is constructed along the axis of foreign trade, it is not surprising that female characters play key (if little noted) roles in the circulation of wealth. The successful end of courtship (endogamous marriage) is achieved through the balancing of the problems of conversion, inheritance, and difference. The proper pairing of male and female thus comes to represent the realignment of wealth and the reassertion of control over difference. In their active desire, these outspoken women are often the more conservative agents of the play. Associated with conversion, they assure that wealth is redistributed into the hands of the male elite.

Merchant offers the Jessica-Lorenzo courtship as a successful type of cross-cultural interaction: one like our original model in Purchas, where cultural difference—and property—are controlled under the aegis of a Christian God. Unlike another disobedient daughter, Othello's Desdemona, Jessica's filial disloyalty is lauded by the community largely because her actions constitute submission to the larger, racially motivated values of Belmont and Venice. Ironically, her very disobedience proves her “faith” to her husband just as it shows her “fairness.” Lorenzo declares, “And fair she is, if that mine eyes be true, / And true she is, as she hath prov’d herself” (2.6.54-55). In cutting herself off from her father, Jessica also divorces herself from her Jewish ancestry. When she leaves her father's house, Gratiano declaims, “Now (by my hood) a gentle, and no Jew” (2.6.51), punningly connecting her conversion with the race and the class privileges of Belmont.

In fact, the very desire to marry a Christian separates Jessica from her father's alienness. Shylock's claim of consanguinity is resolutely denied throughout the play. Salerio declares, “There is more difference between thy flesh and hers, than between jet and ivory, more between your bloods, than there is between red wine and Rhenish” (3.1.34-36). The terms of Salerio's insistence on absolute difference go as far to exclude Shylock from the realm of humanity (so defined by Christian Venetians) as they do to include Jessica. Jessica herself, in a rehearsal of her own conversion, parodically stages herself as the bride of the Song of Songs, saying, “I am glad ’tis night—you do not look on me” (2.6.34), and covering herself with gold, “I will make fast the doors and gild myself / With some moe ducats” (2.6.49-50), as she begins the “conversion” of money from Shylock to Lorenzo. Jessica's disobedience is acted out as a gender transgression: she escapes from her father's house dressed as a page and is playfully aware of her transgressive behavior, “For I am much asham’d of my exchange” (2.6.35). Of the “exchanges” Jessica makes (husband for father, male dress for female, Christian identity for Jewish), the change in dress is the one she marks as potentially subversive. However, Jessica's cross-dressing is seemingly less complicated than Portia's, since her transgression, taking place as it does during a carnival and facilitating her assimilation into the community of Belmont, is validated by the rest of the play.

Like Jessica's cross-dressing, which is not only excused but lauded in the play, Portia's actions work mainly to fulfill the larger economic needs of the commonwealth. Portia is the focal point of the Venetian economy and its marriage practices: it is through her that money is recirculated to the Christian males and difference is excluded or disempowered. She describes her betrothal as a conversion, “Myself, and what is mine, to you and yours / Is now converted” (3.2.166-67). Bassanio's “pilgrimage” results in the “conversion” of Portia and her possessions as she too fills the coffers of the male Christians. As Balthazar and as Portia she performs a valuable service to the state. Her disguise allows her to become the agent of conversion and, as Frank Whigham notes, compulsory conversion is associated historically with confiscation of goods by the state. It is she (as Balthazar) who silences the alien. She is the enabling factor that “converts” cash to its “rightful owners,” not only hers to Bassanio, but Shylock's to the state and to his Christian heirs.

With their cross-dressing and their active pursuit of female desire, both Portia and Jessica break the constraints of gender; nevertheless, in a text dense with cultural, economic, and gender conflict, glorifying these women as the transgressive disrupters of social order may serve only to obscure the very complex nature of difference for a changing society in which racial categories developed along with changing organizations of gender.19 To look solely at hierarchies of gender defines the issue too narrowly and valorizes gender as the primary category of difference. Reading Portia as the heroic, subversive female proves particularly problematic when we place her actions in relation to other categories of difference. While her “witty” remarks about her suitors display a verbal acumen and forwardness typical of the unruly woman, her subversiveness is severely limited, for her strongest verbal abilities are only bent toward supporting a status quo which mandates the repulsion of aliens and outsiders. To valorize such cross-dressed figures as liberating Others is to ignore the way their freedom functions to oppress the racial/cultural Others in the play. Portia's originally transgressive act is disarmed and validated by the play's resolution when these “disorderly” women become pliable wives.

Although I have argued that these women serve in some ways as successful comic and economic agents, the play itself does not allow for the same neat elimination of difference offered by Purchas in the opening of this essay. Unlike other Shakespearean comedies, The Merchant of Venice ends not with a wedding or the blessing of the bridal bed, but with the exchange of rings and the evocation of adultery. The only immediately fertile couple presented in the play, Launcelot and the Moor, are excluded from the final scene. Her fecundity exists in threatening contrast to the other Venetians' seeming sterility, particularly as it is created with Launcelot Gobbo, the “gobbling,” prodigal servant whose appetites cannot be controlled. Like Shylock's absence, their exclusion qualifies the expected resolution of the text and reminds us of the ultimate failure to contain difference completely even as the play's aliens are silenced. The Moor, whose presence may be a visible sign for the conflation of economic and erotic union with the Other in the rhetoric of travel, provides a pregnant reminder of the problematic underpinnings of the Venetian economy.

In her Literary Fat Ladies, Patricia Parker charts the appearance of dilated female bodies in Renaissance texts. While they are specifically located within the rhetorical technique of dilation, these “fat ladies” are figures for the delay and deferral that is a central topos of many important Renaissance subtexts such as the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and the Bible (texts that are also key in the troping of imperial desires). The chief purpose of dilation (amplification or the production of copia) is mired in an anxiety over uncontrolled excess; hence the texts become as preoccupied with mastery and control over expansion as with the expansion itself. Parker argues, “Dilation, then, is always something to be kept within the horizon of ending, mastery, and control” (14). Certainly the problem of controlled expansion reverberates within colonial discourses of the Renaissance as travel writers and editors struggle to produce texts which allow expansion but always within the confines of conversion and colonial mastery. In some ways, the figure of the fat lady serves the same purpose as Purchas's introduction: the promise of profitable conversion within the space allowed by deferral of the judgment of the Second Coming.

These fat ladies resonate within a varied field of meanings associated with the judicial, the temporal, the genealogical, and the erotic. Although Parker does not specifically name Launcelot's Moor in her catalogue of fat ladies, she too operates within a similar web of meaning. She appears in the dilated space of the play that postpones both the resolution of Antonio's dilemma and the consummation of Bassanio's and Portia's betrothal. Like Parker's first example (Nell from The Comedy of Errors), she is a large presence that is only described. Not permitted to speak, the Moor still encapsulates ideas of copious fertility and threatening female sexuality.20 However, unlike the other Shakespearean fat ladies, Launcelot's Moor cannot be regarded as “a dilative means to a patriarchal end” (19), that is, as a momentary disruption of the text or a deferral that contains the promise of an ordered conclusion. Her pregnancy is a reminder of the dangerous result of uncontrolled crossing of borders, of trade that holds the dual (and irreconcilable) promises of the production of new wealth and of an insupportable excess. The end she promises is a mixed child, whose blackness may not be “converted” or absorbed within the endogamous, exclusionary values of Belmont.21 This dusky dark lady is perhaps more like the women of the Aeneid, perpetrators “of delay and even of obstructionism in relation to the master or imperial project of the completion of the text” (Parker 13). She interferes with the “master/imperial” project of The Merchant of Venice—the eradication or assimilation of difference. Unlike other fat ladies, her “promised end” signals not resolution, but the potential disruption of Europe's imperial text, because in Merchant's Venice—and Elizabeth's England—the possibility of wealth only exists within the dangers of cultural exchange.


  1. Even though the word intercourse did not come to have its current sexual connotation until the eighteenth century, Purchas's use of “commerce and intercourse of amity” resonates powerfully in this way for a modern reader, and I would like to retain this anachronistic sense for the purposes of this paper. Indeed, this paper will read anachronistically throughout. Miscegenation, too, is an eighteenth-century term which has particular resonances for the modern American reader. Like “race,” the word miscegenation is particularly enabled by later scientific discourses; however, the concepts certainly predated the scientific sense. Although there certainly were Renaissance words, such as mulatto, for the offspring of certain interracial couples, I prefer to use the term miscegenation, just as I play on intercourse, to locate an emerging modern dynamic for which there was no adequate language.

  2. Eldred Jones sees this moment as the first glimmer of an emerging stereotype of black women (Othello's Countrymen 119). He also seems to agree with the Arden editor. He argues that the Launcelot/Moor liaison is an “earthy basic relationship” which completes a structural pattern of romantic relationships in Merchant, yet he downplays the relationship's significance: “This cold douche of earthy realism is not unlike the Jacques/Audrey contrast to the Orlando/Rosalind, Silvius/Phebe love types in As You Like It. The fact that Launcelot's partner is a Moor only lends emphasis to the contrast” (Othello's Countrymen 71).

  3. For a more complete discussion, see Peter Fryer's Staying Power (10-12). Fryer provocatively contends that the second order of expulsion was to make up the payment for the return of eighty-nine English prisoners from Spain and Portugal.

  4. The reprintings of this document indicate some confusion. I have used Eldred Jones's transcription of the 1601 draft proclamation in the Cecil papers, which reads “are crept.” In contrast, James Walvin's version of this same proclamation (65) reads “are carried,” as does the version in Hughes and Larkin (220-21). The facsimile included in Jones (plate 5) appears to me to read “are crept” and I have thus accepted his transcription.

  5. English travel writers, not surprisingly, frequently compared their visions of colonial rule with the Spanish model. England saw itself as in part “correcting” the vexed model of colonial rule in Spain. In his View of the Present State of Ireland, Spenser outlines one of the sources of this sense of Spain's mixed heritage, as he suggests that Spain's current riches are the inheritance of a long history of invasion, particularly by Africans: “ffor the Spaniarde that now is, is come from as rude and salvage nacions, as theare beinge As it maye be gathered by Course of ages and view of theire owne historye (thoughe they thearein labour muche to ennoble themselues) scarse anye dropp of the oulde Spannishe blodd lefte in them: … And yeat after all these the mores and Barbarians breakings over out of Africa did finallye possesse all spaine or the moste parte thereof And treade downe vnder theire foule heathenishe fete what euer litle they founde theare yeat standinge the which thoughe afterwardes they weare beaten out by fferdinando of Arraggon and Elizabeth his wiffe yeat they weare not so clensed but that thorogh the mariages which they had made and mixture with the people of the lande duringe theire longe Continvance theare they had lefte no pure dropp of Spanishe blodd no nor of Romayne nor Scithian So that of all nacions vnder heaven I suppose the Spaniarde is the most mingled moste vncertaine and most bastardlie … ” (90-91).

  6. Kwame Anthony Appiah is the most recent purveyor of this view. In the entry “Race,” in Critical Terms for Literary Study, he argues, “… in Shakespearean England both Jews and Moors were barely an empirical reality. And even though there were small numbers of Jews and black people in England in Shakespeare's day, attitudes to ‘the Moor’ and ‘the Jew’ do not seem to have been based on experience of these people. Furthermore, despite the fact that there was an increasing amount of information available about dark-skinned foreigners in this, the first great period of modern Western exploration, actual reports of black or Jewish foreigners did not play an important part in forming these images. Rather, it seems that the stereotypes were based on an essentially theological conception of the status of both Moors and Jews as non-Christians; the former distinguished by their black skin, whose color was associated in Christian iconography with sin and the devil … ” (277-78). It seems apparent in Elizabeth's document that there was a black presence that had its own reality for Elizabeth and that religion appears as rationale after the fact.

  7. Patricia Hill Collins lucidly outlines the connections between the welfare mother and mammy stereotypes, arguing, “Each image transmits clear messages about the proper limits among female sexuality, fertility and Black women's roles in the political economy” (78). See also Angela Davis's description of specific political manipulations of the welfare mother image (23-27).

  8. My brief discussion of cannibalism owes a great deal to Peter Hulme's materialist critique of the term “cannibal” (78-87) as well as to Maggie Kilgour's exploration of metaphors of incorporation. For an anthropologist's critique of the charge of cannibalism, see Arens.

  9. On blood libel, see Poliakov 58 and Kilgour 5. Hulme also suggests a connection in his sense that the rise in accusations of anthropophagy involved the “ritual purging of the body of European Christendom just prior to, and in the first steps of, the domination of the rest of the world: the forging of a European identity” (85-86). Ben Jonson's Every Man out of His Humour contains similar links between economics, cannibalism, and anti-Semitism when Carlo Buffone exclaims, “Marry, I say, nothing resembling man more than a swine, it follows nothing can be more nourishing: for indeed, but that it abhors from our nice nature, if we fed upon one another, we should shoot up a great deal faster, and thrive much better: I refer me to your usurous cannibals, or such like: but since it is so contrary, pork, pork is your only feed” (5.5.61-66).

  10. Eric Cheyfitz briefly outlines the relationship of cannibalism to kinship structures in his discussion of Montaigne's “Of Cannibals”: “Cannibalism expresses, or figures forth, a radical idea of kinship that cuts across the frontiers of hostile groups. To eat the other is to eat the self, for the other is quite literally composed of the selves of one's kin, who compose oneself, just as the self, it follows, is composed of the others one has eaten. Cannibalism, like kinship, expresses forthrightly the essentially equivocal relationship that obtains between self and other” (149). As I have suggested, it is precisely this aspect of cannibalism that appears so upsetting to European notions of social order and control. In A Report of the Kingdome of Congo (1597), Abraham Hartwell expresses horror at the idea of cannibals who eat their own kin: “True it is that many nations there are, that feede upon mans flesh as in the east Indies, and in Bresill, and in other places: but that is only the flesh of their adversaries and enemies, but to eat the flesh of their own friends and subjects and kinefolkes, it is without all example in any place of the worlde, saving onely in this nation of the Anzichi” (36).

  11. I borrow this multivalent use of “chauvinist” from Susan Griffin (298-305).

  12. For more on the gendering of the discourses of travel and trade, see Parker 142.

  13. In his liberally sympathetic discussion of Morocco's rejection, Frank Whigham acknowledges the racism of courtly ideology by nothing that “[t]hroughout the scenes with Morocco the element of complexion provides a measure of the exclusive implications of courtesy in Portia's society” (98). However, Whigham then blames the Moroccan prince for his own loss because of “his statement of defiant insecurity regarding his skin color” (98), which is rhetorically out of sync with courtesy theory. His reading remystifies the color problem by blaming it on the prince. Portia never mentions his “imagery of martial exploit and confrontation” (98), only his complexion; so too the tradition of failed suitors indicates to the audience that his unsuitability is not so much a question of rhetorical decorum as racial “propriety.” In Morocco's case, “defiant insecurity” may simply be a sensible response to the racism implicit in Portia's courtly ethic.

  14. Shakespeare draws upon a system of associations between the Jew and the black which is as old as Christianity itself. For a brief outline of the association of blackness with the Jew, see Gilman 30-35.

  15. For an excellent discussion of the racial and economic ramifications of the Jacob and Esau parable, see Shell.

  16. In his Pseudodoxia Epidemica, Sir Thomas Browne uses this same parable to explain one theory of the causes of blackness, replacing the biblical injunctions against disobedience with a lesson about the powers of the imagination: “[I]t may be perpended whether it might not fall out the same way that Jacobs cattell became speckled, spotted and ring-straked, that is, by the power and efficacy of Imagination; which produceth effects in the conception correspondent unto the phancy of the Agents in generation” (513).

  17. Lars Engle argues that this story is purposely incomplete: “It is this relation between Jacob and Laban, then, that Shylock is attempting to adduce as an explanation of his own place in the Venetian economy, and, more immediately, as a model for his relation to Antonio” (31).

  18. It is in this same narrative that Best includes one of the earliest recorded instances of miscegenation in early modern England, which he uses to refute the climatic theory of the cause of blackness: “I my selfe have seene an Ethiopian as blacke as a cole brought into England, who taking a faire Englishwoman to wife, begat a sonne in all respects as blacke as the father was, although England was his native countrey, and an English woman his mother: whereby it seemeth this blacknes proceedeth rather of some natural infection of that man, which was so strong, that neither the nature of the Clime, neither the good complexion of the mother concurring, could any thing alter, and therefore wee cannot impute it to the nature of the Clime” (Hakluyt, Principal Navigations 3: 50-51).

  19. Among critics of The Merchant of Venice, particularly feminists, there is a great deal of debate over the possible feminist implications of Portia's transvestite disguise. Is Portia truly the disorderly, unruly female preached against in tracts against cross-dressing or are such disguises diversions which ultimately serve to restore patriarchal order? Catherine Belsey finds the play less radical than its earlier counterparts: “The Merchant of Venice is none the less rather less radical in its treatment of women as subjects. … [The play] … reproduces some of the theoretical hesitation within which it is situated” (195-96). Lisa Jardine locates Portia within a tradition of “confused cultural response[s] to the learned woman” (“Cultural Confusion” 17) and notes that although Portia possesses many threatening advantages over the males in the play, the play still ends with the sexual subordination of women (17). In contrast, Karen Newman finds in Portia a necessary threat to social order: “Portia evokes the ideal of a proper Renaissance lady and then transgresses it; she becomes an unruly woman” (“Portia's Ring” 29). Lars Engle also notes a split between conservative and radical elements in the play; however, he sees Portia as part of the latter precisely because she is the agent of exchange: “On the other hand, more than any other Shakespearean play, The Merchant of Venice shows a woman triumphing over men and male systems of exchange: the ‘male homosocial desire’ of Antonio is almost as thoroughly thwarted in the play as is Shylock's vengefulness” (37). Nonetheless, male homosocial desire (which can be a conservative force) is also a force which threatens the sex/gender system.

  20. Parker draws on Jardine's connection of the figure of the pregnant woman and her “grossesse” with fertility and threatening sexuality (Jardine, Still Harping 131; Parker 18).

  21. Black Africans become in the Renaissance signs for the impossible, which often comes to include the impossibility of their being subdued to European order. The emblem for the impossible, “washing the Ethiop white,” suggests a sense of submission to a European order. Richard Crashaw's poem “On the Baptized Ethiopian” specifically adapts this as a figure for conversion and the Second Coming. For more see Newman, “And wash the Ethiop white,” and ch. 2 of my dissertation, “Acknowledging Things of Darkness: Race, Gender and Power in Early Modern England.”

Works Cited

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “Race.” Critical Terms for Literary Study. Ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990. 274-87.

Appleby, Andrew B. Famine in Tudor and Stuart England. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1978.

Arens, W. The Man-eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1979.

Barthelemy, Anthony Gerard. Black Face, Maligned Race: The Representation of Blacks in English Drama from Shakespeare to Southerne. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1987.

Belsey, Catherine. The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama. London: Methuen, 1985.

Browne, Sir Thomas. Pseudodoxia Epidemica. Ed. Robin Robbins. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon, 1981. 2 vols.

Cheyfitz, Eric. The Poetics of Imperialism: Translation and Colonization from The Tempest to Tarzan. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991.

Cohen, Walter. Drama of a Nation: Public Theater in Renaissance England and Spain. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990.

Davis, Angela. Women, Culture, and Politics. New York: Random House, 1990.

Engle, Lars. “‘Thrift is Blessing’: Exchange and Explanation in The Merchant of Venice.” Shakespeare Quarterly 37 (1986): 20-37.

Fryer, Peter. Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain. Sydney: Pluto, 1984.

Gilman, Sander L. Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness. New York: Cornell UP, 1985.

Griffin, Susan. “The Sacrificial Lamb.” Racism and Sexism: An Integrated Study. Ed. Paula S. Rothenberg. New York: St. Martin's, 1988. 296-305.

Hakluyt, Richard. Discourse of Western Planting. The Original Writings & Correspondence of the Two Richard Hakluyts. Vol. 2. 211-326. Hakluyt Soc. no. 77. London: Cambridge UP for the Hakluyt Soc., 1935. 2 vols.

———, ed. The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques, & Discoveries of the English Nation. Vol. 3. London, 1598-1600. 3 vols.

Hall, Kim F. “Acknowledging Things of Darkness: Race, Gender and Power in Early Modern England.” Diss. U of Pennsylvania, 1990.

Hartwell, Abraham, trans. A Report of the Kingdome of Congo, a Region of Africa. And of the Countries that border rounde about the same. 1597. STC 16805.

Hughes, Paul F., and James F. Larkin, eds. Tudor Royal Proclamations. Vol. 3. New Haven: Yale UP, 1969.

Hulme, Peter. Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492-1797. London: Methuen, 1986.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.

Jardine, Lisa. “Cultural Confusion and Shakespeare's Learned Heroines: These Are Old Paradoxes.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 1-18.

———. Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare. New York: Harvester, 1983.

Jones, Eldred D. The Elizabethan Image of Africa. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1971.

———. Othello's Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama. London: Oxford UP, 1965.

Jonson, Ben. Every Man out of His Humour. The Complete Plays of Ben Jonson. Ed. G. A. Wilkes. Vol. 1. 275-411. Oxford: Clarendon, 1981. 4 vols.

Kilgour, Maggie. From Communion to Cannibalism: An Anatomy of Metaphors of Incorporation. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990.

Massinger, Philip. The Maid of Honour. The Plays and Poems of Philip Massinger. Ed. Philip Edwards and Colin Gibson. Vol. 1. 117-97. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976. 5 vols.

Newman, Karen. “‘And wash the Ethiop white’: Femininity and the Monstrous in Othello.” Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology. Ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O’Connor. New York: Methuen, 1987. 143-62.

———. “Portia's Ring: Unruly Women and Structures of Exchange in The Merchant of Venice.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 18-33.

Parker, Patricia. Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Poliakov, Leon. The History of Anti-Semitism. Trans. Richard Howard. Vol. 1. New York: Vanguard, 1974-75. 3 vols.

Purchas, Samuel. Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas His Pilgrimes: Contayning a History of the World in Sea Voyages and Lande Travells by Englishmen and others. London, 1625.

Rubin, Gayle. “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.” Toward an Anthropology of Women. Ed. Rayna Reiter. New York: Monthly Review, 1975. 157-210.

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Ed. John Russell Brown. The Arden Shakespeare. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1959.

Shell, Marc. “The Wether and the Ewe: Verbal Usury in The Merchant of Venice.” Kenyon Review ns 1.4 (Fall 1979): 65-92.

Spenser, Edmund. A View of the Present State of Ireland. Ed. Rudolf Gottfried. The Complete Works of Edmund Spenser: A Variorum Edition. Ed. Edwin Greenlaw et al. Vol 9. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins P, 1949. 10 vols.

Walvin, James. The Black Presence: A Documentary History of the Negro in England, 1555-1860. New York: Schocken, 1971.

Whigham, Frank. “Ideology and Class Conduct in The Merchant of Venice.” Renaissance Drama ns 10 (1979): 93-115.

John Picker (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7812

SOURCE: “Shylock and the Struggle for Closure,” in Judaism: A Quarterly Journal, Vol. 43, No. 2, 1994, pp. 173-89.

[In the essay below, Picker describes Elizabethan England's creation of and discrimination against the “other,” or outsider, in order to preserve its own sense of a closed society. Picker observes that this “ghettoizing” is reflected in The Merchant of Venice, where Shylock is consistently excluded from communal life simply because he is a Jew.]


In his seminal work on Shakespearean festive comedy, C. L. Barber introduces a theory of comic form which attempts to account for the role of figures such as Shylock in the early plays. Emphasizing the connection between theatrical practices and social customs such as May Day and the Winter Revels, Barber argues that the early comedies celebrate natural vitality and social identity. He considers the underlying movement of Shakespearean comedy to be the passage “through release to clarification,” that is, from revel and celebration to the formation of a durable communal bond. According to Barber, Shakespearean comedy requires integration and closure such that any marginal figures, or “butts,” as Barber refers to them, must be restrained and expelled by society. By defeating such challenges, the society gains strength and, finally, reestablishes itself.1 The presence of a threatening figure thus enables disparate groups to come together as a community, and overpower a common scapegoat. Yet, as Barber writes, “behind the laughter at the butts, there is always a sense of solidarity about pleasure, a communion embracing the merrymakers to the play and the audience.”2 Barber's theory of festive comedy, then, contains the underlying paradox that a welcoming community can be established only through ridicule and ostracism.

This essay examines how characters in The Merchant of Venice attempt to silence, ignore, interrupt, and otherwise stifle Shylock; at the same time, it demonstrates how Shylock's voice and personality undercut their attempts, to the extent that his presence informs a reading of the play. In what follows, I will argue that Shylock thwarts society's attempts to contain him. I would like to suggest that in Merchant, Shakespeare poses two similar questions, one focusing on historical circumstances, and the other dealing with issues of genre: just how can Venice's and Belmont's citizens reconcile the need for Shylock's money with the fact that they shun him socially? And secondly, how can the play reconcile its need for Shylock's threatening presence with the fact that it ultimately expels him from comic closure? By allowing Shylock to undermine closure, Shakespeare unites these historical and generic concerns, and exposes the paradoxical principle upon which his comedy and his society operate: the formation of communal identity through exclusionary practices.

Although Edward I expelled the majority of Jews from his kingdom in 1290, Jewish stereotypes continued to flourish in England throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Elizabethans encountered few Jews in the city and countryside, yet Church sermons nevertheless proclaimed Jews to be “hard-hearted blasphemers who were also vain, ostentatious, and deceitful,” and encouraged the association of the “devil Jew” with avarice.3 The tradition of connecting Jews with cupidity had originated virtually as they arrived on European soil, and with good reason: moneylending was one of the few professions that European Jews were permitted to practice. As Cecil Roth writes, the “practice of usury was considered to be a sin for any man, but seemed in Gentile eyes to be less so for Jews, who had so many [sins] on their infidel consciences that one more or less hardly mattered.”4 While Christians considered usury sacrilegious, they did not hesitate to request extensive loans from Jews in order to conduct trading ventures and appease belligerent enemies. And, lacking the relatively modern invention of state-sponsored welfare programs, many Italian city governments depended upon Jewish usurers to support the poor by opening “loan banks.” Jewish money thus represented a powerful force governing the sustenance, expansion, and protection of Christian societies.5

Yet, Renaissance Europe denied Jews the freedom to inhabit the same communities as Christians. In the words of Bernard Glassman, “there was the need for the Jew's services on the one hand, and the contempt for his person, on the other.”6 Christians welcomed Jewish money, and often required it, so long as accepting it did not necessitate welcoming the Jewish moneylender. Venice, the most important trading city in Italy, established the first ghetto in Western history for its substantial Jewish population. Because Venetian merchants relied heavily on usurers to finance business ventures, Jews who sought business flocked to the city. In 1516, however, the threat of a burgeoning Jewish population drove the Venetian government to legislate the confinement of Jews to a specified district. This was the New Foundry, or geto nuovo, from which the word “ghetto” originated.7 Within the geto nuovo, Jewish heterodoxy was kept safely away from Christian homes, while, in the marketplace or piazza, those same Christians coveted loans from Jewish usurers. Hence, the very layout of Venice reproduced the Christians' paradoxical desire to embrace desperately needed Jewish money and simultaneously shun the Jews who possessed it.

There is a striking parallel between the bind in which Jewish usurers were placed by their Christian debtors, and the place of marginal figures in the model of Shakespearean comedy as expressed by C. L. Barber. As Jewish usurers were required to finance the growth of Renaissance European communities, so threatening figures must be present for communal growth to occur in Shakespeare's comedies. And, paradoxically, just as those Jews were socially ostracized by the societies that they financed, so the community that the outsider helped to construct had to expel him or her in order to reach closure. Throughout Merchant, Shakespeare dramatizes this paradox by allowing Shylock consistently to challenge the restraints of the Venetian community and, finally, by permitting him to undermine comic closure.


We are introduced to Shylock through a series of abrupt, grating conversations which feature his refusal to be manipulated and ostracized. In his first scene, Bassanio makes him acutely aware of his marginal status by approaching him solely to take out a loan of three thousand ducats. Shylock shows his resentment toward this treatment by manipulating their dialogue in fascinating ways:

Three thousand ducats—well.
Ay, sir, for three months.
For three months—well.
For the which, as I told you, Antonio shall be bound.
Antonio shall become bound—well.
May you stead me? Will you pleasure me? Shall I know your answer?
Three thousand ducats for three months, and Antonio bound.
Your answer to that.
Antonio is a good man.

(I.iii. 1-11)8

Here, Shylock uses repetition and carefully-placed interjections to masterful effect. He entices Bassanio by echoing “for three months” and “Antonio shall become bound,” but forces anxious pauses upon the dialogue with each irritating “well.” His refusal to answer Bassanio with a simple yes or no is not simply a sign of verbal teasing or “dangling,” as Lawrence Danson has suggested.9 Rather, by withholding an answer, Shylock subtly resists conducting economic as well as linguistic transactions with Bassanio. In this way, Shylock establishes a connection between conversational and monetary exchange. Through pauses, repetition, and a final pun on the moral and economic connotations of “good,” Shylock defies Bassanio's repeated attempts to impose limits on his response to the bond. Rather than reply in terms that readily satisfy Bassanio, Shylock disturbs and challenges him by remaining linguistically and economically unengageable.

If Shylock is subtly obdurate with Bassanio, he is ardently defiant toward Antonio's wishes. When Antonio enters the scene, he has little desire to speak directly to Shylock, from whom he only wants money; Antonio asks Bassanio, “Is he yet possessed / How much ye would?” (I.iii. 61-2). The odd wording of this question reveals contempt for Shylock in two ways. First, it suggests a low pun on the Jew's supposed “possession” by the devil. This gibe is consistent with Antonio's caustic remark about Shylock later in the scene, that the “devil can cite Scripture for his purpose” (95). Second, in his question, Antonio marginalizes Shylock by speaking about him in the third person despite his presence onstage. Shylock, however, refuses to be slighted or ignored, and he interrupts with, “Ay, ay, three thousand ducats” (62). This interjection enables him to disrupt Antonio's conversation with Bassanio and protest his relegation to a third-person presence.

In the Jacob and Laban story which follows this exchange, Shylock further challenges both his relegation to marginal status and the evil connotation implied in Antonio's use of “possession.” Lars Engle, one of the few critics to grapple with the exegesis, provides an insightful analysis based on the premise that “the Jacob story … is full of danger for Shylock.”10 Indeed, notions of threat and discontinuity pervade Shylock's speech from the moment he starts to deliver it:

When Jacob grazed his uncle Laban's sheep—
This Jacob from our holy Abram was,
As his wise mother wrought in his behalf,
The third possessor; ay, he was the third—
And what of him? Did he take interest?


The reference to the patriarchs is a calculated non sequitur, and to make its impact even more disturbing to Antonio, Shylock breaks off his narrative to supply apparently irrelevant background information. Thus, his words here seem carefully crafted to serve a double purpose: to defend the practice of usury while offending Antonio. The significance of Shylock's digression is revealed through his skillful mockery of Antonio's initial pun on possession. While the merchant had implied only ten lines earlier that the Jew was “possessed” with deviant spirits, Shylock subtly twists this double meaning to remove the negative connotation from “possession” and align himself with the patriarchs. Thus he ingeniously suggests that each patriarch was not “possessed” by evil because of his Judaism, but, quite the opposite, a “possessor” of God's promise.11

Such wordplay and digression annoy Antonio and prompt the merchant to ask impatiently, “And what of him? Did he take interest?” Shylock responds with a detailed description of Jacob's cunning actions, a speech which taunts both Antonio's argument for the abnormality of usury as well as the merchant's lack of children:

… the ewes being rank,
In the end of autumn turned to the rams;
And when the work of generation was
Between these woolly breeders in the act,
The skillful shepherd pilled me certain wands,
And in the doing of the deed of kind
He stuck them up before the fulsome ewes,
Who then conceiving, did in eaning time
Fall parti-colored lambs, and those were Jacob's.


This speech is part of Shylock's attempt to draw a parallel between Jacob's manipulative tactic and his own usury in order to suggest that usury is as natural as sexual propagation. Using alternatingly rolling and terse alliteration, Shylock makes the sheep's sexual activities uncomfortably visual: “rank” ewes “turned to the rams” “in the end of autumn” for “the work of generation” and “the doing of the deed of kind.” He supplements this with the bizarre image of “woolly breeders,” a coarse description of mating sheep. According to Shylock, Jacob himself takes an active role as the one who “stuck [“certain wands”] up before the fulsome ewes” in order to carry out his plan. Thus, through the use of a phallic object, Jacob makes the ewes conceive a specific type of lamb.

Shylock uses this tale of overt sexuality to disturb Antonio's containing presence. With references to the reproductive behavior of sheep, Shylock's exegesis of the Jacob story seems “full of danger,” not so much for the Jew, as Lars Engle suggests, as for Antonio, who is confronted in this speech with a subtle criticism of both his opinion of usury and his own lack of offspring. Shylock, by craftily arguing that usury gives him the power to control acts of reproduction, directly challenges Antonio's belief that usury involves the use of “barren metal” (131). When Antonio expresses impatience once more with “Was this inserted to make interest good? / Or is your gold and silver ewes and rams?,” Shylock retorts with a pun which aligns usury and reproduction: “I cannot tell; I make it breed a fast” (91-3). Shylock defends usury as natural and regenerative rather than abnormal and impotent. Furthermore, Shylock argues that interest, like sexual reproduction, is a creative, productive catalyst; he suggests that interest is necessary to produce new wealth, just as sex is essential to create new people. In this way, his words belie the definition of usury to which Antonio subscribes.

By emphasizing sexual regeneration in the Jacob story, Shylock further discomforts Antonio, the play's only bachelor and childless adult.12 Although E. Pearlman considers Shylock “hungry for money but basically unsexual or anti-sexual,” it seems that Shylock equates sexual regeneration with the interest he gains through usury.13 In fact, Shylock blurs distinctions between the two, so that he would have his “gold and silver” “breed as fast” as “ewes and rams.” Using this analogy to argue that usury is as natural as sexual reproduction, Shylock can only further disturb Antonio, who lacks offspring as well as the hope of marrying and producing them. Hence, Shylock's exegesis, as an argument for the legitimacy of usury and a statement of sexual fecundity, challenges and discomforts the very man who most detests him.

Antonio and Bassanio are not alone in failing to contain Shylock's presence. In the second act, after Jessica has absconded with a portion of her father's savings, Solanio presents a narrative of Shylock's reaction to Jessica's flight which attempts to satirize the Jew:

I never heard a passion so confused,
So strange, outrageous, and so variable,
As the dog Jew did utter in the streets:
“My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
Justice! The law! My ducats and my daughter!
A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats,
Of double ducats, stol’n from me by my daughter!
And jewels—two stones, two rich and precious stones,
Stol’n by my daughter! Justice! Find the girl!
She hath the stones upon her, and the ducats!”


We should be wary to take this passage at face value, for, as Paul Cantor correctly observes, Solanio's paraphrase of Shylock is not simply a quotation of Shylock's words verbatim, but a caricature.14 As a caricature in the guise of a paraphrase, the speech becomes a complex form of containment. Solanio purports to repeat Shylock's words, but he actually exaggerates and manipulates them to construct a warped picture of how, as we later discover, Shylock reacted.15 Although he delivers this report in order to make Shylock's personality seem, like a “dog Jew,” inhuman and obsessive, Solanio ironically implicates not so much Shylock here as his own bad judgment. We might find it difficult to discover what in the speech seems “so strange … and so variable,” for Solanio's rendition is nothing if not predictable in its reliance on the Jewish stereotype and in its redundant use of “daughter,” “ducats,” “justice,” “stol’n,” and so forth.

As we later see firsthand, Shylock's response to Jessica's departure uses much of the same language as Solanio's paraphrase, but exhibits anger and pain that the crude parody simply does not convey. When Tubal tells Shylock of Jessica's whereabouts, there is an almost chilling bitterness in the abandoned father's words: “I would my daughter were dead at my feet, and the jewels in her ear! Would she were hearsed at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin!” (III.i.83-5). With its funerary pall, this passage is anything but comic. Furthermore, there is mournful remorse in Shylock's tone as he realizes he will have “no satisfaction, no revenge, nor no ill luck stirring but what lights o’ my shoulders, no sighs but o’ my breathing, no tears but o’ my shedding” (III.i.89-91). These lines convey a genuine sense of loss and tragedy, not the humorous obsessiveness of Solanio's shallow parody, which deprived Shylock's reaction of its emotional core and left only the empty shell of similar words (“daughter,” “ducats,” and “jewels”). It seems that Shakespeare allows Solanio to deliver his satiric paraphrase first, so that when Shylock finally speaks, his own deeper feelings undermine the limited portrayal that Solanio had previously constructed for him.

As we have seen thus far in Merchant, Shylock's physical presence is at once required by the Venetians—enabling Bassanio to finance travel to Belmont—and despised by them, as revealed by Solanio's demeaning paraphrase. However, rather than placidly acquiesce to the paradoxical constraints set on his shoulders, Shylock adamantly defies them. The play's famous “I am a Jew” speech represents the culmination of Shylock's rebellious attitude:

shylock: 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? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge! If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why revenge! The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

(II.i 55-69)

The cohesiveness of this speech pivots upon a series of intricate counterbalances. Nourishing feeding is juxtaposed against poisoning, the latter of which, with the wounds, the diseases, and pricking, is counteracted by healing. In the middle of the passage, warming and cooling conveniently neutralize each other. Shylock neatly places his tickling question next to his pricking one, thereby suggesting a metaphorical relationship between creeping fingers' and a puncturing point's contact with skin (in addition to the rhyming of the two verbs). This complex series of counterbalances gives the speech a symmetry which allows it to stand on its own, similar to a soliloquy.16 Ironically, Shylock chooses an unpredictable moment—when he is in the company of two of the play's least significant characters—to deliver one of the play's most extraordinary pieces of rhetoric.

Embracing a plethora of corporal perceptions, from an animated tickle to cold-blooded murder, Shylock's lines emphasize a sensuality which transcends the social hierarchy imposed by the Christian community. While Shylock's previous earthiness relied on brash statements of sexual activity in order to rile Antonio, now the focus is on basic mortal characteristics and sensations: at first, eyes, hands, and organs; then, illness and health, life and death, and laughter. His images work to challenge and eradicate notions of difference which the Christians want desperately to maintain. For, Shylock speaks not only of Jewish experience, but of human experience. In doing so, he confronts Salerio and Solanio with what, for them, must seem a frightening prospect: that, despite his religious and cultural identity, he shares with them a fundamental humanity.

With his final query—“if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”—Shylock consciously vocalizes his challenge to containment for the first time. No longer will he taunt and be taunted. His vow for vengeance is as eloquent a statement of defiance as it is a call for Antonio's pound of flesh. Kiernan Ryan artfully writes that this speech introduces “the full, protesting force of an irresistible egalitarian vision, whose basis in the shared faculties and needs of our common physical nature implicitly indicts all forms of inhuman discrimination.”17 Shylock's forcefulness leaves Salerio and Solanio stunned and speechless; the climactic affirmation of vengeance is only disturbed by the entrance of “a Man from Antonio” (s.d.). In the moment right before this, Solanio, Salerio, and perhaps the audience realize the shocking implications of Shylock's words. However irrational his response seems, it nevertheless represents a combative stance against the restraining power of the Christian community, particularly the stifling voice of Antonio and the deceptive actions of Lorenzo.

Following this decisive argument for equality, Shylock's more intimate conversation with Tubal aids in further humanizing him by providing details of his present condition as a forsaken father and of his previous role as a husband. We watch Shylock reveal anger and despair, with his emotional state at the mercy of Tubal's words.18 In just forty lines, Shylock confesses his anguish over Jessica, his hatred towards Antonio, his attachment to his savings, and, perhaps most interestingly, his devotion to Leah, his wife:

One of them showed me a ring that he had of your daughter for a monkey.
Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal. It was my turquoise; I had it
of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness
of monkeys.


While this exchange contains an element of absurdity by juxtaposing a cherished ring against “a wilderness of monkeys,” within the trade-off there is also, undeniably, a sense of poignancy. Clearly, Shylock values the “turquoise” that Leah gave him before their marriage, for the loss of the ring represents Jessica's paramount crime, the news of which actually goes so far as to “torture” him. Judging by the worth that Shylock places upon the ring, it quite possibly represents the only memento of Leah left to him. This passage, then, takes Shylock's “Hath not a Jew eyes?” argument one step further by establishing his humanity on an emotional level. He perceives his possessions as much more than simply a means to acquire more money and ensure prosperity in days to come. The turquoise ring represents for him not a method to build for his economic future, but a connection to his emotional past.

In the talk with Tubal, Shylock's character undergoes myriad developments which convey a multifaceted portrait. His urgent concerns of the present bring to the surface memorable past experiences. These, in turn, enable Shylock to appear as more of an individual human being and less a stereotypical menacing villain to us. As Norman Rabkin rightly argues, during this scene, we “respond to signals of Shylock's injured fatherhood, of his role as heavy father, of his light hearted mistreatment at the hands of the negligible Salerio and Solanio, of his motiveless malignity, and we try hopelessly to reduce to a single attitude our response.19 At once, then, Shylock strikes us as more fully humanized than his oppressors, and his characterization seems more complex than theirs. Shylock thus maintains a significant humanity which succesfully undermines the other figures' attempts to belittle him.

In Shylock's first scene with Bassanio and Antonio, his resentment seems somewhat restrained and playful. But with Antonio behind bars, his tone suddenly shifts to an intractable extreme, beyond reason, humaneness, and even the ability to listen:

I pray thee hear me speak.
I’ll have my bond. I will not hear thee speak.
I’ll have my bond, and therefore speak no more.
I’ll not be made a soft and dull-eyed fool,
To shake the head, relent, and sigh, and yield
To Christian intercessors. Follow not.
I’ll have no speaking; I will have my bond.


Earlier, Antonio attempted to silence Shylock while attaining a monetary bond. Here, though, the power dynamics have been reversed, so that Shylock now plays the role of stifler and bond seeker to the imprisoned merchant. Furthermore, Shylock reverses the roles with a diabolical twist; while Antonio's original desire for a loan of money was innocuous, Shylock's bond is deadly.

With “I will not hear thee speak,” Shylock openly admits to what he had only hinted at with his repetitive “well” to Bassanio in their first scene together. That is, he now refuses outright to participate in conversational exchange, nor will he listen to Antonio. Shylock's “I’ll have my bond, and therefore speak no more” expresses precisely Antonio and Bassanio's original demand upon him: a binding economic agreement but not a conversation, the latter of which implies a linguistic communion formed between speakers and listeners. Shylock seems to hint at the paradox of his own position as a member of an economic but not a social community in Venice. Through demands for both silence and fulfillment of a bond, Shylock forces Antonio into the very position in which the merchant had previously placed him.

Thus, the play constructs Shylock as a man acutely aware of his subservient role in Venice and preoccupied with how to thwart those who have relegated him to that position. As we have seen, he accomplishes this through coarse references to the corporeal, through stylish rhetoric, or by bluntly refusing to listen. Uniting all of these responses, the climactic trial scene sets Shylock against Merchant's community as it frantically tries to impose closure upon him by swaying him from his violent plan. Conflict in the scene does not occur solely between Christian mercy and Jewish hardheartedness, as has often been argued.20 Rather, what gets played out during the trial is, in part, the battle between expectation, in the guise of comic closure, and defiance of what is expected, as represented by Shylock's determination to perform the directive of his bond.

Early on, the scene establishes the expectation that the Christian community will triumph over the outsider. The Duke hints at this when he tells Shylock, “We all expect a gentle answer, Jew” (IV.i.34). Indeed, the Duke does not simply want “a gentle answer,” he expects it, as if he knows he is a player in a comedy, and that comedy requires overcoming obstacles to secure comic integration and closure. And if the title character succumbs to Shylock's knife, hope for such closure is, of course, doomed. The court scene, then, captures characters in Merchant as they struggle to save their own comedy from imminent collapse.

Portia, dressed as the judge Balthazar, functions both to interpret the law and to ensure that the comedy achieves closure. After Antonio confesses to Shylock's bond, Portia commands: “Then must the Jew be merciful” (181). Disguised as a representative of the law, Portia gains the authority to make such absolute decrees in Venice. Yet, her command serves a structural purpose as well. Portia does not say solely that Shylock should show mercy, but that he must. As with the Duke's desire for a “gentle answer,” Portia's words suggest an underlying expectation for behavior which will guarantee proper comic closure. Indeed, by saving Antonio's life while defeating Shylock, Portia effectively removes the obstacle to the comic denouement. Shakespeare accomplishes a fascinating unity of plot and structure through her, since she serves a dual purpose as both judge within the intrigue of Merchant, decreeing what is correct behavior in Venice, and judge without, determining how best to overcome the obstacle to community and close the comic framework of the play.

Like Portia, the Duke attempts to overpower and ultimately expel Shylock. Rather than put Shylock to death, however, he forces the Jew to give up all of his savings:

Thou shalt see the difference of our spirit,
I pardon thee thy life before thy ask it.
For half thy wealth, it is Antonio's;
The other half comes to the general state,
Which humbleness may drive into a fine.


Jean Howard has written that a “pardon so self-righteously granted seems more a gesture of pride than of spontaneous mercy,” and she is right to see in the Duke's pronouncement a thinly veiled ego trip.21 Also present, however, is the urge to deprive Shylock of his only source of power—his money. But, as Shylock says, such an action would do more than simply bankrupt him:

Nay, take my life and all! Pardon not that!
You take my house, when you do take the prop
That doth sustain my house. You take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live.


Shylock makes a valid point here, since usury, as we have seen, was one of the only means by which Jews could earn a living.22 In these lines, Shylock continues to drive home his paradoxical relationship with Venice's Christians, by imploring them to understand that their “pardon” promises not forgiveness but annihilation. Ironically, the Duke spares Shylock's life by “tak[ing]” the very things which enable Shylock to live. Thus, the “pardon” which seemed motivated by mercy reveals itself to be mercilessly sadistic. Had the Duke ordered Shylock's death, at least this would have been a terminal punishment, but the Duke's so-called pardon instead promises to be interminably torturous and humiliating. Stripped of his possessions—the very things which define his identity in Venetian society—Shylock retains his life, but no possible way to live it.

Together with the Duke's pardon, Antonio's final demand for Shylock's conversion constitutes a self-defeating and excessive punishment. Rather than let Shylock remain a Jew, albeit a poor one, Antonio suggests a different penalty:

So please the Duke and all the court
To quit the fine for half his goods,
I am content; so he will let me have
The other half in use, to render it
Upon his death to the gentleman
That lately stole his daughter.
Two things provided more: that for this favor
He presently become a Christian;
The other, that he do record a gift
Here in the court of all he dies possessed
Unto his son Lorenzo and his daughter.


Not only does Antonio's supposed “favor” maintain, in the long run, total control over Shylock's possessions, but it further stipulates that Shylock “become a Christian.” Hence, Antonio's punishment does not fully restore Shylock's independent economic status, and it completely obliterates Shylock's cultural and religious connections. The punishment comes to represent not so much a response to a misdeed as it does a personal attack on an outsider. By maintaining economic and religious control over Shylock, Antonio attempts to eradicate the Jew's identity on every level. Paul Cantor notes that, as we watch Antonio pronounce his punishment, we “sense that Venice is forcibly imposing conformity, responding to a challenge to its beliefs by simply trying to eliminate that challenge.”23 Ironically, rather than teach Shylock a lesson in compassion and display evidence of the mercy which just moments ago Portia had urged Shylock to use, Antonio goes too far.

The conversion's harshness reveals a fundamental anxiety among the Christians to reach closure. The conversion is so excessive that it does not elevate Shylock to the level of a gratified, merciful Christian, but reduces him to a broken, weary man. When Portia asks him, “art thou contented, Jew?,” he merely echoes her resignedly with, “I am content” (392-3). There is no evidence of the conversion bringing Shylock any solace, newfound understanding, or acceptance into the Christian community. Rather, it humiliates him, and he exits anticlimactically:

I pray you, give me leave to go from hence.
I am not well. Send the deed after me,
And I will sign it.


The incomplete act of signing the deed seems to symbolize Shylock's relationship with the Christian community as he leaves the stage. The conversion, far from enlightening Shylock in the glories of Christianity, sickens him into silence. In their anxious rush to reach closure, the Venetians and Belmontians have attempted to overcome an obstacle to community at a terrible price. Denying Shylock his dignity, the Christians have mercilessly victimized him.


The cruel punishment of Shylock casts an ominous cloud over the final act's attempts at blissful closure. When E. C. Pettet writes that “the play dissolves, appropriately, in the exquisite love scene under the moon in Belmont,” he disregards the very inappropriateness of the Christians' behavior toward Shylock and the way in which this flaws the play's comic ending.24 As the Christians celebrate their own marriages and good tidings, their joy is undercut by an audience's acute awareness of Shylock's absence. The words of Portia and Jessica reveal that the Christians' improper treatment of Shylock overpowers the festive attempts of the final act.

Rather than revel in the triumph of community, the characters in Belmont struggle gloomily to honor their newly-formed bonds. Their conversations are overshadowed, literally and figuratively, by Shylock's mistreatment. Portia makes this clear when she compares Belmont's nighttime to a day plagued by dark clouds:

This night methinks is but the daylight sick;
It looks a little paler. ’Tis a day
Such as the day when the sun is hid.

(V.i. 124-6)

Portia's image of a sick, paling night undermines the attempts to create a lively scene in Belmont. While glorious sunshine would have portrayed the confident couples in brilliant light, the inclement weather seems to reflect discomfort below the play's surface. According to Portia, the clouds hide the sun from view, and this has the effect of infecting the day with disease. But Portia's metaphor also seems to give voice to a deeper message within the play. Just as the clouds cover the sun, the characters of Merchant have hidden Shylock away by refusing to acknowledge his cruel punishment and by attempting to forget him. As the sickness which Portia refers to darkens an otherwise sunny day, Merchant's Christians have inflicted their comedy with an illness, the inability to deal satisfyingly with Shylock, which darkens what should be a radiant closure to the play.

Throughout the final act, pessimism, discomfort, and doubt emanate from Jessica. Her few lines and mysterious silences reveal a subtle alignment with her father's personality. During the act's opening exchange between herself and Lorenzo, she puts a damper on the romantic mood with a suggestion of dishonest love:

In such a night
Did young Lorenzo swear he loved her well,
Stealing her soul with many vows of faith,
And ne’er a true one.

(V.i. 17-20)

Just as her father mocked Antonio's sexuality earlier, so Jessica now mocks Lorenzo's status as a faithful husband.25 However, while Shylock disturbed the single Antonio by discussing the natural reproductive activity of “woolly breeders,” Jessica teases the married Lorenzo with the dour insinuation that his “vows of faith” to her are suspect and that he is a liar, perhaps even an adulterer. Jessica, then, ridicules the sexual attitudes of the Christian community as her father had before her, and, by doing so, her personality is partially aligned with Shylock's. Thus, the Jew's presence, although banished, resurfaces through his daughter's attitudes and effectively challenges the supposed fidelity of the very thing which enables communal continuity—marriage—in the final act.

Furthermore, like Shylock, Jessica stubbornly refuses to conform to the wishes of the Christian community. As Lorenzo tries in vain to entertain her by speaking of celestial music as the “harmony … in immortal souls” and finally ordering music to be played, Jessica's discomfort becomes most acute:

Come ho, and wake Diana with a hymn!
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress' ear
And draw her home with music.
                    Play music
I am never merry when I hear sweet music.
The reason is, your spirits are attentive.

(V.i. 70)

By calling for music, Lorenzo desires to envelop himself and Jessica in an illusion of blissful harmony, where only his notion of celestial notes played by “young-eyed cherubins” can be heard (62). Yet, with her remark, Jessica refuses to participate in this illusion. Her words betray deep feelings of anxiety and detract from the joyous atmosphere that Lorenzo struggles to attain. Jessica cannot easily make her “spirits” less “attentive” and simply disregard her sadness for the sake of a comic resolution. Rather than pretend, as Lorenzo does, that music has the power to resolve problematic situations, she acknowledges her discomfort and draws an audience's attention to the artificial nature of Lorenzo's request in light of what has happened to Shylock.

Both Jessica and Shylock represent what Ralph Berry describes as “the unmentionable” in the play, that is, threatening forces which the central community tries vainly to sweep aside and cover up.26 In court, the Duke told Shylock that he “expect[ed] a gentle answer,” and Portia announced that Shylock “must … be merciful,” as if they knew that obstacles to comedy have to be defeated if comic closure is to be attained. Lorenzo seems to share this attitude when he elaborates on the beneficial effects of harmonious sounds and then concludes with an imperative for Jessica to “mark the music” (88). In effect, Lorenzo forces Jessica to endure the music, despite the fact that she seems unwilling to partake in his musical illusion of happiness.

Jessica's pessimistic remark about “sweet music” is also her last speaking moment in the play. Rather than permit the existence of challenges to comic progression, Lorenzo stifles Jessica's voice, just as Portia and the Duke do to Shylock's in the courtroom. Thus, the Christian community effectively marginalizes both the Jewish father and his converted daughter. Whereas Shylock leaves the stage, however, Jessica remains onstage in spite of her silent misgivings, watching but not conversing with the other characters. The audience never hears her respond to Lorenzo's silencing mechanism, and the text does not indicate how she reacts. This leads an audience to wonder whether or not Jessica remains internally torn between Jewish and Christian worlds and between her father's and her husband's households.27 By stifling Jessica's voice, the Christians fail to resolve, and prevent Jessica from resolving, her religious, cultural, and social allegiances. Anxiously attempting to reach closure, the characters of Merchant have only compounded their difficulties by failing to deal satisfactorily not just with Shylock, but with Jessica as well.

Many of Shakespeare's festive comedies, including Love's Labors Lost, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Much Ado About Nothing, end with song and dance celebrating the integration of community. But The Merchant of Venice ends quietly and anticlimactically, with Gratiano's crass quibble on “Nerissa's ring” and the Christians' hasty exit. In marked contrast to endings of other Shakespearean comedies, I envision a performance in which the stage remains absolutely silent and still, similar to Jack Gold's 1980 BBC production. Jessica has been left alone on the set; her solitude expresses her own hesitancy to participate in the revelry, just as it also parallels Shylock's own solitude offstage. She reads his “special deed of gift,” the document that Nerissa has given to her and to Lorenzo, which states that they will inherit Shylock's property upon his death (291-2). This deed represents the only connection remaining between the Jewish father and his converted daughter, and I believe that it jars Jessica's memory to recall stealing Shylock's jewels and learning of his subsequent punishment. In this sudden moment of realization for her as well as for the audience, her expression slowly shifts from happy anticipation of married life as a Christian, to guilty regret for what she has tacitly allowed to be done to her father. Jessica's performance thus involves the skillful act of opening the play up to the audience and encouraging us along with her, to feel sorrow for Shylock's treatment.


In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock fulfills a necessary role in the Christians' economic community as a usurer, but he is simultaneously shunned because of his Judaism, while, within the play, he represents a threatening presence which a welcoming community must paradoxically ostracize in order to reach comic closure. Similarly, Jessica, as a wife with a large dowry, is required for the Christians' economic community, but, like her father, she, too, is alienated for voicing a challenge to closure. Hence, both Shylock and Jessica are necessary to the play's central community for their economic importance and their role as obstacles which must be overcome. Yet, in the community's efforts to reach closure, it fails to deal appropriately with these opposing voices. Rather than negotiate with its outsiders, the Christian community silences them, but with so much force that its attempts are undermined. In the process of restraining Shylock, the society ironically draws attention to the unrestrained cruelty that it uses in its own punishment of difference.

By allowing Shylock and Jessica to undermine closure, Shakespeare unites the historical and literary concerns outlined above. He seems to recognize the inherent similarity between Renaissance Venice's need for the Jew in order to define itself economically, and the need of his play's Venetians to ostracize Shylock in order to define themselves as a community. Indeed, Shakespeare creates a fascinating tension between the exclusionary practices of Venetian Christians and the demands of the comic genre.

Leaving this tension unresolved, Shakespeare makes a statement about the tendency of both comic form and historical circumstance to require an “other” for self-definition. He problematizes the fact that comic characters, like sixteenth-century Venetians, manipulate and finally ostracize those outside of their central community. By allowing Shylock to upset the play's closure, then, Shakespeare places in the foreground the position of the “other.”28 He suggests that, rather than operating under principles of egalitarianism and mercy, the Christians of the comedy and of Venice take what they want from Jews, only to hide them away in an attempt to silence their frustrated voices. Defying containment and overshadowing The Merchant of Venice's closure, Shylock protests the fact that the comedy has established community at the paradoxical price of ghettoizing its outsider.


  1. C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), pp. 4, 6-8. Barber defines the “butts” as scapegoats who obstruct the actions of the play's central community in Shakespeare's comedies. Thus, characters such as Falstaff are not “butt” figures, according to Barber's use of the term.

  2. Ibid., pp. 8-9.

  3. Bernard Glassman, “The New Jewish Villain,” Anti-Semitic Stereotypes without Jews (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1975), p. 62. This chapter provides background information on the development of Jewish stereotypes during the Renaissance.

  4. Cecil Roth, The Jews in the Renaissance (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1959), p. 6.

  5. For a dramatic treatment of the ways in which city governments required and extracted Jewish funds for self-protection, see Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, one of Shakespeare's most important sources for The Merchant. For more on English Christian perceptions of, and relations with, Jews, see the introduction in James Bulman, The Merchant of Venice [Shakespeare in Performance Series] (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991).

  6. Glassman, p. 68.

  7. Roth, p. 13. John Gross's recent book Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), contains information and insights on the ghetto of Venice, pp. 23-28, as well as a marvelously detailed summary of the play's sources, Shylock's performance history, and critical and popular responses to him.

  8. All references to The Merchant of Venice are taken from The Merchant of Venice, edited by Kenneth Myrick (New York: Signet Classic, 1987).

  9. Lawrence Danson, The Harmonies of The Merchant of Venice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), p. 139.

  10. Lars Engle, “‘Thrift is Blessing’: Exchange and Explanation in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Studies 37 (1986), p. 29. See also, Gross, pp. 30-33.

  11. I find Engle's word choice particularly suggestive when he writes that “Shylock claims to possess the, patriarchs … and to interpret their example with authority” (p. 29). Here, Engle uses a meaning of “possess” which, knowingly or unknowingly, plays on Antonio's possession pun by twisting it just as Shylock does. Instead of the Devil possessing Shylock, we now have Shylock possessing Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

  12. Coppelia Kahn has argued convincingly for Antonio's homosexuality in “The Cuckoo's Note: Male Friendship and Cuckoldry in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare's “Rough Magic”: Renaissance Essays in Honor of C. L. Barber, ed. by Peter Erikson and Coppelia Kahn (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985), pp. 104-110.

