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The Merchant of Venice

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The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596-97) has been labeled a problem play by many critics due to its combination of comic, tragic, and romantic elements as well as its ambiguous treatment of racial and religious differences. In the play, the merchant Antonio borrows money from Jewish moneylender Shylock in order to assist his friend Bassanio. Bassanio, a Venetian gentleman, borrows the money from Antonio in order to finance his pursuit of Portia, the heiress of Belmont, whom he wishes to marry. Ostensibly a romantic comedy centering on Antonio, Portia, and Bassanio, The Merchant of Venice explores darker issues as well, such as the treatment of Shylock, who is portrayed as a stereotypically greedy Jew and a social outcast. For attempting to enforce his contract with Antonio, a contract stipulating that a pound of flesh be removed from Antonio for failure to repay his loan, Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity. Critics often observe that, unlike many modern viewers and readers, the play's original audiences were not offended by the characterization and fate of Shylock. However, Shylock and his punishment have been the source of major critical debate since the nineteenth century and continue to be today. His standing as both a racial and religious “other” figures prominently in critical analyses of the play's treatment of ethnicity, religion, and social exclusion. Just as Shylock serves as a springboard for investigations of racial and religious issues, Antonio—whose affection for Bassanio is often seen as homoerotic—serves the same function in critical studies of the play's depiction of homosexuality. In addition, critics are interested in the play's exploration of economic issues. One of Shakespeare's most frequently performed plays, modern productions of The Merchant of Venice are presented with the challenge of depicting the character of Shylock, who is often portrayed as either a villain or a victim, as well as balancing the play's tragic and comic elements.

Many contemporary character-based studies of The Merchant of Venice have focused on Antonio and Shylock. Gary Rosenshield (2002) argues that Antonio, the Christian merchant, is presented as an economic ideal within an emerging capitalist society. The critic maintains, however, that Shakespeare questioned the possibility of such an ideal through Antonio's association with Shylock and the corruption of the world of finance. Rosenshield demonstrates that while Antonio is a true Christian in terms of his friendship with and love for other Christians, his personal hatred of Shylock underscores his un-Christianlike nature, just as his experience in Belmont places his merchant standing in a less-than-noble context. In assessing Shylock's position in the play as a social pariah, Bruce Boehrer (1999) combines an analysis of the play's bestial language and imagery with a study of Elizabethan and Jacobean attitudes toward the possession of dogs as pets. Boehrer contends that Shylock is associated with the mongrel or cur, a beast excluded from the society of humans, whereas Shylock's daughter Jessica is presented as a lapdog, an animal welcomed as a companion to humans but without the duty, or right, to contribute in a meaningful way to society. Boehrer maintains that for Shylock, the position of lapdog is unacceptable. Richard Abrams (1996) examines Shakespeare's characterization of both Antonio and Shylock, suggesting that Antonio's sadness is partially an affectation and that Shylock seeks love and understanding from Antonio and Bassanio.

Despite the play's challenges, The Merchant of Venice remains one of Shakespeare's most frequently performed plays. Reviewers often focus on the treatment of Shylock's character. Peter Marks (1999) praises Andrei Serban's “daringly unapologetic” production of The Merchant of Venice for the American Repertory Theater, which broke from recent portrayals of Shylock as a victim and rendered the moneylender as a knife-wielding villain. Marks contends that Shylock's sinister characterization was the most compelling aspect of the production. Robert Smallwood (1999) reviews Gregory Doran's Stratford staging, and finds that it had no new insights into the play, but featured exceptional performances by the actors playing Antonio, Shylock, and Portia. Trevor Nunn's production of The Merchant of Venice for the National Theatre has won a great deal of positive criticism. Hal Jensen (1999) describes the way Nunn's direction emphasized the isolation of the main characters and notes that Henry Goodman's praiseworthy Shylock dominated the production. Matt Wolf (1999) applauds Nunn's ability to sustain the audience's interest to the end of the play. Robert Smallwood (2000) also notes Goodman's excellence in portraying Shylock, and finds Nunn's production as a whole “brilliant.” John Simon (2000) praises most of the acting in Nunn's production, but finds fault with some of the elements—particularly aspects of the court scene—which he finds to be too contrived. Alvin Klein (2000) assesses Richard Corley's production of The Merchant of Venice for the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, contending that although it attempted to develop the play's romantic and comic features, it failed to offer an original take on Shakespeare's ambivalent treatment of Shylock.

Recent thematic criticism regarding The Merchant of Venice has focused on issues of race, religion, and sexuality, as well as economic issues. In his examination of The Merchant of Venice as a flawed romantic comedy, Walter Cohen (1982) suggests that the play may be viewed as a reflection of the socio-economic problems in late Elizabethan English society. Through the play, Cohen argues, Shakespeare criticized the worst elements of the emerging capitalist system. Cohen additionally stresses that while the play explores social and economic issues, it remains at its core a study of love, friendship, and religion. According to Martin Japtok and Winfried Schleiner (1999), the issues of race and religion are inextricably linked in The Merchant of Venice. The critics argue that play demonstrates that “racism was already fully operational” in the late Elizabethan era, despite the fact that “race” as a concept had not been fully developed. Both Shylock and the Prince of Morocco represent the “other” in the play, the critics show, and contend that Morocco is rejected by Portia as a suitor because of his racial difference. Thomas H. Luxon (1999) also assesses the play's treatment of racial and religious otherness, focusing on Shylock and his depiction as a greedy financier. Luxon notes that Elizabethan Protestants would have regarded Shylock, his greed, and his “misreading” of the Bible as typically Jewish. The critic also finds that the disguised Portia plays the role of the “true” Jew, or Christian Jew—one who recognizes Jesus as the Messiah. Steve Patterson (1999) centers his study on the early modern concept of homoerotic friendship, demonstrating that the play's depiction of Antonio's relationship with Bassanio reflects the shifting attitudes toward this type of relationship in Shakespeare's time. Patterson asserts that homoerotic friends, which Antonio appears to be an example of, found it increasingly unacceptable to voice or act on their desires.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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SOURCE: Cohen, Walter. “The Merchant of Venice and the Possibilities of Historical Criticism.” ELH 49, no. 4 (winter 1982): 765-89.

[In the following essay, Cohen views The Merchant of Venice as a flawed romantic comedy and suggests that the play may be viewed as a reflection of the socio-economic problems in late Elizabethan English society.]

Traditional historical scholarship has not fared well with many contemporary literary theorists. Jonathan Culler concludes: “The identification of historical sequences, while an inevitable and indispensable aspect of literary study, is not just open to oversimplification; it is itself an act of oversimplification.”1 What is rhetorically striking in this passage is the comfortable coexistence of the author's characteristic moderation with the extremity of the position. Under the influence of the work of Louis Althusser in particular and of structuralism and post-structuralism in general, similar doubts have penetrated Marxism, long a bastion of historical interpretation. Terry Eagleton argues that “Marx initiates a ‘genealogical’ break with any genetic-evolutionist conception of the historical materialist method, and, indeed, of its object—‘history’ itself.” For Eagleton, “history is not a classical narrative: for what kind of narrative is it that has always already begun, that has an infinitely deferred end, and, consequently, can hardly be spoken of as having a middle?”2 Fredric Jameson (although he begins with the injunction “Always historicize!”) is at pains to demonstrate that Marxism “is not a historical narrative.” And his own “historicizing operation” presupposes a fundamental bifurcation:

we are thus confronted with a choice between study of the nature of the “objective” structures of a given cultural text (the historicity of its forms and of its content, the historical moment of emergence of its linguistic possibilities, the situation-specific function of its aesthetic) and something rather different which would instead foreground the interpretive categories or codes through which we read and receive the text in question.3

In partial opposition to these claims, I hope to show that it is possible to have it both ways, to combine history with structure and to connect “the historical moment” with “the interpretive categories” through which that moment has been understood. Such innovative critical strategies as symptomatic reading, metacommentary, and the elucidation of the ideology of form acquire their full force only when explicitly located within the larger framework provided by the Marxist notion of the mode of production. Jameson, in fact, comes close to this position in asserting that “Marxism, … in the form of the dialectic, affirms a primacy of theory which is at one and the same time a recognition of the primacy of History itself.”4 The resulting procedure may also be viewed as a modified version of the approach recently proposed by Robert Weimann.5 More particularly, the present discussion proceeds from a detailed account of The Merchant of Venice to a brief look at broader issues. It concludes by reversing gears and summarily considering not the utility of contemporary theory for the study of Renaissance literature, but the implications of Renaissance literature for the development of theory.


The Merchant of Venice (1596) offers an embarrassment of socio-economic riches. It treats merchants and usurers, the nature of the law, and the interaction between country and city. But since it is also about the relationship between love and friendship, the meaning of Christianity, and a good deal more, a thematically minded critic, regardless of his or her persuasion, may be in for a bit of difficulty. In the most comprehensive and compelling study of the play yet produced, Lawrence Danson attempts to solve this problem by arguing that The Merchant of Venice dramatizes not the triumph of one set of values over another, but the transformation of conflicts into harmonies that incorporate what at the same time they transcend.6 Shakespeare's procedure thus resembles both medieval figural and Hegelian dialectics.7 Because the intellectual and structural design posited by Danson elegantly accommodates not only thematic diversity but also our ambivalent responses to both Shylock and the Christian characters, it is the appropriate object of a skeptical scrutiny of interpretation in The Merchant of Venice.

Shakespeare needs to be interpreted, it may be claimed, simply because of the antiquity and complexity of his art. Yet far from being ideologically neutral, such an enterprise, by juxtaposing an alternative and richer reality with our own, involves an implicit critique of the present. Even more, we may recall that Shakespeare's plays, despite their elaborateness, appealed to a broadly heterogeneous primary audience: an achievement that depended on a comparative social and cultural unity, long since lost, in the nation as well as the theater. This underlying coherence emerges in the logical and, it would seem, inherently meaningful unfolding of the dramatic plot,8 a strong example of which is provided by the rigorously interlocking, causal development of The Merchant of Venice. Presumably, then, the best criticism would deepen, rather than overturn, a sense of the play's meaning widely shared in space and in time.9

This is, however, precisely what we do not find in discussions of The Merchant of Venice. The play has been seen as the unambiguous triumph of good Christians over a bad Jew;10 as the deliberately ambiguous triumph of the Christians;11 as the unintentionally ambiguous, and hence artistically flawed, triumph of the Christians;12 as the tragedy of Shylock, the bourgeois hero;13 and as a sweeping attack on Christians and Jews alike.14 No other Shakespearean comedy before All's Well That Ends Well (1602) and Measure for Measure (1604), perhaps no other Shakespearean comedy at all, has excited comparable controversy. Probably the most promising way out of this dilemma is to see the play as a new departure for Shakespeare; as his earliest comedy drawn from the Italian novelle; as the first of several not quite successful attempts to introduce more powerful characters, more complex problems of conduct, more realistic representation, and a more serious vision of life into a traditionally light genre.15 Such a perspective is not without its drawbacks. Nonetheless, it has the virtue of suggesting that the play is by and large a romantic comedy; that it is partially flawed; that it calls for an unusual set of critical questions;16 and, most important, that it requires us not so much to interpret as to discover the sources of our difficulty in interpreting, to view the play as a symptom of a problem in the life of late sixteenth-century England.

Critics who have studied The Merchant of Venice against the background of English history have justifiably seen Shylock, and especially his lending habits, as the embodiment of capitalism.17 The last third of the sixteenth century witnessed a sequence of denunciations of the spread of usury. In The Specvlation of Vsurie, published during the year Shakespeare's play may first have been performed, Thomas Bell expresses a typical sense of outrage. “Now, now is nothing more frequent with the rich men of this world, than to writhe about the neckes of their poore neighbours, and to impouerish them with the filthie lucre of Usurie.”18 Behind this fear lay the transition to capitalism: the rise of banking; the increasing need for credit in industrial enterprises; and the growing threat of indebtedness facing both aristocratic landlords and, above all, small, independent producers, who could easily decline to working-class status.19 Although the lower classes were the main victims, it may be as inadequate to describe opposition to usury in Shakespeare or elsewhere as popular in character, as it is misleading to argue that “Elizabethan drama, even in its higher ranges, was not the expression of a ‘class’ culture at all.”20 Rather, we are confronted with the hegemonic position of the nobility, whose interests the ideology ultimately served. Artisans and peasant smallholders might fall into the proletariat, but once the majority of the traditional ruling class had adapted to capitalism, the issue of usury faded away.

This had not occurred by 1600, however, and The Merchant of Venice offers a number of specific parallels to the antiusury campaign,21 most notably in its contrasts between usury and assistance to the poor, and between usurers and merchants. Miles Mosse, for example, laments that “lending upon vsurie is growne so common and usuall among men, as that free lending to the needie is utterly overthrowne.”22 The distinction between merchants and usurers, also of medieval origin, could be drawn on the grounds that only the former operated for mutual benefit, as opposed to self-interest. Or it might be argued, in language recalling Shakespeare's high valuation of “venturing,” that the usurer does not, like “the merchant that crosse the seas, adventure,” receiving instead a guaranteed return on his money.23

A number of dubious consequences follow from concentrating too narrowly on the English background of The Merchant of Venice, however. From such a perspective, the play as a whole seems unproblematic, noneconomic issues unimportant, and related matters like Shylock's religion or the Italian setting irrelevant.24 Even explicitly economic concerns do not make adequate sense. An emphasis on the difference between trade and usury might imply that Antonio and his creator are resolutely medieval anticapitalists.25 But not only do Shakespeare's other plays of the 1590's show few signs of hostility to capitalism, The Merchant of Venice itself is quite obviously procapitalist, at least as far as commerce is concerned. It would be more accurate to say that Shakespeare is criticizing merely the worst aspects of an emerging economic system, rather than the system itself. In this respect, moreover, he deviates from the antiusury tracts and from English reality alike. Writers of the period register both the medieval ambivalence about merchants and the indisputable contemporary fact that merchants were the leading usurers: suspicion of Italian traders ran particularly high.26 It may be that Shakespeare intends a covert parallel between Shylock and Antonio. Yet no manipulation will convert a comedy in which there are no merchant-usurers and in which the only usurer is a Jew into a faithful representation of British economic life.

Similar trouble arises with Shylock, whom critics have at times allegorically Anglicized as a grasping Puritan.27 The identification is unconvincing, however, partly because it is just as easy to transform him into a Catholic28 and, more generally, because he is too complex and contradictory to fit neatly the stereotype of Puritan thrift. It is also unclear what kind of capitalist Shylock is. The crisis of the play arises not from his insistence on usury, but from his refusal of it. The contrast is between usury, which is immoral because it computes a charge above the principal from the moment of the loan, and interest, which is perfectly acceptable because it “is never due but from the appointed day of payment forward.”29 Antonio immediately recognizes that Shylock's proposal falls primarily into the latter category, and he responds appropriately, if naively: “Content in faith, I'll seal to such a bond, / And say there is much kindness in the Jew.”30

In addition, the penalty for default on the bond is closer to folklore than to capitalism: stipulation for a pound of flesh, after all, is hardly what one would expect from homo economicus. To be sure, Shakespeare is literalizing the traditional metaphorical view of usurers.31 Moreover, Shylock's desire for revenge is both motivated by economics and possessed of a large degree of economic logic (e.g., I.iii.39-40; and III.i.49, and 117-18). But when the grasping moneylender refuses to relent in return for any repayment—“No not for Venice”—he goes beyond the bounds of rationality and against the practices of a ruthless modern businessman (IV.i.226).32 In short, although it is proper to view The Merchant of Venice as a critique of early British capitalism, that approach fails even to account for all of the purely economic issues in the work. Can tolerable sense be made of the play's economics, or was Shakespeare merely being fanciful? To answer these questions, we need to take seriously the Venetian setting of the action.

To the English, and particularly to Londoners, Venice represented a more advanced stage of the commercial development they themselves were experiencing. G. K. Hunter's telling remark about the predilections of the Jacobean theater—“Italy became important to the English dramatists only when ‘Italy’ was revealed as an aspect of England”—already applies in part to The Merchant of Venice.33 Yet Venetian reality during Shakespeare's lifetime contradicted almost point for point its portrayal in the play. Not only did the government bar Jewish usurers from the city, it also forced the Jewish community to staff and finance low-interest, nonprofit lending institutions that served the Christian poor. Funding was primarily derived from the involuntary donations of Jewish merchants active in the Levantine trade. The Jews of Venice thus contributed to the early development of capitalism not as usurers but as merchants involved in an international, trans-European economic network. Ironically, elsewhere in the Veneto, the public Christian banks on which the Jewish loan-houses of Venice were modeled drew most of their assets from interest-bearing deposits by the late sixteenth century.34

From a longer historical view of Italy and Venice, however, The Merchant of Venice assumes a recognizable relationship to reality. Between the twelfth and the early fourteenth centuries in Italy, international merchant-usurers were often required by the church to make testamentary restitution of their profits from moneylending. Thereafter, this occupation decomposed into its constituent parts. Without changing their financial transactions, the merchants experienced a sharp rise in status, eventually evolving into the great philanthropical merchant princes of the Renaissance. The other descendants of the earlier merchant-usurers, the small, local usurer-pawnbrokers, suffered a corresponding decline in social position. This latter group, the main victim of ecclesiastical action against usury in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, increasingly consisted of immigrant Jews.35

Jewish moneylenders benefited the Venetian Republic in two principal ways. They provided a reliable, lucrative source of tax revenues and forced loans to finance the state's military preparations; and they also drove down interest rates for private citizens, rich and poor, underselling the Christian usurers, whom, consequently, they gradually replaced. The Christian banks referred to above, founded beginning in the late fifteenth century, were designed not only to assist the poor but also to eliminate Jewish moneylenders by providing cheaper credit. Although never established in Venice itself, the Monti di Pietà, as they were called, were soon widespread in the cities and towns of the Republican mainland. They rarely succeeded in completely replacing Jewish pawnbrokers, however.36

This, then, is the other, Italian historical background to The Merchant of Venice. None of Shakespeare's probable sources refers to any prior enmity between merchant and usurer, much less to a comparable motive for the antagonism. English discussions of Italy, on the other hand, regularly mention both Jewish usury and Venetian charity,37 while Bell, among others, speaks of the mons pietatis, a bank where the poor can “borrow money in their neede, and not bee oppressed with usury.”38 From this point of view, the hostility between Antonio, the open-handed Christian merchant, and Shylock, the tight-fisted Jewish usurer, represents not the conflict between declining feudalism and rising capitalism, but its opposite. It may be seen as a special instance of the struggle, widespread in Europe, between Jewish quasifeudal fiscalism and native bourgeois mercantilism, in which the indigenous forces usually prevailed.39 Both the characterization and the outcome of The Merchant of Venice mark Antonio as the harbinger of modern capitalism. By guaranteeing an honorable reputation as well as a secure and absolute title to private property, the exemption of the Italian merchant-financier from the stigma of usury provided a necessary spur to the expansion of the new system.40 Shylock, by contrast, is a figure from the past: marginal, diabolical, irrational, archaic, medieval. Shakespeare's Jacobean tragic villains—Iago, Edmund, Macbeth, and Augustus—are all younger men bent on destroying their elders. Shylock is almost the reverse, an old man with obsolete values trying to arrest the course of history.41

Obviously, however, the use of Italian materials in The Merchant of Venice, for all its historicity, remains deeply ideological in the bad sense, primarily because of the anti-Semitic distinction between vindictive Jewish usurer and charitable Christian merchant.42 Shylock's defense of usury is not so strong as it could have been,43 nor was Shakespeare's preference for an Italian merchant over a Jewish usurer universally shared at the time.44 Indeed, the very contrast between the two occupations may be seen as a false dichotomy, faithful to the Renaissance Italian merchant's understanding of himself but not to the reality that self-conception was designed to justify.

We can understand the apparently contradictory implications of British and Italian economic history for The Merchant of Venice as a response to the intractability of contemporary life. The form of the play results from an ideological reworking of reality designed to produce precisely the intellectual and structural pattern described at the beginning of this discussion. The duality we have observed, especially in Shylock, is absolutely necessary to this end. Briefly stated, in The Merchant of Venice English history evokes fears of capitalism, and Italian history allays those fears. One is the problem, the other the solution, the act of incorporation, of transcendence, toward which the play strives.

A similar, if less striking, process of reconciliation is at work with Antonio, whose social significance varies inversely to Shylock's. As a traditional and conservative figure, he nearly becomes a tragic victim of economic change; as the embodiment of progressive forces, he points toward the comic resolution. But Antonio cannot be too progressive, cannot represent a fundamental rupture with the past. Giovanni Botero attributed his country's urban preeminence partly to the fact that “the gentleman in Italy does dwell in Cities,”45 and indeed the fusion in the towns of nobility and bourgeoisie helped generate the Renaissance in Italy and, much later, in England as well. The concluding tripartite unity of Antonio, Bassanio, and Portia46 enacts precisely this interclass harmony between aristocratic landed wealth and mercantile capital, with the former dominant. A belief that some such relationship provided much of the social foundation of the English monarchy accounts for Shakespeare's essentially corporatist defense of absolutism in the 1590's.

A brief consideration of Marx's views on Jews, on usurers, on merchants, and on The Merchant of Venice will enable us to restate these conclusions with greater theoretical rigor and to point toward additional, related issues. In the “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” Shylock is an exploiter of the lower classes. Characterizing the German historical school of law, Marx comments: “A Shylock, but a servile Shylock, it swears upon its bond, its historical, Christian-Germanic bond, for every pound of flesh cut from the heart of the people.” The Second part of “On the Jewish Question” basically equates Judaism with capitalism, a position that Volume One of Capital reasserts in a discussion of the efforts of nineteenth-century British manufacturers to force children to work long hours. “Workmen and factory inspectors protested on hygienic and moral grounds, but Capital answered: ‘My deeds upon my head! I crave the law, / The penalty and forfeit of my bond.’ This Shylock-clinging to the letter of the law …,” Marx adds, “was but to lead up to an open revolt against the same law.” But the extended discussion of usury in Volume Three of Capital implicitly reaches a very different conclusion. Usurer's capital, Marx claims, arises long before the capitalist system itself, its parasitic action weakening the precapitalist mode of production off which it lives. But unassisted it cannot generate a transition to capitalism. When that transition does occur, however, usury inevitably declines, partly as a result of the determined opposition of mercantile capital. Finally, commercial capital itself is, like usury, an early and primitive form of capital and, as such, ultimately compatible with precapitalist modes of production. Thus, Marx's comments in effect recapitulate our entire argument on the economics of The Merchant of Venice.47

In one instance, however, they lead beyond that argument. Up to now, we have been primarily concerned to show how dramatic form, as the product of an ideological reworking of history, functions to resolve those contradictions that prove irreconcilable in life. But, of course, many critics have been unable to feel a final coherence to The Merchant of Venice. In Volume One of Capital, after showing how industrial capital endangers the worker, “how it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch from his hands his means of subsistence,” Marx quotes Shylock's reply to the Duke's pardon: “You take my life / When you do take the means whereby I live.”48 The passage implies exactly the opposite of what is suggested by the lines previously cited from the same volume. There, Shylock was identified with capital, the Christians with labor; here, the Christians represent capital, Shylock labor. Such a reversal cannot be assimilated to the dualisms we have already discussed: instead, Marx's use of selective quotation succeeds in capturing Shylock as both victimizer and victim.

As many critics have observed, the fact that Shylock is grand as well as pitiable does not in itself imply any structural flaw in The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare needed an antagonist possessed of sufficient, though perhaps not “mythical,” stature to pose a credible threat.49 The sympathy elicited by the Jewish usurer, often a consequence of his mistreatment by Christian characters who resemble him more than they would admit, also serves a plausible formal purpose in the overall movement toward mercy and harmony. In fact, by the end of the trial scene most of the Christian characters have fairly settled accounts with Shylock.50 The trouble is that Christianity has not. Although the Christian characters in the play are better than Shylock, the Christian characters not in the play are not. In his famous “Jew” speech and in his declamation on slavery to the court, Shylock adopts the strategy of equating Christian with Jew to justify his own murderous intentions (III.ii.47-66, and IV.i.89-103). But by the end of Act IV, his analogies are strictly irrelevant to most of the Christian characters in the play. They have either given up the practices that Shylock attributes to them, or they have never been guilty of them at all: certainly, we meet no Christian slaveholders in The Merchant of Venice. Yet Shylock's universalizing accusations are never challenged in word by his Christian auditors, nor can they be sufficiently answered in deed by the individual charitable acts with which the trial concludes. The devastating judgments, particularly of the second speech, are allowed to stand; and they tell us that although Shylock is defeated and then incorporated in the world of the play, in the world beyond the play his values are pervasive.

This bifurcation is a consequence of the fundamental contradiction in Shakespeare's social material. English history requires that the threat embodied in Shylock be generalized; Italian history, that it remain localized. Yet if Shakespeare had fully responded to both imperatives, The Merchant of Venice would have lapsed into incoherence. If the play revealed that merchants were as exploitative as usurers, that they were in fact usurers, then its entire thrust toward harmonious reconciliation could only be understood as a fiendishly oblique instance of ironic demystification. But if instead Shakespeare intended the movement toward transcendent unity to be taken at least as seriously as the dangers of nascent capitalism, he needed to present the latter in a way that would not undermine the former. He needed to transform materialist problems into idealist ones (Antonio cannot very well give up commerce, but he can learn to be more merciful) or to project them harmlessly away from the Christian characters in the play (some Christians whom we do not meet own and mistreat slaves). To achieve a convincing resolution, Shakespeare had to begin with a partly imaginary dilemma. But only partly. For had his premise been wholly imaginary, his treatment could easily have been relatively free of contradiction. That it is not is a testimony to both his strengths and his limitations.

Such a perspective enables us to understand and in a sense to justify the opposed responses to The Merchant of Venice, to see in its flaws not signs of artistic incompetence but manifestations of preformal problems. It also suggests answers to the questions with which we began. We need to interpret this play particularly because its formal movement—dialectical transcendence—is not adequate to the social conflict that is its main source of inspiration and one of its principal subjects. Some of the merit of The Merchant of Venice ironically lies in the failure of its central design to provide a completely satisfying resolution to the dilemmas raised in the course of the action. We have seen that one purpose of the form is to reconcile the irreconcilable. Similarly, one effect of interpretive methods that view explication as their primary end is a complicity of silence with the play, in which the ideology of the form is uncritically reproduced and the whole, The Merchant of Venice as we have it, is replaced by the part, Shakespeare's possible intention.

These inferences may be related to the debate on organic form and artistic totality that has troubled Marxist criticism since the 1930s. It would seem that the above argument aligns itself with those theories that see in the sense of closure or wholeness sometimes produced by a work of art an analogue to reactionary corporatist ideologies designed to suppress awareness of class conflict. An antiorganicist orientation, however, must deny in principle the possibility that the realm of aesthetics can deliver an experience of a contradictory totality or, for that matter, of demystification followed by retotalization.51 Few plays if any completely accomplish so much: the achievement of The Merchant of Venice is oblique and partial. But it would be a mistake to overgeneralize from a single example: some of the greatest works of the early seventeenth-century theater, most notably King Lear, do in fact approach this elusive ideal.

Nonetheless, our consideration of the ideology of form in The Merchant of Venice from the vantage point of economic history has primarily constituted an act of demystification. An exclusive preoccupation of this sort fails to do justice to the play, however. To locate the merit of the work in Shakespeare's inability to accomplish precisely what he intended hardly corrects the deficiency; it merely betrays the critic's wish that The Merchant of Venice were The Jew of Malta. The positive value of Shakespeare's comedy naturally includes the significant concerns that it voices, a prominent example of which is the problem of usury. But at least as important is the utopian dimension of the play: what may seem escapist from one perspective, from another becomes liberating. Although the effort of art to transcend the constraints of its time is not necessarily apparent, in The Merchant of Venice much of this tendency is right on the surface. For instance, the play persistently attempts to establish a congruence between economic and moral conduct, between outer and inner wealth; to depict a society in which human relationships are not exploitative. Such a vision, quite literally a fantasy, simultaneously distracts us from the deficiencies of our lives and reveals to us the possibility of something better. Utopian mystification and liberation are always inseparable and often, as here, strictly identical.

Similar lines of analysis could be extended to the other major issues in the play. Here, however, we need only suggest the outlines of such an inquiry. The supersession of justice by mercy, of the letter by the spirit, and of the Old Law by the New in the trial that occupies Act IV at once reveals the fairness of the legal system and the ethical premises of the entire plot.52 Shakespeare's demonstration that the principle of equity is inherent in the rigor of the law is rooted “in the adjustment of the common law to the practice of Equity in the Court of Chancery” during the sixteenth century.53 Beginning in the 1590's, however, the officials of the old, comparatively popular common law courts and their counterparts on the newer, royally dominated courts like Chancery entered into a struggle that ultimately resulted in the common lawyers joining the militant opposition to the crown.54 In this respect Shakespeare's ideological project represents an anticipatory and, in the event, futile attempt to reconcile absolutist values with popular, traditional, but ironically revolutionary institutions, so as to prevent civil war.55 Another version of this compromise is implicit in Shylock's demand of his bond from the Duke: “If you deny it, let the danger light / Upon your charter and your city's freedom!” (IV.i.38-39). On the one hand, the case acquires such political reverberations because Shakespeare assumes a feudal conception of law, in which justice is the central peacetime conduit of aristocratic power. On the other, Shylock's threat becomes so grave because the trial is based on a bourgeois commitment to binding contracts. Portia's integrative solution reveals the compatibility of rigor and freedom, of bourgeois self-interest and aristocratic social responsibility. But the profound allegiance to contractual law can make this ideological yoking seem either unjust or precarious, responses that indicate the tension between the limits of reality and the promises of utopia in The Merchant of Venice.

The relationship between country and city, perhaps the other major, overtly social issue raised by the action, situates the play in the tradition of Renaissance pastoral, a literary and theatrical reaction by the nobility to the two dominant trends of the age—the rise of capitalism and the partly complementary growth of absolutism. The construction of the pastoral world resolves the intractable dilemmas of aristocratic life in the city or at court: the form ideologically reconciles the socially irreconcilable.56 Rather than representing a species of escapism, however, this enterprise is transformed into a fully conscious process in The Merchant of Venice. The strictly causal logic of the action, noted earlier, is identical to the interplay between Belmont and Venice. Because the multiple plot extends the social range of representation, the traditional ruling class, ensconced in the second or “green” world, is tested and validated by its ability to master the deepest conflicts of the first world. Shakespeare's goal is thus, once again, to rebind what had been torn asunder into a new unity, under aristocratic leadership. The symbolic repository of value is the great country house, home not of reactionary seigneurial barons but, especially in England, of a rising class increasingly dependent for its revenues on capitalist agriculture and soon to align itself against the monarchy. The play, of course, remains oblivious of these developments: no one does any work at Belmont; there is no source of Portia's apparently endless wealth; and all comers are welcome to a communism of consumption, though not of production.57 The aristocratic fantasy of Act V, unusually sustained and unironic even for Shakespearean romantic comedy, may accordingly be seen as a formal effort to obliterate the memory of what has preceded.

The treatment of love is also socially hybrid. The fairy-tale-like affair between Bassanio and Portia is constrained by the harsh will of a dead father, is motivated by a concern for property, and is premised upon the traditional sexual hierarchy. But largely for these very reasons, it produces a love match in which virtue counts for more than wealth or beauty, and the wife is, in practice at least, the equal of her husband. Shakespeare's typical synthesis here represents a response to the unsettled position of the late sixteenth-century aristocracy, whose practices and ideology were in the process of transition from a feudal to a bourgeois conception of marriage.58 The striking characteristic of love in The Merchant of Venice, however, is that it is not unambiguously primary. For Leo Salingar, Shakespeare's comedies regularly enact an unresolved conflict in their author's mind “over the claims of love and the claims of law in Elizabethan society.”59 But in this play the controlling intellectual pattern requires what is partly a romantic and personal solution to a social problem. From this perspective, however, Act V may also be viewed as a playful and graceful effort by the aristocratic heroine to carry out the serious business of reestablishing the bourgeois assumptions of her marriage, assumptions endangered by the very romantic solution to a social problem that she has just provided.60

Since our discussion has been designed to complicate and at times to challenge a Christian interpretation, it is appropriate to conclude by examining directly the religious dimension of the action. The problem is not particularly the tendency of some critics to overemphasize the allegorical meaning of the plot's unfolding,61 although attempts to incorporate such moments as Shylock's anguished response to Jessica's sale of his ring or his forced, as opposed to his daughter's voluntary, conversion may seem a bit strained.62 It is rather the difficulty of transforming the play into a paraphrasable meaning of any kind. Founding his argument upon the critical controversy over The Merchant of Venice, Norman Rabkin has questioned “the study of meaning” and the “bias towards rationality” in general, pronouncing “all intellection … reductive” because of “its consistent suppression of the nature of aesthetic experience.”63 Although Rabkin's position is obviously opportunistic in its reliance on a notoriously hard case, it is quite true that “aesthetic experience,” especially when induced by more than words alone, cannot be adequately converted into argumentative meaning. At any rate, religious interpretation has proven symptomatically incapable of understanding the play as a comedy, except to the limited extent, suggested above, that romantic comedy and Christian myth share a common ritual movement. On the other hand, as part of an effort to elucidate the overall significance of the work,64 including its aesthetic value, a demystification of allegorical reading can specify the comic side of The Merchant of Venice, in its integral relationship to the popular tradition in the theater.