  13. E. Pearlman, “Shakespeare, Freud, and the Two Usuries, or, Money's a Meddlar,” English Literary Renaissance 2 (1972): 222.

  14. Paul A. Cantor, “Religion and the Limits of Community in The Merchant of Venice,” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 70 (1987): 249.

  15. Shakespeare uses these notions of caricature and paraphrase similarly in Othello, when Iago relays what seem to be Cassio's sleepy outbursts to Othello:

    iago: In sleep I heard him
    say, “Sweet Desdemona,
    Let us be wary, let us hide our loves!”
    And then, sir, he would gripe and wring my hand,
    Cry “O sweet creature!” Then kiss me hard,
    As if he plucked up kisses by the roots
    That grew upon my lips; laid his leg o’er my thigh,
    And sigh, and kiss, and then cry, “Cursed fate
    That gave thee to the Moor!”


    Just as Solanio slandered Shylock with the message equating daughters and ducats, so Iago condemns, and, even more extremely than Solanio, nearly dooms, Cassio by portraying him as a lusty, jealous suitor. Paraphrasing, then, represents for both Solanio and Iago a means to ridicule and manipulate their enemies.

  16. This point gains even more credence if we accept James Bulman's suggestion that Shylock's speech may have originally been delivered directly to the audience as a soliloquy; see Bulman, p. 8.

  17. Kieman Ryan, Harvester New Readings: Shakespeare (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1989), p. 17.

  18. Ralph Berry, “Discomfort in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare and the Awareness of the Audience (London: Macmillan Press, 1985), p. 57.

  19. Norman Rabkin, “Meaning and The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 6.

  20. See, for example, Barber, p. 185; Danson, p. 164; E. C. Pettet, “The Merchant of Venice and the Problem of Usury,” English Association Essays and Studies 31 (1945), p. 29.

  21. Jean Howard, “The Difficulties of Closure: An Approach to The Problematic in Shakespearean Comedy,” in Comedy from Shakespeare to Sheridan, ed. by A. R. Braunmiuller and J. C. Bulman (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1986), p. 124.

  22. Bulman, p. 21.

  23. Cantor, p. 253.

  24. Pettet, p. 29.

  25. Importantly, the act begins with Jessica and Lorenzo exchanging a series of remarks about various tragically doomed couples (Ryan, p. 22). The tragic subjects of the opening conversation ironically undermine the comic harmony that Lorenzo hopes to foster.

  26. Berry, p. 57.

  27. Lawrence Danson claims with hesitation that, in “I am never merry when I hear sweet music,” Jessica expresses herself “with (I take it) a newcomer's insecurity” (Danson, p. 187). Rather than insecurity, it seems that Jessica reveals the reluctance that she, as well as the audience, feel toward rejoicing in comic closure so soon after her father has been humiliatingly banished. I do not agree with John Gross's opinion that Jessica's “emotional bond with [Shylock] is broken” in this act, and that her silence suggests her acquiescence to the others (Gross, p. 62). Ralph Berry is perhaps correct when he writes that “Jessica becomes a focus of stillness and darkness” in the final act and that she “has a long way to go in Christian society” (Berry, pp. 61, 59).

  28. I would not go so far as to claim that the ambiguous ending does enough to balance the oppression of Shylock. Rather, it avoids providing a simplistic comic resolution and thus calls into question the appropriateness of his treatment.

Avraham Oz (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 19335

SOURCE: “‘Which is the merchant here? and which the Jew?’: Riddles of Identity,” in The Yoke of Love: Prophetic Riddles in The Merchant of Venice, University of Delaware Press, 1995, pp. 93-133.

[In the excerpt below, Oz remarks that the outsider status that Renaissance European cities imposed upon non-European inhabitants (and on Jews in particular) was an attempt to exert power over various members of society. Thus, in The Merchant of Venice,Shylock does his best to reverse this “master-slave” relationship through his pound of flesh arrangement with the European Antonio.]

The question whereby Portia, clad as a young male judge, launches the process of justice at the court of Venice has intrigued many readers of the play. “She can’t be serious,” we tend to ask, shifting our eyes from the figure of Venice's prince of merchants, who retains his posture of gloomy dignity even at court, to that of “old Shylock,” clad in his Jewish gaberdine. Thomas Moisan, who used the same question of Portia in the title of his illuminating discussion of The Merchant of Venice, concludes that seriousness is not at all what we must expect of this play; indeed it is the playfulness with which it treats the prevailing socioeconomic ideologies of the time, playfulness that produces something like Macherey's famous parodic distance toward them (Macherey 1978, esp. 61ff), which illuminates the dramatic tension in which the play holds “the competing impulses of recuperation and subversion” (Moisan 1987, 203). The idea that the play holds recuperation and subversion in dramatic tension seems, indeed, to be the only valid refutation of the age-old rivalry between the so-called “romantic” and “ironic,” or “apologetic,” interpretations of The Merchant of Venice. It is a way to recognize “the necessity that determines the work” without imposing a constraining “meaning” on the unresolved riddle of the play (Macherey 1978, 77-78). And yet Portia's question, raising one of the major issues of the play, the question of identity, should be taken more seriously into consideration. Coming from a character who but of late had openly yielded her identity to become the wife of he who won her in conforming his own identity to a heavily ideological construct, it is perhaps the very question that any judicious reading of the play must seriously attempt to leave open—not, however, without first scrutinizing its implications. It is, in other words, one of the most spontaneous and genuine expressions in The Merchant of Venice of that “process of riddle-work before its final completion,” a necessary stage in the “confrontation with otherness,” much upon which runs the wisdom of the play. Read against the background of the varied cluster of issues raised, addressed, suggested, and represented in the play by the plots of the merchant and the Jew, ranging from the politics of love and identity to the structure and meaning of cannibalism, slavery, private possession, money, and terrorism, Portia's “Which is the Merchant Here? and Which the Jew?” is not less crucial to The Merchant of Venice than Barnardo's no less riddilng “Who’s there” that sets the course for the probing into the mysteries of “the world” in Hamlet. Some facets of that “process of riddle-work” informing the play will be addressed in the present chapter.

It has already been argued in the introduction that the character of Shylock could be transformed from one minority affiliation, that of the Jew, to another, be it an alien in general, a moneylender, or an early modern version of the terrorist. My project here is to examine what makes Shylock's conspicuous ethno-religious identity lend itself to any transformation at all. A provocative artistic formulation of this project was offered, a few years ago, in an Israeli film, Rafi Bokai's Avanti Popolo (1986). The film depicts the escape of two Egyptian soldiers through the Israeli lines in Sinai in an attempt to reach the Egyptian border. When captured by a group of Israeli soldiers, one of the Egyptians starts to recite Shylock's “hath not a Jew eyes” speech. An Israeli soldier comments: “He has changed the parts!” Has he, indeed? It seems that Shylock is carefully provided in the play with more solid distinctions than any other character in terms of ethno-religious identity, class, family hierarchy, or even gender (which is more than can be said of Portia at the time she poses her question). Can we separate the validity of his Jewishness from all the rest and ask to what extent is it to be taken literally as a token of ethnic identity?

The question of identity looms constantly through the major tensions, conflicts, and crises informing The Merchant of Venice. On the surface level, the ancient narrative picked up by Shakespeare is populated by effective, well-defined dramatic subjects. Yet on a deeper level all the seemingly stable intersubject boundaries are deliberately effaced, all the safe codes of individuality transgressed by language devices and ceremonial acts, to finally transform what was initially conceived as a lifelike, well-defined character into a “crystallized monad” of entirely different order. The riddles propounded by the late Master of Belmont to the living suitors who have come to appropriate the identity of his daughter concern (and devour, like an ancient monster) their own identities. The moral riddle propounded by Shylock to Venice not only transforms Venice's prince of merchants to a helpless victim, but robs also Bassanio of his newly acquired identity as the new master of Belmont and causes Portia to adopt a male identity in order to secure her recent “yoke of love.” What we get here is a play about human subjects tampering with identities, attempting incessantly to contemplate, define, and fashion themselves and the others. This kind of mobility is barely surprising: “The Renaissance delighted in stories of the transformation of individuals out of all recognition—the king confused with the beggar, the great prince reduced to the condition of a wild man, the pauper changed into a rich lord” (Greenblatt 1988, 76). The interchangeability of characters as a major proclivity in Renaissance drama has been often marked by critics, but in many cases “recognition of change is resisted by the characters” (Loomba 1989, 100). Here, however, it is all premeditated and openly done. If Adam Smith is right to spot in human nature a basic “propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another” (Smith 1950, 1:15), the characters of The Merchant of Venice constantly probe his point in dealing not only in merchandise, property and money, but also with their pliable identities. Subjects are yielding themselves to be restructured by socioeconomic circumstances; identities exchanged and bartered; and riddling formulations inscribed on caskets, informing bonds of credit, marriage and amity or consecrating rings disrupt any trace of the homogeneity of the subject. It is a play designed to dismay all essentialists: the moment we seem to have captured the properties qualifying a given dramatic subject, it leaps into another transformation, which explains the degree of personal offense taken by critics who painfully watch that slick prodigal, “self-loving parasite” (Eagleton 1986, 45), Bassanio, winning the top prize at the Belmont contest of wit.1

In most cases, however, one feels the identities resulting of those transformations were hardly worth the effort. The Merchant of Venice has often been proclaimed a flawed vessel, unworthy of the serious themes it contains. Those who find fault with its dramatic merits, holding the plot incredible and the characters flat, tend to blame the deficient skills of an immature author. For those, as John Lyon puts it, “it seems appropriate to talk of the defects of Shakespeare's creative virtues” (Lyon 1988, 64). Indeed, judging The Merchant of Venice from the stance of Shakespeare's later psychological achievements, the world surrounding Shylock and Antonio seems shallow, its complexities mechanical, and the discourse out of which the characters stem hardly sufficient to pierce the code of even those shallow complexities. But this impression of a less substantial pageant is not exclusively produced by the shortcomings of a lesser authorial skill (in spite of many attempts to present it as such)2 for in The Merchant of Venice most characters turn out to be imaginary constructs forged either by themselves or by others. Disguises, deceptions, mistaken identities, and other forms of transformation are common in Shakespeare, especially in the comedies; but nowhere do they seem more obsessively practiced than here. The play opens with Antonio, having much ado to know himself, presenting his perplexion in turns to the entire guild of Venetian merchants, each of whom volunteers to tell him who he really is, what are his concerns, and what role he should play on the world's stage. Having adopted the role assigned to him by Bassanio, devoting to him not only his purse but his person, Antonio proceeds to let Shylock have a claim on his body. In the meantime Portia is having fun constructing before Nerissa each of her present suitors. Since Nerissa must have seen them all, what we have here is yet another instance of the common practice by which the characters of our play seem to pass their time: the forging of identities. Launcelot Gobbo comes on stage to entertain us by multiplying himself, in the vein of medieval moralities, into the triad of Launcelot, conscience, and the Fiend. Then he dons a different identity to “try confusions” (2.2.35) with his blind father, just to go on adopting a new identity as Bassanio's servant, a transformation that involves the immediate provision of “a livery more guarded than his fellows” (147-48). And then follows Jessica, eloping with Lorenzo to receive her new identity as a Christian amidst the turmoil of the masque, in which everybody around adopts borrowed identities.

All these, however, are but an introduction to the feast of transformations and riddles of identity the play still has in store for us. Antonio may believe naïvely that there is “no masque to-night” (2.6.64), once his friends have taken off their masks to set sail for Belmont. But we know better. Not only Gratiano, who describes in great detail the sober habit and the observance of civility he vows to put on in Belmont, but Bassanio himself, who implored him to transform himself, prepares to do the same. The Master of Belmont, we learn, has devised a special quiz for his daughter's suitors, who are asked to define her by subscribing to a chosen model of moral identity. One of the offered models corresponds to the official ideology held by the Christian society of the play, and the penalty exerted on those who fail to find it or to comply by it is, not fortuitously, to remain forever solitary, namely to be devoid of marital affiliation, which in the world of romantic comedy is the basic form of solidarity. Whereas Bassanio wins sexual and economic gratification by endorsing a ready-made identity, his rivals, cut off from the fulfillment of love and procreation, are doomed to total insularity, which precludes identity, as the gloomy tokens of death and folly that will qualify them from now on will attest. Thus, Morocco and Arragon, those two potential alter-egos of Bassanio, are convicted to eternal otherness, a lot not incompatible with that awaiting both Shylock and Antonio by the end of the play even though Shylock, who lost his marital status by death and his patriarchal status by folly, will be graciously offered a refuge from his spiritual seclusion by drowning his otherness in the font of the official Christian ideology.

While all this is taking place, Shylock seems to be the only one to withstand the sea of transformations and, by opposing, remain himself. Stephen Greenblatt would even applaud him for accumulating identity in the course of the play (Greenblatt 1980, 208), namely, establishing it even further: accumulating is a crucial word to describe him who defends interest by using the fable of Jacob's hire (1.3.71-85). A closer look, however, will reveal the character of Shylock to be the most intricate construct among the play's dramatis personae. For whereas all the other characters are what we may call, for the sake of generality, regular dramatic constructs, the products of the dramatist's common skill of representing reality and his attentiveness to dramatic heritage, the representation of Shylock is doubly removed, namely a dramatic construct built on a cultural construct. It is a practice Shakespeare was scarcely to repeat in his work until the creation of Caliban in The Tempest, another dramatic construct built on the same principle (Aaron, Morocco, or Othello may not fall exactly into the same category, since their “alien” quality seems to immerse in their color symbolism rather than in a particular socioeconomic classification). For the sake of understanding the dramatic function of such a cultural construct in a play which otherwise seems to follow faithfully the narrative patterns of romantic comedy, we shall have to summarize some historical evidence. Thus we may learn, for instance, how Shylock's struggle to secure a complex identity by force of possession may be explained by its bearing on the history of Jewish economy in Renaissance Italy and Europe in general.

Since Jews were expelled from England by King Edward I in 1290, exactly three centuries before Shakespeare embarked on his playwriting career, he had no immediate model for Shylock. For whatever way we may read the play, we must acknowledge that Shylock baldly insists on his Jewish identity. Whether or not did the memory of self-confessed Jews remain sufficiently vivid to nourish Shakespeare's imagination three centuries after their expulsion (see, e.g., Poliakov 1966, 78), such a model was scarce in Elizabethan England. Indeed, both Shakespeare and Richard Burbage (who must have portrayed Shylock first) may have had an opportunity to meet in London the famous Doctor Roderigo Lopez, who, as Sidney Lee puts it, “shared with actors an intimacy with those noblemen who were the warmest patrons of the drama” (Lee 1880). Burbage could even have met him earlier, at Kenilworth, where his father's troupe was patronized by the Earl of Leicester, who then employed Lopez as his personal physician. And yet the small community of Marranos, to whom Lopez belonged, had officially to conceal their religious affiliation. Contemporary, London-born Amis, the possible relative of the Añes family (Lopez's in-laws), whom Thomas Coryat met in Constantinople, could hardly hope to observe the ceremony of circumcision as openly in England as in Turkey.3 Lopez's own Jewishness, emphasized in his trial by both his prosecutor (“worse than Judas himself”) and judge (“vile Jew”) (Sinsheimer 1964, 66), served but to underline the main charge brought against him of conspiring to poison the Queen in the service of Spain. “That he was a Jew,” says Lytton Strachey, not without justice, “was merely an incidental iniquity, making a shade darker the central abomination of Spanish intrigue.” Unlike Shylock, Strachey adds, “Dr Lopez was europeanized and christianized—a meagre, pathetic creature who came to his ruin by no means owing to his opposition to his gentile surroundings, but because he had allowed himself to be fatally entangled in them” (Strachey 1971, 61). When the rope was put on his neck, Bishop Goodman tells us sympathetically, Lopez cried out that his love for the Queen was greater than his love for Jesus Christ to which the crowd responded: “He is a Jew! He is a Jew!” (Goodman 1839, 155). Shylock paraphrases Antonio in citing that same phrase: “I am a Jew” (3.1.52) in a way that combines self-dignity with defiant complaint.

Jews were not allowed back officially into England before the successful negotiations between Menassheh Ben Israel, the leader of Amsterdam Jewish community, and Cromwell in December 1655 (see Katz 1982). We have already noted how in 1607, a decade after Shylock was created, Sir Thomas Sherley was still trying to intercede with King James on behalf of a group of Levantine Jews, who wished to settle in England, be granted freedom of religion and allowed to build synagogues (for the payment of a considerable annual tribute), but to no avail. King James declined granting them similar rights also in Ireland, for a tribute of two ducats per head (see Davies 1967, 181-82; and see introduction, n.18…). There were converts, such as Nathaniel Menda, brought into Christianity in 1577 by John Foxe (Foxe 1578). However, the one case we know of in contemporary England in which a Jew, arrested following a religious dispute, openly asserted his Jewishness in court, that of mining technician Joachim Gaunz (a native of Bohemia who found his way to England as a foreign laborer), was exceptional, local, and scarcely known.4 The Jewish gabardine was, at least in England, a visual metaphor; the antipathy between the population of London's Old Jewry and hogsflesh (as Jonson's Well-Bred testifies in Every Man in His Humour), was a thing of the past; and no usurer in usury-riddled London was a self-confessed Jew. To that extent was the reality of Jew hatred effaced from actual experience after three centuries of absence, that at the beginning of the seventeenth century, several Puritans dared convert themselves to Judaism, circumcision and all, while others demanded the recall of the Jews to England (Roth 1941, 149-54).

Even in contemporary Venice former Jewish moneylenders had to abandon their trade and revert to pawnbroking and the selling of second-hand merchandise (veteramentarii).5 The civil emancipation through money, which Greenblatt is borrowing from Marx's On the Jewish Question, in his essay on Marlowe,6 is but partly accurate: Marx's somewhat mystified figure of the “real Jew” is far from being methodologically scrupulous, drawing, as Julius Carlebach is showing, on descriptions of his intellectual predecessors from Kant and Hegel to Feuerbach and Bauer rather than on empirical experience.7 In any case any such concept belongs to a later age: only from the later part of the seventeenth century onward do we find among Jews the common practice of monetary investments in industry, agriculture, and commerce on a large scale (see Katz 1961, 44). There is only scant historical evidence in the early modern period of Jews actually initiating the monetary process rather than joining it at less advantageous, hence less competitive, junctures. The exclusivity of the institutional framework made it difficult, if not impossible, for the Jews to launch any mainstream enterprise.8 Credit is far from being a Jewish invention, but a basic element of capitalist economy, for which Jews, whose money was not often invested in immovable property (a point to the consequence of which I shall come back later) had normally more available assets (see Katz 1961, 47-48). Most European countries utilized Jewish material and human resources to enrich economic processes that were developing within the frameworks of their own established institutions, which were as a rule impenetrable by the Jews and thus uninfluenced by any allegedly emancipated Jewish economy. England, which has vigorously embarked on its capitalist era especially under the Tudors without a single Jewish catalyst of significance, is obviously a case in point.

The dramatic construct called Shylock (unlike the historical “Barabas,” a name of obscure origin and without analogues)9 had no representational bearing on contemporary reality in the sense that other characters did. Thus what distinguishes Shylock from the other characters of the play is a representational void, or an absence. It is, of course, a roaring absence, full of stage presence. We do not know whence, if at all, he came from, or how he came by his present occupation or wealth. The play does not tell us much about past events in the lives of its characters10 and yet we know a good deal about Bassanio's prodigal career; about his former association with the Marquis of Montferrat, which has brought him to meet Portia before; we know about Portia's life as a rich heiress desired by suitors from all over the place; about Antonio's mercantile enterprises; and we even get a feeling of Launcelot Gobbo's childhood. The case of Shylock is entirely different. The only biographical detail we know about him is one which is revealed in a functional context: his having had a wife (or that, at least, is whom we assume she was) named Leah, who gave him a turquoise ring when he was a bachelor (3.1.111). But the absence of a personal biography suggests that Shylock partakes in the general, fairy-tale biography offered by the popular imagination for the cultural construct of the Jew. Such an exemplary biography is provided by Marlowe for his Barabas, involving all the clichéd activities and occupations traditionally attributed to, or associated with the Jew, from well poisoning and killing sick Christians, through practicing “physic” to the detriment of his Christian patients, to usury (The Jew of Malta 2.3.176-202). In terms of that nonbiography, the Jew is indeed very close to Marx's definition, cited by Greenblatt: “a universal antisocial element of the present time” (Greenblatt 1980, 204). Shylock's wish to see his daughter “dead at [his] foot, and the jewels in her ear … and the ducats in her coffin” (3.1.80-82) belongs to the same order of transgressive acts as Barabas's murdering Abigail: both are simultaneously deeds and non-deeds, devoid of the necessity of representation. For in the case of that cultural construct turned dramatic character, we cannot easily separate the positive limits, the finitude of the subject, which in Foucault's hostile description “is marked by the spatiality of the body, the yawning of desire, and the time of language” (Foucault 1970, 315), from the transgression of the subject, which suggests an absence of knowledge, or a knowledge of absence. Barabas has done a lot of mischief, as he himself admits and as we get a chance to see for ourselves; and yet, regardless of what he has actually done, there is a permanent stock of evil, inherent in the cultural construct of the Jew and ever ready to be assigned to him in people's minds with no need for factual evidence:

… go with me
And help me to exclaim against the Jew.
Why, what has he done?
A thing that makes me tremble to unfold.
What, has he crucified a child?

(The Jew of Malta, 3.6.45-49)

Marlowe even provides us with a lively illustration of the common process in which such a fictional identity, or “biography,” is forged, when drunken Ithamore is gratuitously constructing the clichéd image of the mean Jew before the courtesan and her bully, with Barabas in disguise providing the truth for us, as he always does in his asides:

’Tis a strange thing of that Jew: he lives upon pickled grasshoppers
and sauc’d mushrumps.
Barabas [aside].
What a slave's this! The governor feeds not as I do.
He never put on a clean shirt since he was circumcis’d.
Barabas [aside].
O rascal! I change myself twice a day.
The hat he wears, Judas left under the elder when he hang’d himself.
Barabas [aside].
’Twas sent me for a present from the Great Cham.


Such an imaginary biography awaits, potentially, Shylock as well; but since, unlike in the case of Barabas, which Marlowe took the pains to draw carefully to the last detail, it is not complemented in Shakespeare's play with actual, reliable details, Shylock lives in the public domain of common fictionality. Technically, of course, Shylock is a dramatic subject as any other character in the play. But even in his asides, even when citing his dreams, he seems to be nothing more than an abstract measure, qualifying and defining the immanent constitution of the others. Shylock is the zero point of all the other identities in the play: signifying all, representing none. Unlike an individual case of transgression, such as an evil eye cast by a local witch, the Jew is not counted as a particlar threat on a personal level. His effect is of a different, universal order.11 He is the archetypal Other whose desire structures the subject. For on the one hand he is the great menace, penetrating the dream of love and humanity offered by the play with his blunt discourse of vulgar rationality, his seemingly soluble riddles, to reduce a mystery of enchanting volume into an impoverished pageant of disenchantment; but paradoxically he also represents at the same time the secret, unconscious desire of all the rest for a momentary (or maybe eternal?) liberation from the fetters of “legitimate” discourse and official ideology. Shylock may not be the only one in Venice who dreams of money-bags (2.5.18), but he is certainly the only one to admit it freely in public. Money-bags investing a dream, Jacob's staff informing a fable or a swear (2.5.36), and even a vision of jewels in one's dead daughter's ear (3.1.81) acquire a different symbolic meaning than “some more ducats” (2.6.50) gilding a romantic elopement in plain reality. The plain monetary transaction that threatens to reduce the narrative of the play to the level of a fortuitous, if curious, court proceeding suddenly acquires an aura of poetic acuteness and necessity.

The use of a cultural construct of great popular currency as a model for a dramatic character makes both for greater freedom and constraint: while immuned to factual refutation, it may prove qualified by the more unified image planted in the popular imagination than the variety of human subjects evoked by the other characters. The strategy adopted to avoid such a constraint was deliberate eclecticism. Shylock is a composite construct: the raw foundation of his character involves typically Jewish constituents such as Herod in the Nativity plays (especially in his wrathful appearances in 3.1 and 3.3), the vice in the moralities (be it Avaritia in Catholic Respublica or Infidelitio in Wager's Protestant Maria Magdalena), Judas, Gernutus, the Jews who burst in a grotesque, ecstatic dance round the foot of the cross at the moment of the crucifixion in the Coventry Cycle,12 Sir Jonathas and his fellow Jews in the Sacrament Play of Croxton,13 and the ritual killers of the boy Hugh of Lincoln. It also involves metaphorically Jewish constituents such as the usurer and non-Jewish constituents such as the pantaloon, the puritan, or the devil as the prosecutor in the medieval Processus Belial (see Rea 1929). Some of those constituents were interchangeable already on the level of ground material: Avaritia in Respublica, for instance, was often dressed as a Jew, but since the play was Catholic in its ideology this may have been intended as an insult to the Protestants rather than a direct representation of an ethnic or religious identity. And the tenets of “Moysaical Justice” as stereotypically represented in the popular imagination are expressed in The Merchant of Venice, as we shall see, in the argumentation of the Prince of Arragon no less than by Shylock himself. Shylock, however, evoked something larger and more complex than the common image of the Jew. As Stephen Greenblatt rightly notes, “the figure of the Jew is useful as a powerful rhetorical device, an embodiment for a Christian audience of all they loath and fear” but also “a true representative of his society,” a qualification Greenblatt reserves for Barabas, but one that could equally be applied to Shylock, though in a different manner. Lacking an accurately corresponding identity, that bigger-than-life stereotype may represent at once no one and everyone, a threat and a form of desire, a mirror of fantasy, and the black hole of the play. There is no possible reconciliation which contains Shylock, yet no reconciliation is possible outside the discourse initiated by Shylock.

Thus The Merchant of Venice, a play whose poetry is curbed by a constant look to the rise and fall of shares in the Rialto, needs Shylock's fairy-tale cruelty to redeem its hidden depths of love and harmony. The dry words of Shylock's bond provide for Bassanio's encounter with the prophetic words which the Lord of Belmont had inscribed on the caskets, elicit Portia's poetic lecture on the quality of mercy, and make Lorenzo praise the harmony of the spheres. The legitimate discourse of Venice and Belmont, which has fallen prey to Antonio's sadness, Bassanio's prodigality, and Portia's weariness can only be recovered when Shylock's subversive discourse intervenes. But Shylock exacts his price. By the end of the trial scene both Venice and Belmont are buying their freedom from Shylock's constraint by the sole device of subscribing to his own discourse.

For Shylock is planted in a discourse within which human desire and happiness are almost totally subordinated to economic needs and gratification; where human sympathy and solidarity, redefined in a newly formed cosmoplitan world, is divorced from the all-embracing image of Christ (a divorce for which the obvious cases of Shylock or Morocco serve but radical symbolic signifiers) and becomes a function of a fragile, compromising alliance between interdependent classes, genders and races; where the notion of “good men” equals financially “sufficient” ones. In such a world of growing individualism any representation of harmony is but a token of coming to terms with the ever-multiplying, necessarily heterogeneous modes of one's own identity. In a world in which credit has become a precondition of commerce (see Cohen 1985, 199); where risk and hazard inform the very core of survival; where personal identities, so much dependent on power structures generated by economic status, are constantly prone to get diffused or totally lost in the procedures of mercantile ventures containing the calculated, though barely insured, risks of storms and pirates, one gets obsessed with fashioning and redefining one's identity by means of symbolic language games with ideological backing. The word, it seems, will hold even when everything else, including one's own identity, will fail, that is, of course, if you are at the right end of the political vocabulary, as Shylock is painfully to learn. Which is why Antonio, who at the outset is sufficiently provided with material wealth, craves for having his sadness and identity put in appropriate words; and why Portia's suitors have to know their way with words rather than with bed-pillows, as is the case with the earlier, medieval versions of the story, in the Dolopathos or the Gesta Romanorum.14 A world reduced to moral riddles and legal phrasings will not be recuperated by psychological subtleties or accented realism but by symbolic acts, involving the breaking of a code of mystery, which at the same time negotiate their validity with the imaginary patterns of unconscious jouissance. And indeed, as Granville Barker rightly diagnosed, “There is no more reality in Shylock's bond and the Lord of Belmont's will than in Jack and the Beanstalk” (Barker 1963, 99). It is a telling phrase, since, whether or not we agree with its other implications, we cannot escape the notion that The Merchant of Venice is indeed a play governed by symbolic signifiers, by words and phrasings qualified by unconscious semiotic patterns, rather than by lifelike characters representing full-fledged human subjects motivated by rational considerations.

Without taking too seriously the extent of “reality” Granville-Barker's implied reader is supposed to expect, it is obvious that the provocative assertion with which he opens his discussion of The Merchant of Venice implicates the host of critics who for ages had attempted to endow the play with solid aura of reality, presenting the religious conflict as contributing to a “problem play” such as Measure for Measure is reputed to be, “pièce à thèse” attacking a topical political or moral problem in terms of a didactic theatrical event. As such, Granville-Barker's assertion is not entirely out of place: the prominent symbols investing the narrative of the play—the bond, the caskets, the pound of flesh, and the ring—are all assembled here from the popular repository of folklore and mythology, the powerhouse of human fantasy, the vocabulary of the imaginary order and the immediate constituents of the collective unconsciousness. As many nineteenth-century source hunters have assiduously shown, one may trace all the moral and ideological issues and narrative-units of The Merchant of Venice back to the realm of folktales and parables, exemplum and fairy tales.15 A major property of the fairy tale, before it has been loaded by modern authors (especially from the eighteenth century onward) with heavy ideological burden (Zipes 1988, 3), is its potential indifference to moral criteria and psychological responses. The function of those, to the extent they exist at all in the world of fairy tales, is hardly more than to serve or decorate the narrative. Human subjects (and their interrelationships) are to be grasped more in terms of textual strategies, such as hermeneutical analysis (see, e.g., Ricoeur 1973), rather than conceived of as fully rounded, holistic human beings equipped with a distinct and definite psychological apparatus. If Shakespeare's fairy-tale characters haunt our deepest feelings long after the play has ended, it is because Shakespeare “could not help giving life to a character … no more … than the sun can help shining” (Barker 1963, 99); and the major function of those fairy-tale symbols in the world of the play may not be incompatible with providing for “the Utopian vocation of the newly reified sense, the mission … to restore at least a symbolic experience of libidinal gratification to a world drained of it, a world of extension, gray and merely quantifiable” (Jameson 1981, 63). For without that symbolic level, negotiating and appropriating imaginary patterns of uncounscious jouissance, both the language investing Shylock's bond and Portia's caskets, and the experience of love and harmony investing the play, cannot be reconciled with the world of the Real (or the Rialto, for that matter) but in terms of measure and calculation. And these are better expressed by signs and ratios rather than by full-fledged dramatic representations of human subjects.

A surprising feature (for some) of the early folk versions of the Pound of Flesh narrative is the absence of the Jew from the story.16 But this should come as no surprise for anyone who will note that The Merchant of Venice has nothing to do with a narrow concept of Jewishness but rather with the general theme of power relations and their critical exposure and demystification. It is not just the power the Venetian state exerts on its citizens (among them Shylock), but also the power that the latters exert on the world and their fellow citizens. For power, which (as Foucault tells us) is always inseparably entangled with knowledge, has no constant, definite source but is revealed in an open, dialectical “cluster of relations” between the political and social factors (Foucault 1980, 199). Therefore, power is not solely the property of the political establishment, but is circulated by chain reaction from society to the individual. The very effect of power constitutes the individual, which is parallelly transformed into becoming a vehicle of power.17 The same political establishment that gave privilege to the worldview (hence, to the system of knowledge or ideology) of the society of Christian merchants surrounding Antonio has simultaneously generated Shylock's power to exert moral and physical terror on that society by his knowledge of its constitution. Shylock is far from owning an essential dramatic identity: a function of the others' fears and desires, he is rather a dramatic process or a “flow,” which can be construed either in terms of the signifying flow, whose discovery is assigned by Lacan to Freud and “the mystery of which lies in the fact that the subject does not even know where to pretend to be its organizer” (Lacan 1977, 259), or, alternatively, in Deleuze and Guattari's antioedipal terminology (Deleuze and Guattari 1977). Rather than becoming a unified subject, endowed with particular psychological or ethnic properties, Shylock embodies the nonsubjective, anarchic power contained in the subversive exploitation of judicial rationality by the other or the alien, and he is thus empowered by the very liberal-humanist discourse held by the society he turns against. The dramatic situation emanating from this cluster of relations is ambiguous and dialectical: on the one hand, Venetian society allows Shylock a seemingly protected legal standing, yet on the other hand this legal protection is precarious, owing to Shylock's alienation from that liberal-humanistic discourse, founded in the play on the magic unity of gentle and gentile, which is to The Merchant of Venice what kin and kind is to Hamlet.

Yet the signifying pattern gentle-gentile does not necessarily depend, as it would appear, solely on Shylock's ethno-religious identity. Rather, it may allude to every aspect of the Christian discourse of the play, which embraces such diverse themes as commerce, usury, music, love and amity, in all of which Shylock's otherness plays a crucial role. Instances of all these fields of dramatic tension will be touched upon in our reading of the play in chapter 3 of this book. It will suffice for our purpose in the present chapter to demonstrate how the “cluster” of power relations is activated in a socioeconomic context in which Shylock's Jewishness plays an important, yet not indispensable, part.


An experienced merchant and capital owner, Antonio somewhat condescendingly rejects the suggestion, made by Salerio and Solanio, that his melancholy, which drives him to “have much ado to know [him]self” (The Merchant of Venice, 1.1.7), is caused by a worry for his scattered property. In business, as in mental economy, there are obvious advantages for diversification:

Believe me no, I thank my fortune for it—
My ventures are not in one bottom trusted,
Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate
Upon the fortune of this present year.


There is, however, a point in their suggestion (if that is what they imply) that parts of his identity are imprinted in his material possessions. The latter, which range from his merchandise to his very body, are the symbolic battleground upon which much of the dramatic conflict of The Merchant of Venice is acted out.

Rising capitalism, which dominated English socioeconomic discourse in the early modern period, had a slower impact on legitimate ideology than on daily practice. This resulted in ideological controversies on the intellectual scene between conservatives and conformists, both lagging behind, and attempting to come to terms with social and economic realities. Under the influence of the Reformation, new theories of property were preached and advanced throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In 1549, Sir John Cheke “warns the poor that an equal distribution of wealth would not be in their interest, as it would take from them the opportunity of becoming rich” (Schlatter 1951, 105). The changing perspectives on economy distinguish the obsolete attitude of fifteenth-century moralities toward material wealth from that of a sixteenth-century morality such as Skelton's Magnyfycence, in which material prosperity is not any more solely a function of faith and good deeds but of economic discretion and husbandry, and where Prince Magnyfycence (an updated Everyman, significantly endowed with an absolute hegemonic power, rather than a representation of the communal average like his fifteenth-century prototype) is not expected to renounce wealth altogether but use it conscientiously. Antonio, the prince of Venice's merchants, rehabilitates the contemptuous view of the merchant by the early authorities, for whom “A merchant shall hardly keep himself from doing wrong, and a huckster shall not be freed from sin.”18 The moral ambiguity regarding commerce investing the economic discourse since the revival of mercantile enterprise around the eleventh century still moderately haunts the conscience of Venice's Christian merchants in Shakespeare's play, and the economic aspects of the “good inspirations” informing the will of Portia's dead father curbing “the will of [his] living daughter” (1.2.24-25, 28) reflect, at least in theory, the sentiment informing the wills of many bankers and merchants in the late Middle Ages, who left a good deal of their worldly goods to the poor or the clergy as a token of repentance (see Pirenne 1969, 17ff). This ambiguity may account for the fact that Antonio will never be caught throughout the play in the actual process of dealing with any of his commercial enterprises (as opposed to Shylock, who considers Bassanio's offer, initially at least, as a regular, daily transaction and partakes with Salerio and Solanio in being constantly attentive to news from the Rialto).

A similar change of attitude affects the contemporary controversy over usury. As against the more orthodox views of ecclesiastical conservatives, reiterating Scriptural and patristic prohibitions, one may find contemporary voices defending the lending at interset as an act of Christian charity.19 In his exegesis of the Deuteronomic passage concerning usury, Benjamin Nelson argues, Calvin himself “charted the path to the world of universal Otherhood, where all become ‘brothers’ in being equally ‘others’. … prov[ing] that it was permissible to take usury from one's brother” (Nelson 1969, 73). Calvin's argumentation was adopted by many exponents of usury in Tudor and Stuart England, “a society of small property owners … borrowing and lending were common” (R.H. Tawney in Wilson 1925, 19). When a major seventeenth-century figure like Sir Robert Filmer enters that ideological battle, he supports a similar position, namely denying a godly warrant for the denouncement of usury and reducing it to a matter of personal conscience.20 Nelson believes that Shakespeare may have joined the debate in The Merchant of Venice, in the special connotation given in this context to “Christians' and ‘Jews’, ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’” (Nelson 1969, 86-87). In spite of Antonio's harsh words against Shylock's practice of usury, which seem to reflect the ideological position of the church's orthodoxy, the play follows the more pragmatic position in presenting many of its characters with the task of taking decisions on material wealth by using personal conscience: such is the case of Portia's suitors, Antonio and his Venetian merchant-companions, or the party concerned in deciding the fine on Shylock at the end of the trial.

Another field of ideological controversy was the realm of private possession. With the rise of capitalism, we are told, “property is equated with private property—the right of a natural or artificial person to exclude others from some use or benefit of something” (Macpherson 1975, 105). But though on the whole English society in the Renaissance was organized accordingly as a private property system,21 the official ideology of the age was still committed to the orthodox idea that original communism was a state of purity from which the present system has diverted. Whether that diversion was sinful, tolerable, or justified under the circumstances was a matter of opinion. The world was promised to Adam to dominate, but was it allocated to any private individual? And how exactly was that domination qualified or compared to the domination of God? The orthodox monastic ideal, derived from the monks' traditional reading of the Bible and Patristic authorities, regarded private property as a major impediment to salvation, and thus considered its abolition part of the desirable return to the primary condition (see Reeve 1986, 53-55). More's Utopia could be taken to express implicitly a similar sentiment. Filmer, however, taking part in this controversy as well, defended private property in denying that there had ever been a stage in which it was absent.

Those two conflicting conceptions of private property are lying at the core of The Merchant of Venice. It is, in more than one way, a play about ownership. Antonio, the merchant of Venice, is faced in the play with at least three challenges to his identity as a possessor. In the first outer circle of ownership, he is challenged by natural and human powers as an owner of material possessions. In this struggle he is prone to lose his goods, ships, and money—all of which serve him as tokens or carriers of some other, imagined, yet undefined wealth. In the second circle of ownership he is challenged by human powers as an “owner” of a friend who is first to proclaim himself contracted to Antonio, owing him “the most in money and in love” (1.1.131). On the third, more personal level of ownership, Antonio is challenged by individual and corporate human powers as the owner of his own body. On all three levels his position of ownership is temporarily shaken, to be only partially recuperated. His material goods are partly returned to him at the very end, but the fact that he will never “know by what strange incident” three out of his five argosies have fortuitously “come to harbour” (5.1.277, 78) will forever undermine his sense of absolute domination of his property. His “ownership” of Bassanio as a friend is both reasserted and qualified at the end by the latter's marriage bond. And, finally, Antonio's domination of his body is returned to him, but its partial recuperation does not signify an absolute reassertion of Antonio's ownership rights as it does the fallibility of human reason in securing possession through language. In spite of Shylock's defeat in court, his terms, indicating the limits of Antonio's possession of his own body, are ultimately reasserted rather than challenged in principle. A similar crisis of ownership affects other characters in the play, from Portia, through Bassanio and Shylock down to Portia's bunch of suitors.

The solution of the Master of Belmont's ideological riddle contest, behind which the subject of possession is constantly and notably lurking, suggests (at least in theory) a restrained approach to private possession: one is rewarded for not aspiring (let alone proclaiming an aspiration) for lucrative wealth. This is the common compromise of the official Christian ideology in early capitalist Europe between orthodox humility before a guiding providence and pragmatic recognition of the power of wealth. The binary opposition to that dogmatic prescription is provided by Shylock, who would identify himself with Jacob in his capacity as “third possessor” and insist on his deserts. Confident in his autonomous ability to assess and formulate the latters, he phrases them eloquently in what seems at the time to be a carefully drawn bond. On the surface level, according to which the narrative appears to follow the pattern of romantic comedy, Shylock's project is doomed to failure. This position corresponds to the message of the silver casket, echoing Antonio's reproaching Shylock for making no distinction between his gold and silver and Jacob's ewes and rams. It is Antonio, who but now sought a judicious definition of his own identity, who introduces to the play Shylock's identification with the devil. On the face of it, there is no leap of imagination here, since the association of the Jew with the devil is a commonplace on the plane of symbolic order. Barabas, for instance, is described by Ithamore as the devil's instrument to perform sheer evil:

the devil invented a challenge, my master writ it,
and I carried it.

(The Jew of Malta, 3.3.20-21)

But whereas Barabas serves the devil because he is “set upon extreme revenge” (3.3.47) on the Christians he hates, the association of Shylock with the devil is made in different terms. Though Shylock is presented by Antonio as “the devil [who] can cite Scripture for his purpose” (1.3.93), his identification with the devil is made in an economic, rather than religious, context. Like the devil who should be denied any right of possession in the human world, Shylock should be denied any such right for living of the breeding of a barren metal. Whereas the metaphor of procreation may be applied to substantial possessions of representational value, such as Portia's lands or Antonio's goods, Shylock's money is denied the right of breeding. In his delegitimation of Shylock as possessor, Antonio is joined by a surprising ally. It is Jessica who reiterates his identification of her father with the devil in describing her father's house as “hell,” a clear indication of an illegitimate property. In fourteenth-century Venice, Jews were not allowed to possess even houses or land which were given them as a gift. They were only allowed to live temporarily in rented appartments (Shipper 1935, 425). The move of Launcelot Gobbo from the household of the Jew to that of the Christian, accompanied by the same identification of the Jew with the devil, belongs to the same pattern.

More complex in this context, however, are the implications of Jessica's obscure reference to Tubal and Chus as Shylock's “countrymen” (3.2.284). As opposed to Marx's aforementioned reference to the “chimerical nationality” of judaism as “the nationality of the merchant, of man of money in general,” which may be read as a sociological or theological one (Marx 1975, 239), the reference to a Jew as a “countryman” is purely symbolic, implying absence rather than identity. Since Jews reached Europe through expulsion and a process of gradual dispersion rather than conquest, colonization, or mass migration, they could possess no economic positions which depended on hegemonic power or expropriation of lands:

I must confess we come not to be kings:
That’s not our fault: alas, our number's few,
And crowns come either by succession,
Or urg’d by force.

(The Jew of Malta, 1.1.127-30)

Even where the Jews could be in possession of lands, such as in Barabas's island, whose circumstances Marlowe appears to have studied carefully:

and I have bought a house
As great and fair as is the Governor's;
And there in spite of Malta will I dwell,
Having Ferneze's hand.


—they often preferred to deal in landed property not so much as “a form of family investment, as it was for the Christians in Malta as elsewhere, so much as a method of making money,” since that tricky “mortgage” system served “to avoid the odium which the taint of usury brought with it” (Wettinger 1985, 40). With the continuing practice of expulsion of Jews, which became widespread especially in Western Europe throughout the fifteenth century, such a prospect becomes a considerable factor in the Jewish own investment policy (see Katz 1961, 47). The lack of lasting property, in Feudal and early modern Europe, meant a temporary status of citizenship and a perpetual state of alienation. Othello the Moor, another alien in Venice, is theoretically free to join his fellow countrymen in the realm of the Prince of Morocco. In The Merchant of Venice, all the characters are identified by local habitation: Portia's suitors are identified by their countries; there is a clear division, at the outset, between the Venetians and the residents of Belmont; Launcelot Gobbo defines himself as an Italian (2.2.150), and his father, who owns a horse and brings a dish of doves as a present, must own a plot of land in the country. Even “a poor Turk of tenpence” such as Ithamore would season his fantasy of marrying the courtesan with the vision of settling in “a country:”

Content: but we will leave this paltry land,
And sail from hence to Greece, to lovely Greece.
I’ll be thy Jason, thou my golden fleece.

(The Jew of Malta, 4.2.92-94)

Whereas all the others may be referred to by their local habitation or country of origin, the Jew may cite a list of places where he visited for a purpose (Shylock's Frankfort, Barabas's Italy, France, etc.) or at best be related to his latest country of temporary residence, where, like here, he was residing in “hell.” Not even the ancient, spiritual locus of Jewish desire will do: “creep[ing] to Jerusalem” (The Jew of Malta, 4.1.62) is brought up by Barabas as a mode of penance only when he shams a wish to become a Christian. Calling their fellow Jews “countrymen,” as do Jessica (who, whether she reports faithfully or lies about Shylock's particular talk with Tubal or Chus, probably quotes her father's regular terminology) and Barabas, betrays aliens' conspiracy rather than citizens' local pride or patriotism:

… let ’em combat, conquer, and kill all,
So they spare me, my daughter, and my wealth.


The identification of Shylock with the devil is associated, both in principle and in the play's praxis, with the latter's unlawful possession of human souls and bodies. Again, it appertains to a breach of a socioeconomic restriction no less than to religion. The exchange of identities, as we have seen, is a common practice among the characters of the play. Portia, for instance, whose identity is first defined in the play as “a lady richly left” (1.1.161), yields herself to Bassanio in terms of identity and possession simultaneously:

Myself, and what is mine, to you and yours
Is now converted.

(The Merchant of Venice, 3.2.166-67)

By way of a specially designed system of restrictions, which proved to have defined the ethno-religious identity of Shylock and his “fellow countrymen” in terms of a separate socioeconomic class, Shylock is barred from possessing anything but faceless, “barren metal,” which, on the one hand, is devoid of any representationable identity but for the “breeding use” of which, on the other hand, he is sharply reproached. Denied his rights to substantial possession, Shylock's subversion of power in striving for autonomous identity is diverted against the body of Antonio. The exertion of bodily punishment is one of the age-old emblems of absolute power: the right to dismember, fracture, or confine the human body to a forced asylum, as Essex, for instance, took the liberty to do to Doctor Lopez (a liberty that significantly will be qualified by a law of “habeas corpus”) is a prerogative of kings and masters. Here it is appropriated for the private use of an individual who is himself coerced by the official system: the physical expropriation of Antonio's body will defeat the rival “legitimate discourse,” which threatens Shylock's autonomy of otherness. The body, that “most quotidian part of our landscape and the most potent signifier known to us” (Gent & Llewellyn 1990, 9), is hardly confined in the context of the play to its physiological ontology. It indicates the boundaries of individual identity as recognized by the world (which Antonio emphatically interrogates at the opening scene of the play): “The subject originally locates and recognises desire through the intermediary, not only of his own image, but of the body of his fellow being” (Lacan 1988a, 147). Shylock, for whom a body is a rich metaphorical “habitation” (The Merchant of Venice 1.3.29), will regard his habitation as a body, with casements for ears (2.5.34). He would catch his rival “upon the hip” (1.3.41), feed upon him (2.5.14-15) and bait fish with his flesh (3.1.47). James Shapiro's suggestion that Shylock's design against Antonio's body has to do with castration places Shylock's otherness within a specific context through its implication of circumcision (Shapiro 1992). It would seem, however, that Shylock aspires to a more ambitious and universal project. By mutilating Antonio, Shylock will inscribe his own otherness on the body that stands nearest the heart of Venice's wholesome, dominant discourse. The wholeness of the human body is a vital condition for man's position in the world:

Man is all symmetrie,
Full of proportions, one limbe to another,
And all to all ther world besides.

(George Herbert, “Man,” 13-15)

The complexity of human body is revealed in its symmetry and proportions, and “the first step in unraveling this complexity is to postulate that the system of man's body is both exhaustive and all-inclusive, that it has everything it needs and nothing superfluous.” This complexity of the body serves also “as a figure for the world's complexity whether cosmic, political, or architectural” (Barkan 1975, 3-4, 6). By inscribing his will on Antonio's body in threatening to strike off a material pound of flesh and proclaiming his right to redesign its natural shape, not only does Shylock disrupt the inherent symmetry of Antonio's body, but he also offends the ideological values that symmetry stand for within the official Christian discourse (of which the harmony of the spheres, eulogized by Lorenzo in act 5 is a typical macrocosmic metaphor). For if Shylock's scheme prevails, it may subversively subordinate “objective” history to his own, rival discourse of divisiveness, quantifiable individuality, and reified personal deserts. Shylock's project of dismembering Antonio is thus one of self-assertion, an act of self-recognition on his own part:

The body as fragmented desire seeking itself out, and the body as ideal self, are projected on the side of the subject as fragmented body, while it sees the other as perfect body. For the subject, a fragmented body is an image essentially dismemberably from its body.

(Lacan 1988a, 148)

Shylock's design to cut off Antonio's body constitutes the peak of his imagery of feeding and devouring throughout the play, to serve as the diametrical opposition of the “barren metal” and the utmost stage of acquiring a substantial identity. The myth of eating a rival's body is widespread and influential in folk literature, and Shakespeare himself did not shy from using it literally in Titus Andronicus. Speculations regarding its relevance for The Merchant of Venice have ranged from ritual killing to therapeutic drinking of the heart's blood. In Declamation 95 of The Orator (1596), which has been suggested as a possible source for Shakespeare's play, the Jew says: “I might also say that I haue need of this flesh to cure a friend of mine of a certaine maladie, which is otherwise incurable.”22 The image of Shylock standing over Antonio with his pointed knife could also bring to mind Abraham, prevented at the last moment by the Angel of mercy from sacrificing Isaac. And yet the essential meaning of Shylock's act of transgression is verbal rather than physical. As he himself initially suggests (whether genuinely or cunningly one does not know), there is no material gain for him in exacting the forfeiture:

A pound of man's flesh taken from a man,
Is not so estimable, profitable neither
As flesh of muttons, beefs, or goats.


Hence the execution of Shylock's threat must be public and ceremonial, since it is not necessarily the actual pound of flesh he is after, but what it stands for, through the ritual proclamation of his possessing it. Cutting a person's body can be conceived as a statement, a speech act, as the case of the biblical Levite and his raped and murdered “concubine” tells us:

And when he was come into his house, he took a knife, and laid hold on his concubine, and divided her, together with her bones, into twelve pieces, and sent her into all the coasts of Israel. And it was so, that all that saw it said, There was no such deed done nor seen from the day that the children of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt unto this day: consider of it, take advice, and speak your minds.

(Judges 19:29-30)

Just as the severed body of the biblical girl speaks,23 so is Shylock's bodily threat not surprisingly secured by language: its meaning is discursive rather than physical. Shylock's project, in other words, is not bodily punishing the Antonio who spat on him on Wednsday last (1.3.121) but to transform his identity into a human quantity, subject to possession by others. Nor is it surprising that only within the discourse generated by Shylock's phrasing of his bond, offered in “merry sport” (1.3.141), will Portia be able to defeat him at court, in adopting similar terms of jouissance. It is a battle of words that uncovers the two rival concepts of possession which, as we have seen, lie at the core of the play's ideological clash. On the one hand there is Shylock, who attempts to appropriate the constituted validity assigned to feudal property into the realm of mobile property where he reigns, and then in turn tries to convert his money, which in the domain of property is basically a signifier, into substantial property in the shape of human flesh (materializing the image of the body as “habitation”). Using the two signifying modes at his disposal, the money in his coffers and the language of his bond, Shylock would inscribe his power on Antonio's body, playing creator and destroyer in dominating the course of his victim's life and death. Shylock considers his proclaimed act of ceremonial mutilation as serving him to enact his symbolic richness in terms of the material world. Unlike Portia who claims the rights for her possessions by birth, Shylock uses his economic power and knowledge of Venetian law to carve for himself (literally) the identity of one “richly left” whose claim on material property is clearly evident. He is bound to find out, however, that it is much easier to handle an abstract quantitative possession such as money than any kind of substantial possession, let alone human flesh.

The standing of human body within the realm of property theory is far from decisive. Some would regard the body as a substance sui generis among the world's entities, and therefore deny any subordination of it to property laws. “What?” says St. Paul, “know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's” (I Cor. 6:19-20). Hobbes, who “reduces the human essence to freedom from others' wills and proprietorship of one's own capacities” (Macpherson 1962, 264), observes accordingly that it is the law of nature (lex naturalis) that implies that “every man has a right to every thing, even to another's body,” a liberty that endangers the security of everyone, and therefore it is a general rule of reason to seek peace (Hobbes 1929, 99). According to Common Law (which for Shakespeare's audience may be the normative representation of the law), the human body is “incapable in law of being [subject] of property” (Pollock and Wright 1888, 232). Others, however, “hold that the body should be thought of as property, and emphasize that each person owns or has title to himself or herself” (Munzer 1990, 37). For the Levellers, and especially Richard Overtone, the fundemental postulate of natural property right “was that every man is naturally the proprietor of his own person” (Macpherson 1962, 139-42), a position which will be readily endorsed by modern liberal theory (see, e.g., Nozick 1974). Shylock, no doubt, claims Antonio's pound of flesh by strength of property law:

The pound of flesh which I demand of him
Is dearly bought, ’tis mine and I will have it:
If you deny me, fie upon your law!


How would the original audience of the play conceive of the moral basis of Shylock's claim? The legal analogy Shylock uses in that same speech to support his claim is that of slavery: a more familiar demand which, he might hope, not improbably may help to render his original claim less striking. In this he follows a long conceptual tradition, which can be traced back to Aristotle's contention that “the slave is not only the slave of his master but wholly belongs to him” (Politics 1254a 12; Aristotle 1905). Christianity amplifies this, and St. Thomas Aquinas reminds one that for maiming one's servant “the penalty was forfeiture of the servant, who was ordered to be given his liberty” (Summa Theologica, 21, q. 105 art. 4). Rejecting James's claim on the English throne, Robert Parsons, in 1594, would appeal to property owners in reminding them that “the upholders of divine right … also maintain that the king reduces all subjects to slaves, for as Aristotle defined him, a slave is a man whose property belongs to his master” (Schlatter 1951, 113). Parsons does not address the issue of the body as property, but the persistence of the phenomenon of mutilating slaves (see, e.g., Patterson 1982, 59) betrays such a notion. For Shakespeare's audience, the slave is a less abstract cultural construct than is the Jew. Both the presence and impact of slavery, consisting in the radical legal claim of master on slave in terms of property, persisted uninterruptedly within the ideological framework of the Middle Ages, side by side with its common substitution in feudalism by the less radical relation of serfdom.24 “As a commodity, the slave is property” (Finley 1983, 73), and for some writers his/her powerlessness is comparable with death, since “it always originated (or was conceived of as having originated) as a substitute for death” (Patterson 1982, 5; see also Phillips 1985, 5-6). Shylock's tricky formulation of his claim over Antonio's pound of flesh never mentions death explicitly, even though everyone knows with Portia that following the implementation of Shylock's bond Antonio is in danger to “bleed to death” (4.1.254). Shylock's reified conception of his “owned” part in Antonio's body precludes any notion of death, for there is no life in quantifiable property. In an ironic Foucauldian overturn of power relations, he who is not allowed to make “a barren metal” breed turns a living body into a lifeless property.

But not only the actual presence of slavery has affected medieval Europe and contributed to the cultural construct of the slave:

The persistent and growing influence of Roman law, which contained a sophisticated set of regulations for slavery, helped shape the legal systems of the European West and provided a ready-made set of rules that could be put into force easily when slavery again became economically significant.

(Phillips 1985, 3-4)

English law, we are told, “has never furnished a case in which a person claimed a pound of flesh as penalty, but it has been called upon to consider the case of a usurer who reduced his debtor by contract to virtual slavery, and has refused to enforce it” (Keeton 1967, 132-33). However, some earlier investigators of the legal implications of Shylock's claim did attempt to relate the latter to the persistent influence of the Roman law on contemporary legal practice. In the profused nineteenth-century practice of source hunting for the Pound of Flesh motif, no clear connection has ever been established between the early oriental, religious versions of the story and its medieval Western, secular ones. In the former versions, such as the one in the Indian Mahabharata, the human hero is tested by the gods in making him shelter a dove (Agni in disguise) from a pursuing Indra, disguised as a hawk: when the latter claims his right of feeding according to the law of nature, the hero finally yields to him a piece of his own flesh which equals the weight of the dove.25 In the Western medieval versions, the secular bond substitutes the religious vow, the creditor or usurer substitutes the bird of prey (which may explain why the farfetched etymological association of the name Shylock and Shallach, the archaic Hebrew for cormorant, has fascinated some scholars), the legal penalty substitutes the religious sacrifice, and the secular law replaces moral tenets. As a consequence, several attempts have been made to trace the origins of the Pound of Flesh story back to the Roman laws of the Twelve Tables. The third Table accords the creditor with almost unrestricted rights over the debtor's freedom and body: after three days in which the debtor was exposed in the marketplace and the debt was still due, the several creditors were allowed by the law to divide his/her body between them, “and he who takes more or less than he legally deserves will not be held guilty.”26 Scholars who believed that the last clause is a direct reference to the Pound of Flesh story conjectured that the story itself preceded the Law of the Twelve Tables, or that the clause is a later interpolation (the fact that we do not have the original Table gives ground to such speculations).27 Jacob Grimm (the elder of the two famous brothers) associated the story with the fifth-century Sallic Wergild law, which he argues is a relic of an ancient Teutonic law that decreed the death or mutilation penalty against a debtor failing to pay his debt (see Grimm 1828, 611-21). Grimm compares this law with a Norwegian law allowing the creditor of a debtor who would not be baled by his friends “to cut from the debtor's body as he pleases, from above or below.”28 English law followed the German in allowing the mutilation of the debtor's or offender's body.29 Under the influence of the ancient slavery law, the amputation of a hand or a leg became a fashion during the rule of Henry II (Pollock and Maitland 1898, 461); and in Shakespeare's time (3 November 1579), John Stubbs and William Page, the author and distributor, respectively, of The Discovery of the Gaping Gulf, a “lewd and seditious” pamphlet against the queen, were punished by striking off their right hands with three blows.30 But there was another, more direct yet unnoticed bearing of the Pound of Flesh narrative on the master-slave property relation. There is no evidence that Shakespeare might have read the earliest European version of the folk motif, the Creditor of the Dolopathos; but it is interesting to note that in it, the vengeful creditor is a former slave of the young hero, who bears a grude toward his former master who, at a burst of choler, once struck off his leg. The Creditor of the Dolopathos is not a Jew. If there is any connection in the common imagination between the Jew and slavery, it has to do with the major involvement of Jews in the slave trade since the early Middle Ages (see, e.g., Bloch 1975, 3). With the decline of feudalism and the rise of colonialism as an outcome of mercantile and early industrial capitalism, the master-slave relation was vigorously revived as a socioeconomic paradigm, especially in regard to Christians—non-Christian, European—non-European binary relations. We have Hakluyt's description of the first English slaving voyage under Hawkins's command, which left the coast of England in October 1562, and after having received “friendly intertainment” at Teneriffe,

passed to Sierra Leona … where he stayed some good time, and got into his possession, partly by the sworde, and partly by other meanes, to the number of 300 Negros at the least, besides other merchandises which that countrey yeeldeth.