Allegory may be viewed as a utopian drive to assimilate alien experience, to create or restore unity where only incoherence and fragmentation are felt, to confer meaning upon a secular existence that seems intrinsically meaningless.65 Shakespeare's intermittently quasi-allegorical mode in The Merchant of Venice, in its moving revelation of the correspondence between human agency and divine plan, represents the most profound version of the Christian Neoplatonism that flourished especially in the pastoral tragicomedy of the Counter Reformation court.66 The providential pattern of Neoplatonism in turn moralizes the intrigue, a dramatic genre that at times confirms the Russian Formalist insistence on the primacy of form. When the intrigue serves as an end in itself, rather than merely as a means, issues are raised and then dropped not for their cognitive importance, but for their contribution to the plot, whose elegance is meant to point only to the playwright's ingenuity.67 Ideologically, the intrigue, unlike Shakespearean comedy, proclaims that people are not responsible for their conduct, that social rules have no consequences, that things will work out, that the status quo is secure. But the intrigue itself actually domesticates a still more anarchic impulse toward misrule and liberation that returns us to the root of comedy. Today, literature often censors some fantasy about work;68 in the Renaissance, however, when hierarchy was more open and alienated labor not yet the norm, dramatic form often submerged an aspiration toward freedom from social convention and constraint. Shakespeare's own religious interpretive strategy in The Merchant of Venice thus simultaneously constitutes an act of humane sophistication and a process of repressive concealment.

But the repression is incomplete, and the internal distancing produced by the subversive side of the play justifies our transformation of the learned surface, a comedy mainly in the Dantean sense, into a deep comic structure with affinities to popular festivity, folklore, and ritual. In general, Shakespeare's synthetic enterprise in an age of transition ran a considerable risk: the ultimately antiabsolutist implication, invisible to the playwright, of even a qualified allegiance to the country or to the common law is an obvious example. But these conflicts mainly concern the upper classes, and much of the material that we have considered and still more that could be cited place the work within the neoclassical literary and dramatic tradition. To understand the tensions generated within the synthesis by the popular heritage, to explore the consequences of what we will later identify as the inherent contradiction between artisanal base and absolutist superstructure in the public theater for which Shakespeare wrote, we must attend to matters of stage position and of dramatic speech, to deviations from the norms of blank verse and Ciceronian prose.69

It is easy to demonstrate that the clown, Launcelot Gobbo, has an integral role in The Merchant of Venice, that, for example, his abandonment of Shylock for Bassanio foreshadows and legitimates Jessica's similar flight from Jew to Christian.70 Nonetheless, his physical, social, ideological, and linguistic proximity to the audience comically challenges the primary mimetic action and intellectual design. Launcelot's function may first be illustrated by his penchant for malapropism. In seeking service with the understandably bewildered Bassanio, the socially mobile clown explains that “the suit is impertinent to myself” (II.ii.130). Having somehow obtained the job, he revisits his old employer to invite him to dinner with his new one: “I beseech you sir go, my young master doth expect your reproach”; to which Shylock replies, “So do I his” (II.v.19-21). Shylock's recognition that the apparent misuse of “reproach” for “approach” is at some level intentional points to the linguistically and socially subversive connotations of young Gobbo's double meanings, to the “impertinent” quality, again in two senses, of his speech and conduct.

In his final major appearance, Launcelot begins by expressing his theological concern for Jessica: “I speak my agitation of the matter: therefore be o' good cheer, for truly I think you are damn'd,—there is but one hope in it that can do you any good, and that is but a kind of bastard hope neither” (III.v.4-7). The confusion of “agitation” and “cogitation,” the proposed response of “good cheer” to the prospect of damnation, the ironic play on bastardy—all hopelessly jumble and thus demystify the serious religious issues of the plot. Later in the same scene the clown systematically and wittily misconstrues Lorenzo's apparently straightforward order that the kitchen staff “prepare for dinner” (III.v.43). His quibbling replies range from an aggressive assertion that the servants, too, are hungry (“they have all stomachs!”) to a pretended retreat into deferential humility (“I know my duty” [III.v.44 and 49]). In general, then, from his very first appearance, significantly in soliloquy, when “the devil himself” prompts him to run from his master “the Jew … the very devil incarnation” (II.ii.25-26), Launcelot provides an alternative perspective on the related matters of Christian orthodoxy and social hierarchy. On the one hand, his nonsense parodically demystifies; on the other, it uniquely combines archaic memories and utopian vistas.

This complex vision is compatible with the disturbingly ambiguous implications of Shylock, himself a figure with important ancestors in the popular tradition.71 Like the vice, he is associated with the devil; is the leading manipulator of the action; elicits from the audience fascination as well as revulsion, laughter as well as terror; functions as both homiletic foe of Christianity and incisive critic of Christian society; and, accordingly, ranges linguistically from rhetorically polished, mimetic dialogue to popular, self-expressive monologue. Thus, insofar as The Merchant of Venice combines a formally dominant, Christian, aristocratic ideology with that ideology's qualification by the alternative and partly oppositional conduct and values of other social classes, the play escapes standard categories of interpretation while strikingly embodying the central creative tension of Shakespearean drama.


The preceding comments rest on a number of assumptions that have not been explicitly stated. It may be useful, then, to sketch in some of the mediations between drama and society that make it plausible to think of The Merchant of Venice as a response to a conflict between two modes of production. I propose to move from the play to the form of romantic comedy; from there to the theater as an institution; and from there, finally, to the larger contours of late Tudor England and of Renaissance Europe in general.

Any attempt to assimilate The Merchant of Venice to a conventional generic category like romantic comedy is bound to be problematic, however. The work stands apart from Shakespeare's other comedies of the 1590's, romantic or not, and, in addition, from most other comedies of the period, both in the gravity of its subject and in its socio-economic emphasis. Yet the play is entirely typical of comedy in its movement toward resolution and reconciliation, and typical of specifically romantic comedy in its reliance on married love as a means to those ends. Indeed, it is on the embattled terrain of the love-marriage that the ideological significance of the form of romantic comedy is to be located. On the one hand, married love represented a progressive step for women and men alike, consequent upon the relative liberation of women—at least in the realm of ideas—during the age of the Renaissance. On the other, the concluding matrimony of many a comedy may be viewed as a transference, defusing, or suppression of conflict. Romantic comedy, firmly founded on marital love, its climactic weddings presided over by great lords, dramatizes the adaptation of the nobility to a new social configuration, an acceptance of change inextricable from a reassertion of dominance.

The form carries out this function in self-consciously theatrical fashion. First, the characters' frequent recourse to disguise or acting is in part a response to the simultaneous instability and rigidity of the aristocracy's position. The improbable situations confronted by the protagonists are at once signs of uncertainty and insecurity, and preferred alternatives to the imposed constraints of daily life. Pastoral, intrigue, lower-class disguise, acting, the atmosphere of holiday or of release—all testify to a utopian impulse toward freedom and an extended range of self-expression. In the end, playing and pretense often help resolve the problems of the action: the main characters forego masquerade and return to the common conduct of a class whose collective sense of purpose has been renewed and reformed by their experience. Yet the conventional resolutions do not entirely negate the liberating moments that have preceded. From this perspective, it is possible to understand a distinctive feature of the form: that its power primarily resides not in social mimesis but in the representation of comic, anarchic freedom issuing in an ideal solution. It is from here, moreover, that its most enduring social criticism usually derives. As a rule, the festive side of a play is inversely proportional to both the social seriousness of the subject and the prominence of other, potentially antagonistic classes. Hence, The Merchant of Venice, by its very atypicality, reveals the formal and ideological limits of Renaissance romantic comedy.

At least in England, most such plays were performed in the permanent, public, commercial theaters that emerged in the last quarter of the sixteenth century. What was the character of this new institution? The monarchy, the nobility, the clergy, and the bourgeoisie all crucially shaped the cultural, political, social, and economic functioning of the theater industry. Yet on matters of immediate production and consumption—actors and companies, stages and playhouses, playwrights and audiences—popular influences were paramount.72 More precisely, the theater combined widespread commercialization, relative absence of a proletariat, and extensive regulation of the conditions of production. It most closely approximated, in other words, the postfeudal, precapitalist, fundamentally artisanal mode of economic organization known to some historians as petty commodity production.

As such, the public theater constituted part of both the base and the superstructure, and its function in one conflicted with its role in the other. However aristocratic the explicit message of a play might be, the conditions of its production introduced alternative, lower-class effects. For members of the audience, a trip to the theater was a festive occasion, a species of escape, a form of aspiration, an embodiment of an ideal. Romantic comedy in particular could evoke recollections of popular pagan ritual and thus inspire often legitimate upper-class fears of religious heterodoxy. The same interaction of dramatic form and theatrical mode of production generated socially subversive effects from the recurrent use of lower-class disguise as a means of aristocratic validation; yet stage performance also rationalized and contained such implications, not only by the specific resolution of the plot, but also by the channeling of anarchic instincts that is an inherent part of attendance at a play. The public theater in this respect offered communal affirmation and social ratification, a means of confronting fear and anger in a manner that promoted reassurance about the existence and legitimacy of a new order. The theater within the nation, like theatricality within the play, at least in part served to restore a stratified social unity.

That unity was ultimately guaranteed by an incomplete but stable absolutist state that had temporarily abandoned centralizing efforts after the unrest of the middle of the century and the still earlier era of initial national consolidation. Like the public theater, though on a far grander scale, the monarchy both reinforced and depended on the relative cultural homogeneity of town and country, of upper class and lower. Its social basis was thus at least as complex as the stage's. We might note in particular the presence of an increasingly powerful ensemble of capitalist classes, whose crucial influence is unmistakable everywhere from the broadest issues of national policy to the narrowest details of a play such as The Merchant of Venice. But in the end, emphasis on the bourgeoisie or analogies between the state and the theater are profoundly misleading. In England as elsewhere in Europe, absolutism served the interests of the neofeudal aristocracy against those of all other classes, in the epoch of western Europe's transition from feudalism to capitalism.73The Merchant of Venice is of a piece with this international pattern of development. An English play with an Italian setting, it attempts to come to terms with a stage in the process by which western Europe was undergoing an internal transformation that was soon to make it the dominant power on earth.


At this point, it may reasonably be asked what guarantees of validity are possessed by the interpretive categories and procedures that govern the present discussion. Metacommentary, for example, can obviously be turned against itself, opening up a process of infinite regress. The primacy claimed for modes of production would seem to be vulnerable to a similar, if not quite identical, challenge. The reply to these objections, such as it is, is the traditional one: the validity of the overall argument offered above depends on that argument's explanatory power. Put another way, the organizing hypotheses are designed to provide a paradigm for, and thus to risk falsification across, the range of European drama of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, from Ariosto to Racine. Yet explanatory power is hardly a neutral or independent concept, inextricably bound as it is to such questions as what sort of knowledge is being sought and why. And the answers to these questions will ultimately be determined by the critic's sense of what matters most. The founding premise of this essay is—to quote Fredric Jameson once again, this time apparently contradicting his opposition between Marxism and historical narrative—that “the human adventure is one; … a single great collective story; … for Marxism, the collective struggle to wrest a realm of Freedom from a realm of Necessity.”74

Finally, if we attempt to use The Merchant of Venice to interrogate literary theory, rather than the other way around, it will be evident from what already has been said that the play imposes upon us, in a particularly forceful fashion, the need to account for both its familiarity and its otherness. But it seems more profitable to ask instead what problems the work raises for the specific perspective adopted here. We may approach this matter by noting that Renaissance dramatic theory was fundamentally incapable of grasping the nature or significance of Renaissance dramatic practice, at least in England. This failure was largely a consequence of an inability to theorize the social heterogeneity, and especially the popular elements, that gave the drama its distinctive quality and that have always made it an attractive subject for a radical, activist-oriented criticism. Yet the distance between Renaissance and Marxist theory may not be as great as this formulation suggests. In both instances, the problem is the gap between theory and practice. Marxist theory, whatever its intentions, will tend to reproduce the defects of Renaissance theory whenever it remains isolated, as it currently does, from a now scarcely existent, larger, contemporary movement for social and political transformation capable of once again uniting learned and popular culture, and thereby both justifying a theoretical project like the present one and providing Shakespearean drama with its most resonant context at least since the early seventeenth century.


  1. Jonathan Culler, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1981), p. 65.

  2. Terry Eagleton, Walter Benjamin: Or, Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (London: NLB, 1981), pp. 64 and 70.

  3. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1981), pp. 9, 139, and 9, respectively.

  4. Jameson, The Political Unconscious, p. 14.

  5. Robert Weimann, Structure and Society in Literary History: Studies in the History and Theory of Historical Criticism (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1976).

  6. Lawrence Danson, The Harmonies of The Merchant of Venice (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1978).

  7. For figural interpretation, see Erich Auerbach, “Figura,” in Scenes from the Drama of European Literature, trans. Ralph Manheim (New York: Meridian Books, 1959), pp. 11-76. The dialectics of the trial scene are stressed by Danson, p. 70; the more general “dialectical element in Shakespeare's comic structure” is noted by Northrop Frye, A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1956), p. 133.

  8. For the social and ideological implications of the well-made plot in the novel, see Jameson, “Metacommentary,” PMLA, 86 (1971), 12-13. Sigurd Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968), pp. 206-36, offers a symbolic, modernist, self-referential analysis of the rigors of the plot in The Merchant of Venice.

  9. For this argument, see Richard Levin, “Refuting Shakespeare's Endings—Part II,” Modern Philology, 75 (1977), 132-58.

  10. See C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1959), pp. 163-91; Frank Kermode, “The Mature Comedies,” in Early Shakespeare, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies, no. 3 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1961), pp. 220-24; and Paul N. Siegel, “Shylock, the Elizabethan Puritan, and Our Own World,” in Shakespeare in His Time and Ours (Notre Dame: Univ. of Nortre Dame Press, 1968), pp. 337-38.

  11. Danson's argument is a sophisticated version of this approach.

  12. See Madeleine Doran, Endeavors of Art: A Study of Form in Elizabethan Drama (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1954), pp. 318-19, 347, and 362-64.

  13. Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard S. Trask (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1953), pp. 314-15, 316, 320, 325, and 328, offers elements of this reading, though also acknowledging that the resolution of the play precludes a tragic interpretation. The stage tradition described by Brown, “The Realization of Shylock: A Theatrical Criticism,” in Early Shakespeare, ed. Brown and Harris, pp. 187-209, seems to fall primarily into this category.

  14. Anselm Schlösser, “Dialectic in The Merchant of Venice,Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, 23 (1975), 5-11; Marc Shell, “The Wether and the Ewe: Verbal Usury in The Merchant of Venice,Kenyon Review, NS 1 (1979), 65-92; Burton Hatlen, “Feudal and Bourgeois Concepts of Value in The Merchant of Venice,” in Shakespeare: Contemporary Critical Approaches, ed. Harry R. Garvin (Lewisburg: Bucknell Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 91-105; and René Girard, “‘To Entrap the Wisest’: A Reading of The Merchant of Venice,” in Literature and Society, ed. Edward W. Said, Selected Papers from the English Institute, 1978, NS 3 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 100-19. For a more detailed discussion of this debate over the play, see Danson, pp. 1-18.

  15. Leo Salingar, Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1974), pp. 298-325.

  16. For a theoretical statement and practical application of this argument, see Ralph W. Rader, “Fact, Theory, and Literary Explanation,” Critical Inquiry, 1 (1974), 249-50 and 258-61.

  17. John W. Draper, “Usury in The Merchant of Venice,Modern Philology, 33 (1935), 37-47; E. C. Pettet, “The Merchant of Venice and the Problem of Usury,” Essays and Studies, 31 (1945), 19-33; and Siegel, “Shylock.”

  18. Thomas Bell, The Specvlation of Vsurie (London, 1596), A2r. For similar statements, see Thomas Lodge, An Alarum Against Vsurers (London, 1584), E1r, and Roger Fenton, A Treatise of Vsurie (London, 1611), B1r.

  19. R. H. Tawney, Introd. to A Discourse upon Usury by Way of Dialogue and Orations, for the Better Variety and More Delight of All Those That Shall Read this Treatise (1572), by Thomas Wilson (New York: Harcourt Brace, [1925]), pp. 1-172. See also Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), pp. 158, 183, and 541-43.

  20. L. C. Knights, Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson (London: Chatto and Windus, 1937), p. 11. The same assumption governs Knights's comments on usury, pp. 127-30, 164-68, and passim.

  21. Some of these are pointed out by Draper, pp. 45-46, and Pettet, pp. 26-27.

  22. Miles Mosse, The Arraignment and Conviction of Vsurie (London, 1595), C3v. See also H. A. [Henry Arthington?], Provision for the Poore, Now in Penurie (London, 1597), C2v, and Philip Caesar, A General Discovrse Against the Damnable Sect of Vsurers (London, 1578), the title page of which refers to “these / later daies, in which, Charitie being ba- / nished, Couetousnes hath got- / ten the vpper hande.”

  23. The Death of Vsvry, or the Disgrace of Vsvrers (London, 1594), E1r. The contrary valuation of merchant and usurer may also be found in Nicolas Sanders, A Briefe Treatise of Vsvrie (Lovanii, 1568), D1r, and in Lodge and Thomas Greene's A Looking Glasse for London and England (1590), ed. Tetsumaro Hayashi (Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1970), I.iii. and III.i. A sympathetic view of merchants is taken for granted—a position impossible at the time with regard to usurers—in John Browne, The Marchants Avizo (London, 1591), and in A True Report of Sir Anthony Shierlies Iourney (London, 1600).

  24. Draper, pp. 46-47; Pettet, pp. 19, 29, and 32; and Siegel, “Shylock,” pp. 249 and 252.

  25. Draper, p. 39, and Pettet, pp. 19, 22, 23, 27, and 29.

  26. Bell, B4v and C3v, is again representative. Medieval attitudes toward merchants are surveyed by Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism: A Historical Study, Holland Memorial Lectures, 1922 (New York: New American Library, 1954), pp. 20-39. A Discovery of the Great Svbtiltie and Wonderful Wisedom of the Italians (London, 1591), B1r, partly attributes Italy's success in economically exploiting other nations to the country's vigorous trade.

  27. Siegel, “Shylock,” and A. A. Smirnov, Shakespeare: A Marxist Interpretation (New York: Critics Group, 1936), p. 35.

  28. Danson, pp. 78-80, and T.A., The Massacre of Money (London, 1602), C2v.

  29. Mosse, F2r. Tawney, Religion, pp. 43-44, elaborates on this point, and W. H. Auden, The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays (New York: Vintage, 1968), pp. 227-28, notes that Shylock does not demand usury.

  30. The Arden edition of The Merchant of Venice, ed. Brown (London: Methuen, 1955), I.iii.148-49. Subsequent references are noted in the text.

  31. Barber, p. 169; Whartons Dreame (London, 1578), A3r; and for a striking theatrical anticipation, Robert Wilson, The Three Ladies of London (1581), ed. John S. Farmer (The Tudor Facsimile Texts, 1911), D4v.

  32. Stephen J. Greenblatt, “Marlowe, Marx, and Anti-Semitism,” Critical Inquiry, 5 (1978), 291-307, emphasizes Shylock's irrationality, even madness. My discussion of The Merchant of Venice is generally indebted to this essay.

  33. “English Folly and Italian Vice: The Moral Landscape of John Marston,” in Jacobean Theatre, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies, No. 1 (London: Edward Arnold, 1960), p. 95. For reservations about conflating late Elizabethan and Jacobean Italianism, see pp. 91-94. For comments on Venetian trade, see Robert Johnson's translation of Giovanni Botero, Relations of the Most Famovs Kingdoms and Common—weales thorovgh the World (London, 1611), Gg2v-Gg3v, and George Sandys, A Relation of a Iourney (London, 1615), B1r.

  34. Brian Pullan, Rich and Poor in Renaissance Venice: The Social Institutions of a Catholic State, to 1620 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1971), pp. 538-621, and Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, trans. Siân Reynolds (London: Collins, 1973), II, 817 and 823. Fynes Moryson, Shakespeare's Europe: A Survey of the Conditions of Europe at the End of the Sixteenth Century; Being Unpublished Chapters of Fynes Moryson'sItinerary” (1617), ed. Charles Hughes, 2nd ed. (1903; rpt. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1967), p. 488, gives a reasonably accurate picture of the position of Italian Jews.

  35. Benjamin N. Nelson, “The Usurer and the Merchant Prince: Italian Businessmen and the Ecclesiastical Law of Restitution, 1100-1550,” Journal of Economic History, Supp. 7 (1947), 104-22, an essay deeply aware of the parallels to The Merchant of Venice.

  36. Pullan, pp. 431-537.

  37. Wylliam Thomas, The Historye of Italye (London, 1549), U4v-X1r, Y2v, and Y3v; Lewes Lewkenor's translation of Gasparo Contarini, The Commonwealth and Gouernment of Venice (London, 1599), T2r; and Moryson, An Itinerary (London, 1617), H1v-H2r.

  38. D4v. See also Fenton, P4v, and, for background, Tawney, Introd., pp. 125-27, and Religion, p. 53; Draper, pp. 45-46; and Nelson, The Idea of Usury: From Tribal Brotherhood to Universal Otherhood, 2nd ed. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1969), p. 73 n. 2. Greenblatt seems to be the only critic to suggest a parallel between Antonio and the Monti di Pietà.

  39. For fiscalism versus mercantilism, see Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century (New York: Academic Press, 1974), pp. 137-38 and 149. For possible problems with this hypothesis, as applied to Italy, see Pullan, p. 451. Greenblatt employs Wallerstein's paradigm to help explain The Merchant of Venice, but he does not seem aware that his argument consequently contradicts the position of those scholars, whom he also cites, who rely on the antiusury tracts. See his n. 5.

  40. Nelson, “The Usurer and the Merchant Prince,” 120-22.

  41. For similar perceptions, see Barber, p. 191, and Frye, p. 98.

  42. Curiously, Brown, Introd. to his edition of The Merchant of Venice, p. xxxix, denies that the play is anti-Semitic.

  43. Danson, pp. 148-50, argues that Shakespeare allows Shylock a fairly strong case, but Draper, pp. 43-44, seems more persuasive in taking the opposite position.

  44. See, for example, Three Ladies, D3v.

  45. Robert Peterson's translation of Botero, A Treatise, Concerning the Causes of the Magnificencie and Greatnes of Cities (London, 1606), I3v.

  46. Danson, p. 55.

  47. Marx's remarks may be found in “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 1978), p. 55; “On the Jewish Question,” in the Marx-Engels Reader, pp. 47-52; The Process of Capitalist Production, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, vol. I of Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, ed. Frederick Engels (New York: International Publishers, 1967), pp. 287-88; and The Process of Capitalist Production As a Whole, vol. III of Capital, ed. Engels (New York: International Publishers, 1967), pp. 593-610 and 323-38.

  48. Capital, I, 487.

  49. The term is from Brents Stirling, Introd. to his edition of The Merchant of Venice, in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, gen. ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969), p. 213.

  50. This position is most fully developed by Danson. See especially pp. 123-25.

  51. For an early and crucial stage of this debate, see Ernst Bloch, Georg Lukács, Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor Adorno, Aesthetics and Politics, trans. and ed. Ronald Taylor, Afterword by Jameson (London: NLB, 1977). Contemporary positions appear in Louis Althusser, “The ‘Piccolo Teatro’: Bertolazzi and Brecht,” in For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (London: NLB, 1977), pp. 129-51; Terry Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory (London: NLB, 1976), pp. 102-61; and Pamela McCallum, “Ideology and Cultural Theory,” Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory, 3 (1979), 131-43.

  52. A recent attempt to define the meaning of the plot in terms of Act IV is Alice N. Benston's “Portia, the Law, and the Tripartite Structure of The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Quarterly, 30 (1979), 367-85. See also Brown, Introd., p. li, and Danson, pp. 82-96 and 118-25. On the relationship between trial and drama, see Herbert Lindenberger, Historical Drama: The Relation of Literature to Reality (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1975), pp. 21-23.

  53. W. Gordon Zeeveld, The Temper of Shakespeare's Thought (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1974), pp. 141-42. Other discussions of the play against the background of common law and Chancery include Maxine MacKay, “The Merchant of Venice: A Reflection of the Early Conflict between Courts of Law and Courts of Equity,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 15 (1964), 371-75; George Williams Keeton, Shakespeare's Legal and Political Background (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967), pp. 132-52; and E. F. J. Tucker, “The Letter of the Law in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Survey, 29 (1976), 93-101. For a general review of commentaries on the legal situation in the play, see O. Hood Phillips, Shakespeare and the Lawyers (London: Methuen, 1972), pp. 91-118.

  54. Stone, The Causes of the English Revolution (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), pp. 62, 75, 97-98, 103-05, and 114.

  55. Zeeveld, p. 154 n. 20, and Tucker, pp. 98-101, both emphasize that Portia's argument and solution occur wholly within the canons of common law. But this particular integration of letter and spirit would have been impossible without Chancery's influence. For the popular prefeudal bases of English law, see Perry Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (London: NLB, 1974), p. 160, and Lineages of the Absolutist State (London: NLB, 1974), pp. 115-16.

  56. Noël Salomon, Recherches sur le thème paysan dans lacomediaau temps de Lope de Vega (Bordeaux: Féret et Fils, 1965), passim, esp. pp. 167-96, 222-23, and 451-73; Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 18-21; and Elliot Krieger, “The Dialectics of Shakespeare's Comedies,” Minnesota Review, 7 (1976), 85-88.

  57. Stone, Causes, pp. 105-08, and Williams, pp. 22-34.

  58. Stone, Crisis, pp. 589-671.

  59. Salingar, p. 312.

  60. On the special role of love in this play, see R. F. Hill, “The Merchant of Venice and the Pattern of Romantic Comedy,” Shakespeare Survey, 28 (1975), 75-87. For the problem of marriage in Act V, see Shell, pp. 86-87.

  61. This is the case in Barbara K. Lewalski's distinguished essay, “Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Quarterly, 13 (1962), 327-43.

  62. See Danson's efforts, pp. 136-39 and 164-69.

  63. “Meaning and Shakespeare,” in Shakespeare 1971: Proceedings of the World Shakespeare Congress Vancouver, August 1971, ed. Clifford Leech and J. M. R. Margeson (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1971), pp. 89-106. The quoted passages appear on p. 100.

  64. This distinction is pursued, for different purposes, by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., “Introduction: Meaning and Significance,” in The Aims of Interpretation (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1976), pp. 1-13.

  65. Jameson, “Metacommentary,” p. 10, and “Criticism in History,” in Weapons of Criticism: Marxism in America and the Literary Tradition, ed. Norman Rudich (Palo Alto, CA: Ramparts Press, 1976), pp. 41-42.

  66. Louise George Clubb, “La mimesi della realtà invisibile nel dramma pastorale italiano e inglese del tardo rinascimento,” Misure Critiche, 4 (1974), 65-92.

  67. On the intrigue, see Laura Brown, “The Divided Plot: Tragicomic Form in the Restoration,” ELH, 47 (1980), 67-79.

  68. Jameson, “Metacommentary,” p. 17.

  69. For Shakespeare and Ciceronian prose, see Jonas A. Barish, Ben Jonson and the Language of Prose Comedy (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1960), pp. 1-40. Brian Vickers, “Shakespeare's Use of Rhetoric,” in A New Companion to Shakespeare Studies, ed. Kenneth Muir and S. Schoenbaum (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1971), pp. 83-98, demonstrates that classical rhetoric informs the language of high and low characters alike. The remainder of the present discussion is primarily indebted to Robert Weimann's Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function, ed. Robert Schwartz (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1978).

  70. Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, I (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957), 457, and Frye, p. 97.

  71. Frye, p. 93, sees the affinity between the two characters, though in somewhat different terms. Bernard Spivack, Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil: The History of a Metaphor in Relation to His Major Villains (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1958), generally tends to exclude Shylock from the vice tradition, but he neglects most of the relevant evidence.

  72. Although this conclusion rests on the work of a number of contemporary scholars, most of the relevant data may still be found in E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923).

  73. Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State.

  74. Jameson, The Political Unconscious, p. 19.

Richard Abrams (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4631

SOURCE: Abrams, Richard. “The Gaping Pig—and Worse: Shylock's Christian Ducats.” In Afterimages: A Festschrift in Honor of Irving Massey, edited by William Kumbier and Ann Colley, pp. 163-74. Buffalo, N.Y.: Shuffaloff, 1996.

[In the following essay, Abrams examines Shakespeare's characterization of Antonio and Shylock, suggesting that Antonio's sadness is partially an affectation and that Shylock seeks love and understanding from Antonio and Bassanio. The following essay is a revision of the original published version, which was reprinted in Shakespearean Criticism, Volume 66.]

My topic is sadness in The Merchant of Venice—Jewish sadness, ultimately, though it is with Antonio's sadness that the play begins.

In sooth I know not why I am so sad.
It wearies me, you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn.
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me
That I have much ado to know myself.


Of course there have been attempts at explanation. Antonio anticipates losing Bassanio; he has presentiments of disaster, or “some sort of rich man's melancholy”; he is assailed by conscience for failing to live up to his Christian code.2 All these explanations are suggestive and some work well in combination, but, to my mind, they give Antonio too much credit. Whether they attribute his sadness to neurotic suffering or to the operation of a higher instinct, they mark him as a man of sensibility, ratifying the character's own pretensions. By these accounts Antonio becomes not just a rich man, i.e., possibly self-made. Rather, as he tosses on his featherbed, they confirm him in his resemblance to the born-rich, especially his soon-to-be rival in love, whose princess-and-the-pea discriminatory refinement will appear in the next scene. While one might otherwise have taken Antonio merely for a successful businessman, his melancholy proclaims him the possessor of that most prized of status markers, un cor gentil. Like the pampered Portia whose “little body is aweary of this great world” (1.2.1-2), Antonio shows aristocratic veining in his propensity to distill sadness from the very air.

That Antonio's sadness may be partly an affectation is hinted early on, but by so boorish a spokesman as to have escaped a hearing. Advised that he has “too much respect upon the world,” Antonio answers, “I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano—/ A stage where every man must play a part, / And mine a sad one” (1.1.77-79). Notwithstanding the egalitarian bow, Antonio patently views his sadness as tragically individualizing, as a cosmically assigned affliction, not of this world. That is to say, he already models the resemblance he will later play to the hilt, his resemblance to the “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” Yet not everyone is stirred by the performance. Discounting Antonio's pretensions of otherworldly woe, Gratiano whistles as though he has just come through a train wreck, “Let me play the fool”:

Why should a man whose blood is warm within
Sit like his grandsire cut in alabaster?
.....There are a sort of men whose visages
Do cream and mantle like a standing pond,
And do a willful stillness entertain
With purpose to be dressed in an opinion
Of wisdom, gravity, profound conceit—
As who should say, ‘I am Sir Oracle,
And when I ope my lips, let no dog bark!’


That Antonio postures for status becomes a distinct possibility, though even if Gratiano's instincts are right, we need not conclude that Antonio's sadness is entirely faked. Sadness you think you have, you do have; living the lie makes it true. Still, there's a gulf between the sadness that worms its way in the heart and the sadness that's dug out for bait; Gratiano again: “fish not with this melancholy bait / For this fool gudgeon, this opinion” (101-02). Antonio's inclination to capitalize on grief will become evident when he uses his predicament with Shylock to bind Bassanio; and even in his entry in scene 1, I would argue, he is already using sadness for effect. Despite its appearance of world-weary candor, Antonio's feckless apology constitutes a vigorous staking of social ground.

Addressing the “petty traffickers” of the Rialto, Salerio and Solanio, Antonio above all is courteous; he wears his sorrow lightly, prefers not to burden his companions. Yet Antonio will show identical courtesy when, joined by “worthier friends” (Bassanio, Lorenzo and Gratiano), he hurries Salerio and Solanio on their way (“Your worth is very dear in my regard. / I take it your own business calls on you” [1.1.62-63]).3 The important point to bear in mind in negotiating scene 1's genteel hypocrisies is that this is Venice, where men are damned with the accusation, “You grow exceeding strange” (67). In fending off Salerio and Solanio's unwelcome inquiries, Antonio is chiefly concerned to avoid an appearance of difference lest the appearance erode his status. As sad as Antonio may be, and as different as that makes him, he insists that his sadness is not really his, that it's an other—indeed, an “it”—to which his own response respectably replicates his interlocutors': “It wearies me, you say it wearies you.” Moreover, as Antonio dilates on his non-ownership of the thing of darkness he coincides with, his “it” takes on substance and a history:

… how I caught it, found it, or came by it
What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn.