(Craton, Walvin, and Wright 1976, 12)

The ethno-religious otherness of the enslaved party from the point of view of the official ideology helped suppress the moral problem potentially involved in the revived practice, establishing it as a legitimate institution rather than a moral category (See Finley 1983, 126). We may only speculate about the exact reaction of the original audience of Marlowe's play to Barabas's malicious hope “to see the Governor a slave, / And, rowing in a galley, whipp’d to death” (5.1.66-67), a wish granted him in the following scene, but if he wanted to let his illustrious heroic villain retain his dramatic stature and command of the audience's subversive sympathies until the very moment of his overthrow, Marlowe had to make Barabas relinquish white, Catholic Ferneze's slavery for strategic reasons. Similarly, Shylock would not bring up the issue of slavery in relation to Antonio but as an analogical case in terms of property relations. It is this property relation that is represented in Prospero's reference to Caliban: “this thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine” (The Tempest 5.1.275-76) in which “mine” represents an identical claim to Shylock's reference to Antonio's pound of flesh, or Catholic Vice-Admiral del Bosco's account of his

fraught [of] Grecians, Turks, and Afric Moors;
… our slaves,
Of whom we would make sale.

(The Jew of Malta, 2.2.9, 17-18)

While Launcelot Gobbo is hired by Shylock for a wage, and by agreement may change his master at his own request, Barabas purchases Ithamore (“a poor Turk of tenpence … born in Thrace; brought up in Arabia” [4.2.42, 2.3.129-30]), at the marketplace and promptly marks him, as he would do with any piece of property. Such precedents enable Shylock to regard his bodily claim on Antonio in terms of a legitimate legal relation. The analogy between body rights and property rights is not contested by the Venetian court. In fact, Keeton argues,

Portia was adopting precisely the attitude of the Court of Chancery of the period. Substitute “estate” for “pound of flesh,” and you have a typical Elizabethan suit in Chancery. The creditor is about to take possession of the debtor's estate. Very well, says the Court, you may take possession, but you must use the profits you acquire by taking possession in satisfaction of the debt, and you must account strictly for everything you receive. … The estate must not suffer in the slightest degree from the entry into possession of the creditor. In both cases the creditor prefers the safer course, and refrains from entering into possession.

(Keeton 1967, 145)

By introducing the second defense against the implementation of Shylock's bond (as she did earlier in “The quality of mercy” speech), Portia does contest, indeed, the total reification of Antonio's body implied by Shylock's argument. But this is but an added victory (which is therefore absent from the narrative, more basic, sources of the Pound of Flesh story). For all practical reasons, she won her legal battle in the first round, and that she did on Shylock's terms. Even her potentially spiritual arguments are subject to the logic of property law: the human body is not that well dissociated from spirit; and thus had even Shylock remembered to specify blood in his bond, Portia could get him on account of Antonio's spirit which is not to be separated by him from Antonio's body, whether by way of death or dementia. Like the devil's, Shylock's claim on anybody's soul (which lies beyond the controversial domain in which the body may be reified and conceived as subject to property law) is a priori unfounded, which is why Shylock himself would never have brought it up. Even here, however, the victory of the official Christian ideology over Shylock's transgression would have been granted on Shylock's terms.

Against Shylock's reifying argument the play had posited the public quiz proclaimed by the Master of Belmont for a lucrative prize: the contesters are required to fashion their own identity, assisted by the guidelines inscribed on the caskets, in order to gain possession of the late master's daughter, the Belmont heir. The ideological position represented by the clever charade devised by the Master of Belmont, as we have seen, is designed to reassert the ideological patterns shaping the official discourse of Christian Europe in the Renaissance. Those patterns consists in two basic tenets: one is to adopt a meek and humble position, relinquishing all claim to material possession, in order to gain such fortune as an answer to this obedient gesture. It is a typical post-medieval, early capitalist translation of the Christian-feudal idea of humbleness into the realm of mercantile venture. Antonio's conception of his commercial ventures is founded on the same ideological grounds. So do all the merchants of Venice accept some providential authority when they venture and hazard with their transitory “fortunes,” that mobile property which can change hands in no time in the same way the goddess Fortune is tampering with human lots. It is the official knowledge, immersed in the “conscientious” solution of the identity riddles inscribed on Portia's caskets; conscientious, since it stands the test of the official, legitimate ideology: one is expected to yield one's material possessions in order to regain “conscientious” property.

The other basic tenet of early capitalist Christianity suggests a similar move regarding one's identity. It is clearly symbolized by the “egall yoke of love” (3.4.13), shared by those carrying that legitimate discourse in the play: Bassanio, Portia, and Antonio. Only they are capable of generating the word which, by countering Shylock's claim over Antonio's body, will physically bar Shylock from any threatening power position. Paradoxically, they will do so by coercing Shylock to baptize, namely accept the yoke of the legitimate discourse in an act in which love is enforced rather than willingly subscribed to. Thus this spiritual union, as indeed the play will later remind us, contains dialectically bodily and spiritual bondage that also counters the illusion of freedom and autonomy:

I once did lend my body for his wealth,
Which but for him that had your husband's ring
Had quite miscarried. I dare be bound again,
My soul upon the forfeit, that your lord
Will never more break faith advisedly.
Then you shall be his surety.

(The Merchant of Venice, 5.1.249-54)

The illusory autonomy of the legitimate discourse contains the submission of its major proponents in the play to the restrictive formations of that very discourse. Thus it is accustomed to blame Shylock for overobserving the written word rather than the spirit of the law. But Terry Eagleton, not less convincingly, argues that

it is Shylock who has respect for the spirit of the law and Portia who does not. Shylock's bond does not actually state in writing that he is allowed to take some of Antonio's blood along with a pound of flesh, but this is a reasonable inference from the text, as any real court would recognize. … Portia's reading of the bond, by contrast, is “true to the text” but therefore lamentably false to its meaning.

(Eagleton 1986, 36-37)

This is certainly true; as it may be true that “what is at stake in the courtroom … is less Shylock's personal desire to carve up Antonio than the law of Venice itself” (Eagleton 1986, 38). Yet Eagleton's excited defense of Shylock and just account of his dramatic position as some Brechtian alienating character does not make Shylock an Azdakian alienated (if biased) umpire. Although he is, as I have argued above, a function of the others' fears and desires, a dramatic process or a “flow,” still he functions as a party in a dialectical move. As such he is not just a victim (as Eagleton would have him) but also a terrorist. What we have here, then (at least on one significant level), is a Foucauldian process of power, in which rivaling speech-acts are clashing rather than psychological human beings. Shylock's very knowledge of the official “truth” serves him as a subversive instrument for gaining power and control which contradict his otherness, which is why the legitimacy of his economic activity is rejected by the official society. When Shylock, armed with his knowledge of the Venetian legal and political discourse, exploits the power granted him by the Venetian book of laws to materialize his barbaric fantasies to the point of cannibalistic fit, he simultaneously asserts and challenges the power of the political system. In that mimetic procedure whereby power and knowledge combine to subvert hegemonic power, rather than in a subjective alignment of individual properties, lies the dramatic effectiveness of Shylock in the play.


  1. See, e.g., Lloyd 1875, 100; Moody 1964, 23-24; Nuttall 1983, 122.

  2. Of which Shakespeare was accused, ranging from alleged inability to master properly characters and situations (see Fergusson 1971, Goddard 1951, among others), to occasional slips such as the discrepancy, marked by Dr. Johnson, between the terms of the caskets ordeal (never to “woo a maid”) and the schedule's addressing Arragon: “Take what wife you will to bed” (2.9.70), or the incredible testimony (timewise) by Jessica concerning her overhearing her father's talk with Tubal and Chus (see, however, Bradshaw 1986, who considers the latter slip as enriching the argument of the play).

  3. See Coryat 1625, 1823-25. For an extensive analysis of the evidence concerning the absence of Jews from England between 1290 and their return in 1655, see Cardozo 1925, 85-140.

  4. Gaunz was arrested in Bristol in 1598, about two years after the writing of The Merchant of Venice. See Roth 1941, 142.

  5. See Shipper 1935, 420.

  6. Greenblatt 1980, 204. And see Marx 1975, 239.

  7. See Carlebach 1978, 152-53. For Kant's conjectures see chapter 1, n. 13.

  8. “Each outsider, including the Jews as individuals, had to fit into the pre-existing economic structure and social fabric, upon neither of which he could expect to make any significant impact” (Arcadius Kahan, “The Early Modern Period,” in Gross 1975, 58). See also Grebanier 1962, 82-83.

  9. None of the the suggested etymologies and analogues is convincing. Biblical Shèlah or Shiloh, awkwardly glossed as “dissolving … mocked or deceiving” by a contemporary source, sound farfetched, whereas Shallach, an archaic Hebrew word for cormorant, was hardly used at all, let alone as a personal name.

  10. See, however, the discussion about the relation between past and present in the play in Lyon 1988, “Beginning in the Middle,” 29-52.

  11. For this distinction, see Thomas 1973, 668.

  12. See “The Crucifixion of Christ,” in Ludus Coventriae 1841, 319.

  13. See Manly 1897, 1:239-76.

  14. See Johannis de Alta Silva 1913; Gesta Romanorum 1879.

  15. These are discussed at large in the third chapter of Oz 1990. For the Pound of Flesh motif in folk literature, see also, e.g., Toulmin-Smith 1875-76; Conway 1880 and 1881; Manzi 1896; Vámbéri 1901; Friedlander 1921; Wenger 1929; Landa 1942; Sinsheimer 1964.

  16. Such a later insertion of the Jew is not an uncommon practice. See, e.g., the discussion of pseudo-Jewish characters in folk literature in Bin-Gurion 1950, 205-12. In addition to the Pound of Flesh motif, Bin-Gurion counts among the legends in which the figure of the Jew was a later interpolation also “The Jew among the Thorns” (Grimm K-HM no. 110, type 592 in Aarne-Thompson [FFC 184]), where in the original version a Christian priest appears instead of the Jew; “The Revenge for a Murdered Jew” in its various versions (Grimm no. 115, Bechstein, DM 1845, 60, “Das Rebhuhn”; Aarne-Thompson 960), which reminds the Classical story of “The Murdered Ibicus”; Judas Iscariot; “The Wandering Jew”; and the story of the three rings, which Bocaccio borrowed from the “Novelino” and Lessing used in his Nathan the Wise.

  17. Ibid., 98. And see chapter 1,n.54; Foucault 1979, 92-97; Foucault 1977, 213.

  18. Ecclesiasticus 26, 29; and cf. also 27, 2: “As a nail sticketh fast between the joinings of the stones, so doth sin stick close between buying and selling.” Demosthenes says it is a marvel to see a man practicing commerce remaining honest.

  19. For an extensive summary of that controversy, see Jones 1989. See also Nelson 1969, 82ff.

  20. See Filmer 1653, where in the preface Filmer summarizes his entire argument. And see Jones 1989, 158ff, and the whole chapter titled “The Evolution of the Concept of Usury.”

  21. Namely, in which “in principle, each resource belongs to some individual” (Waldron 1988, 38).

  22. Silvayn 1596, 402 and see J. R. Brown's “New Arden” edition, Brown 1959, 169. For an extensive discussion of the use of the heart's blood for therapeutic needs, see Cassel 1882; see also Pouchelle 1990, 74-75. The Grimm Brothers speculated about some analogies between the Pound of Flesh theme and the German epic poem Poor Heinrich, where the doctor “whets his knife” like Gernutus or Shylock (94.1.121). A similar scene is found also in the Bluebeard story, which, the Grimm brothers argue, is also related to the therapeutic theme: Bluebeard is trying to cure himself from the rare disease that turns his beard blue by drinking his wives' blood. They relate theme to medieval allegations of Jews as seeking the blood of Christian children, possibly for therapeutic needs. This connection is unconvincing, and it should be remembered that in the first Western versions of the Pound of Flesh story the creditor is not a Jew.

  23. The speech act implications of the Judges incident is illuminatingly discussed by Mieke Bal; see Bal 1988, 129-68. And cf. Felman 1980, who makes a similar case for Molière's Don Juan, reading it in the light of the speech act theories of Austin, Searle, etc.

  24. Bloch's once neglected theory (Bloch 1975) is now borne out by new historical writing, dating the decline of slavery as a major socioeconomic system in Europe much later than was accepted before. See, e.g., Phillips 1985, especially part II; Bonnassie 1991.

  25. For a detailed discussion of the oriental versions, see Oz 1990, 36-44; Wenger 1929; and see also, e.g., Foucaux 1862, 241-50; Benfey 1859, 1, 388-407; Conway 1880, 830-31.

  26. “Si pluribus addictus sit, partes secanto, si plus minusve secuerint se [= sine fraude esto.” The law is cited in Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 20, 1. See also Kohler 1919. Cardozo eagerly supports the theory connecting the Pound of Flesh story with the Roman law, as well as similar Germanic and Nordic laws; see Cardozo 1932. Radin, however, stresses the fact that Gellius himself comments that the very severity of the law manifests that it was not designed to be actually executed, and that he, Gellius, himself did not know of any case in which the radical clause of the law was implemented. See Gellius, loc. cit.; Radin 1922. Radin denies the alleged connection between The Merchant of Venice and the “third Table,” arguing that the whole motif is based on a private contract agreed upon by the parties concerned and not dependent on state law.

  27. See Cardozo 1925, 242. Griston 1924 places the action of The Merchant of Venice in the second decade of the fourth century A.D., under the Law of the Twelve Tables.

  28. See Kohler 1919, 91, where the Norwegian law is cited in the original.

  29. See, e.g., Pollock and Maitland 1898, 453; Friedlander 1921, 27; Niemeyer 1912, 22.

  30. See Stubbs 1968, introduction, xxxv-xvi; Landa 1942, 25. Mutilation was used, though rarely, as accompanying punishment on the pillory: “a Kent laborour convicted in 1599 for declaring that ‘the Queen's Majestie was Antichrist and therefore she is throwne down into hell’ was sentenced to be pilloried and to have his ears cut off, while a Colchester yeoman convicted in 1579 for calling the Earls of warwick and leicester traitors was sentenced to stand on the pillory in the town's market place and have his ear nailed to the pillory” (Sharpe 1990, 21).

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Mary Janell Metzger (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: “‘Now by My Hood, a Gentle and No Jew’: Jessica, The Merchant of Venice, and the Discourse of Early Modern English Identity,” in PMLA, Vol. 113, No. 1, 1998, pp. 52-63.

[In the essay below, Metzger examines Elizabethan England's anxieties about racial and religious differences as symbolized by Shylock's daughter, Jessica, in The Merchant of Venice.Metzger contrasts the white-skinned, Christian-looking Jessica, who willingly and easily converts, with her dark-skinned father, who is forced by society to convert without ever, in fact, being accepted by society.]

Jessica, the other Jew in The Merchant of Venice, is doubly distinguished.1 Unlike her father, Shylock, she is said to be “gentle”: at once noble and gentile. Yet as the “now” quoted in my title signifies and as Jessica readily admits, she remains “a daughter to [Shylock's] blood” despite her conversion (2.6.51, 2.3.18). Distinguished from Portia and Nerissa, whose marriages work to secure the social standing of the men they love, she is more saved than saving in her marriage to Lorenzo. Indeed, representations of Jessica, unlike those of other characters in the play, turn on alternating characterizations of her as a latent Christian and as a racialized and thus unintegrable Jew.2

Until recently, discussions of race or Jewishness in The Merchant tended to focus on Shylock alone. These readings suggested that critics could deal with religion, gender, or class but not with all three. There were no attempts to understand how such categories are, as Carol Neely puts it, “inseparable, unstable, disunified, and mutually constitutive” (303).3 Critics like Neely, however, imply that reading Jessica both as a wealthy white woman who is thus coded as gentile and as “issue to a faithless Jew” (2.4.37) should highlight the interconnectedness of discourses of difference in Shakespeare's time.4 This critical project has been considerably advanced by James Shapiro's Shakespeare and the Jews, which challenges assumptions about the significance of real and imagined Jews for early modern English audiences. By documenting both the actual lives and fictive representations of Jews in Shakespeare's England, Shapiro eliminates the distinction between theology and race implicit in G. K. Hunter's argument that Shakespeare and Marlowe did not depict “real” or “racial” Jews but, rather, portrayed a “moral condition” rooted in a “theological rather than ethnological framework” (215). Similarly, Kim Hall's studies of early modern representations of race and gender show how, in an age of soaring population and foreign immigration, English fears of uncontained female sexuality found expression in a “narrative of alien culture” that fused notions of blacks, Jews, and women (Things 39).

Yet like critics before them, Hall and Shapiro do not see Jessica as a central figure in The Merchant or in the play's discourse of racial difference. Although Shapiro grants that “the battle over The Merchant of Venice is a battle over the nature of Englishness itself and who has the right to stake a claim to it,” he dedicates but a few pages of his book to Jessica (4). She does not appear in his index. More sensitive than many new-historicist critics to issues of gender, Shapiro nevertheless explains the focus on Jewish men in the texts he examines (and thus in his text) by noting “that Jewish men were represented as endowed with male and female traits” (38). Unfortunately, representations of men subsume those of women once again. Like Shapiro, Hall acknowledges the significance of Jessica as a figure of conversion. Yet while she skillfully traces the ambivalence present in the travel narratives she reads and in the imagery associated with Shylock, she finds Jessica's conversion an unambiguous portrayal of “a successful type of cross-cultural interaction” (“Guess” 102). Hall registers her uneasiness with this position, admitting that “glorifying” the transgressions of women like Jessica and Portia, as feminist critics often have, “may serve only to obscure the very complex nature of difference for a changing society in which racial categories developed along with changing organizations of gender” (103-04).

Hall's discomfort with readings that fail to acknowledge Jessica's ambivalent status in the play echoes my own. Indeed, I have long thought that Jessica's multiplicitous nature—as Jew and Christian and as “fair” beloved descended from blackened Chus, her father's “countrym[a]n” (2.4.39, 3.2.285)—constitutes an emblematic figure for the play's renowed discontinuities. The ambiguous mix of comedy and tragedy, humanism and racialism, patriarchal imperialism and festive rebellion in The Merchant corresponds to the inherent incompatibility of the identities Shakespeare attempts to unite in Jessica. Indeed, the nature and effects of Jessica's difference can illuminate how Shakespeare may have struggled with competing notions of Jewishness circulating in early modern England and how he worked to resolve them by creating not one Jew but two. In what follows I argue that only attention to the shifting emphases on discourses of gender, class, and religion in Shakespeare's representation of Jessica can elucidate The Merchant's relation to early modern England's emerging ideology of race and to the bitter effects of that ideology that persist even today.5

Any discussion of conversion in Shakespeare must involve the Jew, just as any discussion of the Jew in Shakespeare inevitably involves the meaning of conversion in early modern England. As Hunter rightly observes, theology is central to the analysis of the early modern theatricalization of Jews because of the “long and torturous tradition” of interpreting Christianity adversus Judeos—that is, in opposition to Judaism (213). More simply, early modern Christian notions of what it means to be subject to God inevitably entail an account of the Jewish refusal to receive Christ as the Messiah. The English Reformation complicated Christians' response to Jews by offering an unqualified promise of conversion within a discourse shaped by the oppositional rhetoric of anti-Semitism. Further, as historical documents attest, the problem of the Jew in Christian England intersected with an emerging ideology of race to affirm a notion of English identity in which color, religion, and class converged.

In succeeding editions of Actes and Monuments, perhaps the most prevalent religious text in Elizabethan England excepting the Bible, the Protestant John Foxe offers “a complete history of the lives, sufferings and deaths of the Christian Martyrs from the commencement of Christianity to the present period” (1563 ed., title p.)—that is, the stories of men and women who met death rather than assert as true what they believed false. Foxe emphasizes the role of reason in the practice of the “true” Christian faith. Describing his text as an “[e]cclesiastical history” from which “the people may learn the rules and precepts of doctrine,” Foxe takes a pedagogical tone: “They that be in error, let them not disdain to learn” (1570 ed., 4r). Or as he puts it in the 1563 edition, “Ignorance is the mother of all errors” (EE3v). Yet for Jews, the original recusants, choosing the truth was a matter not simply of learning but of a prior belonging that was denied them: “For like as the nature of truth so is the proper condition of the true church, that commonly none seeth it, but such only as be members and partakers thereof” (3r). Foxe argues even more ambivalently in the 1570 edition that Jews are to blame for their failure to choose wisely—“who should rather have known and received him than the Pharisees and Scribes of that people who had his law”? (E1r). He also repeatedly characterizes them as inherently unable to make such a choice. Foxe presents Jews both as “more tolerable than Papists” (1563 ed., K1v), who abandon their poor and worship idols and bread, and as “enemies to Christians” (1570 ed., index), as child murderers whose historical and bloody destruction confirms their rejection by God (1563 ed., E1r).6 This ambivalence finds an analogue in The Merchant, where Jews are characterized as unwilling and unable to see the truth of the Messiah in Jesus, driven by their base natures, as Gratiano says with characteristic hyperbole, to pursue their “wolvish, bloody, starv’d, and ravenous” desires (4.1.138).

Foxe's apparent need to account for Jewish belief may be as old as Christianity itself, but the sixteenth century constitutes a specific and particularly significant moment in that history (see, e.g., Gerber; Netanyahu; Friedman; Shapiro). For the first time Jewishness was legally defined through Spain's pure-blood laws “not [as] a statement of faith or even a series of ethnic practices but a biological consideration” (Friedman 16). In England, as Foxe's text illustrates, the question of the Jews took on new importance in the light of Reformation struggles among Christians over the proper path to God's truth. How could one discern, as Foxe puts it, between “antiquitie and novelty” (1570 ed., iiv), between false worship and true faith? The Protestant emphasis on the inability of the individual to effect his or her own salvation, which Foxe's text elaborates, challenges the promise of Christianity made explicit in baptism. Called to “learn” and to “choose” rightly, one nevertheless could not “see” unless elected a “member or partaker thereof” by God's grace.

Readers like Hunter have been inclined to dismiss the import of such questions by asserting the relative scarcity of Jews in England in Shakespeare's time.7 But the presence of crypto-Jews (converts to Christianity who secretly practiced Judaism) in Elizabethan England has been acknowledged since Lucien Wolf's discovery in the early twentieth century of a mostly Portuguese community of Jews. In fact, The Merchant followed fairly closely on the trial and execution of the most connected member of that community, Elizabeth's chief physician, Roderigo Lopez,8 and Shylock's principal antagonist takes the name of the man whose political aspirations provided the context for Lopez's alleged treason: Don Antonio, pretender to the throne of Portugal following the death of the cardinal-king Henry. Such allusions would have been easily recognized by Shakespeare's audience.

According to Wolf, this Portuguese community “could not have remained altogether unknown to the general public, while to the Government, with its vigilant watch of all strangers hailing from Spain and Portugal, it must have been in every sense an open secret” (21); indeed, Wolf documents the government's knowledge in the correspondence of Lord Burghley, the queen's secretary of state, and his son Robert Cecil. But more important, Wolf argues that the Portuguese community of Jews was tolerated because they served the state without causing a stir—that is, because of economic interest: “they appear to have been, on the whole, quite decent folk, who worked honestly and unobtrusively at professions, trades and handicrafts which added appreciably to the well-being of the country” (22). Living and working “honestly and unobtrusively” meant becoming invisible as “former” Jews and convincingly performing the prerequisites for integration into English society. The cases of Joachim Gaunse on the one hand and of Bernard Leavis and Pedro Frere on the other illustrate this. Gaunse, a German Jewish mining chemist who worked in England for eight years, was expelled in 1598 on the grounds that he had challenged Christian doctrine in debating the status of Jesus with a Protestant minister from Bristol.9 Portuguese agents pursuing prohibited Spanish goods on behalf of English traders, Frere and Leavis were accused by Mary May, a Christian investor, who claimed that their Jewishness was a principal cause of her losses. Though much evidence of their “secret practices” was procured from servants and acquaintances, the court did not expel them; rather, it was “moved with the losses and trobles which the poore straungers indured” as a consequence of doing English business (Sisson 51).10 As long as Jews did not publicly insist on their Jewishness, economic interests prevailed.

As other deportations suggest, notions of religious and racial conformity may have contributed to the emerging concepts of the English subject and of its requisite other, the alien. In 1596, the year The Merchant was probably written, Elizabeth I wrote to the Privy Council to request the aid of the mayor of London, his aldermen, and “all the other Maiours, Sheryfes, etc.” in deporting eighty-nine blacks, to be given to a Lubeck merchant in exchange for his return of an equal number of English prisoners of war held by Spain and Portugal (Acts 16). Elizabeth distinguished “people of our owne nation,” “the subjectes of the land and Christian people, that perishe for want of service, whereby through labor they might be mayntained,” from “those kinde of people,” meaning blacks, brought to live and work in England (16, 20-21). As Elizabeth's equations among color, faith, wealth, and nationality confirm, to be black was to be a common laborer, non-Christian, and consequently not English.

While European Jews may appear to have had the advantage over blacks in their ability to pass, as it were, as white and Christian and hence English, analogies between blackness and Jewishness were long-standing. As Anthony Barthelemy has shown, the association of blackness with sin and evil, which dates from the ancient world, was adopted by Christianity and overlaid with a narrative of salvation and damnation: white became the color of the saved, black the color of the damned. First among the damned would, of course, have been the Jews, as a 1604 biography of Spain's Charles V demonstrates:

Who can deny that in the descendent of the Jews there persists and endures the evil inclination of their ancient ingratitude and lack of understanding, just as in Negroes [there persists] the inseparability of their blackness? For if the latter should unite themselves a thousand times with white women, the children are born with the dark color of the father. Similarly, it is not enough for a Jew to be three parts aristocrat or Old Christian for one family-line [i.e., one Jewish ancestor] alone defiles and corrupts him.

(Friedman 16-17)

Shakespeare's Jessica anticipates this equation when she describes her father as a countryman “[t]o Tubal and to Chus” (3.2.285), for the first is a Jew and the second the mythical originary black African.11

The connection between blacks and Jews as alien others helped construct the racialized notion of Englishness. Because of color privilege, however, the converted Jews of London were not always perceived as threats to emerging notions of English identity, as Roger Prior's discovery of an integrationist Italian Jewish community in Tudor London indicates. Like the Portuguese Jews, the Italian Jews owed their presence in England to royal patronage, engaged in trade, and had connections to Jews in Antwerp. They lived in the same places in and outside London as their Portuguese counterparts did, but they integrated into English society far more thoroughly through marriage to Christians (see Prior 138). According to Prior, Shakespeare draws distinctions between converted Italian Jews, like Emilia Bassano—better known now as the poet Emilia Lanier—the woman alleged to be the dark lady of his sonnets, and Portuguese converts like Lopez whose resistant Jewishness was seen as a threat to English identity.12 Whether or not Prior's claims about Emilia Bassano are true, the history of the Italian Jewish community suggests that competing notions of Jewishness existed at the time Shakespeare wrote and staged The Merchant. The construction of Jews as “deserving” (as they would later be labeled in the state documents calling for their readmission to England) or alien may have functioned to authorize the social and political agendas of British imperialism and the racialism it depended on.13 Foxe's concerns may be seen, then, as representative of larger political questions: How would the English distinguish resistant and finally unintegrable Jews like Lopez or Gaunse from more cooperative and thus “truly” convertible Jews like Bassano? How could they affirm this distinction without denying the meaning and promise of conversion to Christianity? And how could English Christians define the Jew's difference both as a difference of nature and as a difference of faith involving the act of will faith requires? These issues constitute Shakespeare's challenge in The Merchant of Venice—a challenge he meets by presenting Jessica as a “fair” Jewish alternative to Shylock.

Initially Launcelot describes Jessica as a “[m]ost beautiful pagan, [a] most sweet Jew,” and her embodiment of such conjunctions is an obvious source of comic tension in the play. Significantly, however, Launcelot's oxymorons depend on anti-Semitic assumptions that are impressed on the audience when Shylock first appears onstage as the incarnation of the inherently evil Jew of medieval and early modern Christian legend: he is scheming (“If I can catch him once upon the hip … ” [1.3.46]), greedy (“He lends out money gratis, and brings down / The rate of usuance” [1.3.44-45]), satanic (“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. … O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!” [1.3.98, 102]), and eager for Christian blood (“[the] fair flesh, to be cut off and taken / In what part of your body pleaseth me” [1.3.150-51]14).

Jessica must overcome these images if she is to be integrated into the world of the play, which is largely defined in opposition to the malevolent Jewish otherness of Shylock. The difficulties of doing so, however, become quickly apparent. Alone onstage at the end of her first scene, Jessica presents the audience with the first of several arguments for her convertibility.

Alack, what heinous sin is it in me
To be ashamed to be my father's child!
But though I am a daughter to his blood,
I am not to his manners. O Lorenzo,
If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife,
Become a Christian and thy loving wife!


That Jessica distances herself from sin by blatantly disregarding her father's authority may be necessary, but it is also problematic. For Shakespeare's audience, patriarchal authority was divinely ordained, and it secured the right of princes as well as that of fathers.15 Jessica's disregard for that authority thus creates the first obstacle to a Christian audience's acceptance of her as a Christian.

The late-sixteenth-century debate over the role of parental authority in choosing a spouse would have been equally familiar to Shakespeare's audience.16 Moreover, texts such as Andrewe Kyngesmill's “Godly Advise Touchyng Mariage” (1580) and Charles Gibbon's How to Bestow Children in Marriage (1591) reveal that the contest between individual will and patriarchal authority in the choice of spouses was often most intense when marriages were proposed between “believers and nonbelievers” (Kyngesmill Jiv). Gibbon lays out the competing views about such marriages in a fictional debate between Philogus and Tychias. Philogus argues that a Christian should not “be unequally yoked with infidels for what fellowship hath righteousness & what communion hath light with darkness?” Tychias counters that “the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the believing wife” and vice versa (C2r-v).17

In this context, acceptance of Jessica's marriage to Lorenzo would require a Christian audience to conclude either that she is a believer before her marriage or that she is, as she insists, “sanctified” through her marriage. In fact, Jessica lays claim to both arguments. Distinguishing between her own and her father's manners to resolve the “sin” and “strife” implicit in her rebellion, she underscores her preconversion difference. She nullifies the claims of filial attachment by insisting that she is a different kind of Jew, one whose manners take precedence over blood and who thus can see the truth of Christianity. Conversely, she equates Shylock's blood and manners, asserting a racial notion of Jewishness that she claims not to share. To extend an argument Frank Whigham makes, material and aesthetic distinctions between the powerful and the powerless take on both moral and bodily force and thus reveal to the audience a “natural” social hierarchy in which men subordinate women and Christians subordinate Jews (95, 103). Indeed, though Jessica clearly prefers a Christian life, she is saved not so much by her own choice as by Lorenzo's choice to marry her. By uniting her willingness with the willingness of others to find her integrable, she combines the blessings of Christian grace with individual will.

The need to guarantee Jessica's willingness is demonstrated in the scene following her soliloquy, in which Lorenzo, Gratiano, Solanio, and Solerio plan how Jessica, along with “what gold and jewels she [shall be] furnished with,” will be taken “from her father's house” (2.4.31, 2.4.30). Jessica's wealth and her willingness to spend it constitute the first of several distinctions that guarantee her integration into Christian society. The next is articulated by Lorenzo when he receives her letter setting the time of their elopement:

I know the hand; in faith, ’tis a fair hand,
And whiter than the paper it writ on
Is the fair hand that writ.


The stress Lorenzo places on “fair” is echoed by Gratiano and again by Lorenzo before the scene concludes (2.4.28, 2.4.39). Early modern uses of fair combine the senses of color and beauty, and Lorenzo's direct reference to whiteness suggests color is related to his assertion of Jessica's worth.18 Thus, while the scene establishes the means for Jessica's liberation from Shylock's house, it creates a color difference between father and daughter that justifies her removal, and it casts that difference as a source of comedy instead of tragedy: consider, for example, Desdemona's fate after eloping. Why color might be a prerequisite to differentiation from the Jewish stereotype is suggested later, in the seemingly comic debate between Launcelot and Jessica about the effectiveness of Jewish integration through marriage. In an awkward quotation of Exodus 20.5, Launcelot warns Jessica that “the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children” (3.5.1-2). She answers by repeating her earlier argument: “I shall be saved by my husband. He hath made me a Christian” (3.5.19-20). The power of her response is manifest not only in its simplicity, which contrasts with Launcelot's comic misprisions, but also in the representation of marriage as a force for order. But Lorenzo clarifies the bodily requirements for marriage as a means for the “making of Christians,” as Launcelot puts it, when Jessica relays Launcelot's claims (3.5.23). “I shall answer that better to the commonwealth,” Lorenzo warns Launcelot, “than you can the getting up of the Negro's belly; the Moor is with child by you, Launcelot” (3.5.37-39).

Jessica's defense and Lorenzo's rebuttal show how her whiteness and femaleness make possible her reproduction as a Christian in the eyes of the “commonwealth.” As Hall notes, the scene reflects that institution's investment in “sexual practices” (“Guess” 89). Moreover, Jessica's marriage reconstitutes her as a body, for according to Christian ecclesiastical and legal authorities, a woman was incorporated into the body of her husband in marriage, becoming both one with and subject to him. As Portia says after Bassanio has successfully negotiated the prenuptial test devised by her father, “Myself, and what was mine, to you and yours / Is now converted” (3.2.166-67). In a play concerned with the conversion of Jews, Portia's terms make explicit the analogy between the transfer of her person and property to Bassanio and the incorporation of Jessica's person and property into Lorenzo. Like Portia's conversion from “lord,” “master,” and “[q]ueen” to “an unlessoned girl” ready “to be directed / As from her lord, her governor, her king” (3.2.167, 3.2.168, 3.2.169, 3.2.159, 3.2.164-65), Jessica's conversion from dark infidel to fair Christian is required by the play's ideology of order through marriage. As Jessica argues early in the play, becoming one with the body of Christ requires not only her marriage to a Christian but also the conversion of her body in distinctly racial and gendered terms (2.3.16-21).

It is in this context that Lorenzo's celebration of Jessica as “whiter” than the paper she writes on becomes significant. For unlike the offspring of Launcelot and his absent black lover, those of Jessica and Lorenzo will not differ bodily from the normative white Christian subject. Drawing on the work of Kim Hall and Janet Adelman, Lynda Boose explains the significance of this distinction:

In terms of the ideological assumptions of a culture such as that of early modern England, the black male-white female union is not the narrative that requires suppression. What challenges the ideology substantially enough to require erasure is that of the black female-white male, for it is in the person of the black woman that the culture's preexisting fears both about the female sex and about gender dominance are realized. Through her, all free-floating anxieties about “the mother's dark place” contaminating the father's designs for perfect self-replication become vividly literal.

(“Getting” 45-46)

Like Lorenzo, Hall and Boose consider Jessica visually white and therefore integrable within the racial and religious ideologies of early modern English patriarchy. But this view obscures the process of racialization in the play and thus the intersection of religion and gender in the production of racial ideology. In an inversion of the hierarchy of flesh and blood that Portia uses to incriminate Shylock, Jessica's “Jewish blood” is subordinated in the course of the play to her “fair” and hence convertible flesh (see 3.1.37-42). After her marriage, she will “appear,” to quote Wolf, to be one of the “decent folk” who constitute Christian society.

In this context, Shylock's attempts in act 3 to defend himself against the attacks of Solanio and Solario take on new significance. Shylock appears to fail when he asserts, as Normand Lawrence writes, “that his daughter partakes of the same physical substance as himself, and so shares the same racial identity” (58): “I say my daughter is my flesh and blood,” he declares (3.1.37). Solanio returns:

There is more difference between thy flesh and hers than between jet and ivory, more between your bloods than there is between red wine and Rhenish.


Whereas Shylock merely cites the relation between his body and his daughter's, Solanio emphasizes a transformation in Jessica whereby color and gender combine to overcome less discernible differences of blood.

Shylock, like Launcelot's black child, cannot undergo such a transformation. The reasons for his inability to do so help explain the unsettling effect of the final order for his conversion.19 For Shylock's body, like the body of any Jewish man, would “convert” a Christian bride. Further, unlike Jessica, Shylock bears the mark of Judaism on his body—circumcision—and the Jewish body lies at the center of early modern anti-Semitic discourse. Though this bodily difference is never explicitly referred to in the play, the representation of Shylock as a devil intent on the apportionment of a Christian body is part of a tradition of anti-Semitic discourse in which Jews were said to be horned, tailed, and bearded like goats, to emit a distinct smell, and to be the source of leprosy and syphilis. According to this discourse, Jewish men, unlike Christian men, shared the mark of women's sexual difference: menstruation,20 a feminizing trait that would effectively erase the patriarchal authority inscribed literally and figuratively on Jewish men. The male Jew incarnated the power of naming attributed to all men: this power became particularly threatening in a Jewish man because in placing his name on a Christian woman, and thus on future generations, he embodied the danger of the annihilating, consuming other.

For Shapiro, Christian obsession with circumcision and with the sacred covenant it symbolizes “shapes the final confrontation between Shylock and Antonio”: thus Antonio's demand that Shylock “presently become a Christian” “metaphorically uncircumcise[s] him” (130).21 The new covenant, represented by symbolic circumcision of the heart, supersedes the old, thus resolving the troubled relation between physical attributes and social identity through baptism.22 As critics have noted, Shylock's conversion occurs only after the play ends, and it is cast as an act of submission on his part—“I pray you give me leave to go from hence, / I am not well. Send the deed after me, / And I will sign it” (4.1.395-97)—a portrayal that weakens the representative power of the transformation. In contrast, Jessica is to be incorporated into Venetian society because she has been excluded from the practice of circumcision. According to Shapiro, this exclusion “helps explain why Jewish daughters like Jessica in The Merchant of Venice and Abigail in The Jew of Malta can so easily cross the religious boundaries that divide their stigmatized fathers from the dominant Christian communities. The religious difference of women is not usually imagined as physically inscribed in their flesh” (120). But as I have argued, female difference was inscribed in the flesh not only by religious discourse but also by ideologies and emerging notions of race and nationality, which converged to define the “proper” English person.

From this perspective, the unsettling effect of Shylock's forced conversion can also be traced to the tension in Foxe's writing between the notion of free will implicit in baptism and the drive to delimit and thus control the oppositional other implicit in Christian imperialism. Like Othello, Shylock inspires feeling about his fate only insofar as he is capable of choosing Christian “goodness.” Moreover, Shylock's malevolence depends on the shifting inscription of Jessica as racial Jew and freely choosing Christian. Jessica's incorporation into Christian society is essential to defining her father's alien status. Indeed, her nature in act 5 may be said to offer something of a reverse image of her father's in his final scenes: represented initially as her father's daughter, ruing her rebellion but longing for salvation through subordination in Christian marriage, she becomes the cool wit who seeks to “out-night” Lorenzo, trades the tokens of her mother's love for a monkey, and gains the trust of Portia in her plot against Bassanio (5.1.23). Shylock, by contrast, evolves from the resistant other to the raging and then nearly silent Jew of the fourth act and finally to a converted but unwilling, powerful yet alien figure, the image of the other against which English identity could be inscribed as white and Christian.

Still, such distinctions between Shylock and Jessica are perhaps too easy. As Lorenzo's attempt to claim the perceptual difference of Jessica's fairness makes clear, the logical incompatibility of the play's representations of Jews is impossible to sustain and requires endless permutations. Consequently, the Jessica of act 5 may be read not as an alternative and fully integrated Jew but as a homeless figure that suggests the dangers of consummating a relationship across such differences. In this reading she becomes an emblem of postcoital regret, ruing not her rebellion against patriarchal authority but the terms of her new commitment to it and the meager possibilities for unalienated pleasure they provide. In act 5, both Jessica and Lorenzo look to the past to make sense of their relationship. Further, the relationships with which they allegorize and thus make sense of their own all end tragically because of confusion and conflicting aims: Troilus and Cressida, Pyramus and Thisbe, Aeneas and Dido, Jason and Medea. Then, as if to illustrate and thus anticipate the potential for tragedy in their own union, Jessica and Lorenzo offer individual memories of the fateful night of their elopement. “In such a night / Did Jessica steal from a wealthy Jew, / And with an unthrift love did run from Venice, / As far as Belmont” (5.1.14-17), says Lorenzo, using metaphors of wealth, poverty, and thievery to underscore Jessica's betrayal of her father and the loss of security their mutual commitments guaranteed her. Playful or bitter, Jessica's version of the night hints at the difficulty of establishing trust between persons of different religions, colors, classes, and especially genders that is played up in the rest of act 5: “In such a night / Did young Lorenzo swear he lov’d her well, / Stealing her soul with many vows of faith, / And n’er a true one” (5.1.17-20).

These two distinct readings of the final act of The Merchant are both predicated on the idea that Jessica's difference—from her father and from the Christian characters—is crucial to the play's meaning. As the excluded other whose resistance to the truth of Jesus serves to delineate the essential, impermeable nature of the Christian story, the converted Jew could function to guarantee simultaneously both the promise of freedom implicit in baptism and the incontrovertible difference of white, Christian, and, by analogy turned equation, English forms of being. Indeed, only by taking Shylock's measure in the light of his daughter's difference—a difference that combines shifting representations of gender, color, class, and religion—is it possible to account for the play's inscription of contradictory notions of Jews. If The Merchant's representation of Jews continues to haunt us—as the numbers of productions and critical responses to the play suggest it will and the survival of its racial discourse in contemporary politics suggests it should—we may get closer to the meaning of such ghosts by examining more closely the nature of their differences.


  1. Tubal is the only character other than Shylock described as “a Jew” in the dramatis personae. He is also Shylock's only friend and the source of the funds that guarantee Shylock's bond. Although Tubal is certainly worthy of study, I focus here on the play's major characters.

  2. I use the term integration to refer to the acceptance of (forcibly or willingly) converted Jews by English Christians rather than assimilation, which in modern usage implies the freedom to continue practicing Judaism, an option unavailable to Jews in Shakespeare's England.

  3. Compare, for example, the work of McKewin; Boose, “Comic Contract”; Leventen; and Newman, “Portia's Ring” with that of Whigham; S. Cohen; Moisan; W. Cohen; Oz; and Ferber. Though there are differences in the ways each group of critics sidesteps the issues raised by the intersection of gender, race, and class, Newman and Ferber both illustrate the problems such critical choices raise. Each addresses the issue in a footnote. Newman states that she has “chosen deliberately to leave Shylock out of [her] reading … to disturb readings of the play that center their interpretive gestures on the Jew.” She “recognize[s] the suggestive possibilities, however, of readings … which link Shylock and Portia as outsiders by virtue respectively of their race and sex” (“Portia's Ring” 19). Ferber declares, “A fuller treatment of ideology than is possible here would take up ‘male ideology’ from a feminist standpoint. I omit it here because I think the issue of the status or rights of women is not foregrounded in the play, and the peculiarly male way of doing things is only passingly and obliquely indicated” (460). Both comments appear to acknowledge the importance of the critical claims they choose to ignore, then contradict their initial claims. Newman leaves Shylock out because he has somehow enabled readings that fail to account for the play's women, but her reference to other “possibilities” suggests that elision of Shylock's “race” in favor of his gender, which is implicit in her reasoning, is problematic. Jessica, who is a woman and a Jew, is not mentioned at all. Ferber's claims are manifestly absurd given the importance the play assigns to marriage and gender roles, such as father, daughter, brother, husband, and wife. When considered at all, Jessica is often presented solely as a contrast to Portia's image of filial feminine duty: “where Portia gives, Jessica takes; where Portia accepts constraints, Jessica rebels” (Leventen 62).

  4. See, e.g., Boose (“Getting”) and Callaghan, who argue for “the inherent interrelatedness” of categories of difference and its importance for any interpretation of Jews in The Merchant (Callaghan 170). Still, neither explains what a reconsideration of the terms race and Jew might mean for reading Shakespeare.

  5. There is an important distinction between racism as an identifiable mode of twentieth-century thought and the racialist roots of this ideology in early modern culture. Others have made the same distinction (see Neill; Bartels; Boose, “Getting”; Erickson).

  6. Foxe's attitude toward Jews seems to take a turn for the worse after the 1563 edition. While in that edition Jews frequently serve to point up the errors of Catholics (see, e.g., “Jewe's Reasoning with Master Wysehart” [NNiir]), in the 1570 edition Jews appear most often as ridiculous and deserving targets of violence, willing victims like the “Jewe fallen into a privey [who] would not be taken out for kyping hys Sabboth day” (Nir).

  7. See, e.g., Greenblatt, “Marlowe,” and Ferber. On the historical presence of Jews in England, see Katz, History and Philosemitism; Rabb; Gwyer; Wolf; Roth; Samuel; Hyamson; Prior; Shapiro. Others who attempt to account for the representation of human difference in early modern Europe include Bartels; Mullaney; Pratt; Hulme; Brown; Said; Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions; Erickson.

  8. Hotine cites the publication in 1594 and possibly early 1595 of the popular account of Lopez's trial, A True Report of Sundry Horrible Conspiracies to Have Taken Away the Life of the Queenes Majestie, which along with Marlowe's Jew of Malta documents the popular taste for anti-Semitic representations that preceded Shakespeare's Merchant. See Hotine for a useful chronology of the revival of Marlowe's Malta that preceded and followed Lopez's trial in 1594; the play was revived yet again in early 1596, the year in which it is generally agreed Shakespeare wrote The Merchant. More recently, David Katz, the foremost historian of English Jews, has argued that “Lopez, the model for Shylock, had far greater influence in the long run on moulding public views and prejudices about the Jews than the worthy efforts of all the English Rabbis put together” (History ix). Katz argues for Lopez's guilt. For a competing interpretation of the case against Lopez, see Gwyer.

  9. For more on Gaunse, see Feuer; Abrahams; Shapiro.

  10. For the story of Frere and Leavis, see Sisson.

  11. A 1578 adaptation of the biblical narrative of Ham and his sons by George Best, an English traveler, is a possible source for Jessica's reference to Chus. See Hakluyt for Best's complete text. For useful discussions of Best's representations of race, see Newman, “Ethiop” 78-82; Boose, “Getting” 43-48; Hall, Things 11-15.

  12. For more on the influence of Lopez, see Katz, History.

  13. The term deserving is used in a 1656 document in which a committee of the Council of State argues for the readmission of Jews to England. For a copy of the document, see Samuel.

  14. For studies of the representation of the Jew in medieval and early modern European culture, see Trachtenberg; Poliakov; Edwards; Baron; Yardeni; Felsenstein; Shapiro. Tractenberg suggests that the equation of Jews with devils was the product of Christian legends in which “the inexorable enemies of Jesus … were the devil and the Jew.” “It was inevitable,” he argues, “that the legend should establish a causal relation between them” (20). Shapiro claims that “by the late sixteenth century the widespread medieval identification of Jews and the devil had virtually disappeared in England” (33), yet he locates the medieval myth of abduction and ritual murder in Shylock's desire to feast on his Christian enemies (110).

  15. On patriarchalism in early modern England, see Schochet; Ezell.

  16. On marriage without parental consent during the sixteenth century, see Ingram.

  17. Kyngesmill's text takes up the topic under the heading “Certain places of Scripture touchyng ungodly matchyng in Mariage” and focuses on marriage to “women of a wicked kinred and Religion.” Such marriages are inadvisable, he argues, because unbelieving wives don’t properly fear and submit to their husbands and thus “overruleth the beleevyng husbande and causeth hym to make a plaine shipwracke of faith … ” (4iiv).

  18. On early modern constructions of the term fair, see Hall, Things and “Black-Moor.”

  19. Shylock's distaste for Christians is based on the historical practice of ritual separateness. As Johnson explains in his history of the Jews, “Circumcision set [Jews] apart and was regarded by the Greco-Roman world as barbarous and distasteful. But at least circumcision did not prevent social intercourse. The ancient Jewish laws of diet and cleanliness did” (133-34). Thus, Shylock's declaration “I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following; but I will not eat with you, drink with you nor pray with you” (1.3.33-35) can be read as evidence that Shakespeare's knowledge of Jewish practice and perspective went beyond stereotypes.

  20. Poliakov claims that Christians believed in Jewish male menses; he cites late-fifteenth-century documents concerned with Jewish ritual murder (143). Foa discusses how sixteenth- and seventeenth-century beliefs in a Jewish cause of syphilis were related to the discourse of sexual difference long applied to women. In a study of the nineteenth-century British equation of usury and prostitution, Gilman documents the continuity of the practice of feminizing male Jews (cf. Gallagher).

  21. Shapiro argues for a relation between circumcision—the ritual reenactment of God's convenant with Abraham—and Christian fears of castration and death in early modern England.

  22. As Shapiro explains, Paul's letter to the Romans attempts to promote symbolic circumcision of the heart without condemning the trimming of the foreskin. Shapiro argues convincingly that the shift in The Merchant's representation of the terms of Shylock's bond, from “fair flesh, to be cut off and taken / In what part of your body pleaseth me” (1.3.150-51) to “A pound of flesh, to be by him cut off / Nearest the merchant's heart” (4.1.232-33) involves a “double displacement” of Paul's text: “For circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision” (Rom. 2.25). Thus, Shapiro continues, “Shylock will cut his Christian adversary in that part of the body where the Christians believe themselves to be truly circumcised: the heart” (127). The heart takes the place of the penis, the spirit the place of the letter. However, as Shapiro notes, such a displacement depends on a distinction between the symbolic and the literal, between the spirit and the flesh, that Paul's text does not sustain. Paul's terms conflate the categories by begging the question of interpreting God's law. Instead of solving the problem of Jewish and Christian identity, Paul's concern with circumcision becomes a touchstone for obsessions about the relation between physical attributes and social identity.

I am grateful to Janet Adelman, Michael Galchinsky, and Bruce Goebel, who read this essay at significant stages in its development and offered that combination of enthusiasm and critical insight we value in the best of colleagues and teachers.

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B. J. Sokol (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: “Prejudice and Law in The Merchant of Venice,” in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production, Vol. 51, 1998, pp. 159-73.

[In the essay below, Sokol discusses the legally sanctioned forms of racial prejudice in Elizabethan England—against Jews and people of color, for example—but argues that through characterization, language, and imagery in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare intimates that Renaissance public opinion condemned these prejudicial laws.]


The legally institutionalized prejudice seen in The Merchant of Venice is repulsive from a modern perspective. I will argue that this play portrays deeply ironic images of social prejudice that offended Elizabethan standards of decency and fairness as well as ours. Paradoxically, these contemporary Elizabethan standards come into focus when the play is viewed from a perspective involving legal history, for they in fact trumped the prejudicial laws of Shakespeare's time.

In the updated approach to Shakespeare of his provocative book Kill All the Lawyers?, a practising American lawyer Daniel J. Kornstein advises Shylock to appeal against Portia's judgement.1 And he makes frequent reference to modern legal doctrines, often specifically American, to show how these have evolved or advanced since Shakespeare's time. Yet Kornstein sometimes discusses issues and principles which have persisted in the Anglo-American legal tradition since Shakespeare's time, which may guide us to the shared social and moral vocabulary of Shakespeare and his age.

I share Kornstein's view that Shylock is presented by Shakespeare as distinctly ill-intentioned, yet still a man wronged and unjustly treated. I also agree that this ‘minority view’ in literary criticism negates certain prima facie appearances of the play, but it is a valid and necessary one because in the play's fictionally constructed world, as in the real world, ‘appearances deceive’.2 But I will base my position more historically than Kornstein's; to launch my own discussion I will note what is illuminating in his advice to Shylock, and how inaccuracies and anachronisms detract from it.

A first error is that this advice ignores Elizabethan jurisdictional and legal peculiarities relevant to The Merchant of Venice. The question of what jurisdiction, if any, Shakespeare had in mind for the play's fictional lawcase has been much debated. I have argued for the special appropriateness of a jurisdiction which was originally derived from Italy, but well known to Elizabethans. This was the jurisdiction of the pan-European traditional International Law Merchant. Uniquely in England, some Law Merchant tribunals allowed a combination of summary civil and criminal judgement (as is seen in the ‘pie-Powders’ court of Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair).3 This very combination of judgements in the trial scene of the Merchant of Venice therefore need not have provided, pace Kornstein,4 any grounds for an appeal.

Others of Kornstein's law points are less ahistorical. He discusses at length a social need for appropriate limitations on the freedom to make contracts,5 and there were parallel (if subtly different) sixteenth-century discussions of enforcement or relief from the provisions of ‘sealed bonds’ like Shylock's.6

Even more interesting, in spite of partial anachronism, is Kornstein's citation of a modern principle of ‘equal protection of the laws’, under which he condemns the ‘vile Alien Statute’ invoked by Portia against Shylock.7 Despite his revulsion at the unequally protective ‘Alien Statute’ of Venice cited by Portia, at first glance such a statute would seem hardly remarkable from an Elizabethan perspective. In 1601 Elizabeth arranged to expel from England all ‘Negars and blackamoors’.8 In 1594 she seemed hesitant to punish the unfortunate Doctor Lopez,9 but Jews were so unequally protected in her realm as to be officially outlawed.10 Although they were not enacted, other Elizabethan anti-Alien laws were repeatedly proposed, and economic surveys were undertaken to investigate their applicability. Roman Catholics also suffered legal disabilities in Shakespeare's time, and possibly Shakespeare's family suffered under these.11 Yet, despite these circumstances, I will argue that legal and social inequality based on prejudice is intended to be seen as unjust within the context of The Merchant of Venice.


To bring this into focus, I will first trace allusions in the play to legalistic biblical materials. In the course of his dramatic handling of a litigious and mercantile Jew, Shakespeare drew so heavily upon biblical stories concerning especially property relations and legal vindication that The Merchant of Venice contains the most extensive biblical references in all his work. Current legal topics were also apparently meditated upon by Shakespeare for The Merchant of Venice. I believe that the play reflects a contemporary crisis about justice. Historically, this resulted from no simple matter of ‘law before equity’ or any converse formula, but rather from the philosophic casualties of a battleground between conflicting and combative jurisdictions.12

Certainly the riddle of where true justice lies was made more complex both in The Merchant of Venice and in Shakespeare's London by the presence of economically important alien subcommunities. Those were generally tolerated, although their rights, for instance to trade and to employ English men and women, suffered periodic verbal attack and occasional outbursts of unofficial anti-foreigner rioting. So Shakespeare's allusions to social and ethical questions concerning aliens, as in Gobbo's ruminations on employment by Shylock, touched live issues. Yet not entirely live, for it is most likely that Elizabethan London did not provide Shakespeare or his audience with visible prototypes for the legal treatment and actual behaviour of Jews.13 There were, however, many refugee households, and foreign merchants or visitors whom Shakespeare could have asked about continental Jews; with certainty, by early Jacobean times, Shakespeare had contacts with artisans who numbered among London's alien communities.14

The balance of evidence indicates that Shakespeare's personal associations were unlikely to have produced close observation of any Jews.15 One of the surprises of The Merchant of Venice, therefore, is that he imagined a Shylock exhibiting a propensity often seen in tolerated Jewish minorities, which is his enthusiastic voluntary turning to Christian courts and lawyers.16 Shylock's doomed pursuit of a Venetian legal underpinning for his revenge against Venice embodies some of the most complex human motives portrayed in the play.


In his pursuit of revenge Shylock repeatedly makes references to Old Testament stories of the legal vindication of the oppressed and of the restoration of their denied freedom or rights. One such reference is made in a moment of anticipated triumph, when all seems to be going Shylock's way in his lawcase against the Christian merchant Antonio. Highly gratified by the apparent progress of the case, Shylock exclaims of the seemingly unbiased Christian justicer Portia/Balthazar: ‘A Daniel come to judgment: yea, a Daniel!’ (4.1.219). Significantly, the name ‘Daniel’ means in Hebrew ‘God has judged’.

Shylock does not refer directly to the biblical book of Daniel in which the exiled Jewish hero is first valued for skill in interpreting dreams and visions, but then, for his piety, is thrown into a lions' den. Yet there is a parallel between various demands for the rigid application of Venetian laws in Shakespeare's play and the legalistic basis for Daniel's ordeal; Daniel is punished through the application of an inflexible law of the Medes and Persians obtained by his enemies solely in order to catch Daniel out.17

Let us delay discussion of such stories of jurisprudential chicanery to note first that Shylock explicitly refers to Daniel as a shrewd lawyer, rather than as an unfairly treated Jewish alien. Shylock's reference must then be to the story in the book of Susanna in which Daniel appears as a resourceful detective/advocate. In this apocryphal book of Shakespeare's frequently employed Geneva Bible, Daniel wins a court case for the innocent but vulnerable Susanna, and thereby defends justice itself. He astutely represents her, saving her person and her reputation despite the apparent hopelessness of confronting the perjured testimony of two salacious Elders. These lying old men are not only establishment figures, but also possess the crushing moral authority of actually being judges. What is crucial in Shylock's allusion is that Daniel's advocacy for Susanna before the court of the people defends the friendless weak against the socially powerful. It is also important that Daniel's defence of Susanna relies on a cunning legal stratagem; he separates the two false witnesses and traps them into contradictory statements. The risky legal adventures of Susanna lead to a biblical conclusion that God ‘saves those who hope in him’, even if they are in desperate straits.

As his own hopes rise, Shylock begins to identify himself with a socially weaker party avenged and vindicated by law, and so remembers Susanna's legal rescue by Daniel. His joy in seeming to win his law case with Portia's aid shows Shylock's complex motives, which include not only revenge against powerful Antonio, but also a desire for public acknowledgement of his rights, and thus for social recognition.

Shylock's intended foul revenge is only ambiguously legal, and is necessarily incapable of rendering the good he desires. Nevertheless, in the complexity of his motivation Shylock is unique among fictional Jews of the age. These were typically stereotyped as monsters of furtive, gloating, mass-murdering perfidy. Correspondingly, Shylock's broken-hearted ending is unlike the merely physical dismemberment through torture that demolishes other Elizabethan literary Jew-monsters.


Shylock's excitement when he lauds Portia's Daniel-like astuteness is not only villainous gloating. The peculiarly urgent significance he attaches to his anticipated legal victory is clarified by a consideration of Shylock's lengthier allusions early in the play to the legal manoeuvres recorded in the Book of Genesis of the patriarch Jacob. These are manoeuvres that Shylock finds wholly good. Shylock first mentions Jacob's wrested inheritance, ‘wrought’ by his ‘wise mother’ (1.3.68), thus making the only approving comment on mothers in The Merchant of Venice (all others are bawdy, cynical or both).18 This allusion introduces an explicitly approving account by Shylock of the trickery Jacob used to gain an advantage over the revenge upon Laban. Both biblical stories, purportedly told to justify lending money for interest, are oblique to this purpose, but both have other compelling resonances in The Merchant of Venice.

An important factor common to both of these stories is that they involve peculiar dealings with animals. This fact, if not its significance, is obvious in Shylock's account from Genesis 30-1 of how ‘Jacob graz’d his uncle Laban's sheep’ (1.3.66), but it arises also in connection with his allusion to how Jacob became holy Abraham's ‘third possessor’ (1.3.68-9), that is, the third Hebrew patriarch. Genesis 27 tells how Jacob's ‘wise mother’ Rebekah helped him to trick the second patriarch, Isaac, into giving to him a deathbed blessing intended for the first-born son Esau. To this end Rebekah covered Jacob with the ‘skins of the kids’ so that he appeared to blind Isaac's touch to be a ‘hairy man’ like Esau, and she dressed him in animal skins smelling of the hunter Esau. This looks like a direct application of a technique of benevolent deception still practised by shepherds today; to save an orphaned lamb they place the skin of a stillborn lamb over it to trick the stillborn's mother into accepting it as her own. Shakespeare, raised near the Cotswolds, knew of such techniques of husbandry, as many in his audiences may have done. For them Shylock's allusion to the biblical pastoralist's ruse was a first hint in The Merchant of Venice of an inspired use of trickery.

The story of Jacob and blind Isaac re-echoes in the play in the ludicrous episode of the ‘confusions’, or practical jokes, perpetrated by Launcelot Gobbo on his ‘more than sand-blind’ father, who refuses him blessings, finding him too hairy (2.2.30-95). This burlesque emphasizes how in the Bible divinely controlled fate, acting through means that may even seem unjust, selects a destined heir through deception.

After alluding to Jacob's inheritance, Shylock gives Antonio a rendition of the story of Jacob's revenge on Laban which, in the context of their ongoing financial negotiations, has sinister implications.19 Involving a crafty contract, in effect a ‘merry bond’, which yields redress for a legitimate grievance, this story again describes Jacob's trickery. After Laban has repeatedly cheated Jacob of the rewards due for decades of labour, Jacob negotiates for a final wage all the (normally rare) black or parti-coloured offspring of his flocks. Jacob then employs specialized animal breeding techniques, to his great advantage.20 By inducing all the best animals of Laban's flocks to conceive ‘streak’d and pied’ offspring, he gains all the profits of the herds.21

This biblical story, like the tale of Jacob acquiring Esau's blessing and birthright, might seem to us only an account of crafty cheating. But the Renaissance responded differently to Jacob's tactics.22 The episode of the coloured sheep is followed in Genesis by Jacob's explanation to his two wives (Laban's daughters) that God Himself ordained his success (31:4-10). In the Geneva or ‘Breeches’ translation of the Bible often used by Shakespeare the passage is glossed marginally: ‘This declareth that the thing which Iacob did before, was by Gods commandement, and not through deceite.’23 Next Jacob tells his wives that in a dream God's angel showed him the way to his safe vindication, and the Geneva Bible glosses: ‘This Angell was Christ.’ Thus Shakespeare's audience may well have held Jacob's cunning legal moves to be an unorthodox but no less justified means of attaining an outcome ordained divinely, an outcome vindicating the oppressed.

Just like Jacob, whom he describes making a seemingly foolish but wily contract with oppressive Laban, Shylock obtains a silly-seeming ‘merry bond’ from Antonio. His aim is also to obtain compensation. Analogously with Jacob wearing animal skins, Shylock later mimics animality in his insistence on taking Antonio's flesh (justifying accusations he is a ‘cut-throat dog’ or ‘wolf’). Antonio, for his part, notices merely that Shylock's story of Jacob's practice against Laban does not excuse the taking of monetary interest (nor does Shylock take any from Antonio on this occasion). There is deep irony in how the Christian merchant impatiently understands Shylock's stories in a mercantile light only, and cannot hear how much the Jew admires the third biblical patriarch's skill in obtaining a ‘merry’ legal redress for injustices.24

The picture unseen by Antonio in Shylock's story, of the powerless foreigner Jacob besting the established local patriarch Laban, explains why Shylock does not retire in defeat after the egregious theft of his wealth and his daughter. He seeks rather for vindication on the terms of Venetian justice, and yearns to present such an excellent legal case against Antonio that it is sure to succeed.25 Just as Othello must show himself the most superb of Venetian soldiers to overcome the racial prejudices that he has internalized, so Shylock must show himself to be the most adroit Venetian litigant and businessman.

There are things in Shakespeare that cannot be appreciated without imagining that some of his characters have mental interiors. Why did Antonio fail to comprehend the point of Shylock's story about Jacob's divinely inspired revenge, and also why isn’t he made suspicious by Shylock's willingness to lend him money without taking interest? Is he distracted even more than his unworldly ‘want-wit’ sadness described at the play's start might account for, or deaf to the ominous drift of Shylock's question: ‘Hath a dog money? Is it possible / A cur can lend thee three thousand ducats?’ (1.3.116-17)? In twenty lines Shylock five times repeats that Antonio has abused him as a ‘dog’ or ‘cur’. Antonio's response is, ‘I am as like to call thee so again, / To spet on thee again’ (1.3.126). Thus Antonio flaunts his hatred of the Jew while he puts his life in hands that must be clenched at hearing his hate.

This may seem suicidal. Indeed by the time of his law trial Antonio's melancholy has deepened to the point where he craves only death. Using animal imagery in ways new to the play, he speaks of himself as a sacrificial lamb. Correspondingly, he and Gratiano relabel the former ‘dog’ Shylock as a ‘wolf’, perhaps recalling the name of the infamous Doctor Lopez. But unlike the historical Lopez,26 Shylock makes an excellent legal case for himself, which despite prejudice seems to give him ascendancy.

At this point Shylock gleefully seizes the dramatic and linguistic initiative, transforming the Christians' animal images by saying that he intends to use Antonio in no other way than they use ‘many a purchas'd slave, / Which (like your asses, and your dogs and mules) / You use in abject and in slavish parts, / Because you bought them’ (4.1.90-3). In other words, Shylock spitefully reviles the Christians by claiming to imitate their low moral stature. Despite sentimentalists' readings, Shylock similarly concludes the famous ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ speech not with a noble plea for equality, but by spitefully justifying a Jew's desire for Bacon's ‘wild justice’ of illegal revenge on the basis of ferocious ‘Christian example’ (3.1.60-6). However, in his argument about asses and slaves Shylock may extend his sarcasm into an even more bitter and unexpected area than such levelling ethical nihilism. In the First Folio punctuation (more clearly than in the Arden), his ambiguous retort may even propose that the Christians might support bestiality:

You haue among you many a purchast slaue,
Which like your Asses, and your Dogs and Mules,
You vse in abiect and in slauish parts,
Because you bought them. Shall I say to you,
Let them be free, marrie them to your heires?

(TLN 1996-2000)

We will find the legal and ideological aspects of such a suggestion crucial. Before addressing them, we may note that Shylock, in taxing the Christians on keeping slaves, may recall with bitterness the Scholastic doctrine that ‘all Jews collectively inherited servile status to Christians'.27 It may also reflect the legal status of Jews as the king's property in England between the Conquest and their expulsion.28

But usually (or in practice) such semi-feudal ownership was more constrained by decency than Shylock's mercantile ‘asses/slaves' equation,29 which obliterates distinctions of human life, animal life and material goods. Indeed the very making of such an equation might seem to condemn Shylock's morality, compared with the Christians'. But the play quite promptly upsets this distinction, by showing two Venetian men blithely regarding their wives as their absolute property, as disposable as so much livestock:

Antonio I am married to a wife
Which is as dear to me as life itself,
But life itself, my wife, and all the world,
Are not with me esteem’d above thy life.
I would lose all, ay sacrifice them all
Here to this devil, to deliver you.
I have a wife who I protest I love,—
I would she were in heaven, so she could
Entreat some power to change this currish Jew.


On hearing these edifying offers, Shylock remarks with wholly justified sarcasm, and also in dismay for his apostate daughter, ‘These be the Christian husbands!’


Often without explicit censure, The Merchant of Venice repeatedly presents characters confusing human with animal life, thereby suggesting ethical equations of life with property. Thus Shylock dismisses his lazy servant Gobbo with comparisons to unprofitable livestock (2.5.45-50).

Later Shylock seems to equate his paternal relationship with cash when he polishes Marlowe's Barabas's ‘O girl! O gold! O beauty! O my bliss!’ to: ‘My daughter, O my ducats! O my daughter!’ (2.8.15). But Shakespeare, as opposed to Marlowe, tempers his Jew's mercenariness in relation to his daughter when the human/animal distinction becomes crucial in Shylock's shocked response to learning of Jessica's bartering of Leah's love-token turquoise ring for a monkey.

Shylock's hatred of Antonio is also not limited by a cash nexus; no amount of ‘moneys' can buy off his revenge on his reviler and tormentor. Yet he explains this with bitter animal/human sarcasm, pretending that his hatred is as inexplicable as an animal phobia: ‘men there are love not a gaping pig! / Some that are mad if they behold a cat!’

There are many other strange concatenations of hatred with animal imagery in the play, as when Shylock sarcastically mocks his own supposed mercenariness by asserting that a financial option on Antonio's human flesh is ‘not so estimable, profitable neither / As flesh of muttons, beefs, or goats' (1.3.162-3). These concatenations are focused and elucidated by an oddity of legal history. To find the appropriate connection we must take a close look into some little regarded elements of the play.


Seemingly minor excrescences of Shakespearian texts may hold clues to deep themes and meanings. One such excrescence produces a conundrum and tonal crux of The Merchant of Venice when, in supposedly idyllic Belmont, the newly married Lorenzo accuses Launcelot Gobbo of the ‘getting up of the negro's belly’ (3.5.35). This accusation is framed in a scene containing much quibbling, and might seem to disclose no more than the insignificant tastelessness of a bawdy mini-subplot. But the complex wording of Gobbo's reply to Lorenzo's accusation serves rather as a key, or the second half of a key, to unlock the cupboard of prevalent social attitudes as portrayed in Belmont. Evaluation of these attitudes is crucial for a proper understanding of the play.

The first half of the key provided by Gobbo's overtly crude excuse for his fornication is found in the concept behind a repulsive legality noted by Sir Edward Coke. Coke discusses a law symptomatic of fear and hatred which made a marriage between a Christian and Jew equivalent to the clamantia peccata of sodomy and bestiality. According to his Institutes, ‘the party so offending should be burnt alive’.30 Indeed an unusual case of such a burning in 1222 is discussed in Pollock and Maitland's monumental History of English Law,31 which also ponders an alternative view that burial alive was more appropriate than burning for Christians married to Jews.32

However, for our discussion, not rare punishments but the legal equivalencing of Jewish miscegenation with bestiality is most significant. For, even beyond biblical injunctions, Shakespeare's age viewed the damantia peccata of bestiality with an anxiety fuelled by ideological terror.33 Although actual indictments in Elizabethan England for bestiality were rare, and convictions still rarer,34 the offence was violently condemned. According to the analysis of Keith Thomas, this was because it violated an insecure yet crucial division of humans from animals.35 So nudity, long hair, night work, nocturnal burglary (for, said Coke's Institutes, night was ‘the time […] wherein beasts run about seeking their prey’), the play-acting of animal roles and even swimming caused great anxiety.36 No wonder then, wrote Thomas:

Bestiality, accordingly, was the worst of sexual crimes because, as one Stuart moralist put it, ‘it turns man into a very beast, makes a man a member of a brute creature.’ The sin was the sin of confusion; it was immoral to mix the categories. Injunctions against ‘buggery with beasts' were standard in seventeenth-century moral literature, though occasionally the topic was passed over, ‘the fact being more filthy than to be spoken of.’ Bestiality became a capital offence in 1543 and, with one brief interval [1553-62], remained so until 1861. Incest, by contrast, was not a secular crime at all until the twentieth century.

In accord with what Keith Thomas identifies as persistent early-modern ‘discourses on the animal nature of negroes',37 the doctrine equating Jewish-Christian miscegenation with bestiality is extended to Moorish-European miscegenation also when envious Iago repeatedly describes newly married Othello and Desdemona as beasts coupling.38 In the light of such equivalencing, suggesting ideological damnation beyond any aesthetic repugnance, we may understand why Portia so strongly abhors the prospect of marriage with a Prince having ‘the complexion of a devil’, even if ‘he have the condition of a saint’ (1.2.123-4).

The legal equivalencing of miscegenated human marriages with the terrible clamantia peccata of bestiality may also help explain why The Merchant of Venice contains nearly eighty references to animals, and why the most striking of these are to animals breeding.39 In fact, Jewish Law prescribes a more humane standard of care for animals than Christian interpreters of Shakespeare's time recognized when they overlooked or anthropocentrically allegorized Old Testament demands for kind treatment.40 Nonetheless, of all the characters in the play Shylock uses negative animal imagery most often (thirty-three times), and most vehemently. In Shakespeare's creation of Shylock it seems Jewish dietary restrictions were taken as characteristic of revulsion for all beasts, despite the many Old Testament laws protecting them.41

So, as mentioned earlier, Shylock describes an irrational detestation of animals or of certain music when asked to explain his hatred of Antonio:

What if my house be troubled with a rat […]
Some men there are love not a gaping pig!
Some that are mad if they behold a cat!
And others when the bagpipe sings i’ th’ nose
Cannot contain their urine.


But Shylock's allusions to animal or music-phobia are a disingenuous opposite of what they claim to be: rather than describing an unfounded aversion, they recall how Antonio persistently called him a dog, and how the music of a Venetian festival covered the theft of his wealth and daughter.42 Again, he images unpleasant animal/human interactions to represent more ugly human/human ill-will.

A mock denial of ill motives where these are crucial, a sly or spiteful self-denigration, and deliberate confusion of the animal with the human, characterize also the covert message of Lancelot Gobbo's dismissal of responsibility for his fornication. Like Shylock's jest about hating Antonio for ‘no reason’, Gobbo's self-exoneration for having illicitly impregnated an unseen and nameless female ‘negro’ or ‘Moor’ is ostensibly humorous. It caps a scene of quibbling, perhaps not really merry, in Belmont. This begins with Jessica cornered by her erstwhile servant/ally Gobbo, now elevated in rank, who over-familiarly, uncomfortably and blasphemously (by denying grace) wrangles that she must be ‘damn’d’ either with Jewish ancestry or else (if she is not Jewish) with bastardy. Next, in a parody recalling Shylock's commercial grievance against Antonio's interest-free lending which ‘brings down / The rate of usance here with us in Venice’ (1.3.39-40), Gobbo laments Jessica's religious conversion because:

this making of Christians will raise the price of hogs,—if we grow all to be pork-eaters, we shall not shortly have a rasher on the coals for money.


Although he is now a licensed clown, Gobbo's use of commercial/animal imagery in connection with Christian conversion may make the auditor begin to wonder if there is something untoward in his raillery.

At this moment Jessica's new husband Lorenzo enters, and she reports to him how Launcelot:

tells me flatly there’s no mercy for me in heaven because I am a Jew's daughter: and he says you are no good member of the commonwealth, for in converting Jews to Christians, you raise the price of pork.


To this gibe against his wife and his marriage, Lorenzo retorts with a counter-accusation of miscegenation against Gobbo: ‘I shall answer better to the commonwealth than you can the getting up of the negro's belly: the Moor is with child by you Launcelot!’ To this Gobbo makes his riddling reply:

It is much that the Moor should be more than reason: but if she be less than an honest woman, she is indeed more than I took her for.


Lorenzo comments on this, ‘How every fool can play upon the world!’, presumably pointing towards quibbles including the multiple puns: ‘more’/‘Moor’; ‘more’ = greater vs. more = pregnant; and take = understand vs. take = sexually use.

Yet there is more going on in Gobbo's complexly phrased rationalization than simply his skill with what Lorenzo later calls the ‘tricksy word’. Gobbo says that if the pregnant Moor is ‘less than an honest woman’ (and therefore is a woman) she is ‘indeed more’ than he took her for. This amounts to a confession or boast that Launcelot took her for less than a woman of any kind, for he ‘took’ her as an animal. With the greatest effrontery he frankly admits that racial miscegenation was, for him, just bestiality.


Gobbo's ‘humorous’ crudeness about the pregnant Moor creates a unique and valuable episode of the play, yielding a context in which racial prejudice is stripped of its more usual disguise of politeness and social grace. The Clown's indecent racialism is not wholly different from the casual bigotry of the higher-born Belmontese visitors and natives, and it serves to point up what may tend to be confused or overridden by their charm.

Due appreciation of our distance from Shakespeare's age does not obscure his depiction of the ‘better’ classes of Belmont as comfortable and indeed satisfied with their offhanded disdain for aliens and minorities. Possibly the reason that their collective attitudes of scorn and unthinking bias have rarely been explicitly commented upon is that the racialist attitudes of the socially ‘superior’ characters of The Merchant of Venice need not affront us unless we choose to be painfully responsive to them. If we choose to enjoy a comedy with clear winners and losers, or to identify with a ‘winning side’, we may easily accept the self-estimation of the play's blithely overweening characters and evade whatever may taint their charismatic gloss, fashionable charm and eventual triumph.

Moreover Shakespeare makes the taking of an ethical stance which can question the dominant group's position very difficult for both Elizabethan and modern audiences. The Merchant of Venice is deliberately designed to evoke a specific anxiety inhibiting any disapproval of its luxury-loving Belmontese. Those who attack their leisured ‘good life’ may appear boorishly Malvolio-like or untutored in pleasure. Some of the finest poetry of the play specifically warns off resistance to Belmont's softer charms, disparaging that dangerous curmudgeon ‘The man that hath no music in himself’ (5.1.83). Many critics even go farther, identifying in wealthy Belmont a kind of utopia, a place of giving without stint and a community of unlimited selfless love. I would argue, rather, that a lesson is dearly bought in the play's last Act: that adult love distinctly requires both a clear sense of the self and an understanding of the need for limitations in giving.43

Despite the warnings and temptations of Belmont's elite, I believe that their mixture of bigotry and cruelty with social privilege and charm is a product of Shakespeare's deeply intentional irony. Such irony adds a clanging impact to the unruffled expression, at a moment of joy, of a racialist metaphor for mistaken or misled perception:

Thus ornament is but the guiled shore
To a most dangerous sea: the beauteous scarf
Veiling an Indian beauty; in a word,
The seeming truth which times put on
To entrap the wisest.


Bassanio's aberrant association of an in-reality ugly ‘Indian beauty’ with a trap and a sea of danger passes without any comment in the scene, as it does in most explicit criticism.44 Yet corresponding unnoted particulars problematizing value are unquestionably manifest elsewhere in the play.

For example, the word ‘good’ is used in a particularly cynical way by Shylock when he carefully explains that by calling Antonio a ‘good man’ he means merely good for the ducats owed (1.3.11-15). The same word appears sixty-three times in the play, mainly used by the Venetian men to mean profitably effective or in conventional epithets (as in ‘good signors’ or ‘good Leonardo’). But ethical ‘good’ is also discussed by Nerissa and Portia (1.2.10-28, 3.4.10, 4.1.257, 5.1.91); on varied uses of a single word hinge differences between material concerns, empty social conventions, and moral concerns.

If varied uses of a single word in The Merchant of Venice require irony-detecting discrimination, harder problems of interpretation arise in regard to the chauvinism of its Belmont. Veiled distinctions must be sifted without the aid of Shylock's very helpful key to his own comment on Antonio being only financially ‘good’:

Ho, no, no, no, no: my meaning in saying he is a good man, is to have you understand me that he is sufficient.


The only sure external test for literary irony requires a certainty about assumed values unavailable in The Merchant of Venice, where virtually all values presented are problematized. There may be clues, however, to an intended literary irony in the stylistic or structural quirks of over-emphatic expression or repetition (as there are in the hyper-altruistic zeal of the cannibalistic letter-writer of Swift's A Modest Proposal). Accordingly, in basically monocultural Belmont one hears excessively many casual slurs against foreigners, some like Bassanio's aspersion quite violent, which may imply an habitual trend of prejudice there.

Discrimination on this point is perplexing. Are we being tested when we are invited to join the clear lead of Nerissa in approving Portia's repetitively jeering characterizations of her foreign suitors? Are Portia's remarks really witty, or are they desperate antidotes to her initially depressed weariness with ‘this great world’ (1.2.1-9)? Arguably, Portia's anti-foreigner invective may be an extra-dramatic ‘stand-up comic’ bid for the pit's vulgar laughter.45 But in most instances her comments are not mere banter, for they purport to represent her offstage experiences of the Neapolitan, Palatine, French, English, Scottish, and German suitors' odd behaviours. Yet the culminating instance of Portia's anti-suitor gibes cannot be excused as wry reportage. In this she gratuitously dismisses the courtship of the Prince of Morocco before she has seen or met him; she denigrates his ‘complexion of a devil’ after seeing only his (presumably black) ‘forerunner […] who brings word the prince his master will be here to-night’ (1.2.118-25). So Shakespeare presents us with the image of absolute racial prejudice.

We are placed at risk of being seduced by elements in the play asking for our tacit allowance of Portia's stark prejudice against Morocco. For one thing, the Belmontese world of genteel privilege, luxury and wit discourages all punctilious distinctions or unsuave scruples. In such a world, the harshness of racial discrimination may seem attenuated, as are the later cruelties of the sexual ring tricks, by being attuned to near-musical conventions of teasing and charm. A great majority of modern critics greatly favour what they hear as the social harmonies of Belmont,46 which drown out for them Portia's prejudgement of the not-yet-seen, soon stunningly seen, ‘tawnie Moore all in white’ (Folio stage direction, TLN 514).

But by making this one clear instance of Portia's wholly unsupported prejudice resemble her former wryly ‘observant’ nationality quips, the play tempts us to lose our own ethical bearings. Here, as often, The Merchant of Venice seems deliberately to make difficult its demands on audiences; here these are demands of the sort Peter Davison believes implicitly made with regard to racism: ‘often in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, and especially in [Othello] the audience is called upon to exercise judgement, to distinguish facts from its prejudices’.47 But the misleading parallel of Portia's remarks on Morocco with her earlier ones on other suitors, rather than confusing us, may challenge us to identify a tonal difference. Such a difference does arise, because Portia cannot describe Morocco or his behaviour. Her barb must therefore be purely verbal. Although in Shakespeare's age punning could present true wit or even profundity, it could also portray moral shallowness.48 Portia's equivocation between Morocco's ‘complexion’ meaning skin colour and his ‘complexion’ in the sense of humoural make-up or character does mark an unamiable decline in the quality of her repartee. It displays none of the fashionable skill in Theophrastian character sketching she has shown before—we may even feel vicarious embarrassment on account of her descent from high-spirited wryness into desperately brittle hilarity.49

But Shakespeare makes it impossible for audiences to dwell long on Portia's racial prejudice, although for some its acrid taste may linger. For when the Prince of Morocco arrives he indeed at first displays an unbalanced personality, or unfortunate ‘complexion’. In a seeming anticipation of racial prejudice he shows himself vainglorious and magniloquent, over-vaunting his heroic valour and sexual ‘blood’. So he begins, ‘Mislike me not for my complexion’, boasts of virility, and claims that he can ‘Pluck the young suckling cubs from the she-bear / Yea mock the lion when a roars for prey’ (2.1.1-38). Again, as with Shylock, animality is actually asserted by an individual who is subject to social prejudice. This is of course in accord with the prejudicial English marriage law.

Morocco's embattled vanity leads him to mis-choose the golden casket, which occasions Portia's gruesomely dismissive couplet:

A gentle riddance,—draw the curtains, go,—
Let all of his complexion choose me so.


Her racialist relief is expressed with perhaps a telling displacement of idiom, wherein ‘gentle riddance’ substitutes for a more usual locution such as ‘fair’ or ‘good riddance’ (OED, ‘riddance’, 4). This may suggest that for Portia ‘gentle’ behaviour, good breeding, prevails over any other good.

On another plane, Portia's elation with being safe from marriage with Morocco may imply more than racial aversion. The defeat of any unwanted suitor may give her some relief from the feelings of oppression and powerlessness under the mortmain of her father's will: ‘I may neither choose who I would, nor refuse who I dislike, so is the will of a living daughter curb’d by the will of a dead father’ (1.2.23-5). Antipatriarchal motives may well inspire Portia's anti-foreigner gibes, all of which are made against sexually acquisitive men.50 Yet, if Portia's sense of oppression is lightened by Morocco's defeat, she lacks compassion for a fellow-sufferer under the will that oppresses her. Shakespeare pointedly shows Portia administering to Morocco (and only to him) the oath required under the will, ‘if you choose wrong / Never to speak to lady afterward / In way of marriage’ (2.1.40-2). In accepting this stipulation, hazarding his sexual and dynastic future, Morocco is fully as brave as he claims to be. Because he risks a heavy loss for her, it is difficult to hear the pat, sententious couplet above, in which Portia welcomes his destruction.

Characteristically, the play complicates the issue. The Prince of Arragon soon after finds a mocking fool's head in his chosen silver casket, which seemingly releases him from his vow of permanent celibacy: ‘take what wife you will to bed, / I will always be your head: / So be gone, you are sped’ (2.9.70-2). Arragon's only punishment for his mistaken choice is humiliation. His choice of silver, although showing insincerity, may also reflect that he is white, not ‘tawnie’ or golden like Morocco. I would not insist on this contrast of Arragon's and Morocco's fate, but will note that it aligns with the variation in Portia's remarks about these suitors. Her sneers about Morocco's ‘complexion of a devil’ far exceed her brief gibe on Arragon's folly, suggesting that racial prejudice in Belmont is so virulent as to make miscegenation with bold Morocco more unacceptable than marriage with vain and foolish Arragon.


If all laws are enacted only to support the interests of powerful élites, or if law typically only strait-jackets human desires (these are the alternatives often proposed by recent commentaries on Literature and Law), then law can have little to do with literature's longstanding fascination with justice. But, conversely, part of the strong theatrical appeal of The Merchant of Venice may derive from what it shares with many other literary and folkloric portrayals of justice enacted. This is the satisfaction of a desire that may even be a human instinct, the desire to see redress of grievances and the orderly advancement of social good. Even a troubling critique of society, exposing the deficiencies of law, may hinge on a hope for such ‘good’.

To carry a bit farther our prior discussion of the varied uses of the epithet ‘good’ in The Merchant of Venice, let us note that its application in an often-repeated and insincerely conventional form of address is once applied even to ‘good Shylock’ (3.3.3). This is Antonio's phrase when he is about to be arrested for debt, when his vital interests are at stake. The hollowness of this form of address could not be more poignantly indicated than by its use in imploring a reviled enemy.51 But its typical hollowness in use is once made even more explicit, by means of an inversion. This occurs in another highly charged context, when Solanio, regretting his former cynical banter about Antonio's depression (1.1.47-56), brings the news of Antonio's merchant losses. Solanio here eschews what he calls his former ‘slips of prolixity’, and consciously if brokenly tries to rehabilitate the worn-out phrase ‘good Antonio’, and recover its meaning:

it is true […] that the good Antonio, the honest Antonio;—O that I had a title good enough to keep his name company!—


That the very word ‘good’ can be used so feelingly in The Merchant of Venice, as well as in self-interested, sarcastic, and unthinkingly conventional ways, surely indicates that we must confront this play with very alert attention.

With such attention we have noted that the play's pervasive animal imagery, bearing both legal and ideological ramifications, rears up in a ‘witty’ exchange between a Clown and a newly married Jew and Christian to disgrace its often critically vaunted world of Belmont. Although Jessica identifies Portia as a near-goddess in the same short scene, Launcelot's guilt-dismissing ‘confession’ still exposes the submerged racialist values of Portia's realm. Well in advance of Gratiano's frighteningly obscene (not bawdy, nor erotic) castration jests, which cap Belmont's gender struggles while ending the play, Gobbo's ugly sexual gloating demonstrates how all the resolving finalities of the comedy are undercut by chronic confusions. These are confusions between seeking wealth or pleasure, fitting societal moulds, and possessing full humanity.


  1. Daniel J. Kornstein, Kill All the Lawyers?: Shakespeare's Legal Appeal (Princeton University Press, 1994), ‘Fie upon Your Law: The Merchant of Venice’, pp. 63-89; the ‘imaginary appeal’ is outlined pp. 83-5.

  2. Kornstein, Kill All the Lawyers, pp. 77-9. A similar theme is given a very sophisticated basis in René Girard, ‘ “To Entrap the Wisest” ’, in Shylock, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1991), pp. 291-304, esp. pp. 297-300.

  3. My ‘The Merchant of Venice and the Law Merchant’, Renaissance Studies, 6 (1992), 60-7, hereafter referred to as ‘Law Merchant’, argues that English pie poudre courts of the Law Merchant provided a model uniquely appropriate to the play, partly because they were able to combine civil and criminal judgements. Fascinatingly, Jewish Law tribunals in pre-expulsion England also attended to both criminal and civil matters—see Sir Frederick Pollock and F. W. Maitland, The History of English Law Before the Reign of Edward I, 2 vols. (Cambridge University Press, 1898, 2nd edn repr. 1968), vol. 1, p. 474.

  4. Kornstein, Kill All the Lawyers, p. 84.

  5. Ibid., pp. 68-79.

  6. See ‘Law Merchant’, pp. 64-5.

  7. Kornstein, Kill All the Lawyers, pp. 79-81.

  8. Eldred Jones, Othello's Countrymen: the African in English Renaissance Drama (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), pp. 12-13.

  9. See David S. Katz, The Jews in the History of England 1485-1850 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), pp. 49-101. The execution for treason of Lopez in 1594 occasioned a wave of Elizabethan anti-Semitism which was engineered ‘in Essex's interest’ according to J. R. Brown, ed. the Arden Edition The Merchant of Venice (1955; London: Methuen, 1977), p. xxiii. (Except where otherwise noted, all references to the play will be from this edition.) But Merchant was unlikely to have been occasioned or influenced by the Earl of Essex's manipulation of the Lopez affair, since Shakespeare was allied with an anti-Essex faction; see my ‘Holofernes in Rabelais and Shakespeare and some manuscript verses of Thomas Harriot’, Etudes Rabelaisiennes 25 (1992), pp. 131-5.

  10. In 1148 an English court upheld the first prosecution based on the infamous Jewish ‘blood libel’ (the case of William of Norwich)—see R. Po-chia Hsia, The Myth of Ritual Murder (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), p. 2, and Frank Felsenstein, ‘Jews and Devils: Semitic Stereotypes of Late Medieval and Renaissance England’, Journal of Literature and Theology, 4 (1990), p. 17. Following this, increasing restrictions and agitation led to the first European expulsion of Jews, from England in 1290.

  11. E. A. J. Honigmann, Shakespeare: the ‘Lost Years’, (Manchester University Press, 1985), pp. 115-25.

  12. I argue in ‘Law Merchant’ that The Merchant of Venice is set in the context of profound jurisprudential problems arising from the competition for profitable business of King's Bench with Common Pleas, the intellectual jostling of common law with equity, and the common lawyers' attack on the powers of the special jurisdictions of Borough Courts, Merchant Law, Admiralty, Staple Courts, etc. (not officially over until 1977!).

  13. A community of Sephardi Jews was present in Shakespeare's London: see Lucien Wolf, ‘Jews in Elizabethan England’, Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society, 11 (1928), 1-91, which states, pp. 21-2, that the Marranos were tolerated ‘so long as they did not break the law or outrage public sentiment’, although once, in 1592, they departed from secrecy to ‘assemble for Divine worship in London’ under diplomatic protection. According to Katz, The Jews, p. 108, these Marranos were generally so secretive that ‘The only Jews of most people's acquaintance were biblical figures, literary characters, and entirely imaginary.’ On contrary speculations see below.

  14. As seen from the 1612 lawsuit Bellot vs. Mountjoy, discussed in S. Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life (New York: New American Library, 1986), pp. 260-4 and E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930), vol. 2, pp. 90-5. On Shakespeare and the mainly foreign Southwark sculptors see my ‘Painted Statues, Ben Jonson and Shakespeare’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 52 (1989), 250-3.

  15. On whether Shakespeare knew any of the ‘hundred or more’ Jews in his London see James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews (The Parkes Lecture: University of Southampton, 1992), pp. 1-7. This is generally sceptical, but notes, p. 17, that Thomas Coryate ‘expresses no surprise […] that Amis [a Jew Coryate met in Constantinople] had spent thirty years in a London that many scholars assume was free of Jews’.

    Shakespeare's acquaintance with converted Italian Jews could be argued if he knew of John Florio's partial Jewishness, or else through the highly unlikely actuality that: (1) Emilia Bassano Lanier was intimate with Shakespeare, as alleged by A. L. Rowse, ed., Emilia Lanier, The Poems of Shakespeare's Dark Lady (London, 1978), pp. 6-37; (2) all of the musical Bassano family in England were Jews, as is well argued by Roger Prior, ‘Jewish Musicians in the Tudor Court’, Musical Quarterly, 49 (1983), 253-95, p. 253; (3) the staunchly Christian Emilia Bassano even knew of her ancestral faith; (5) she confided about this to Shakespeare. Only if these concur is it possible that Emilia's Jewishness might have influenced The Merchant of Venice, as alleged in A. L. Rowse, What Shakespeare Read—and Thought (New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1981), p. 172.

  16. As detailed by Robert Kirsner in ‘Rabbi Sem Tob the Poetic “Melamed” of Fourteenth Century Spain’, the Sepharad 1492-1992 conference (7-10 May 1992) at San Francisco State University. To illustrate typicality Professor Kirsner told me a parallel anecdote from his own life: the congregation of the Feinberg synagogue of Cincinnati Ohio, divided in the 1950s over whether to seat women with men during religious services or to preserve traditional segregation, asked an eminent Christian judge to decide the issue (he chose integration).

  17. Daniel 6:4. The conspiratorial legal moves of the envious rivals against Daniel are emphasized in the twelfth-century text of The Play of Daniel (Egerton Ms. 2615) and in W. H. Auden's poem ‘Daniel […] a sermon’ written to accompany the play's 1958 performance: these texts are printed in the album booklet of the performance, Decca DL 9402.

  18. Aside from Shylock's perceptions of Rebekah and Leah, the play excludes images of powerful women and of women valued as other than possessions. So, all of Portia's shrewd actions require denial of gender while her rival Antonio loses all his vigour when offering a breast in false-feminine nurturance. My ‘Constitutive Signifiers or Fetishes in The Merchant of Venice?’, The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 76 (1995), 373-87, finds these issues central.

  19. These implications are not analysed in John Scott Colley, ‘Launcelot, Jacob, and Esau: Old and New Law in The Merchant of Venice’, Yearbook of English Studies, 10 (1980), 181-9, which sees Shylock's reference to the biblical story of Jacob and Laban only in relation to the story of Jacob and Esau. Colley references only the Bishops' Bible.

  20. Vexed questions of just what Jacob's special methods of cattle breeding were, and particularly whether they were natural or miraculous in operation, are discussed in an essay on the tradition that maternal imagination may affect embryos: M. D. Reeve, ‘Conceptions’, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, 215 (1989), 81-112. Reeve's discussion of exegetical and textual problems relevant to Jacob and Laban, pp. 85-92, does not consider Shakespeare or the Bible translations that he used.

  21. That Laban's coloured animals have especially high value is richly ironic in the racial contexts of The Merchant of Venice, as we shall see.

  22. On divine validation of the trickery of Esau see Colley, ‘Launcelot, Jacob and Esau’, p. 186. Condoned trickery constitutes a huge theme reflected in Solomonic justice, Jesuit teachings on equivocation, the trick statue in Tirso de Molina's Don Juan, Duke Vincentio's ‘craft’ in Measure for Measure, etc.

  23. The Bible, trans. L. Tomson (London: Christopher Barker, 1597).

  24. Barbara K. Lewalski, ‘Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice’, in Shylock, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1991), pp. 236-51, suggests in a note, p. 250, that Antonio may allude to the biblical justification of Jacob's action. But Antonio's impatient remark that Jacob's ‘venture […] sway’d and fashion’d by the hand of heaven’ cannot ‘make interest good? / Or is our gold and silver ewes and rams?’ (1.3.86-90) shows that he has not understood how, for Shylock, trickery of the unjust may provide a divinely ordained recompense.

  25. See ‘Law Merchant’, pp. 64-5.

  26. See Katz, The Jews, pp. 49-101.

  27. Hsia, The Myth of Ritual Murder, p. 114, discusses Aquinas' and Duns Scotus' views.

  28. See Pollock and Maitland, The History of English Law, vol. 1, 468-75, and William Holdsworth, A History of English Law, 16 vols. (London: Methuen, 1903-), vol. 1, pp. 45-6.

  29. Pollock and Maitland, The History of English Law, vol. 1, 471, explains: ‘the Jew, though he is the king's serf, is a freeman in relation to all other persons'. See R. A. Routledge, ‘The Legal Status of the Jews in England, 1190-1790’, The Journal of Legal History, 3 (1982), 91-124.

  30. Sir Edward Coke, Third Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England (London, 1644), p. 89. A note in a contemporary hand in the British Library copy 508.g.5(2.) adds, ‘But if converted he shall not be burnt’.

  31. Pollock and Maitland, The History of English Law, vol. 2, p. 584: ‘Stephen Langton […] degraded and handed over to lay power a deacon who had turned Jew for the love of a Jewess. The apostate was delivered to the sheriff of Oxfordshire, who forthwith burnt him [… This] prompt action seems to have surprised his contemporaries, but was approved by Bracton’. Archbishop Langton's proceedings became quite famous for legal and political reasons discussed in F. W. Maitland, ‘The Deacon and the Jewess; or, Apostacy at Common Law’, Collected Papers, ed. H. A. L. Fisher, 3 vols. (Cambridge University Press, 1911), vol. 1, pp. 385-406. Pollock and Maitland, vol. 2, p. 394 cites a converse case where one partner in a Jewish marriage converts to Christianity, a rare instance where a full divorce allowing remarriage was allowed, and another case in which ‘a Jewish widow was refused her dower on the ground that her husband had been converted’.

  32. Ibid., vol. 2, p. 549.

  33. For a lawyer's view of this clamantia peccata see Coke, Institutes of the Laws of England, pp. 58-9.

  34. See statistics in ‘Bestiality and Law in Renaissance England’ pp. 147-50, an appendix to Bruce Thomas Boehrer, ‘Bestial Buggery in A Midsummer Night's Dream’, The Production of English Renaissance Culture, ed. David Lee Miller, Sharon O’Dair, and Harold Weber (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 123-50.

  35. Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 (Allen Lane: London, 1983), pp. 38-9, 94-117, 118-19, 134-5.

  36. Ibid., pp. 38-9. Slightly later human transfusion of animal blood, and still later vaccination, were opposed on the same basis.

  37. Ibid., p. 42; on later-emerging racialist theories of human polygenism see ibid., p. 136.

  38. Caroline Spurgeon, Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935), p. 335, reveals that ‘contemptuous or repellent’ animal images dominate Othello. Othello at last compares himself to a ‘base Indian’ or in the Folio text a ‘base Judean’ (TLN 3658), and then stabs himself imaged as a ‘circumcised dog’.

  39. This search was done using the University of Toronto's TACT text analysis program applied to William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, Electronic Ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

  40. Thomas, Man and the Natural World, pp. 22-4 and 151; but p. 137 claims that some common people ignored this and regarded animals ‘in the way that Jews had before them, as essentially within the covenant’.

  41. Exodus 23:5 and 12; Deuteronomy 22:4; Proverbs 12:10; Hosea 2:18 even speaks of a holy covenant with beasts.

  42. Jessica says at 3.2.6 that Shylock's murderous intention predated her elopement, but Ruth Nevo, Comic Transformation in Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1980), argues persuasively, pp. 130-1, that by emotional logic it must develop afterwards.

  43. I argue in ‘Constitutive Signifiers’ that Antonio's selfless code is necessarily defeated by Portia and the marriage contract.

  44. What Bassanio has in mind is made explicit in Montaigne's sceptical ‘An Apology’, Essays (New York: Modern Library, 1933), p. 429: ‘The Indians describe [beauty as] blacke and swarthy, with blabbered-thick lips, with a broad and flat nose, the inward gristle whereof they loade with great gold-rings, hanging downe to their mouth’. The Oxford text places Bassanio's lines in an aside, exonerating the others present from sharing his vision. Other editors emend, not seeing the implied contrast of Indian with the beauteous. Yet, as the Arden editor tersely notes, p. 82, ‘the Elizabethan aversion to dark skins gives sufficient meaning to the passage’.

  45. René Girard, A Theatre of Envy (Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 249 suggests The Merchant of Venice speaks to two simultaneous audiences, a ‘refined’ one on an ironic plane and a ‘vulgar’ one in accord with their bigotry. I propose that Shakespeare had a more complexly constituted audience in mind in my Art and Illusion in ‘The Winter's Tale’ (Manchester University Press, 1994), pp. 65-6.

  46. Many seem influenced by the lauding of idyllic Belmont in C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (1959; rpt. Cleveland, OH: Meridian, 1963), pp. 163-91. Barber's chapter title, ‘The Merchants and the Jew of Venice: Love's Communion and an Intruder’, epitomizes a view that ‘Shylock and the accounting mechanism which he embodies are crudely baffled in Venice and rhapsodically transcended in Belmont’ (p. 173). This classic pro-Belmont argument is more temperate than many of its descendants: for instance, Colley, ‘Launcelot, Jacob and Esau’; J. S. Coolidge, ‘Law and Love in The Merchant of Venice’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 27 (1976), 243-63; M. J. Hamill, ‘Poetry, Law and the Pursuit of Perfection: Portia's role in The Merchant of Venice’, SEL, 18 (1978), 229-43. Stephen J. Greenblatt, ‘Marlowe, Marx, and Anti-Semitism’, Critical Inquiry, 5 (1978), 291-307 (rpt. in Greenblatt, Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture, NY: Routledge, 1990, pp. 40-58), contrasts Shylock's Venetian ‘economic nexus’ with Portia's world, ‘not a field in which she operates for profit but a living web of noble values and moral orderliness’ (p. 295), and seemingly excuses Marx's notion of the loathsome ‘Jewishness’ of capitalism.

  47. Peter Davison, Othello (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988), p. 65.

  48. On wordplay central to a Shakespeare play see my ‘A Spenserian Idea in The Taming of the Shrew’, English Studies, 66 (1985), 310-16; for an ignoble pun see King Lear, 1.1.11-12.

  49. Production may highlight Portia's decline from witty discernment, may elide this, or may make it ambiguous and confusing. The last may be best, as it leaves uneasy responses unguided.

  50. Lynda E. Boose, ‘The Comic Contract and Portia's Golden Ring’, Shakespeare Studies, 20 (1988), 241-54, p. 247, finds Portia's ‘covertly manipulative subversions of passive aggression’ used against ‘the male system of female suppression’.

  51. The locution ‘good sir[s]’, listed only four times by Bartlett, is actually very commonly used in Shakespeare's plays (62 times). In Hamlet, 2.1.47, Polonius explains its insincerity to his spy Reynoldo.

Susan McLean (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6209

SOURCE: “Prodigal Sons and Daughters: Transgression and Forgiveness in The Merchant of Venice,” in Papers on Language & Literature, Vol. 32, No. 1, 1996, pp. 45-62.

[In the essay below, McLean identifies allegorical elements in The Merchant of Venice, arguing that the parable of the rebellious but repentant Prodigal Son is reenacted numerous times between different character pairings. Consequently, by the end of the play the audience is left to contemplate the virtue of forgiveness.]

The word “prodigal” appears more often in The Merchant of Venice than in any other play of Shakespeare's, yet the relevance to the play of the parable of the Prodigal Son has excited little critical attention.1 Not only is Bassanio called “prodigal” by himself and Shylock, but Shylock also calls Antonio “a prodigal,” and Gratiano alludes to the parable of the Prodigal Son just before Lorenzo elopes with Jessica. Bassanio and Antonio enact elements of the story of the Prodigal Son at a serious level, while Launcelot Gobbo and his father parody the same story. Jessica also rebels against paternal control, and Portia expresses her desire to do so, though she insists that she will never violate the conditions of her father's will.2 Instead, she uses the ring plot to create a scenario of disobedience, sin, repentance, and forgiveness that exorcizes the threat of her previous independent behavior and embodies the New Testament ideal of love, in contrast to the unforgiving attitude of Shylock toward his daughter.

“Prodigal” has three key meanings in the context of The Merchant of Venice. It can refer to extravagant expenditure, lavish generosity, or the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), whose reckless defiance of paternal control led to sin, ruin, repentance, and ultimate forgiveness. In the parable, the younger of two sons asks his father for his inheritance, leaves home, spends all of his money on harlots and riotous living, and is reduced to becoming a famished swineherd. He then returns home in repentance to ask to become one of his father's servants, but is received gladly by his father, who gives him the best robe, a ring, and shoes, and feasts him on a fat calf. The elder brother begrudges his father's celebration, pointing out that he has never been similarly rewarded for being virtuous and obedient, but his father tells him that it is appropriate to rejoice, “for this thy brother was dead, and is alive againe: and he was lost, but he is found” (Luke 15: 32, Geneva Bible).

The paradox of the Prodigal Son—that the sin is a necessary prelude to the forgiveness—echoes the theme of the “fortunate fall.”3 The parable presents generosity and mercy as the central attributes of Christianity, and it rejects the elder brother's narrow focus on desert and obedience to his father's commandments. Allegorically, in the parable the elder brother is identified with the Jews and the laws of the Old Testament, the younger brother with the Christians, and the father with the merciful God of the New Testament. The parable thus brings together several themes that are important in The Merchant of Venice: the triumph of mercy over justice, as portrayed in the trial scene; the rewarding of humility over presumed desert, as exemplified in the casket scene; and the forgiveness of penitents, as seen in the ring plot and in the subplots concerning Launcelot and his father, and Lorenzo and Jessica.

The popularity of the Prodigal Son story in Renaissance literature has been attributed to several sources. Richard Helgerson suggests that stories of prodigals embodied the ongoing conflict between the two Renaissance traditions of “civic humanism and courtly romance,” in which “Humanism represented paternal expectation, and romance, rebellious desire” (41). Alan R. Young attributes the popularity of the theme in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century drama to its flexibility for exploring theological issues and “such special contemporary concerns as education, the proper use of wealth, and the responsibilities of a prince” (52-3). Young includes Shakespeare's Henry IV, parts 1 and 2 (which were written around the same time as The Merchant of Venice) among the plays that use the Prodigal Son motif.

Marilyn Williamson connects the popularity in the 1590's of romantic comedies about penniless young men who marry heiresses (such as Bassanio and Orlando) to the dearth of opportunities for social advancement among educated but impoverished young men, which encouraged fantasies of upward mobility through marriage to a wealthy woman (14). Williamson notes that in Shakespeare's romantic comedies the prodigal males often “put the powerful lady in the parent's place by asking her forgiveness” (33). This pattern also appears in Shakespeare's problem comedies, in which errant males, such as Bertram and Angelo, are redeemed by the forgiveness of virtuous women (58, 101).

Shakespeare's treatment of the Prodigal Son story is a radical departure from the didactic, admonitory treatment that the story usually received in early Tudor drama and fiction, in which “The prodigality of a son who defies his father's counsel is ruinous, not momentarily, in the third act of a play that will surely end happily, but forever” (Helgerson 35). Shakespeare restores the forgiveness that is central to the biblical parable and extends its scope to include romantic as well as filial relationships. The story of the Prodigal Son may have appealed to Shakespeare not only because forgiveness had a powerful claim on his imagination, but also because it is crucial to the contrast that he wished to show in The Merchant of Venice between the values of the Old and the New Testaments.4

For men, “prodigality” has overtones of sexual as well as financial impropriety, because the Prodigal Son of the parable wasted his patrimony on harlots. When Bassanio confesses to Antonio that he has lived beyond his means, he does not specify what he has spent his money on, but says

my chief care
Is to come fairly off from the great debts
Wherein my time something too prodigal
Hath left me gag’d.

(Merchant 1.1.127-30)5

In this context, the word “prodigal” could allude to sexual expenditures, but—if so—Bassanio's stated intention of seeking a wife suggests that he means to reform his behavior. When Shylock uses “prodigal” to describe Bassanio (“I’ll go in hate, to feed upon / The prodigal Christian” 2.5.15-16) or Antonio (“A bankrupt, a prodigal, who dare scarce show his head on the Rialto” 3.1.41-42) his meaning is primarily financial, but with suggestions of shameful behavior. However, the word tends to take on exclusively sexual connotations when applied to a woman, as is clear in Hamlet in Laertes's advice to Ophelia: “The chariest maid is prodigal enough / If she unmask her beauty to the moon” (1.3.36). Because sexual misbehavior was considered venial in a man, but unforgivable in a woman, the “prodigality” of Portia or Jessica has necessary limitations.

Bassanio is the most obvious parallel to the Prodigal Son. He wastes both his patrimony and the money that he had previously borrowed from Antonio, who then acts the part of the forgiving father and lends him more money. Later, Bassanio gives away Portia's ring and she accuses him of giving it to a woman, but once again he is forgiven.6 Bassanio's inherent generosity is visible when he hires the scapegrace Launcelot and tells a servant, “Give him a livery / More guarded [i.e., ornamented] than his fellows’“ (2.2.146-7). Marilyn Williamson argues that Bassanio's extravagance both clears him of suspicions of mercenary motives, and prepares the viewer for his ungreedy choice of the lead casket and his generosity in giving his wedding ring to the disguised Portia (33). Launcelot is more accurate than he knows when he tells Bassanio, “The old proverb is very well parted between my master Shylock and you, sir: you have the grace of God, sir, and he hath enough” (2.2.141-3). In the context of the play, Bassanio's open-handedness—like Antonio's and Portia's—is the human reflection of divine mercy.

Antonio resembles the Prodigal Son in the lavishness of his generosity, in its nearly disastrous consequences, and in his eventual redemption, but there is no hint of selfishness in his behavior, so there is nothing for him to repent in order to gain salvation. He is identified more closely with the father of the parable and with Jesus himself than with the repentant sinner. Not only does he forgive Bassanio for putting him into a life-threatening situation, but also he intercedes with the court to reduce Shylock's penalty and convert him to Christianity (thereby giving Shylock a chance at salvation as well).

The character of Launcelot Gobbo has often been considered irrelevant to the main action. Leo Rockas, however, argues that Launcelot participates in the theme of father-child relationships (347-48), and René E. Fortin draws a further connection to the incident in Genesis 27 in which the younger son Jacob tricks his blind father Isaac into giving him the blessing that should have gone to his elder brother Esau, an incident that Christians interpreted as prefiguring the transfer of divine favor from the Jews to the Christians (266-68). The Launcelot-Old Gobbo plot also functions as a comic parody of the Prodigal Son story. Like the Prodigal Son, Launcelot is famished in the service of a bad master, Shylock, and he turns to his father to get a better post as the servant of Bassanio, who rewards him with a fancy livery (just as the Prodigal Son is given the best robe on his return). Launcelot initially leads his blind father to believe that he is dead, which then increases the father's rejoicing upon learning that his son is actually alive. Old Gobbo does not kill a fat calf, but he does bring “a dish of doves” (2.2.127) as a present for Launcelot's master, and Launcelot persuades him to give them to Bassanio instead. As René E. Fortin has noted,

The doves also recall the doves or pigeons offered as sacrifice in the Presentation of Jesus (Luke 2:22-24); the passage lays stress upon this ritual as being according to the Law of Moses and highlights the fact that Jesus was himself observant of the Law.


The doves, which were prominently featured in pictorial representations of the Presentation in the Temple and were thus identified with paternal love, also recall the doves that Noah sent forth from the Ark (Genesis 8:8-12). They therefore are both a reminder of God's original covenant with the Jews and a symbol of the transfer of that covenant to the Christians, when the gift intended for Shylock is given to Bassanio instead.

The scene between the two Gobbos is funny because Launcelot's treatment of his father is distinctly unfilial, yet the father is no less happy to recover his son. Launcelot's behavior serves as a comic parallel to Jessica's treatment of Shylock (whose own attitude is so unfatherly that he wishes his daughter dead, if he could thus get his money back). Launcelot's effrontery also contrasts with the filial devotion of Portia to her father's will and of Bassanio to the fatherly Antonio. Launcelot's later concern that the conversion of Jews will raise the price of hogs (3.5.21-22) and his getting the Moor pregnant (3.5.37) may recall the Prodigal's working as a swineherd and consorting with harlots. Just as Launcelot's treatment of his father is the opposite of the Prodigal's humility, so his behavior after receiving his father's blessing is cheerfully unregenerate. Perhaps because his disrespect is neither malicious nor harmful, Launcelot participates in the general amnesty typical at the end of comedy, from which Shylock is excluded.

While waiting for Lorenzo to arrive and elope with Jessica, Gratiano alludes to the story of the Prodigal Son in a way that seems ominous for the eloping couple:

All things that are,
Are with more spirit chased than enjoy’d.
How like a younger(7) or a prodigal
The scarfed bark puts from her native bay,
Hugg’d and embraced by the strumpet wind!
How like the prodigal doth she return,
With over-weather’d ribs and ragged sails,
Lean, rent, and beggar’d by the strumpet wind!


From the context, one might assume that Gratiano is identifying Lorenzo with the prodigal and Jessica with a strumpet who will ruin him. Lorenzo is certainly, like Bassanio, a penniless young man, but Jessica more nearly fits the pattern of the prodigal. She disobeys her father's orders; steals some of his money; runs off, disguised as a boy, with her lover Lorenzo, who is a Christian and therefore an inappropriate suitor in her father's eyes; and spends her father's money in an extravagant manner. Yet all of these “sins” have mitigating circumstances in the eyes of the audience. Because her father is wicked and a Jew, her disobeying and leaving him to become a Christian is presented as a change for the better. Because she is his only heir, she is seen as having some just claim to the money that she steals from him to be her dowry. Her running off with a lover would be sinful, except that she marries him. Her choice of Lorenzo, who has no money of his own, is a sign of the unselfishness of her love (Partee 18). Her subsequent wastefulness with money is both a suitable punishment on Shylock for his miserliness and, paradoxically, a sign of her own lack of mercenary attitudes.

Like the Prodigal Son, Jessica leaves her father's control and wastes part of her patrimony, but unlike him, she does not undergo ruin or repentance. Instead, Shylock himself undergoes ruin, (forced) repentance, and Christian forgiveness, at the cost of his own unwilling conversion to Christianity. Jessica reaps the Prodigal's reward of a generous welcome (though from Portia, not Shylock) and the rest of her patrimony upon Shylock's death (granted by Shylock at Antonio's insistence). This inversion of the parable, in which the child proves wiser than the father, depends on the fact that the child is Christian and the father Jewish. Shylock, indeed, resembles the narrow, rigid, calculating, and prohibitive Pharisees to whom the parable of the Prodigal Son was originally addressed. In rejecting her father, Jessica is rejecting Old Testament law for New Testament mercy, which is one reason that Shylock gets the full force of the law, while his daughter gets mercy.

Jessica leaves a patriarchal household, in which the man is a domineering autocrat, in favor of the loving mutuality of the Protestant ideal of companionate marriage.8 Lorenzo is, of course, still the head of the household, and it is into his hands that Portia commits the running of her house while she is away. Yet Jessica's teasing, bantering tone in her conversations with Lorenzo shows that she is neither a submissive nor a silent wife, and has led some critics to question the happiness of her marriage.9 When Jessica praises Portia, Lorenzo tries to turn her praise toward him:

Why, if two gods should play some heavenly match
And on the wager lay two earthly women,
And Portia one, there must be something else
Pawn’d with the other, for the poor rude world
Hath not her fellow.
Even such a husband
Hast thou of me as she is for a wife.
Nay, but ask my opinion too of that!
I will anon. First let us go to dinner.
Nay, let me praise you while I have a stomach.
No, pray thee, let it serve for table-talk;
Then, howsome’er thou speak'st, 'mong other things
I shall digest it.
Well, I’ll set you forth.


Her teasing refusal to endorse his playfully exalted opinion of himself both asserts the independence of her mind and reveals his willingness to allow her to say whatever she pleases. Similarly, when the two exchange stories of unhappy lovers at the beginning of Act 5, Jessica refuses to let Lorenzo have the last word:

In such a night
Did Jessica steal from the wealthy Jew,
And with an unthrift love did run from Venice
As far as Belmont.
In such a night
Did young Lorenzo swear he lov’d her well,
Stealing her soul with many vows of faith,
And ne’er a true one.
In such a night
Did pretty Jessica, like a little shrew,
Slander her love, and he forgave it her.
I would out-night you, did nobody come; …


Lorenzo refers to himself as being “unthrift”—a synonym for “prodigal,” but also a word that recalls Shylock's statement that “thrift is blessing, if men steal it not” (1.3.87). Lorenzo and Jessica accuse each other of stealing, yet in a play in which Shylock's “thrift” is exposed as damnable, Jessica's theft of herself and her father's money and Lorenzo's theft of her soul are paradoxically virtuous because the lovers obey the rules of “love's wealth,” stealing only in order to give (Brown 70-71).10 The underlying generosity of their love is visible in Lorenzo's instant forgiveness of Jessica's “slander.”

Lorenzo's jesting reference to Jessica as “a little shrew” does raise the issue of the threat to masculine authority that a wealthy wife traditionally represented to an impoverished husband. This threat is even more obvious in the case of Portia, who brings to Bassanio not only much greater wealth than Jessica's, but also extraordinary intelligence and even competence in the exclusively male field of law.11 Because she has so much, it is essential that she give it all away if she is not to seem a threat to Bassanio's control. No sooner does he solve the riddle of the caskets than, in a speech that resembles Kate's speech of submission at the end of The Taming of the Shrew,12 she compares herself to

an unlesson’d girl, unschool’d, unpracticed;
Happy in this, she is not yet so old
But she may learn; happier than this,
She is not bred so dull but she can learn;
Happiest of all is that her gentle spirit
Commits itself to yours to be directed,
As from her lord, her governor, her king.
Myself and what is mine to you and yours
Is now converted. But now I was the lord
Of this fair mansion, master of my servants,
Queen o’er myself; and even now, but now
This house, these servants, and this same myself
Are yours, my lord's. I give them with this ring,
Which when you part from, lose, or give away,
Let it presage the ruin of your love
And be my vantage to exclaim on you.


The exaggerated humility of this speech (which contrasts strikingly with her witty, condescending comments on her previous suitors) is all the more necessary because it is so patently false. Neither before nor after the speech does Portia act at all like an “unlesson’d girl,” yet it is essential that she acknowledge the legal reality that all of her possessions and her own independence now belong to her husband and that she accept the transfer of power ungrudgingly. She reserves to herself only woman's traditional weapon—speech—and promises to use it against Bassanio only if he breaks his marriage vow by relinquishing the ring.