An “it” you “find” or “come by,” a sadness made of alien “stuff,” no one can decently blame you for possessing. Antonio's unconscious rhetorical tactic of hypostatization thus allows him to hold his grief at arm's length, to keep “it” from infecting him. The figure of contagion is particularly apt in that the first and last terms of Antonio's sequence betray his conception of his sadness as having been “caught” or contracted from a foreign source, “born” elsewhere. In this respect, Antonio's opening lines already display the mechanism that drives his character: his penchant for scapegoating. If one believes oneself subject to foreign contagion, one may wish to expel the infected and infecting outsider; hence Antonio's antidote to sadness—to harass Shylock.4 As has often been observed, Antonio's character suffers from a kind of albinism; for a title figure he is surprisingly bland and uninteresting. Yet if Antonio is customarily ineffectual, his wonted passivity throws in relief his outbursts of vehemence. Only when Antonio loses himself in persecuting Shylock does he come to life; only by pursuing the remedy of viciousness can he escape the jaws of his own melancholy.

A play whose opening announces a sadness which soon mutates to its opposite implicitly invites its audience to seek the initially-evoked sadness elsewhere; though Antonio's apology turns out to be turf-protection, his case invites comparison with other, possibly more authentic forms of sadness in the play. Consider Edgar's platitude in King Lear, “The worst is not / So long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.’” Edgar's point, that by representing grief you belie it, is probably best borne out in Shakespeare's plays by Richard II when he abdicates his throne. Insisting that his grief is insupportable, Richard nonetheless possesses the presence of mind to send for a mirror to “show me what a face I have / Since it is bankrout of his majesty” (R2 [Richard II], 4.1.266-67). The impression is distasteful; we feel, with Bolingbroke, that we are watching shadow-play. And though Antonio's modest sadness is a far cry from Richard's exhibitionism, if I am right to argue that, in his own way, Antonio too is engaged in wan display, we may prefer to distrust all instances of self-exhibited sadness (at least, all onstage-instances), crediting only those cases in which, as Kafka writes, the subject weeps without knowing it [“weint er, ohne es su wissen”].5 Thus, over against Edgar's punctual reports on his own progress toward annihilation, critics frequently set up the touchstone of Edgar's father Gloucester's despondency. When Edgar rallies Gloucester with the slogan, “Ripeness is all,” Gloucester's pathetic response, “And that's true too,” admits of no rebuttal (KL [King Lear], 5.2.8-11). The old man's surprising readiness to concede the point confirms his dejection.

The Merchant of Venice presents many instances of soreheartedness to set against Antonio's studied sorrow. After Portia hears Bassanio in court offer to sacrifice his new wife to save his friend, she returns home and remarks wearily, “How far that little candle throws his beams! / So shines a good deed in a naughty world” (5.1.90-91). Indeed, by play's end even Antonio moves in this direction; observing the ills his manipulation has caused, he comments feebly, “I am th'unhappy subject of these quarrels” (238). And there is Jessica: when Portia returns home and the gentiles gather at Belmont, she simply recedes; no one opposes her presence, but neither does anyone speak to her. Finally, there is the sadness of Old Gobbo asking the way to the house of his son and “Master Jew.” (What a world of hopes, to judge by Launcelot's name, must have been present at his christening—all disappointed!) After Launcelot teases his poor blind father by giving him incomprehensible directions, the old man tries again:

Be God's sonties, 'twill be a hard way to hit! Can you tell me whether one Launcelot that dwells with him [Shylock], dwell with him or no?


Accustomed to hardship, Old Gobbo takes nothing for granted. Evidently he has seen so many disappointments that he builds an expectation of them into his inquiry. Even as he tags Launcelot—for reference's sake—as dwelling with Shylock, he questions whether Launcelot dwells with Shylock. The voice is familiar. In its long exposure to an adversity which it domesticates, makes tolerable, it's the voice we've come to associate with Jewish humor.6

My association may not be as farfetched as it seems. The basis of Launcelot's deception of his blind father in Jacob's deception of Isaac (down to the old man's feeling his son's head to identify him) is well-established, and to this may be added a second, less well-known allusion to the Jewish Bible. Though the Quarto and Folio stagedirections and speech-prefixes of The Merchant of Venice give the old man's name as “Gobbo,” in the dialogue his name appears as “Iobbe,” “an Italianized form of Job” according to the Arden editor (xxii). Hence, the poor, patient father becomes a type of long-suffering Jewry. (And the son—what a monicker! Lancelot Job: a macaronic oxymoron of a name!) The hint of Jewish suffering in Launcelot's “true-begotten father” is suggestive and points in an obvious direction. If the sad Antonio of scene 1 gives way to the ferocious Antonio of scene 3, then Antonio's demonized counterpart reverses the movement. Though the Venetians denigrate Shylock as Antonio's opposite, an “unfeeling man,” nothing “harder” than “His Jewish heart” (4.1.63, 79-80), and though Antonio seems bent on staging his own difference from the Jewish moneylender, many critics have been duly skeptical, regarding the distinction on which Antonio's esteem depends as self-serving.7 Though Antonio considers his own inexplicable sadness as his personal cross to bear (“… every man must play a part, / And mine a sad one”), the emotion he lays claim to is Shylock's. To be sure, when Shylock bids for sympathy on this ground, declaring “suffer'nce … the badge of all our tribe” (1.3.106), he loses us; the exhibitionist factor, evident in “badge,” cancels any pity we may feel. But at other times Shylock is less self-conscious, not only not knowing why he is sad (like Antonio), but not even knowing that he is sad. And at these times, Shylock becomes truly affecting. He radiates a sadness that we are asked to recognize as abiding.

Take the famous speeches. If I ask my students, books closed, why Shylock hates Antonio they will tell me that Antonio kicked and spat on him. But Shylock doesn't give that as his reason—at least not at first; he seems not always in full possession of the fact of his own persecution. Instead, in explanation he offers the reasons of the stereotyped Jew: “I hate him for he is a Christian; / But more, for that in low simplicity / He lends out money gratis” (1.3.38-40). In Antonio's phrase, Shylock, repressing, may be said to be made a want-wit by his sadness.

Or consider Shylock in court when he tauntingly explains his reasons for seeking revenge:

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


Many people hear this as a justification of anger but I hear it as a plaint. Timelessly, the bagpipe wails, and old men have trouble with their bladders. More historically, Shylock's images connect to Jewish suffering via the disturbing traditional figure of the Judensau, as Gustav Ungerer has shown, building on Irving Massey's understanding of the gaping pig not as a roast pig but the living barnyard animal, “stretching [its] jaws, almost as if … trying to loosen the joint … the same position [pigs] fall into when they squeal or scream” (11). When Shylock rages he “weeps without knowing it”; like Antonio incapable of deciphering his own sadness, he cannot say where he “caught” this grief, “What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born.”

In my first example above, Shylock explains in soliloquy his reasons for hating Antonio; in my second, although he addresses the court, he might as well still be in soliloquy for all the hearing he will receive. My point, as underscored by the quantity and variety of Shylock's actual and virtual soliloquies, is not only that Shylock is often alone in the play, but that he needs to be listened to, needs to be made sense of to himself. Again and again, in a character trait scanted by criticism, Shylock looks for love in the wrong places. In scene 3, just before clenching in hatred toward Antonio, he abandons his habitual sarcasm, becoming positively expansive on his favorite subject of the patriarchs. He seems to reach out for understanding, letting an insult pass (Ant.: “And what of him [Jacob]? Did he take interest?”) as he continues his digression in a hopeful voice. For a moment we cannot be sure what Shylock wants. Then, when a preaching Antonio interrupts him a second time (“Mark you this, Bassanio, / The devil can cite Scripture”), Shylock himself tells us: “I would be friends with you and have your love” (134). Only now, of course, Shylock is beyond wanting friendship; he is being manipulative, whereas moments before, in his relaxed story-telling mood, his explanation would almost have been true. (In this vein I might also cite Shylock's often-quoted justification of his revenge. Shylock is sometimes accused of “using” his humanity to justify evil. But from a standpoint of Jewish identity, i.e., Jewish pride, Shylock's assimilationist appeal for Christian sympathy to the dullards Salerio and Solanio, whom he far outclasses, is disappointingly complaisant, “a weak disabling of [him]self” [2.1.30]. Shylock gives away too much. Hath not a Jew brains?)

And Shylock seeks understanding and love not just from Antonio but from Bassanio, all the while questioning why he should accept an invitation to Bassanio's feast (but he accepts anyway):

I am bid forth to supper, Jessica.
There are my keys. But wherefore should I go?
I am not bid for love—they flatter me—
But yet I'll go in hate


Moments later, stung by Launcelot's announced departure, Shylock even spends a good thought on the schnorrer's behalf: “The patch is kind enough, but a huge feeder” (44): Well, half-a-thought, but that's still a half-thought more than Launcelot spends on Shylock. Finally, even from a quarter from which Shylock might have expected kindness, he receives only pain. I am always astonished by Tubal's pleasure in twisting the knife. Though the role is often played to a different effect, in reading the scene it's hard to escape the impression that Tubal finds something not altogether displeasing in his co-religionist's suffering.8 (A Hasidic saying: “No man's beard ever grows grey worrying about another's troubles” [Jacobson, 19]).

The example of Shylock's intimate enemy Tubal brings us to the pivotal event in Shylock's life: his crushing betrayal by Jessica. Though Shakespeare manages the offstage scene of horrified discovery so as to induce audiences to accept at face value Solanio's report of Shylock's confused passion, and thus to conclude that Shylock rates the loss of his money at par with the loss of his flesh-and-blood—

‘My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
Justice! the law! my ducats and my daughter!’


—evidence elsewhere in the play points up the meanspiritedness of this all-too-easily induced response. Critics have regularly noted the hate-filled Solanio's unreliability as a reporter of the crying old man he terms “the dog Jew” (14), and have noted, too, the evidence of Shylock's own curse on Jessica. Shylock wishes to bury his recovered jewels with his daughter, not to retrieve them (3.1.78-80): “A terrible curse—but it is a curse, and not an expression of greed. … In his self-punishing, self-pitying fury, Shylock calls down destruction on everything that he has lost” (Gross 74). To these, I would add two fresh pieces of evidence. Shakespeare's intent to entrap viciousness, to show complacency its face, appears in Salerio's adulatory description of Antonio not twenty lines later:

A kinder gentleman treads not the earth.
I saw Bassanio and Antonio part:
Bassanio told him he would make some speed
Of his return; he answered, ‘Do not so.
Slubber not business for my sake, Bassanio,
But stay the very riping of the time …’


Business! Although audiences stereotype Shylock as rating money above love, it is Antonio, rather, who does so; Antonio conceives Portia's wooing purely as a business proposition (a view in which Bassanio has encouraged him). Then too, to recall our earlier discussion of Shylock's characterization, from what we have already seen of Shylock's reluctance to delve his hatred of Antonio, it is unsurprising that he cannot now locate the true source of his pain: namely, that Jessica seems no longer to love him, that she has left him naked to his enemies. Instead of gazing on that Medusa, Shylock self-protectively converts his grief to grievance. His sadness, again “want-wit,” leaves him impotently raging, with “much ado to know [him]self.”

I'd go further: a moment ago I quoted John Gross describing Shylock's “call[ing] down destruction on everything that he has lost.” Gross assimilates Jessica to the ducats. Petulant, Shylock wants to see the last of her and them, to have everything he once believed his own, now, finally and decisively, out of his life and heart. I think this gets it backwards. It's not Jessica as object that Shylock assimilates to the ducats. It's the ducats he assimilates to her in what he constitutes as another failed love-relationship. Shylock's lament for his lost ducats is usually read as a lapsus linguae: for “Christian ducats” read Christian daughter. But the idea that Shylock's money has betrayed him along with Jessica, that it too has converted to Christianity (cf. Portia: “Myself and what is mine to you and yours / Is now converted” [3.2.166-67]), is not uninteresting. If Shylock's money has sustained and protected him, if his “living” has long watched over his “life” (cf. 5.1.286), then his genial guardian now goes over to the enemy. His ducats, as they once seemed, betray him by becoming Christian; they can no longer be counted on to keep the wolf from the door.

In the Christianization of his ducats conceived as a kind of a tutelary deity (a reading strengthened, incidentally, by the association of the two sealed bags of ducats with testicles, hence, the protecting spirit of the paterfamilias) Shylock finds cause for despair. In the imagined betrayal of things there may be something nearly as wrenching as the betrayal of loved ones, especially if, as Freud and many before him have believed, those “things” are at bottom a stabler substitute for loved ones, undoing our narcissistic wounds with promises of their magical support.9 To draw a Shakespearean analogy, among Richard II's griefs perhaps the unkindest cut is struck by Richard's horse “roan Barbary,” which in a seeming betrayal permitted Bolingbroke to ride his back, and “Would … not stumble … fall down, / … and break the neck / Of that proud man” (R2, 5.5.78ff). Richard had already given up on people some while ago (cf. 4.1.168 ff). But for a dumb beast not to live up to its anthropomorphic potential—this is occasion for a woe that for once eludes even Richard's powers of articulate self-pity (“Forgiveness, horse! Why do I rail on thee” [5.5.90]).

I want to close on a speculative and sentimental note by musing—beyond the scope of what the play allows—on what could have made poor Shylock happy. Certainly not Jessica's continuing loyalty, which he took for granted till she left him; nor, after she betrays him, could he delight much in her return. At no time can his money-bags have provided great pleasure, but only security, especially if, as argued, his money draws its main significance from its surrogacy for love. (For Shylock to take solace in possessions, though, is not a total lost cause; Leah's ring is the obvious case, and beyond that, I for one would like to know what Shylock collects.) Of course, acceptance from Antonio and his kind is out of the question; and even if it were offered provisionally (say, as a result of his enforced conversion) Shylock would have to be “a soft and dulleyed fool” (3.3.14), a dummy, to trust it. Yet lest my question by now seem frivolous, let me suggest that the play does at one point invite us to imagine Shylock brought closer to human community. Old Gobbo, who like no one else in The Merchant of Venice coins a term of respect for Shylock, is on his way to bringing “Master Jew,” a gift when Launcelot intercepts him (“My master's a very Jew. Give him a present? Give him a halter”). The unsolicited gift, “a dish of doves,” falls within Kosher law and would appear to be offered entirely without ulterior motive.10 If, in Shylock's view, even a Launcelot is “kind enough, but a huge feeder,” then to Launcelot's father bringing food, the reservation would not apply. To be sure, Shylock would not know what to say to the poor blind rustic, and he might not think much of the cooking, but I suspect he would be touched by the kindness. It is pleasant to imagine a moment of fellow-feeling growing between the two old men, but that may be hoping for too much. At worst, though, not even “old Shylock” (as he fondly calls himself) could find cause for hurt in Old Gobbo's unexpected generosity. A pity the dish of doves never arrived! It was a kindness “lost / As offered mercy is” (Cymb. [Cymbeline], 1.3.3-4).


  1. My text for Merchant of Venice and other Shakespearean citations is the individual play editions of The Pelican Shakespeare, general ed., A. Harbage; the text of MV is edited by Brents Stirling.

  2. For Antonio's affliction by conscience, Danson (30-34 et passim); the citation is from Barber (180); the first three views are already evidenced by 1888 in the Variorum note on the passage, and have appeared with innumerable variations since then.

  3. Ralph Berry has an interesting discussion of the tempo of social pressures in scene 1, though fails to discuss Antonio's motive of avoiding stigma.

  4. Gillies comments that “Antonio as the ideal Venetian (sic) is … systematic in representing Shylock as other. More than just a ‘Jew,’ Shylock is a ‘stranger,’ an ‘alien’ and an ‘infidel’. His Jewish otherness has [a] pandemic quality” (128). Further, “the confrontation between Antonio and Shylock amounts to a struggle over the political and economic heart of Venice. Thus the forum of Antonio's many assaults on Shylock is always the market-place. … Like Christ chasing the money-changers from the temple … Antonio seeks to recover the sacred core of the city from the twin abominations of ‘interest’ and intrusion” (129).

  5. Franz Kafka, “Auf Der Galerie” (154-55); I thank Al Cook for rounding up the citation.

  6. Old Gobbo's phrasing further tangs of Hebraism at 2.2.86-87, “Lord worshipped might he be, what a beard hast thou got!”

  7. Typically, Novy writes, “But if in general Antonio denies or sublimates his own sexuality and instead supports Bassanio's pursuit of Portia, he also denies the acquisitiveness inherent in being a merchant and instead attacks Shylock, the double who shares and exaggerates his mercantile profession and marginal social status. Even in this respect, however, he generally presents himself as self-denying, patiently holding in check his hostility to Shylock everywhere but in the scene where he arranges the loan. In his verbal attack on Shylock there, his speech takes on unusual energy; this is the one scene in which Antonio does not speak about being sad. His temporary recovery resembles the relief from a sense of powerlessness and depression that modern psychologists have often found to be one function of anti-Semitic outbursts” (71).

  8. In recent productions I've seen, Shylock is played (rightly, I feel) as a Jewish stereotype but then, compensatorily, Tubal is turned into nature's nobleman. The effect is reminiscent of the old television series, All in the Family, in which the producers presented a comically-bigoted Archie Bunker but then leaned over backwards to make the other characters impeccably liberal. Of Shylock's grudging fondness for Launcelot, Harley Granville-Barker writes, “he has a niggard liking for the fellow, is even hurt a little by his leaving, touched in pride, too, and shows it childishly: “Thou shalt not gormandize / As thou hast done with me,” cited by Barber (191).

  9. See Muensterberger for interesting and relevant Freudian discussion of the mania of collecting. For “hallowed” consumer items bringing “a benediction to the buyer,” WT [The Winter's Tale], 4.4.594-95.

  10. Hassel remarks that “As in no other Shakespearean play, characters so frequently refer to dining together that such dining becomes our sense of the natural Christian condition. Dinners are consistently focal points for celebration and companionship.” He cites nine instances, concluding, “Like Communion these dinners celebrate and reward shared love” (193). My own sense is that nothing so attractive is going on; most of Hassel's nine cases savor of “networking”: sleazy characters “do lunch.” Old Gobbo's reachingout, on the other hand, which Hassel fails to mention, seems to me convivial in the radical sense, an attempt to extend community.

This essay is dedicated to Irving Massey.

Works Cited

Barber, C. L. Shakespeare's Festive Comedy. Cleveland and New York: World Publishing Company, 1967; first. ed., 1959.

Berry, Ralph. “Discomfort in The Merchant of Venice,” in Thalia: Studies in Literary Humor (Ottawa) 1 (1978-79): 9-16.

Danson, Lawrence. The Harmonies of “The Merchant of Venice.” New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1978.

Gillies, John. Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Gross, John. Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy. New York, London, etc: Simon and Schuster, 1992.

Hassel, R. Chris, Jr. Faith and Folly in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1980.

Jacobson, Howard. Roots Schmoots: Journeys Among Jews. Woodstock, New York: The Overlook Press, 1994.

Kafka, Franz. “Auf Der Galerie.” In Das Urteil und andere Erzahlungen. Frankfurt: Fischer, 1946.

Massey, Irving. The Gaping Pig: Literature and Metamorphosis. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of Indiana Press, 1976.

Muensterberger, Werner. Collecting: An Unruly Passion. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Novy, Marianne L. Love's Argument. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Ed. John Russell Brown. Arden Edition of the Works of William Shakespeare. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959.

———. The Variorum Merchant of Venice. Ed. H. H. Furness. Philadelphia: Lippincott Company, 1888.

Ungerer, Gustav. “Shylock's Gaping Pig.” In Elizabethan and Modern Studies. Presented to Professor Willem Schrickx. Ed. J. P. Vander Motten. Ghent: Seminarie voor Engelse en Amerikaanse Literatur, 1985, 267-76.

Bruce Boehrer (essay date summer 1999)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10063

SOURCE: Boehrer, Bruce. “Shylock and the Rise of the Household Pet: Thinking Social Exclusion in The Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare Quarterly 50, no. 2 (summer 1999): 152-70.

[In the following essay, Boehrer studies the play's bestial language and imagery, contending that Shylock's association with a mongrel or cur informs an understanding of his role in The Merchant of Venice, including his position as an outcast and his attitude toward his social standing.]

In 1615, while visiting Cambridge University, King James I attended a public debate between John Preston and Matthew Wren on the question of “whether Dogs could make syllogismes.”1 Wren took the negative and Preston the affirmative, the latter carrying the day in part with the following argument:

an Ethymeme [sic] (said he), is a lawfull & reall syllogisme, but dogs can make them; he instanced in a Hound, who hath ye major proposition in his minde, namely, the hare is gone either this way, or that way, smells out the minor wth his nose, namely, she is not gone that way, & follows the conclusion, “Ergo,” this way, wth open mouth.2

As Keith Thomas has observed, such questions, far from being frivolous, formed “a topic of notorious philosophical perplexity” for centuries.3 The young John Milton, for one, traces Preston's argument to its locus classicus in Plutarch's Moralia: “Plutarch tells us that in the pursuit of game, dogs show some knowledge of dialectic, and if they chance to come to cross-roads, they obviously make use of a disjunctive syllogism.”4 Apparently Milton's God agrees, for in Paradise Lost the Son likewise maintains that animals “reason not contemptibly.”5 Moreover, in 1615 such a topic was guaranteed to please the monarch of the moment. It was James I, after all, who, when presented with a copy of John Caius's De Antiquitate Cantabridgiae, reportedly exclaimed, “What shall I do with this book? Give me rather Dr. Caius' De Canibus.6 Despite his reputation for pedanticism, King James remained a dog-lover first and a scholar second.

In this respect, as in many others, James helped to set the fashion for aristocratic behavior in his realm, and indeed by the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, dogs had become popular companions for Englishmen and women of all social ranks. As Thomas has remarked, “It was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that pets seem to have really established themselves as a normal feature of the middle-class household” in England,7 and the vast majority of the pets in question were canine. I intend to explore here the cultural and literary ramifications of this trend, with particular reference to the social position of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. This focus is compelling and possibly inevitable; Shylock is relentlessly bestialized by the language of his play, with the result that perhaps only Caliban, of all Shakespeare's other characters, is as firmly associated with the brute orders of creation. But the really remarkable thing about this pattern of association is what it does not offer the audience: a register of the household pet's emergent status as an object of emotional investment. I will argue that the absence of such investment is fundamental to Shylock's dramatic situation, which posits an antagonistic relation between economic productivity and personal companionship; that this antagonism likewise informs the Jew's claims to human dignity; and that, as a result, Shylock refigures the conditions of a social order in which household animals could begin to function as a source of affective fulfillment.


On the philological level, this argument gains resonance when set against the shifting semiotic fortunes of the noun pet itself. When Keith Thomas alludes to the growing popularity of pets within the early modern English middle-class household, he comes close to anachronism, for non-working, non-eaten domestic animals are only just in the process of acquiring this designation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary's first reported usage of the substantive pet in connection with beasts occurs in 1539 and is, in fact, a Scottish reference—appropriately so, given that the word itself enters standard English through Scottish and northern-English dialects and remains an exclusively northern usage until the early eighteenth century. Thus the royal account books of James V of Scotland mention “Thomas Melvillis Wiffe, in Falkland,” as maintaining “certane Pettis,” among them “Parroquets, monkeys, peacocks, swans, & c. & c.,”8 and such language does not reappear in the OED's entries until 1710, when Richard Steele can refer in the Tatler to an elderly woman who has “transferred the amorous passions of her first years to the Love of cronies, petts, and favourites, with which she is always surrounded.”9 In this latter case, the “cronies” and “petts” in question include classic examples of the sorts of beasts popularly kept in the eighteenth century for personal companionship; they are

four of the most mischievous animals that can ever infest a family; an old shock dog with one eye, a monkey chained to one side of the chimney, a great grey squirrel to the other, and a parrot waddling in the middle of the room.10

By Steele's day, in short, the modern household pet seems to have been firmly established both in social practice and in the linguistic register; during the preceding one hundred and eighty years, however, behavior and language are both far from settled.

To consider the behavior first: the conceptual category of household pet is rendered ambiguous in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England because individuals may and often do form personal attachments to animals that cannot be kept indoors, are wild or only semidomesticated, and can perform productive labor or be consumed as food. By the time of Addison and Steele such personal attachments certainly have not ceased to exist; on the contrary, they persist to the present day in forms too numerous and obvious to list. By the early eighteenth century, however, such attachments have come to assume secondary status within social arrangements that designate hearthside animals as a court of first resort for the emotionally bereft. In the sixteenth century, by contrast, these arrangements are not yet firmly in place; and the ambiguity here is compounded by shifting modes of domestic life that make it unclear what constitutes a household animal and what does not. The lamb, for instance, seems to have played a key role in the evolution of the concept of the housepet; indeed, in northern dialects the word pet initially referred to an abandoned—or “cade”—lamb that is raised by hand, serving as a particular focus of nurturance and affection within rural households until the day when it may be returned to the fold.11 But while cast-off lambs might be both common and relatively manageable in country homes given over to farming or grazing, they suffer poorly the transition to urban life; and it is through this very transition that the modern notion of the housepet comes into its own. Thus, on the level of social history, the evolution of the household pet leads in a desultory way from the rural to the urban; from farmhouse to city dwelling; from native or near-native animals, secured by one's own efforts and ultimately less comfortable within the household than in the surrounding countryside (the abandoned lamb, Lady Melville's swans and peacocks), to exotics, secured through economic exchange and increasingly divorced from the surrounding environment (Steele's parrot and monkey).

Moreover, such instabilities in the practice of keeping animals as household pets are further aggravated by a level of linguistic ambiguity, for in its earliest recorded usage the noun pet can refer not only to animals but also to people. This latter application of the term, recorded in the OED as early as 1508,12 carries moderately derogatory overtones (as it still does today), most often with respect to spoiled children. Such usage of the noun pet (and the etymologically distinct synonym peat) seems fully contemporaneous with the term's reference to beasts. Thus the history of this noun, which is equally applicable to animals and to their owners, nicely signals the quality that, more than any other, distinguishes housepets as a class: their elevation to the status of honorary people, endowed with names, personalities, privileges, and even possessions of their own. But further, the pejorative associations of the substantive pet also suggest something else about household animals as a class: that their elevation to quasi-human status is not an unconditional move up the social or ontological ladder but also involves a concurrent element of belittlement and even ridicule. In short, if household animals are permitted to become honorary human beings, it is with the understanding that they may become only a certain kind of human being: the allowed fool, the pampered darling, the ornamental nonproducer who is tolerated precisely because s/he cannot be taken too seriously.

This is the social space designated in Shakespeare's only surviving use of any cognate of the word pet, Katharina's contemptuous comment on her sister, Bianca, in The Taming of the Shrew: “A pretty peat! it is best / Put finger in the eye, and she knew why” (1.1.78-79).13 As Bianca reluctantly obeys her father's command to return indoors, safely out of sight of her suitors, Katharina derides her as a pampered and useless fool, the object of attention she has never earned or deserved. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, on the other hand, the behavior of housepets becomes a singularly vexing issue, although the animals in question are never referred to as such. Here, as low-comic counterpoint to a plot whose central features include cross-wooing (when Proteus abandons Julia to pursue Silvia) and crossdressing (when Julia dons male attire to follow and regain Proteus), Shakespeare introduces a case of what can only be called cross-petting, in which Proteus's servant, Launce, charged with carrying a lapdog to Silvia as a wooing gift, loses the beast in the marketplace and replaces it with his own dog, the unmannerly Crab.14 The resulting misadventures explore a rich vein of modern comedy based on the principle that animals take after their owners; Crab, like his servingman-master Launce, has little sense of proper drawing-room etiquette, and his lack of intestinal and urinary restraint, in particular, horrifies the play's gentlefolk. As Launce complains,

If I had not had more wit than he, to take a fault upon me that he did, I think verily he had been hang'd for't. … You shall judge: he thrusts me himself into the company of three or four gentleman-like dogs, under the Duke's table. He had not been there (bless the mark!) a pissing-while, but all the chamber smelt him. “Out with the dog,” says one. “What a cur is that?” says another. “Whip him out,” says the third. “Hang him up,” says the Duke.


Having thus announced his presence in privileged company, Crab takes his leave by urinating on Silvia's farthingale (ll. 37-39), such antics proving conclusively that he is a “cur” (ll. 21, 48), unfit for the companionship of “gentleman-like dogs.” In the process, moreover, Crab activates a series of oppositions that are fundamental to the present study and that inevitably call into question “the distinction between man, dog, and the mimetic offices appropriate to each.”15 To begin with, the opposition between cur and lapdog, which of course recapitulates discriminations between the socially unacceptable and the acceptable, between baseness and gentility, also articulates itself along spatial lines as the difference between dining and hanging, the table and the gallows. This difference, in turn, parallels an affective distinction whereby Crab—“the sourest-natur'd dog that lives” (2.3.5-6), “a stone, a very pibble stone, … [who] has no more pity in him than a dog” (ll. 10-11)—is contrasted with Proteus's lapdog—a “little jewel” (4.4.47), whose status as a wooing gift carries with it an inevitable charge of tender emotion. Still further, Crab's lack of emotion evokes an ethnic association of central importance to The Merchant of Venice; as Launce observes when recalling his recent departure from his family, “this cruel-hearted cur [did not] shed one tear. He … has no more pity in him than a dog. A Jew would have wept to have seen our parting” (2.3.9-12). And, finally, the opposition between cur and lapdog in Two Gentlemen of Verona arguably plays itself out in terms of gender difference and domestic economy. Thus Proteus's “little jewel” serves as the canine expression of an ideal femininity grounded in leisure, etiquette, and economic consumption, while Launce's idea of the proper fit between dogs and women locates itself, on the contrary, within the realm of productive labor:

I am in love … she is her master's maid, and serves for wages. She hath more qualities than a water-spaniel, which is much in a bare Christian. Here is the cate-log of her condition. “Inprimis, She can fetch and carry.” Why, a horse can do no more.


In sum, the dogs of Two Gentlemen of Verona are a valuable comic resource because they dramatize the collision between two separate and incompatible social realms: one whose customs, attitudes, and material circumstances can accommodate the idea of the household pet, and one in which household animals make sense not because they are cute or companionable or endearing or delicate but because they are useful.

In The Merchant of Venice, as in Two Gentlemen of Verona, there is no direct mention of pets either human or bestial; and to this extent the present essay concerns itself, perhaps bullheadedly, with a linguistic absence. But the play unquestionably contains both human and bestial characters who deserve to be called pets. Moreover, its complex negotiations around various cultural and biological categories—the human and the subhuman, the Gentile and the Jew, the socially accepted and the socially proscribed, the economically productive and the financially prodigal—arguably deserve to be read as manifestations of a historical process through which the notion of the housepet itself becomes thinkable. In effect, the idea of the housepet constitutes a new cultural zone in which the human may mingle with the subhuman, in which economic productivity and prodigality likewise intersect, and which therefore also holds certain consequences for principles of socially acceptable behavior. Mary Janell Metzger has recently noted that the Jew/Gentile opposition in The Merchant of Venice is by no means absolute but becomes permeable under certain conditions.16 The emergent idea of the household pet, I want to argue, provides a model of how to achieve such permeability.17 Unfortunately, this model does not apply in the case of Shylock.


The most memorable pets in The Merchant of Venice are exotics, products of early modern Europe's rapidly expanding commerce with Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Of the dozen-odd references to parrots in the Shakespeare canon, for instance, two occur in this play (1.1.53; 3.5.44-46), and I have discussed the sociopolitical implications of these references in a separate essay.18 To these birds must be added the altogether more prominent case of Jessica's monkey, through which Tubal brings Shylock news of his daughter after her elopement with Lorenzo:

Your daughter spent in Genoa, as I heard, one night fourscore ducats.
Thou stick'st a dagger in me. I shall never see my gold again. Fourscore ducats at a sitting, fourscore ducats!
There came divers of Antonio's creditors in my company to Venice that swear he cannot choose but break. … One of them show'd me a ring that he had of your daughter for a monkey.
Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal. It was my turkis, I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.


Here, as elsewhere, Shylock's mortification takes the double form of agony over his ducats and grief for his daughter. But the two issues coincide in the case of Jessica's monkey; coming to mind, as it does, amid accounts of Jessica's extravagance, the monkey serves as a reminder that Shylock's loss of his ducats and the loss of his daughter are, in a sense, one and the same thing. Her betrayal of her father is very largely an economic one, an engagement with patterns of fiscal behavior to which Shylock is inveterately opposed and which align Jessica at once with the play's “prodigal” Christians (1.1.129; 2.5.15).19 The monkey serves as a living emblem of such prodigality: it is rare and expensive, exotic and difficult to obtain, and valuable not for its ability to perform useful household labor but rather for its participation in a logic of pet-ownership that presupposes and even esteems nonproductivity.