Portia's subsequent behavior hardly seems consonant with her proclaimed submissiveness. She often thereafter refers to her house as “my house” or “my hall,” and to her servants as “my people” or “my servants.”13 Moreover, she continues to direct the action, both openly and covertly, urging her husband to pay off Antonio's debt, no matter what it costs, and to leave for Venice as soon as the wedding vows are made. She then delegates the care of her house to Lorenzo, and follows her husband to Venice in disguise and without his knowledge. In Venice, she tricks Bassanio into relinquishing the ring and then uses her possession of it to lord it over her husband and to threaten him with the ultimate indignity of cuckoldry.

Yet Portia's behavior is not as insubordinate as it appears. Her references to the house and servants as hers are made mainly when Bassanio is not present, and could be less a statement of ownership than a sign of her continuing residence and authority in her husband's absence (when he is present, she welcomes his friends to “our house,” 5.1.139, though she later reverts to saying “my house” twice, 5.1.223, 273). Bassanio seems bashful at first about assuming the authority that is his by marriage. When he chooses the correct casket, he says to Portia that he is “doubtful whether what I see be true / Until confirm’d, sign’d, ratified by you” (3.2.147-48). Later, in welcoming his friends to Belmont, he says,

Lorenzo and Salerio, welcome hither,
If that the youth of my new int’rest here
Have power to bid you welcome. By your leave,
I bid my very friends and countrymen,
Sweet Portia, welcome.


His hesitancy to assume command is something that Portia must help him to overcome. When she sees that he is moved by the contents of the letter he has received from Antonio, she urges him to share his trouble with her:

With leave, Bassanio; I am half yourself,
And I must freely have the half of anything
That this same paper brings you.


When she tells him to pay off Antonio's debt and to join his friend immediately, Portia knows that she is telling him to do what he really wants to do, but would hesitate to do for fear of seeming ungracious or spendthrift to her. Even her insistence on an immediate wedding is a generous action because it gives him the legal right to all of her property, but without any benefit to her, even of the physical satisfaction of the wedding night. Her statement to Bassanio—“Since you are dear bought, I will love you dear” (3.2.313)—is not a declaration of ownership, but, as John Russell Brown suggests, a sign of her “willingness to continue to give joyfully in love” (68). Lorenzo later commends Portia's “god-like amity, which appears most strongly / In bearing thus the absence of your lord” (3.4.3-4). It is Portia's own generosity that later makes her a suitable advocate for mercy.

Bassanio proves no match for Portia in generosity, so she is forced to give him a lesson in it. To do so, she turns herself into a “prodigal” to see whether he has the will to forgive her.14 The trouble starts at the trial, when he exclaims

Antonio, I am married to a wife
Which is as dear to me as life itself;
But life itself, my wife, and all the world,
Are not with me esteem’d above thy life.
I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all
Here to this devil to deliver you.


Portia dryly responds, “Your wife would give you little thanks for that, / If she were by, to hear you make the offer” (4.1.286-7). She recognizes both that Bassanio would not say such a thing in front of his wife and that he does not have the right to make the offer. He would be justified in offering his own life, but not that of another. Her subsequent request of his ring is a test that he is predisposed to fail, because he has already established that he sets his obligations to his friend above those to his wife. His failure, however, is only partial. He demonstrates great reluctance to part with the ring; his sense of obligation to the friend who had risked his life for him is his sole reason for giving it up; and he is honest to Portia later about his reasons for losing it.

Because Bassanio defends his parting with the ring on grounds of honor, Portia tests him on those same grounds. He tells her,

I was enforc’d to send it after him.
I was beset with shame and courtesy.
My honor would not let ingratitude
So much besmear it.


In upholding his obligations to his friend and his reputation among men, Bassanio ignores the equally binding obligation to keep his word to his wife. She picks up the theme of honor:

Let not that doctor e’er come near my house.
Since he hath got the jewel that I lov’d,
And that which you did swear to keep for me,
I will become as liberal as you:
I’ll not deny him any thing I have,
No, not my body nor my husband's bed.
Know him I shall, I am well sure of it.
Lie not a night from home. Watch me like Argus;
If you do not, if I be left alone,
Now, by mine honor, which is yet mine own,
I’ll have that doctor for my bedfellow.


She threatens to be as “liberal” (i.e., “generous”) as Bassanio, and to give the doctor any thing she has—but, of course, the only thing that she still has any control over is her own body (even the bed is her husband's). A woman's honor is her chastity, and Portia can say that that still belongs to her because she has not yet given it to Bassanio. She reminds him that she has the power to ruin his honor—i.e., his reputation among men—by making him a cuckold. After he has begged her forgiveness for breaking his word and has sworn not to do so again, she asks his forgiveness and implies that she has already slept with the doctor.15

This is Bassanio's ultimate test—can he be as forgiving as she is?—and, interestingly, Portia does not wait for the answer because however he replied, he would look bad. The conscious cuckold was a figure of ridicule in the Renaissance, yet a refusal of forgiveness would be a failure of Christian charity. Portia saves Bassanio's face by revealing her imposture. Bassanio can then forgive her—not for adultery, but merely for playing a trick on him. Portia also gets one more chance to be generous, giving Antonio the news that his ships have come in safely and giving Lorenzo news of the bequest from Shylock. As a married woman, Portia can no longer give away money or property, but she can still use her energies and abilities to benefit others. Lorenzo's response—“Fair ladies, you drop manna in the way / Of starved people” (5.1.294-95)—again identifies Portia with divine generosity, and Antonio tells her, “Sweet lady, you have given me life and living” (5.1.286). As in the parable, he that was dead is alive, and that which was lost (the ships, the rings) is found.

The motif of the Prodigal Son not only links several plots and subplots of the play, but also should serve to moderate the current critical tendency to sympathize with Shylock and to judge the Christians harshly for not living up to the merciful ideals that they profess. The basic premise of Christianity—that the sinner who believes and begs forgiveness will find mercy, while the self-righteous and the nonbeliever will not—may seem unfair, as the parable of the Prodigal Son presumably did to the Pharisees to whom Jesus told it when they objected to his eating with sinners. Yet according to that premise, even such feckless or unfilial prodigals as Launcelot, Jessica, Gratiano,16 and Bassanio must be forgiven, along with the more virtuous Portia and Antonio, while Shylock the Jew, the arrogant pagan Prince of Morocco, and the self-regarding Prince of Arragon may not.

Portia says of mercy, “It blesseth him that gives and him that takes” (4.1.185). Those who give forgiveness (Portia, Antonio, Lorenzo, Old Gobbo) and those who receive it gratefully (Bassanio, Gratiano, Launcelot, and Jessica, through her conversion to Christianity) are granted both mercy and good fortune. Those who are convinced of their own desert (Morocco, Arragon) or righteousness (Shylock asks “What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?” 4.1.89, and exclaims “My deeds upon my head!” 4.1.204) are subjected to the full rigors of the law. Shylock does not beg for mercy when Portia urges him to do so, and he objects to the terms of mercy when he is offered his life, saying

Nay, take my life and all! Pardon not that!
You take my house when you do take the prop
That doth sustain my house. You take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live.


His inability to accept mercy gratefully when it is offered bodes ill for his future forced conversion.

To argue that Shakespeare uses the Prodigal Son motif to reinforce the sympathies of the audience with his Christian characters and to condemn the self-righteousness of Shylock does not minimize the ironies and moral ambiguities of the play. On the contrary, the variety of moral shadings in the different prodigals and self-righteous characters brings into sharp focus the paradoxes of salvation that are inherent in the parable itself. The combination in The Merchant of Venice of “optimistic faith in man's spiritual possibilities with an ironic sense of human fallibility” (Lucking 374) links it to Shakespeare's other “comedies of forgiveness.” As Robert Grams Hunter suggests, the success of a comedy of forgiveness depends on the audience's identification with the sinner:

Medieval men and their Elizabethan descendants were taught to be charitable out of a sense of common humanity, which meant a sense of common evil. … Modern charity … is more likely to be associated with making allowances, with pity and tolerance. We tend to forgive the man who does evil not because we recognize ourselves in him, but because we see him as a poor unfortunate, a victim of heredity and environment, the creature of an unhappy past—one who, through no fault of his own, is our inferior. We are likely, therefore, … to react rather as the pharisee reacted to the publican. This is not the reaction which the sinning mortals of Shakespeare's comedies … were intended to provoke. Such dramas invite us to forgive the sins of others not because we (unlike them) are good, but because we (like them) are not good.


This difference between Renaissance ideals of charity and modern ideals of tolerance interferes with our ability to see Shylock as Renaissance viewers probably would have seen him—not as a scapegoat, but as a man whose lack of charity sets off, by contrast, that virtue in others.


  1. The parable is not mentioned, for instance, by Barbara Lewalski in “Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice.” René E. Fortin does note that Bassanio functions as a “prodigal” son to Antonio (263), but he does not elaborate. Sylvan Barnet points out that Bassanio, Antonio, and Portia are all “prodigal” in the sense of being generous (and that Shylock is their antithesis). He denies that the honorable Bassanio should be identified with “the wretch who appears in school dramas concerning the Prodigal Son” (26), yet he concludes that “Shakespeare's use of the motif is in accord with Christ's parable: the prodigal is ultimately acceptable, and the ‘virtue’ of the self-satisfied uncharitable elder brother—a figure who, like Shylock, holds to the law, fulfills the bond—is not enough” (26). John S. Coolidge says that the parable of the prodigal son “supplies a minor leitmotif to the play” (245), but he does not develop the idea except to say that the parable embodies “the New Testament idea of love” (246) and to point out the hint of hope that the parable lends to the otherwise ominous overtones of Gratiano's allusion to it just before Jessica's elopement (260).

  2. Whether Portia hints at the correct answer to the casket riddle through the song or her line “I stand for sacrifice” (3.2.57) is impossible to determine, though I side with Harry Berger, Jr., in thinking that the cues are more likely unconscious than deliberate (160). One does not offer one riddle as the solution to another, and Portia tells Bassanio directly that she will never be forsworn by telling him the answer (3.2.10-12).

  3. See Gary Grund, “The Fortunate Fall and Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice,” which discusses the motif of the Fortunate Fall, but does not connect it to the parable of the Prodigal Son.

  4. Surprisingly, Robert Grams Hunter does not include The Merchant of Venice among Shakespeare's “comedies of forgiveness”—among which he includes Much Ado About Nothing, All's Well That Ends Well, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, Measure for Measure, and The Tempest—because, despite its denouement of forgiveness, “Shylock is the serio-comic scapegoat of the drama” (87). Yet to ignore the entire fifth act, in which forgiveness and reconciliation figure prominently, seriously misrepresents the play.

  5. All quotations from Shakespeare's plays are taken from The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington, 3rd. ed., New York: HarperCollins, 1980.

  6. Because Bassanio swears “when this ring / Parts from this finger, then parts life from hence” (3.2.183-84), his loss of the ring parallels the Prodigal Son's presumed death. As Ronald A. Sharp has noted, Bassanio's gift of the ring is his opportunity to “hazard all for love” and thus prove himself worthy of both Antonio and Portia (256-57).

  7. “Younger,” which appears in the Quarto and Folio texts of the play, is often emended to “younker,” meaning “a young nobleman or fashionable young man,” in order to remove a perceived redundancy in the allusion to the Prodigal Son. It is possible, however, that Shakespeare wished to evoke the situation of younger sons in general, as well as that of the biblical Prodigal, through his use of overlapping but not synonymous terms.

  8. See Catherine Belsey (48-52) for a discussion of this new model of marriage in relation to Portia.

  9. See Ralph Berry (59-61) and John Lyon (71) for a negative view of Jessica's relationship with Lorenzo.

  10. For the opposite view, that Jessica's theft foreshadows an unhappy marriage, see Lynda E. Boose (336-37).

  11. See Anne Parten (146-54) for a discussion of this threat in relation to Portia. She does not mention its relevance to Jessica.

  12. The similarity of Portia's speech to Kate's has been noted by Lisa Jardine (60-61) and by Leonard Tennenhouse (55-56).

  13. I am indebted for this observation to Joseph Wagner's paper, “From Obedience to Sovereignty in The Merchant of Venice,” which he delivered at the 1994 Midwest Modern Language Association conference in Chicago.

  14. Shakespeare's later cross-dressed heroines, Rosalind and Viola, have the opportunity to educate their future husbands about the nature of love before they marry, but we do not see Bassanio and Portia together until the casket scene, so Portia is forced to be her husband's teacher after the wedding, a role that he may allude to when he tells her “Sweet doctor, you shall be my bedfellow” (5.1.284), “doctor” having its Latin meaning of “teacher.”

  15. It is crucial that the audience knows all along that Portia has not been unfaithful to Bassanio. The audience can thus enjoy Portia's clever equivocations and Bassanio's discomfiture without thinking that Portia is a monster. According to the double standard in operation at the time, sexual prodigality in a woman was not forgivable.

  16. Gratiano, whose name means “grace,” is a particularly ironic embodiment of the paradoxes of divine grace because he is vindictive toward Shylock and defensive rather than contrite to Nerissa about the loss of his ring. He tells Shylock

    Thou almost mak'st me waver in my faith
    To hold opinion with Pythagoras,
    That souls of animals infuse themselves
    Into the trunks of men.


    He does not waver in his faith, however, and he does accept Nerissa's forgiveness with gratitude. Like Launcelot, another largely comic figure, Gratiano is allowed the latitude to misbehave without being condemned for it.

Works Cited

Barnet, Sylvan. “Prodigality and Time in The Merchant of Venice.PMLA 87 (1972): 26-30.

Belsey, Catherine. “Love in Venice.” Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production. 44. Ed. Stanley Wells. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992: 41-53.

Berger, Harry, Jr. “Marriage and Mercifixion in The Merchant of Venice: The Casket Scene Revisited.” Shakespeare Quarterly 32 (1981): 155-62.

Berry, Ralph. Shakespeare and the Awareness of the Audience. London: Macmillan, 1985.

Boose, Lynda E. “The Father and the Bride in Shakespeare.” PMLA 97 (1982): 325-47.

Brown, John Russell. Shakespeare and His Comedies. London: Methuen, 1957; rpt. 1964.

Coolidge, John S. “Law and Love in The Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare Quarterly 27 (1976): 243-63.

Fortin, René E. “Launcelot and the Uses of Allegory in The Merchant of Venice.Studies in Literature, 1500-1900 14 (1974): 259-70.

Grund, Gary. “The Fortunate Fall and Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice.Studia Neophilologica 55 (1983): 153-65.

Helgerson, Richard. The Elizabethan Prodigals. Berkeley: U of California P, 1976.

Hunter, Robert Grams. Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness. New York: Columbia UP, 1965.

Jardine, Lisa. Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare. Brighton: Harvester, 1983.

Lewalski, Barbara. “Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Quarterly 13 (1962): 327-43.

Lucking, David. “Standing for Sacrifice: The Casket and Trial Scenes in The Merchant of Venice.University of Toronto Quarterly 58 (1989): 355-75.

Lyon, John. The Merchant of Venice. Boston: Twayne, 1988.

Partee, Morriss Henry. “Love and Responsibility in The Merchant of Venice.Greyfriar: Siena Studies in Literature 29 (1988): 15-23.

Parten, Anne. “Re-establishing Sexual Order: The Ring Episode in The Merchant of Venice.Women's Studies 9 (1982): 145-55.

Rockas, Leo. “‘A Dish of Doves’: The Merchant of Venice.ELH 40 (1973): 339-51.

Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Ed. David Bevington. 3rd. ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1980.

Sharp, Ronald A. “Gift Exchange and the Economies of Spirit in The Merchant of Venice.Modern Philology 83 (1986): 250-65.

Tennenhouse, Leonard. Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres. New York: Methuen, 1986.

Williamson, Marilyn. The Patriarchy of Shakespeare's Comedies. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1986.

Young, Alan R. The English Prodigal Son Plays: A Theatrical Fashion of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Salzburg: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, 1979.

Judith Rosenheim (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 23292

SOURCE: “Allegorical Commentary in The Merchant of Venice,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. XXIV, 1996, pp. 156-210.

[In the essay below, Rosenheim argues that the themes of power, fatherhood, and blindness are developed through allegory in The Merchant of Venice. These themes are principally presented through the parable of the Prodigal Son as it applies to Launcelot versus his father, Old Gobbo, and, by extension, to the “father” Shylock versus the “son” Antonio.]

In Asserting the prevalence of “symmetry” or moral equivalence between Shylock and Antonio, René Girard is adding his voice to an enduring current in the criticism of The Merchant of Venice. It is much the same opinion that Hazlitt advances in suggesting that Shylock's “Jewish revenge is at least as good as Christian injuries;” that A. D. Moody holds in finding that Merchant is “about the essential likeness of Shylock and his judges”; or Harold Goddard in remarking that Antonio “catches his own reflection in [Shylock's] face”; or Kiernan Ryan in defining Shylock's “bloodthirsty cruelty” as the “mirror-image of [the Christians'] concealed real nature.”1 A factual basis for this parity can be identified in the observation of Walter Cohen and Michael Ferber that sixteenth century merchants like Antonio were themselves usurers like Shylock.2 Yet those who draw these parallels are usually prompted by the consideration that Shylock's villainy should be weighed against his suffering. Indeed, Shylock has recently become the beneficiary of a critical tendency to censure the play's Christian society by showing him as its victim. Thus for Frank Whigham, Shylock is “a dehumanized tool and disposable slave of order,” who falls prey to the Christians' hegemonic use of law; for Ryan, he is the victim of a “money-centred world” “projecting upon him its displaced hatred of itself”; for Lars Engle, he is the provident custodian of the money-supply whose forced conversion makes him “a final victim of the cruelty of typology”; for Thomas Moisan he is the “scapegoat” absorbing “the blame for whatever is ‘wrong’ with the [economic] system.”3 Still, hostility toward Christian society would probably not generate sympathy for Shylock were it not for an accompanying perception of something attractive in his characterization, as Engle seems to suggest in representing him, a bit dubiously, as civic-minded. This perception may derive at least partly from the recognition that Shylock is drawn as a character of exceptional power. Thus John Russell Brown observes that

in performance Shylock is the dominating character of the play; none other has such emotional range, such continual development, such stature, force, subtlety, vitality; above all, none other has his intensity, isolation, and apparent depth of motivation.4

Brown's words attest the impact of what Moody and H. B. Charlton express as Shylock's humanity;5 but this term also seems to imply a positive element in his makeup, an element boldly asserted in Goddard's declaration that “what is deep down in Shylock is precisely his goodness.”6

I believe that, in their various ways, these perceptions of Shylock are valid. Yet the arguments supporting them are not entirely convincing. Those who would exculpate Shylock by likening him to the bad Christians encourage the skeptic to object that making the Christians bad cannot make Shylock good; as Girard admits in cautioning that “Shylock is rehabilitated only to the extent that the Christians are even worse than he is.”7 Even as he notes the power of Shylock's characterization, Brown fails to comprehend the function of that power in the drama, and thus is led to complain that Shylock's “dominance often does ill service to the play as a whole.”8 And while sensing a profound level of goodness in Shylock, Goddard identifies that goodness only as a yearning for acceptance,9 a yearning not likely to impress those who see Shylock as evil and thus as deserving the contempt he endures. Rather than a villain because a victim, Shylock becomes for such critics as C. L. Barber, Frank Kermode, and Sylvan Barnet a victim of his own villainy.10 And this view of Shylock, itself more or less explicitly informed by the negative attitude toward Jews prevailing in the sixteenth century, is reinforced by critics who emphasize the virulence of this attitude. To E. E. Stoll, Shylock's Jewishness is itself a “badge of opprobrium” associating him with Judas; add to this his identity as moneylender, and Shylock comes to embody “two of the deepest and most widely prevalent social antipathies of two thousand years.”11 G. K. Hunter similarly insists that Jewishness be historically understood as a morally corrupt condition “which rejected Christ and chose Barabbas, rejected the Saviour and chose the robber, rejected the spirit and chose the flesh, rejected the treasure that is in heaven and chose the treasure that is on earth.”12 And applying this view of Jewishness to Shylock, Alan Dessen sees him to exemplify the bad choice that Christians likewise make but should not.13

We cannot doubt that Stoll and Hunter accurately describe the accepted perception of Jews in Shakespeare's day. Nor can we doubt that this perception, including its darkest representation of Jews as deicides and cannibals, influences Shylock's characterization. What remains unclear is how this historically oriented perception can comport with the modern sense that, somehow, Shylock is good. To be sure, Girard would impugn the stereotypical aspects of Shylock's character by arguing that Shakespeare has put them into the play with the full intention of making them “an object of indignation and satire” comprehensible to “those who can be reached.”14 Girard thus sees Shakespeare as introducing an opposing current into his play, which he locates in the speeches of Shylock.15 Yet rather than accounting for Shylock's perceived power and goodness, this satire merely relieves the badness of his historical traits by once again applying them to everyone. The insufficiency of Girard's analysis thus prompts us to consider that we will not succeed in justifying the sympathy that Shylock so often inspires until we can stop opposing his historical meaning to his modern meaning. And we will be able to end this opposition only by endowing Shylock with an original meaning that is positive, a meaning that gives strong evidence of being authorially intended and that redefines the basis for his perceived likeness to the Christians. In sum, we need to recover from the originally intended conception of Shylock a value that resonates with—and even refines—our own perception of him, thus bringing coherence to what Robert Weimann would call his “past significance” and his “present meaning.”16

It is such a meaning, together with the meanings supporting it, that I will attempt to describe in the following pages. By complementing, adjusting, and extending the insights of previous interpreters, I propose to reveal the presence of a current in Merchant that contests Shylock's conventional badness in the very terms that have been seen to support it: the terms of Shakespeare's religious culture, which remains, if less authoritatively, our culture as well. From this religious culture Shakespeare will be shown to derive a positive meaning for Shylock's Jewishness and a similarly positive modification in the meaning of Antonio's Christianity. In deriving these meanings from the religious aspect of Shakespeare's culture, moreover, I depart from the recent critical tendency to define Shylock and Antonio with reference to their economic identities as usurer and merchant.17 Rather, it seems to me that the economic identities of these antagonists subserve their more important identities as Jew and Christian. And this view of their identities leads me to address their conflict through the teachings of St. Paul rather than those of Karl Marx. Yet, as I shall argue, the ancillary character of economics in this play will be grasped only in the recognition that Shakespeare's use of it is not literal but symbolic, a possibility overlooked by those who focus their historical investigations of this play on its economics. Cohen, for example, may admit that approaching the play as a critique of British capitalism “fails even to account for all of the purely economic issues in the work; his purpose in this admission is to justify an investigation of the play's Venetian setting as the venue more nearly reflecting its opposition of Jewish fiscal capitalism to native mercantile capitalism.18 Yet might we not alternatively refer to lack of precise realism in the play's economics to its function as the vehicle of a theological tenor? And would not such a function have the merit of integrating the play's economic and theological realms of meaning? My purpose in attempting this integration, however, is not to suggest that Merchant simply reflects received principles of religious orthodoxy; rather, it is to show how the distinctions that Shakespeare expresses through money present a formidable if highly constructive challenge to theological tenets engaged by the play.

The meanings I want to develop present Shylock not as a symbol of what Christianity negates, but rather as the symbolic source of its most treasured gift of salvation. But thus to redefine Shylock is by no means to regard him as free of defect or even as the play's main enunciator of this meaning. No doubt, he has morally compelling moments. Yet Shylock will be seen as contending with Antonio in a quarrel that is itself subject to censure, this censure tainting both antagonists. This censure has been partly discerned in the marginal dialogue between Launcelot and Old Gobbo in II.ii, which I shall further explore as an allegorical representation of the religious conflict represented in Antonio and Shylock. I suggest that this seemingly unimportant dialogue presents us with an instance of a literary device that André Gide in 1893 called mise en abyme, a term originally pertaining to heraldry, where it denotes a small figure placed at the heart of an escutcheon and replicating in miniature the escutcheon itself. Mise en abyme has been defined as “any enclave entertaining a relation of similarity with the work which contains it.”19 In Merchant, it appears as an encoded dialogue wherein two minor characters repeat on a smaller scale the play's major conflict, and in so doing, give new definition to this conflict. Not only repeating and redefining this conflict, however, they also exhibit a way of resolving it that seems to challenge the validity of its actual outcome. If the II.ii dialogue can be convincingly shown to perform these reflexive and critical functions in the play, it will emerge as a powerful key to its interpretation.

Yet assuming that the Launcelot/Old Gobbo dialogue harbors symbolic meaning, why should we assume that this meaning can be identified? Partly, perhaps, because it is expressed in terms that are arguably objective in comprising well-known elements of Shakespeare's religious culture. For, as we shall see, Launcelot and Old Gobbo are invested with two biblical allusions, and these allusions accord them typological identities that they then, as I think, transfer to Antonio and Shylock. These typological identities will be shown to have two functions. They refer the antagonism between these major characters to hegemonic impulses in both their traditions, Christianity attempting to dominate and assimilate Judaism, while Judaism would comparably dominate the gentile world by withholding its spiritual riches from that world. But these same allusions also identify a basis for the interaction of these characters that is not hegemonic but relational, and this relational basis turns out to be allegorically familial: Shylock and Antonio assume the relationship of father and son. It is this relationship that can support the pervasive but inadequately argued approbations of Shylock cited above. The biblical character of his paternity accounts for Shylock's power and goodness, and his fatherhood to Antonio places his perceived likeness to Antonio in a positive light that validates both these characters equally. For while the play certainly invests paternity with a connotation of authority, it also balances the father's authority over the son with the father's dependence on the son. This balance enables the relationship of father and son to imply not the “either/or” logic of domination but rather the “both/and” logic of mutual affirmation. And this “both/and” logic effectively destroys the legitimacy of a Christian or Jewish identity based on hegemony.

It is the evolution of power relations into family relations that the II.ii dialogue will be shown to achieve. And it is by contrast with this achieved evolution that the settlement between Antonio and Shylock in IV.i will be recognized as minimal and abortive. Thus the meanings generated by the II.ii dialogue tend to support the opinion of those who, in defiance of its historical justification, have found this settlement disturbing and unsatisfactory. Most importantly, these meanings shed light on the disputed significance of Shylock's forced conversion by suggesting that the play itself condemns it. The effect of the moral reference secreted in this dialogue is thus to endow Merchant with a refreshing, even startling, air of modernity. Yet what authenticates this modernity is its historic derivation. For since this dialogue can originate only in Shakespeare himself, its opposing voice will be regarded as his own allegorical commentary on the religious quarrel he depicts in Shylock and Antonio. Indeed, the force of this commentary emerges in the observation that Shakespeare compounds its new and relevant meanings out of wholly traditional components, and thus demonstrates how a poet of high and principled imagination validates his culture by causing it to transcend itself. In being grasped through its mimetic origin, the moral relevance of this dialogue reveals the play as both mirror and lamp: “a product of the past,” but also “a ‘producer’ of the future.”20


Given what Mikhail Bakhtin has said about the carnivalesque in its various manifestations—the tendency of its crude and abusive laughter to annihilate the “epic image of the absolute past” by bringing it close for free and fearless investigation; its exploitation for this purpose of “an accidental and insignificant pretext”; its capacity to combine “an intense spirit of inquiry” with “a utopian fantasy”; and especially its use of the clown as the author's vehicle (though in this case not his own mask) for exposing “all that is vulgar and falsely stereotyped in human relationships”21—it is hardly surprising that Shakespeare locates his own critical and visionary engagement of ancient texts in the dialogue of Launcelot with Old Gobbo in II.ii. For here is a marginal dialogue that shows a young man, identified as clown, toying with his blind father in a manner both crude and cruel.22 Mistakenly supposing that this dialogue has an entertaining rather than a testing function, interpreters have often been baffled by its degraded humor. Accordingly, they have repeatedly dismissed Launcelot as, for example, “the slenderest and most pointlessly fatuous of Shakespeare's clowns.23 Yet the mere gratuitousness of Launcelot's jesting has also prompted the suspicion that his antics somehow inform the action of the play. Leo Rockas and Jan Lawson Hinely have aptly noticed that Launcelot's conflicted decision to flee Shylock in II.ii, taken immediately before this dialogue, anticipates Jessica's similarly conflicted decision to flee Shylock in II.iii.24 And with daring insight, René Fortin has found this dialogue to constitute an allegorical comment on the play's religious conflict, this comment providing a “counterstatement to the major allegorical statement of the play” that offers to correct “the one-sidedness and reductiveness of interpretation that the naive allegory invites.25 In his view of this dialogue, Fortin uncovers important meanings; yet he only begins to mine them, his thesis thus begging the clarification and extension that this study will attempt to supply. To do this, however, requires that we first appreciate the importance of Fortin's thesis in light of the studies that inform it, particularly those of Dorothy Hockey and Barbara Lewalski.26

Like Henley before her,27 Hockey discerns a biblical persona lurking within this dialogue, a persona referring not to Launcelot but rather to Old Gobbo. This old father is seen to embody the Old Testament figure of Isaac: more precisely, the Isaac of Genesis xxvii, where the patriarch is similarly old and blind, and where his son Jacob, guided by the instructions of his mother, deceives his father into granting him his blessing.28 Hockey's observation suggests that Old Gobbo is conceived as an allegorical representation, or type, of Isaac. And because this representation is presumably intended and therefore serious, Hockey attempts to interpret it by suggesting that it refers to the characterization of Shylock. For, as she notices, Shylock likewise invokes Genesis xxvii.29

This Jacob from our holy Abram was
(As his wise mother wrought in his behalf)
The third possessor; ay, he was the third


Hockey's guess assigns a meaning to the otherwise vacuous character of Old Gobbo. But what gives that meaning dramatic significance is its ability to suggest that Old Gobbo typifies Isaac in order to project this biblical identity onto Shylock: that is, in order to make Shylock himself a type of Isaac. And a further parallel between Old Gobbo and Shylock emerges in the suffering of derisive cruelty by them both, this parallel suggesting that Old Gobbo's suffering may likewise be meant to inform the suffering of Shylock. If this is so, it means that the disturbing effect of this dialogue is entirely deliberate, its lucid cruelty ultimately referring to Shylock in his typological identity as Isaac and somehow linking that identity with his suffering.

Yet if Shakespeare is really using Old Gobbo to project the identity of Isaac onto Shylock, he is proceeding in a manner conspicuously oblique, especially when we observe that Isaac is named neither by Old Gobbo who represents him nor by Shylock who alludes to him. And why Shakespeare should find it desirable to mediate the connection between these characters through an allusion itself veiled will emerge in the tendency of Old Gobbo's Isaac to draw in a further typological identity anchored in Launcelot, an identity whose still more obscured lineaments may well answer to the subversive nature of the meanings it will be shown to suggest. Before addressing this identity, however, we ought first to consider what the presence of Isaac in Shylock can mean; and doing this entails acknowledging Lewalski's understanding of Shylock. In a view shared by a number of interpreters but best developed by herself, Lewalski regards Merchant as informed by the dichotomies of Pauline theology, in which Judaism affirms the works and justice of law in opposition to the unearned mercy or grace of Christian faith.31 This Pauline view of Judaism is what Lewalski finds Shylock to express, his individuality being subordinated to his symbolic representation of Judaism itself.32 Moreover, as Lewalski reposes the justice of Jewish law in Shylock, she likewise reposes the grace of Christian faith in Antonio, by allegorizing him as “the very embodiment of Christian love,” whose readiness to pay Bassanio's debt assigns him “the role of Christ satisfying the claim of Divine Justice by assuming the sins of mankind.”33 And reinforcing the play's involvement of Pauline theology is Lewalski's observation that the dénouement of the conflict between Shylock and Antonio enacts Paul's critique of Jewish law. Paul insists that, like a schoolmaster whose lessons are designed to render him superfluous, law obviates itself by instructing its followers that it does not save, but rather condemns them. Shylock similarly finds that the law he has adduced for his vindication in fact confutes him, as his astonished “Is that the law?” (IV.i.314) suggests34; and by identifying him as alien, law ends by condemning him. Thus Shylock's conflict with Antonio is found to dramatize “the confrontation of Judaism and Christianity as theological systems,” with Shylock's eventual subjection to Antonio and forced conversion to Christianity expressing the supersession of Judaism as the religion of law by Christianity as the religion of faith.35

The pertinence of the biblical Isaac to this view of Shylock emerges in the ability of this figure to reflect Paul's explanation of why Judaism should of right be superseded. For the age and blindness that Isaac exhibits in Genesis xxvii are the very defects that Paul imputes to Judaism in presenting it as outworn. As “the ministration of death” which “is done away” (II Corinthian iii.7)36 the dispensation of Moses is old, its law of works contrasting with the “Law of faith” (Romans iii.27), as “the oldenes of the letter” with the “newnes of Spirit” (Romans vii.6) and “newnes of life” (Romans vi.4). Paul also teaches that the old and outwardly literal meaning of Scripture is carnal, whereas its inwardly symbolic essence is spiritual; and that adherents to the Old Law of Judaism apprehend only the carnally literal meaning of Scripture and so are blind to its spiritual essence: God has given them “eyes that they shulde not se” (Romans xi.8); “The vaile is layed over their hearts” (II Corinthians iii.15). Thus Paul imputes a carnal unwisdom to Judaism, which he represents as blindness, this carnal unwisdom being what Isaac's blindness enables him to express. And the credibility of these Pauline meanings in Isaac is enhanced by their availability to Shakespeare in Calvin's Commentary on Genesis. Calvin here sees Isaac's physical blindness as a trope for the unwisdom or psychic blindness that causes him to prefer his elder son Esau above his younger and more deserving son Jacob: “With a blind, or, at least, a most inconsiderate love to his first-born, he [Isaac] undervalued the younger.37 And further attesting his Pauline understanding of Isaac's blindness, Calvin notes its connection with his carnality: Isaac was “so enslaved to the indulgence of the palate” that he was “induced to give his preference to Esau, by the taste of his venison.”38 But most significantly, Calvin makes Isaac symbolic of the Jews: “Let the Jews now go and glory in the flesh; since Isaac, preferring food to the inheritance destined for his son, would pervert … the gratuitous covenant of God!”39 Possibly instructed by Calvin, Shakespeare seems to be giving Isaac the same meaning that Calvin gives him.

Thus a typological perception of Old Gobbo seems to ramify into further allegorical associations that intensify the theological suggestiveness of Shylock. Old Gobbo transfers his identity as Isaac to Shylock. But to the extent that Shylock himself can be viewed as symbolic of Judaism, the Isaac in Shylock allegorizes his Judaism as old, carnal, and blind. Yet the allegorical significance of Isaac becomes still more specific when we pause to observe that Genesis xxvii presents a father-son drama. If the Isaac in this text allegorizes Judaism, he also expresses fatherhood, a theme of Merchant that is primarily exhibited in both Old Gobbo and Shylock. And though the non-Jewish Old Gobbo cannot himself relate Isaac's paternity to his Jewishness, these qualities are subtly linked in Shylock, whom Lorenzo calls “father Jew” (,40 thereby expressing Shylock's paternity as a function of his Jewishness. Thus in addition to being old, carnal, and blind, Judaism in Isaac emerges as paternal. And not adventitiously. For the carnal unwisdom of Isaac's blindness pertains to his paternity in preventing him from recognizing his son, Jacob. It is likewise a father-son drama that Old Gobbo and Launcelot present. And this same carnal unwisdom of father Isaac in failing to recognize his son Jacob is what blind Old Gobbo will be seen to exhibit in his own inability to recognize his son Launcelot. Yet if Old Gobbo's function is to apply the paternity of Isaac to Shylock, the carnal blindness of that paternity may plausibly pertain to him as well: Shylock too may have a son he cannot recognize; that is to say, a child other than Jessica, whom Shylock recognizes perfectly well. Carnal like Isaac, Shylock can be seen to recognize Jessica, because she is his carnal or biological daughter—Shylock calls her “My own flesh and blood” (III.i.34). But if Jessica's daughterhood is recognized because it is biological or carnal, this sonhood may well remain unrecognized because it is not carnal but rather spiritual: the same spiritual sonhood that Paul accords those whose faith in the redemption promised by God to Abraham makes them children of that promise and Abraham's true seed: “Nether are thei all children, because thei are the sede of Abraham: … That is, they which are the children of the flesh, are not the children of God: but the children of the promes are counted for the sede” (Romans ix.7-8). Paul thus identifies a spiritual as well as a carnal mode of sonhood; indeed, preferring the sonhood of the spiritual promise to the sonhood of the flesh. And since the play incorporates other cardinal tenets of Pauline theology, it is plausible to suspect that it incorporates this tenet as well, its involvement enabling Shakespeare to make Shylock father to an unrecognizably spiritual son. Yet not only hidden from Shylock, this son is also hidden from us, his hiddenness impelling us to ask if he really exists and thus obliging us to test for his existence. How might we do this? Perhaps by pursuing the suspicion that the identification of this son ought to parallel the recognition of Old Gobbo's association with Shylock. Just as Old Gobbo refers to Shylock, so Launcelot may be expected to refer to this son. And as Old Gobbo's reference to Shylock is veiled, emerging only through the mediating figure of Isaac that he typifies, so we can expect that the character to which Launcelot hypothetically refers will similarly resist identification until we discover a biblical figure that Launcelot likewise typifies. Does the play provide such a figure?

It would appear to in the biblical character of Jacob. For just as Launcelot is son to Old Gobbo, Jacob is son to Isaac. And Launcelot clearly invokes the Jacob of Genesis xxvii by twice asking Old Gobbo for his blessing: “Give me your blessing” (II.ii.78, 84). Moreover, by noting that Paul's Epistle to the Romans ix.6-13 represents Jacob's achievement of his elder brother Esau's blessing as symbolic of Christianity's supersession of Judaism, Fortin suggests that, even as an Old Testament figure, Jacob invokes sonhood as Christian;41 just as Isaac represents paternity as Jewish. Thus in causing Old Gobbo and Launcelot to typify Isaac and Jacob, Shakespeare is said by Fortin to be placing Judaism and Christianity in the relation of father and son, an idea that Lewalski likewise entertains in finding the converted Jessica's relation to her Jewish father to express the filial relation of Christianity to Judaism.42 It is, however, the failure of this father-son relationship that Fortin sees the II.ii dialogue to express, since he finds this relationship so represented as to require the paternal recognition that is lacking in Old Gobbo and the filial piety that is lacking in Launcelot.43

I think that Fortin has discerned the broad meaning of this dialogue. Yet a problem remains. For while Launcelot's pursuit of his father's blessing can be seen to invoke Jacob, his Jacob seems, in the absence of a fraternal rival, to lack the specifically Pauline connotation that the carnal unwisdom of Old Gobbo, by contrast, imparts to his Isaac. Though the Isaac in Old Gobbo bears a suggestion of Judaism, the Jacob in Launcelot need not, in the absence of further evidence, bear a corresponding suggestion of Christianity. Thus, as it is, Fortin's thesis cannot be sustained. Still, the insufficiency of its defense need not suggest that Fortin's insight is invalid but only that it requires better substantiation. And this possibility prompts me to suspect that if Jacob does not sustain Fortin's thesis, it may be because the identity we are looking for is not primarily Jacob but rather some other figure that is likewise provided by the play. This hunch is reinforced, moreover, by the recognition that Launcelot's cruelty to his father is unaccounted for by the Isaac story, where Jacob deceives his father at his mother's command but certainly does not torment him. While imitating the behavior of Jacob, Launcelot also exhibits behavior unlike that of Jacob. And just as the figure of Jacob cannot account for all that Launcelot does, so Isaac cannot entirely account for the behaviors of Old Gobbo, especially his suffering and eventual recognition of his son. These unaccounted for details suggest that in addition to the Isaac story, which is certainly present, a second model may be involved in the Launcelot/Old Gobbo dialogue, a model that theologizes Launcelot in his cruelty just as the Genesis xxvii model theologizes Old Gobbo in his blindness. If an Old Testament model defines blindness as both paternal and Jewish, we may expect this second model to be likewise biblical but drawn from the New Testament and defining cruelty as both filial and Christian.

Suggestively, the play appears to contain a filial model of New Testament provenance in its allusions to prodigality. In I.i we hear Bassanio describe his habit of living past his “faint means” as making his time “something too prodigal” (I.i.125, 129); and Shylock likewise calls Bassanio “The prodigal Christian” (II.v.15). Not limited to Bassanio, however, this trait is also ascribed to Antonio: once obliquely in I.iii.21, where Shylock refers to his ventures as “squand’red abroad,” and again, more directly in III.i.45, where Shylock calls him “a prodigal” in the course of comparing him to the daughter who has fled with his wealth and squandered it. These allusions appear to invoke the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke xv. And these invocations are reinforced by the play's extended reference to this story in, a reference apparently directed at Jessica in immediately preceding the elopement that makes her a Christian. Might the Prodigal Son be the identity we are seeking? It seems probable. For, as we shall see, there is evidence to suggest that the sixteenth century understood this son to symbolize the Gentiles or Christians, it being this understanding that Shylock reflects in his reference to Bassanio as “The prodigal Christian.” And notwithstanding David N. Beauregard's view of prodigality as expressing extreme liberality,44 much as Barnet earlier takes it to express Christian generosity,45 we may recall that the original Prodigal's way with money has nothing to do with generosity, extreme or otherwise, and everything to do with the profligacy sequent to his rebellion against his father. Moisan, indeed, recognizes that the play invokes this term in its biblical sense of profligacy, while also considering that this meaning commands the recognition of Shakespeare's audience.46 And supporting Moisan's opinion is Bassanio's characterization of his “something too prodigal” time as making him “a willful youth” who wastes and loses another's money; “and like a willful youth, / That which I owe is lost” (I.i.146-47). In this confession, Bassanio becomes one of those high-born prodigals that Moisan finds repeatedly censured in anti-usury tracts of the period such as The Death of Usury (1594): those idle borrowers who sought loans in order “to consume in prodigall maner, in bravery, banketting, voluptuous living, & such like.”47 Yet in thus referring the censure of prodigality to the wasteful use of money not one's own, Moisan neglects other implications of this biblical term that the play may also be adducing: those nuances of rebellious flight and cruelty that are preeminent in Launcelot. For just as the Prodigal runs away from his father in an act of rebellion, so we meet Launcelot in the rebellious act of running away from Shylock. And just as the Prodigal's running away becomes an act of cruelty in making his father think him dead, so Launcelot exhibits cruelty in making his father think him dead. It thus becomes plausible to regard the rebellious flight and cruelty of Launcelot as enabling him to typify Luke's Prodigal Son,48 just as Old Gobbo's blind nonrecognition of his son enables him to typify Isaac.

But if Old Gobbo projects his Isaac onto Shylock, who is the character upon whom Launcelot projects the identity of the Prodigal Son? As Launcelot is cruel, we can expect that the character he refers to will likewise be cruel. Suggestively, two of the characters verbally associated with prodigality demonstrate cruelty to Shylock in a manner evocative of Luke's Prodigal. The first is Jessica, who, like the Prodigal, takes her father's money, runs away from him, beggars herself, and causes her father, if not to think her dead, to wish her dead, in effect declaring her dead to him. Yet though fascinating and complex in her prodigality, and strongly associated with Launcelot, Jessica cannot be the character we are seeking, because she is both a biological and a recognized child. Besides Jessica, however, there is Antonio, who treats Shylock with contempt, this contempt resonating with the contempt that Launcelot likewise directs toward Shylock. And linked with Antonio's contempt is his demand to borrow Shylock's money, which enables him to invoke the Prodigal's demand for his father's money. Moreover, as the money demanded by the Prodigal facilitates the flight that repudiates and, in that sense, kills his own sonhood, so in the money he borrows from Shylock, Antonio actively abets Shylock's desire to kill him. These resemblances permit us to suspect that Antonio is the ultimate and hidden referent of Launcelot's prodigal sonhood. Just as the Gentiles are not the literal, biological children of the Jewish patriarch Abraham, and yet remain his symbolically spiritual children; so the gentile Antonio, while certainly not a literal, biological child of Shylock, may remain, in a realm of dramatic meaning restrictedly allegorical, the symbolically spiritual child of Shylock, the play's Jewish father, who invokes “holy Abram” and “father Abram” (I.iii.72, 160). And just as Shylock's psychic blindness comments on the Judaism he represents, so Antonio's prodigality can be seen to comment on the Christianity he represents. It may be the Christian cruelty of Antonio to Shylock in I.iii that Launcelot glosses as prodigal in II.ii, the prodigal representation of this cruelty turning its carnivalesque ridicule into an object of our ridicule. As exhibited in Launcelot, Antonio's contempt for Shylock can have no suggestion of revolutionary glamour; for, like Jack Cade of 2 Henry VI as well as Stephano and Trinculo of The Tempest, Launcelot rebels not against the system so much as against his place in it, his desire being to supplant his father's authority with his own,49 as we shall see.

Against such a thesis one could, of course, object that, in being motivated by Shylock's usury, Antonio's cruelty should be able to resist the charge of prodigality. For as a monitory practice denounced by the Church, usury can be honorably detested by Antonio for transgressing his Christian ethic. Yet such an exoneration is complicated by the curious tendency of money to supplant religion itself as a motive for hatred between Shylock and Antonio. While hating Antonio as Christian, Shylock hates him even more for the losses he sustains in Antonio's refusal to practice usury:

I hate him for he is a Christian;
But more, for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis, and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.


And with suggestive equivalence, Antonio “hates” Shylock's “sacred nation” but more vigorously “rails” against his usury:

He hates our sacred nation, and he rails
Even there where merchants most do congregate
On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift,
Which he calls interest.


These emphases might well be taken to suggest that the religious conflict Shylock describes functions merely as the false consciousness of a conflict that is really economic.50 Yet it also seems appropriate to observe that money can itself bear a spiritual meaning, as in Paul's references to divine grace as “the riches of [God's] bountifulnes” (Romans ii.4) and “the riches of his glorie” (Romans ix.23).51 Thus while money can express a negative worldliness, as it certainly does in Marlowe's Jew of Malta,52 Paul's words suggest that money can also be made to symbolize divine grace.53 And the pertinence of this meaning to Merchant is suggested by the observation that Paul constitutes the riches of God's bountifulness in the blessing given by God to Abraham: the same blessing that Shylock in his I.iii defense of usury invokes as the possession lineally descending to Jacob from “our holy Abram” (I.iii.72). The association of money with blessing by both Paul and Shakespeare's character suggests to me that money in Merchant symbolizes this very blessing, the blessing of Abraham. Yet my intention in making this equivalence is hardly to ignore the play's negative portrayal of the money gained through usury, it is to explore the negative portrayal of usury for its own symbolic meaning. And this meaning will emerge in the interpretation of usury as symbolic of the Jews' claim to Abraham's blessing through a biological mode of inheritance that reserves that blessing exclusively to themselves. It is usury in its representation of this restrictedly Jewish blessing that can account for Antonio's detestation of it as well as his abuse of Shylock for practicing it, because the Christian Antonio claims this same blessing. Thus a theological competitiveness can be seen to inform the issue of money in this play. And by appreciating the theological resonance of this money, we can see that its Jewish grasping and Christian giving are not ultimate values but rather subserve the protagonists' differing needs. Shylock, the “rich Jew” (V.i.292), has the blessing and wants to keep it, so he favors grasping; the gentile Antonio needs this blessing and wants Shylock to give it to him, so he favors giving. Yet the one-sidedness of these values also distorts then, their distortion accounting for the representation of their exponents as blind and prodigal. Blind to the identity of Antonio as his spiritual son, Shylock, like father Isaac, would graspingly deny him the blessing of his wealth; while as Prodigal Son, Antonio demands the giving of Shylock's wealth in contemptuous repudiation of his carnal paternity.

To be sure, a still more problematical aspect of this thesis lies in its assertion of a relationship between Shylock and Antonio that lacks a literal basis in the text. Yet by invoking a theology that provides for a spiritual concept of sonhood, this thesis may mitigate if not solve the problem it raises. And further atoning for the allegorical character of this thesis is its usefulness in clarifying a number of critical perceptions about the play. By providing the play with typological identities that are relatively stable, it reinforces the conviction of Lewalski as well as Nevill Coghill, Kermode, John Cooper, Albert Wertheim, Norman Holland, Leslie Fiedler, Lawrence Danson, and to a lesser extent, Barber54 that the conflict between Shylock and Antonio is religious. In postulating a symbolic view of money, this thesis dissolves the tension that Moody and Norman Rabkin see to trouble the play's ultimate enrichment of the Christians with the pelf that they have hated Shylock for possessing.55 And in making money symbolic of Abraham's blessing, it reinforces John Coolidge's understanding of the conflict in Merchant as a struggle for possession of the Hebrew Scriptures that contain this blessing, a struggle that the Church conducted through the hermeneutics of its adversos Judaeos tradition.56 This is the tradition that both Calvin and Shakespeare engage in their treatment of Isaac's blindness; and that Shakespeare appears, however surprisingly, to be adapting to his treatment of prodigality as well.

These typological references may also help to dispel some theoretical doubts regarding the play's interpretability by resolving discrepancies that Rabkin has observed between the meanings that the play tempts us to formulate and the nuanced responses that its experience demands. Identifying meaning as the product of intellection, Rabkin argues that an adequate definition of the play's meaning is not attainable because “all intellection is reductive”: “the closer an intellectual system comes to full internal consistency and universality of application … the more obvious become the exclusiveness of its value,” its “summary thematic statements” suppressing our “aesthetic experience.”57 To support this view, Rabkin observes in part that critical formulations of the play's meaning are beset with disagreement.58 Yet in extending to the question of whether Shylock or Antonio is the more deserving of blame, this disagreement may be obviated by the tendency of their typological identities to validate detractors of them both. Because their blindness and prodigality make them both wrong, the censure of them both can be right. Beyond showing us how both these characters are wrong, however, these biblical allusions also show how they are also both right, as Coghill perceives in finding that the Old Law and the New Law lodged in these antagonists are “both inherently right.”59 For in also defining them as father and son, these typological identities refer the self-identity of each to the other, the father being father by virtue of the son and the son being son in having a father. Their relationship thus emerges as one of mutual dependency, which requires each to validate the other. And this shared validity can be seen to sustain the critical praise they have both received. The paternal and filial essences of these antagonists prevent their respective defenders from contradicting one another.

Moreover, by seeing that their defects of blindness and prodigality make them both wrong while their relationship as father and son makes them both right, we can see why the judgments they elicit from critics often exhibit the tentativeness, the backing and filling, the saying and unsaying that Rabkin has appropriately noticed.60 Thus Barnet can declare Shylock to be “a hardhearted, self-regarding diabolical figure,” while also admitting that “we powerfully feel his claim.”61 Similarly attesting that Merchant is not an “easy” play by the apparent design of its author, Brown observes that he so presents Shylock's “devilish motivation” and “inhuman demands” as to encourage his audience to sympathize with them.62 And just as the play mitigates the evil of Shylock, so it impugns the goodness of Antonio, as Joan Ozark Holmer and Danson suggest in faulting his Christian failure to love his enemy Shylock.63 Most importantly, however, the representation of these antagonists as both wrong and right prompts us to see what is wrong with them as vitiating what is right in them and thus as thwarting what should be a relationship of mutuality. As the source of their discord, then, the blindness and prodigality evinced by these characters become the objects of Shakespeare's censure and not the characters themselves. In Launcelot and Old Gobbo, moreover, these defects are largely surmounted, when Launcelot repents his cruelty to his father and Old Gobbo recognizes and blesses his son. Thus, as before suggested, Launcelot and Old Gobbo in II.ii seem to assume a paradigmatic function that renders their reconciliation prescriptive of a proper reconciliation between Antonio and Shylock. Yet while laying down this prescription, Shakespeare does not defy the realities of his world by having his antagonists fulfill it. Shylock's blindness is not lifted; rather, he is forced to bless Antonio with his symbolic money while remaining blind to his identity; and Antonio's prodigality seems to be reduced in one way, only to be maintained in another; specifically in his demand for Shylock's conversion, as we shall see.

Finally, recognizing the biblical character of Shylock's paternity can give us a surer sense of the play's tonality. For to the extent that this identity is derived from the Bible, it is not derived from New Comedy, and this means that Shylock is not a properly abandoned senex with whom we unaccountably sympathize, but rather a father whose dignity justly indicts the discontent and ensuing elopement of his daughter. Thus Shylock's biblical paternity lends support to those who deny that the tone of this play is romantic.64 And since a romantic conception of the play is what impels critics to complain that Shylock's prominence impairs “the play as a whole” or raises “an interest beyond its resign,”65 dispelling that conception also obviates the need for these complaints.


Yet before attempting to demonstrate how these meanings flow from the typological identities of Isaac and the Prodigal Son, I need to assure the reader by textual evidence that these identities exist in II.ii; and that they are there imposed on Launcelot and Old Gobbo in order to be transferred to Shylock and Antonio. Fortunately, a number of parallels suggesting the presence of blind Isaac in Old Gobbo have already been adduced by Hockey,66 and need only to be restated and reinforced. Just as Genesis xxvii begins by telling us that Isaac “was olde,” so Shakespeare calls Launcelot's father Old Gobbo. In Isaac, blindness is a defect of age: Isaac “was olde, & his eies were dimme so that he colde not se” (Genesis xxvii.1); similarly, Old Gobbo is “more than sand-blind, high gravel-blind” (II.ii.36-37) which means that his eyes are not only dim but that he cannot see. Isaac's blindness makes him unable to recognize his son Jacob: “For he knewe him not” (Genesis xxvii.23). Correspondingly, Launcelot associates his father's blindness with nonrecognition of his filial self: “O heavens, this is my true-begotten father, who being more than sand-blind, high gravel-blind, knows me not” (II.ii.35-37). And just as Isaac's blindness is symbolic of his unwisdom, so Launcelot imputes unwisdom to Old Gobbo's blindness by saucily reversing the proverb regarding the wise child's ability to know his own father: “Nay, indeed if you had your eyes you might fail of the knowing me; it is a wise father that knows his own child” (II.ii.75-77).67 Isaac's blind unwisdom is characterized as carnal in being focused on food, as he shows in telling his favored son, Esau, to “make me savourie meat, such as I love, and bring it to me that I maie eat, and … my soule maie blesse thee, before I dye” (Genesis xxvii.4); Launcelot ascribes a lecherous carnality to his father, which he describes in terms of cooking and eating: “For indeed my father did something smack, something grow to, he had a kind of taste” (II.ii.16-18). Genesis xxvii focuses on the blessing of Abraham, Jacob asking his father to “eat of my venison, that thy soule maie blesse me” (Genesis xxvii.19); Launcelot twice asks Old Gobbo, “Give me your blessing” (II.ii.78, 84). Even as it accounts for his unwillingness to bless Jacob, Isaac's carnal blindness enables Jacob's mother to coerce him into blessing Jacob by disguising him as the hairy Esau: “And she covered his hands and the smothe of his necke with the skinnes of the kyds of the goates” (Genesis xxvii.16). Thus deceived by his blindness, Isaac mistakenly but properly blesses Jacob: “For he knewe him not, because his handes were rough as his brother Esaus handes; wherefore he blessed him” (Genesis xxvii.23). Insolently presenting the back of his head to his father,68 Launcelot causes the old man's blessing hands to mistake his head for his face and thus to think his face much hairier than it is: “Lord worshipp’d might he be, what a beard hast thou got! Thou hast got more hair on thy chin that Dobbin my fill-horse has on his tail” (II.ii.93-95). And if Jacob's “wise mother” plays a part in securing his blessing, Launcelot's identification of his mother helps induce Old Gobbo to bless him: “I am sure Margery your wife is my mother” (II.ii.89-90); to which the old father replies: “Her name is Margery indeed. I’ll be sworn, if thou be Launcelot, thou art mine own flesh and blood” (II.ii.91-93).

But while invoked by Old Gobbo who is not Jewish, Isaac seems to describe Shylock who is. By his own admission, Shylock too is “old” (II.v.2). In offering Antonio a bond of flesh, he shows his law to exhibit the carnality appropriate to its Jewishness. And to the extent that blindness symbolizes unwisdom Shylock's psychic blindness to Antonio as his spiritual son may be the unwisdom that Launcelot adduces, when he observes of his father, “Nay, indeed if you had your eyes you might fail of the knowing me; it is a wise father that knows his own child.” Just as Isaac's carnal blindness requires Jacob's “wise mother” to deceive Isaac into blessing him, so Shylock's blindness to his son Antonio requires another wise woman, Portia, to trick Shylock into endowing him with his blessing-symbolizing wealth.

Yet if Launcelot's pursuit of his father's blessing identifies him as Jacob, his running away from Shylock bears a different emphasis:

Certainly my conscience will serve me to run from this Jew my master. The fiend is at mine elbow and tempts me, saying to me, “[Gobbo], Launcelot [Gobbo], good Launcelot,” or “good [Gobbo], or “good Launcelot [Gobbo], use your legs, take the start, run away.” My conscience says, “No; take heed, honest Launcelot, take heed, honest [Gobbo],” or as aforesaid, “honest Launcelot [Gobbo], do not run, scorn running with thy heels.” Well, the most courageous fiend bids me pack. “Fia!” says the fiend; “away!” says the fiend; “for the heavens, rouse up a brave mind,” says the fiend, “and run.” Well, my conscience, hanging about the neck of my heart, says very wisely to me, “My honest friend Launcelot, … bouge not.” “Bouge,” says the fiend. “Bouge not,” says my conscience. … To be rul’d by my conscience, I should stay with the Jew my master, who (God bless the mark) is a kind of devil; and to run away from the Jew, I should be rul’d by the fiend, who, saving your reverence, is the devil himself. Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation. … The fiend gives the more friendly counsel: I will run, fiend; my heels are at your commandment, I will run.


This speech depicts a psychic battle within Launcelot, a battle whose seriousness his flippant tone tries unsuccessfully to conceal. The fiend is prompting him to act on an impulse that his conscience is struggling to restrain. And the impulse that Launcelot's conscience would restrain is his desire to run away from Shylock, running away being variously alluded to seventeen times. Given the play's previous glances at prodigality, these insistent references to running away may well be inviting us to recall that Luke's Prodigal Son similarly “toke his journey into a farre countrey” where “he wasted his goods with riotous living” (Luke xv.13). So when Launcelot decides to run away from Shylock his master at the behest of the fiend, his action can plausibly acquire a prodigal connotation, especially in light of the association that II.ii will establish between master and father. But it also appears significant that, while decided, Launcelot's struggle is not resolved on the merits. By identifying his flight as prompted by the fiend, Launcelot recognizes that it is wrong. But Launcelot attempts to evade the wrongness of following the fiend's commandment by charging that Shylock too is “a kind of devil” and “the very devil incarnation.”69 In the absence of a valid reason for his defection. Launcelot demonizes Shylock, this demonization spuriously licensing his running away.