To this extent Jessica and Shylock seem to display different attitudes toward the accumulation of what Pierre Bourdieu has called “symbolic capital.”20 Bourdieu employs this term to distinguish between “profitable and unprofitable work”—that is, between traditional vehicles of economic advantage (cash, credit, real property, etc.) and those nonproductive and costly elements of social ornament (clothing, food and drink, luxury goods of various sorts) whose function is to secure the consumer's membership within a particular social elite.21 Jessica's decision to invest in the symbolic capital of a pet monkey—to exchange buying-power for image—distinguishes her from her father, who rejects the particular symbolic exchanges in which Jessica participates.

This is not to say, however, that Shylock himself is opposed to symbolic capital tout court. The bond for Antonio's flesh, for example, constitutes a sacrifice of economic capital in service of ends that are largely, albeit not wholly, symbolic. (As Salerio exclaims to Shylock, “I am sure if [Antonio] forfeit thou wilt not take his flesh. What's that good for?” [3.1.51-52]) Likewise, Jessica's purchase of a pet monkey does not simply represent a preference for symbolic over economic capital. It also repudiates a particular symbolic investment that Shylock holds dear, for it transforms the Jew's turquoise ring, the enduring emblem of his dead wife's love, into a purely economic commodity, significant only with respect to its exchange value. The turquoise ring is made the exchange vehicle for the construction of a relationship entirely different from that which it symbolizes: the affective relationship between owner and beast that is the household pet's fundamental reason for being. In other words, the rift between Jessica and her father is articulated not simply in terms of a preference for luxury goods over cash or even in terms of a preference for one symbolic economy over another; it involves a “figurative … undoing of the parents' marriage,”22 a realignment of personal affections such that Jessica's relationship with her monkey comes to stand in for the various affective ties—between father and mother, father and daughter, mother and daughter—represented by the ring that is its purchase price.

In a sense, then, the relationship between Jessica and her monkey serves as a parodic diminution of the family connections that Jessica herself has abandoned in eloping with Lorenzo. On another level, moreover, the monkey also serves as a substitute for the family members whose relations it burlesques; deprived of the parent-daughter bond and not yet furnished with a child of her own, Jessica may redirect what Ruth Nevo has called her “affection-starved, companionship-starved impulse[s]” onto the creature she has purchased with her father's ring.23 Finally, too, the monkey comes in a way to mirror Jessica's own position as a Christian wife, for, as Launcelot Gobbo jocularly complains, that status is of questionable economic utility:

we were Christians enow before, e'en as many as could well live one by another. 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.


One need not take Launcelot's nervousness about the price of pork bellies seriously in order to view his jest as revealing. In effect, it instinctively conceives of Jessica as nonproductive, as economic dead weight, and it does so despite the existence of a long-standing cultural tradition that insists on the housewife's importance as a producer of commodities for domestic consumption.24 To this extent Jessica winds up in much the same position as her monkey; she is a creature valued in spite—and, indeed, perhaps even because—of her manifest uselessness.

If Jessica and her monkey end up in a kind of specular relation to one another, that is arguably because both housewife and housepet experience dramatic redefinitions of their sociocultural significance in sixteenth-century England. Launcelot Gobbo not only fails to think of Jessica as an economic producer; he thinks of her instead specifically as a consumer, one more mouth to feed, a woman whose new-found status as an eater of pork simply creates additional demand for already-limited resources. It can hardly be coincidence that this notion of housewife-as-consumer parallels shifts in the early modern English discourse of housewifery itself, a discourse that remains residually invested in traditional images of the housewife as cottage producer but that comes increasingly to associate gentle housewifery with economic consumption. As Susan Cahn summarizes matters: “where sixteenth-century women had made necessary objects, seventeenth-century women were more likely to purchase them.”25The Merchant of Venice recapitulates this transition in Jessica, who flees a household heavily invested in thrift and economic self-sufficiency, enters a household dedicated instead to consumption, and assumes within that household a status defined by her own readiness to spend money on such exotic trifles as a pet monkey. The final irony of this development is that Jessica becomes something of an exotic trifle herself: a “stranger” (3.2.237) whose devotion to an “unthrift love” (5.1.16) is the principal index of her importance as a dramatic character.

That Jessica herself does not register her change of status in exactly these terms is certainly no surprise. Since one obvious consequence of her reconstitution as housepet must be an inevitable loss of articulacy, it makes sense that after her elopement Jessica should fade into the wallpaper of Shakespeare's play, her role reduced to a little idle banter and the occasional dutiful expression of gratitude. But interestingly enough, during her brief moment of glory in Act 2, as she is being conveyed away from her father's house by Lorenzo and his accompanying masquers, Jessica does acknowledge that she has undergone a transformation. She is clearly uncomfortable with this transformation; even more interestingly, as a result of the change in question, Jessica does literally acquire the status of a pet, at least in that term's sense of “a darling, favourite,” or “an indulged … child.”26 As she hands Shylock's money to the masquers assembled to meet her in the street, Jessica comments with embarrassment on her masculine disguise:

I am glad 'tis night, you do not look on me,
For I am much asham'd of my exchange.
But love is blind, and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit,
For if they could, Cupid himself would blush
To see me thus transformed to a boy.


Jessica's pronounced discomfort here is voiced again in her next speech (ll. 41-44). Yet elsewhere her character seems unmarked by moral squeamishness. Observing that Lorenzo refers to the disguise in question as a “lovely garnish” (l. 45), Grace Tiffany notes that for him, at least, Jessica's transformation carries “a romantic or sexual charge.”27 So Jessica's unease wants an explanation, which her own dialogue does not provide. The most compelling one has been supplied by Marjorie Garber, who observes, to begin with, that Jessica's disguise mimics the transvestism fashionable among sixteenth-century prostitutes, who would titillate potential customers by displaying their legs in tight-fitting hose.28 Garber also notes the inverse parallelism of transvestism among female courtesans and boy-actors;29 then, finally, she adds that Jessica's embarrassment may derive from an additional source as well: her “restaging of the pre-Oedipal mother-child dyad” through the act of impersonating a boy.30 To this powerful analysis I would add only that the spatial coordinates of the Elizabethan stage implicitly reinforce the social subordination implied by Jessica's disguise. For when she first appears as a boy, it is on the upper acting-level (2.6.25 s.d.); and when, after registering embarrassment over her changed appearance, she agrees to join Lorenzo and the other masquers, it is through an inevitable descent onto the main stage (2.6.57 s.d.). Her assumption of her new role as Lorenzo's boy-favorite is literally a step down in the world for her, a fact we may read as emblematic of her new relationship to Lorenzo. This is a relationship defined by her personal deference, the surrender of her patrimony, her reduction in this scene to the role of a boy-favorite, and her figurative placement within Lorenzo's “constant soul” (l. 57) as the passive recipient of nurturance and attention. The master-pet relationship exemplified onstage by Lorenzo and Jessica was not always applauded outside the theater. Thus it may serve as one final irony when the sixteenth-century Flemish jurist Joost de Damhoudere argues that

In consideration of our faith it is held by law to be true sodomy … when one engages in sexual intercourse with Turks, Saracens, or Jews. For law and the Christian religion openly attack, disregard, loathe, and hate all of this sort as nothing more than beasts.31


As Jessica translates herself into the role of Lorenzo's wife, she begins to assume something like the status accorded to the other female characters in Shakespeare's comedy as well. Portia, in particular, is repeatedly figured as an inert and distant object of great value and scarcity: her “sunny locks / Hang on her temples like a golden fleece, / … And many Jasons come in quest of her” (1.1.169-72; also 3.2.241); she is a “shrine,” a “mortal breathing saint,” sought by pilgrims “From the four corners of the earth” (2.7.40, 39). She toils not, neither does she spin; instead, her value—concomitant with the patrimony that she, like Jessica, embodies to her suitors—seems to derive from the mere fact of her existence. In this respect, at least, the women of Shakespeare's comedy occupy a position analogous to its Jewish protagonist; although reserving for the women a vocabulary of gentility and compliment while exposing the Jew to a broad range of scurrilous abuse, the language of Merchant seeks nonetheless to remove all these characters from the sphere of economic productivity. For Jessica (and, far less successfully, for Portia) this removal is effected through the conventions of gender and marital status. For Shylock, on the other hand, it is achieved by demonizing the usury that is his livelihood. The status of usury in The Merchant of Venice is of course an inevitable topic in critical analyses of the play and one to which the present essay seeks to make no direct contribution.32 Instead, the following discussion simply takes it as axiomatic that Shakespeare's comedy presents two different attitudes toward the activity of money-lending: one that regards it as legitimate, productive economic activity and one that does not.

If Jessica's valorized uselessness finds its appropriate animal emblem in the figure of a pet monkey, Shylock's more antagonistic relation to the world of Christian business is figured through an incessant identification with dogs and curs. This strain of metaphor is brutally overdetermined; during Shylock's first appearance onstage, he is associated with the words dog and cur five times within seventeen lines of blank verse (1.3.111-28). Later, this same pattern of reference recurs in the intermittent insults of Solanio and others (“It is the most impenetrable cur / That ever kept with men” [3.3.18-19; see also 2.8.14 and 4.1.128-35]). Shylock himself adopts this vocabulary in his vengeful asseveration, “Thou call'dst me dog before thou hadst a cause, / But since I am a dog, beware my fangs” (3.3.6-7). The vast majority of these utterances, while nasty and short, are nonetheless worthy of examination. Analysis of this strain of imagery should, however, begin by focusing on a cooler and more prolonged remark.

The passage in question comes from Shylock, who defends his bond for Antonio's flesh by arguing that his bargain is no worse than the Christian practice of slavery. That practice, in turn, is comparable to the ownership and maintenance of work animals:

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”? You will answer,
“The slaves are ours.” So do I answer you:
The pound of flesh which I demand of him
Is dearly bought as mine, and I will have it.


For Samuel Johnson this speech represents a conclusive indictment of the Christian morality in Shakespeare's play: “I see not how Venetians or Englishmen, while they practice the purchase and sale of slaves, can much enforce or demand the law of ‘doing to others as we would that they should do to us.’”33 Yet it is anachronistic to read eighteenth-century attitudes toward slavery into a sixteenth-century comedy, and, more importantly, slavery is not a recurring issue in The Merchant of Venice. As Richard Levin observes, “the audience has heard nothing so far about Venetian slavery”;34 what it has heard, again and again, is the appropriation of animal images to figure various kinds of social relation, and this passage is one more case in point.

To this extent Shylock's reference to dogs accomplishes an interesting reversal of the play's overall patterns of metaphorical association. Here Shylock alludes to the Christian Antonio through an animal identification that has been promulgated at his own expense; in the process, he furthers what W. Thomas MacCary has called “the exchange of places between Antonio and Shylock” that structures Shakespeare's play.35 In other words, as Shylock's identification with dogs includes him in an underclass composed of slaves and other nonpersons, so the bond of flesh inverts the standard relation between slavish Jew and free Christian by asserting Shylock's title to the prerogatives of the latter. Thus as the relations between Jews and Christians are reversed, each term acquires the qualities and associations of its opposite.

This is not to say, however, that Shylock's dogs-and-mules simile constitutes a direct or deliberate identification of Antonio with such animals; on the contrary, the simile gains resonance precisely because of its inadvertence. As Shylock maneuvers himself into the position of his slave-owning Christian antagonists, he inevitably adopts the Christians' habits of speech; and these habits hold certain implicit consequences for Shylock's ownership of Antonio, which, among other things, becomes automatically comparable to the ownership of work animals. But even so, Shylock's identification of Antonio with slaves and of slaves with dogs modifies the Christian language it echoes. More than simply elaborating a dynamic of social inversion and envy, it calls into question the very univocality of the dog metaphor itself as it operates to define social status in The Merchant of Venice. Given the ubiquity of dogs in Western culture and their age-old connection to human communities, it is inevitable that they should have acquired a particularly broad and ambiguous range of emblematic associations. Hence in The Merchant of Venice, one cannot simply say that a dog is a dog is a dog; on the contrary, the play's canine references are inflected by a variety of cultural traditions. Shylock, when he compares his ownership of Antonio's flesh to the ownership of work dogs, certainly appropriates a vocabulary of abuse that has been directed at him throughout the play. This is not to say, however, that he appropriates the particular meanings that other characters have attached to that vocabulary. In fact he seems to do just the opposite.

John Caius divides “All Englishe Dogges” into three categories: “A gentle kinde, seruing the game”; “A homely kind, apt for sundry necessary vses”; and “A currishe kinde, meete for many toyes.”36 Of the three functions performed by the dog as social metaphor, one—the notion of the dog as intimate friend or companion—is a relative novelty, concomitant with the increasing popularity of pet-ownership in early modern England. The other two are far more ancient and deeply ingrained: the identification of dogs with slaves and other abjected individuals, and the association of dogs with predatory outsiders. We have already seen Shylock produce an unequivocal example of the former, but it is the latter frame of reference that the play's Christians most frequently employ to make sense of Shylock himself.37 Thus, for instance, Gratiano casually describes Shylock as “currish,” but then his language takes a sudden and more feral turn:

O, be thou damn'd, inexecrable dog!
And for thy life let justice be accus'd.
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. Thy currish spirit
Govern'd a wolf, who hang'd for human slaughter,
Even from the gallows did his fell soul fleet,
And whilst thou layest in thy unhallowed dam,
Infus'd itself in thee; for thy desires
Are wolvish, bloody, starv'd, and ravenous.


Such invective refigures Shylock not as domestic slave but rather as interloping carnivore; hence the smooth transformation of “dog” into “cur” into “wolf” as the passage progresses. Using the same logic, Antonio observes: “I pray you think you question with the Jew: / … You may as well use question with the wolf / Why he hath made the ewe bleak for the lamb” (ll. 70-74); nor is it extraneous to this pattern of imagery that Antonio then describes himself, in a famous metaphor, as “a tainted wether of the flock, / Meetest for death” (ll. 114-15). Shylock, too, seems to understand that canine descriptions of him seek to characterize him as an untamed and unwelcome outsider: “[You] foot me as you spurn a stranger cur / Over your threshold” (1.3.118-19, emphasis added). As Marjorie Garber has remarked, “words like ‘stranger’ and ‘cur,’ here used to typify the dog as a homeless mongrel stray, resonate with the equally typical period accounts of Jews as homeless and stateless, of ‘mongrel’ race and ‘cut-throat’ tendency.”38

Furthermore, in figuring the Jew/dog as a murderous outcast, Gratiano touches on a set of particularly haunting and painful cultural associations. Shylock, he says, possesses the spirit of a wolf, and not just any wolf but one “hang'd for human slaughter.” The practice here alluded to carries with it an inevitable exoticism for English audiences, since England had by Shakespeare's day been free of wolves for centuries. A nameless Italian visitor to England in the time of Henry VII noted that the English “have no wolves, because they would, immediately, be hunted down by the people; it is said, however, that they still exist … at the extremity of this island, towards the north.”39 John Caius tells the official story of England's wolves as follows:

Ludwall Prince of Wales paide yeerely to King Edgar three hundred wolfes in the name of an exaction … by the meanes hereof, within the compasse and tearme of foure yeares, none of those noysome, and pestilent Beastes were left in the coastes of England and Wales. This Edgar wore the Crowne royall … about the yeere of our Lorde, nyne hundred fifty, nyne. Synce which time we reede that no Wolfe hath bene seene in England, bred within the bounds and borders of this countrey.40

The expulsion of wolves from England thus parallels and prefigures the expulsion of England's Jews, accomplished in 1290 by Edward I. Apart from a very small community of covert Jews concentrated in the London area and a similarly limited population of wolves in the northern counties, Shakespeare's England was apparently free of both.41

But the hanged animal of Gratiano's speech need not have been a wolf; in terms of Shakespeare's own range of experience, it could far more easily have been the dog to which Gratiano initially compares Shylock. The custom of hanging dogs was still alive both in England and on the Continent: hence the adjective hangdog. Both classical and Mosaic law authorized the prosecution and punishment of animals (usually, though not always, by death) for various legal offenses (primarily manslaughter and bestiality), and roughly two hundred documented cases of such proceedings survive, ranging in date from the ninth to the early twentieth centuries.42 The vast majority of these cases—fully three quarters of them—occur between 1400 and 1700, a fact that places The Merchant of Venice precisely within their heyday. Moreover, impromptu executions of dogs, some with and some without legal adjudication, remained a common means of punishing game poachers in England well into the eighteenth century;43 whether or not there is any scrap of validity in the colorful tradition that Shakespeare poached deer in his youth, this latter punishment can hardly have been unfamiliar to him. In any case, by replacing the hanged dog of England's countryside with the figure of a wolf, Shakespeare revises common English experience, transforming it into a spectacle of strangeness which emphasizes Shylock as both foreign and bloodthirsty.

There is, however, a further point to be made about Gratiano's reference to wolf-hanging. Such punishment echoes a practice in certain criminal proceedings in Central Europe from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries: the hanging of condemned Jews between or alongside dogs. This “particularly degrading mode of execution,” represents a “reversed Crucifixion.”44 Hanged upside-down from the gallows, two dogs stand in for the thieves executed with Jesus, while the condemned man, in conformity to a long-standing identification of Jews as “Antichristi typus,45 occupies the central spot of dishonor, his baseness and bestiality apparently transcending even his comrades'.

Perhaps the sole surviving visual record of this practice … was designed to accompany an anti-Semitic poem entitled Die Entehrung Maria[e] durch die Iuden, which was published in Strasbourg circa 1510 and which has since been attributed to Thomas Murner.46 The first, narrative half of this work describes the desecration of an image of Mary by a group of Jews who stab the picture, causing it to bleed miraculously. Some years after the vandalism a paralyzed blacksmith, responding to a holy vision, challenges the principal vandal to trial by single combat and bests him with heavenly assistance, prompting the local prince to hang and burn the vandal in the manner illustrated by the accompanying woodcut. This story told, the second half of the poem then denounces Judaism in more general and wide-ranging terms, calling of course for its extermination. As for the specific events recounted in Murner's verse, they apparently took place in Alsace-Lorraine during a wave of anti-Semitic persecution in the early fourteenth century. I have found no record of parallel events in Shakespeare's England. The woodcut illustrating Murner's poem does not seem to have been reused in other contexts, even on the Continent; nor is there evidence that any of the few copies printed ever made their way to England.47 Thus any connection between Die Entehrung Maria[e] and The Merchant of Venice must be posited on the basis of broad cultural associations rather than of specific, traceable influences. Yet the same associations are nonetheless clearly at work in both texts.

In the end, the truly remarkable thing about the practice of dog-hanging as it is alluded to both in Die Entehrung Maria[e] and The Merchant of Venice is that it leads to the demarcation of a physical and social space where people and animals commingle: the gallows. The gallows, in turn, becomes available for symbolic contrast with a second such space, generated around the hearth or dining-table by the emergent practice of pet-ownership. I would argue that where The Merchant of Venice introduces Jessica to the latter of these spaces, it reserves the former for Shylock: hence Gratiano's offer to the Jew of “a halter gratis” (4.1.379). Nor is this argument impaired by the fact that Gratiano's “mercy” (l. 378) is ultimately averted by the play's conclusion. Hangings perform work even when simply converted to images on paper; they need not always eventuate in the loss of life in order to be an important feature of social organization. In this respect the real point of the contrast between hearthside and gallows is that they operate respectively as zones of cultural inclusion and exclusion, where marginal individuals may be either assimilated into the social body under particular conditions or expelled from it altogether. It is through their association with these opposing social dynamics and the spaces used to implement them that Jessica and Shylock embody the semiotic capacities of Judaism in The Merchant of Venice. Where the dog goes, there too goes the Jew, and on the same terms.

For Shylock, as for Jessica, the most immediate corollary of this principle is the loss of any notion of productive subjectivity. As stranger dog or marauding wolf, he is cast in a parasitic or predatory relation to Christian Venice. This denial of productivity parallels Shylock's legal status as “an alien” (l. 349) within the Venetian state, and to this extent it supports James Shapiro's recent claim that “The Merchant of Venice … translat[es] anti-alien into anti-Jewish sentiment.”48 Moreover, this translation is reinforced by Shylock's refusal to participate in social interaction except as a consumer of others' goods. When invited to supper, he “go[es] in hate, to feed upon” his Christian host (2.5.14-15), the appetitive image here, as Lawrence Danson has noted, underlining Shylock's “cannibalistic menace.”49 When Launcelot Gobbo leaves his service for Bassanio, Shylock rejoices that this “Drone” will “help [Bassanio] to waste / His borrowed purse” (ll. 48-51); the Jew closes his “sober house” to “the sound of shallow fopp'ry” (ll. 36, 35).

Through such language, Christian constructions of Shylock-as-pariah emphasize the Jew's lack of legitimate productivity; existing outside the Christian community, he derives his sustenance from it while contributing nothing to it in turn. It is his very productivity, however, on which Shylock, in various responses to the Christians around him, insists. Reacting to his treatment as a “stranger cur,” he poses Antonio the obvious rhetorical question: “What should I say to you? Should I not say, / ‘Hath a dog money? Is it possible / A cur can lend three thousand ducats?’” (1.3.120-22). This passage stresses his status within the community that ostracizes him but to which he is integral by virtue of his ability to contribute money to its other members. Similarly, in his later speech on slave-holding, he claims his status within the community by his ability to mimic the Christian practice of owning slaves. In both cases Jew and Christian are united by their equal participation in a system of economic production and ownership coextensive with the Venetian state. In effect, Shylock adopts the diction of his Christian oppressors but reorients its meaning so as to minimize the distance between him and them, and the ultimate consequence of this reorientation is Shylock's impassioned claim to a common humanity:

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, heal'd by the same means, warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is?


Such language generates a context in which—as Terry Eagleton has put it—“to refuse Shylock his bond means denying him his flesh and blood, and so denying his flesh and blood, his right to human recognition.”50

In light of the foregoing, I would like to modify the traditional view of how canine imagery operates in The Merchant of Venice. According to this view, the aspersions showered on Shylock by his Christian antagonists exemplify processes of racial hegemony whereby a dominant majority imposes notions of inferiority on others. To this extent “Shylock gradually becomes the incarnation of his own riddle of the flesh: in 1.3 he was but allegedly a cur, [whereas later in the play] he seems quite willing to accept his alleged identity”;51 in a similar formulation, Shylock “becomes what his Christian antagonists think him to be.”52 This view of matters holds much truth, and I do not wish to discard it entirely; certainly when Shylock warns Antonio “since I am a dog, beware my fangs,” we see him accepting as fact an ethnic slur that he has previously disputed and that originates with the Christians around him. To accept the terms of the slur is one thing; to accept its precise signification is something else entirely, and it is something Shylock never really seems to do. Instead, even when submitting to the metaphorical constructions projected on him by his Christian compatriots, Shylock seeks to contest and to modify the force of those constructions. After all, Shylock-as-slave-dog can lay claim to something that Shylock-as-stranger-cur cannot: an abiding sense of personal productivity and of productive relation to the surrounding world, irrespective of whether such productivity is honored or rewarded by others. In this regard Shylock's character may serve to remind us of the complexity and polyvocality with which myths of ethnic inferiority may be fashioned.


Finally, I want to return one last time to Shylock's speech on slavery in 4.1, which I have quoted at some length above. Beyond the foregoing analysis, this speech strikes me as especially interesting in that it defines, for Shylock, the limits of the possible. In equating Antonio with a slave, or a dog, or an ass, or a mule, Shylock has based his claim to the merchant's flesh on what he considers to be a self-evident and non-negotiable verity: that the separate strata of society must be kept separate—that to breach the boundaries of class and race is as inconceivable as to breach the boundaries of species. Hence the rhetorical questions with which Shylock concludes his argument, questions that bear repeating once more:

… Shall I say to you,
“Let [your slaves] 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”?

I would like to end this essay with two observations about the preceding lines. First, they describe a condition that Shylock regards as unimaginable but that his play actually realizes through the marriage of his daughter to Lorenzo. In arguing for his right to Antonio's flesh, Shylock has activated a series of homologies—between owner and property, free man and slave, Christian and Jew, human being and animal—in which the traditionally dominant terms gradually trade places with their inferior counterparts, so that the currish Jew Shylock, by virtue of his status as owner of another man, can come to occupy the place of the free Christian. Within the framework of this shift of signification, however, the antagonistic relation of Jew to Christian, slave to free man, animal to human being, remains absolute. There is no room in Shylock's imagination for these terms to mark anything other than an irreconcilable opposition whose only scope for change lies in the question of what group is privileged and what group is not. To this extent the similarities between Shylock and his Christian antagonists seem more important than their differences.

Yet Jessica's elopement with Lorenzo calls into question the very forms by which Shylock conceives social opposition itself. Superficially, at least, Jessica is enfranchised through her matrimony to Lorenzo; the couple share bed and board; and as Lorenzo's wife, Jessica assumes a social role seemingly defined by the certainty that she will never “sweat … under burthens.” In this respect the wedding of Lorenzo to Jessica seems to mark something that we might almost call social progress. At the very least, it introduces us to a specific form of social relation that Jessica's father never acknowledges as existing within the realm of practical possibility.

But critics have been resolutely—and rightly—suspicious of the happiness that Christian matrimony holds in store for Jessica,53 and this fact leads me to a final point. Put simply, the point is this: Shylock's inability to conceive of cross-race, cross-class cohabitation is paralleled by his inability to imagine a world with household pets in it. (Recall that for Shylock even the household cat is a “harmless necessary” creature [4.1.55, emphasis added].) I have already noted that when Shylock and his antagonists use canine imagery as a vehicle for abuse and recrimination, they tend to conceive of the dog not as a pet but either as a work animal or as an outcast scavenger; it is understandable, as scholars regularly observe, that “Shakespeare's own opinion of dogs seems to be contemptuous.”54 By Tudor times, however, it was increasingly popular to think of dogs not only as lowly drudges or feral interlopers but as embodiments of loyalty, courage, and other virtues. Thus in 1594, some two to three years before Shakespeare composed The Merchant of Venice, Sir John Davies could write,

In that, for which all men despise a dogge,
I will compare thee better to a dogge.
Thou art as faire and comely as a dogge,
Thou art as true and honest as a dogge,
Thou art as kinde and liberall as a dogge,
Thou art as wise and valiant as a dogge.(55)

One obvious source for such positive reappraisals was the high favor in which gentlemen's hunting-dogs were generally held; a developing fad for ladies' lapdogs also helped to improve the cultural status that dogs enjoyed in England. As for these latter animals, they embody the conditions that define the household pet as we know it today. Valued for companionship rather than for their ability to perform work, they are given personal names, are never eaten, and are admitted into all areas of the household. As John Caius observed, such dogs make

instrumentes of folly … for minsing mistrisses to beare in their bosoms, to keepe company withal in their chambers, to succour with sleepe in bed, and nourishe with meate at bourde.56

Here, in this apotheosis of the Elizabethan lapdog, one again encounters the terms of a social amalgamation that Shylock, in his speech on slavery, clearly regards as unthinkable, and that has been actualized in the wedding of Shylock's daughter to Lorenzo. Common company, common bed, common board, and a common absence of labor: these terms equally define the circumstances of Shakespeare's Jessica and of Caius's toy spaniel. Indeed, we may see in Jessica's marriage the realization of a relation defined by the loss of what Shylock holds most dear: a relation in which one earns comfort and privilege by relinquishing the obligation—and right—to perform meaningful work, and in which one achieves security by becoming a sort of professional plaything. To Shylock such an exchange is inconceivable for dogs and daughters alike.


  1. Thomas Ball, The Life of the Renowned Doctor Preston, Writ by his Pupil, Master Thomas Ball, D.D. Minister of Northampton, In the Year 1628., ed. E.W. Harcourt (Oxford and London: Parker and Co., 1885), 23.

  2. Ball, 23.

  3. Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 (London: Allen Lane, 1983), 125.

  4. John Milton, “Prolusion VII” in The Riverside Milton, ed. Roy Flannagan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998), 872. See also Plutarch's Moralia, trans. Harold Cherniss, 15 vols. (London: William Heinemann, 1957), 12:377-79.

  5. Milton, Paradise Lost in Flannagan, ed., 572 (Bk. 8, l. 374).

  6. Thomas Fuller, The Worthies of England, ed. John Freeman (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1952), 421.

  7. Thomas, 110.

  8. Robert Pitcairn, Criminal Trials in Scotland … Embracing the Entire Reigns of James IV. and V., Mary Queen of Scots, and James VI …, 3 vols. in 4 (Edinburgh: William Tait; London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longman, 1833), 1:299n.

  9. [Richard Steele,] The Tatler, 4 vols. (London, 1797), 4:514.

  10. [Steele,] 4:516.

  11. Oxford English Dictionary, “pet” sb.1, 1.a, 3.a; “cade” sb.2, 2.a.

  12. OED “pet” sb.1, 2.a.

  13. Quotations of Shakespeare in this essay follow The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al., 2d ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997).

  14. Edward Berry has demonstrated one dimension of the parallelism here by pointing out that Launce's relationship to Crab involves a “curious blend of love and loathing, self-sacrifice and self-interest” also intrinsic to Julia's pursuit of Proteus (Shakespeare's Comic Rites [Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984], 124).

  15. Malcolm Evans, “Deconstructing Shakespeare's comedies” in Alternative Shakespeares, John Drakakis, ed. (London and New York: Methuen, 1985), 67-94, esp. 71.

  16. Mary Janell Metzger, “‘Now By My Hood, a Gentle and No Jew’: Jessica, The Merchant of Venice, and the Discourse of Early Modern English Identity,” PMLA 113.1 (1998): 52-63.

  17. By the same token, it is worth noting Peter Berek's recent remark that “in the sixteenth century … the legal bar to Jewish residence in England began to be permeable” (“The Jew as Renaissance Man,” Renaissance Quarterly 51.1 [1998]: 128-62, esp. 128). In this respect the historical and dramatic records seem to converge nicely.

  18. See Bruce Boehrer, “‘Men, Monkeys, Lap-Dogs, Parrots, Perish All!’: Psittacine Articulacy in Early Modern Writing,” Modern Language Quarterly 59.2 (1998): 171-93.

  19. For a discussion of the prodigal-son motif as it operates within The Merchant of Venice, see Susan McLean (“Prodigal Sons and Daughters: Transgression and Forgiveness in The Merchant of Venice,Papers on Language and Literature 32.1 [1996]: 45-62), who argues 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” (60).

  20. For a discussion of the interrelation between symbolic and economic capital, an interrelation that Bourdieu claims to have been occluded by traditional economism of both the capitalist and marxist stripes, see Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1977), 171-83. I am indebted to Natasha Korda's essay “Household Kates: Domesticating Commodities in The Taming of the Shrew” (Shakespeare Quarterly 47 [1996]: 109-31) for suggesting the relevance of Bourdieu's analysis to the study of Shakespeare's comedies.

  21. Bourdieu, 175.

  22. Leonard Tennenhouse, “The Counterfeit Order of The Merchant of Venice” in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, Murray Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn, eds. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980), 54-69, esp. 58.

  23. Ruth Nevo, Comic Transformations in Shakespeare (London and New York: Methuen, 1980), 118.

  24. Susan Cahn thus discusses the traditional “importance of the housewife's skilled contribution to her family, and her national economy” in early modern England, while likewise noting that this importance was “eroding” in the Tudor and Stuart periods (Industry of Devotion: The Transformation of Women's Work in England, 1500-1660 [New York: Columbia UP, 1987], 34-50, esp. 39). Michael Roberts argues that “much of women's work” was consigned “to a residual sphere of activity” in seventeenth-century England as a result of changes in how “‘trades’ … were defined” in the period (“‘Words they are Women, and Deeds they are Men’: Images of Work and Gender in Early Modern England” in Women and Work in Pre-Industrial England, Lindsey Charles and Lorna Duffin, eds. [Beckenham: Croom Helm, 1985], 122-80, esp. 140). Korda notes that “prior to Shakespeare …, shrews were typically portrayed as reluctant producers within the household economy” (110). Alice Clark, writing earlier than Cahn et al., broadly states that “in the seventeenth century the idea is seldom encountered that a man supports his wife” (Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century [1919; rpt. New York: August M. Kelley, 1968], 12).

  25. Cahn, 63.

  26. OED, “pet” sb.1, 2.b, 2.a.

  27. Grace Tiffany, Erotic Beasts and Social Monsters: Shakespeare, Jonson, and Comic Androgyny (Newark: U of Delaware P; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1995), 91.

  28. See Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Identity (New York: Routledge, 1992), 85-87.

  29. Garber, 87-88.

  30. Garber, 89.

  31. “[C]onsideratione nostrae fidei, pro vera Sodomitica iure habetur … cum quis naturali venere vtitur cum Turcis, Saracenis, aut Iudeis. Nam huiusmodi omnes, Iura & religio Christiana non secùs, quam bestias … apertè oppugnant, negligunt, fastidiunt, oderunt” (Joost de Damhoudere, Enchiridion Rerum Criminalium [Louvain, 1554], sig. Aav). Abbreviations in the original Latin text have been silently expanded in this transcription.

  32. For one example of the rich and detailed critical commentary on this subject, see Lawrence Danson. The Harmonies of The Merchant of Venice (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale UP, 1978), who points out the irony that “the Elizabethan moneylender was highly visible, well known to all, and unimpeachably a non-Jew” (141-57, esp. 147). For more recent commentary, see James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews (New York: Columbia UP, 1996), 98-100.

  33. The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, ed. Arthur Sherbo, 7 vols. (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1968), 7:227.

  34. Richard Levin, Love and Society in Shakespearean Comedy (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1985), 70.

  35. W. Thomas MacCary, Friends and Lovers: The Phenomenology of Desire in Shakespearean Comedy (New York: Columbia UP, 1985), 161.

  36. John Caius, Of Englishe Dogges, the diuersities, the names, the natures, and the properties …, trans. Abraham Fleming (London, 1576), sig. B1v. The social basis of this distinction is clear in such phrases as “gentle kinde,” although for Caius the dog as housepet and the dog as aristocratic hunting animal occupy the same space. Additionally, dogs possessed a broad range of traditional spiritual and moral significations that, although not immediately relevant to the present study, may also inform The Merchant of Venice. Beryl Rowland, for example, has noted a conventional medieval association of dogs with “the Devil, the hound of hell” (Animals With Human Faces: A Guide to Animal Symbolism [Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1973], 60); likewise, E. E. Stoll has noted that Judaism is identified with the Devil nine times in The Merchant of Venice (Shakespeare Studies, Historical and Comparative in Method [New York: Macmillan, 1927], 270-71).

  37. Harry Berger Jr. has recently discerned a “canine connection” between the servant Launce in Two Gentlemen of Verona and the character of Falstaff in his capacity as companion to Prince Hal; see “The Prince's Dog: Falstaff and the Perils of Speech-Prefixity,” SQ 49 (1998): 40-73, esp. 64-66. Caius reverses the terms of the metaphor when he describes the setter as “a creature domesticall or housholde seruaunt brought vp at home with offalls of the trencher & fragments of victualls” (sig. C4v).

  38. Marjorie Garber, “Shakespeare's Dogs” in Shakespeare and the Twentieth Century: The Selected Proceedings of the International Shakespeare Association World Congress, 1996, Jonathan Bate, Jill Levenson, and Dieter Mehl, eds. (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1998), 294-313, esp. 307.

  39. A Relation, or Rather a True Account, of the Island of England, trans. Charlotte Augusta Sneyd (London: Camden Society, 1847), 10.

  40. Caius, sigs. D4r-v.

  41. As scholars such as David Katz have shown, Jews continued to inhabit Tudor England (The Jews in the History of England, 1485-1850 [Oxford: Clarendon Press], 1-14), albeit surreptitiously and in small numbers; likewise, during the reign of Henry VI, one Sir Robert Plumpton could still receive land in Nottinghamshire “called Wolfhunt Land, held by the service of winding a Horn, and Chasing or Frighting the Wolves in the Forest of Shirewood” (Thomas Blount, Fragmenta Antiquitatis: Antient Tenures of Land [London, 1679], 94). However, these are exceptional reports.

  42. For a summary of these records, see E. P. Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals: The Lost History of Europe's Animal Trials (1906; rpt. London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 265-86; and for further condensation and cross-comparison, see Philip Jamieson, “Animal Liability in Early Law,” The Cambrian Law Review 19 (1988): 45-68, esp. 45.

  43. For this practice, see Douglas Hay, “Poaching and the Game Laws on Cannock Chase” in Albion's Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England, Douglas Hay et al., eds. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1975), 195-96.

  44. R. Po-Chia Hsia, The Myth of Ritual Murder: Jews and Magic in Reformation Germany (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1988), 26 and 28.

  45. G. K. Hunter, Dramatic Identities and Cultural Tradition: Studies in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 1978), 65.

  46. See Adam Klassert, “Die Entehrung Maria[e] durch die Juden: Eine antisemitische Dichtung Thomas Murner,” Jahrbuch fur Geschichte, Sprache und Literatur Elsass-Lothringens 21 (1905): 3-118, esp. 79 and 82.

  47. I have found no reference to this woodcut, or any other like it, in Max Geisberg (The German Single-Leaf Woodcut 1500-1550, 4 vols. [New York: Hacker Art Books, 1974]), Walter Strauss (The German Single-Leaf Woodcut 1550-1600, 3 vols. [New York: Abaris, 1975]), Edward Hodnett (English Woodcuts 1480-1535 [Oxford: Oxford UP, 1973]), or Campbell Dodgson (Catalogue of Early German and Flemish Woodcuts Preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum, 2 vols. [London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1903-11]). Ruth Luborsky and Elizabeth Ingram's as-yet-unpublished successor catalogue to Hodnett's may reveal that the illustration finally made its way to England, as did at least one other Continental anti-Semitic woodcut; see Ruth Luborsky, “The Pictorial Image of the Jew in Elizabethan Secular Books,” SQ 46 (1995): 449-53. However, given the early date and extreme scarcity of Die Entehrung Maria[e] (only three copies survive, in Michelstadt, Tübingen, and Munich, respectively), this seems quite improbable. I have consulted the Tübingen copy.

  48. Shapiro, 189.

  49. Danson, 159.

  50. Terry Eagleton, William Shakespeare (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 43.

  51. Avraham Oz, The Yoke of Love: Prophetic Riddles in The Merchant of Venice (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1995), 182.

  52. MacCary, 162.

  53. See, e.g., Levin, 80-81; Ralph Berry, Shakespeare's Comedies: Explorations in Form (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1972), 143-44.

  54. Audrey Yoder, Animal Analogy in Shakespeare's Character Portrayal (New York: King's Crown Press, 1947), 34. See also Jeanne Addison Roberts, The Shakespearean Wild: Geography, Genus, and Gender (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1991), 2; Thomas, 105; and Rowland, 61.

  55. Sir John Davies, “In Cineam” in The Poems of Sir John Davies, ed. Robert Krueger (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 136-37 (ll. 9-14).

  56. Caius, sigs. D2v-D3r.

Gary Rosenshield (essay date 2002)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11580

SOURCE: Rosenshield, Gary. “Deconstructing the Christian Merchant: Antonio and The Merchant of Venice.Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 20, no. 2 (2002): 28-51.

[In the following essay, Rosenshield examines Antonio's role as an economic ideal—a Christian merchant—in The Merchant of Venice.]

For several millennia conservative writers have seen their times as corrupted by a lust for material gain and thus inherently destructive of the moral, spiritual, and religious values of an idealized older order. This attitude frequently manifests itself in quixotic nostalgia, but just as often it elicits a rancorous response. One need only recall Dostoevksy's diatribe against the Jewish idea in The Diary of a Writer (March 1877), which he associates with the modern world dominated by finance and the stock market, in short, by a materialistic idea that signals the death knell of the old world of Christian love and fellowship.

Thus, it is not for nothing that over there Jews are reigning everywhere over stock exchanges; it is not for nothing that they control capital, that they are the masters of credit, and it is not for nothing—I repeat—that they are the masters of international politics, and what is going to happen in the future is only known to the Jews themselves: their reign, their complete reign is approaching! We are approaching the complete triumph of ideas before which the sentiments of humanity, thirst for truth, Christian and national feelings, and even those of national dignity, must bow. On the contrary, we are approaching materialism, a blind, carnivorous craving for personal material welfare, a craving for personal accumulation of money by any means—this is all that has been proclaimed as the supreme aim, as the reasonable thing, as liberty, in lieu of the Christian idea of salvation only through the closest moral and brotherly fellowship of men.1

Shakespeare, on the other hand, hardly sees a solution to the threat of materialism in a resurrection of the past; nor does he despair over modernity. In The Merchant of Venice, he may be suggesting a compromise between the old and new age. In fact, the play may be seen as an experiment, metaphorically testing the viability in the contemporary world of a marriage of capital and Christian ideals.2 The question that the play implicitly asks is not whether Shylock can become a Christian but whether Antonio can be both a Christian and a merchant: that is, a merchant and not in some way also a Jew. Is it possible for a Christian to escape “Judaization” in a world rapidly being transformed by a mercantile and pre-capitalist economy? And if Antonio cannot escape the corruption of finance, can anyone?

Much of the historical criticism of the play has dealt with the way in which Shylock's and Antonio's roles reflect the economic realities of Shakespeare's age. Different conceptualizations of the economic and social realities of late sixteenth-century England, however, lead to different interpretations of these roles. Shylock may appear as a precursor of modern capitalism and his usury as an early form of banking or money capital, a position traced and elucidated by Richard Halpern.3 Or he may represent, as Walter Cohen has remarked, a “quasifeudal fiscalism,” which would make him more a “figure from the past: marginal, diabolical, irrational, archaic, medieval,” “an old man with obsolete values trying to arrest the course of history.” Antonio, by contrast, emerges “as a special instance of bourgeois mercantilism, a harbinger of modern capitalism.”4 In any case, in The Merchant of Venice, Shylock, Jew, and usurer emerge as synonymous opprobrious terms.5 Antonio is neither Jew nor usurer, but a Christian merchant. How Christian a merchant he is, and can be, in the new age is one of the most important issues explored by the play.

Although The Merchant of Venice must insist on the distinction between usurer and merchant in order to argue the possibility of a Christian merchant, we know that the difference between the two was not always clear in late sixteenth-century England. Before they were expelled from some European countries and restricted in their professions in others, Jews figured prominently as merchants in international trade, taking advantage of their contacts with their coreligionists throughout the Mediterranean. During this time, the term Jew was as associated with trade as with usury.6 Though usury had traditionally been associated with an unproductive, sterile form of profit, a purely monetary exchange, (“barren metal” 1.3.131)7—profit from trade being more favorably associated with the exchange of goods or productive labor8—European mercantile society was seriously challenging the moral distinction between lending at interest and other forms of profit. In the sixteenth century, the English Parliament spent a good deal of time debating and amending laws regulating lending at interest (a common English practice),9 which became legal after 1571. Thereafter, the term usury, at least in a legal sense, seems to have been reserved for excessive interest (extortion), interest greater than ten percent.10 Before 1571, since lending money incurred significant risk, interest rates were considerably higher.

Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday gives a rather rosy view of the merchant class of London, but we know that many merchants were regularly involved in usury, especially after 1571.11 William Ingram notes that after 1571, “many more people engaged themselves in the business, borrowing became respectable, and the covert procedures of the underground moneylenders quickly surfaced as the standard practice of the newly legalized brokers.”12 John Langley, the uncle of Francis Langley (a short-time owner of The Swan playhouse), was a merchant-goldsmith who held the position of Lord Mayor of London for one year. Though he did not lend money, after 1571 goldsmiths and scriveners were almost euphemisms for moneylenders. Francis Langley, himself a draper, was continually involved in moneylending, often borrowing and lending at the same time. There were few loans that he entered into that did not include a bond (a forfeiture penalty) as an essential aspect of the contract.13 Since he forfeited on many of his loans, as did many who borrowed from him, he spent a good deal of his life in court, suing and being sued.

Shakespeare does not ignore the English reality, he circumvents it by setting the action in Venice, where, for want of more accurate information, the distinction between usurer and merchant and the possibility of a self-sacrificing merchant-Christian may be more credibly entertained.14 According to Walter Cohen, English history could only evoke Shakespeare's fears about capitalism. Italian history, or rather Shakespeare's re-creation of it, could allay those fears. Venice also gives the merchant the possibility of circulating primarily in non-merchant circles, with courtiers and the representatives of aristocratic landed wealth, lest he be tainted by intercourse with other less upright merchants.15 But the Italian strategy is made a little more difficult because of Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, a work which takes place close enough to Italy, and to which The Merchant of Venice is obviously reacting.16

The Jew of Malta presents a rather grim picture of the new world emerging at the end of the sixteenth century. Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all motivated by the same desire for power and material gain. The spirit of the new age is explicitly presented in the prologue by Machiavel, who cautions the audience that those who do not heed his words will pay the consequences in lost wealth and power. He counts “Religion but a childish Toy” and holds that “there is no sinne but ignorance.” Barabas is his model, whose “mony was not got without my meanes.”17

At the beginning of the play, Barabas and the Jews of Malta seem unjustly treated by their Christian rulers, who strip the Jews of their wealth to pay tribute to the Turkish Sultan. At first, the reader might harbor sympathy for Barabas's anger and desire for revenge. But after the second act, Barabas turns into a monster, poisoning his own daughter, along with all the nuns in the nunnery where she has taken refuge. Moreover, as his words make clear, he has not so much changed his ways as concentrated his stratagems. He brags that even in his youth, long before the action of the play begins, he preyed upon the Christian population of Europe.

As for myselfe, I walke abroad a nights,
And kill sicke people groaning under walls:
Sometimes I goe about and poyson wells …
Being young I studied Physicke, and began
To practise first upon the Italian;
There I enrich'd the Priests with burials,
And alwayes kept the Sexton's arms in ure
With digging graves and ringing dead mens knells;


Cartelli and Humphreys have argued that the Christians in the play are no better than Barabas: they have the same desires, commit the same villainies, but are just more skillful in concealing their thoughts and actions, mostly beneath a veneer of religious piety and civic duty.18 The Duke's main motivation is power and revenge. And even the monks sing a different tune when gold is at issue. But The Jew of Malta paints a somewhat inconsistent, if not ambivalent, picture of the new world. On one hand, the monster Barabas of the last three acts epitomizes the economic egoism of the new age. On the other, the play exhibits a certain embarrassed admiration for its hero-villain, who appears less interested in revenge, gold, and power than in excitement, risk, and adventure.19 At times Barabas seems to “rise” above Christian, Jews, and Muslims by realizing their unconscious—or perhaps subconscious—criminal fantasies.

The Merchant of Venice appeared several years after The Jew of Malta. The writing may have received impetus from the successful revival of Marlowe's play in 1596, during the trial of the Queen's doctor, Rodrigo Lopez, a Portuguese-born Marrano who was found guilty of conspiring to poison the queen and subsequently executed.20 Many have noted the important differences between Barabas and Shylock, not to speak of other significant differences in the plays. Continually humiliated in the market place by his Christian rival Antonio, Shylock is a much lesser figure than Barabas. His scope is smaller, and even when he manages to find Antonio in his power, he is thwarted by no more than a young lady posing as a judge. But what is most different about the plays is not so much the characterization or even the image of the Jew, but their authors' different attitudes toward the new world, in which the lust for gold and self-aggrandizement militates against the preservation of older Christian values.21 In Marlowe, the modern world has arrived. Christian values appear only sporadically, and even then mostly in the hypocritical posturing of unscrupulous statesmen and clergymen. Shakespeare still entertains the hope, not that the Golden Age of Christian fellowship can return, but that Christian values can hold their own, if not thrive, midst the social and economic realities of the new age.

The Merchant of Venice makes several different transformations of The Jew of Malta. First, it carries over the Jewish and Christian enmity from Marlowe's play, but alters it considerably. The Shylock/Barabas plot structure is similar. Barabas seeks revenge against his Christian tormentor the Duke (he is responsible for the death of the Duke's son and the Turkish capture of Malta), but in the end the Duke turns the tables on Barabas and engineers Barabas's death in a boiling cauldron. Shylock's pursuit of vengeance against Antonio concludes with Antonio's complete victory. But Shylock is not only a scaled-down version of the romantic villain, even in his vengefulness he is presented as far more human. Furthermore, whereas Marlowe presents Barabas and the Duke, the Jew and Christian, as equally corrupt, two forms of the same modern phenomenon, Shakespeare sharply separates his Jew and Christian to emphasize the moral and spiritual chasm between Jewish and Christian worlds, the split between the pursuit of revenge and usurious capital on one hand and Christian charity and merchant “venture” on the other.22

Shakespeare must highlight the essential differences between Shylock and Antonio to test the viability of an alternative to the Barabases, the Shylocks, and even the Dukes of the new world. Assuming that the modern world will be ruled by merchants, the play needs to show if its masters can also be Christian and noble. The Christian antithesis is already at hand in Shylock. However humanized, he conforms, for the most part, to a medieval Jewish stereotype. But a Christian merchant must be created who can be sharply differentiated from the Jewish usurer. Gross has seen the difference between Shylock and Antonio precisely in this dichotomy.

Between them, Antonio and Shylock represent two extreme versions of Economic Man, one benevolent, the other malign. Jekyll-Antonio embodies the fantasy that you can enjoy the benefits of economic enterprise, and confer them on your society, without being competitive and self-assertive. Hyde-Shylock is the capitalist as total predator, conferring good upon no one except himself. They are twin aspects of the same phenomenon; and a tremendous amount of the play's energy is spent keeping them apart. … [Antonio] represents an attempt to resolve—or deny—the tension between Christian ideals of renunciation and the pursuit of worldly wealth.

[italics mine]23

Antonio consciously asserts and defines himself as a Christian merchant: that is, the antithesis of Shylock. He not only refuses to take interest (perhaps even in contrast to his fellow Christian merchants), but engages in a crusade to humiliate Shylock at every opportunity and to assist Christians who have suffered from Shylock's usury. Shakespeare not only dissociates Antonio's profession from Shylock's usury, he elevates Antonio's mercantile activities, presenting them as regal, noble, knightly, courteous, and gentle. Salerio describes Antonio's ships as great seigneurs who fly by their competitors as on woven wings. Grantanio refers to him as “that royal merchant, good Antonio” (3.2.239), as does the duke at the beginning of the trial (4.1.29). Bassanio calls him that “one in whom / The ancient Roman honor more appears / Than any that draws breath in Italy” (3.2.294-96). The whole enterprise, fraught with danger, seems adventurous, bold, daring, and risky, perhaps the newest knightly profession, surely not for the faint of heart. Antonio is a new breed of merchant prince.24 But given the usurious activities of English merchants of the time, Shakespeare not only had to change the locus of the action to Venice, he had to play his Christian merchant against type. As Holmer writes, “Shakespeare is almost avant garde in abandoning the old, despicable usurer-merchant figure in drama for the new, heroic merchant-prince figure that begins to gain dominance in popular literature in the 1590s.”25

Frank Whigham, who has emphasized the importance of style and appearance in creating reality in The Merchant of Venice, notes how “stylized assertion” in Salerio's speech becomes one of the “tools” in Antonio's defense as merchant. Style dresses mercantile enterprise in heroic clothes.26 On the other hand, “the intermixture of heroic and mercantile language emphasizes their relation to each other; the tonal disjunction suggests an ironic reading, since in romantic heroics financial foundations are usually suppressed as tawdry.”27 Bassanio wins Portia, the landed aristocrat and arbiter of style in the play, primarily through wit, not bravado or money. Although Shakespeare problematizes the issue of appearance and reality, he often plays both ends against the middle, using appearances as “a laudable decoration or revelation of consonance of inner and outer value,”28 as he does in the representation of Antonio and Bassanio, while exposing the disjuncture between appearance and reality in the words of Shylock, who like

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!


Poetry is used to raise the merchant socially and ethically. Antonio, appears, like Bassanio, in search of “the golden fleece” (1.1.170), not “money-bags” (2.5.18). Shylock is aesthetically, thus morally, deficient, and as Antonio finds out too late, not to be trusted.29

Antonio remains a model of friendship, love, and care in his relationships with all his Christian acquaintances—no small virtue in Venice. Although some critics argue that Antonio exploits his virtue to manipulate Bassanio,30 to most commentators Antonio is an exemplary friend. He is loved and revered by all the Christians who know him. Even Portia, who sees Antonio as a rival for her husband's affections, reveres his character and appreciates—with reservations, of course—his willingness to die for Bassanio. Ready to do everything in his power to help his friend, Antonio goes against his own principles (breaking “a custom” 1.3.61) by borrowing money from Shylock. One might argue that Antonio also enters into the bond because he does not suspect that he is undergoing a significant risk. Perhaps he does not take Shylock's penalty—the pound of flesh—seriously: that is, he regards it as an interest-free loan. “Hie thee, gentle Jew. The Hebrew will turn Christian; he grows kind” (1.3.174-75). But Antonio is not naive; he is a rich merchant who knows the ways of the world, the international rules and pitfalls of big business. He knows Shylock hates him above all other Christians and knows that Shylock must be relishing the opportunity of avenging himself on his worst enemy. Given the wide-spread currency of the blood accusation, Antonio understands, on some level, the implications of the bond and Shylock's seriousness. He is thus willing, if need be, to sacrifice himself for his friend in imitation of Christ. One may even view Antonio's actions against Shylock as motivated less by hatred than by a desire to protect fellow Christians. The situation demands aggressive behavior; when engaging the devil, one needs to fight fire with fire. Few in Shakespeare's audience would have found much fault with any of Antonio's actions against a Jew in defense of his fellow Christians.

If Antonio were an exemplary Christian merchant, the play would, as many have argued, constitute a standard comedy in which, according to generic expectations, the world is set right at the end. But he is not. And that is why we must not only read the play otherwise but also see it as containing a contravening vision about the modern age both in Christian Venice and, by extension, Christian London. But to read the play otherwise, we must read Antonio otherwise, arguing not only for a less exemplary Antonio, but a more complicated and conflicted one as well, an Antonio who is closer to Shylock, in some ways, than he would care to imagine. It is not perverse of modern readers to see Portia's comment about which is the merchant here and which the Jew as a textual invitation to explore similarities, especially since the differences are made explicit.31 Antonio's hatred of and obsession with Shylock is something more than just a justifiable Christian reaction to the person and idea of Jew and usurer. It is an overreaction betraying Antonio's subconscious, or more probably unconscious, fears about himself and his profession, about who he is and what he is.

Interpretation has understandably focused on Shylock's hatred of Antonio and the revenge that it activates when Antonio forfeits his bond.32 But Shylock's hatred of Antonio is presented as less a generic hatred of Christians than a direct response to Antonio's greater hatred of Shylock. Shylock has personal reasons for his animus toward Antonio. Antonio has sought him out on the Rialto. According to Shylock (1.3.103-126), Antonio has habitually berated him, baited him, humiliated him, spat on his clothes and in his face, and kicked him. Antonio confirms it. “I am as like to call thee so again / To spet on thee again, to spurn thee too” (1.3.127-28). He will behave exactly in the same way after the loan is repaid. For the moment, however, he will suspend hostilities for his friend's sake. He will say “there is much kindness in the Jew” (1.3.150) and “Hie thee, gentle Jew. The Hebrew will turn Christian; he grows kind” (1.3.174-75). The play does not mention anyone else who has been so taken up with Shylock nor takes it as his personal mission to provide relief to the Christian population suffering from Shylock's usury. Antonio seems to have specifically chosen Shylock; there is no mention of his having humiliated any other usurers, Jewish or Christian, nor is there any mention of other Christian merchants' singling Shylock out, or any other Jew for that matter. Shylock does not squeeze his Christian borrowers to wage war against Antonio. To others, Antonio is the model of exemplary Christian love; to Shylock, Antonio is a symbol of Christian hatred. “He hath disgraced me, and hind'red me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated my enemies—and what's his reason? I am a Jew” (3.1.51-55).

Such personal hatred seems quite out of keeping for a Christian merchant in a play in which the Christian merchant is being advanced as an ideal. It is all the more surprising that this hatred is lodged in a character who is viewed by all his friends as even-tempered and reasonable. We can understand Antonio's hatred after Shylock demands his pound of flesh. But Antonio's hatred of and obsession with Shylock predate the action proper of the play. He has been on a personal mission against Shylock long before then. Antonio needs Shylock and continually seeks him out, for Shylock is important for Antonio's continual self-fashioning as a Christian merchant.33 He engages Shylock so intensely because he needs to define himself as the antithesis of the Jew, to see himself as a merchant and not a usurer, for a usurer obviously cannot be a true Christian. But it is not enough for Antonio to define himself as the enemy of the Jew, he must be Shylock's greatest enemy, a Christian merchant whose main mission is thwarting the activities of the most prominent Jewish usurer of Venice. There must be no doubt in Antonio's mind about “which is the merchant here and which the Jew.”34

Bernard J. Paris argues that Antonio hates Shylock because Shylock acts out Antonio's “forbidden impulses.”35 He gives no indication, however, of what those forbidden desires might be. Besides, there is little evidence in the play that suggests that Antonio unconsciously desires to be a Shylock. Quite the contrary: because he becomes involved in money matters—how else does Antonio thwart Shylock's bargains and cool his friends?—Antonio fears any association and thus identification with Shylock. Rather than wanting to be Shylock, Antonio dreads that he may be like Shylock already. Robert Alter hints at this self-doubt more generally when he writes about Shylock's relationship to Shakespeare's Christian audience, which “may harbor the fearsome attributes it habitually projects on the other,” and “in the savage give-and-take of the commercial world of Venice, the barriers between the insider and the outsider are not always impermeable, and there are fleeting hints that the savagery exists on both sides.”36 This is what Richard Halpern, after Girard, has called the mirror-image interpretation of the Christian characters of the play: “Shylock is merely the double, or mirror image, of the play's Christian characters, who persecute him because they have projected onto him what they hate in themselves.”37 Shylock is not “better than he appears to be, but … the Christians are as bad as he appears to be.”38 Shylock is not like the Christians, the Christians are like Jews.39

The irony of Antonio's battle with Shylock is that the means he employs in the struggle are bound to lead to the most untoward, unchristian results. The more he becomes involved with Shylock, the more doubts he must have about himself both as a Christian and a merchant. When Antonio is among his kith and kin, it is considerably easier to be the noble Roman and faithful friend; when he sees Shylock in the market place, he can no longer control his hatred. He acts toward Shylock no differently than Shylock acts or would act towards him, had he the power. The anxiety and hatred that Antonio feels in Shylock's presence stems in part from an unconscious recognition, not that he is the mirror image of Shylock but that there is something that nevertheless links him with his enemy. Antonio seeks to destroy Shylock precisely because Shylock is a constant reminder of the fine line dividing the Christian merchant and the Jewish usurer. A sort of modern-day paladin Templar, Antonio engages in both an economic and religious crusade to rid Venice (a sort of financial Holy Land) of Jewish usurers and replace them by Christian merchants.40 In the end, Shylock indeed becomes a merchant of Venice. But it is a pyrrhic victory. The ferocity of Antonio's crusade so corrupts him that in the end he is as much defined by his hatred of his enemies (the antithesis of the Christian ideal) as by his love of his friends. He hates with the same passion as his enemy and becomes part of the hatred against which he fights. Even worse, his love is corrupted by his hatred, which, as we shall see, becomes a subtle instrument of revenge.

Antonio intuitively understands that his life as a merchant cannot be the life of a true Christian. Refusing to lend money at interest and rescuing Shylock's debtors cannot obscure the truth about his profession: that many Christian merchants lend money at interest and that the profits derived from buying low and selling high may involve risk, but do not constitute a significantly different transaction from usury.41 The play emphasizes the distinction between merchant and usurer, even creating a Venice where only Christians are merchants and Jews usurers; but the need to create such a distinction implicitly acknowledges that in the real world many Christian merchants are usurers—the terms and professions, as Shakespeare well knew, were hardly mutually exclusive—and that many Jews are still merchants.42 The play's postulation of a Christian merchant is based on the existence of its antithesis: the increasing convergence of the activities of merchant and usurer in the real world.

Scholars have had a difficult time explaining Antonio's melancholy, but it may derive from his concerns about his profession. Less would have been written about his melancholy, if it could be explained by Antonio's knowledge of Bassanio's courtship of Portia.43 For any unironic interpretation of Antonio, the most defensible explanation of his melancholy is that he is simply of a melancholy disposition. Many characters in Shakespeare do not “develop,” they just manifest their intrinsic natures. Antonio is melancholy from the very first line of the play (“In sooth I know not why I am so sad” [1.1.1]). He is disturbed that he does not know the reason for his depression, and thinks that perhaps only more self-knowledge will alleviate his condition. Salerio suggests a cause: Antonio is anxious about his ships on the ocean. Solanio and then Salerio expand on this explanation. Had they ventured so much at such risk, they would have been far more melancholy than Antonio; in fact, they would been preoccupied by the fate of their merchandise every moment of the day, whether at table or in church. But, curiously, Antonio dismisses this explanation outright: his fortune is not in danger for he has sent out many ships; besides he still has considerable unventured capital at home: “Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad” (1.1.45). Antonio is both right and wrong about his melancholy.44 He must deny outright the implication of Salerio's statement that merchandise interferes with spiritual concerns. “Should I go to church / And see the holy edifice of stone, / And not bethink me straight of dangerous rocks” (1.1.28-31). Only an exemplary merchant can place the spirit over the material, if the average merchant can think only of his merchandise while in “a holy edifice of stone.” Antonio may be less concerned about his ships (merchant risk) than about his gains (questionable profit). In fact, he has had, it seems, few losses; his ships have regularly come home. Yet he still suffers from melancholy. The melancholy lasts from beginning to end, and it is unaffected by his changes of fortune. It is something eating away at Antonio's soul. Can we imagine Antonio enjoying the sweet music of Belmont any more than Shylock could? Are Antonio's “spirits,” like Jessica's, “attentive” (5.1.70)?

If we assume that Antonio's main mission regarding Shylock is to prove himself a gentle Christian merchant—that is, completely to dissociate himself from the Jew—then the trial scene provides Antonio with an ideal opportunity to fashion himself according to his own self-conception. Before the trial, he had played the role of Crusader knight rescuing poor Christians from Shylock's usurious practices. At the trial, Antonio takes on more self-sacrificing, though no less self-serving and self-aggrandizing, roles.45 He attempts to accomplish his two most cherished goals simultaneously: to demonstrate the depth of his love for Bassanio in his contest with Portia, and to prove himself an exemplary Christian merchant, using his archenemy, Shylock, as his primary instrument. Antonio is the fulcrum of the play's two main rivalry plots, and here Shakespeare ingeniously brings them together in one dramatic scene with Antonio at its center.

Antonio becomes the Christ who offers himself up to the Jews for crucifixion for the sake of others. He, thus, incorporates Bassanio into his contest with Shylock and Shylock into his contest with Portia. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Shylock's desire for a pound of flesh, a recognizable transformation of the blood accusation, makes it even easier for Antonio to assume his Christlike role and fashion himself into the antithesis of Shylock, the exploiting Jewish usurer. The duke pleads with Shylock to behave like a Christian, to show mercy, pity, commiseration, compassion, “remorse,” gentleness, love, and tender courtesy. By rejecting the duke's plea, Shylock not only reinforces himself in the role as quintessential Jew and usurer, he plays into Antonio's higher sacrificial purpose. Antonio can now prepare himself for a death in imitation of Christ.46 “Therefore, I do beseech you make no moe offers, use no farther means / But with all brief and plain conveniency / Let me have judgment, and the Jew his will” (4.1.80-83). Antonio is leery of using the language of scripture in accepting his fate, since, after all, “the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose” [I.iii.95]). He leaves it for the duke and Portia to frame Shylock's choice in terms of Jewish flint-heartedness and Christian mercy.47 They set the scene for Antonio to play the martyr. Since this role is worked out for him, all he must do is passively and silently accept his suffering.48

Let us take an additional imaginative step. It is one thing for Antonio morally and personally to exploit the situation in which he unfortunately finds himself; it is another purposely to put himself in such a position: that is, not only to accept death in imitation of Christ but actually seek it. Once we adopt an ironic stance toward Antonio, we need not confine ourselves to his motivation at the trial scene. We need to ask why Antonio borrows money from Shylock in the first place. I do not intend to reconstruct a psychological history for Antonio but merely pursue what the text suggests. Everyone reasonably assumes that Antonio attempts to procure a loan from Shylock because he cannot get it elsewhere: Shylock must be the only moneylender who has the ready money that Antonio needs. Therefore it is somewhat surprising that Shylock himself does not have the money that Antonio requires and must himself resort to a more wealthy Jew, Tubal.

I am debating of my present store,
And, by the near guess of my memory,
I cannot instantly raise up the gross
Of full three thousand ducats. What of that?
Tubal, a wealthy Hebrew of my tribe,
Will furnish me.


Perhaps Shylock could have thwarted, in revenge, Antonio's attempt to borrow from other Jewish usurers. At least for Antonio, all borrowing inevitably goes through Shylock. It is also curious that Antonio cannot borrow the money from his Christian friends—of course at no interest—who all seem to revere and love him. Will they not do for him what he intends to do for Bassanio? After all, Antonio has rescued many Christians, and probably many Christian merchants, from Shylock's clutches: “I oft deliver'd from his forfeitures / Many that have at times made moan to me” (3.3.22-23). Are they now not in the position to reciprocate? One has to assume that they do not have sufficient funds, implying that Antonio is not only a merchant of Venice, but the richest merchant of Venice, or that the Christian merchants of Venice resemble usurers more than Antonio would like to admit. Antonio asks Bassanio to find out how much he can borrow in Venice, but he also repeats his pledge to go to extremes if necessary to help his friend.