Despite its light tone, Launcelot's demonizing of Shylock seems loaded with a serious meaning that emerges in its connotation of contempt. In demonizing Shylock, Launcelot is obviously expressing contempt for him. And once recognized to express contempt, Launcelot's demonizing can be linked to the flight it licenses. For flight and contempt both express alienation, albeit in significantly different ways. Flight is an action and thus can be said to express alienation psychically or spiritually. Thus if the alienation of flight expresses prodigality, so too the alienation of contempt may express prodigality, the one expression being carnal while the other is spiritual. In their carnality and spirituality, moreover, Launcelot's two expressions of prodigal expressions of prodigal alienation assume an obviously Pauline connotation, the connotation of Pauline spirituality in Launcelot's contempt being enhanced by its verbal character. For it is by defining the blessing as a verbal promise that Paul makes it spiritual; just as he declares “faith preached” to be the way of receiving the “Spirit”: “Received ye the Spirit by the workes of the Law, or by the hearing of faith preached?” (Galatians iii.2). But what makes these Pauline modes of prodigality significant is the observation that they are respectively displayed with great prominence by Jessica and Antonio. Like Launcelot, Jessica runs away from Shylock; and like Launcelot, Antonio treats him with contempt, in part, by calling him devil: “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose” (I.iii.98). It thus becomes possible to suspect that the flight and contempt united in Launcelot associate him with both Jessica and Antonio in their respectively carnal and spiritual expressions of a common prodigality.

Further reinforcing Launcelot's association with Jessica and Antonio is his placement in the drama between these characters, Launcelot's prodigality in II.ii standing between Antonio's prodigality in I.iii and Jessica's prodigality in II.iii. This placement seems to enhance the ability of Launcelot to clarify the prodigality of Antonio. For it is by following and thus repeating the prodigality of Antonio that Launcelot can gloss that prodigality. But if Launcelot's prodigality follows that of Antonio, Jessica's prodigality follows that of Launcelot. And this suggests that just as Launcelot's situation enables him to comment on Antonio, Jessica's situation enables her to comment on Launcelot. Indeed, it would appear that if Launcelot's purpose is to comment on Antonio, it is Jessica that facilitates this purpose by clarifying prodigality in Launcelot. For Jessica expresses her prodigality in the physical action of flight, which is easily identified as prodigal, in contrast to contempt, which is relatively subtle. Thus an appreciation of how Launcelot's contempt identifies Antonio's contempt as prodigal should emerge from an appreciation of how Jessica's fight identifies Launcelot's flight as prodigal, it being Launcelot's flight that lends the connotation of prodigality to his contempt.

Jessica clarifies the prodigality of Launcelot's flight by repeating, and thus emphasizing, it in the next scene. But besides repeating Launcelot's flight, Jessica also repeats the thoughts and purposes attending it. In recognizing that shame for her lineage is a “heinous sin” (II.iii.16), Jessica exhibits the inner struggle that precedes Launcelot's flight. Like Launcelot, Jessica flees in order to “end [the] strife” (II.iii.20) that cannot be resolved. And albeit subtly, Jessica preserves Launcelot's association of flight with demonizing contempt by referring to her father's house as “hell” (II.iii.2). As Launcelot's demonizing of Shylock reflects badly on himself, so in locating the hellishness of Shylock's house in its “tediousness” (II.iii.3), Jessica has been seen to betray the frivolity of her own nature.70 Launcelot and Jessica also flee for the same prodigal purpose. Launcelot anticipates and gets the license of a fool in being given “a livery / More guarded than his fellows” (II.ii.154-55), and he expresses that license in “getting up of the Negro's belly” (III.v.38-39); Jessica leads a life of riot with Lorenzo. And besides repeating Launcelot's flight in its various aspects, Jessica further clarifies the prodigality of that flight by recasting it as a child's flight from a father.

In, moreover, Shakespeare all but explicitly identifies Jessica's flight as prodigal through Gratiano's extended allusion to the Prodigal Son. For in being delivered just before Jessica executes her flight, this allusion seems to point toward her:

How like a younger or a prodigal
The scarfed bark puts from her native bay,
Hugg’d and embraced by the strumpet wind!
How like the prodigal doth she return,
With over-weather’d ribs and ragged sails,
Lean, rent, and beggar’d by the strumpet wind!


Like Jessica, the “scarfed bark” is female. But this bark also seems to mediate between the behavior of the original Prodigal and Jessica. Like the Prodigal who takes his journey into a far country, the bark “puts from her native bay”; and like the bark, Jessica abandons her father's house, to journey abroad with Lorenzo. Like the lascivious Prodigal who “devoured [his father's] goods with harlots” (Luke xv.30), the bark is “Hugg’d and embraced by the strumpet wind”; and, like the embraced bark, Jessica is embraced by Lorenzo, who plays the harlot or “strumpet wind”; and like the bark, Jessica is beggared by her riot with Lorenzo.

Thus in, Shakespeare reinforces the prodigal character of the flight that Jessica clarifies in Launcelot, and Launcelot's flight, spiritualized into contempt, is what he clarifies in Antonio. Yet in mediating Jessica's prodigality to Antonio, Launcelot also orients these characters to each other; thus enabling us to regard them as the carnal and spiritual reflections of one another. As Jessica's flight acts out her contempt, Antonio's contempt emerges as a psychic flight from Shylock's strong claims against his conscience. As Jessica's flight becomes the recourse of an unresolved inner struggle, so the breakdown of Antonio's strained civility under the pressure of Shylock's arguments can likewise reflect an impasse in his own inner struggle.

Flight, however, is not the Prodigal's only behavior. For not only fleeing from his father, the Prodigal also demands his money: “And the yonger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of the goods that falleth to me. So he devided unto them his substance” (Luke xv.12). If the physicality of the Prodigal's flight suggests its carnality, the verbal character of his demand suggests its spirituality. And these distinctions become pertinent when we recall that both these prodigal behaviors are expressed in the play. If Jessica expresses the Prodigal carnally in her flight from Shylock, Antonio seems to express the Prodigal spiritually in his I.iii demand to borrow, or “have” (I.iii.116) Shylock's money. But one more complication obtains. For if, apart from the inherent spirituality of his demand, Antonio spiritualizes Jessica's flight into contempt, Jessica, apart from the carnality of her flight, may also be seen to carnalize Antonio's demand for Shylock's money by running away with Shylock's money. If Antonio spiritualizes what is carnal, Jessica carnalizes what is spiritual, these transformations enabling Jessica and Antonio to participate in both behaviors of the Prodigal, in both the taking of money and the flight that also appears as contempt. And this participation lends a moral significance to the observation that, even as he demands Shylock's money, Antonio treats him with contempt. His contemptuous demand for Shylock's money thus becomes a complex act of prodigality demonstrating his unworthiness to receive that money, as Shylock trenchantly observes:

Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances.
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug
(For suff’rance is the badge of all our tribe).
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help.
Go to then, you come to me, and you say,
“Shylock, we would have moneys,” you say so—
You, that did void your rheum upon my beard,
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold; moneys is your suit.


Once grasping a symbolic dimension in Shylock's “moneys,” we begin to recognize a meaning in his indignant words that transcends the realm of economics. Rather than the usually cited speeches of III.i and IV.i, these words of Shylock address the theological core of his claim against Antonio, a claim whose merit, while not perfect, is reinforced by Antonio's defiant retort:

I am as like to call thee so again,
To spet on thee again, to spurn thee too.
If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not
As to thy friends, for when did friendship take
A breed for barren metal of his friend?


Not only churlish, however, Antonio's prodigal demand for Shylock's money assumes a further and darker implication emerging from its suggestive parallel with Jessica's absconding from Shylock. For in running away with her father's money, Jessica commits physical, literal theft. Thus to the extent that Jessica's flight expresses physically what Antonio's contempt expresses spiritually, it may effectively accuse Antonio of an alternatively spiritual form of theft. In short, Shakespeare may be ascribing theft to prodigality in both Jessica and Antonio, thus giving point to Shylock's monitory observation to Antonio that “thrift is blessing, if men steal it not” (I.iii.90). And Shakespeare seems to be establishing this guilty equality between Jessica and Antonio with the view to establishing a further equality in guilt between Antonio and Shylock. For in being understood as theft from Shylock, Antonio's contemptuous demand assumes a likeness to Shylock's usury, which was understood as a legal form of theft,71 a theft that Shylock at first intends to practice against Antonio. Further evidence for the view of Antonio's demand as theft will emerge in the discussion of how the text provides for a symbolic understanding of money as Abraham's blessing. What we need to notice now is that both the money stolen by Jessica and demanded by Antonio is lost, its loss in both cases invoking the Prodigal's loss of his father's money. If Jessica squanders Shylock's ducats in riot with Lorenzo, the ventures out of which Antonio is to repay Shylock's loan are analogously and therefore prodigally “squand’red abroad.” As with Bassanio's self-referred observation that “like a willful youth, / That which I owe is lost,” Antonio loses what he owes Shylock. But it is Shylock himself who most clearly and overtly identifies the bankrupt Antonio as prodigal by comparing him to his own profligate daughter: “There I have another bad match. A bankrout, a prodigal, who dare scarce show his head on the Rialto; a beggar, … ” (III.i.44-46). Just as Jessica's riot reduces her to beggary, so Antonio's losses reduce him in III.iii to begging Shylock for his life. And the lost gains of Jessica and Antonio are what Launcelot will likewise be seen to anticipate in II.ii by seeking the paternal blessing that money symbolizes in a manner conducting to its loss.


The obviously subversive implication of thus defining the play's representatively Christian character as prodigal may go far toward explaining why Shakespeare presents this definition in so veiled and oblique a manner. He could not prudently express such a meaning in any other way. Yet prudence may not be the only cause of its obscurity. Further impeding a recognition of Antonio's prodigality is the presence in Launcelot and Old Gobbo of more than one biblical persona. For the allusions to Isaac and the Prodigal Son draw in their own stories, both of which are told simultaneously. And each of these stories contains a father and a son. So by telling both of them at once, Shakespeare endows his dialogue with two fathers and two sons, Old Gobbo primarily representing the blind Isaac but also the suffering father of the Prodigal; while Launcelot primarily represents the Prodigal Son but also Jacob, the fusing of the Prodigal Son with Jacob supporting Fortin's sense of Jacob in this play as a Pauline expression of Christianity. The conflation can account for the puzzling linkage of Old Gobbo's Isaac with his suffering, that suffering pertaining to his identity as father of the Prodigal. It can also account for Launcelot's ability to associate his prodigal flight from Shylock with a request for his father's blessing that, besides resonating with the Prodigal's request, is Jacob-like in its deceitful withholding of his identity; just as Jacob hides his identity from his father. Yet while doubtlessly troublesome, this doubling is probably not capricious. For attention to the characteristics of the dialogue's two fathers can reveal them as supplying one another's deficiencies, just as the two sons seem similarly to supply one another's deficiencies. If Isaac is blind, the father of the Prodigal can see and recognize his son; if the Prodigal's father suffers under the impiety of his son, Isaac does not so suffer. If the Prodigal is rebellious, Jacob is pious; but Jacob is also devious in his piety, whereas the Prodigal is honest and forthright in his rebellion, just as Antonio is forthright in his hostility to Shylock. These mutually amending identities seem to anticipate a composite father who sees with joy and a composite son who candidly expresses piety, these composites being achieved by a purging away of the paternal defects of blindness and suffering and the filial defects of rebellion and deceit. But this is not all. For it is also important to notice that, in their rectification, these composites seem to coalesce into new typological identities, these identities being the father and son of the Prodigal's return. For that is the father who sees with joy: “And when he was yet a great way of, his father sawe him, and had compassion, and ran & fel on his necke, and kissed him” (Luke xv.20). And that is the son who candidly expresses repentant piety: “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthie to be called thy sone: make me as one of thy hired servants” (Luke xv.18-19). It is in these transformations that father and son express the redemptiveness of their mutual dependency, the father being blessed in the reclamation of his son and the son being blessed in his return to his father. And these typological transformations are what Launcelot and Old Gobbo achieve in their II.ii reconciliation.

It would thus appear that the powerfully moving scene of the Prodigal's return to his father is what Old Gobbo and Launcelot set forth as the, albeit unachieved, ideal of reconciliation between Shylock and Antonio as Jewish father and Christian son. Yet this scenario requires that the two fathers and two sons culminating in these redeemed identities pertain not only to Old Gobbo and Launcelot but also to Shylock and Antonio. In Shylock these fathers are relatively easy to spot. His blindness to his spiritual son and his suffering enable Shylock, like Old Gobbo, to represent both blind Isaac and the father of the Prodigal. Likewise, Antonio can be seen to reflect Launcelot's prodigal contempt, to which he adds a similarly prodigal demand to “have” Shylock's money. And as Launcelot is like Jacob in deceitfully hiding his filial identity from Old Gobbo, so Antonio refuses to acknowledge his filial relation to Shylock. But there is a deeper sense in which Antonio may express the deceit of Jacob. For Antonio demands Shylock's money not for himself but on behalf of his friend Bassanio. And by demanding this money in another's name, Antonio may subtly invoke Jacob as the son who asks for the blessing in the disguise of another's name. To be sure, this association may seem dubious in ignoring the sharp difference between Jacob's grasping and Antonio's generosity. Yet this difference seems curiously to fade in the observation that Antonio's generosity has in fact been challenged by a number of critics, who see it as his means of fast-binding Bassanio to himself.72 And in confessing his inability “to know myself” (i.i.7), which suggests an ignorance of his own motivation, Antonio may well prompt us to regard him as self-deceived. It is the self-deceivedly self-serving character of his demand that seems most profoundly to associate Antonio with the deceitful selfishness of Jacob; just as the contemptuous character of that demand can reflect the rebellion of the Prodigal. And these associations gain plausibility in the contrasting observation that, while not expunging rebellion and deceit from the terms of his IV.i settlement with Shylock, Antonio mitigates these defects by muting his contempt for Shylock and also, as I shall suggest, by demanding his wealth not for another but, more honestly and knowingly, for himself.

Yet Shakespeare's ability to meld the fathers and sons invoked by these two texts is also enhanced by similarities in the texts themselves. For in dealing alike with a father and son as well as with a father's gift to his son, these texts can almost be seen as Old and New Testament versions of the same story. And further suggesting their similarity is the observation that the original form of both these stories includes a third character in an elder brother who vies with the younger for paternal favor and loses out, or sees himself as losing out, to the younger. But what seems the most important similarity in these fraternal conflicts is their susceptibility to analogously allegorical interpretations that are pertinent to Shakespeare's play. As earlier observed in Romans ix.6-13, Paul takes the conflict of Jacob with Esau to symbolize the conflict between Christianity and Judaism, the elder Esau representing Judaism, while the younger Jacob who displaces him represents Christianity. In the Prodigal story, an elder brother interprets the father's celebration of the Prodigal's return as evidence that he loves this offending younger better than himself (Luke xv.29-30). Yet in this story the father assures the elder that his love for the returned Prodigal does not prejudice his love for him:

Sonne, thou art ever with me, and all that I have, is thine. It was mete that we shoulde make mery, & be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive againe: and he was lost, but he is founde.

(Luke xv.31).

As with Paul's understanding of Esau and Jacob, the Geneva Bible glosses this verse in a manner that likewise makes the elder and younger brothers of Luke xv symbolic of the Jews and the Gentiles: “Thy parte, [who] art a Jewe, is nothing diminished by that ye Christ was also killed for the Gentiles.”73 This gloss attests the sixteenth-century understanding of the Prodigal Son as symbolic of the Gentiles or Christians. But the further importance of this gloss emerges in its ability to suggest that, not only derogating the Jews, sixteenth-century Christianity could also recognize a mutuality between Jews and Christians, this mutuality being what Shakespeare affirms, even as he gives it an alternative definition. For in both these stories Shakespeare deletes the elder brother, the only trace of him in Merchant residing in Gratiano's reference to “a younger or a prodigal” in, which implies an elder as well. In effect, Shakespeare no longer needs the elder brother because he has transferred the Judaism he represents to the father. But in thus making these stories express a conflict between the father and a remaining younger, Shakespeare also puts moral pressure on this younger. For a younger brother may justly refuse submission to an elder brother inherently inferior to himself, as Paul finds a symbolically Christian Jacob to do regarding a symbolically Jewish Esau. But it is problematical for a son to rebel against a father, however old and infirm, because, unlike an elder brother, the father is author of the son; as Fortin likewise suggests in finding the II.ii dialogue to define Judaism as “the older tradition from which [Christianity] derives its richness.”74 And beyond the father's authority, there is his dependence. While II.ii will show paternal infirmity as tempting the son to abrogate his loyalty to his father, it will also show this infirmity as making the son essential to the father, as Old Gobbo suggests in calling Launcelot “the very staff of my age, my very prop” (II.ii.66-67).

The description of filial defection as prodigal becomes still more suggestive, moreover, if we consider that this biblical term tends to resonate with doctrines central to the Christian theology of supersession. For the Prodigal's behavior toward his father seems to resemble the behavior of the Church toward its own parental source. We have observed that the Prodigal both demands his father's wealth and rebels against him. But as Rosemary Ruether observes in her influential book, Faith and Fratricide, this curious combination of demand and rejection is what Christianity has historically exhibited toward Judaism. Ruether explains that the Church needed “to legitimate its revelation in Jewish terms,” that is, to show that revelation as representing “the true meaning of the Jewish Scriptures and … the divinely intended fulfillment of Moses, the Psalms, and the Prophets.”75 Thus the Church claimed the texts of Judaism for itself. But its need to legitimate its own interpretation of Jewish Scripture also prompted the Church to reject the Jews' reading of these texts. And the pertinence of this hostile appropriation of Jewish Scripture to Merchant is what Antonio appears to evince in his I.iii response to Genesis xxx, the text relating Jacob's breeding of Laban's sheep, which Shylock takes for his discourse on usury. For while accepting the authority of Shylock's text, Antonio rejects Shylock's interpretation of it. While Shylock takes this text to show the blessing as gained by “what Jacob did” as “skillful shepherd” (I.iii.77, 84), Antonio contradictingly refers to Jacob's blessing as “A thing not in his power to bring to pass / But sway’d and fashion’d by the hand of heaven” (I.iii.92-93). Yet what confirms the theological suggestiveness of this dispute is the recognition that Shylock's approbation of Jacob's skillful deeds adumbrates Paul's characterization of works as a method of active self-reliance by which the Jews are said to earn Abraham's blessing; while Antonio's reliance on “the hand of heaven” adumbrates Paul's identification of grace as the passively unearned way of Christianity, the way that supplants Jewish works. Thus Antonio's negation of Shylock's interpretation can be seen to epitomize the larger claim of the Church to a superior understanding of the Jewish Scriptures that validates its superseding appropriation of these Scriptures. And while it is certainly plausible to assume that Antonio's opposing interpretation should enjoy the presumption of approval, we should also note that this presumption is subtly undermined by the continuity of his argument with his contemptuous, which is to say prodigal, demand for Shylock's money.

But not only demanding his father's wealth and rebelling against him, the Prodigal also turns the wealth he takes from his father into the means of his rebellion, that wealth being what enables him to run away. And in this behavior, the Prodigal seems to reflect the tendency of the Church not only to claim Jewish texts and interpret them differently, but also to search these very texts for passages that might be seen to delegitimate the claim of the Jews to be their rightful inheritors, passages that formed the hermeneutical tradition known as adversos Judaeos.76 In effect, this tradition adduced Scriptural texts purporting to show Judaism as delegitimating itself,77 texts that Paul calls to witness in declaring Judaism abrogated by the coming of Christ: “Now is the righteousness of God made manifest without the Law, having witnes of the Law and of the Prophetes” (Romans iii.21). Ruether, moreover, explains that one of the ways in which the Church turned the Jews' texts against them was by distorting the dual character of Hebrew prophecy: its dialectic of judgments and promises, denunciations and consolations. Whereas the prophets directed both the judgments and the promises to the Jews, the Church claimed the promises for itself while relegating the judgments to the Jews. Thus Jewish texts were used to define the Jews as a rejected and reprobate people,78 and this charge of reprobation attained its culmination in Christian writings demonizing the Jews and the law. In John viii.44, Jesus tells the Jews that “Ye are of your father the devil.” Associating law with the quasi-Gnostic realm of condemned nature, Paul defines it as “the traditions of men, according to the rudiments of the worlde” and as “ordinances of the worlde” (Colossians ii.8, 20); rudiments and ordinances, which in Galatians iv.3 and iv.8-10 assume the character of bondage: “Even so, we when we were children, were in bondage under the rudiments of the worlde.” And as the most notorious demonizer of Judaism and Jews, St. Chrysostom charges in one typical passage that “demons inhabit the very souls of the Jews, as well as the places where they gather.”79

It is thus to the adversos Judaeos tactic of turning the Jews' prophecies against them that the Christians' demonizing of Shylock can be traced. And this tactic also seems to be symbolically acted out by Jessica and Antonio in their prodigal rejection of Shylock through his own wealth. For as her letter to Lorenzo suggests in crudely detailing the items of her stolen dowry, “What gold and jewels she is furnish’d with” (II.iv.31), Jessica uses her father's money to purchase the marriage that effects her escape from him. But is the behavior of Antonio any different? He demeans Shylock for lacking the “friendship” he would triumphantly display toward Bassanio by lending him money free of interest: “for when did friendship take / A breed for barren metal of his friend?”. Yet Antonio would express his superior generosity by means of money that belongs to Shylock. Just as Jessica uses her father's own wealth to flee from him, so Antonio uses Shylock's own wealth to insult him, the prodigality of their actions being reinforced by the financial ruin that overtakes them both. But the supersessionary implications of Antonio's prodigality also seem to invest the ruin it provokes with a specifically theological if unorthodox suggestion: which is that Christianity can void the validity of Judaism to Judaism only by voiding the validity of Judaism to itself as well, which is to say, by beggaring itself. We should note, moreover, that a comparably theological censure is applied to Shylock's Jewish blindness. As earlier observed, Shylock compares Antonio's financial losses to those of the prodigal Jessica in terms that finally include the overt identification of Antonio too as prodigal: “There I have another bad match. A bankrout, a prodigal, who dare scarce show his head on the Rialto; a beggar … ” Since prodigality implicitly includes the notion of son or child, a notion explicit in the case of Jessica, Shylock's comparison of Antonio to Jessica while calling him prodigal can be read as all but divulging to us that Antonio too is his child. Yet subtly invoking Paul's view of the Jews as blind to the meaning of their own texts, Shylock speaks words that he himself fails to understand.

It thus appears that Shakespeare's use of the adversos Judaeos tradition is most startling in the impartiality of its application. Not only using a Jewish text “against the Jews,” he also uses a Christian text “against the Christians,” thus turning the hermeneutic of self-invalidation against its own practitioners. Eschewing, moreover, the tendency of this tradition to distort Hebrew prophecy by disjoining its condemnations from its promises, Shakespeare's biblical texts exhibit a prophetic balance in their conjoined implications of censure and approbation. Yet here a problem arises. For the adversos Judaeos claim that Judaism confutes itself is precisely what Shylock's Jewish law appears to illustrate in IV.i. Shylock is defeated by his own bond or law in failing to fulfill its stipulation that he exact a just pound of Antonio's flesh while spilling no drop of his blood. How then can the play censure the use of Judaism to confute Judaism as prodigal without contradicting its own plot? Serious as this objection is, I think that we can answer it by observing that this plot evinces a suggestive parallel between the fates of Shylock and Antonio. If the play defeats Shylock's law in IV.i, it defeats Antonio's love in V.i by alienating him from Bassanio. If Shylock's own bond or law is implicated in his defeat, Antonio's love seems likewise involved in his defeat. And if law expresses Judaism, love assumes a comparably Christian connotation by invoking the concept of the promise. For Gratiano subtly bases love, like Abraham's blessing, on the word of promise: “I got a promise of this fair one here / To have her love” (III.ii.206-7). And by granting her love in a manner that evokes God's promise to Abraham, Nerissa makes it an expression of her generosity, or charity, thus endowing that love with a dominant spirituality that warrants Gratiano's theologically nuanced response to it with a pledge of “faith.” When Bassanio asks, “And do you, Gratiano, mean good faith?”, he responds, “Yes, faith, my lord” (III.ii.210-11). It is, moreover, the spiritual character of his love for Bassanio that Antonio attests in offering to immolate his flesh for him.

Yet, as earlier observed, a number of critics have recognized that Antonio's love is tainted by possessiveness, and this possessiveness introduces contradiction into Antonio's character by challenging the spirituality of his love. For if love expresses its spirituality in charity, which defines it as generous, its possessiveness bespeaks not spirituality but carnality. This observation tallies, moreover, with the widespread critical awareness of a carnal element, whether implicit or explicit, in Antonio's love for Bassanio.80 I myself tend to view this carnality as latent and becoming overt when Portia thwarts Antonio's martyrdom for Bassanio in IV.i. For to the extent that Antonio's martyrdom expresses his love's spirituality, it does this by containing the possessiveness of that love within a dominant generosity. Though his martyrdom for Bassanio would give Antonio a powerful hold on him, yet that hold would be achieved through the greatest of all gifts: life itself. Thus when Portia thwarts Antonio's martyrdom by defeating Shylock's bond, she destroys the greater mechanism of generosity that had subsumed the carnal possessiveness of Antonio's love, which forthwith emerges in the interaction of Bassanio, Antonio, and Portia concerning Bassanio's ring. In her disguise as the young doctor Balthazar, Portia asks Bassanio to give her his ring in payment for saving Antonio's life. And since this is the ring that Portia has commanded him to keep and that he himself has promised to keep, Bassanio denies her the ring. But Antonio now intervenes to insist that he surrender the ring: “Let his deservings and my love withal / Be valued ’gainst your wive's commandement” (Iv.i.450-51), the term “commandement” bearing the obvious connotation of law. By dismissing Portia's prohibition as a “commandement,” Antonio seems to be urging Bassanio to disvalue his marriage with Portia as a merely legal arrangement. So when Bassanio reverses his refusal and sends the disguised Portia the ring, he can be seen to transgress the legal character of his marriage for the sake of Antonio. But this transgression also seems to convey a sense of sexual rejection. For with the carnality appropriate to the legality of the contract it betokens, Portia's ring has been seen to symbolize the sexual essence of the female body,81 as Portia herself suggests in her ensuing threat to entitle the possessor of the ring to the sexual possession of her body:

Since he hath got the jewel that I loved,
And that which you did swear to keep for me,
I will become as liberal as you,
I’ll not deny him any thing I have,
No, not my body nor my husband's bed”


It is important to notice, moreover, that Bassanio follows his surrender of the ring with a decision to accompany Antonio to his house, thus consenting to spend his wedding night not with his wife but with his friend. In a moment of special intimacy,82 Bassanio tells Antonio,

Come, you and I will thither presently,
And in the morning early will we both
Fly toward Belmont. Come, Antonio.


This decision suggests that, rather than merely expressing his choice of a spiritual love for Antonio above his carnal love for Portia, Bassanio's surrender of the ring effectively transfers his erotic allegiance from his wife to his friend. And further negating a spiritual value in Bassanio's decision to surrender the ring and go home with Antonio is the recognition that in both these actions, Bassanio breaks promises. Bassanio had promised Portia to keep her ring and had likewise promised her that, while he was in Venice, “No bed shal e’er be guilty of my stay, / Nor rest be interposer ’twixt us twain” (III.ii. 326-27). As the object of Portia's faith in Bassanio's love, these promises constitute the spiritual basis of their marriage, the basis that Bassanio destroys in breaking them. In acceding to Antonio's demand and going home with him, Bassanio would appear to be violating both the carnal and the spiritual integrity of his marriage to Portia.

Yet the implications of Bassanio's moral failure extend beyond himself to Antonio as the instigator of that failure. For in prompting Bassanio to surrender Portia's ring, Antonio subtly demands, and I think, attains, a carnal payment from him not entirely different from that which Shylock had tried to achieve through his bond. In making this demand, Antonio degrades his love from charity to lust, thereby contradicting the spirituality of his love that is fundamental to his Christian faith. But what gives a further significance to the sense of degraded self-contradiction in Antonio's love is the ability of that love to assume a parallel with Shylock's law, which has similarly degraded itself to an unfulfillable and therefore self-contradicting warrant for murder. Just as the contradiction in his degraded law, together with its identification of him as alien, betrays Shylock into guilt; so the contradiction of his faith by his carnally degraded love betrays Antonio into guilt. And as Shylock is then forced to surrender the law that incriminates him, so Antonio is, albeit more subtly, forced to surrender the love that incriminates him by handing Bassanio over to Portia.83 It is this parallel that Brown decries in observing that Antonio's eventual loss of his friend has “a potential dramatic interest comparable to Shylock's isolation at the end of the trial.”84

Are we then to view the play as rejecting faith in love or the greater faith in God defined as Love? It does not seem likely. But if faith can be defeated and yet not rejected, are we compelled to view Shylock's defeated law as rejected? Instead, might we not surmise that what has been rejected in Shylock and Antonio are not the principles of law and faith but rather these principles in the blindness and prodigality that cause them to deny the mutual dependency of their relation as father and son?

I shall interpret the cold accommodation between Shylock and Antonio in IV.i as beginning and then aborting the restoration of their relation as father and son. Yet since the terms of this aborted reconciliation are partly monetary, they will attain the theological meanings I am trying to impart to them only if we perceive money as a symbolic representation of Abraham's blessing. This symbolic view of money is what the play supports in its subtle association of the physical “goods” that the Prodigal's father gives his son with the spiritual blessing that Isaac gives Jacob. And a comparably symbolic meaning in money is what Shylock suggests, with the tacit concurrence of Antonio, by representing Jacob's wealth as making him “blest” (I.iii.89). But more extensive evidence for such a view seems to emerge from the play's focus on Shylock's usury. For in defending this practice, Shylock articulates three pairs of terms, two of these pairs pertaining to the monetary practice of usury, while the third pair not only mediates between the realms of money and blessing but also discriminates two separate ways of having this blessing. While Shylock adduces the terms of this third pair to express his exclusively Jewish claim to Abraham's blessing, his effect, contrary to his intent, is to disclose a way in which Jew and Christian can both share in this blessing. What, then, are the terms that Shylock invokes, and how do they enable his usury to both symbolize Abraham's blessing and provide for its sharing?


In I.iii, Shylock analyzes his usury into “moneys” and “usances” (I.iii.108), components which are analogously rendered as principal and interest. Shylock repeatedly makes mention of “interest” (I.iii.51) in I.iii, while twice referring to “principal” in IV.i: “Give me my principal, and let me go” (IV.i.336); “Shall I not have barely my principal?” (IV.i.342). But in addition to “moneys” and “usances” with their apparent equivalence to principal and interest, Shylock's I.iii defense of usury introduces a third pair of terms: possession and thrift, thrift meaning profit. In calling Jacob “the third possessor,” Shylock adverts obliquely to Abraham's blessing as the thing Jacob is possessor of; yet the possession he adduces also identifies a mode of having that blessing: the having of it as something owned, like Shylock's “moneys” or principal. Shylock also refers to Jacob as breeding thrift from his uncle's sheep. And Shylock likewise identifies thrift as blessing in observing that

This was a way to thrive, and he was blest;
And thrift is blessing, if men steal it not.


Yet if thrift, like possession, is thus identified as blessing, thrift is also differentiated from possession. For whereas possession pertains to the blessing owned as principal, thrift pertains to the blessing derived as profit from a principal that is not owned. Jacob breeds this thrift out of sheep owned, rather, by his uncle Laban, as Shylock observes in beginning, “When Jacob graz’d his uncle Laban's sheep” (I.iii.71). Thus possession and thrift emerge as terms denoting distinct ways of having Abraham's blessing. And as possession corresponds to “moneys” held as principal, thrift corresponds to the “usances” or interest on that principal, interest being the concept that thrift is introduced to defend.

But while Shylock shows Jacob to breed the thrift that is blessing from a principal not his, he also shows Jacob, as “third possessor,” to possess the blessing as principal. Jacob is thus accorded a double having of Abraham's blessing. And it is Jacob's double having of Abraham's blessing that Shylock appears to adduce in justification of his own usury, since in usury Shylock similarly lays claim to both possession and thrift, as he emphasizes in referring to “my moneys and my usances.” This double having, however, is subtly reproved by Antonio's reference to the interest added to principalas “excess” (I.iii.62). For to the extent that Shylock's money and usances represent a double having of Abraham's blessing, they suggest an excess of having for Shylock that results in a defect of having for Antonio. In contrast to Shylock's usurious possessing with a thrift that is “assur’d” (I.iii.29), Antonio is a merchant, which means that his wealth is given out at hazard and, like the Prodigal's goods, may be “squand’red abroad” and lost, the profit with the principal.

Not only represented as something owned like principal, however, possession is also associated with paternity, and paternity as carnally defined. For in calling Jacob “the third possessor,” Shylock is obliquely referring possession to the three patriarchs of Israel, of whom Abraham and Isaac are first and second. And by referring to the first patriarchal possessor as “our holy Abram” and “father Abram,” Shylock is further defining the first of the great fathers biologically. For Abram is the name by which Genesis applies the patriarch's fatherhood to the Jews as his sole children through biological descent; as opposed to the name, Abraham, by which God makes him “a father of manie nacions,” a father defined by the Geneva Bible, citing Romans 4.17, “not only according to ye fleshe, but of a farre greater multitude by faith”:

Beholde, I make my covenant with thee, & thou shalt be a father of manie nacions, Nether shal thy name anie more be called Abram, but thy name shalbe Abraham: for a father of manie nacions have I made thee.

(Genesis xvii.4-5)

Since the children of a father are his heirs, it follows that Shylock's restriction of the patriarch's paternity to the Jews likewise makes them the sole inheritors of his blessing. And it is as one of these exclusively biological heirs that Shylock claims possession of Abraham's blessing. Moreover, to the extent that Shylock shows the blessing to comprise not only possession but also thrift, his restriction of its possession to himself can be seen as just. For even if Antonio's gentile identification as spiritual son makes him ineligible for possession of Abraham's blessing, he remains entitled to the thrift or profit of this blessing. Yet not only justly claiming possession, Shylock unjustly claims thrift as well, the injustice of this claim being what Antonio registers in railing against Shylock's “thrift, / Which he calls interest.”

It is Shylock's desire to claim thrift, moreover, that can explain his representation of its production as blatantly sexual: his conjuring up of “wooly breeders in the act” and “work of generation” (I.iii.83, 82). For these images establish the carnality and hence the Jewishness of Jacob's thrift that makes it rightfully his. And by comparing the thrift that Jacob breeds from sheep with the interest that he himself breeds from money, Shylock hopes to define his interest as likewise carnal, thereby rendering it Jewish and rightfully his.85 It is thus appropriate that Antonio should challenge the legitimacy of Shylock's interest by challenging the carnality of its generation:

Was this inserted to make interest good?
Or is your gold and silver ewes and rams?


Yet it is not Shylock's thrift only that Antonio challenges. For when Shylock refuses to concede the inorganic character of his “gold and silver”—“I cannot tell, I make it breed as fast” (I.iii.96)—Antonio turns to Bassanio with the insulting observation that “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose” (I.iii.98). Antonio all but calls Shylock devil to his face. And just as the adversos Judaeos tradition called the Jews devils in order to define them as blessed in no manner whatever but rather as cursed, Antonio's demonizing of Shylock can be seen to alienate him from Abraham's blessing not only in its thrift but also in its possession, as he further attests in railing not only against Shylock's thrift but also against “me” and “my bargains.” Just as Shylock would deny the blessing to Antonio, Antonio would deny it to Shylock. Yet, it may be asked, how do we square such an argument with the eventual truth of Antonio's insult: the fact that Shylock indeed proves himself a “cruel devil” (IV.i.217) in Act IV. Perhaps by noting that, while showing Shylock to commit evil, the play also shows him to suffer evil, and may subtly be underlining that suffering through a positive meaning reposed in the name of Old Gobbo. In observing that “suff’rance is the badge of all our tribe,” Shylock emphasizes his habitual patience under contempt, thereby anticipating the similar patience of Old Gobbo. And heightening the suggestiveness of this anticipation is Brown's observation that Old Gobbo's name appears in the quarto as “Iobbe,” which is “the Italianized form of Job,”86 the archetype of patience in suffering. Like Old Gobbo, Shylock is a kind of Job: a Job at the end of his patience.

If our sense of mutual wrong between Shylock and Antonio is clarified by the distinctions of possession and thrift, that sense is also informed by what has earlier been described as their common involvement in theft. Usury is, at first, to be Shylock's legal form of theft from Antonio. But Antonio too is associated with theft in being the object of Shylock's warning that “thrift is blessing, if men steal it not.” And supporting the reference of Shylock's words to Antonio is the tendency of Jessica, in exhibiting literal theft, to define Antonio's contemptuous demand for Shylock's money as a correspondingly psychic version of that theft. But likewise suggesting theft in both Jessica and Antonio is the recognition that the conditionality Shakespeare applies to Antonio's thrift is likewise applied to Jessica's possession. As Antonio is spiritual heir to Shylock's thrift, Jessica is carnal heir to his possession; what she takes is, after all, destined to be her own. But Jessica is heir to Shylock's possession only so long as she acknowledges her biological daughterhood to him, the very relationship she repudiates by fleeing from him: “Farewell, and if my fortune be not cross’d / I have a father, you a daughter, lost” (II.v.56-57). Jessica's repudiation of her biological daughterhood is what her absconding expresses and what defines the possession she absconds with as stolen. But if Jessica repudiates her biological daughterhood to Shylock, Antonio repudiates his spiritual sonhood to Shylock. Thus if Jessica's repudiation constitutes her possession as stolen, may not Antonio's repudiation constitute his thrift as stolen? Viewed in this way, Antonio's theft resides not in his demand for thrift, which is just, but rather in a spiritual contempt for Shylock that denies him possession as the prerogative of his carnal paternity. Just as Shylock's initial refusal of the thrift of profit of his symbolic money to Antonio bespeaks a blind refusal to acknowledge his spiritual sonhood, so Antonio's denial of Shylock's possession bespeaks a prodigal refusal to acknowledge the carnal character of his paternity, a refusal that Antonio attests in desiring to convert him.

Moreover, since “thrift is blessing” only “if men steal it not,” the loss of its efficacy as blessing would tend to suggest that it has indeed been stolen. And to the extent that the ability to bless is the ability to redeem or save, it is interesting to observe that thrift eventually proves unable to buy back or redeem Antonio from the condemnation of Shylock's law. Shylock eventually grants Antonio an interest-free loan, thus giving him the thrift of his money, but on the condition that he return its principal or possession within three months. And the terms Shylock establishes for his loan are such that no amount of interest or thrift will be allowed to compensate for the failure of Antonio to repay its possession by that time; rather, possession, inherently carnal to begin with because carnally claimed, will be claimed in the very flesh of Antonio. This is just what happens. Having failed to return the possession of Shylock's loan by the appointed time, Antonio finds that a ransom of thrift “ten times” (IV.i.211) the amount of that possession can be refused. Yet the spiritual meaning of this thrift is what reveals the true significance of its vitiation by suggesting that Christianity steals and thus vitiates its thrift or profit in Abraham's blessing by withholding its possession from the Jews. If this meaning is valid, it implies that the blessing of Abraham can be secured to neither Jew nor Christian unless secured to both together, by the allotment of possession to the Jews and thrift to the Christians. And that it may, despite its heterodoxy, be valid is supported by the observation that his dual allotment is what Antonio can be seen to propose in his IV.i disposition of Shylock's wealth.

Addressing the court, Antonio says,

To quit the fine for one half of his goods,
I am content; so he will let me have
The other half in use …


Antonio divides Shylock's wealth between himself and Shylock, thus sharing that wealth with Shylock. But Antonio also stipulates that Shylock is to die “possess’d” (IV.i.389) of his half, whereas for the duration of Shylock's life, Antonio is to have the other half “in use,” which is to say, in a trust. The significance of Antonio's proposal of a trust emerges in the recognition that this legal instrument can enable its trustee to eschew possession of the principal while claiming its profit, or thrift, which is what I think Antonio intends to do. To be sure, a trust need not by definition grant the trustee its profit, and critics unable to cope with Antonio's eventual consent to get as well as give balk at the idea of his profiting from his trust. Yet when we consider that Antonio has at this point no other means of living and has just declared his preference for death over “An age of poverty” (IV.i.271); and when we further consider the symbolic meaning of the profit in question, it becomes highly unlikely that Antonio means to refuse it.87 Not validated, moreover, as the result of Christian hazard, since it entails no hazard, Antonio's profit is rather validated in accruing to him without his possession of the principal, which he yields to Shylock's heirs. It thus appears that Antonio claims the thrift of Abraham's blessing for his Christian self while restoring its possession to the Jewish Shylock. In light of the meanings associated with possession, this restoration can suggest Antonio's attempt to recognize, however incipiently and obliquely, that the blessing he would have is Shylock's abiding possession, the prerogative of his carnal paternity. By claiming Shylock's thrift in a manner that restores his possession, Antonio claims his thrift but steals it not. Thus he begins to make it an authentic blessing, as he further suggests in claiming that thrift both without the conspicuous contempt that had marked his demand for Shylock's money in I.iii, and also more honestly, which is to say, for himself. Did Antonio do no more than this, he would have begun to purge away the defects of his identities as Prodigal Son and Jacob, thus initiating the process that redefines him as the returned Prodigal.


Yet Antonio appears to take this course only to abandon it and revert to the contempt and deceit of the unreconstructed Prodigal Son and Jacob. This abandonment suggests that Antonio ends his conflict with Shylock still mired in the internal struggle that Launcelot exhibits at the outset of II.ii but eventually overcomes. Yet if Launcelot's II.ii dialogue with his father shows how the conflict of Antonio with Shylock should end and does not, that dialogue also epitomizes major elements in the dynamics of this larger quarrel. For Launcelot's interaction with Old Gobbo shows how the defects of paternal blindness and filial prodigality exacerbate each other; how the mutual exacerbation of their defects would propel father and son, albeit figuratively, toward mutual murder but for the supervening realization that mutual murder is also mutually suicidal; and how this recognition prompts father and son to abate the blindness and prodigality that estrange them. Turning now to a close reading of this dialogue, I shall try to show how it conveys these meanings and invites their reference to Shylock and Antonio.

As Launcelot's flight from Shylock bespeaks his prodigality, his designation of Shylock as “this Jew my master” refers this prodigality to a resentment of authority. And appropriately leveling that resentment at the father he proceeds to meet, Launcelot determines to “try confusions” (II.ii.37) with him, just as Jacob tries confusions with old Isaac. By recalling, moreover, that Jacob's purpose in his confusions was to compass his father's blessing, we may surmise that Launcelot's purpose in these “confusions” is similarly to compass his father's blessing, presumably because he associates this blessing with authority. But if Jacob would seek this blessing by confusing himself with his brother Esau, Launcelot's reference to Old Gobbo as “my true-begotten father” (II.ii.35-36) suggests that he would seek this blessing by confusing the roles of father and son by making himself his father's father. And in forthwith demanding that his father address him as “Master Launcelot” (II.ii.48), Launcelot further suggests that his aim in this role reversal is to assume the mastery belonging to a father. Yet what enables Launcelot to act out his desire to dominate his father is his father's blindness. His blindness is what prevents Old Gobbo from recognizing that the stranger he stops to inquire the way to Shylock's house is his son. And this lack of recognition causes the old father to call him “Master young man” and “Master young gentleman” (II.ii.33, 39), as well as addressing him with the deferential “you” rather than the familiar “thou.” Not merely basking in the pleasure of his father's error, however, Launcelot is prompted to affect the persona of authority and erudition that will encourage its continuance. Launcelot would reinforce his father's belief that he is addressing his social better, so that the old man will continue according him the honorific titles of “sir,” “your worship,” “your mastership,” and “young gentleman” (II.ii.51, 56, 59, 70-71).

This deception becomes seriously mischievous, however, when Launcelot decides to tell his unrecognizing father that he is dead, much as Luke's Prodigal causes his father to think him dead: “For this my sonne was dead … ” (Luke xv.24). Addressing Old Gobbo as “father,” yet meaning him to perceive that address merely as a term appropriate to his age,88 Launcelot says,

Talk not of Master Launcelot, father, for the young gentleman, according to Fates and Destinies, and such odd sayings, the Sisters Three, and such branches of learning, is indeed deceas’d, or as you would say in plain terms, gone to heaven.”


This statement is deliberately cruel, as Launcelot himself acknowledges in telling the audience with Vice-like candor that it is intended to bring his father to tears: “Mark me now, now will I raise the waters” (II.ii.49). But not only cruel, this false news impairs still further his father's ability to recognize him. And to the extent that nonrecognition of a child is what constitutes paternal blindness, Launcelot's prodigality can be seen to deepen that blindness, just as that blindness incites his prodigality.

Yet the cruelty of Launcelot's communication is not without purpose. For in anticipating that it will reduce his father to tears, Launcelot invites us to regard his false report as intended to break his father's spirit, thus making him submissive to himself. Launcelot appears to be using the report of his own death as a way of achieving authority over his father, a way that, indeed, succeeds, as the old man attests in begging his unknown son to deny the death that his authority has already convinced him is true: “I know you not, young gentleman, but I pray you tell me, is my boy, God rest his soul, alive or dead?” (II.ii.70-72).

Not only subjugating his father, however, this news also threatens to kill him, as Old Gobbo's self-centered reaction demonstrates: “Marry, God forbid, the boy was the very staff of my age, my very prop” (II.ii.66-67). Trying to evade the force of his father's distress, Launcelot attempts to treat it as matter for mirth and, turning to the audience, asks, “Do I look like a cudgel or a hovel-post [that is, a little hovel or house89], a staff, or a prop?” (II.ii.68-69). Yet the flatness of the joke seems to suggest that Launcelot's cruel heart is being disquieted by his conscience. And though, by contrast, there is no sense of deliberate cruetly in Old Gobbo's blindness, that blindness retains its own lethal potential. For Launcelot glancingly observes that “murder cannot be hid long; a man's son may” (II.ii.79-80), and the tendency of these words to associate murder with the hiddenness of “a man's son” enables them to suggest that a father's failure to recognize his son effectively, if subtly, murders him.

In the tendency of their blindness and prodigality to push them toward mutual murder, however, Old Gobbo and Launcelot seem to adumbrate a dangerously deepening bitterness in the settled antagonism between Shylock and Antonio. Because his habitual blindness makes him unable to see that Antonio is his spiritual son and, as such, entitled to the thrift of his possession, Shylock provokes him to the habitual insolence that parallels the Prodigal's flight from his father. But in I.iii, blindness and prodigality take a particularly nasty turn. Shylock's defense of his usury is dismissed by Antonio, and when Shylock in his turn scorns this dismissal, he incurs the ultimate contempt of demonization, which, confirmed and unrepented, prompts Shylock to propose the bond of flesh. It thus appears that Launcelot's reference to a son's murder by an unknowing father, which Old Gobbo displays only figuratively, really pertains to Shylock in his literal attempt to murder Antonio through the flesh bond. To be sure, it may be objected that the spectacle of Shylock similarly wishing his biological and acknowledged daughter Jessica “dead at my foot” (III.i.88) challenges this association of murder with nonrecognition or blindness. Yet Shylock's rejection of Jessica may have another point to make. It may be that just as Shakespeare shows antagonism between carnal law and spiritual faith to destroy both these principles, so he may also be working out that destruction in Jessica and Antonio as carnal and spiritual children of Shylock. In representing Shylock as a father who rejects the spiritual son he does not know only to eventually reject the carnal daughter he does know, Shakespeare may well be suggesting that Jewish paternity cannot choose between its children: that it will have both or neither. But setting aside Shylock's rejection of Jessica, what seems important to observe here is that, in his own way, Antonio shares the homicidal impulse of Shylock. For if the flesh bond serves Shylock's desire to murder Antonio physically, it also whets Antonio's desire to obliterate Shylock's Jewish identity through the spiritual means of conversion: “The Hebrew will turn Christian, he grows kind” (I.iii.178).

As Shakespeare cleverly demonstrates through Old Gobbo and Launcelot, however, these lethal impulses are self-defeating. For the true effect of Old Gobbo's paternal blindness toward his son is to enable that son to manipulate the father into denying his own authority. Seeking to assume his father's authority, Launcelot urges Old Gobbo to relinquish that authority by referring to his son as “Master Launcelot.” And recognizing the self-demeaning implication of this request, Old Gobbo refuses to comply. Thus when Launcelot twice asks his father, “Talk you of young Master Launcelot?” (II.ii.48, 50), the old man responds, “No master sir, but a poor man's son” (II.ii.51). Yet Old Gobbo's blindness has the ironic effect of turning his denials into affirmations. Failing to perceive that the Launcelot whose mastership he denies is the very person he is addressing as “sir” and “Master,” Old Gobbo in fact grants Launcelot the mastership he professes to refuse him, as Launcelot invites us to recognize. For when Launcelot proceeds to insist that “we talk of young Master Launcelot” (II.ii.54-55) and her father again objects, “Your worship's friend and Launcelot, sir” (II.ii.56), Launcelot rejoins with an emphatic and repeated “ergo,” signifying that the father has proved his son's point: “But I pray you, ergo, old man, ergo, I beseech you, talk you of young Master Launcelot” (II.ii.57-58). And to Old Gobbo's uncomprehendingly stubborn “Of Launcelot, an’t please your mastership” (II.ii.59), Launcelot triumphantly concludes, “Ergo, Master Launcelot” (II.ii.60). Just as Old Gobbo's blind inability to recognize his son effectively grants Launcelot the prodigal mastery so prejudicial to his paternal self, Shylock's carnal inability to call Antonio son may inform his own deferential address to him as “Signoir Antonio,” that address more broadly referring the historical domination of Judaism by Christianity to Judaism itself in its failure to recognize its paternal relation to Christianity.

Launcelot's prodigality can likewise be seen to recoil against him by thwarting the very aim it pursues. His aim in dominating an unrecognizing father is to secure that father's blessing. But having attained this dominance through the report of his own death, Launcelot now finds himself unable to induce his father to bless a son he thinks dead. To the contrary, the more credit his authority has with Old Gobbo, the more remote his blessing becomes.

Not only self-defeating, however, the homicidal impulses of blindness and prodigality are eventually revealed as suicidal. For Launcelot achieves authority over his father by verbally killing himself. Seeking to usurp his father's paternity, he kills his own sonhood. And Launcelot's self-killing quest for authority invokes a similarly self-destructive recoil in Antonio's desire to dominate Shylock. Antonio is prompted to accept Shylock's bond partly by his determination to interpret it as signaling Shylock's impending conversion from carnal Jew to spiritual Christian. And prompting Antonio to this interpretation is his wish to void the paternity constituted in Shylock's Jewish identity in order to claim the authority of that paternity for himself. Yet his eagerness to supplant Shylock's Jewish paternity makes Antonio, like Shylock, blind by preventing him from discerning the bond's ability to reduce him to the flesh claimable on terms of Shylock's carnality. In attempting to spiritualize Shylock out of existence, Antonio incurs the risk of carnalizing himself out of existence, this consequence of his bargain once again impugning the larger Christian theology of supersession. And just as the murder and suicide associated in Launcelot seem evinced in Antonio, so the same association of murder and suicide can be discerned in both Old Gobbo and Shylock. As he admits, Old Gobbo cannot survive without the support of the son his own nonrecognition murders. And his tendency to destroy the basis of his own existence may well inform the condemnation that Shylock incurs in attempting to murder Antonio. Just as Old Gobbo needs Launcelot to be the prop of his age, Shakespeare seems to be suggesting that Judaism in Shylock needs Christianity in Antonio to become the prop of its age.

It is thus appropriate that the suicidal implications of blindness and prodigality should force the surrender of these defects. Launcelot reveals himself submissively to his father, thus enabling Old Gobbo to recognize and bless him. But while imperative, this surrender and recognition also require a capacity for self-transcendence that is difficult to achieve. And this difficulty, the tough struggle it entails for both father and son, is what the II.ii dialogue is at pains to exhibit. Recognizing that the announcement of his death has alienated him from the blessing he wants, Launcelot finally decides to reveal himself to his father. Yet blind from the first and made more so by the authority of his son, Old Gobbo resists Launcelot's pleas for recognition. And just as Old Gobbo's blindness is so firmly planted as hardly to be uprooted, so Launcelot revokes his prodigal death by reluctant stages. Suing for recognition, Launcelot first asks, “Do you know me, father?” (II.ii.69). But plausibly mistaking his nomination as father merely for an address to his age (since Launcelot has so used it), Old Gobbo poignantly replies, “Alack the day, I know you not, young gentleman” (II.ii.70-71). Again Launcelot asks for recognition: “Do you not know me, father?” (II.ii.73.) But helplessly lamenting his blindness, Old Gobbo again replies, “Alack, sir, I am sand-blind, I know you not” (II.ii.74). Unyielding paternal blindness now prompts Launcelot to revive himself even to the prejudice of his authority, as he shows by kneeling down to ask his father's blessing: “Well, old man, I will tell you news of your son. Give me your blessing” (II.ii.77-78). Yet his own stubborn prodigality prevents Launcelot from identifying himself plainly and also causes him to kneel with his back to his father. And just as Launcelot's tergiversation comprises his filial submission, so Old Gobbo's inability to recognize him attests the old father's continuing blindness: “Pray you, sir, stand up. I am sure you are not Launcelot, my boy” (II.ii.81-82). The need to penetrate his father's blindness now drives Launcelot to concede that he can never be father to Old Gobbo. Dropping the title of master, he pleads, “I am Launcelot, your boy that was, your son that is, your child that shall be” (II.ii.84-86). But again, to no avail: “I cannot think you are my son” (II.ii.87). To overcome this blindness and secure his blessing, Launcelot must not only surrender his mastership; he must also, like the Prodigal asking to be as one of his father's hired servants, resume the rank of servant; which he does by styling himself “Launcelot, the Jew's man” (II.ii.89). This confession works. Now recognizing his son, Old Gobbo reclaims him with an exclamation of joy that drops the respectful “you” for the familiar “thou”: “I’ll be sworn, if thou be Launcelot, thou art mine own flesh and blood” (II.ii.91-93).90 It is Antonio's similarly difficult—and unachieved—surrender of his Christian impulse to dominate the Jewish Shylock that seems prescribed as the condition of his filial recognition.

Yet we should also notice that Launcelot's confession not only vanquishes his own prodigality; it also accommodates the carnality of his father's blindness by adducing the identifiably carnal link between himself and his father, which is his mother: “I am Launcelot, the Jew's man, and I am sure Margery your wife is my mother” (II.ii.89-90). Significantly, Old Gobbo expresses his recognition of Launcelot in restrictedly carnal terms, terms that anticipate Shylock's later description of his biological daughter as “My own flesh and blood” (III.i.34). Yet while a maternal link allows Old Gobbo an at least carnal recognition of his son, no such carnal link can help Shylock recognize his wholly spiritual relationship to Antonio. He must either see spiritually or, as it proves, not at all. Thus if this dialogue posits the prodigality that Antonio does not vanquish as one condition of his recognition by Shylock, it also posits the carnality, which is to say, the blindness, that Shylock does not vanquish as another condition of that recognition.

By contrast, Old Gobbo so far sheds the psychic limitation of Isaac's blindness and the woe of the Prodigal's father as to liberate what is positive in these blessing fathers: their recognition and joy, which now coalesce to transform Old Gobbo into the father of the restored Prodigal, who blesses his son both knowingly and willingly. Old Gobbo places his hands on Launcelot's head in sign of blessing. And in the ability of his confession to purge away the rebellion of the Prodigal and the deceit of Jacob, Launcelot integrates the respective honesty and piety of these identities in evocation of the returned Prodigal. Validating these transformations, moreover, is their enabling of life to conquer death. By recognizing his son, Old Gobbo reclaims the staff and prop of his age; and in being restored to his father Launcelot evokes the Prodigal's return from death to life: “For this my sonne was dead, and is alive againe: and he was lost, but he is founde” (Luke xv.24).

Clearly, this satisfying reconciliation is not attained by Shylock and Antonio. Yet in supplying the pattern of a true reconciliation, Launcelot and old Gobbo enable us to recognize the movement, however tentative and aborted, that Antonio and Shylock make toward its achievement. As before observed, Antonio's request for Shylock's money in IV.i is devoid of the blatantly prodigal contempt he had exhibited in I.iii. Similarly, he drops his formerly Jacob-like pursuit of Shylock's blessing wealth in another's name. And in thus ameliorating his identities as the Prodigal and Jacob, Antonio offers to exchange them for the identity of the returned Prodigal. For just as Launcelot's self-revival as returned Prodigal also restores life to his father, Antonio restores life to himself and Shylock together by dividing between them both the wealth without which neither he nor Shylock could live, as Shylock, speaking for himself, attests:

Nay, take my life and all, pardon not that:
You take my house when you do take the prop
That doth sustain my house; you take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live.


In returning the wealth that supports his house, Antonio becomes to Shylock what Launcelot becomes to Old Gobbo: the “staff” and “prop” of his age.

Yet this amelioration does not progress. For while Launcelot eventually vanquishes his Jacob-like reluctance to identify himself as Old Gobbo's son, Antonio remains like Jacob in asking Shylock for his money without confessing his filial identity. And not only failing to progress, this amelioration seems to collapse in a reversion to prodigality. For in an act that reassociates the transmission of Shylock's wealth with theft, Antonio forces Shylock to bequeath his possession to “the gentleman / That lately stole his daughter” (IV.i.384-85). And whereas Launcelot surrenders his Prodigal desire to be his father's master and father, Antonio fulfills that prodigal desire for filial dominance. As master to Shylock, Antonio demands that he “presently become a Christian” (IV.i.387). And as one of two “god-fathers” to bring Shylock “to the font” (IV.i.398, 400) of baptism, Antonio likewise becomes his father, albeit a father from whom Shylock now evinces a prodigal desire to flee: “I pray you give me leave to go from hence, / I am not well” (IV.i.395-96). This evidence suggests that the moral status of Shylock's forced conversion, long disputed,91 should be decided in the negative. Rather than prescriptive or remedial, this conversion can be seen as symptomatic of what remains wrong with both Antonio and Shylock. For not only attesting prodigality in Antonio, it also results from the self-defeating tendency of Shylock's blindness to incite that prodigality. Thus Shylock's conversion is congruent with his abidingly flawed identities as Isaac and father of the reprobate Prodigal. Like Isaac with Jacob, Shylock is made to bless Antonio in ignorance of his filial identity. And like the Prodigal's father, he endows Jessica in pained awareness of her unreformed prodigality. As a measure of what is wrong with both antagonists, moreover, this conversion appropriately informs the self-defeating events that Antonio's prodigality now prompts him to initiate. For the contempt of law that emboldens him to demand Shylock's conversion is what Antonio likewise exhibits in demanding that Bassanio break Portia's commandment, that demand culminating in the forfeiture of his friend. Had Antonio achieved a properly filial respect for Shylock's carnal law, and hence for his Jewishness, he would have observed Portia's analogously carnal law and kept his friend.