Thou know'st that all my fortunes are at sea;
Neither have I money nor commodity
To raise a present sum; therefore go forth,
Try what my credit can in Venice do;
That shall be rack'd, even to the uttermost,
To furnish thee to Belmont to fair Portia.
Go presently inquire, and so will I,
Where money is; and I no question make
To have it of my trust or for my sake.


But there is more than pure expedience to Antonio's borrowing from Shylock. The play shows at every turn that Antonio's relationship with Shylock is motivated by his assumption of the role of Christian merchant. None of his dealings with Shylock are disinterested. As we have seen, by showing his willingness to borrow from Shylock, his worst enemy, Antonio proves to Bassanio how prepared he is to put himself at risk for his friend. To those who focus on Antonio's jealousy over Portia, Antonio's contract with Shylock is an attempt to test his love against Portia's. But in terms of the other plot, the Antonio-Shylock rivalry, Antonio transforms himself into a Christian victim, similar to the Christians whom he was wont to rescue from Shylock's clutches. The more he can see himself as the victim, the more he can see himself as a Christian merchant, the less he need fear resembling Shylock himself. If he is seeking to atone for unconscious guilt over his profession, there could be no greater avenging agent than his archenemy. He has played the role of savior for other Christians; now he places himself in a position where he risks being the most helpless of all Shylock's victims because there is no one in Venice, it would seem, who can redeem him. It was not uncommon in England of the time to forfeit one's bond and have to pay a large penalty. Hundreds of lawsuits were brought to force debtors to honor such penalties. But since in The Merchant of Venice the bond penalty is nonmonetary, even those who could pay the bond price ten times over cannot rescue Antonio. Portia succeeds only because she bends the law to her own purposes. Moreover, Antonio enters into the bond with Shylock not with fear and trepidation, nor with reluctance and disgust, but willingly, almost flippantly, as though he had nothing to fear. His ships will come home as they have in the past. But if they do not, his purpose will be served even better.

You shall not seal to such a bond for me;
I'll rather dwell in my necessity.
Why, fear not, man; I will not forfeit it;
Within these two months—that's a month before
This bond expires—I do expect return
Of thrice three times the value of this bond.


But the true measure of Antonio as Christian merchant emerges at the end of the trial, in the unexpected victory rather than in the expected but self-fashioned defeat. The dichotomy between the flint-hearted Jew and merciful Christian has been fully set up by Portia and the Duke. Antonio has the opportunity to fulfill his role as merciful Christian as exemplarily as he fulfilled his role as loyal friend and Christian merchant. But he does not. After the tables have been turned against Shylock, the Duke tells him: “That thou shalt see the difference of our spirit, / I pardon thee thy life before thou ask it” (4.1.367-68). Portia then turns to Antonio expecting him to respond likewise, showing “the difference” of his spirit. “What mercy can you render him, Antonio?” (4.1.377) Antonio requests that the court let Shylock retain one-half of his goods. But under the guise of even greater mercy, he requests two things that accomplish his revenge. He places Shylock in a position to which anyone might prefer death: all that Shylock accumulates must be willed to the daughter who betrayed him and to the son-in-law who conspired against him. Further, Shylock must accept conversion himself.49 As a Christian, Shylock will no longer be allowed to lend money at interest. But more important, Antonio will no longer be confronted by a usurious alter-ego on the Rialto. In this relatively idealized Venice, Antonio's victory is assured. The success of Jewish revenge would be Christian tragedy, a reenactment of the crucifixion. Christian revenge must be comic; it must be seen not as revenge but mercy. “What mercy can you render him, Antonio?” (4.1.277) The pound of flesh has been trumped by conversion and revenge by ressentiment, “an act of the most spiritual revenge.”50

As antagonistic doubles, both Shylock and Antonio are attempting to rid themselves of their hated rival-others, by transforming their rivals into versions of themselves. Shylock wishes, literally, to cut the heart out of Antonio. Theodore Reik maintains that the excision of the flesh functions symbolically as Shylock's attempt not only to emasculate Antonio, but to circumcise him, and thus turn him, at least physically, into a Jew: the worst possible punishment.51 Shapiro argues that Shylock's choice of the heart is appropriate since St. Paul (Rom. 2:28-30) implies that for Christians the New Covenant, which has taken the place of circumcision, now resides in the heart, a view that Paul may have found justification for in Deuteronomy 10:16 and 30:6, and a view that had become part of the English exegetical tradition.52 We might conclude, then, that Antonio vanquishes Shylock not by a physical but by a spiritual act: that is, by conversion—though no reader could interpret Shylock's forced conversion a circumcision of the heart.53

But Antonio achieves an even more subtle revenge through conversion. He not only turns Shylock into a Christian, outwardly like himself, but he also turns him into a merchant, in fact, another merchant of Venice. Shylock retains half of his money, but since he now is a Christian he must abandon usury and become a merchant to earn his living. Antonio says to Bassanio at the end of Act I, “The Hebrew will turn Christian: he grows kind.” Shylock does not grow kind, but he still can be turned into a Christian and be forced to leave off usury in favor of merchantry. The issue here is certainly one of supersession, but not so much religious as economic. It is Antonio's mission to stamp out usury, the old economic dispensation, with a new dispensation represented by a class of merchants like himself, who can amass great wealth without resorting to the base and barren practice of making money from money. As long as Jewish usurers ply their trade, there will always be the suspicion of usury, especially given the English situation, in the merchant enterprise. Antonio is trying to rid the world of the old in preparation for the new, in which, ideally, Jews will become Christians, usurers merchants, barren feudalism will give way to venture capitalism, and the Shylocks of the world will become potential Antonios: Christian merchants. In the new age, Portia's question, “Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?” will have no meaning.54 At the end of the play, we know that Antonio is victorious because of the creation of another merchant of Venice—Shylock.

But what is the viability of an economic system built on hatred and ressentiment, especially one in which Shylock, erstwhile usurer and nouveau merchant, will be a direct competitor of Antonio? Before Shylock's conversion, the competition between Antonio and Shylock was primarily ideological and moral. Will Antonio's hatred of Shylock abate when Shylock becomes his direct competitor? An economic comedy that is based on the transformation of a Jewish usurer into a Christian merchant not only lacks credibility, it contains the seeds of its own deconstruction. It is as unconvincing economically as well as characterologically, and not only because of Shylock.55

Nor is everything patched over in the fifth act. Walter Cohen argues that “the aristocratic fantasy of Act V, unusually sustained and unironic even for Shakespearean romantic comedy, may accordingly be seen as a formal effort to obliterate the memory of what has preceded.”56 But if that is true, the Shylock-Antonio plot works against Shakespeare's putative intentions. Antonio's victories (his defeat of his archenemy, his demonstration of his friendship for Bassanio, and his assumption of the role of sacrificial victim in imitation of Christ) are spiritually, socially, and economically diminished in Act V with the transfer of locus from Venice to Belmont. But the damage starts even earlier, with Portia's arrival in Venice in Act IV. She scores a significant victory over Antonio for Bassanio's affections on Antonio's own turf. Antonio had hoped with his sacrificial death to have bonded Bassanio to him for life. By saving his life, Portia simultaneously deprives him of his most strategic weapon and makes him indebted to her.57 Further, Bassanio, now a rich landowning aristocrat, will hardly be in need of his friend's services again.

Antonio's cause is further undermined by another bond, a ring. In Venice, he has persuaded Bassanio to give away the ring that Portia had Bassanio swear “never to part with” (5.1.171).

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.


Bassanio responds:

But when this ring
Parts from this finger, then parts life from hence;
O, then be bold to say Bassanio's dead!


Antonio thus becomes, unwittingly of course, complicit in Bassanio's breaking of his most sacred promise (a most Christian bond)58 to the one who saved Antonio's life.59

Act V thus finds Antonio attempting to make amends to the person who saved his life. He is compelled to plead for his friend, Bassanio, much as Bassanio had once pleaded for him.

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. Give him this,
And bid him keep it better than the other.
Here, Lord Bassanio, swear to keep this ring.


Portia's victory over Antonio is complete: she not only saves the life of her husband's best friend, she compels him to be the one who returns her ring, the bond of affection, to her husband. Forcing Antonio to acknowledge her preeminent rights to Bassanio's affections, she seals her victory over Antonio forever. So complete is her victory that she gives the impression that she is less a character in a play than a playwright who has ingeniously staged all the events to her singular purpose. In the end, the caskets, the trial, the ring givings (and return), and the final nuptial ceremonies all seem of a piece.60

But in Act V Antonio has not sufficiently learned his lessons about bonds. No sooner has he been saved than he pledges himself again, this time offering not his body as a bond but his soul. For those who see Antonio as an exemplary friend and Christian, Antonio's offer for Bassanio's faithfulness may seem an ever greater testimony to his ardent friendship, however metaphorically he means it. But Portia turns this offer on its head as well. She accepts a pledge that means that Antonio will sacrifice his soul if Bassanio in effect ever places Antonio's interest above hers, and then she bids Antonio to make Bassanio to swear to the conditions, as it were, placing Bassanio in the same situation from which she just saved him.

Portia is of the Belmont landed aristocracy. Her wealth is inherited, not earned. For all her respect for Antonio, she still sees him as a merchant of Venice, and perhaps not so different, after all, in profession, from the Jew—thus, her “Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?” Whereas Antonio's merchant activities are built up as noble ventures at the beginning of the play, they seem less so from the perspective of aristocratic Belmont where Antonio, lacking both polish and music, seems out of his element.61 The play gives significant support for Antonio as the new economic ideal, the Christian merchant, but it also undercuts the ideal from opposite directions, by Antonio's association with Shylock whom he comes to resemble in his ferocious hatred, and also by his reduction in Belmont, where he is put in his place by Portia and where his merchant activities seem far less noble than Salerio presented them in Act I. And Portia has one more card to pull from her deck of tricks. She has known for a while that most of Antonio's ships have arrived safely and made significant profits (“richly come home to harbor” 5.1.278). Antonio ultimately has made no monetary sacrifice; in fact, he is even richer than ever before. Now that he has performed his function, Portia is ready to send him back home to ply his profit-making trade.62 He has no more business in Belmont, where there is no business. His place is with his newly arrived ships in Venice. He has more in common with Shylock, the new merchant of Venice, than he has with Portia or her spendthrift husband, Bassanio. When Antonio first hears the news about his safe ships, he responds like a true merchant. “Sweet lady, you have given me life and living!” (5.1.286). Antonio's words echo Shylock's after Antonio had destroyed Shylock's argosies, his livelihood:

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 take the means whereby I live.

(4.1.373-76). [italics mine]

When the merchant's (Antonio's) means are restored, he responds with the words of the Jew: “you have given me life and living!” No more the tainted wether, no more the weakest kind of fruit. The only way Antonio can become a true Christian is for his ships not to come in—in fact, never to come. “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Matthew 20:23-24).

But Act V has the potential of diminishing not only Antonio's victory over Shylock but the whole capitalistic order that Antonio embodies. If Antonio's victory represents a supersession of the pre-capitalist economy over feudalism, then, at least aesthetically, Belmont represents a utopic supersession of the economic orders represented by both Shylock and Antonio, a supersession of Belmont over Venice and all that it represents. It is not Antonio who defeats Shylock, but the dea ex machina Portia. She not only defeats Shylock, she appropriates him as an instrument to vanquish Antonio. Exhausted from their battle with each other, Antonio and Shylock lie prostrate before her. Bassanio has exchanged Belmont for Venice. So have Jessica and Lorenzo. And so has Shylock's former servant, Lancelot. Only Antonio is sent back to Venice to the world in which he—and Shylock—belong. Antonio's victory is once again a pyrrhic one. In the utopic world of Act V, art triumphs over reality; the spiritual, social, and economic victory is Portia's, not Antonio's.

Portia's victory in utopic Belmont does not deny Antonio's victory in the real world of Venice. But it vitiates it no less than his ferocious hatred of Shylock. Both the Portia and Shylock plots reveal the inherent contradiction and limitations of Antonio as a Christian merchant; they also give pause to those who envision a world in which these contradictions and limitations can be overcome. The dichotomy between an evil Jewish usurer and good Christian merchant turns out to be a literary construct, an ideology that, unlike Belmont, cannot be sustained through artifice and the aesthetic. As Antonio is confronted with the dark side of his profession in Shylock, he begins to react obsessively and with hatred: that is, unchristianly and ungently. Christian merchantry seems to work in the milieu of Antonio's fellow Christians, but it also contains its own Christian deconstruction in its hatred of the other. If the best of merchants, the Antonios of the world, succumb to hatred and ressentiment when faced with the new economic realities, how will they act when they meet on the Rialto not Shylock the usurer but Shylock the merchant of Venice? Which will be the merchant there and which the Jew? Which the superseded feudal remnant, and which the king of the modern world?


  1. F. M. Dostoievsky, The Diary of a Writer, tr. Boris Brasol (Santa Barbara: Smith, 1979), p. 650.

  2. Walter Cohen sees the play in the context of a wider, international development, in which rationalizations were being created for the transition from feudalism to capitalism (Walter Cohen, “The Merchant of Venice and the Possibilities of Historical Criticism,” Journal of English Literary History 49 [1982], p. 783).

  3. “His role as economic scapegoat is thus connected with his vulnerable and visible position within the realm of economic circulation; it is not capital as such but rather money capital that he is forced to represent” (Richard Halpern, Shakespeare among the Moderns [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997], p. 186). Halpern builds his argument on the difference between Marx's formulation of the difference between the more concrete use-value and the more abstract and relational exchange-value (Shylock).

  4. Cohen, “The Possibilities of Historical Criticism,” p. 771.

  5. For a discussion of the synonymy of ethic, religious, and economic categories in the figure of the Jew in general and Shylock in particular, see Halpern, Shakespeare among the Moderns, pp. 184-85.

  6. See Solomon Grayzel, A History of the Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1969), pp. 309-12; H. H. Ben-Sasson, “The Middle Ages,” in H. H. Ben-Sasson, ed., A History of the Jewish People (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), pp. 469-72.

  7. William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, in David Bevington, ed., The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 3rd ed. (Glenview: Scott, 1980), pp. 260-91.

  8. Halpern writes that Shylock “is neither more nor less explotive than other Venetians, but he does suffer the misfortune of working an unusually conspicuous mode of exploitation, one lacking any social cover or indirection. Even the Duke's slaves are tucked quietly away on his estate; we learn of them only because Shylock alludes to them polemically in court” (Halpern, Shakespeare among the Moderns, p. 185).

  9. The small number of Jews who lived in London during Shakespeare's time did not practice usury; the usurers of London were Christians, who often charged higher interests than Jews did in the countries where the Jews were permitted to lend money. See Margaret Hotine, “The Politics of Anti-Semitism: The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice,Notes and Queries (March 1991), p. 37.

  10. James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), pp. 98-99.

  11. According to Walter Cohen, “Writers of the period register both the medieval ambivalence about merchants and the indisputable contemporary fact that merchants were the leading usurers” (Cohen, “The Possibilities of Historical Criticism,” pp. 768-69).

  12. William Ingram, A London Life in the Brazen Age: Francis Langley, 1548-1608 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), p. 40.

  13. According to Ingram, Langley was probably the first to demand of the players at his theater that they sign a bond, a penalty that would be exacted if they did not fulfill their contractual agreement of playing only at the Swan (Ingram, A London Life, p. 155).

  14. Walter Cohen shows how “Venetian reality during Shakespeare's lifetime contradicted almost point for point its portrayal in the play. Not only did the government bar Jewish usurers from the city, it also forced the Jewish community to staff and finance low-interest, nonprofit lending institutions that served the Christian poor” (Cohen, “The Possibilities of Historical Criticism,” p. 770).

  15. According to John W. Draper, Antonio “constitutes a panegyric of a princely Italian merchant in private life and in world-wide affairs, and is far from Elizabethan or Venetian actuality” (John W. Draper, “Shakespeare's Antonio and the Queen's Finance,” Neophilologus 51 [1967], p. 184).

  16. As is well known, by his death in 1593, Marlowe was more renowned and imitated than his rival, William Shakespeare. The Merchant of Venice is called “Shakespeare's most Marlovian play” (James Shapiro, “‘Which is The Merchant here, and which The Jew?’: Shakespeare and the Economics of Influence,” Shakespeare Studies 20 [1988], p. 269). Many studies have been devoted not only to Marlowe's relation to Shakespeare, but to The Merchant of Venice as a reaction to The Jew of Malta. See for example, Maurice Charney, “Jessica's Turquoise Ring and Abigail's Poisoned Porridge: Shakespeare and Marlowe as Rivals and Imitators,” Renaissance Drama 10 (1979), pp. 33-44; Arthur Humphreys, “The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice: Two Readings of Life,” Huntington Library Quarterly 50:3 (1987), pp. 279-93; Shapiro, “Which is The Merchant?”; Thomas Cartelli, “Shakespeare's Merchant, Marlowe's Jew: The Problem of Cultural Difference,” Shakespeare Studies 20 (1988), pp. 255-60.

  17. I have used the following edition for Marlowe's play: Christopher Marlowe, The Jew of Malta, in Fredson Bowers, ed., Complete Works (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), Vol. 1, pp. 259-335.

  18. Cartelli, “Shakespeare's Merchant,” p. 255; Humphreys, “The Jew of Malta,” p. 286.

  19. Indeed, at times Barabas seems to treat the unjustice done to him as a welcome excuse to plan, to scheme, to strategize: that is, to live his idea of life at its fullest. “A kingly kinde of trade to purchase Townes / By treachery, and sell 'em by deceit? / Now tell me, worldlings, underneath the sunne, / If greater falsehood has ever bin done” (5.5.47-50).

  20. Though it is often maintained that Lopez was falsely accused, David S. Katz argues that according to any reasonable interpretation of contemporary English law, Lopez had acted treasonously. He may not have actively plotted to poison the queen, but his “secret contacts with Spanish Crown and his numerous discussions about the possibility of poisoning the queen were more than enough to hang him many times over” (David S. Katz, The Jews in the History of England: 1485-1850 [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994], p. 106).

  21. Few critics now contest the proposition that the play presents Jewishness and the Jewish idea as anything other than the antithesis of the Christian ideal. According to Derek Cohen, “though it is simplistic to say that the play equates Jewishness with evil and Christianity with goodness, it is surely reasonable to see a moral relationship between the insistent equation of the idea of Jewishness with acquisitive and material values while the idea of Christianity is linked to the values of mercy and love” (Derek Cohen, “Shylock and the Idea of the Jew,” Shakespearean Motives [New York: St. Martin's, 1988], p. 105).

  22. The play often refers to Antonio's business at sea as “ventures.” Antonio assures his friends: “My ventures are not in one bottom trusted” (1.1.42). Shylock uses the same word, though demystifyingly and dismissively (“and other ventures he hath, squand'red abroad” 1.3.20-21).

  23. John Gross, Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy (New York: Simon, 1992), pp. 54, 93.

  24. Most commentators see Antonio as a Shakespearian ideal. Draper describes him as “ideal man of commerce and affairs” (Draper, “Shakespeare's Antonio,” p. 178), “a pious eulogy” (p. 179), “a symbol of commercial and also of personal rectitude” (p. 179). For Humphreys, he is “the soul of self-sacrificing friendship” (Humphreys, “The Jew of Malta,” p. 289). For August Schlegel “the melancholy and self-sacrificing magnanimity of Antonio is affectingly sublime” (August Schlegel, Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature: The Jew of Malta [Bohn: London, 1846], p. 389). For detailed discussions of Antonio as Shakespeare's hero and ideal, see in addition: Myron Taylor, “The Passion of Antonio: A Reply to Recent Critics,” Christian Scholar 99 (1966), pp. 127-31; Henry Morris Partee, “Sexual Testing in The Merchant of Venice,McNeese Review 32 (1986-89), pp. 64-79; Bernard J. Paris, “The Not So Noble Antonio: A Horneyan Analysis of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice,The American Journal of Psychoanalysis 49.3 (1989), pp. 189-200. Paris presents Antonio as an ideal despite the title of his article. The phrase “princely merchant” seems to be an attempt to elevate both Antonio and merchants in general: that is: not only can Antonio be a prince, but so can all merchants. It should be emphasized that as a merchant Antonio belongs to a lower class than his improvident friend Bassanio—in fact, to a class more like that of his rival, Shylock. For a discussion of Antonio's class, see Lars Engle, “‘Thrift Is Blessing’: Exchange and Explanation in the Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Quarterly 37 (1986), pp. 28-29.

  25. Joan Ozark Holmer, The Merchant of Venice: Choice, Hazard, and Consequence (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1995), p. 156.

  26. Frank Whigham maintains that Shylock also uses style, but to demystify: specifically, to diminish the aura of Antonio's merchant enterprises. Shylock “strives to demystify their power and prestige, to strip to essences what is romantically obscured. He takes the incantatory terms with which Solanio and Salerio sang Antonio's reputation and stands them on their feet.” In Act III, Shylock remarks that “ships are but boards, sailors but men, there be land-rats and water-rats, water-thieves and land-thieves, (I mean pirates), and then there is the peril of waters, winds, and rocks” (1.3.15-23) (Frank Whigham, “Ideology and Class Conduct in The Merchant of Venice,Renaissance Drama 10 [1979], p. 104).

  27. Wingham, Ideology and Class Conduct, p. 96.

  28. Whigham, Ideology and Class Conduct, p. 105.

  29. The man that hath no music in himself,
    Nor is not mov'd with concord of sweet sounds,
    Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
    The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
    And his affections dark as Erebus.
    Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.


  30. For perhaps the earliest full statement arguing for Antonio's sacrifice as a means of possessing Bassanio, see Lawrence Hymen, “The Rival Lovers in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Quarterly 21 (1970), pp. 109-16.

  31. In this century, criticism of The Merchant of Venice has taken three basic paths. The first interprets the play as a romantic comedy and sees the Venetians as embodiments (though not perfect embodiments, to be sure) of the virtues of love, friendship, joy, and sacrifice. The second is ironist; it interprets the values that the characters ostensibly embody as superficial, more often than not the means to disguise more selfish motives. Since irony is much less obvious than romantic assertion, ironist interpretations are invariably more ingenious; on the other hand, they often seem less textually grounded. The third understands The Merchant of Venice as a hybrid, combining significant romantic and ironist elements, which lend the play its wonderful power but also create its many problems for interpretation. “The magnetism of the work,” writes Robert Alter, “is generated by the interplay between the two perspectives” (Robert Alter, “Who Is Shylock,” Commentary 96.1 [1993], p. 34). As will be evident, my interpretation is based on the dynamic and unresolved tension between the antagonistic romantic and ironic elements inherent in the text. For a similar description of the approaches to the play in terms of harmonious, utopian and aestheticizing interpretations vs. rational, ironic, demystifying, and ironic ones, see Halpern, Shakespeare among the Moderns, pp. 210-26. In “Which is the merchant here? And which the Jew? Subversion and Recuperation in The Merchant of Venice,” in Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O'Conner, eds., Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology (New York: Methuen, 1987), p. 202, Thomas Moisan argues that in The Merchant of Venice art trumps ideological contradictions: “The play manages to transcend the issues its text problematicizes to render a dramatically, theatrically satisfying experience.”

  32. See Halpern's analysis of Shylock's primitive hatred of Antonio in terms of the desire to feed on the flesh of the Christian (Halpern, Shakespeare among the Moderns, pp. 202-3).

  33. It has been argued that Antonio's virtues have less to do with his actions and more with his pious self-fashioning. “That Antonio appears less devoted to these [acquisitive] aims than do Bassanio and Shylock is as much the consequence of his chosen mode of self-fashioning as it is a demonstration of actual disinterestedness” (Cartelli, “Shakespeare's Merchant, Marlowe's Jew”, p. 257).

  34. Shylock calls Antonio a publican: “how like a fawning publican he looks” (1.3.38). The word publican, which has been the object of much critical scrutiny, was occasionally associated with usury. See, for example, Holmer, Choice, Hazard, and Consequence, pp. 151-53.

  35. Paris, “The Not So Noble Antonio,” p. 197.

  36. Alter, “Who Is Shylock,” pp. 33, 34.

  37. Halpern, Shakespeare among the Moderns, p. 161. The mirror image involves projection and distortion. But fear can come from the belief that one has much in common with what the play presents as an objectionable and objective reality: Shylock. A rather extravagant example of precisely this type of fear is argued by Seymour Kleinberg, who maintains that Antonio hates Shylock because he unconsciously equates usury with homosexuality and alienness, and therefore sees himself in the tainted Jewish moneylender. “He hates himself in Shylock: the homosexual self that Antonio has come to identify symbolically as a Jew. It is the earliest portrait of the homophobic homosexual” (Seymour Kleinberg, “The Merchant of Venice: The Homosexual as Anti-Semite in Nascent Capitalism,” in Stuart Kellogg, ed., Literary Visions of Homosexuality [New York: The Haworth Press, 1983], p. 120). Cynthia Lewis maintains that in the end Antonio's hatred so alienates him that he comes to resemble Shylock in his isolation (Cynthia Lewis, “Antonio and Alienation in The Merchant of Venice,South Atlantic Review 48.4 [1983], p. 29).

  38. Halpern, Shakespeare among the Moderns, p. 179.

  39. Halpern sees this kind of denigration of Christians as a subtle form of antisemitism, in which Jewishness remains a “standard of degeneration. … The vices of the dominant groups are figured as further developments or elaborations of an originally tainted Jewish essence. If the Jews' enemies are even worse than they, this is because they are super-Jews, Jews to the second power, the ‘real’ Jews in relation to which the originals are now only pale reflections” (Halpern, Shakespeare among the Moderns, p. 162).

  40. The Knight Templars were a military, religious community devoted to the protection of Christians in the Holy Land. They had their quarters in the area of the former Jewish Temple. The Templars took vows of chastity and poverty; however, as they gained in strength, they came to possess tremendous financial power, owning extensive properties, engaging in banking, and transporting gold to and from the Holy Land. They were, in effect, the first Christian merchant knights.

  41. The play adopts the medieval position on usury—Antonio's position against Shylock's. But Mark R. Benbow points out that large profits were viewed almost as a form of usury in England of the time (Mark R. Benbow, “The Merchant Antonio, Elizabethan Hero,” Colby Literary Quarterly 12 [1976], pp. 158-59). Much has been written about the difference—and similarities—between usury and venture capital (risk capital) in The Merchant of Venice. See for example, Graham Holderness, “Purse and Person: For Love or Money,” in Linda Cookson and Bryan Loughrey, eds., The Merchant of Venice: Longman Critical Essays (Essex: Longman, 1992), pp. 29-40; Lawrence Danson, The Harmonies of The Merchant of Venice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), pp. 139-50; Cohen, “Historical Criticism,” pp. 142-82. It should be emphasized that before the usury law of 1571, lending money was often considered the riskiest of all exchange enterprises.

  42. See Katz, The Jews in the History of England, p. 77. We have seen that Jewish Venetian merchants not only existed but were required “to finance low-interest, nonprofit lending institutions that served the Christian poor” (Cohen, “Historical Criticism,” p. 770).

  43. It is probably impossible to know for certain whether Antonio's melancholy precedes his knowledge of Bassanio's wooing: “Well; tell me now what lady is the same / To whom you swore a secret pilgrimage, / That you to-day promis'd to tell me of?” (1.1.119-21).

  44. The mysterious sources or reasons for Antonio's melancholy have always engaged scholarly interest. See, for example: R. Chris Hassel, “Antonio and the Ironic Festivity of the Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Studies 6 (1970), pp. 67-74; Carl Goldberg, “What Ails Antonio? The Nature of Evil in Psychiatric Disorders,” Journal of Psychology and Judaism 9.2 (1985), pp. 68-85; Cartelli, “Shakespeare's Merchant,” pp. 255-60.

  45. Hassel sees Antonio's desire for self-sacrifice as “a perplexingly selfish desire to exhibit the perfection of his love” (Hassel, “Antonio and the Ironic Festivity,” p. 71).

  46. According to Benjamin Nelson, “Antonio's heroic suretyship to Shylock for Bassanio finds its prototype in Christ's act in serving as ‘ransom’ to the Devil for all mankind” (Benjamin Nelson, The Idea of Usurety: From Tribal Brotherhood to Universal Otherhood [Chicago, 1969], p. 144).

  47. In The Jew of Malta, it is Jewish Barabas who uses the word flinty to describe Christian hearts (1.2.144). He also accuses Christians of using scripture for their own ends.

  48. He more actively plays the role of the stoic and noble Roman friend, arguing that it is better to die now than to risk the misfortunes that await a merchant in old age, and requesting that Bassanio tell Portia the story of his noble end and the value of his friendship: “And he repents not that he pays your debt” (4.1.278).

  49. To Shakespeare's audience, this may have been no terrible coercion, but true “favor”—the granting of Shylock the possibility of salvation. One need only recall the Mortara affair of 1858, when the Church was able to take a Jewish child from his parents because he had been christened by his Christian nurse.

  50. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, tr. Francis Golffing (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1956), p. 167. Gross calls the conversion “a form of soul-murder” (Shylock: A Legend, p. 90). As René Girard, the ultimate ironist, has written: “The truth of the play is revenge and retribution. The Christians manage to hide that truth even from themselves. They do not live by the law of charity, but this law is enough of a presence in their language to drive the law of revenge underground, to make this revenge almost invisible. As a result, this revenge become more subtle, skillful, and feline than the revenge of Shylock” (René Girard, “‘To Entrap the Wisest’: A Reading of The Merchant of Venice,” in Edward W. Said, ed., Literature and Society [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1980], pp. 106-7).

  51. Theodore Reik, The Search Within (New York: Aronson, 1974), pp. 358-59.

  52. Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews, p. 127.

  53. The conversion plays into the received theology of supersession, in which the Jews represent the “old” repudiated world of law, obedience, and matter and Christians the “new” world of grace, love, and spirit.

  54. From the point of view of ideology, Shylock is not a direct competitor of Antonio. The Shylocks must go not because they engage in direct or indirect competition with merchants but because they represent an outdated, barren economic system that is retarding progress of a new pre- capitalist system destined to take its place.

  55. According to Walter Cohen, “the very contrast between the two occupations may be seen as a false dichotomy, faithful to the Renaissance Italians' understanding of himself but not to the reality that self-conception was designed to justify” (Cohen, “The Possibilities of Historical Criticism,” p. 771).

  56. Cohen “The Possibilities of Historical Criticism,” p. 777.

  57. Against Antonio's failure to get himself crucified, we can place Portia's divine power of “mercifixion” (Harry Berger, “Mercy and Mercifixion in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Quarterly 32 [1981], p. 161). On this point see Hymen, “The Rival Lovers,” p. 112. Graham Midgley has argued that Antonio is defeated in the end because his victory over Shylock deprives him of his main goal: sacrificing himself for his friend (Graham Midgley, “The Merchant of Venice: A Reconsideration,” Essays in Criticism, 10.2 [1960], pp. 130-33).

  58. Portia's formulation is: “And so riveted with faith unto your flesh” (5.1.169).

  59. My Lord Bassanio, let him have the ring.
    Let his deservings, and my love withal,
    Be valued 'gainst your wife's commandment.


  60. Harry Berger writes that “Portia's advantage is like that of the conquering hero in Act V” (Berger, “Mercy and Mercifixion,” p. 161).

  61. Lawrence Stone writes that “[m]oney was the means of acquiring and retaining status, but it was not the essence of it; the acid test was the mode of life, a concept that involved many factors. Living on a private income was one, but more important was spending liberally, dressing elegantly, and entertaining lavishly. Another was having sufficient education to display a reasonable knowledge of public affairs, and to be able to perform gracefully on the dance-floor, and on horseback, in the tennis court and the fencing-school” (Lawrence Stone, The Cult of the Aristocracy [Oxford, 1965], p. 50).

  62. Claudine Defaye argues that Portia serves Antonio his worst defeat by depriving him of his noble sacrifice and sending him back to Venice to reassume his life as a merchant (“réendosser son habit de marchand.”) (Claudine Defaye, “Antonio ou le marchand malgré lui,” in Michèle Willems, ed., Le Marchand de Venise et Le Juif de Malte: Texte et représentations [Rouen: Publications de l'université de Rouen, 1985], pp. 25-35).

Peter Marks (review date 13 January 1999)

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SOURCE: Marks, Peter. “From Serban, the Shylock of Yesteryear, A Go-To Guy.” New York Times (13 January 1999): 1.

[In the following review of Andrei Serban's production of The Merchant of Venice for the American Repertory Theater, Marks finds Will LeBow's Shylock to be the most moving aspect of the production.]

Let Shylock be Shylock! is the unspoken motto of Andrei Serban's daringly unapologetic production of The Merchant of Venice.

Shed no tears for the Jewish moneylender of Mr. Serban's design. Shylock may be cruelly maligned by the Christian hypocrites in Shakespeare's difficult play, with its anti-Semitic overtones, but in this version he has hardly been conceived as a figure to touch the heart. Though it has become customary to render Shylock with compassion, as in Peter Hall's 1989 Broadway production, in which Dustin Hoffman's dignified pillar of a Shylock endured the taunts and a shower of spittle from his enemies, Mr. Serban breaks with modern practice and gives us something more like the sinister Shylock of yore.