The play thus offers a sharp contrast between the failed reconciliation of Shylock with Antonio and the successful reconciliation of Old Gobbo with Launcelot. Yet even this paradigmatic reunion remains imperfect. For Old Gobbo remains blind. And in restricting his blessing hands to a carnally tactile knowing that mistakes his son's head for his beard, Old Gobbo's blindness suggests his enduring limitation. Comparably, Launcelot's atonement to his father does not expunge the appetitive aspect of his prodigality, which prompts him to continue hankering for a life of sexual license: “Here's a small trifle of wives! Alas, fifteen wives is nothing! Aleven widows and nine maids is a simple coming-in for one man” (II.ii.161-63). Yet while suggesting the partial persistence of paternal blindness and filial prodigality, the II.ii dialogue also tantalizes us with the fleeting vision of a time when these defects will be entirely dispelled. For to the request for his father's blessing, Launcelot appends a reflection of seemingly choric significance: “Give me your blessing; truth will come to light; murder cannot be hid long; a man's son may, but in the end truth will out” (II.ii.78-80). What can this truth be if it is not “a man's son” finally recognized by a father no longer blind? And if Shakespeare has designed this whole dialogue to point beyond itself to Shylock and Antonio, and especially to the religious traditions they embody, might not the truth here adduced refer to the eventually dispelled blindness of Shylock's paternal Judaism? But just as Launcelot's brief reference to the truth that must ultimately “come to light” may extend beyond Old Gobbo to Shylock's Jewishness, so Launcelot seems still more briefly and obliquely to reflect on Old Gobbo in a manner that likewise reflects on himself and, by extension, on the Christian Antonio. For in describing Old Gobbo as “this honest old man, and though I say it, though old man, yet poor man, my father” (II.ii.138-40), Launcelot is defining him as old, honest, and—poor man—father to a prodigal son! And if these words indeed imply a rueful self-awareness, might they not anticipate the remorse of the Prodigal that makes him no longer prodigal; just as Launcelot anticipates a time when the father will recognize his son? While such scent evidence cannot sustain so large an argument, its presence in this dialogue demands at least tentative recognition.

What seems more certain is that this dialogue is a highly articulated and profound allegory, which Shakespeare fashions out of received cultural elements that he molds into the vehicle of his own meaning. These elements are the two objectively biblical identities that he imposes on Launcelot and Old Gobbo, the resulting disproportion between the meaning of these characters and their marginal status prompting the justified suspicion that their function in this allegory is to mediate these typological meanings to the play's Venetian principals, Shylock and Antonio. These meanings allegorize their respectively Jewish and Christian identities as blind father Isaac and Prodigal Son. But it is in the II.ii dialogue that the complex interactions of these allegorized principals are epitomized. In their blindness and prodigality, Old Gobbo and Launcelot identify hegemonic impulses in the respective traditions of Shylock and Antonio that bring them into conflict; as father and son, Old Gobbo and Launcelot exhibit the properly familial relationship of these principal characters, with its reciprocal requirements of paternal duty and filial loyalty. In expressing an evolution of power relations into family relations, the II.ii dialogue shows how the quarrel between Shylock and Antonio should end, thus becoming an interpretive norm that Shakespeare inserts into his play. And by contrasting with the minimal and aborted settlement that Shylock and Antonio do in fact attain, this norm assumes an oppositional force censuring that settlement while also attesting Shakespeare's awareness of the difficulties involved in getting beyond it. Shakespeare thus makes old texts speak new meanings, meanings that show our religious culture as both flawed and instinct with the capacity for its own renewal; in their intellectual and moral refinement, these meanings secure the modern value of this play by making it a force for such renewal.


  1. René Girard, “‘To Entrap the Wisest’: A Reading of The Merchant of Venice,” in Literature and Society: Selected Papers from the English Institute, 1978, ed. Edward W. Said (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 105. William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1846), 174. A. D. Moody, Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice (London: Edward Arnold, 1964), 10. Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 88. Kiernan Ryan, “The Merchant of Venice: Past Significance and Present Meaning,” Shakespeare Jahrbuch, 117 (1981): 51.

  2. Walter Cohen, “The Merchant of Venice and the Possibilities of Historical Criticism,” ELH, 49 (1982): 768-69; and Michael Ferber, “The Ideology of The Merchant of Venice,” English Literary Renaissance, 20 (1990): 437-38.

  3. Frank Whigham, “Ideology and Class Conduct in The Merchant of Venice,” Renaissance Drama, NS 10 (1979): 108, 107; Ryan, 51; Lars Engle, “‘Thrift is Blessing’: Exchange and Explanation in The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 37 (1986): 31, 36; Thomas Moisan, “‘Which is the merchant here? and which the Jew?’: subversion and recuperation in The Merchant of Venice,” in Shakespeare Reproduced: The text in history and ideology, ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O’Connor (New York: Methuen, 1987), 197.

  4. John Russell Brown, “The Realization of Shylock,” in Early Shakespeare, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1961), 205.

  5. Moody, 14; H. B. Charlton, Shakespearean Comedy (New York: Macmillan, 1938), 133.

  6. Goddard, 97.

  7. Girard, 107.

  8. Brown, 206.

  9. Goddard, 97.

  10. C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (1959; rpt. Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1963), 169; Frank Kermode, Early Shakespeare, 223-24; Sylvan Barnet, Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Merchant of Venice,” ed. Sylvan Barnet (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1970, 3-8).

  11. Elmer Edgar Stoll, Shakespeare Studies: Historical and Comparative in Method (1917; rpt. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1960), 271, 294-95. For concurring views, see Hazelton Spencer, The Art and Life of William Shakespeare (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1940), 239-40; and Norman Holland, The Shakespearean Imagination (New York: Macmillan, 1964), 92.

  12. G. K. Hunter, “The Theology of Marlowe's The Jew of Malta,” 1964, republished in his Dramatic Identities and Cultural Tradition (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1978), 64-65.

  13. Alan C. Dessen, “The Elizabethan Stage Jew and Christian Example,” Modern Language Quarterly, 35 (1974): 232-33, 239-41.

  14. Girard, 108-09.

  15. Girard, 100.

  16. Robert Weimann, Structure and Society in Literary History, expanded edition (1976; rpt. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), 1-56.

  17. Cohen, 771; Ferber, 446.

  18. Cohen, 767-71.

  19. The quotation is from Lucien Dällenbach, La Récit spéculaire (Paris: Seuil, 1977), p. 17, as translated by Moshe Ron, “The Restricted Abyss: Nine Problems in the Theory of Mise en Abyme,” Poetics Today, 8 (1987), 421. Gide's diary entry appropriating this term is cited by Ron, p. 418, from pp. 30-31 of André Gide, Journals 1889-1949, trans. Justin O’Brien (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967). See also Lucien Dällenbach, “Reflexivity and Reading,” New Literary History, 11 (1980), 435-449; and Ann Jefferson, “Mise en abyme and the Prophetic in Narrative,” Style, 17 (1983), 196-208.

  20. Weimann, 49.

  21. M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 23-26, 161-63.

  22. In “Bond Priorities in The Merchant of Venice,” Studies in English Literature, 20 (1980): 220, Jan Lawson Hinely finds Launcelot's antics instinct with an “undercurrent of real cruelty.”

  23. Charlton, 128. See also Spenser, 244; Oscar Campbell, Shakespeare's Satire (London, Oxford University Press, 1943), 7; Leslie Fiedler, The Stranger in Shakespeare (New York: Stein and Day, 1972), 108; Bill Overton, The Merchant of Venice: Text and Performance (London: Macmillan, 1987), 39.

  24. In “‘A Dish of Doves’: The Merchant of Venice,” ELH, 40 (1973): 347, Leo Rockas observes that Launcelot's moral dilemma in II.ii “is the same one that Jessica expresses in the following scene.” Hinely, 220, observes that “Launcelot's initial struggle between his conscience and the fiend … is a farcical version of Jessica's situation, presented in the scene immediately following.”

  25. René Fortin, “Launcelot and the Uses of Allegory in The Merchant of Venice,” Studies in English Literature, 14 (1974): 259.

  26. Dorothy C. Hockey, “The Patch is Kind Enough,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 10 (1959), 448-50; Barbara K. Lewalski, “Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 13 (1962): 327-43.

  27. John Russell Brown, ed. the new Arden Merchant of Venice (London: Methuen, 1959), 39, note to line 75, citing Henley as seeing “allusions to the deception practiced on the blindness of Isaac; cf. the recognition by feeling Launcelot's hair.”

  28. Hockey, 448-49.

  29. Hockey, 449.

  30. All Shakespeare quotations are cited in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  31. Lewalski, 340-41. Barber, 185, had earlier identified St. Paul as providing the terms of law and grace in the trial sequence of IV.i. For subsequent arguments based on the operation of Pauline theology in the play, see John R. Cooper, “Shylock's Humanity,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 21 (1970): 121; and Sylvan Barnet, “Prodigality and Time in The Merchant of Venice,” Publications of the Modern Language Association, 87 (1972): 26.

  32. Lewalski, 342.

  33. Lewalski, 329, 334, 339. For other associations of Antonio with Christ, see Kermode, 224; and Joan Ozark Holmer, “The Education of the Merchant of Venice,” Studies in English Literature, 25 (1985): 310.

  34. Lewalski, 341-42.

  35. Lewalski, 331, 338.

  36. All biblical citations are from The Geneva Bible: A facsimile of the 1560 edition, introd. Lloyd E. Berry (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969). Spelling has been minimally modernized.

  37. John Calvin, A Commentary on Genesis (1554, Latin), (1578, English), Two Volumes in One, trans. and ed. John King (1847) (rpt. London: Calvin Translation Society, 1965) II, 50.

  38. Calvin, 50.

  39. Calvin, 50.

  40. Fortin, 267.

  41. Fortin, 266-67.

  42. Lewalski, 334.

  43. Fortin, 267-68.

  44. David N. Beauregard, “Sidney, Aristotle, and The Merchant of Venice: Shakespeare's Triadic Images of Liberality and Justice,” Shakespeare Studies, 20 (1988): 33.

  45. Barnet, “Prodigality and Time in The Merchant of Venice,” 26. Like Barnet, Brown in the Arden Merchant, lviii, uses prodigality to describe the giving that he sees as the play's most important value: “Giving is the most important part—giving prodigality, without thought for the taking.” And in “The Merchant of Venice and the Pattern of Romantic Comedy,” Shakespeare Survey, 28 (1975): 82, R. F. Hill similarly views Jessica's squandering as “a free outgoing of that which was not given us to hoard.”

  46. Moisan, 198.

  47. Moisan, 195.

  48. At the 1985 meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America in Nashville, Tennessee, in seminar XIII entitled The Merchant of Venice Controversies: Past and Present, I presented the idea of Launcelot as a type of the Prodigal Son in a paper entitled “The Merchant of Venice and the Blessing of Abraham.” The same sense of Launcelot's meaning as well as its extension to Jessica appears in Beuregard's 1988 essay, 39-40.

  49. Manfred Pfister, “Comic Subversion: A Bakhtinian View of the Comic in Shakespeare,” Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft West, 1987, 33-34, 35-36, 42.

  50. For an example of this view, see Moisan, 191.

  51. To appreciate Paul's insistent representation of grace as wealth, see Ephesians, where he calls God “riche in mercie” (ii.4) and refers to “his riche grace” (i.7), “the exceeding riches of his grace” (ii.7), and “the unsearcheable riches of Christ” (iii.8).

  52. See Hunter, 64-65, for the conventionally negative representation of money in The Jew of Malta as worldly and anti-Christian.

  53. For views of money in Merchant as symbolic, though not theological, see G. Wilson Knight, The Shakespearean Tempest (London: Oxford University Press, 1932), 129, 131; G. Wilson Knight, Principles of Shakespearean Production (London: Faber and Faber, 1936), 187; and John Russell Brown, “Love's Wealth and the Judgment of The Merchant of Venice,” in his Shakespeare and His Comedies (London: Methuen, 1957), 61.

  54. Nevill Coghill, “The Basis of Shakespearean Comedy,” Essays and Studies, N.S. 1-3 (1948-1950), 21; Kermode, 224; Cooper, 121; Albert Wertheim, “The Treatment of Shylock and Thematic Integrity in The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Studies, 6 (1970): 79, 86; Holland, 93; Fiedler, 86-87; Lawrence Danson, The Harmonies of “The Merchant of Venice” (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1978), 13; Barber, 185.

  55. Moody, 50; Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 16.

  56. John S. Coolidge, “Law and Love in The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 27 (1976): 243 and note 15 on 249.

  57. Rabkin, 20-21. For a full statement of Rabkin's argument, see 19-32.

  58. Rabkin, 7.

  59. Coghill, 21.

  60. Rabkin, 10-12.

  61. Barnet, Twentieth Century Interpretations, 6, 7.

  62. Brown, Shakespeare and His Comedies, 71, 72-73.

  63. Holmer, 309; Danson, 31-32.

  64. Arthur Quiller-Couch, ed., The Merchant of Venice (1926; rpt. Cambridge: At the University Press, 1953), xxii; Charlton, 125; Moody, 17; Brown in the Arden Merchant, xxxiv, records the 1709 opinion of Nicholas Rowe that the play “was design’d Tragically by the Author.” In “Brothers and Others,” in The Dyer's Hand and other Essays (New York: Random House, 1948), 223, 221, W. H. Auden renders a common judgment in calling Merchant a “problem” play to be “classed among Shakespeare's ‘Unpleasant Plays.’” And Ryan, 49, likewise repudiates “the traditional romantic idealist reading of the play.”

  65. Brown, “The Realization of Shylock,” 206; Barber, 190. See also Ferber, 459, for the description of Shylock as “character not fully digested and assimilated into the structure of themes.”

  66. Hockey, 448-449.

  67. Brown, the Arden Merchant, 39, note to 11. 73-74.

  68. In the new Variorium edition of The Merchant of Venice, ed. Horace Howard Furness, 12fth ed. (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1888), 69, the note to line 89 records Staunton's opinion that “stage tradition, not improbably from the time of Shakespeare himself, makes Launcelot, at this point, kneel with his back to the sand-blind old Father, who, of course, mistakes his long back hair for a beard, of which his face is perfectly innocent.”

  69. In Love and Society in Shakespearean Comedy (London: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1985), 33, Richard A. Levin these allegations as “Launcelot's rationalizations, offered … to ease his conscience … ”

  70. Charlton, 156, observes that Jessica's phrase “says more of [her] frivolous nature than of the repulsiveness of her father's house.”

  71. See Thomas Wilson, A Discourse upon Usury (1572), with an historical introduction by R. H. Tawney (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1965), 219, 275-76, 285.

  72. The possessive taint in Antonio's love for Bassanio has frequently been noted. In “Portia and The Merchant of Venice: the Gentle Bond,” Modern Language Quarterly, 28 (1967): 26, Robert Hapgood observes that “Antonio is at once too generous and too possessive.” In “The Rival Lovers in The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 21 (1970): 110, Lawrence W. Hyman observes that “Antonio's wealth which he puts at his friend's disposal is a means of holding on to Bassanio's love.” Hinely, 234, likewise describes Antonio's love of Bassanio as “possessiveness expressed through generosity.”

  73. This reading of the Prodigal story is accepted by modern interpreters, as exemplified by Rosemary Radford Ruether, Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism (New York: Seabury Press, 1974), 254.

  74. Fortin, 267.

  75. Ruether, 94.

  76. Ruether, 65, 139-40. On 117-21 Ruether lists the various expressions of this tradition, including Tertullian's Adversos Judaeos, Augustine's Tractatus adversus Judaeos, the eight sermons against the Jews preached by John Chrysostom, and Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho.

  77. Ruether, 137-40.

  78. Ruether, 230. While observing Merchant to evoke the patristic negation of the Jews' claim to the prophetic promises, Coolidge does not recognize this negation as censured by the prodigal identities of Launcelot, Jessica, and Antonio.

  79. Ruether, 101-2, 176-79.

  80. For the sexual character of Antonio's love, whether conscious, or initially suppressed and only gradually emerging to consciousness, see Auden, 231; Graham Midgley, “The Merchant of Venice: A Reconsideration,” Essays in Criticism, 10 (1960): 125-26; John D. Hurrell, “Love and Friendship in The Merchant of Venice,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language,” 3 (1961): 340; Ralph Berry, Shakespeare's Comedies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 125; Rockas, 346; Keith Geary, “The Nature of Portia's Victory: Turning to Men in The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984): 58-59; and more tentatively, Levin, 31.

  81. Fiedler, 136. See also Coppélia Kahn, “The Cuckoo's Note: Male Friendship and Cuckoldry in The Merchant of Venice,” in Shakespeare's Rough Magic, ed. Peter Erickson and Coppélia Kahn (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985), 109.

  82. Hinely, 235, observes that following the forfeiture of the ring, the friends are “closer than at any other time in the play.”

  83. Fiedler, 135, observes that in returning her ring to Bassanio's finger, Antonio gives “the bridegroom away.” And Geary, 67, similarly perceives that Antonio's return of Portia's ring to Bassanio means that “Portia has defeated him and displaced him in Bassanio's heart.” See also Kahn, 107.

  84. Brown, “The Realization of Shylock,” 206.

  85. Engle, 28-31, finds the Jacob/Laban story to express Shylock's just complaint that, like Jacob working for Laban, he serves the economy without being allowed full participation in it. By contrast, Joan Ozark Holmer takes a negative and, I think, more accurate view of Shylock's biblical defense of his usury. By finding this story mentioned in an anti-usury tract that excoriates those who adduce Scripture in defense of usury, she aptly suggests that this tract provides both the text for Shylock's defense of usury and the opinion that censures it. See “Miles Mosse's The Arraignment and Conviction of Usurie (1595): A New Source for The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Studies, 21 (1993): 15-17, 21, 34.

  86. See Brown, the Arden Merchant, xxii: “The quarto's repeated ‘Iobbe’ (II.ii.3 ff.) suggests that Shakespeare intended to use the Italianized form of Job.”

  87. The OED gives “Use 4” as “the act or fact of using, holding, or possessing land or other property so as to derive revenue, profit, or other benefit from such.” “Use 4” has an alternate meaning b that defines it as “a trust or confidence reposed in a person for the holding of property, etc., of which another receives or is entitled to the profits or benefits.” But it is meaning c that cites the phrase “in use,” not only showing that phrase to denote a trust but also referring the terms of that trust as readily to the primary definition that gives the profit to the trustee, as to the alternate meaning of b that gives the profit to another. It is the uncertainty thus introduced into “in use” that has prompted critics to disagree on the question of who gets the profit of Antonio's trust. Brown in the Arden Merchant, 119, note to line 379, suggests that it will go to Shylock. Holmer, “The Education of the Merchant of Venice,” 317, agrees. Danson, 125, thinks that both principal and profit will go to Jessica and Lorenzo at Shylock's death. Yet Brown also recognizes Antonio's poverty, which suggests that he himself keeps it, as Johnson, I think correctly, concludes: “Antonio declares that, as the Duke quits one-half of the forfeiture, he is likewise content to abate his claim, and desires not the property but the use or produce only of the half, and that only for the Jew's life … ” See Furness, the Variorum Merchant, 227, note to lines 398-402.

  88. Furness, the Variorum Merchant, 68, note to line 65.

  89. Furness, the Variorum Merchant, 68, note to line 64.

  90. In the Variorum Merchant, 69, note to line 83, Furness asks us to “note Gobbo's respectful ‘you,’ until he recognizes Launcelot, and then his change to ‘thou.’”

  91. Among those offended by Shylock's forced conversion are Quiller-Couch, xix-xx; Charlton, 128; Goddard, 89; and Sigurd Burckhardt, “The Merchant of Venice: The Gentle Bond,” ELH, 29 (1962): 253. Among those who defend it as saving Shylock's soul or bringing him social benefits are Coghill, 23; Lewalski, 341; Cooper, 121; Wertheim, 85; Barnet, Twentieth Century Interpretations, 7; and Holmer, “The Education of the Merchant of Venice,” 321.

Criticism: Disappointment

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SOURCE: “Disappointment in The Merchant of Venice,” in ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews, Vol. 7, No. 1, n.s., 1994, pp. 13-18.

[In the essay below, Fike analyzes disappointment as a central theme in The Merchant of Venice, concluding that the disappointment found in love, friendship, and aspirations in the play mirrors Shakespeare's belief that perfect harmony is to be found solely in the afterlife.]

While Jessica and Lorenzo's banter at the beginning of Act V of The Merchant of Venice has been viewed as out of character with the harmony one expects at this point in a comedy, it has not yet been analyzed in light of the theme of disappointment.1 As Gratiano expresses it, “All things that are / Are with more spirit chasèd than enjoyed,” a direct commentary on Lorenzo's tardiness for his liaison with Jessica ( Lorenzo, in other words, may derive more pleasure from striving for Jessica than he does from her permanent presence in his life. What may be true for him is definitely true for other characters: since it is more enjoyable to anticipate than to attain, disappointment is ascendant in the universe of the play. Thus the classical allusions in the “love duet” not only reflect disappointing circumstances earlier in the play but also contrast with what, ultimately, does satisfy.

Gratiano's comment introduces a simile that suggests a paradigm of disappointing experience: “How like a younger or a prodigal / The scarfèd bark puts from her native bay, / Hugg’d and embracèd by the strumpet wind! / How like the prodigal doth she return, / With over-weather’d ribs and ragged sails, / Lean, rent, and beggar’d by the strumpet wind!” ( Here is a nautical rendering of the prodigal son story, but with disappointment as a variation. There is a return, but it is not restorative. To illustrate his sense that all things are more heartily pursued than savored, Gratiano omits the part of the allusion that would qualify his assertion, stressing instead the negative effects on the ship of wind and water, which correspond to the prodigal son's debasement and destitution. That is, Gratiano stresses the flight from the stormy sea, and by implication from the sty, rather than the safe harbor or the positive life in the father's house. In reality, the return from sea or sty would presumably transcend expectations and be enjoyed with more spirit that it is pursued. But for Gratiano, if there even is a homecoming for son or ship, it is not the happy occasion that the parable depicts. What makes his allusion problematic is not only the omission of the welcome but also the implication that the homecoming, if it were achieved, would be a disappointment.

The fiscal ventures in the play bear out the prodigal's experience of pursuing what does not yield the hoped-for enjoyment. Bassanio, like the prodigal son, asks father-figure Antonio for an additional loan. His earlier use of borrowed money has not met his needs or fulfilled his expectations. Shylock pursues his bond with Antonio with great gusto, but his attempt to enforce it results in personal and financial ruin rather than satisfaction—the greatest disappointment suffered by any character in the play. Antonio himself suffers fiscal disappointment. While it is fortunate that three of his ships return, Shylock's earlier statement conveys the more significant fact that many more have been lost: “Yet [Antonio's] means are in supposition: he hath an argosy bound to Tripolis, another to the Indies; I understand moreover upon the Rialto, he hath a third at Mexico, a fourth for England, and other ventures he hath, squand’red abroad” (I.iii.17-21). The return by the three ships ironically implies the grim spectre of loss: the disappointing truth that most of Antonio's ships, in fact, have been wrecked or are still missing, much as the prodigal's return underscores his great financial losses. But Antonio, who denies in Act I that the anxiety of ownership causes his sadness, also subtly contrasts with the prodigal: he has achieved fiscal success. If Gratiano's insight holds, the hollowness of ownership causes Antonio's melancholy. His material wealth at the opening is enjoyed with less delight than presumably it was anticipated. If Antonio's prosperity has not lived up to his expectations and does not supply the happiness for which he yearns, disappointment results and sadness is its symptom.

Human relationships are fertile ground for disappointment as well. Antonio's sadness stems partly from his awareness that Bassanio's marriage to Portia diminishes Antonio's role in his friend's life. Solanio makes it clear how much Antonio loves Bassanio: “I think he only loves the world for him” (II.viii.50). The second loan affirms their friendship but ultimately results in diminished closeness. The suitors provide a more dramatic illustration of relational disappointment. Gratiano's image of a ship setting forth to encounter a natural force personified as a woman parallels their failure: they return home as romantic beggars, not having won Portia's hand but having sworn never to marry. They have chased marriage with great spirit but have forfeited married life along with the enjoyment it might have brought. Even apart from marriage, relationships cause disappointment in The Merchant of Venice. Shylock is devastated by Jessica's greed and insensitivity, and Launcelot's liaison with a black serving girl has resulted in a pregnancy. There is no evidence that this fazes the clown, but the pregnancy is clearly an unwanted inconvenience.

While Jessica and Lorenzo's banter in V.i is good-natured, their allusions suggest that the passage may participate in the disappointment that shadows the earlier action. They celebrate their love by allusion to mythical lovers—Troilus and Cressida, Pyramus and Thisbe, Aeneas and Dido, Jason and Medea—who come to grief because of misunderstanding or betrayal.2

A first possibility is that the allusions convey doubts about the stability of their marriage. Perhaps Jessica will betray Lorenzo as she has already betrayed Shylock—Lorenzo's reference to Cressida suggests that he is not unaware of that possibility. He may one day be to Jessica as Troilus is to Cressida, or as Gratiano's prodigal ship is to the “strumpet wind”—not just a disappointed husband but also the victim of betrayal. As for Lorenzo, Gratiano's insight may apply: perhaps he was more eager to pursue Jessica than to enjoy her in marriage. Shakespeare's own Cressida, in the later play bearing her name, offers words that sound very much like Gratiano's comment on his friend's tardiness, a connection furthering his suspicion about Lorenzo's attitude: “Women are angels, wooing: / Things won are done, joy's soul lies in the doing. / That she belov’d knows nought that knows not this: / Men prize the thing ungain’d more than it is. / That she was never yet that ever knew / Love got so sweet as when desire did sue” (Troilus and Cressida I.ii.286-91). For men, as Gratiano would agree, the chase is more enjoyable than the achievement of a romantic goal. Perhaps Lorenzo, not having heard Gratiano's wry comment of Act II, fears that he will not enjoy his marriage to Jessica as much as he has anticipated because all things that are, including marriage, are enjoyed more in prospect than in attainment. Jessica playfully implies an awareness of Lorenzo's potential for infidelity in her reference to Medea and Aeson, for the story of Aeson's rejuvenation includes Jason's betrayal of Medea after years of marriage. In their banter, Jessica and Lorenzo thus hint at each other's potential for betrayal. Despite the loveliness of the setting and their good humor, the potential for marital disappointment is the faint undertone of their love duet—the extent of implications for Jessica and Lorenzo's attitudes toward each other. If doubts exist at this point, they are merely playful, as though they were a kind of inoculation against future infidelity or “a comic exorcism of the tragic side of love” (Leggatt 143).

Indicting unfaithful lovers of both sexes suggests a criticism of couples in general. In Lorenzo's statements the betrayers, Aeneas and Cressida, are both male and female—the myths he alludes to distribute blame for pain in relationships to both genders. It is tempting, however, to view Jessica's references in a different light, since her allusion to Pyramus and Thisbe evokes tragic misunderstanding, rather than betrayal. Moreover, her reference to Aeson's rejuvenation, a kind of rebirth, is appropriate to new life in Belmont. Yet the Medea-Aeson allusion undercuts itself because of the duet's parallelism. The earlier allusions to mythical women and their lovers call Jason to mind, despite specific reference only to his father. Shakespeare knew that, following the rejuvenation, Jason abandoned Medea who then burned “hir husbands bride by witchcraft” and “in hir owne deare childrens bloud had bathde hir wicked knife” (Ovid 146; VII.501, 503). Whereas Lorenzo refers to Cressida and Aeneas, unfaithful lovers, Jessica invokes Jason and Medea who are hateful to each other. The point of the four allusions, then, is not merely the fact that women like Cressida betray men like Troilus, or that men like Aeneas desert women like Dido, or that the mutual misunderstanding of a couple like Pyramus and Thisbe can lead to tragedy for both. More important than that, the recollection of Jason and Medea suggests mutual disappointment in marriage. The sad conclusion is that the sexes, in their shared humanity, are potentially hateful to each other, or more specifically that Jessica and Lorenzo will encounter their share of problems in married life.

Just as the love duet participates in the disappointment developed earlier in the play, it also signals disappointment in the future, as further parallelism reveals. The situation in each allusion is once removed from tragedy. Troilus mounts the Trojan walls and sighs for Cressida; he later achieves full understanding of her betrayal. Thisbe sees the lion and runs away … later Pyramus's discovery of her bloody veil leads to double suicide. Dido, having loved Aeneas and been deserted, longs for his return; she has not yet killed herself in despair. Medea gathers herbs that renew her husband's father; abandonment and murder happen years in the future. The allusions, therefore, create the sense of a coming storm. For Thisbe and Dido, a present problem (the presumed death of Pyramus, abandonment by Aeneas) leads to future suicide. Troilus and Medea, though they perform positive actions in the present, are betrayed in the future. Thus the play invites seeing Jessica and Lorenzo in a similar way. Underneath their banter lies the sense that their happiness may one day yield to disappointment and discord. That is in harmony with the pattern of disappointment established in Acts I through IV: anticipation transcends outcome.

The love duet also casts doubt on the future of other marriages in the play. The invocation of Jason and Medea colors Gratiano's earlier statement about the successful trip to Belmont: “I know that [Antonio] will be glad of our success; / We are the Jasons, we have won the fleece” (III.ii.240-41). He and Bassanio have achieved their goals, but the recollection of Jason and Medea in Act V ironically undercuts Gratiano's delight: he celebrates his marriage in terms of a classical figure who is famous for infidelity. Moreover, whereas Gratiano's own prophecy in Act II qualifies his fiscal and marital success, he is now blind to the violation of expectations and the potential for disappointment in his own marriage and in Bassanio's. He has forgotten that, in the problematic universe of The Merchant of Venice, it is simply impossible to attain with the same savor as one anticipates. Marital happiness is not an exception to the rule.

But marriage is merely synechdoche: as marriage carries the potential for disappointment, so does all of life, as Shakespeare's treatment of Belmont reveals. For Jessica, Belmont “figures forth the heavenly city” (Lewalski 343): “It is very meet / The Lord Bassanio live an upright life, / For having such a blessing in his lady, / He finds the joys of heaven here on earth” (III.v.73-76). It turns out, however, that Belmont is to the heavenly city as human life is to immortality. One “figures forth” the other in Jessica's imagination, but conflating the two—burdening an earthly state with expectations of heavenly bliss—can cause disappointment. The actual nature of Belmont is implied by Lorenzo's statement: “There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold'st / But in his motion like an angel sings, / Still quiring to the young-ey’d cherubins; / Such harmony is in immortal souls, / But whilst this muddy vesture of decay / Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it” (V.i.60-65). Lorenzo refers to both the music of the spheres and the corresponding music within the human soul. As longing for heavenly music is frustrated in this life, so Belmont falls short of the heavenly city. If full spiritual enjoyment is not possible, then Jessica's prediction is unlikely to be realized. Lorenzo's message is simply that the afterlife transcends expectations; nothing earthly can satisfy. The happy banter of Jessica and Lorenzo, itself problematic, is fleeting, for marriage, Belmont, and all of life are subject to the same potential for disappointment.

Surprisingly Launcelot expresses the proper qualification in his statement to Bassanio, though he may not realize it. “The old proverb is very well parted between my master Shylock and you, sir: you have the grace of God, sir, and he hath enough” (II.ii.149-51). Whatever jokes Launcelot may be making, the important point is what the original proverb conveys: “He that hath the grace of God hath enough.” Disappointment results from an earthly outcome's ultimate insufficiency, its inability to live up to expectations. Even rejuvenation like Aeson's cannot change the inner man, alter the fact of eventual death or ensure eternal life. Everything earthly is doomed to death, which is why Morocco finds a skull in the golden casket. God's grace, however, is sufficient in itself and does not disappoint us: “They called vpon thee, and were deliuered: they trusted in thee, and were not confounded” (Psalm 22:5). Ultimately, the play points toward the need for the salvation Portia alludes to—“mercy … above this sceptered sway” (IV.i.193). The problem with the love duet, then, is that, despite Jessica's conversion, the allusions are based not on Christian mercy but on thinking that predates the old law: revenge is justifiable (Medea), and suicide is an adequate response to loss (Pyramus, Thisbe, Dido, and perhaps Troilus). However humorous their banter may be and however hopeful their future may seem. Jessica and Lorenzo are still operating in a universe of disappointment and indirectly imply the need for grace and charity.

So instead of offering marriage as an end in itself, the playwright implies that no ending, however comedic, can be totally unproblematic, since harmony in this life and of the earth forever falls one step short of celestial harmony. It is true that the lovers have avoided tragedy, though they voice subtle reminders of its everpresent possibility. But no one can enjoy the goal with as much spirit as one pursues it because full enjoyment, Shakespeare suggest, abides only in the next life and in the realization of divine love. Otherwise, disappointment is the burden of mortality.


  1. For commentary on V.i.1-24 see Auden 113-15, Baxter 74-77, Cosgrove 57ff., Gnerro 19-21, Hassel 69, Hill 85, and Leggatt 143.

  2. Jessica actually refers not to Jason but to his father: “In such a night / Medea gathered the enchanted herbs / That did renew old Aeson” (V.i.13-15). The reference to Aeson and the argument for invoking Jason are examined below.

Works Cited

Auden, W. H. “Belmont and Venice.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Sylvan Barnet. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1970. 113-15.

Baxter, John S. “Present Mirth: Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies.” Queen's Quarterly 72 (1965): 52-77.

Cosgrove, Mark F. “Biblical, Liturgical, and Classical Allusions in The Merchant of Venice.” Diss. Univ. of Florida, 1970.

Gnerro, Mark L. “Easter Liturgy and the Love Duet in MV V, I,” American Notes & Queries 18 (1979): 19-21.

The Geneva Bible. A facsimile of the 1560 edition. Madison: The Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1969.

Hassel, Chris R., Jr. “Antonio and the Ironic Festivity of The Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare Studies 6 (1970): 67-74.

Hill, R. F. “The Merchant of Venice and the Pattern of Romantic Comedy.” Shakespeare Survey 28 (1975): 75-87.

Leggatt, Alexander. Shakespeare's Comedy of Love. London: Methuen, 1974.

Lewalski, Barbara K. “Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare Quarterly 13 (1962): 327-43.

Ovid. The Metamorphoses. Trans. Arthur Golding. Ed. J.M. Cohen. London: Centaur Press, 1961.

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice and Troilus and Cressida. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974: 250-85; 443-98.

Criticism: Elizabethan Culture And Values

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SOURCE: “‘Which is the merchant here? and which the Jew?’: Subversion and Recuperation in The Merchant of Venice,” in Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, edited by Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O’Connor, Methuen, Inc., 1987, pp. 188-206.

[In the essay below, Moisan argues that while The Merchant of Venice appears to celebrate the Elizabethan values of Christian ethics and good business, the play instead subtly exposes a contradiction between the apparent belief in these values and whether or not they are actually practiced.]

As a locus in which to ponder the ideological function of the Shakespearean text, The Merchant of Venice is an obvious, and obviously problematic, choice. At a glance, the Merchant seems to inscribe and affirm an ideological calculus that fused the interests of the state and the assertions of a providentialist Christianity with the prerogatives of an increasingly capitalist marketplace. We can perceive this calculus allegorized in the central action of the play and ratified in the ultimate thwarting of the Jewish usurer Shylock, the redemption of the Christian merchant Antonio, and the triumphs—forensic and domestic—of the bountiful aristocrat Portia, and we can see it reflected and legitimated in the sundry polarities the play has often been said to be—to use Frank Kermode's rather equivocal quotation marks—“‘about’”: the Old Law versus the New Law, Justice versus Mercy, Vengeance versus Love (1961, 224).1 At the same time, however, the considerable residue of qualification that attends even the most compelling efforts to schematize the play in this way has made it no easy matter to say what the Merchant is “about;”2 and in the degree to which the play leaves us, for example, feeling troubled over the treatment of Shylock, or appears to blur the distinctions on which the polarities above depend, leading us, in effect, to ask with Portia, “Which is the merchant here? and which the Jew?” (IV. i. 170), we may wonder whether the Merchant invokes the ideologically sanctioned mythologies of the time only to question and subvert them.

In part, of course, it can be argued that the contradictions we experience in the Merchant are evidence, not of its subversive design, but of its mimetic fidelity, and that the dissonances we detect in it are but echoes of the tensions and stresses of the society it reflects, a society in transition, confronting—or being confronted by—what Louis Adrian Montrose calls “the ideologically anomalous realities of change” (1980, 64). “Taken on its own terms,” Jonathan Dollimore reminds us, “an ideology may appear internally coherent. When, however, its deep structure is examined it is often discovered to be a synthesis of contradictory elements” (1984, 20). Thus, in the inclination we feel to ask “Which is the merchant here? and which the Jew?” we may merely be responding to the traces in the play of a debate within the times over whether Old Religion and New Business were fully compatible, and whether the “thrifty” pursuit of trade and the “prodigal” indulgence of greed were fully distinct. On the other hand, to the extent to which we see in the Merchant a movement toward reconciliation and harmony—a thesis argued most fully by Lawrence Danson some years ago (1978, esp. 1-21, 170-95)—the play can be said to ritualize the ideological synthesis being wrought from the contrarieties of its society.

We find the Merchant scanned in these terms quite cogently in an essay published several years ago by Walter Cohen (1982). For Cohen the Merchant enacts a largely successful, and deeply comic, mediation between two differing conceptions of socioeconomic relations: the one rooted in English history and reflective of contemporary anxiety over the emerging economic order, the other derived from Shakespeare's Italian sources and reflecting both a less troubled view of the capitalist system and a more confident differentiation between the figure of the usurer, who incarnates, Cohen would suggest, “a quasi-feudal fiscalism” in decline, and that of the merchant, who embodies, in Cohen's words, “an indigenous bourgeois mercantilism” on the ascent (1982, 771). In Cohen's reading the workings of dramatic form and ideological synthesis are persuasively integrated. Even as the central action of the play, Cohen argues, upholds a “formally dominant Christian, artistocratic ideology,” we see in “the subversive side of the play” evidence of “an internal distancing,” a distancing, however, which may complicate but does not annul that harmonic “movement” Cohen sees in the play “towards resolution and reconciliation” (pp. 779-81). In this way The Merchant of Venice can be seen to negotiate among the heterogeneous impulses and interests that characterized the “public” of the public theater. At the same time, the Merchant can also be taken to exemplify what might be called the emerging “containment” theory of Renaissance drama, to wit, that the Shakespearean stage offered a platform on which cultural heterodoxy could be at once expressed, engaged, and contained, a forum, Cohen observes, for “communal affirmation and social ratification, [and] a means of confronting fear and anger in a manner that promoted reassurance about the existence and legitimacy of a new order” (p. 783; see also Montrose, 1980, 62-4; Greenblatt, 1981, 40-61).

Still, that there is a “movement” in The Merchant of Venice “towards resolution and reconciliation” has not been, the annals of criticism would show, a truth universally acknowledged. To be sure, a play which has as much conflict in it and yet ends as happily as the Merchant does would seem to have something to do with resolution and reconciliation, and, certainly, the subject of harmony is much in the night air of Belmont in act V. Yet whether the play actually produces a harmonious resolution and reconciliation or merely invokes harmony by the power of dramatic fiat and in the interest of ideological conformity or capitulation is not an easy matter to settle, though it is an important one to consider if we are to assess the nature of the accommodation the Merchant reaches with its society.

At this point it might be useful to think of what it is we experience in, to use Cohen's words, that “internal distancing” at work in the play. For Cohen this distancing is evident in the articulation the Merchant accords sentiments that would qualify or subvert the ideological prescriptions the action, or fable, of the play would appear to embrace. Ultimately, though, I would suggest that in the “internal distancing” we perceive in it, the Merchant asserts its “play-ful” alterity, distancing itself simultaneously, on the one hand, from the ideological implications of its fable, and on the other, from the very questionings and subversive sentiments to which it gives notice. We get a hint of this distancing in the tendency of the play to leave unresolved dialogic exchanges in which it permits the mythologies it inscribes to be interrogated. We sense it more pointedly, though, in the, literally, “anti-literal” skepticism we hear displayed in it toward “words” and “texts,” a skepticism through which the play pretends to dissociate itself from the very textuality that nourishes and complicates it. In this way the play implicitly underscores its theatricality and resolves, and “recuperates,” the “confusions” in its text by posing—or imposing—a comic, a comically dramatic, solution.

What follows, then, is an attempt to read The Merchant of Venice in and, in a sense, out of the discourse of its times. First, and at the risk of viewing the play from the kind of distortingly narrow, overly economic, overly Anglicized, perspective that Cohen warns against—and avoids (pp. 768-70)—I will look at some of the ways in which the play participates in and interrogates the economic mythologies of its times by affiliating itself with the texts in which these mythologies are shaped, rehearsed, and questioned. From there, however, I would like to speculate on how the play strives to extricate itself from the complexities and contradictions of the times which its text, and textuality, have “uncovered.”


In what sense, though, would The Merchant of Venice, with its eponymous setting and Italian literary pedigree, have held up a mirror to its English audience? Quite apart from the topicality commentators have detected in it,3 of interest to us here is our awareness that the Merchant evokes the growing “trafficking” of the English nation in trade, or, rather, the growing identification of England and its institutions with trade and capitalist enterprise. We hear this prominence of trade and investment recorded not a little sardonically in the impecunious Thomas Dekker's observation in “The Guls Horn-Booke” (1609) that the theater “is your Poets Royal Exchange,” and that the poets' muses “are now turned to Merchants” (pp. 246-7). We find it noted more positively in contemporary sententiae fusing the pursuit of trade and the interests of the state. Thus, for Bacon (“Of Vsurie,” 1625 [1966]) the “Customs of Kings or States … Ebbe or flow with Merchandizing” (p. 170), an opinion seconded and elaborated upon by John Stow in The Survey of London (1603 [1912]), when he pauses in his account of London's past to recount the benisons produced by London's mercantile present, remarking that

truly merchants and retailers do not altogether intus canere, and profit themselves only, for the prince and realm both are enriched by their riches: the realm winneth treasure, if their trade be so moderated by authority that it break not proportion, and they besides bear a good fleece, which the prince may shear when he seeth good.

(p. 495)

In sum, the business of Britain is business, and what’s good for business is good for Britain.

At the same time, as we know, such assertions do not infrequently bear the refrain that what is good for business and Britain is probably not displeasing to God either. It is in God's name that profit often gets pursued, and it is as a providential sign of God's favor that the attainment of profit often gets justified. Certainly we find this providentialist and Calvinist-based mucilage spread quite profusely and adhesively in contemporary accounts of exploration of the New World, in which the propagation of God's word and the true faith is invoked both as a necessary and sufficient condition for the successful pursuit of commercial gain and national enhancement, and, at times, as a happy consequence of that pursuit. “Godlinesse is great riches,” Hakluyt declares at the outset of his Divers Voyages (1582 [1850, 8]), his implicit confusion of riches spiritual and material a characteristic illustration of the idiom in which the desire for gain and a concern for salvation could without the slightest betrayal of cynicism be reconciled as part of the same ideological “project.”

Nor is this coupling of the propagation of faith and trade any less pronounced—though it sounds less ingenuous—in the accounts of the English Merchant Adventurers' dealings with the Old World, a recurrent theme of which, understandably, is the abundance of blessings that will accrue to all parties concerned through an expansion of English trading rights on the continent. Hence, in a letter from one such Adventurer (c. 1565) we find the Earls of East Friesland being advised that with a strong English trading presence in their realm, “God shall be known, praised and feared, and his whole Gospel and commandments taught and preached, to the comfort of all Christian nations” (Ramsay, 1979, 113), and, it should be added, to the intended discomfort of the Pope, the Turks, and any other infidels who might have political or religious, or, of course, commercial, designs on that part of Europe.

To an audience inured to such texts, The Merchant of Venice might well have seemed a transparent allegory of its times. It establishes the merchant in the figure of Antonio as a friend of the state (IV. i. 1-34), it trots out a biblical precedent for the association of profit by “venture” with the blessings of divine providence (I. iii. 86-8), and, in the rather “providential” restoration of Antonio's fortunes after his deliverance from the merciless Jew (V. i. 273-9), it might well appear to subscribe to the notion that “Godlinesse is great riches.” Indeed, Cohen has alluded to act V in particular as an “aristocratic fantasy” in which the “concluding tripartite unity of Antonio, Bassanio, and Portia enacts precisely [an] interclass harmony between landed wealth and mercantile capital, with the former dominant” (1982, 772, 777). If, for the moment, we accept Sidney's contention in his Defence of Poesie (1595 [1968]) that the mimetic role of poetry is to show not “what is, or is not, but what should, or should not be” (p. 29), then we might say that the Merchant realizes its mimetic function by dramatizing a vision of how the established social order and religious values could be reconciled with the new economics.

Central to this vision, however, and deepening the involvement of the Merchant in the economic discourse of its time is the triumph the play enacts over usury in the figure of the usurer Shylock. That usury was at once a widespread practice and significant concern in Shakespeare's society, and that the resources of usurers were sought, not only by profligate young gentlemen and capital-hungry merchants, but by Parliament and the Queen herself, are facts well-established and oft remarked.4 The purpose of underscoring them here is to recall the degree to which a work like the Merchant, “indebted” as it is to its Italian sources, could still integrate these sources with more localized and contemporary materials both to create a fulcrum for the expression of communal concerns and frustrations, and also, and more interestingly, to create the illusion that whatever the socially and economically diverse elements of Shakespeare's audience did not have in common, they at least shared a common enemy in the form of usury and its personification.

In no small part, of course, the domestic appeal of the Merchant would have lain in the domestication of its villain, Shylock, who—whatever kinship he may share with his thinly drawn counterpart in the putative source story, Il Pecorone, or with Marlowe's exotically evil and extravagant Machiavel, Barabas—should have been quite recognizable to any in Shakespeare's audience who had read or heard their share of the myriad of anti-usury harangues in circulation at the time. To those so fortunate the penalty ultimately imposed upon Shylock—harsher than that suffered by Fiorentino's usurer in Il Pecorone, and harsh enough to have occasioned a good deal of critical rationalization5—may well have seemed just what they had come to believe a usurer conventionally deserved, including the obligation to be converted and saved in spite of himself.6 Certainly those in the audience who were versed in the anti-usury tracts of the times, and had heard interest taking excoriated by Henry Smith in The Examination of Usury (1591) as “biting usury” (p. 8), or had read in Thomas Lodge's Alarum Against Usurers (1584) that usurers possessed “the voracitie of wolves” with which to devour men's bodies and souls (p. 77), should have read the string of daimonic and “currish,” wolverine epithets liberally bestowed upon Shylock in the play (I. iii. 106; II. ii. 22-6; II. viii. 14; III. i. 19-20; III. iii. 7; IV. i. 128; IV. i. 283) as merely a standard part of his job description.7 Those, meanwhile, familiar with the tract wishfully entitled The Death of Usury, or, The Disgrace of Usurers (1594) would have read that when in days of yore “an usurer came to be knowne, his houses were called the devils houses, his fields the devils croppe” (p. 34), and may well have heard a familiar resonance in Jessica's preelopement complaint that “Our house is hell” (II. iii. 2).

Stephen Greenblatt has suggested that Jessica's description of her father's house as hell is an apt metonym for the peculiar social isolation of the Jew in the modern European society from which, and for which, he earned capital (1978, 295). We find this conception of the usurer's social alienation no less evident in the diatribes against the Jewish moneylender's Christian counterpart in Shakespeare's England. Cut off from the society his profession would undermine, the usurer—Henry Smith maintains (1591, 35)—will be cut off from posterity as well, a fate, we will recall, Shylock is spared only when, in the spirit of Christian forgiveness, Antonio compels Shylock to “re-inherit” his daughter and make her and her Christian husband his heirs (IV. i. 384-6). In his moral isolation the usurer is prone, Smith contends, to vices such as revenge, vices which may eventually work against the usurer's economic self-interest (pp. 6-7).8 We are reminded of this especial, and ultimately self-destructive, perversity, of course, in Shylock's unwillingness to accept any compensation for the forfeiture of Antonio's bond except the penalty of flesh stipulated in the contract. “You’ll ask me why I rather choose to have / A weight of carrion flesh, than to receive / Three thousand ducats,” Shylock tauntingly declares. “I’ll not answer that! / But say it is my humour,—is it answer’d?” (IV. i. 40-3).9

Nor, we might surmise, would Shakespeare's audience have had Shylock answer in any other way. For there must have been a certain rhetorical convenience and moral self-assurance in being able to cast the argument against usury in the terms of polar oppositions of good and evil that transcend purely economic considerations. Indeed, the pressure of ideology may manifest itself most strongly in the attempt evident in the rhetorical structure of the play to universalize its central conflict and suppress its more parochial economic antecedents. In the exchange with which the play opens, after all, Antonio is permitted to reject the insinuations of Salerio/Solanio that he is the total homo economicus, whose mind is “tossing on the ocean” with his investments (I. i. 8-45), and he implies both by his words here and by his actions shortly hereafter that, for him at least, it is not money that makes the world go round. For his part, Shylock may be sincere in attributing at least a part of his hatred of Antonio to the abuse he has suffered from Antonio on the Rialto (I. iii. 101-24), to the resentment he justifiably feels on behalf of his race (I. iii. 43-7), and to his perception of the hand Antonio's friends may have had in the elopement of Jessica and Lorenzo (III. i. 22-3), and we may well see in his enmity the traces of the economic rivalry in Venice between the Jewish moneylender and the up-and-coming Christian entrepreneur and banker (Cohen, 1982, 770-1). Yet as he proceeds in his bloodlust, Shylock acts in a way that would have confirmed the anti-usury polemicists of Shakespeare's audience in their darkest beliefs about usurers: he becomes that most reassuring of villains, the villain who pursues his villainy because “it is my humour,” because he would “choose” it over, not only a more virtuous, but even a more lucrative alternative.

That Shylock should “choose” to do wrong reminds us, though, of the simultaneously most damning and yet socially and ideologically most reassuring charge to be leveled at usurers in Shakespeare's time, namely that usurers are heretics, willful choosers of the wrong course and, therefore, most deserving of unqualified reproach. “[O]ne saith well,” Henry Smith observes, “that our Vsurers are Hereticks, because after manie admonitions yet they maintaine their errours, & persist in it obstinately as Papists do in Poperie” (1591, 2). In fact, we find this association of usury and heresy made quasi-official by that great collector of commonplaces and regurgitator of Elizabethan orthodoxy, Francis Meres, whose entries for “Vsurie” in his Palladis Tamia (1598) are followed immediately by those for “Heresie, Heretickes,” which, doubtless by no accidental coincidence, are immediately followed by “Death” (pp. 322-7).

This association of usury with heresy and with choosing the wrong course is of “interest” on several counts. On the one hand, the connection between usury and heresy might suggest that the rhetoric was in place by which the usurer could be singled out, not simply as an economic scoundrel and renegade, but as an enemy of God and, therefore, a threat to the state, and our recognition of this possibility deepens our perception of the audience's perception of Shylock. On the other hand, the connection of usury with choosing enables us to see a link between Shylock and the unhappy “choosers” of the casket scenes, and suggests a sense in which both elements of the rather exotic source tradition behind the Merchant, both the flesh-bond and the caskets stories, could be said to respond to the domestic experience and economic concerns of Shakespeare's audience.

Here we might recall that oft cited passage from The Schoole of Abuse (1579) in which Stephen Gosson pauses in his drama-bashing long enough to bestow unwonted praise upon a play called The Jew, which Gosson describes as “representing the greedinesse of worldly chusers, and bloody mindes of usurers” (p. 30). Now, how indebted Shakespeare is to this play, if he is indebted at all, and whether Gosson's “worldly chusers” and “bloody minded usurers” refer to different characters or are merely different tags for the same character, are matters quite unsettled (Brown, 1955, xxix-xxxi; Bullough, 1964, 445-6). Still, we might observe that in the anti-usury parables to which Shakespeare's audience was likely to have been exposed two character types recur, the “bloody minded usurer” and the “wordly chuser,” the figure, that is, whose craving for the riches and vain delights of the world creates the conditions in which the usurer thrives. We find evocations and validations of this antimaterialist sentiment in the unlucky choices of Morocco, who assays his choice of caskets by reckoning the things of this world he desires, and Aragon, who chooses by considering the things of this world he deserves. “All that glisters is not gold,” reads the not very consoling scroll Morocco finds in the death's head “awarded” him for choosing the golden casket (II. vii. 65), a truism Thomas Lodge invokes in his Alarum Against Usurers when he recounts how “a young Gentleman,” smitten with promises of easy credit and easier living, listens to the blandishments of a wicked usurer, a “subtill underminer,” and, “counting all golde that glysters,” succumbs (p. 45).

Indeed, the wisdom of such antimaterialist apothegms is most volubly articulated, and heeded, by the one happy casket chooser, Bassanio, whose casket-selection musings resonate with the kind of sententiae one finds in Lodge or other anti-usury writers. Not for Bassanio is it to assume “all golde that glysters.” Rather, “The world is still deceiv’d with ornament” (III. ii. 73). Obviously knowing something that eluded Morocco, Bassanio immediately rejects the allure of riches and beauty metonymized in the “crisped snaky golden locks” beneath which lurks “[t]he skull that bred them in the sepulchre” (92-6). Ornament “is but the guiled shore / To a most dangerous sea” (97-8), with “gaudy gold, / Hard food for Midas” (101-2), and silver but a “pale and common drudge / ’Tween man and man” (103-4).

Surely, though, there is at least a hint of incongruity in hearing this vein of rhetoric from Bassanio, whose tendency toward materialism and consumption has been deemed conspicuous enough to trouble a number of critics,10 and whose reasons for seeking funds might well have reminded Shakespeare's audience of the idle borrowers condemned by the anti-usury authors, who seek loans, not to survive, but, as the author of The Death of Usury insists, “to consume in prodigall maner, in bravery, banketting, voluptuous living, & such like” (1594, 32). Bassanio may well love Portia for her “wondrous virtues,” but, as we know, in limning her praises to Antonio, he notes first that she is “a lady richly left, / And she is fair” (I. i. 161-2). And, skeptical as Bassanio may later show himself to be toward “damned show,” we recall that, by his own admission, it was precisely for the sake of “showing a more swelling port / Than my faint means” would permit that Bassanio “disabled mine estate” (I. i. 123-5)—even as his continued pursuit of financing will come close to disabling Antonio's estate and Antonio himself!

Surely there is an incongruity here, and it is an incongruity which reflects, not simply the hybrid traces of Shakespeare's sources,11 but an ambivalence we find in Shakespeare's culture toward wealth and the “venturing” for it in trade. As we noted before, to those engaged in exploration for profit, there may have been something at once instructive and reassuring in Hakluyt's dictum that “Godlinesse is great riches.” Yet for every suggestion that God and Plutus may not be incompatible, we hear the dissonant reminder that they are not identical either. “[S]hall we conclude,” Lodge asks, not unrhetorically, “because the usurer is rich, he is righteous? because wealthie, wise? because full of gold, therefore godly?” (1584, 71). Indeed, we overlook the full rhetorical agenda of texts celebrating the benefits of trade if we fail to hear in them an attempt to calm the fears and quiet the antimaterialist objections the “prodigal” pursuit of profit had engendered. Thus, Stow (1603), we will recall, trumpets the blessings trade has brought to the many, even as he acknowledges the great riches that have accrued through trade to the few, and even as he adds the rather anti-laissez-faire proviso that merchants' business “be so moderated by authority that it break not proportion” (p. 495).

In a sense, contemporary attacks upon usurers are a reflection of the success of such utilitarian rationalizations as Stow's. For if it is granted that the fruits of trade enhance the “commonweal,” then it only follows that the ills attendant upon the increases in trade and venture capitalism should be treated, not as inherent in the system, but as excesses or abuses, or even subversions of the system. Thus, it is quite consistent with the times that Bassanio, who so incarnates the entrepreneurial spirit of the age,12 and whose very choice of the lead casket is encoded as an act of “hazard,” should dissociate himself from the ornamental riches with which “the world is still deceiv’d,” and the obsession which usurers and other breakers of economic proportion exploit.

As we know, however, usury and trade existed in a relationship that was far more ambiguous than anti-usury tracts might imply, indeed, a relationship that might be said to have been more symbiotic than inimical. Bacon puts the complexity of the relationship squarely when he observes (in “Of Vsurie,” 1625) that, while the first “Discommoditie” of usury is that “it makes fewer Merchants” since, obviously, it diverts money from trading to trading in money, the first “Commoditie” of usury is, paradoxically, that it makes more merchants and “aduanceth” trade, since “it is certain, that the Greatest Part of Trade is driuen by Young Merchants, upon Borrowing at Interest” (pp. 170-1).

This embarrassing interrelationship is a fact that not even avowedly anti-usury discourses can fully suppress. So it is that we hear the author of The Death of Usury labor to give the most moral, anti-usury, reading to the law enacted by Elizabeth which voided the ban imposed by Edward VI upon the practice of usury, and which formally reinstated 10 per cent as the maximum interest rate.13 The law, the author maintains, could not be construed as condoning usury, but, instead, “leaves it after a sort to the curtesie and conscience of the borrower”—rather as if interest payments were to be regarded as something no more coercive than tipping! Why did Elizabeth enact this statute if it was not the intent of her government to encourage the practice of usury? Our author notes that when, under Edward VI, usury was prohibited “this inconvenience came, fewe or none would lend because they might have no allowance, whereupon her Maiestie to avoyde this euill, made this remissiue clause” (1594; see also Smith, 1591, 30). Having rationalized the government's unapprovingly permissive policy on usury, the same author wonders why the usurer does not simply follow the example of a number of merchants and invest his money in trade where, with the likelihood of fewer risks and greater profits, “it will be lesse noted, and himself better esteemed” (p. 27). Which is the merchant here, and which the usurer?

Indeed, to keep the distinction straight, and to cope with the disquieting realities of the economic system, we find polemicists engaging in the sorts of polarization evident in the surface of the Merchant. Merchants follow a career, Lodge hastens to affirm, “both auncient and lawdable, the professors honest and vertuous, their actions full of daunger, and therefore worthy gaine; and so necessary this sorte of men be, as no well governed state may be without them” (1584, 43). The blame for whatever is “wrong” with the system, then, is left for the usurer to absorb, whose function is rather that of the scapegoat: he embodies the enemy within that must be exorcised by being externalized and, literally, alienated.14 What better figure to fill this role than, of course, the Jew, whose vices can be, as we suggested before, familiarized, but whose identity by type is comfortably different and distanced. Shakespeare's Shylock, rooted as he is in older and foreign literary and dramatic forms, is an appropriate focus for the domestic anxieties of Shakespeare's audience, not in spite of his difference, but, rather as Stephen Greenblatt has argued, because of it (1978, 295-6).


To enumerate ways in which a play “reflects” the discourse of its times is not the same, unfortunately, as saying how the play responds to that discourse, a truth one feels embarrassingly keenly in the case of The Merchant of Venice. It may be fair to suggest that what we encounter in the play is “merely” a mirroring both of the myths by which the age read itself and of the anxieties those myths could not entirely dispel. Yet in holding up the mirror to its age so faithfully, does the play affirm the myths it enacts, or does it subvert them by mirroring their qualifications as well? Or, rather, does it affirm the myths it dramatizes by mirroring their qualifications, by admitting them as qualifications which ultimately can be contained and “lived with”?

Recently, Greenblatt has explored this tertium quid in texts where the play of ideology much more clearly assumes the form of a conflict between authority and forces threatening to undermine that authority (1981, 40-2). In the Merchant what is questioned is not authority as such, but whether the accommodation of Christian orthodoxy and economic reality the play inscribes is entitled to the moral authority to which it appears to lay claim. The play allows this questioning to be voiced, and voiced forcibly, only to contextualize it in such a way that its implications are deflected or muted, or, as Cohen has observed, repressed.

Certainly, for example, we feel the justice of Shylock's enraged defense of his humanity (III. i. 47-66), and we recognize as valid both in that speech and in others by Shylock the doubt being cast upon the Venetian Christian' presumptions of moral superiority. Yet, as Cohen remarks, though Christians may well be abusive slaveholders, we encounter no Christian slaveholders within the fiction of the play (1982, 774), and, a point so often noted, when push comes to shove, we know who cannot be dissuaded from killing whom, and who is capable of mercy—at least on some terms. And even though, as could be rightly objected, Gratiano shows himself (IV. i. 360-3, 375, 394-6) to be one Christian in whom the quality of mercy appears quite strained—perhaps, even, drained—still, it could also be urged that Gratiano is interestingly differentiated from his fellow Christians, who, it would seem, find him not worth listening to (I. i. 114-18).

Again, what is worth noticing is not that the Merchant should mute or repress contradictions and qualifications, but that it should call them into play at all only to repress them, illuminating them only to cover them, or, perhaps, “re-cover” them. For an example we might consider the curious resonances in the play of the idea of “prodigality.” The word “prodigal” occurs several times, twice on the tongue of Shylock (II. v. 15; III. i. 39-40), who employs it as a term of derision for Christians whose “prodigality” clearly differentiates them from the “thrift” Shylock tends to associate with his own endeavors (I. iii. 45, 85, 172; II. v. 54). Like “thrift,” “prodigal” is a word prodigally used in anti-usury tracts, and is employed to castigate, or warn, those “worldly choosers” whose wasteful ways and love of material things make them the prey of the likes of Shylock (The Death of Usury, 1594, 32; Lodge, 1584, 50, 51, 53, 56, 62, 75). On the one hand, there is, doubtless, a purposeful irony in having Shylock condemn the Christians for the sort of fiscal irresponsibility off which he “thrives;” to paraphrase Antonio, not only can the devil cite Scripture, but he seems to have done his share of reading in anti-usury tracts as well. Moreover, that Shylock should find prodigality contemptible obviously gives prodigality something to commend it, and we feel invited to associate the word with those antipenurious, anti-Shylockean virtues that schematic interpretations of the play generally place on the Christian side of the ledger: love, mercy, liberality. On the other hand, however, in the degree to which Shylock's words recall the antimaterialist rhetoric of the age, they remind us that in some sense Shylock's charges against the Christians are true, that Bassanio in particular is conspicuously, perhaps, culpably, “consumptive,” and we may hear in his words an evocation, rather muffled, of that anxiety over wealth which is a part of the cultural context of the play.

At the same time, it is difficlt for us, and was likely to have been even more difficult for Shakespeare's audience, to hear the recurrent references to “prodigal” without thinking of the parable from Luke 15 with which “prodigal” has become synonymous. An allusion to the parable occurs in the chattering Gratiano's description of the once finely fretted merchant ship returning from its voyage “like the prodigal … / With over-weather’d ribs and ragged sails—/ Lean, rent, and beggar’d by the strumpet wind!” (II. vi. 17-19). Dangling here in the idle Grantiano's idle simile, the parable of the prodigal son looms over much of the play, though it is a reference Shakespeare seems quite pointedly to have kept in the background. It informs the story in Il Pecorone, in which the surrogate Antonio is the adoptive father of the Bassanio figure and plays the part of the all-forgiving, self-sacrificing father when the son twice “hazards”—and loses—all he has (Bullough, 1964, 466-7, 469). It informs the Alarum Against Usurers, in which Lodge offers a variation on the parable, having the father at first forgive the son, only to disown him later when the prodigal proves unregenerate (1584, 56-7). In the Merchant, traces of the parable suggest themselves in the opening exchange between Antonio and Bassanio, only to remain submerged within the notoriously elliptical and elusive relationship between these characters. For Shakespeare to have made those traces more distinct would have strengthened the connection between Bassanio and the wastrel youths pilloried in the anti-usury tracts of the day, and, implicitly, would have given a sharper resonance to the antimaterialist evocations in Shylock's invective.15 As it is, however, the parable of the prodigal son presents itself in the play as an analogy left teasingly inchoate, with our sense of its nonpresence keen enough for us to notice its suppression.

Still, is such suppression evidence that the Merchant participates in the religioeconomic mythology of its times, or that it parodies it? In reifying in its own text the rationalizations and contradictions we encountered in other texts of the times, is the Merchant exorcising these qualifications, or, rather, is it underscoring their persistence? As Norman Rabkin demonstrated several years ago, critical commentary on the Merchant documents nothing more clearly than the resistance we encounter if we seek answers to these questions in the text of the play (1981, 28-9). In fact, what the text of the play may lead us to infer is that “texts” themselves are not to be trusted. “Texts,” the play insists, can mislead and can be misread. Scripture we may think is authoritative, but, as Antonio warns Bassanio, it can be cited by the devil “for his purpose” (I. iii. 93); sententiae, “Good sentences,” no matter how “well pronunc’d,” Portia reminds Nerissa, are far easier to pronounce than to follow (I. ii. 10-20); words are “tricksy,” Lorenzo declares, and can be summoned to “Defy the matter” by any number of fools like Launcelot Gobbo, “who hath planted in his memory / An army of good words” for the purpose (III. v. 59-64); while “deliberate fools” can, like Morocco and Aragon, display their foolishness in the very deliberateness with which they puzzle over texts, showing that they “have the wisdom by their wit to lose” (II. ix. 81). Indeed, if we read E.F.J. Tucker's reading of the play aright, what Portia's climactic judgement against Shylock enshrines most of all is the principle that for the law to be properly applied it must be understood in its spirit or intent, rather than read for the “letter” of its text (1976, 100-1).

How do these expressions within the play of skepticism toward texts affect our reading of The Merchant of Venice? Collectively, they would appear to support the argument that the play allegorizes the triumph of love, mercy, divine justice, and other desiderata over the various mean-spirited and short-sighted impulses emblematized in a narrow, close-reading legalism. Bassanio, for example, does not have to ponder closely the wordings on caskets, since he has higher, intuitive impulses to guide him—not to mention, of course, the subliminally helpful hints and “mood music” provided by Portia! On the other hand, the antiliteralism we come upon in the play at times serves the ideologically salutary purpose of upholding orthodoxy against the subversive, and subversively unanswerable, “misuse” of the texts and authorities by which orthodoxy is normally enforced: Scripture, the law, formulations of the “best interests” of the “commonweal.” Antonio issues his admonition about Scripture, after all, when Shylock proves uncomfortably adept at biblical exegesis, with Antonio's words, as A. D. Nuttall has put it, suggestive of “a man who is holding fast to a conviction that his opponent must be wrong but cannot quite see how” (1983, 128). Analogously, Lorenzo lodges his complaint against “tricksy” words and fools just after Launcelot has appealed to the laws of supply and demand to argue that Jessica's conversion to Christianity will raise the price of pork (III. v. 19-23). The “word” must be suspect if it allows a Jew to use Scripture to justify usury and a fool to use the economic calculus of the times to suggest that, at least in one respect, the interests of Christianity and the economic interests of the commonwealth are not identical!

Yet in underscoring the equivocality and ambiguity of texts and “the word,” The Merchant of Venice distances itself from the very textuality which nourishes it and the texts which it evokes and by which its discourse is enriched and complicated: the Italian novelle that are the immediate source of its fable, anti-usury diatribes, accounts of commercial exploration and exploitation, parliamentary decrees and edicts of law, and, the most authoritative and yet misreadable text of all, Scripture. In calling attention to the ways in which texts can be misused to yield subversive generalizations, the Merchant would have its audience believe that it is something other than, more than, another text, and would persuade us that the way to true harmony and resolution lies in the playful particularity of its dramatic action. In this way the Merchant as a piece of theater distances itself from the subversive resonances it yields as a text. At the same time, however, by its very ludic nature the Merchant can pretend merely to “play” with the religioeconomic mythology its fable inscribes. In the degree to which the Merchant asserts its independence of the very textuality it evokes, its playwright can invoke the indemnity of Sidney's poet, who, Sidney glibly reminds us, cannot ever be said to lie, because he “nothing affirmeth” (1595, 29).

We find this curious negotiation between text and play epitomized at the outset of act V, in the exchange in which Jessica and Lorenzo lyrically recount some of the assorted amorous misadventures that occurred on just “such a night” as the moonlit one they are enjoying at Belmont (V. i. 1-24). It is a passage which can be cited to confirm the darkest misgivings that can be, and have been, entertained about the “prodigal” and “unthrift” manner in which Lorenzo and Jessica contrived to “steal from the wealthy Jew” (Moody, 1964, 46-7; Burckhardt, 1968, 224). It is a passage which, if read darkly, provides an ironic prelude to that “aristocratic fantasy” played out in the rest of this the concluding scene of the play. How we interpret this exchange depends very much on the degree of proximity we posit between Jessica and Lorenzo and the roster of literary amatory “unthrifts” whom they invoke and with whom they “playfully” associate themselves, or, rather, each other: Troilus and Cressida, Thisbe and Pyramus, Dido and Aeneas, Jason and Medea. To measure Jessica and Lorenzo by the texts in which they would inscribe themselves is not only to deepen our suspicion that Jessica and Lorenzo themselves either are not or will not be or do not deserve to continue to be happy, but also to bring the world of the play closer to the ambiguous light shed upon its proceedings by literary allusion and analogy. In the immediate context the intrusion of the dramatic action, in the person of Stephano arriving to announce the imminent return of Portia (V. i. 25), prevents Lorenzo and Jessica from fully shaping their own history to the specifications of the doleful texts they have been reciting. In this way they are permitted to maintain their theatrical “otherness” from the textual patterning by which they make it very tempting to read them. Hence, with no little tension, the world of texts is kept playfully separate from the world of the theatrical fiction.

Here, to be sure, it could be argued that the playfulness we have been claiming for the Merchant is but the rhetorical signature of its own textuality, with the distancing effect this playfulness produces nothing other than that parodic distance which Pierre Macherey contends must ever mark the relationship of “literary language” to the ideological discourses it evokes, that inherent distantiation through which “literary discourse merely mimics theoretical discourse, rehearsing but never actually performing its script” (1978, 59). At the same time, though—even as we must question whether “literary language” can in fact be so essentially distinguishable from other discourses as Macherey would maintain16—we are no less likely to recognize in the Merchant the symptoms of the curious dualism with which the public stage of Shakespeare's day “represented” the world of, and to, its public, and with which it negotiated—and accommodated—the ideological currents and cross-currents of the time. As Louis Montrose has demonstrated, Shakespearean drama in particular calls upon the affiliative power inherent in theater to “re-present” to the audience a “paradigm” of its culture even while calling attention, self-reflexively, to the devices, conventions, and forms that inscribe the experience of theater as but illusion, and its business but “play” (1980, 66; also 1981, 33). This dualism entails, of course, a certain artistic—and political—convenience, for even as it proclaims the mimetic power of drama to suggest and portray resemblances to “real life,” it insists upon the figurative character of those resemblances and, thus, enables the playwright to claim limitations upon his responsibility, his accountability, for literal truth. “What childe is there,” asks Sidney in his response to Gosson's attack, “that coming to a play, and seeing Thebes written in great letters upon an old doore, doth beleeve that it is Thebes?” (p. 29). Sidney's “question” is, in fact, an assertion of an artistic license which the more wary upholders of orthodoxy should have found disquieting: the license to be taken seriously but not literally, and, therefore, not too seriously!

In no form are this reflexivity and playing at representation so overt as in comedy, and in no Shakespearean comedy is the tension that this playing embodies—and the convenience it affords—more evident than in the Merchant, where, I have tried to suggest, we are treated to an exposition and interrogation of the prevailing religioeconomic mythologies of the day, even as we feel a pull toward the reassuring particularity only a dramatic solution and resolution can provide. Indeed, nothing better attests to the will and power of dramatic art to divert attention from the ideological contradictions it reflects to its own playful alterity than the sense that has permeated a good deal of criticism on the Merchant that “somehow,” through some combination of conventions comic, festive, and carnivalesque, the play manages to transcend the issues its text problematizes to render a dramatically, theatrically, satisfying experience. “The happy ending,” C. L. Barber observes, with a keen and generous appreciation for this festive difference, “which abstractly considered as an event is hard to credit, and treatment of Shylock, which abstractly considered as justice is hard to justify, work as we actually watch or read the play because these events express relief and triumph in the achievement of a distinction” (1959, 170). The Merchant “works”—and worked—and achieves its “triumph,” of course, precisely in the degree to which it works upon its audience, and critics, to relax their discriminations and equate the illusion of a “distinction” with its “achievement.”

Now, as Robert Weimann has shown, no figure in Shakespearean drama so well incarnates in action and speech the playfully representative force of Shakespearean drama as does the fool (1978, 30-48, 133-51), and so, to italicize the peculiarly playful relationship of the Merchant to the religioeconomic vision its fable enacts, we might conclude by looking once again at that exchange in act III (v. 19 ff.) in which the fool, Launcelot Gobbo, opines on the economic ramifications of Jessica's conversion. Cohen has observed how in general Launcelot's penchant for the verbal malapropos gives voice to “an alternative perspective on the related matters of Christian orthodoxy and social hierarchy” (1982, 780), and the truth of that observation is in no way belied by Launcelot's performance here. Yet what is most exemplary in what Lawrence Danson calls Launcelot's “wonderful confusion of carnal matters and spiritual” (1978, 97) is the complexity of response it elicits from us. Practiced as we have become in making sense of what we take to be the ostensible non-sense and inversions of sense that dot Launcelot's “normal” discourse, we have no difficulty in grasping an ulterior pertinence in the apparent im-pertinence of Launcelot's juxtaposition of things spiritual and porcine. After all, Launcelot is not the first character in the play, we are likely to recall, who has shown himself to be a homo economicus in matters related to Jessica; and whatever incongruity we may feel in hearing Jessica's conversion turn Launcelot's thoughts to pork is only a comic reprise of the incongruity we may have felt in hearing from Solanio that Jessica's elopement turned her father's thoughts to ducats (II. viii. 12-22). Still, even as Launcelot's reasoning reassuringly parodies the materialism we associate with and hear burlesqued in Solanio's burlesque of Shylock, it reminds us that it is not only the Jew and usurer who brings an economic algorithm to his reading of experience, and that the line in the play distinguishing the “thrift” of the usurer from the values of the Christian community is not so very reassuringly or consistently sharp.

At the same time, however, the associations called into play by Launcelot's words are kept at a playful distance by the comic theatricality of his character. Yet this distancing is double-edged. On the one hand, Launcelot's generic “foolishness” permits the play to articulate elements of social criticism without appearing to engage or take them seriously. Indeed, Launcelot's comicality enables the Merchant to glance yet glance but teasingly at assumptions left unquestioned by its fable: that godliness and riches are linked, that Christianity and the economic interests of the commonwealth are in harmony. On the other hand, though it may distance itself from the kinds of question and questioning Launcelot's words may suggest, the Merchant leaves these same assumptions ultimately unaffirmed. Lorenzo deals with Launcelot's provocative—and provoking—thesis, we will recall, not by refuting it, but by changing the subject and grumbling about “tricksy words” in the mouths of fools. Like the exchange between Jessica and Lorenzo, the dialogue here is significantly disengaged. Above all, in having economic theory uttered from the mouth of a fool, the Merchant glances reflexively and parodically at the very sort of discourse in which it has involved itself and immersed us. In the playfulness of Launcelot the Merchant asserts its own playfulness and illuminates the dramatic tension in which it holds the competing impulses of recuperation and subversion.


  1. For another synopsis of the polarities through which the play is often schematized, see Greenblatt (1978), 293-4. All references to the Merchant are to the Arden edition, edited by Brown (1955).

  2. Consider the note of qualification obtruding in Barbara Lewalski's contention that the conversion imposed upon Shylock at the end of the play is a prefigurement of the final conversion of the Jews: “because Antonio is able to rise at last to the demands of Christian love, Shylock is not destroyed, but, albeit rather harshly, converted” (Lewalski, 1962, 334).

  3. For a summary and discussion of a number of the topical possibilities, see Brown (1955), xxi-xxvii.

  4. See Draper (1935), 39-45; Brown (1955), xliii; also, Acts of the Privy Council, December 5 and 24, 1598, cited in Harrison (1931), 324-6.

  5. In the source story from Il Pecorone, “[t]he Jew, seeing that he could not do what he had wished, took his bond and tore it in pieces in a rage.” See Bullough (1964), 474.

  6. Thus, in the concluding remarks in Thomas Lodge's Alarum Against Usurers (1584), the moneylenders are exhorted to “harden not your hearts, but be you converted … and turne, turne, turne unto the Lord, (I beseech you) least you perish in your own abhominations” (1584 [1853] 79). See also the penitence of the usurer at the conclusion of Lodge's A Looking Glasse, for London and England (1598 [1963, 69]).

  7. See Lodge (1584 [1853], 77; Smith (1591), 8; also Brown (1955), xxiv.

  8. Smith goes so far as to maintain that were there no usury, there would be no “revenging,” and that “they which brought in Vsurie, brought in a law against themselves” (pp. 6-7).

  9. In his insistence upon the letter of the bond, Shylock follows the example of the usurer in Il Pecorone (Bullough, 1964, 471), but in the defiance with which he teasingly defends his right to the pound of flesh, he seems akin to the moneylender in Alexander Silvayn's The Orator (trans. L.P., 1596), who, having speculated on various reasons why “I would not rather take silver of this man, then his flesh,” shrugs them off, and “will onelie say, that by his obligation he oweth it me” (Bullough, 1964, 484).

  10. In, perhaps, the most virulent expression of anti-Bassanian sentiment among critics, A. D. Moody observes of Bassanio that “[i]t would not be inappropriate if his name came to be suggestive of baseness, in the sense of ‘opposed to high-minded’; and perhaps also to suggest the bass, ‘the common perch’, which catches the shallow and callow aspect, and also ‘a voracious European marine fish’, which catches the more serious underside” (1964, 23-4). A. D. Nuttall puts the case of Bassanio's apparent materialism in more silken accents when he notes, “There is a certain repellent ingenuousness about Bassanio. He can trust his own well-constituted nature. It would never allow him to fall in love with a poor woman; for, after all, poor women are not attractive” (1983, 122).

  11. In Il Pecorone, after all, we also find an interesting admixture of Eros and commerce, though it could be argued that the Merchant is an inversion of the fable of its source. For in Il Pecorone what begins as a commercial venture turns into an erotic adventure; in the Merchant what we would presume to be an amatory quest seems persistently mixed with material considerations.

  12. To take but one example, Bassanio's very appeal to Antonio for a renewal of his loan appropriates the vocabulary of investment. Were Antonio to give Bassanio the funds with which to replace the money Bassanio has already wasted, Bassanio promises either “to find both, / Or bring your latter hazard back again,” while the thought of his courtship of Portia “presages me such thrift / That I should questionless be fortunate” (I. i. 150-1, 175-6).

  13. For a brief discussion of this statute, see Draper (1935), 41.

  14. For two quite complementary discussions of Shylock as the figure of the scapegoat, see Girard (1978), 108-14; and Barber (1959), 177-84.

  15. Indeed, has Shakespeare given greater definition to the analogy between Bassanio and the prodigal son, he might have affiliated the fable of the play with a concern evident in the anti-usury complaints of the day, namely, that the profits of usurers were a threat to familial legacies and, thus, to nothing less than social continuity. Lodge, who may have been especially sensitive to the overthrows familial fortunes could suffer, exclaims that “Purchased arms now possess the place of ancient progenitors, and men made rich by young youth's misspendings doe feast in the halls of our riotous young spend thrifts” (1584, 48).

  16. At the heart of Macherey's position on the nonideological nature of “literary language” is the assumption that “literary language” is essentially nonrepresentational. Indeed, to Sidney's self-exculpatory claim that the poet never lies because he “nothing affirmeth,” Macherey might well add that the poet—or playwright—can only lie whenever he seems to affirm. “Literature is deceptive,” Macherey argues, “in so far as it is evocative and apparently expressive. … Making us take the word for the thing, or vice-versa, it would be a fabric of lies, all the more radical for being unconscious” (1978, 61).

Works Cited

Bacon, Francis (1625) “Of Vsurie,” in Bacon, Francis, Essays, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1966.

Barber, C. L. (1959) Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Brown, John Russell (ed.) (1955) The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, Arden edn, London, Methuen.

Bullough, Geoffrey (1964) Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Burckhardt, Sigurd (1968) Shakespearean Meanings, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Cohen, Walter (1982) “The Merchant of Venice and the Possibilities of Historical Criticism,” English Literary History, 49, 765-89.

Danson, Lawrence (1978) The Harmonies of The Merchant of Venice, New Haven, Yale University Press.

The Death of Usury, or, The Disgrace of Usurers, London, 1594, STC 6443.

Dollimore, Jonathan (1984) Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, Chicago, University of Chicago Press; Brighton, Harvester.

Draper, John W. (1935) “Usury in The Merchant of Venice,Modern Philology, 33, 37-47.

Girard, René (1978) “‘To Entrap the Wisest’: A Reading of The Merchant of Venice,” in Said, Edward W. (ed.) (1980) Literature and Society: Selected Papers from the English Institute, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 100-19.

Gosson, Stephen (1579) The Schoole of Abuse, Containing a Pleasant invective against Poets, Pipers, Players, Jesters, and such like Caterpillers of a Commonwealth, repr. 1841, London, The Shakespeare Society.

Greenblatt, Stephen (1978) “Marlowe, Marx, and Anti-Semitism,” Critical Inquiry, 5, 291-307.

——— (1981) “Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and its Subversion,” Glyph 8: Johns Hopkins Textual Studies, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 40-61.

Hakluyt, John (1582) Divers voyages touching the Discouerie of America and the Ilands Adiacent, ed. Jones, John Winter (1850), London, Hakluyt Society.

Harrison, G. B. (ed.) (1931) A Second Elizabethan Journal: Being a Record of Those Things Most Talked of During the Years 1595-8, London, Constable.

Kermode, Frank (1961) “The Mature Comedies,” in Brown, John Russell and Harris, Bernard (eds), Early Shakespeare, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies, 3, London, Edward Arnold, 211-17.

Lewalski, Barbara (1962) “Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Quarterly, 13, 327-43.

Lodge, Thomas, (1584) An Alarum Against Usurers, repr. 1853, London, The Shakespeare Society.

——— (1598) A Looking Glasse, for London and England, vol. IV of The Complete Works of Thomas Lodge, 1883; repr. 1963, New York, Russell & Russell.

Macherey, Pierre (1978) A Theory of Literary Production, trans. Geoffrey Wall, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Meres, Francis (1598) Palladis Tamia, London, facsimile repr. 1938, New York, Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints.

Montrose, Louis Adrian (1980) “The Purpose of Playing: Reflections on a Shakespearean Anthropology,” Helios, n.s. 7, 51-74.

——— (1981) “‘The Place of a Brother’ in As You Like It: Social Process and Comic Form,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 32, 28-54.

Moody, A. D. (1964) Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice, Woodbury, New York, Barron's Educational Series.

Nuttall, A. D. (1983) A New Mimesis: Shakespeare and the Representation of Reality, London, Methuen.

Rabkin, Norman (1981) Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Ramsay, G. D. (ed.) (1979) The Politics of a Tudor Merchant Adventurer: A Letter to the Earls of East Friesland, Manchester, Manchester University Press.

Sidney, Sir Philip (1595) The Defence of Poesie, London, vol. III of The Prose Works of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Albert Feuillerat, 4 vols, 1912, repr. 1968, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Smith, Henry (1591) The Examination of Usury, London, STC 22660.

Stow, John (1603) The Survey of London, introd. H.B. Wheatley (1912), London, J.M. Dent.

Tucker, E. F. J. (1976) “The Letter of the Law in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Survey, 29, 93-101.

Weimann, Robert (1978) Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function, ed. Robert Schwartz, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Stephen A. Cohen (1994)

SOURCE: “‘The Quality of Mercy’: Law, Equity and Ideology in The Merchant of Venice,” in Mosaic, Vol. 27, No. 4, 1994, pp. 35-54.

[In the essay below, Cohen argues that The Merchant of Venice should be examined from a legal point of view in order to better understand the cultural changes that began to occur in Elizabethan England—specifically, the increasing use of common law by the “rising classes” to thwart the “ruling classes.”]

The interdisciplinary study of literature has received considerable impetus over the last two decades from the rise of New Historicism. Particularly in Renaissance studies, the work of Stephen Greenblatt, Louis Adrian Montrose and others has illuminated the relation of such diverse matters as exorcism, colonialism, architectural design and primogeniture to the cultural work performed by literary texts. One subject largely neglected by the New Historicists, however, is the law. This neglect may in part be attributable to the prominence of the law in older, positivist historical readings of Renaissance literature, and in turn to the New Historicists' desire both to distance themselves from this reflectionist model and to investigate unexplored areas of Renaissance culture. In any case, by conjoining the considerable work done by Renaissance legal scholars with New Historicism's characteristic questions—what are the sociopolitical functions of the cultural phenomenon in question, and how are those functions employed or adapted through the literary text—we may shed considerable light on both the law and the literature of the Renaissance.

Not surprisingly, given its explicitly economic central conflict and its intricately detailed legal climax, The Merchant of Venice has had considerable appeal for interdisciplinary critics. As O. Hood Phillips's investigations have shown, for over a century legal scholars and historians have studied the trial scene's relation to contemporary jurisprudence, debating its verisimilitude and its position in the period's jurisdictional and philosophical disputes, especially the conflict between the common law and equity (91-118). More recently, historical critics like Walter Cohen, Leonard Tennenhouse and Thomas Moisan have explored the play's relation to Renaissance social and economic history and ideology, and particularly its role in the period's transition from the cultural and financial structures of late feudalism to those of early capitalism. These two lines of inquiry have, however, remained almost entirely separate: legal readings of the trial scene tend to treat its legal significance in both cultural and textual isolation, failing to link it to the social and economic issues prominent in both text and cultural context; and socioeconomic readings of the play as a whole give little or no attention to the role of the trial's legal background in that framework.

A contemporary audience, however, would have made no such separation. The late 16th and early 17th centuries in England were notable both for unprecedented economic and social change and for a marked increase in legal activity; the connection between the two developments was sufficiently clear at the time that Francis Bacon could note almost as a commonplace that “times of peace, for the most part drawing with them abundance of wealth, and finenesse of cunning, doe draw also in further consequence multitudes of suits, and controversies … [which] do more instantly sollicite for the amendment of lawes, to restraine and represse them” (“Epistle Dedicatorie,” n.p.).

Nor were such associations beyond the bounds of the theater. In the case of The Merchant of Venice, the susceptibility of the play's legal content to sociopolitical interpretation is attested to by no less a legal and political authority than Lord Chancellor Ellesmere, who in a 1615 judicial dispute over the power of King James to legislate economic policy without the concurrence of Parliament advised his fellow judges “to maintain the power and prerogative of the King; and in cases in which there is no authority and precedent, to leave it to the King to order it according to his wisdom and the good of his subjects, for otherwise the King would be no more than the Duke of Venice” (qtd. in Andrews 41). The significance of the reference—to the Duke's legal inability to act on his sympathy for Antonio—would not have been lost on James and his court, for whom The Merchant of Venice was performed twice in 1605 (Knight 108n8).

For its contemporary audience, then, the trial scene's legal conflict was firmly connected to the economic and political issues in which the period was increasingly embroiled. By bringing together the historical particularity of the play's legal critics and the ideological sensitivity of its newer historical readers, I hope to recapture the significance of this connection; and in shedding new light on the meaning of the trial scene's common law-versus-equity debate I will attempt to illuminate the role that The Merchant of Venice played in the culture of which it was a part.

The case that Shylock makes for the enforcement of his bond rests on three claims: 1) the self-evidence of the law's application to the case at hand; 2) the supremacy of that law over any other power, personal or governmental; and 3) the importance of that supremacy to the foundations of the state itself. “I [have] sworn / To have the due and forfeit of my bond,” he tells the Duke as the trial opens; “If you deny it, let the danger light / Upon your charter and your city's freedom!” (4.1.36-39).1 These three claims were the foundation of the case presented by the champions of the common law in their jurisdictional and philosophical conflict with the courts of equity. In supporting the inviolability of the common law's authority they argued that the order and security of the nation rested upon the adjudication of its increasingly complex web of rights and obligations by—as Sir Edward Coke phrased it—“the golden and straight mete-wand of the law, and not the incertain and crooked cord of discretion” (qtd. in Ives 125).

While acknowledging the technical legality of Shylock's suit—“Of a strange nature is the suit you follow, / Yet in such rule that the Venetian law / Cannot impugn you as you do proceed” (177-79)—Portia counters his claims by decrying the cruelty of the bond and the severity of the law that enforces it and insisting on the need for mercy “to mitigate the justice of thy plea” (203). The necessity of such mitigation was the basis of the argument presented by the advocates of equity's appellate superiority to the common law, in order, in the words of Lord Keeper John Williams, “to mix & temper mercie and equitie with the black and rigorous L[ette]re of the Law” (qtd. in Thomas 526). Consequently, Portia's victory has been read by legal critics like Mark Edwin Andrews, Maxine McKay and W. Nicholas Knight as Shakespeare's endorsement of the ethical importance of equity to mitigate the impartial but at times overly-strict justice of the common law.

As Lord Chancellor Ellesmere recognized, however, behind the ideological trappings of blind-but-strict law and corrective equity, the issue at stake in the trial plot is political power—specifically, the power of the Crown to further its social and economic agenda in the face of the legal challenge presented by the common law. As the complex, large-scale financial operations of early capitalism began to emerge in the middle years of the 16th century, its practitioners became acutely aware of the value of a comprehensive and predictable legal system that offered protection from arbitrary interference. As Max Weber notes:

The modern capitalist concern … requires for its survival a system of justice and an administration whose workings can be rationally calculated, at least in principle, according to fixed general laws. … It is as little able to tolerate the dispensing of justice according to the judge's sense of fair play in individual cases or any other irrational means of principles of administering the law … as it is able to endure a patriarchal administration that obeys the dictates of its own caprice, or sense of mercy. …

(qtd. in Whigham 107-08n14)

The common law, particularly after it began to recognize and incorporate the jurisprudence of the increasingly important international mercantile legal system (Hill 238), was clearly the law that best offered this protection, given its fundamental concern with meum et tuum property rights: “The person, goods and possessions of a man (as yow know) are the things which the Common lawes of England doe protect,” wrote Edward Hake in the late years of Elizabeth's reign (69).

The Crown's difficulty with this conception of the common law was that the very same principles which facilitated the new economic activity could also be—and increasingly were—employed to protect the profits of that activity from royal exploitation. The value to the nation of this new commerce and industry provided the Crown with a strong disincentive to violate or abrogate the common law; yet with the steadily growing financial pressure on the royal treasury in the late 16th century, the maintenance of state power came increasingly to require the diversion of the profits of English capitalism into the government's coffers. The means by which the Elizabethan state attempted this diversion—ad hoc financial and commercial regulation, extra-parliamentary taxation and forced loans that were never repaid—brought it into direct conflict with the necessary predictability and inviolability of the common law, and those profiting from the new economy were quick to invoke those principles in their own interest. Even Hake, who was by no means a wholehearted ally of the new capitalists (his revised Epieikeia was presented to King James), held that “concerning the subiect's goods, neither subsidyes, taxes, contributions nor loans are by the lawe to take hold thereof or to be imposed upon any Englishe subiect without his free consent”; thus “any seisures to be made of an Englishe subiect's goods to the King's use withowt iust and lawfull tytle” were not to be considered (83-84).

Coupled with the ideological prestige of the common law's status as England's unique and indigenous legal heritage (insightfully described by J. G. A. Pocock), the Crown's reliance on the new economy made a royal attack on the common law in general both undesirable and impracticable. Instead, the Crown for the most part restricted its response to the particular instances in which the common law was used to oppose the Crown's will: thus while common-law tacticians cast their legal resistance to the state's unpopular financial devices as the defense of property rights against royal tyranny, the Crown countered by depicting that resistance as the economically self-interested misuse of the law contrary to the unity, order and security of the state. Equity, as the theoretical remedy for injustice produced by the misuse of the law, was consequently an essential component of the Crown's legal arsenal. While other legal weapons like the royally-dominated ecclesiastical courts, Star Chamber and the considerable direct prerogative power of the ruler himself would provide the Crown with greater practical power in the increasingly contentious years leading up to the Civil War, equity's established jurisprudential credentials allowed it to become one of the Crown's earliest and most powerful ideological tools in its efforts to stave off the political implications of capitalism's use of the common law.

Seen in this light, the broader social conflict behind the common-law/equity dispute is not the primarily economic battle between capitalism and feudalism, but the primarily political battle between two socioeconomic factions for the spoils of the nascent capitalist economy. These two factions were defined less by social status (aristocracy versus gentry or nascent bourgeoisie) than by a combination of economic interest and ideological affiliation. On one side were the merchants, financiers, landed gentry and even aristocrats who profited directly from the new economy and who perceived their interests—financial and otherwise—to be at least on occasion different from the Crown's (Stone, Causes 114-15). This group may be designated the “rising class,” provided that we understand “rising” primarily in the economic rather than social sense and “class” as a taxonomy based on neither birth nor wealth but on economic activity.

Their opponents were the large landowners—Crown and older aristocracy—that for reasons both economic and social had been unable to adapt their financial practice to the new economy and who were consequently forced into an increasingly parasitical relationship to that economy—the Crown in the ways discussed above and the aristocracy as royal clients competing for monopolies and state offices (Tawney 9-13; Stone, Crisis 199-207). Despite the growing challenge posed by the rising class, this second group may still be referred to as the period's ruling class, for since Henry VII and Henry VIII subjugated the great noble families to the Crown, this royal-aristocratic bloc had wielded a nigh-hegemonic political and social power which in the late 16th century continued to hold most of the nation under its official or ideological sway.

Thus, while the immediate stakes in the conflict between the two groups were financial, the ultimate prize was much greater: the ability of the independent rising class to use the common law to thwart the sociopolitical will of the ruling class. Not simply a clash of legal principles or jurisdictions, the contest between common law and equity was one of the first and most important sites of the conflict between the rising and ruling classes that would climax (but not conclude) with the Civil War. As one of the earliest articulations—literary or otherwise—of this ideological struggle, the victory of Portia in the trial scene of The Merchant of Venice is not a simple reflection of a jurisprudential dispute or an all-but-complete economic shift but rather a highly partisan intervention in a growing cultural crisis.

As in the contemporary legal dispute, the trial's battle lines are drawn not between capitalism (Venice) and feudalism (Belmont), but between the socially and politically independent rising class (Shylock the Jew) and the ruling class and its ideological allies (the Christian aristocrats and Antonio). Even before the trial scene itself, the play makes clear that its target is neither capitalism nor common law per se. In response to Solanio's certainty that the Duke will void Shylock's bond, Antonio pointedly establishes not only the close connection between common law and nascent capitalism but also the importance of both to the economic survival of the state:

The Duke cannot deny the course of law;
For the commodity that strangers have
With us in Venice, if it be denied,
Will much impeach the justice of the state,
Since that the trade and profit of the city
Consisteth of all nations.


During the trial, the legality of the contract itself, exemplar of both capitalist economics and common law, is never challenged: Antonio “confesses” the bond (181-82) and Portia declares, “Why, this bond is forfeit” (230)—that is, forfeited by Antonio upon his nonpayment. Instead, Shylock is vilified for the particular use to which he puts the law of contract: the enforcement of the bond's horrific stipulations at the expense of the Christian “royal merchant” Antonio.

The trial scene opens with a reassertion of its central sociopolitical division. Referring to Antonio by name, the Duke says: “I am sorry for thee” (3); the merchant responds by acknowledging the pains the Duke and the other “magnificoes” have already taken on his behalf (7-9; see also 3.2.279-83). Shylock, in contrast, is first referred to simply as “the Jew” (14), an epithet used throughout the trial to underline his social alienation. Despite (or more precisely because of) its prominence in the play's definition of his character, Shylock's religion is not to be taken at face value, but rather as an exemplary illustration of the play's mediation of Elizabethan sociopolitical reality for presentation on the stage. Without dismissing the importance of the considerable literature debating The Merchant of Venice's anti-Semitism, I would argue that it is difficult to see Shylock primarily as a representative of Judaism. Shylock's Jewishness throughout the play is less theological than cultural: he is not identified by (and reviled for) his failure to accept Christ or the New Testament, but by his “Jewish gaberdine,” his unwillingness to dine with his Christian business associates and especially his usury—in short, his social, economic and ideological alienation from Venice's dominant sociopolitical group.

Rather than a transparent religious designation, Judaism (certainly a flexible signifier in an England virtually devoid of professed Jews) functions in the play as a derogatory marker for a group extant but not fully delineated in the cultural consciousness of the late 16th century, a group characterized by its economic self-interest and its willingness to further that interest by opposing itself to the dominant social ideology: the rising class. If the play partakes in contemporary anti-Semitic stereotypes (greed, social separatism), it does so not in the service of their own furtherance, but in order to transfer those negative associations from the religious to the socio-economic sphere.

The Duke's first speech to Shylock (17-34) employs this transference in linking the trial's economic foundations to its larger social significance. Lacking the prerogative power to pardon Antonio—a power that belonged to the ruler only in criminal cases—the Duke resorts to the considerable extra-legal social power wielded by the ruling class. Antonio's financial straits, he says, should elicit pity and mercy not only from Christian hearts, but “from stubborn Turks, and Tartars never train’d / To offices of tender courtesy” (32-33). The Duke offers Shylock the following choice: either to remain more alien than even the Turks and Tartars in pursuing his suit, or to enter—as has Antonio—the hegemonic penumbra of the aristocracy by changing his pagan “malice” for Christian “courtesy” and economic cooperation. The full weight of the social pressure that the ruling class could bring to bear upon a recalcitrant individual is focused in the speech's final line (particularly in light of the recurring pun on gentle/gentile): “We all expect a gentle answer, Jew!”

In the not-too-distant Tudor past such a threat might well have proven the trump card that the Duke intends it to be. By the 1590s, however, the inviolability of the common law was providing the rising class with an increasingly effective shield with which to resist the Crown's efforts to assert its will over the law. Shylock's response to the Duke links the common law's economic domain, its class affiliation and its ideological status as foundation of the state:

                              by our holy Sabaoth have I sworn
To have the due and forfeit of my bond.
If you deny it, let the danger light
Upon your charter and your city's freedom!


Throughout the trial scene, Shylock invokes the shield of the common law in the face of Christian attempts to coerce or cajole him by emphasizing his social exclusion or offering him inclusion at the price of his bond. “Till thou canst rail the seal from off my bond,” he admonishes Gratiano, “Thou but offend'st thy lungs to speak so loud. / … I stand here for law” (139-42).

The lack of formal social submissiveness and regard for hierarchical distinctions implicit in both the substance and the tone of Shylock's response to his aristocratic opponents suggests the ultimate consequence of his common-law defense: the weakening of the sociopolitical hegemony that preserved royalist-aristocratic privilege. In keeping with the play's ideological agenda, this use of the law is presented as a threat to the safety and stability of a Venetian society whose social and juridical similarities to late 16th-century England would not be overlooked by a contemporary audience. This threat is clearest in Shylock's famous “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech (3.1.53-73).

Read in context—as a response to Salerio's suggestion that Shylock has nothing to gain by enforcing the bond—the speech is not the appeal to universal brotherhood it is often taken to be. Antonio's hostility towards Shylock is rooted in the latter's social alterity—“You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, / And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine” (1.3.111-12)—and it is this distinction between Jew and Christian that the speech rhetorically effaces. The result of this effacement, however, is not a pledge of mutual forbearance but a promise of retaliatory violence: “And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that” (3.1.66-68). For Shylock, the bond's utility is not economic—“A pound of man's flesh,” he tells Antonio and Bassanio, “Is not so estimable, profitable neither, / As flesh of muttons, beefs, or goats” (1.3.165-67)—but sociopolitical, through its power as an instrument of the common law to nullify the class privilege that protects Antonio from Shylock's vengeance. This association between the common law and violent social disruption is a crucial element of the play's ideological work.

The ruling class's response to Shylock's threat is presented by Portia. She begins by acknowledging both the validity of the bond (177-79) and the ideological power of the common law's promised consistency that underpins Shylock's confident intransigence. In reply to Bassanio's appeal to the Duke to “Wrest once the law to your authority” (215) she insists:

It must not be, there is no power in Venice
Can alter a decree established.
’Twill be recorded for a precedent,
And many an error by the same example
Will rush into the state. It cannot be.


Consequently, her solution to Shylock's legal challenge—“Then must the Jew be merciful” (182)—at first seems identical to the Duke's. The mercy Portia seeks, however, is not the Duke's unconditional Christian mercy. While the Duke demands that Shylock forgive Antonio not only the interest owed but “a moi’ty of the principal” as well (26), Portia seeks not the abandonment of the bond but its payment, with justifiable interest, in place of the legal but abhorrent penalty Shylock demands. “Be merciful,” she tells Shylock, “Take thrice thy money, bid me tear the bond” (233-34). It was precisely this type of mercy—that which does not mitigate justice for the sake of pity but mitigates (common) law for the sake of true justice—that the courts of equity claimed to dispense. Knight notes the distinction: “The ‘mercy’ of the High Court of Chancery's equitable decisions by the Lord Chancellor is not to be confused with … simple clemency or empathetic pity … for William West says: ‘there is a difference between Equitie and Clemency: for Equitie is alwaies most firmly knit to the evil of the Law which way soever it bends, whether to clemency, or to severity’” (“Equity” 95-96). Many in the play's contemporary audience would have recognized Portia's suggested compromise—the payment of appropriate interest rather than the contractually stipulated forfeiture—as a solution typical of the equity courts of the day (Keeton 137).

Like Shylock's use of common law, Portia's invocation of equity has social as well as legal significance. According to the theory of equity which emerged during Elizabeth's reign, while equitable mercy assured the justness of the law, equity's own justness was in turn guaranteed by its origin in the royal conscience (Thorne viii). The monarch's conscience itself was validated by his role as the earthly conduit for divine justice, which by virtue of its source was necessarily superior to, and thus the ultimate venue of appeal from, the merely human common law. William Lambarde, in his Archeion, writes:

And considering that the Prince of this Realme is the immediate minister of Iustice under God, and is sworn at his Coronation, to deliver to his subjects aequam & rectam Iustitiam; I cannot see how it may otherwise be, but that besides his Court of meere Law, he must either reserve to himselfe, or referre to others a certaine soveraigne and preheminent Power, by which he may both supply the want, and correct the rigour of that Positive or written Law. … if onely streight Law should bee administred, the helpe of GOD which speaketh in that Oracle of Equitie, should be denyed unto men that neede it.


Accordingly, the court of Chancery was considered the “court of the King's conscience,” its Chancellor deputized by the monarch to implement the justice of the royal will, correcting when necessary the injustices perpetrated by the common law by overruling the decisions of its courts. Contrary to the levelling effect of the common law that placed even the sovereign under the law, this construction of legal authority offered a hierarchical ideology which situated the monarch at the terrestrial pinnacle of the legal system.

Portia's response to Shylock's use of the common law is thus the jurisprudential reassertion of the fundamental value and necessity of social hierarchy, replacing his vision of inter-class violence with one of royally-regulated harmony. It is in this light that we must understand Portia's famous “quality of mercy” speech:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
’Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred way,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.


Mercy, in short, descends from heaven into the heart of the monarch, allowing him to fulfill his role as the terrestrial conduit of God's justice, with which he “seasons” flawed human justice. In addition to justifying ideologically the supremacy of royal equity, however, Portia's speech also makes clear its practical implications. Her juxtaposition of the monarch's divine equitable authority with his “temporal power” sets up the speech's concluding union of Christian piety and realpolitik intimidation: “We do pray for mercy, / And that same prayer doth teach us all to render / The deeds of mercy” (200-02). The power that equity gives to the Crown by reinstating royal will as the ultimate legal authority assures that one can no more hope to prosper without the king's mercy than without God's, and that one who hopes for such mercy should be prepared to make concessions of his own. Some seven years after the play's composition, King James would make this same point less subtly in his July 1604 rebuke to a recalcitrant Parliament: “Justice I will give to all, and favour to such as deserve it … in cases of equity, if I should show favour, except there be obedience, I were no wise man” (qtd. in Kenyon 60).

While Portia replaces the social coercion of the Duke's Christian mercy with an equitable mercy which responds to Shylock's legal defense in kind, the ramifications of both threats are the same for him. To accept Portia's equitable resolution is to surrender his equal legal standing and accede to the existence of a higher legal and social authority. Not surprisingly, then, Shylock spurns Portia's veiled threat, preferring to rely on the power of his position under the common law to indemnify him from the need for royal mercy: “By my soul I swear / There is no power in the tongue of man / To alter me: I stay here on my bond” (240-42). What follows is one of the most dramatic—and ideologically potent—scenes in Shakespearean comedy, in which judgment is pronounced not once but twice, juxtaposing for the audience the results of the competing legal philosophies presented in the first half of the scene.

Portia's deliberations proceed first in accordance with the common law. When she declares the bond forfeit, Shylock esteems her for her knowledge of the law, suggesting the common law's justification of its judges' authority not by their own discretion but by their preeminent ability to administer consistently a time-tested body of law: “It doth appear you are a worthy judge; / You know the law, your exposition / Hath been most sound” (236-38). As the impartiality of the common law requires, Portia's ruling is pointedly faithful to the law of contract, despite her personal desire to offer mercy:

… lay bare your bosom.
Ay, his breast,
So says the bond, doth it not, noble judge?
“Nearest his heart,” those are the very words.
It is so. Are there balance here to weigh
The flesh?
I have them ready.
Have by some surgeon, Shylock, on your charge,
To stop his wounds, lest he do bleed to death.
Is it so nominated in the bond?
It is not so express’d, but what of that?
’Twere good you do so much for charity.
I cannot find it, ’tis not in the bond.


Alongside this emphasis on the strict legality of the procedure, however, is the no less insistent emphasis on the materiality of its outcome: the mutilation and almost certain death of Antonio. Present throughout the trial scene, this linking of common-law principle to its horrific results is unmistakable as the scene reaches its climax. As Shylock approaches Antonio with whetted knife, Portia again reminds us that what we see is the result of the court's obligation to proceed according to the law: “The law allows it, and the court awards it” (303). The result is a vivid and ideologically charged illustration of the irrelevance of the common law's human consequences to its inflexible requirements.

The clear injustice of this strictly legal proceeding is, of course, precisely what the flexible, case-specific judgments of the courts of equity claimed to remedy. Before Shylock can strike, Portia halts him—“Tarry a little, there is something else” (305)—and the trial shifts from the procedures of a common-law court to those of equity. Portia's famous “quibble”—Shylock may have his pound of flesh according to the bond, but on the condition that “if thou dost shed / One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods / Are by the laws of Venice confiscate / Unto the state of Venice” (309-12)—is a stratagem typical of the equity courts. While the common law traditionally held that if the law granted an individual a right (including the right to take possession of property) it also granted him the means to exercise that right (Andrews 77nA), the courts of equity would often thwart a common-law award by placing such stringent restrictions and protections on the property to be seized as frequently to make the path of least resistance that taken by Shylock, the “voluntary” non-collection of the award (Andrews 66; Keeton 145). The relief and amazement, both on stage and off, at Portia's dramatic aversion of the travesty of justice almost perpetrated by the common law underscores the contrasting results of the two legal systems.

The audience's pleasure in Portia's victory is heightened by the irony of her use of Shylock's insistence on strict interpretation against him: “For as thou urgest justice, be assur’d / Thou shalt have justice more than thou desir'st” (315-16). In doing so, however, Portia has vexed legal scholars by belying the equitable principle most often associated with the trial scene, the mitigation of the strict letter of the law through recourse to its gentler spirit. The reason for this seeming contradiction lies in the political significance of Portia's legal device. While the mitigation of the letter of the law by its spirit or intent was indeed a central tenet of traditional equitable jurisprudence, in Shakespeare's time it was chiefly associated not with royally-controlled equity but with the judges of the common-law courts. Throughout the 16th century, as the limitations placed upon the common law by its codification into written rules became apparent, its judges began to revivify a procedure utilized by their predecessors in the 13th and 14th centuries: the interpretation of a law based on its intent rather than its precise wording (Thomas 515-16). Such an approach was entirely congruent with common-law ideology, basing the authority of the common-law judges to interpret rather than simply apply the law on their unmatched knowledge of its history and principles.

The practice of common-law equity was, of course, opposed by the equity courts, whose authority was based on the inadequacy of the common law to the requirements of justice and the necessity of an alternate source of justice—royal conscience—to remedy that inadequacy. To correct the letter of the law with its spirit was merely to affirm the ultimate wisdom of the common law. For this reason the principle of intent is emphatically not the basis of Portia's equitable decision. Portia herself discounts intent as a means of correcting the defects of the letter of the law when she pointedly acknowledges that the spirit as well as the letter of the law supports Shylock's claim: “the intent and purpose of the law / Hath full relation to the penalty, / Which here appeareth due upon the bond” (247-49). As the play takes pains to indicate, the intent of the law of contract is to protect the sanctity of contracts from external interference in order to ensure the rights of those who do business in Venice, regardless of the specific contents of those contracts.

The principle that Portia applies in reaching her verdict is not the mitigation of the letter of the law by its spirit, but the equally venerable equitable doctrine which holds that equity may mitigate the unjust results of the law's necessary generality by taking into account the aspects of a specific case of which the law takes no notice. This conception of equity is traceable to Aristotle's Ethics, in which he argues that “all law is universal but about some things it is not possible to make a universal statement which shall be correct. … this is the nature of the equitable, a correction of law where it is defective owing to its universality” (133; bk. 5, ch. 10). Elizabethan advocates of the courts of equity argued that the common law, in its quest for comprehensiveness and consistency, must operate on a general level and thus could never be made to take account of the “collaterall circumstances” of individual cases (Hake 123). As a result, equity was both necessary and necessarily superior to the common law, overruling the latter when the application of its general rules to a specific case produced evident injustice.

It was this theory of equity that was at the heart of the Crown's claims to legal authority: for even if superior knowledge of both the letter and the spirit of the common law must be conceded to the common-law judges, the individualized requirements of justice were the province of conscience: “the examination of the case by circumstances … doth necessarily appertayne to the high courte of Chauncery … by an Equity that is drawne from the only conscience of the Lord Chauncellor” (Hake 123). The stipulations in Portia's ruling concerning the spilling of blood and the removal of an exact weight of flesh underline the gruesome specifics excluded from the common law's generality even as they correct the injustice produced by that exclusion. Neither the letter nor the spirit of the law make allowances for contracts like Shylock's; it is left to Portia and equity to mitigate the effects of the law's generality by considering the circumstances of the case at hand, overruling the requirements of the law in order to satisfy those of justice.

The sociopolitical consequences of equity's victory over the common law are immediately and decisively registered in the treatment of Shylock by a legal system once again under the control of the ruling class. During the first half of the interpretational contest, Portia in her role as common-law judge sets aside the scene's emphasis on Shylock's cultural difference, addressing him not as “Jew” but by name. The shift to equity, however, returns social difference and discrimination to the law, indicated by Portia's invocation of the statute specifically criminalizing the shedding of “Christian blood.” For the remainder of the trial Shylock goes unnamed, referred to only as “Jew” not merely by his avowed Christian enemies but also by Portia, the representative of justice. This connection between equity and social differentiation casts the freeing of Antonio as a reassertion of the distinctions between classes that Shylock's use of the law attempted to erase.

As Shylock tries to leave the court—“Why then the devil give him good of it! / I’ll stay no longer question”—he learns that “The law hath yet another hold on [him]” (345-47). Because Portia's equitable reading of the bond has disallowed the shedding of Christian blood as a contractually protected act, Shylock is guilty of attempted murder and thus subject under the criminal law to the forfeiture of life and property. The social basis of Shylock's predicament is suggested by the statute to which he falls prey, the law “against an alien, / That by direct or indirect attempts / [Seeks] the life of any citizen” (349-51).

Such a law is present in none of the sources of the pound-of-flesh plot; moreover, in the 16th-century England all felonies, including attempted murder, were punishable by death and loss of property no matter who the perpetrator (Auden 228; Keeton 146). There is thus no dramatic or historical justification for a law specifically targeting aliens except to emphasize the link between Shylock's social status and his fate forged by the power of the law to discriminate between—and against—social groups or classes: having resolutely maintained his status as cultural outsider, he now finds himself trapped by it. The pleasure we take in Shylock's resultant comeuppance reinforces the play's implicit rebuttal to the common law's central justification, the economic necessity of a law predictable and impartial even to the “strangers” whose “commodity” is so important to the nation. Punishing Shylock's abuse of the common law with a statute that explicitly discriminates against such “strangers” answers the economic arguments of the rising class by implying that despite its potentially deleterious effect on commerce a certain amount of regulation is necessary for the security and moral order of the state.

The reestablishment of the legal authority of the ruling class is complete when the statute places discretionary judicial power directly in the hands of the monarch: “the offender's life lies in the mercy / Of the Duke only” (355-56). Stripped of the common law's protection, Shylock is subject to Portia's earlier threat: his failure to grant mercy to Antonio puts him at the mercy of the Duke. That this mercy is not Portia's equitable mercy but instead the clemency which was the Crown's prerogative in criminal cases (as indicated by the Duke's use of the word “pardon” [369]) merely confirms the sociopolitical complicity of the two juristic principles.

Their legal power over him established, Shylock's antagonists immediately use it to nullify his socioeconomic threat: the loss of half of his wealth now to Antonio and the other half upon his death to Lorenzo places his economic power in the hands of the aristocracy and its allies, and his forced conversion symbolically completes his absorption by the dominant Christian-aristocratic culture. Notably, despite his earlier denunciation of Shylock's usury, Antonio makes no provision at this point to prevent its continuance; it would seem that the eventual appropriation of any profit made therein by the ruling class does much to mitigate usury's sinfulness. The Christians' true target is not Shylock's economic practice but the social and political ends to which it is employed.

Finally, the trial concludes with a further demonstration of the coercive power granted the Crown by the supremacy of equity that Portia intimates in the “quality of mercy” speech, as the Duke requires Shylock's acquiescence to Antonio's terms, “or else I do recent / The pardon that I late pronounced here” (391-92). Legally at the mercy of his enemies, Shylock can only accede to Portia's ironic query, “Art thou contented, Jew?” (393). Thoroughly humbled, he leaves the court not with the unregenerate curse of his attempted exit prior to the invocation of the law against aliens but with the entreaties of a broken man: “I pray you give me leave to go from hence, / I am not well” (395-96). The trial's last word, however, is given to Gratiano: “In christ’ning shalt thou have two godfathers: / Had I been judge, thou shouldst have had ten more, / To bring thee to the gallows, not to the font” (398-400). This taunting valediction, while reemphasizing the “mercy” granted Shylock in sparing his life, at the same time underlines the contingency of that mercy, suggesting how easily his fate could have been that which Gratiano prefers. That it was not is due less to the principles of equity than to the dramatic and ideological appropriateness of a punishment befitting Shylock's social and economic crime.

Seen from the dual perspective of legal and political history, the threat posed by Shylock to the Venetian social order is fundamentally the same threat that Lord Chancellor Ellesmere recognized nearly twenty years later in what was by then one in a growing number of legal challenges to the Crown's sociopolitical hegemony. Shylock's use of the common law represented to a contemporary audience a question not simply of jurisprudential principle, nor even of economic practice, but ultimately of “the power and prerogative of the King.” And despite the efficacy of his defeat at Portia's hands in defining and resolving the conflict for the theater-going public in the interests of royal authority, the ideological battle fought in Shylock v. Antonio would prove to be but an early skirmish in the war between the rising and the ruling classes that was to dominate the next century of English politics.


  1. All quotations from The Merchant of Venice are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans. References to the trial scene (Act 4, scene 1) will be cited by line number only.

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Further Reading

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Cohen, Stephen. “Is This the Law?: Legal Ambiguity and Its Effects in The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure.” In The Language of Power, the Power of Language: The Effects of Ambiguity on Sociopolitical Structures as Illustrated in Shakespeare's Plays, pp. 80-118. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Discusses the fact that while these two “problem plays” end with marriage—the classic solution to Renaissance comedies—neither ends with complete social harmony.

Gross, John. Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992, 386 p.

Examines the treatment of the character Shylock in Shakespeare's play, in performances throughout the history of the play, and in popular culture.

Holmer, Joan Ozark. “‘Pardon this fault’: Antonio and Shylock.” In The Merchant of Venice: Choice, Hazard and Consequence, pp. 142-82. London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1995.

Looks at the complex relationship between Antonio and Shylock, noting their similarities and differences as well as their struggle for power over one another.

———. “‘Joy be the consequence’: Union and Reunion.” In The Merchant of Venice: Choice, Hazard and Consequence, pp. 246-84. London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1995.

Analyzes the rings episode in the play as the second and final “trial” necessary to make all the characters repentant.

Legatt, Alexander. “The Merchant of Venice.” In Shakespeare's Comedy of Love, pp. 117-50. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1974.

Demonstrates how Shakespeare experiments in this play with more complex characters whose natures change during the course of the action.

Lerner, Laurence. “Wilhelm S and Shylock.” Shakespeare Survey 48 (1995): 61-68.

Argues that the interpretation of the play as either anti-Semitic or critical of those who are anti-Semitic depends upon the audience.

Newman, Karen. “Portia's Ring: Unruly Women and Structures of Exchange in The Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare Quarterly 38, No. 1 (Spring 1987): 19-33.

Observes that even in the love scenes, the play emphasizes economics, material exchange, and power.

Shapiro, James. “Shakespur and the Jewbill.” Shakespeare Survey 48 (1995): 51–60.

Surveys the influence of The Merchant of Venice on the public debate of England's Jewish Naturalization Act of 1753.

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