Thanks to the capable conjuring of the actor Will LeBow, Shylock is imagined in this visually striking modern-dress staging at the American Repertory Theater as a Venetian go-to guy who holds the beautiful people of the canals in as much contempt as they hold him. (The performance might appeal to the literary critic Harold Bloom, who in his new book on Shakespeare argues for just such a “comic villain” of a Shylock).

Just how spiteful a piece of work is this villain is revealed in Mr. LeBow's rendition of the famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. Routinely treated as a plea for understanding, it is instead delivered here as a caustic act of self-mockery, intended to patronize his bigoted audience, the Venetian dilettantes Solanio (Stephen Rowe) and Salerio (Jeremy Geidt).

Only when the embittered loan shark has them laughing along with him does his voice rise in sudden anguish and fury: “And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” That this is a man who savors his singleminded pursuit of his pound of flesh is never in doubt; in the climactic courtroom scene, where he is called upon to claim the flesh owed him by the merchant Antonio (a shrewdly lugubrious Jonathan Epstein), he even draws a circle in red on the torso of his victim and theatrically traces it with a knife.

The sleek affability of Mr. LeBow's seductive portrayal imbues this Shylock with a visceral authority, a power to make things happen, which also makes him the most compelling feature of Mr. Serban's often absorbing production. But The Merchant of Venice is much more than the tale of a moneylender's humiliation; its more central concern is the romantic comedy of the wooing of Portia (Kristin Flanders) by Bassanio (Andrew Garman) and other sillier suitors. It's these lighter moments that trip up Mr. Serban, who seems much more in his element elucidating the cosmic complexities of “Merchant” than in realizing the gently comic ironies in the love story.

It may be that the hideous resolution of the Shylock subplot—can an enlightened audience identify with a heroine who utters lines like “Tarry, Jew” or feel anything but squeamishness at Shylock's forced conversion?—insinuates itself like an odor that can't be washed out. Still, Mr. Serban, who did such a fine job in Central Park last summer framing the humane qualities in Shakespeare's troublesome Cymbeline, has his actors take wide swings at the comic interludes, like overeager croquet players. The result is a tactlessness that undoes some of the production's finer points.

Merchant is in part about the unraveling of riddles in language and law and the unmasking of people who are not what they seem. In this vein, the scenes encompassing the elaborate riddle that Portia poses for her suitors are bizarrely broad and consequently sophomoric; the young actors portraying princes from Morocco and Spain, for instance, are encouraged to play cartoon characters who throw off the play's rhythms, and Ms. Flanders and Portia's lady-in-waiting Nerissa (Nurit Monicelli), engage in an affected style of banter at an unnecessary remove from sincerity. While the play has Portia outwitting Shylock in court, Ms. Flanders never manages to challenge Mr. LeBow for primacy onstage.

Mr. Serban is a restless experimenter, so his Shakespearean ventures tend to be jampacked with ideas good and less good. One of his best notions here is the decadent and sexually ambiguous world of Antonio, the merchant of the title, who takes the disastrous loan from Shylock, with its peculiar terms, to finance the effort of his friend Bassanio to romance Portia.

The beauty of Venice and Belmont, as suggested by the Adriatic pastels in the lovely folding screens by Marielle Bancou and William Bonnell and lighting by Michael Chybowski, turns out to be a mirage. The scenic charm is as superficial as the slick, two-faced Venetian businessmen themselves, who make deals with the Jewish moneylender, only to revile him behind his back. (At a costume ball, they even resort to garish masks with exaggerated Semitic noses.) Dressing them all in natty European suits, it seems, is a reminder by Mr. Serban and his inventive costume designer, Catherine Zuber, that empty-headed bigotry has many contemporary disguises.

In this false paradise, Mr. Serban finds little to romanticize. Portia sermonizes grandly to Shylock about the quality of mercy, but she and the rest of Venice are complicit in a merciless dismemberment of Shylock's fortune, his faith, his very identity. It is the director's eloquent thesis, in fact, that Shylock and his Venetian tormentors are more alike than different; the vengeance envisioned by Shylock is symbolically carried out by his Christian adversaries. To drive home the point, perhaps unnecessarily, Mr. Serban creates a final dumb show in which Antonio—who by Portia's verdict appropriates Shylock's wealth—is locked in a dance with the masked Shylock. The borrower and the lender are now as one.

Mr. Serban's uneven cast is an impediment. Several of the younger actors simply do not add their own pound of flesh to these mysterious characters, which gives the play an only partly lived-in quality. As he did with Liev Schreiber's vital Iachimo in Cymbeline, though, the director finds in Mr. LeBow a lead actor who helps us greatly in our navigation of the dark side.

Hal Jensen (review date 2 July 1999)

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SOURCE: Jensen, Hal. “Merciless Qualities.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5022 (2 July 1999): 20.

[In the following review of Trevor Nunn's production of The Merchant of Venice for the National Theatre, Jensen describes the way Nunn's direction emphasized the isolation of the main characters and notes that Henry Goodman's praiseworthy Shylock dominated the production.]

It is difficult, from our historical vantage point, to regard The Merchant of Venice as a comedy. Hatred and cruelty, born of racial difference, are obviously not funny; but that should not exclude them from serious comic treatment. What disagrees with our present-day knowledge is the blink-of-an-eye transition from discord, malice, violence and unqualified enmity at the end of the Trial scene, to the harmonious, all-unifying, non-drama of Act Five. How can little rituals with rings, and paeans to the music of the spheres and pledges of loyalty in the fantasy world of moonlit Belmont, erase, counterbalance or transmute what has gone before? Trevor Nunn's new production confronts this difficulty by refusing to allow the last act to palliate the first four: for instance, so “attentive” are Jessica's spirits to the tranquil music of Belmont that she has to let out something between a howl and a scream, so untranquil is her soul; and when Graziano has apparently ended the play in lewd high-spirits, Portia announces—against thunder—that it is morning, and Jessica throws herself on her knees and breaks tearfully into a Jewish lament. Usually it is only Antonio who looks left out at the end of the play, but in this production everyone looks isolated, in bleak white light on a bare stage. It is a desolate interpretation.

And yet if there is no solace to be had in Act Five, why have the act at all? Harley Granville-Barker highlighted the fairy-tale nature of this play, and if we must admit that half the tale is told as if by the brothers Grimm, and the other half by Hans Christian Anderson, it is surely a mistake to confound the one with the other. If Belmont is not magical, if music and unity cannot salvage happiness for these characters, then the play's lyrical element is devalued. In this production, Lorenzo's lines on harmony are so unimaginatively delivered that they conjure very few images, and we do not feel their restorative power. In Belmont, the casket scenes are gently derided; solemn music announces a deliberately slow procession, followed by the drawing of an enormous gold curtain by two maids who are clearly “putting on” formality. It is initially amusing: we smile at the actors' acknowledgement of conventional pageantry, which so contrasts with the grit and action of Venice. We are all but winked at by Portia and her attendants when Morocco and Arragon take the stage. Ultimately, this reduces Belmont to annoying frippery. The exchanges between Portia and Bassanio after the correct casket has been chosen are disconcertingly dull, until we realize, when they start whooping to show their real feelings, that the preceding speeches have been recited as rhetorical formalities. At this point, the concessions to realism begin to feel costly.

The Venetian scenes, however, benefit greatly from Nunn's approach. The period is 1920s or early 30s, but there is no attempt to politicize the play, to bury its human antagonisms in largescale issues; rather, the intention seems to be to modernize things enough so that we do not feel alienated by the look of them, but to avoid specific modern dates because of their overpowering implications. Of course, Shylock's Jewishness is central, but one of the successes of this production is the way it makes clear that it is Shylock's Jewishness that we witness. The focus is on the psychology of individual men, not the generalized mentality of races or faiths.

More telling than the contrast between Belmont and Venice is that between the boisterous young “Christian” gentlemen in their nightclubs and cafés and Shylock's plain dwelling in the Jewish district, where he speaks in Hebrew to Jessica. From drunken singing and outrageous floorshows (even Launcelot Gobbo's speech on conscience is turned into a stand-up routine) we are plunged into quietude, sobriety and ritual observance. Excess is juxtaposed with thrift, looseness with care, floridity with precision. All the Venetians, for once, are finely individualized; there is a particularly strong, serious Jessica (Gabrielle Jourdan), and an appallingly introverted, febrile Antonio (David Bamber).

But the evening is dominated by Henry Goodman's astonishing, complex Shylock. Alert to the details in every line, Goodman presents a shrewd, suspicious, bitter, but dignified man, full to bursting with conflicting emotions. Above all, he is sensitive. From his first scene with Antonio, it is clear that it is not hatred but personal offence that motivates his vindictiveness. When he hears there will be masques in the evening, he involuntarily slaps Jessica in the face: an act not of brutality, but of protective fear; informed by Tubal of Jessica's spending sprees, he cries “I would my daughter were dead at my foot”, but it is an explosion of pained impotence, not a curse, and Tubal tut-tuts at the wild words to show he knows they are not meant; when, of Antonio's imminent bankruptcy, he says “I am very glad of it”, it is no sneer but a release of fury; yet when he tells Tubal “Thou torturest me”, it is almost a pitiful aside, a whimper. In the Trial scene, he is driven to uncertainty, very nearly giving in to Portia's pleas to be merciful. Tubal leaves when it looks as though Shylock is going to carry through his threat, nicely isolating the issue, and the only doubt is whether such a passionate, sensitive, reasonable man could ever kill cold-bloodedly. Indeed, Goodman's Shylock aborts his first attempt, and gives us the impression that, if not stopped by Portia, he might well have collapsed in the act. His downfall is wholly tragic; cruel, not humiliating.

Nunn's production sacrifices one half of Merchant to the other: like Shylock, it is both compellingly and cripplingly literal. Where it brings to life the passions of the characters in thrilling detail, it untunes the play's ethereal music. Are things so hopeless? If not, we need a production of equal conviction that celebrates Belmont. And that, today, is hard to imagine.

Robert Smallwood (review date 1999)

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SOURCE: Smallwood, Robert. “Shakespeare Performances in England, 1998.” Shakespeare Survey 52 (1999): 229-53.

[In the following excerpted review, Smallwood observes that Gregory Doran's Stratford production of The Merchant of Venice offered no new insights into the play.]

Gregory Doran's The Merchant of Venice started as it meant to go on, with a determination to fill the space, its opening dumb-show of merchants, Jewish and Gentile, congregating on the Venetian dockside in the half light of a February day, lasting several minutes before the play's first line. With a dark mist rising and black stone walls oozing damp, cargo was examined and valued while prostitutes stood around hopefully waiting for customers: everything was for sale here, including sexual companionship; and from this we moved to the scene in which Bassanio seeks another loan from Antonio.

Doran's production had nothing particularly startling to tell us about the play, no new directorial reading to offer. In some ways it was rather safe; but what it did well was to provide actors with the chance to explore their roles in organic interaction. One saw this at once in the first scene, with Julian Curry's pale, austere, emaciated Antonio, terribly unbending but with a kind of wasted elegance, confronting Scott Handy's noisy, boisterous Bassanio. In Bassanio slid, flat on his stomach, from some bit of off-stage larking about with others of the laddish crew with whom he drinks too much and makes lots of noise in the streets. He had arrived late, and half-drunk, for an important meeting with a man who—and this we learned as soon as their eyes met—loved him deeply. Bassanio tried to touch him on the cheek; Antonio flinched, not wanting to be patronized, or teased, in this way. There was impatience from Antonio at Bassanio's slowness in coming to the point, a touch of tetchiness at his indirectness in asking for money, and a foreboding appropriateness in his giving Bassanio his ring to help in the attempt to raise it. The understatedness of Curry's performance was absolutely right in establishing the tensions of the relationship.

Philip Voss had not chosen to understate his Shylock, and the result was equally appropriate to the overall balance of the production. His first scene established his loathing for Antonio, smarming round and pawing Antonio's young friend, insisting on lots of handshakes, using the story of Laban's sheep to mime the homosexual act, swiping at Antonio's genitals as he spoke of the pound of flesh. His farewell to Jessica was very precisely observed: he was obsessed with the handing over of the keys, while she, anxious not to seem anxious to get hold of them, wrapped his scarf a little more neatly round his neck, then dodged back to him for a last little kiss—of guilt and of tenderness too. The invention of Shylock's vision of Jessica being carried away on someone's shoulders in the swirl of music and torches and hideously pig-masked revellers was, perhaps, to hammer home the point a little strenuously, but it led to a rather nice little Irvingesque moment as Shylock returned to his empty house to find his world, and his entrance hall, spinning out of control. ‘Let him look to his bond’, he was saying when we next met him, and the second time he said it we saw, with startling clarity, the idea suddenly strike him—a brilliantly focused moment. The fierce anger (no self-pity at all) of ‘Hath not a Jew eyes’, the tenderness with which he wiped off the spit that Salerio and Solanio had deposited on Tubal's beard, the anguished immediacy of his recall of Leah's turquoise, led to the howl of pain that ended the first half of the production and that seemed to come from a very ‘ancient grudge’ indeed.

The production would have been offering us ‘The Tragedy of Shylock’ if Helen Schlesinger's Portia had not been so striking and intelligent a performance. Her restless energy when we first met her, pacing around the room taking the labels off her suitors' ostentatious gifts, her wry humour, her clear resentment of the restrictions of her father's will and loyal determination to obey them, her obvious fear that Morocco or Aragon might choose right (and the hamming up of those performances made that fear understandable), all this put enormous pressure on Bassanio's choosing scene. This was played with total commitment and seriousness, as though the feckless young man we had watched in Venice had suddenly, through the influence of Belmont, seen things clearly for the first time in his life. The wonderful sense of pent-up joy released when he chose right, then dashed again by the arrival of the messengers from Venice, was impressive. ‘O love … dispatch’, she said when Antonio's letter was read, and ‘love’ was not a vocative but the abstract noun, signalling her realization of the emotional complexities she would face in Venice.

In the trial scene Portia was, believably enough, uncomprehending at first that Shylock would not be bought off. She clearly expected the graciousness of her argument about mercy, the persuasive eagerness with which it was uttered, the self-evident need for a surgeon, to be convincing to her adversary. Only slowly did she begin to perceive the full depth of loathing with which she had to deal and the extent of her husband's commitment to Antonio as she was forced to watch the long, slow hug between them that provoked Shylock's sardonic ‘These be the Christian husbands’. This Portia didn't have her clever little solution all sewn up before she came into court; the acting was on the moment, with the contest between the play's two impulses, to comedy or to tragedy, on the knife-edge. Moments later, as Shylock's own knife-edge lingered for a long time on Antonio's chest, trying different angles for slicing, there was a slight danger that a third genre, melodrama, might come into the equation. At the end of the scene there was another flirtation with the melodramatic as Shylock, who had collapsed in the heap of gold coins that Bassanio had thrown down in evidence that he had the repayment money ‘here, in the court’, struggled to rise to his feet. He skidded and slithered about, his forlorn gestures for help ignored, providing an image that was undoubtedly impressive, iconic even, but perhaps just too self-consciously contrived. The coins remained there for the final scene's return to Belmont, so that Lorenzo sat with Jessica on a bank thick inlaid with ducats of bright gold, an image that insisted on the play's constant shuttling between love and money: ‘Since you are dear bought I will love you dear’. Its final image was of four men clinging to the prizes that the story has given them, three of them to women who have brought them wealth, the fourth to a letter, a sort of ‘bond’, that promises him wealth too. A fifth man, who signed a bond to ‘buy your love’ and ended with neither love nor money, was not there.

John Simon (review date 14 February 2000)

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SOURCE: Simon, John. “Clever Merchandising.” New York 33, no. 6 (14 February 2000): 141, 172.

[In the following excerpted review, Simon contends that certain elements of Trevor Nunn's production of The Merchant of Venice for the National Theatre were bit contrived, but finds the play as a whole “mostly absorbing.”]

Trevor Nunn has been going from strength to strength at London's Royal National Theatre, where The Merchant of Venice is his latest success. Transposed to the thirties, its early scenes take place in a café or nightspot where “What news on the Rialto?” is aptly asked of a newspaper reader. Here, two bar girls entertain with a droll pop song, and Lancelot Gobbo delivers his monologue as a cabaret act with music to surprisingly good effect.

Nunn has cleverly turned Shylock into a father not above slapping his grown daughter, which helps justify Jessica's defection. Yet, affectingly, Nunn later allows her a twinge of remorse. Small, subtle touches abound, as when Jessica's evidently first taste of champagne makes the girl choke. Less felicitous is the swimsuit scene by Portia's pool, or the absence of all things Venetian until, quite late, we hear a concert of seagulls.

Some things are too contrived. Thus the court allows Shylock to approach Antonio's bared chest, knife in hand, without demur; in another second, blood could be shed. But, to milk the suspense, Shylock himself draws back; only on his second try does Portia stop him at the last moment. Nunn also inserts some Yiddish for father and daughter; at the trial, Shylock's friend Tubal leaves conspicuously as things get hairy, to show that there are “good” Jews as well.

But all updatings are basically problematic, the more so when the material contains fairy-tale elements like the three caskets and the pound of flesh, which can squeak by best through distancing; closer to our time, they become more preposterous. Yet Nunn gets pleasing comical effects from a would-be Europeanized Prince of Morocco and a flamenco-dancing Prince of Aragon. The slightly oversimplified sets by Hildegard Bechtler are no-nonsense efficient, and there is amiable music by Steven Edis played live.

The acting is mostly fine. Henry Goodman's complex Shylock is first rate, as is Gabrielle Jourdan's earnest Jessica. Derbhla Crotty's Portia grows in stature as the action progresses, and Alexander Hanson's Bassanio is dapper and winning. Two weak links are David Bamber's unaccountably nondescript Antonio and Daniel Evans's unprepossessing Lorenzo, who also speaks verse like a sedulous schoolboy, though the others may go too far in prosifying poetry. Still, a mostly absorbing production.

Alvin Klein (review date 5 November 2000)

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SOURCE: Klein, Alvin. “The Arguable Comedy in Merchant of Venice.New York Times (5 November 2000): NJ11.

[In the following review, Klein assesses Richard Corley's production of The Merchant of Venice for the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, contending that although it attempted to develop the play's romantic and comic features, it failed to offer an original take on Shakespeare's ambivalent treatment of Shylock.]

No kidding, The Merchant of Venice is a comedy.

Categorically speaking, that's not news to Shakespearean mavens, but it's invariably a surprise. The play is not a comic read, and it is rarely played for laughs. Richard Corley, the director of the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival's production here, seems hell-bent on proving that Merchant is merry and very romantic. We don't have to believe it, but it's a fair try.

In one of those audience-friendly surveys that theaters are obliged to conduct randomly to show they care about what audiences want to see, the festival has come up with a finding that astounds. A news release says that, in recent years, the one most requested play in the canon is not Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet. It is not even Titus Andronicus. No kidding, it is The Merchant of Venice. That Shakespeare's distressing, in many ways unfathomable, and, after more than 400 years, still hotly debated play, is at the top in what amounts to a popularity poll, must mean that thoughtful people are still trying to figure it out. Or to see it performed coherently.

Mr. Corley may not have figured it out, but he knows it is supposed to be a comedy. No tragedy tonight, not when the title character, who's no hero, would fall from a very low place if he were killed. His name is Antonio and he is saved by a hair, from a knife held high—a moment that is definitely played for laughs, and gets them.

And so what if Antonio's would-be murderer is humiliated beyond hope? One villain was going to cut hazardously close to another villain's heart. In a time-honored reversal of theatrical fate, the man who is forced to play the victim triumphs, viciousness renewed, and the vengeful knife-wielder is stripped of his figurative heart and soul, his religious identity, his reason to live. And he has no choice but to say: “I am content.” Death of the spirit does not define tragedy.

Besides, his name is Shylock, but that's another story. You feel sorry for him or you don't. Either way, otherwise wise people will be giving you their views for another 400 years.

In Mr. Corley's staging, Nicholas Kepros plays Shylock for pathos, which is very wrong, obvious and sadly stereotypical, but that's a small mistake in a production as dismissive of Shylock as the play is.

If the actor's accent of studied rising inflections and his ill-advised gesticulations have something to do with the director's ostensible accent on comedy, that's a big mistake. It only keeps Shylock at a stock level, without daring to depict him as the mad clown Shakespeare likely intended him to be.

From offstage revelries at the start, to the riddle of the caskets, with Portia's suitors, and the deception involving the wedding rings, both played out in the manner of opera buffa, Mr. Corley's notions about frivolous people work to good comic effect.

And it is audience-winning, especially in the giddy, humorous interplay between Portia (Kate Forbes as a sexy, manipulative, power-driven modern woman, as much shrew as shrewd) and Nerissa (Veronica Watt, an affectionate and assertive maid and friend).

And Phillip Christian, funny with attitude, comes to woo Portia wealthily and more opportunistically as the Prince of Morocco, lending an air of lightness to a production determined to be diverting.

Ah, but underneath. Mr. Corley appears to have a grip on a newly disturbing dimension of a play that will never cease to disturb. The shallow players are all about themselves in a world that is all about money in the contemporary society that Mr. Corley's moderndress production substitutes for 16th-century cities, both real (Venice) and imaginary (Belmont).

To perceive the play as more about business, power and ego than about religion is an attempt to deflect the stigma of anti-Semitism that taints it. Yet that stigma is inescapable. Although Portia is the major player and Antonio is the title character, the specter of Shylock—remember the play is not titled “The Jew of Venice”—haunts the mind, throws the play out of whack and obsesses scholars, actors and compassionate human beings who seek his redemption, as Shakespeare did not.

Mr. Corley goes halfway with showiness and resonance. What the director cannot unravel or perhaps interweave are the disparate plays-within-plays Shakespeare wrote. And Shylock, perhaps the starriest supporting role of all time, is an unforgiving as well as an unforgivable monster, a mere cartoon, a treacherous hero, a heartbreaking villain, an unmerciful forlorn outcast or all of the above. Still, he exists outside the play, the error in the comedy and a real downer as ever.

This production does not attempt to draw him in, or to provide a brave, original, authoritative spin on a playwright's ambivalence that has turned into a lamentable universal symbol.

What is the world that would accommodate Shylock, anyway? Portia, the faux arbiter of justice, preaching mercy, practicing the politics of guile, and her compatriots are despicable, with less dimension, but more charm. It's facile and too fashionable to resolve it all by simply calling The Merchant of Venice a dark comedy. It is a disconnected, troubling, irreconcilable play that proves festival audiences want to think and argue.

Go figure is a commonplace command. How often does it go so deep?

Robert Smallwood (review date 2000)

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SOURCE: Smallwood, Robert. “Shakespeare Performances in England, 1999.” Shakespeare Survey 53 (2000): 244-73.

[In the following excerpted review, Smallwood describes Trevor Nunn's production of The Merchant of Venice for the National Theatre as brilliant, and praises the principal actors, particularly Henry Goodman's Shylock.]

There was no such sense of a one-man show about the National Theatre ensemble's second Shakespeare of the year, a production, again directed by Trevor Nunn, of The Merchant of Venice at the Cottesloe Theatre, played in traverse mode. Hildegard Bechtler's design placed the Venetian scenes of the play in the middle of the traverse in a Cabaret world of thirties dance music, elegant café tables on a black and white chequered floor, much drinking of champagne, the noisy young men of the Christian community in an impressive range of well-cut suits and blacks such as Lancelot Gobbo doing the menial jobs (again the rejection of the ‘blind casting’ principle). At one end of the traverse, Belmont was a place of chic opulence, fashionable (and slightly sexy) murals, stiff cocktails, and Portia's first batch of suitors (the ‘Neapolitan Prince’ and his fellows) presented, wearing a fine selection of elegant hats, on a home cine-projector; at the opposite end was the humble, well-locked door to Shylock's house, with its photograph of Leah between candles on a little cupboard, and Jessica shouted at in Yiddish for not cleaning the pans as well as her mother used to.

We opened with David Bamber's middle-aged, pasty-faced, be-spectacled Antonio, a self-made provincial always a little nervous among the toffs and a permanent embarrassment to Bassanio, playing a melancholy tune on the café piano before Bassanio's boisterous set of pals arrived to drink champagne and flirt with the café's singing girls. Antonio's flat northern vowels (very Alan Bennett—Salerio and Solanio would later mimic his accent in describing his farewell to Bassanio), his dull, centre-parted hair, his behind-the-fashion suit, contrasted splendidly with the dashing playboy elegance of Alexander Hanson's beautifully coiffured Bassanio, more than a touch of the young Jonathan Aitken about him—and perhaps about as trustworthy. Their conversation about Portia (a photograph of her eagerly shown and wearily looked at) made clear that Antonio's forlorn sexual yearnings for Bassanio had long since been repressed (though not suppressed) and gave the impression that this was by no means Bassanio's first attempt to woo an heiress. At the end of it, Antonio was left to pay the scene's accumulated café bill, a little touch of Nunn social realism that would recur, Shylock most carefully paying, and tipping, for his glass of tea in his first scene, Salerio and Solanio, and Gratiano and company, never having a coin among them when large bills for champagne arrived.

Derbhle Crotty's Portia, an elegant and slightly world-weary society heiress, apparently capable of dealing with any of her suitors with ice-cool grace and wit, found herself surprisingly wrong-footed by the exotic poetic earnestness of Chu Omambala's splendid Morocco. In he came with his white-robed attendant in a wonderful pale grey pin-striped suit (complete with plus-fours and spats) and a demonstration of scimitar-twirling that she was not alone in finding mesmerizingly sexy. She had to hide her tears from her household at the depth of his grief when he chose wrongly. Aragon was easier, a genuinely funny caricature of moustachioed heel-clicking from Raymond Coulthard, and then the overwhelming handsomeness of Bassanio, irresistible of course, but with a most interesting hint of resentment that it should be so. There was a faint sense of tension and hesitation as they knelt (little church hassocks specially brought in) side by side to exchange vows and rings with a degree of solemnity that had a touch of foreboding about it, a mood deepened rather than dissipated by Gratiano's coarse, noisy laughter as the champagne flowed, and the jokes too, about getting sons and ‘stakes down’. She and Bassanio were (contrary to the text) alone as she read out Antonio's letter at the end of the scene; when her betrothed sobbed on the word ‘love’, she understood the situation immediately. Her suitcase was packed the next time we saw her and when she appeared in court, her face seeming pinched and pale as if from long hours of legal study, she knew there was more than one battle to be fought.

Her ostensible adversary in the court scene was Henry Goodman's remarkable Shylock. He had first appeared in the play taking his glass of tea at a café side table, a confident if wary figure in his rather straggly beard, a large black hat over his yarmulke, a dark, slightly baggy suit, a briefcase, and a silver-topped cane. His eyes twinkled as he told the story of Jacob's sheep; there was warmth and humour here, shrewdness, and a sharp and witty intelligence, and he laughed a lot to himself before he could manage to tell them about the absurd idea of the bond. Beneath the attempts at friendliness, however, one always saw the depth of grievance. ‘This is kind I offer' he said to Bamber's deeply hesitant, racist Antonio and for a moment, as they shook hands, a little ray of hope seemed to touch the agreement between these two lonely men. Shylock's loneliness was manifest in the little scene with Jessica, shouting at her for housekeeping failures, embracing her possessively, slapping her face when she showed too much interest in Gobbo's message, then embracing her again and forcing her to join him in a wistful Hebrew song as they gazed at the photograph of her mother. ‘Fast bind’, he said - and she joined in obediently on ‘fast find’. The lonely widower, desperate and demanding, over-protectively clinging to his treasured child's love, was vulnerably on view here. When next we saw him he was seated (unscripted), at a café table with Antonio and Bassanio. He looked painfully ill at ease as he listened to Andrew French's Lancelot Gobbo at the cabaret microphone presenting his (transposed) story of the conflict between conscience and the fiend as a stand-up comedy turn between the singing girls. Shylock's return home through the revellers to his unanswered front door, his fumbling with his keys, his discovery of Jessica's departure (she had kissed her mother's photograph goodbye after his earlier exit), were the inevitable prelude to his cracking up at his next appearance. It was the urbane indifference to his grief of Salerio and Solanio that did it. He had greeted them eagerly, as though pleased to have their company. Their mocking callousness produced a version of ‘Hath not a Jew eyes’ that was eager, urgent, intended to be persuasive, and then turned very fierce, though with the tremor of grief beneath, on ‘shall we not revenge?’, his body tense with fury at the years of ill-treatment. It was at this point that Peter de Jersey's Salerio began to part company with Mark Umbers's implacably racist Solanio, a move that would show Salerio, by the end of the trial scene, appalled at the behaviour of his fellow Christians and physically restraining the threatened violence of Richard Henders's loathsome Gratiano. The first half ended with John Nolan's gentle, gracious Tubal raising a deprecating hand at his friend's increasing loss of control, and Shylock vowing (from somewhat earlier in the text) ‘Cursed be my tribe / If I forgive him’.

The court scene was played across the full length of the traverse stage, the Duke's desk at one end, the plaintiff and defendant half way down on upright chairs, Tubal behind Shylock, and Antonio's supporters, a Jew-baiting gang of young men in posh suits, behind him, rowdy and aggressive as a bunch of football hooligans (though in this case clearly Rugby football). The sense of physical threat to Shylock was constant through the scene. It was from it that he seemed to find the strength to resist Portia's plea for mercy. She had taken a chair to sit directly in front of him a few lines into the speech, delivering the rest of it straight to him with an earnest intensity that rivetted his attention. Never before, one felt, had a member of the Christian community spoken to him with this degree of immediacy and it was curiously welcome. At the end he agonized for several tense, painful seconds of almost unbearable suspense before a returning awareness of the Gratiano mob rekindled his resolve and he just managed to find the strength to say ‘My deeds upon my head’. He was further strengthened a few moments later by the contemptible offer of thrice the money: mercy he might have been moved by, money never. The judgement given and Antonio's chest bared, Tubal rose and walked with quiet dignity from the court, absolutely dissociating himself from what seemed imminent. Shylock prayed in Hebrew; the Christians muttered ‘Our Father’; Bassanio embraced Antonio who fondled his friend's face and kissed him on ‘Whether Bassanio had not once a love’. And then Shylock stood, fixated and hesitant, in front of Antonio, the knife raised, his hand trembling, his eyes filling with tears, patently incapable of doing it. He stepped back to collect himself, covering his trousers with a protective white cloth, and Portia, whose frantic searches through her lawbooks had produced no shred of inspiration until this moment, suddenly had the idea and rushed down the room: ‘Tarry awhile’, and Antonio was rescued, and Shylock too. Now the law against aliens that she had found could at last be useful, and she began to read it out, Shylock joining in with weary, contemptuous familiarity. What happened afterwards disgusted her, and Salerio, as the forces of Christian fanaticism were unleashed. Flaunting the scales, Antonio demanded that Shylock give up his religion. His accession to the appalling requirement was resigned, bitter, ironic, as, with a mock flourish, he put his yarmulke and prayer belt onto the scales in a gesture that suggested that they might as well have taken his life, and walked from the room to the jeers of Gratiano and his fellow yobs.

And so back to Belmont. Portia had been absolutely shattered when Bassanio's ring had been sent after her, and she took immense care over publicly humiliating Antonio in making him return it in symbolic withdrawal from her husband's life. Bamber made Antonio almost convincing (even a little peck on the cheek) in his gratitude to her for getting him some of his ships back, and then withdrew to the piano to play the same wistful little tune with which the performance had started. ‘What elegant symmetry’, one thought, as three pairs of lovers stood there, somewhat uncertainly in the growing light, the first whistles from a blackbird coming in to replace the song of the nightingale. ‘It is almost morning’, said Portia (from a moment or two earlier in the scene), and Gabrielle Jourdan's Jessica took a step or two away from her husband. She had seemed profoundly ill at ease ever since arriving at Belmont, looking like a refugee child, hating the cocktail she was given, much disturbed at Lancelot Gobbo's teasing, seeming to find her space invaded by the unctuous Welsh earnestness of Daniel Evans's Lorenzo, weeping bitterly as she listened to the music on the moonlit bank, and shattered by the gift of her father's property at his death. Now, as the play closed and she stood alone, stared at by the rest, she began to sing the Hebrew song she had sung with her father; and as its melancholy music took over the mood, thunder rumbled ominously in the distance and everyone froze as the lights went down. It was a stunningly effective ending to a brilliant production, a very obvious candidate for the best piece of Shakespearian theatre of the year—which perhaps, after all, it was. …

Caryn James (review date 8 October 2001)

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SOURCE: James, Caryn. “Shylock and Portia Speak to All Eras.” New York Times 151, no. 51900 (8 October 2001): E8.

[In the following review, James praises Trevor Nunn's adaptation of The Merchant of Venice for PBS, including Henry Goodman's “mesmerizing” Shylock and Derbhle Crotty's “commanding” Portia.]

Revenge, justice, mercy. Words that seem socially and politically charged today were already resonating through The Merchant of Venice, a play so deeply rooted in an enduring question—how should justice, mercy and vengeance be balanced?—that it speaks to any number of historical crises, including our own. Trevor Nunn's inspired idea was to transplant the play to the 1930's, when World War II was looming and anti-Semitism was bluntly expressed.

Stylishly set in cafe society, this astute Merchant gets the new season of “Masterpiece Theater” off to a smashing, unexpectedly relevant start. (The series has moved to Monday nights on PBS.)

Mr. Nunn's Merchant was first presented at the Royal National Theater in 1999, and despite a few cinematic flourishes it remains unapologetically stage-bound. The actors have modulated their performances for the camera, which frequently closes in on their faces, but the set design is spare. This theatrical version is so vibrant and rich, however, that it makes you wish you had seen it onstage.

The tone is set with the opening credits, in which sepia film reveals the social chasm separating the characters. There are people dancing in posh nightclubs and drinking champagne, as if they were in an RKO musical; there are scenes of a Jewish ghetto, a generic version of the Lower East Side at the time. When the actors appear onstage, the film turns to color but retains the stylized feel of the past with a neutral palette of grays and beiges. Chairs and tables suggest a nightclub, where men wear tuxedos, the women are for sale, and the aura of decadence comes to include a song with a deliberate nod to Cabaret.

Antonio, the merchant who mortgages his fleet of ships so his friend Bassanio can try to win the hand of Portia, is given a reason for his extravagance here: we see him gently, quickly stroke Bassanio's hair. Without overplaying the erotic attraction to the point where it distorts Shakespeare, the gesture makes it more understandable to a modern audience when Antonio agrees to give his fortune and a pound of his flesh to Shylock as collateral.

Henry Goodman's mesmerizing performance as Shylock reveals why he is so haunting a character. Beneath the surface details of the yarmulke and accent, this Shylock is vengeful, imperfect, unlikable, but also persecuted, emotionally wounded and deserving of sympathy.

His anger is vehement and direct when he delivers a speech about Antonio to the camera, beginning, “I hate him for he is a Christian.” And his injured soul is also evident when he offers Antonio a friendship of convenience and is rejected. “For your love I pray you, wrong me not,” he says, with no realistic hope that will happen. By the time he gets to his most famous speech—“Hath not a Jew eyes? If you prick us do we not bleed?”—Mr. Goodman's Shylock is furious, motivated equally by social mistreatment and by his profound heartbreak because his daughter has eloped with a Christian.

His humanizing performance is helped by transporting the play to the 30's. The period neutralizes the persistent debate about the characters' anti-Semitic remarks, not by attributing them to Shakespeare's own blased era, but by framing them as the product of a vicious historical moment in our own. Launcelot, one of Shakespeare's clowns, becomes a stand-up comedian here, his descriptions of Shylock turned into the kind of jokes about Jews that were common at the time.

Most of the other performances are serviceable, with the great exception of Derbhle Crotty's commanding Portia. She is convincing as a mature woman who accepts suitors in her Art Deco home as they try to choose correctly among the gold, silver or lead caskets. There are comic touches in these scenes, notably when the Prince of Arragon arrives; he is a flamenco dancer who fractures English with a Spanish accent.

But Ms. Crotty's power truly emerges when Portia poses as a male lawyer. Her “quality of mercy” speech is not recited as airy poetry, but as a desperate conversation with Shylock, as she tries to persuade him not to claim his pound of flesh because “earthly power” is closest to God's “when mercy seasons justice.” Shylock of course insists on and is finally undone by an unmerciful adherence to the letter of the law, as this Merchant makes Shakespeare's questions seem eye-openingly fresh.

Toby Young (review date 10 November 2001)

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SOURCE: Young, Toby. “Won Over.” Spectator 287, no. 9040 (10 November 2001): 88-9.

[In the following excerpted review of Loveday Ingram's feminist production of The Merchant of Venice, Young states that the male characters were too emasculated to be credibly seen as romantic figures.]

Jews are treated a good deal less sympathetically in the Royal Shakespeare Company's latest production of The Merchant of Venice. As directed by Loveday Ingram, Shylock is a villain of the first water and it takes all the ingenuity of Portia, played as a heroic mother-figure by Hermione Gulliford, to save Antonio and Bassanio from his clutches. This is an unashamedly feminist reading of the play, and, while it serves to enliven the courtroom confrontation between Shylock and Portia, the male principals are left so emasculated it's difficult to take them seriously as romantic figures. Bassanio (Paul Hickey), in particular, is so wet I was left scratching my head as to why this fire-breathing Portia shows any interest in him.

There are some superb performances, though. Ian Fielder invests Antonio with such authority I couldn't take my eyes off him and Ian Bartholomew's Shylock seethes with embittered hatred. However, the performer who really stands out is Chris Jarman, who has a brief cameo as the Prince of Morocco, one of Portia's unsuccessful suitors. His all too brief appearance, in which he leaps about the stage like one of the Arabian Knights, gives the play a much-needed boost of comic energy, and, after he's gone, it's almost as if someone's turned out the lights. A few more touches like that and this merely competent production of The Merchant of Venice might have turned into something much more memorable.

Thomas Luxon (essay date January 1999)

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SOURCE: Luxon, Thomas H. “A Second Daniel: The Jew and the ‘True Jew’ in The Merchant of Venice.Early Modern Literary Studies 4, no. 3 (January 1999): 3.1-37.

[In the following essay, Luxon investigates the play's treatment of Jews within the context of late Elizabethan society's attitudes toward Jewishness as both race and religion.]

Two recent studies of Shakespeare and early modern attitudes towards Jews come to remarkably different conclusions on the question of whether or not The Merchant of Venice is an anti-Jewish play.1 James Shapiro's richly historical Shakespeare and the Jews offers fascinating evidence about the scope and complexity of anti-Jewish attitudes embedded in the “cultural moment” of Shakespeare's play (Shapiro 10), but he shies away from directly accusing either playwright or play of promoting or trading on anti-semitism, claiming that such terms are “anachronistic … inventions of nineteenth-century racial theory” and thus, “fundamentally ill-suited for gauging what transpired three hundred years earlier” (11). The objection is important; modern discourses about race are significantly different from their early modern religious forbears. However, this does not render questions like “Is the play intentionally anti-Jewish?” irrelevant. Does the play invite us to share Antonio's attitudes toward Jews? Does it mean us to regard Shylock (and so revile Shylock) as a “typical” Jew? Shapiro shows us a “cultural moment” of late Elizabethan anxiety about national and religious identities, anxieties that very often surfaced as reactionary xenophobia and both anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic paranoia. We might reasonably and profitably ask whether or not the play exploits these anxieties and phobias, and if so how? Does the play endorse the anti-Jewish attitudes that according to Shapiro helped shape a nation's anxious search for Englishness?

Martin Yaffe's Shylock and the Jewish Question throws itself headfirst into the counter-intuitive claim that the play is intentionally and even obviously pro-Jewish, that the play invites us to revile Shylock, not as a typical Jew, but as a “bad Jew.” Yaffe's argument assumes, without offering any historical evidence, that both playwright and audience would have regarded Shylock as a Jew who has abandoned traditional Jewish moral teaching and assimilated himself to the mercenary ways of Venetian capitalism.2 He is bloodthirsty and merciless because he is a materialist usurer, even a precurser of the modern secular liberal, not because he is a Jew. Of course I agree with Yaffe that stereotypes of Jews as merciless, bloodthirsty, and carnal-minded are all rooted in flagrant misconceptions of traditional Hebrew and Jewish teachings, but I simply cannot bring myself to imagine that either Shakespeare or his audience was free of such misconceptions. Shapiro's book offers more than enough evidence to the contrary.


Though I think Yaffe's overall thesis unsound, even obtuse, its perspective sometimes prompts more interesting, even more accurate, readings of key passages in the play than traditional perspectives have. Yaffe's reading of Shylock's “I am a Jew” speech, for example, is in at least one important respect more historically correct than the one Shapiro's concluding remarks imply (Shapiro 228). Shapiro echoes the time-honoured reading of this speech as a moving appeal to universalist humanism; but we too easily forget how it might have sounded to a Renaissance Christian humanist:

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

(Merchant 3.1.49-61)

Shylock claims that Christians and Jews are not much different from each other, that they share an underlying carnal humanity. In Yaffe's words, “Shylock argues that Jews and Christians are alike in a low but undeniable respect: having eyes, hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, and so forth, their behaviour is equally subject to the overriding needs and susceptibilities of the human body. Conditioned alike, they may therefore be expected to act alike” (Yaffe 63-64). Shylock preaches a kind of humanism, but it is a far cry from the neoplatonic Christian humanism of, say Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who taught that humanity is not so much a matter of shared physiology, but of shared godlikeness—“the intimate of the gods, the king of the lower beings, … the marriage song of the world, on David's testimony but a little lower than the angels” (Pico 223). Shylock's humanism is more like the modern secular humanism implicit in the excuse, “after all I'm only human.” On this score, Yaffe is precisely right; an audience that warms to Portia's mercy speech would regard Shylock's carnal humanism—revenge for revenge—as something very low indeed.

What Yaffe does not notice, for it hardly supports his argument, is that Shakespeare's audience would also have recognized in this speech the “carnal” mind they believed typical of all Jews. The carnal attitude Yaffe would attribute to Shylock's (and Venice's) “newly prominent” commercialism (Yaffe 82), a contemporary audience would have regarded as a Jewish attitude. Indeed, one of the play's chief themes is that commercialism, especially the emergent practice of favouring merchant law over common law and equity, and the general cultural slide towards the idolatries of the marketplace, all threaten traditional values much in the way Jews had long been regarded as a threat to Christianity. The play uses the Jew and the Merchant as complementary figures of each other; exaggerated mercantilism is made to look Jewish and the mythic bloodthirsty Jew is refigured as a business machiavel.

Yaffe also makes a very good point about Shylock's being bad at Bible interpretation. Yaffe regards Shylock as a “bad Jew,” which in his book means an assimilated Jew. Shylock has “departed from the ways of his forbears” (Yaffe 62) and become a moneygrubbing Venetian financier. Although he still calls himself a Jew, he long ago stopped following the ancient laws of the Torah; indeed he cannot even read Torah profitably because he tends to read the scriptures “rather as a sourcebook for the creative businessman” (Yaffe 63).3 An allegedly telling example of Shylock's perverse assimilationist hermeneutics is his attempt, in Act 1, scene 3 to read the story of Jacob and Laban from Genesis 30-31 as a biblical endorsement of usury. Yaffe correctly observes that traditional rabbinic commentary explicitly agrees with Antonio's (supposedly the Christian) reading of the Jacob and Laban episode—that Jacob used no guile or sharp practices in his dealings with Laban, but simply followed the Lord's commandments and allowed circumstances to be “sway'd and fashion'd by the hand of heaven” (1.3.89). Shylock's reading is not, then, a traditional Jewish interpretation of Jacob's thriving, but a money-grubbing Venice-assimilated apostate's self-interested perversion of the story.

I agree, of course, that Shylock's reading of Genesis is not a typically rabbinic or even Jewish reading, but I think Yaffe is wrong about Elizabethean Protestant audiences. They probably would have regarded Shylock's self-serving hermeneutics as typically Jewish, and the play clearly invites us to think so. The typical Elizabethan Protestant would have offered quite a different account of Shylock's, or any Jew's, hermeneutic myopia—the widely held conviction that Jews simply cannot read the scriptures properly. In particular, it was believed they stubbornly read the Bible's promises in carnal senses rather than the spiritual senses which the Holy Spirit intended. Shakespeare's audience would probably have seen Shylock's carnal and self-serving reading of Genesis as typical of all Jews, since they generally believed that all Jews since Christ's advent had willfully given up their place in God's Church, God's Israel, and had become stubborn misbelievers, unable to read their own scriptures profitably. In short, all Jews were believed to have “departed from the ways of [their] forbears”. To Elizabethan Christians, that was virtually the definition of a Jew.


I find Yaffe's misreadings of the “I am a Jew” speech and Shylock's hermeneutic myopia especially interesting because they pay attention to features of the play other critics ignore. Yaffe misreads these features because he has little sense of the powerfully ambivalent role played by the figure of the Jew in the Elizabethan Protestant imagination. When English Protestants read their Bibles, they read the patriarchs and prophets not just as figures of themselves; they thought of Moses, David, Ezekiel, and Daniel as co-religionists, members of God's Church. The ancient Israelites, taught Luther, Calvin, and the Geneva Bible annotations, were God's pre-advent Church.4 The “Old Testament” Israelites, especially the patriarchs and heroes, were widely regarded as proto-Christian members of the true Church, elect from the beginning. But the post-advent Jews represented the worst form of stubborn and graceless apostasy. Except for the Pauline assurance that many of them would turn Christian at the last moment of history, these Jews stood for everything a Christian was not—selfish, impious, carnal-minded, stubborn, vindictive, merciless, envious, bloodthirsty, narrow-minded, and devoted to this world rather than to the world to come.

Examples of these attitudes towards Israelite and Jew can be found almost everywhere in early modern religious discourse, but they are especially prevalent in reformation commentaries on the Book of Daniel. The book of Daniel and contemporary commentaries upon it are important here because Shakespeare's play so loudly and complexly invokes the stories and teachings of the ancient Hebrew prophet. In the trial scene, Shylock expresses his delight at young Doctor Balthasar's (Portia's) summary judgment in his favour by dubbing him “a Daniel come to judgment, yea, a Daniel” (Merchant 4.1.218). As Shapiro (and Lewalski before him) observes, “editors of the play uniformly note that the characters are alluding to the apocryphal story of Susannah and the elders” and that “the explanations go no further” than this (Shapiro 133). Lewalski also observed, in 1962 (Lewalski 327-43), that the name Portia borrows for her disguise as a young law clerk, Balthasar (or as the Geneva Bible spells it, “Belteshazàr”), was the name assigned to Daniel by Ashpenaz, King Nebuchadnezzar's “chief of the Eunuches” when Daniel and three other children of Israel's royal household were taken from Israel to live in captivity in Babylon (Daniel 1:7).5 Thus, though Shylock probably alludes to the story from the book of Susanna when he praises Portia as “a Daniel come to judgment, yea, a Daniel,” his allusion is already undercut and displaced by Portia's assumption of Daniel's Babylonian name as part of her disguise as judge. Her gesture alludes, not to the apocryphal Book of Susanna, but to what Christians considered the canonical book of Daniel. Only there is the prophet referred to by his Babylonian name. Portia, then, stands for one sort of Daniel, and Shylock invokes quite another; Graziano, probably unwittingly, calls attention to the differences between the two.

In what remains of this paper I will try to show in detail how Portia's Daniel represents the Daniel who was crucial to the Reformation notion of the converted, or Christian Jew as opposed to the blind and stubborn Jew, that Shylock betrays himself as precisely such a blind and stubborn Jew who effectively misrecognizes Daniel even as he invokes him, and that the play invites its audience therefore to revile Shylock as a typical Jew—myopic hermeneut, stubborn misbeliever, graceless and merciless dog—for whom forced conversion is too good a treatment. The play implies that Portia, disguised as Balthasar/Daniel, plays the role of a true Jew, that is, the Jew who recognizes Jesus as Messiah. It also implies that stubborn, misbelieving Jews like Shylock are not, properly speaking, Jews at all, but more truly like Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians, the pagan idolaters who are the bad guys in the book of Daniel. Shakespeare does invite us to revile Shylock as a “bad Jew,” but not in the way Yaffe maintains; to an Elizabethan audience all Jews except those who, like Daniel, acknowledge Christ as Messiah, are “bad Jews.”


Calvin wrote commentaries on nearly every book of the Bible, but his commentary on Daniel, one of the Bible's shorter books, requires two large volumes in the Calvin Translation Society series. Andrew Willet's Hexapla in Danielem also runs to two large volumes, much longer than his more well-known Hexapla in Genesin, even though the book of Daniel is about one quarter the length of Genesis. The English version of the Geneva Bible prints copious annotations around each of Daniel's twelve chapters. Protestants in Europe and in England were obsessively fascinated with the prophetic book of Daniel. The “Argvment” that introduces the Geneva version of the book of Daniel indicates why: “The great prouidence of God, and his singular mercie toward his Church are most lively here set forthe.” Of all the prophets God has sent for the comfort of “his Church,” Ezekiel and Daniel were particularly “adorned with such graces of his holie spirite, that Daniél aboue all other had most special reuelations of suche things as shulde come to the Church, even from the time that thei were in captiuitie, to the last ende of the worlde, and to the general resurrection.” By “the Church” here is meant God's chosen people from the time of Abraham to the apocalypse, treated as a single predestined people throughout history from the old covenant to the new. To early modern Protestants, Daniel is a crux, textual and historical, in the saga of God's true Church. This is because they believed that Daniel foretold, not darkly or allegorically, but plainly and self-consciously, the exact number of years that would pass before the advent of “the sonne of man,” or Jesus Christ. Daniel foresaw the cessation of the ceremonies in the temple, implying that Christ's sacrifice on the cross rendered temple sacrifice redundant. “Moreover,” says the Geneva introduction, Daniel

sheweth Christes office and the cause of his death, which was by his sacrifice to take awaye sinnes, and to bring euerlasting life. And as from the beginning God euer exercised his people vnder the crosse, so he teacheth here, that after that Christ is offred, he wil stil leaue this exercise to his Church vntil the dead rise againe, and Christ gather his into his kingdome in the heauens.

(“The Argvment” preceding Daniel in Geneva Bible [1560])

Daniel tells the world of his vision of God's providential plan for the salvation of his Church, from the Babylonian captivity to the apocalypse. In other words, the prophet Daniel comprehended the Gospel centuries before the birth of Christ, and even met the pre-incarnate Christ as “the sonne of man” in a vision, and preached this gospel to a largely unresponsive Israel. He is thus a pivotal figure in the history of God's true Church, the first Jew to become a Christian. Those who reject or misread Daniel's prophecy, then, are apostate Jews, complacent in captivity, the forerunners of the Scribes and Pharisees.

Early Protestant commentaries on Daniel always point out that stubborn Jews refuse to regard Daniel as a prophet or his book as canonical. Andrew Willet, like most Protestant commentators, notes that “The Iewes doe derogate much from the authoritie of this booke, not counting it among the Propheticall writings” (Willet 7). He opines that Jews have denied Daniel the authority of a prophet because they stubbornly resent Christ and the gospel in general. This denial, Willet implies, has grown firmer throughout history. “Elder Iewes” respected the book much as they did the other non-Mosaic books and wrote commentaries on it, but “the later Rabbines doe denie the booke of Daniel to be authenticall, and therefore do seldome reade it,” and the reason for this is “because Daniel doth so evidently point out the time of the Messiah his comming” (7). Jews in general, implies Willet, have abandoned their heritage in God's true Church, ignored his special prophets, and denied his Messiah. Calvin's comments on this Jewish perversity are typical; according to his reading of Daniel 9:11, Israel's apostasy is not so much a matter of disobeying the law as refusing to hear the gospel from God's prophet:

In revolting, he says, so as not to hear. By these words Daniel expresses the determined obstinacy of the people, implying this was not occasioned by either error or ignorance; nay even sloth was not the cause of Israel's wilful blindness and inattention to God's precepts, but was only the beginning of this act of rebellion. In revolting, therefore, so as not to hear thy voice.

(Commentaries on Daniel 2.162)

Giovanni Diodati, the uncle of John Milton's best friend, Charles, wrote in his Pious Annotations upon the Holy Bible that Daniel predicts Christ's redemptive death as “more cleerly shewn to him, then to any other Prophet” and adds that another point of the prophecy is “foretelling also that Christs Kingdome should be exercised, in justly punishing the Jewish Nation for their incredulitie and rebellion.” Protestant commentaries uniformly read Daniel as foretelling Christ's redemption of “the elect” Jews and the damnation of the stubborn Jews. On Daniel 12:1, Diodati comments, “God shall deliver his elect out of the general reprobation, and extermination of the Jewish nation.” Daniel was read as a wholesale indictment, by one of their own prophets, of Jews who deny Christ, even to the point of justifying their “general reprobation and extermination.”

The enormous and hugely popular Annotations upon all the books of the Old and New Testament summarizes “the Propheticall part” of Daniel this way:

Daniels wisedome doth clearly shine forth, in shewing when the mystery of Mans Redemption should be wrought; and Ceremonies, and legal Sacrifices should cease, and be abolished, to give way to the service of God in Spirit and Truth; namely when the Messiah was slain. … [It] also tells the time precisely when the Messiah, by his death, should purchase for his Church spiritual deliverance, and set up his Spiritual, and everlasting Kingdome, by causing and meriting Salvation and Eternal felicity to all both Jewes and gentiles which were of the Election of Grace. Foretelling likewise the finall and fatal judgment of God to be executed by the Romans upon the Jewish Nation, for denying the Holy One of Israel, and betraying the Lord of life to be killed by the Romane power.6

Many Protestants believed that Christ's second coming would be immediately preceded by a mass conversion of Jews, but we are mistaken if we think they meant all Jews. Calvin, for example, taught that only those Jews “elect” from the beginning of the world would be saved. Commenting on Daniel 9:27, he says quite bluntly, “I have no hesitation in stating God's wish to cut off all hope of restoration from the Jews, whom we know to have been blinded by a foolish confidence, and to have supposed God's presence confined to a visible temple. As they were thus firmly persuaded of the impossibility of God's ever departing from them, they ought to be deprived of their false confidence, and no longer deceive themselves by such flattering hopes” (Commentaries on Daniel 2. 228-29). And on Daniel 9:26: “Two points, then, are to be noticed here; first, all hope is to be taken from the Jews, as they must be taught the necessity for their perishing; and secondly, a reason is ascribed for this, namely, the determination of the Almighty and his inviolable decree” (Commentaries on Daniel 2. 224).

According to Calvin, any Jew who had heard the gospel according to Daniel and persisted in denying both Christ and his prophet must perish; God decrees it. Shakespeare's play shows us a Jew who hears the gospel according to Portia, speaking as Balthasar, a Daniel in disguise. He misrecognizes Daniel as a clever young judge rather than God's prophet; he refuses to hear the teaching of mercy and redemption and grace. He therefore deserves to perish. This is the anti-Jewish logic of the play.

Luther's English disciple, George Joye, compiled in 1544 The Exposicio[n] of Daniell the Prophete. There he repeats Melancthon's caution about how properly to read biblical prophecies like Daniel's: readers “muste loke whyche parte containeth the lawes, whyche preache the promises and the gospell” (A8v). Though we normally expect to find “lawes” in the so-called “Old Testament” and gospel promises in the New, the point here is that Daniel preaches literal gospel promises in his prophetic book and the pertinacious “Jewes” simply refuse to “get it.”

As what can be sayde clerelier and evidentlyer agaynste the Jewes, then that Daniel affirmeth Chryste to muste have ben borne duryng yet the common weal of Moses? Wherefore that horrible destruccion of Jerusalem and ruyne of the whole lande of Juda now paste.M.CCCC.lxxiiii. yeres do testifye Chryst to be borne, & it refuteth their mad & cursed pertinaci. Here must we note the lessons of the true invocacion and worship of God. As when Daniel praieth he acknowlegeth to God onely his owne and their synnes for whom he prayeth, and asketh of God onelye delyveraunce in the fayth and confidence of his mercy, adding by expresse name. For the Lorde Christe hys sake, that is for Messias sake promised.

(A8v - B1)

According to this reading Daniel preaches Christ and “his mercy,” the end of sacrificial ritual, and the destruction of the temple centuries before “the one like the sonne of man” condescends to become incarnate as Jesus Christ (Daniel 7:13).7 Much like Paul who bragged that his authority as apostle derived from the “risen” Christ rather than the earthly Jesus, Daniel is here understood as an apostle to Israel authorized by the pre-incarnate Christ, appearing to him in visions as “the sonne of man,” or “the similitude of a man” or as “Michael” (Daniel 8:15, 10:13, 21; 12:1).8 Early modern Protestant commentaries regarded Daniel as literally, not figuratively, preaching the gospel (Daniel 10:1 note b); Calvin, for example, claims that Daniel received interpretations of his visions directly “from Christ's lips” (Commentaries on Daniel 2. 111) Of Daniel 7:27, Calvin says, “almost all, except the Jews, have treated this prophecy as relating to the final day of Christ's advent.”

All Christian interpreters agree in this. … As to the Jews, theirs is no explanation at all, for they are not only foolish and stupid, but even crazy. And since their object is the adulteration of sound doctrine, God also blinds them till they become utterly in the dark, and both trifling and childish; and if I were to stop to refute their crudities, I should never come to an end.

(Commentaries on Daniel 2. 72)

Fourteen hundred and seventy-four years (“MCCCC.lxxiiii”) of salvation history, says Melancthon, testify to the truth of Daniel's visionary gospel; it is a gospel that came straight from the heavenly Son of God. What's more, in Daniel 9:1-19, commentators understood Daniel's famous prayer for forgiveness on behalf of Israel as addressed to Christ in Christ's own “expresse name” (Joye B1).9 The Geneva notes to Daniel 1:7 also insist that Daniel's prayer on behalf of an apostate Israel is consciously addressed to Christ, glossing “Lords sake” as “That is, for thy Christs sake in whom [thou] wilt accept all our praiers.” If Daniel prayed in Christ's name for forgiveness of Israel's sins, then Jews who do not recognize Daniel as a prophet-apostle and his teachings as gospel promises are perverse, stupid, crazy, mad, and cursedly pertinacious; as such they deserve “extermination.” This is what the book of Daniel signified to many early modern Protestants.

When, therefore, Portia assumes the name Balthasar for her disguise as Bellario's law clerk, and assumes the post as special judge in “this strict court of Venice”—that is, a special court where merchants may expect summary judgment on contract enforcement regardless of their “nation”10—Shakespeare invokes the popular Daniel lore of the age. This Daniel lore is precisely the discourse through which Bible-reading Englishmen and women thought about Jews. Portia thus not only preempts Shylock's allusion to Daniel, she preemptively corrects it. He (and ages of Shakespeare editors) alludes to the clever young judge of the story in Susanna who turns the Elders' perjuries against themselves, but Portia as Balthasar already stands for the prophet Daniel as Protestants understood him from the canonical scriptures: one who preaches Christ crucified, risen and come again, a sufficient sacrifice for all sins; the end of temple worship in types and shadows; the vanity of legal righteousness, and the necessity of praying for forgiveness and mercy “for thy Christs sake,” and in his name. In effect, the English Protestant's Daniel implies an “Old Testament” indictment of stubborn Jews; if he could believe in Christ even before Jesus's advent, based simply on prophetic visions, then the post-advent Jews who do not believe have no excuse. Shylock misrecognizes the Daniel he invokes; he therefore misses the point of Daniel's prophecy. That, in the minds of Shakespeare's contemporaries, is what makes him a “bad Jew,” that is, a non-Christian Jew.


Portia stands at the hub of a web of misrecognitions that generate this play's ironic humour and much of its anti-Jewish energy. But Shylock is not the only one who misrecognizes Portia. So also do Antonio and the Duke. The Duke mistakes her disguised sex for beardless youth. Thinking she is young, the Duke expects a certain kind of legal bias he had hoped to avoid in sending for “learned Bellario.” At first his fears look justified, but this apparently young Doctor turns out to be the only one capable of turning the case before this “strict court of Venice” from a civil merchant affair to a very traditional criminal matter based on laws that underwrite very old and bigoted notions of nation and citizenship. We are thus invited to read the Venetians' misrecognition as an index of their blindness, though it is blindness of another sort than Shylock's, for it is neither pertinacious nor willful; they are deceived, but Shylock refuses to see or listen to Portia's teaching about mercy.

Understanding how the Duke and the Venetians misrecognize Portia requires that we know something about how cases in merchant law were handled in sixteenth-century Venice, or at least the way Englishmen, anxious about legal innovations designed to enable emergent capitalist practices, feared they were handled. Walter Cohen reminds us that “To the English, and particularly to Londoners, Venice represented a more advanced stage of the commercial development they themselves were experiencing” (Cohen 75). B. J. Sokol, writing about allusions to and anxieties about “the Law Merchant” in the play, concludes “it is likely that in the Elizabethan imagination mercantile law would seem Italian. The legendary image of Venetian commerce clearly impressed Shakespeare and his audiences, and this is joined with a contemporary belief that the Venetian state firmly applied laws equally to all” (Sokol 63). Various characters in the play—Salerio (Merchant 3.2.277-78), Antonio (3.3.26-31), Shylock (4.1.37-38, 100-101)—formulate and re-formulate the legal stone that presumably blocks any possible comic resolution: Venice's strength as an international commercial center depends upon its reputation for upholding merchant and financial contracts regardless of the contracting parties' nation. Antonio puts it this way:

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 his state;
Since that the trade and profit of the city
Consisteth of all nations.


In their legal philosophy, then, Antonio and the Duke are in the uncomfortable position of basic agreement with Shylock. This is why the Duke spends so much private effort trying to get Shylock to settle out of court, and why his first public statements in the trial scene once again press for settlement without trial (4.1.16-33).

Gasparo Contarini's Commonwealth and Government of Venice is full of pride for Venetian internationalism, an internationalism that evoked admiration, envy, and trepidation from English readers. When Lewes Lewkenor's translation was published in England in 1599, several English poets, including Edmund Spenser, contributed prefatory sonnets. Spenser regards “Fayre Venice, flower of the last worlds delight” as the third and last “Babel,” after Babylon and Rome. Venice is “next to them in beauty … / But farre exceedes [them] in policie of right.” Like the other two Babels, the poem suggests, Venice, too, will self-destruct, and its innovative internationalist policies will be partly to blame.11 Another poem, by I. Ashley, compares Venice to Narcissus, and predicts its ruin in its pride. All these prefatory poems say something about Venice's innovative politics, law, and mercantile power. They all profess admiration for Venice's progressive policies, but also suggest there is something too worldly, too proud, carnal, and vaguely idolatrous about this third Babel of a city.

Contarini's text offers detailed accounts of Venetian innovations in merchant law. He opens by boasting that visitors to Venice are amazed at the city's “wonderful concourse of strange and forraine people, yea of the farthest and remotest nations, as though the City of Venice onely were a common and general market to the whole world” (Contarini 1). To support the development of international commerce, Venice instituted a whole set of new civil magistrates called the “New Auditors” with specialized responsibilities, “divided according to the qualitie of the causes and of the persons” (106). Cases about property were assigned to one auditor/judge while cases about “other contracts, or bargaines” to another. Likewise, cases between citizens were assigned separately from cases between strangers, “or one with another strangers and citizens together” (106). Yet another new division of magistrates was called “Judges or Consuls of the marchauntes”: “These doe in their Judgements use a speedier dispatch then any other of the civil magistrates: which was so ordayned, to the ende that marchauntes, whose affaires might otherwise receyve great detriment and hinderance, with lingering and delayes might not be deluded or entertayned with long expectation of their right” (107).

I do not want to suggest that Shakespeare precisely modelled his trial scene on actual Venetian civil procedure. The end of the scene, where the civil court prosecutes and decides a criminal charge, argues otherwise. The point is that Venice, as Spenser's poem suggests, had a reputation for a civil court system peculiarly solicitous of merchants' “right” to a speedy judgment on principles that favoured liberty of contract. When the Duke warns the court that “Upon my power I may dismiss this court / Unless Bellario, a learnèd doctor / Whom I have sent for to determine this, / Come here today” (Merchant 4.1.103-106), we are witnessing the sort of specialized civil procedure Contarini outlines. The Duke does not sit as judge in this court because it was customary to invite a “forraine” judge from one of the mainland Italian cities to sit in judgment over cases involving foreigners (Contarini 18). The Duke would invite a specialist in such contracts from among the lists of “New Auditors” for merchant cases; the trial is expected to take place without delay and issue in a summary judgment.

Because this is such standard procedure, Shakespeare's Duke is already quite certain what the result will be, and though as Duke he can intervene whenever he pleases, he is loath to do what Bassanio asks—“Wrest once the law to your authority. / To do a great right, do a little wrong”—even to save Antonio (4.1.210; 3.2.277). Whether we see Bassanio directing this plea to Balthasar as the appointed judge in this case, or to the Duke in his special authority, Portia's response is allowed to stand:

It must not be. There is no power in Venice
Can alter a decree establishèd.
'Twill be recorded for a precedent,
And many an error by the same example
Will rush into the state. It cannot be.


The Duke can delay the case if he wishes under colour of legal procedure, but he is a strong proponent of the new procedures for merchant justice, procedures designed to benefit merchants like Antonio, and to promote commercial interests in general. He is sorry for Antonio (4.1.3) precisely because he doesn't see how he can help him without impeaching a civil court system that has enabled Venice's success, without tarnishing the reputation that is the ground of its commericial preeminence. The third Babel's glory is at risk here.

There is, as it turns out, another more traditional brand of law lurking in the wings, but if the Duke knows of it, he doesn't know how to apply it in this case. No one, not the Duke, not even Antonio, can think of a way to inject equity into “this strict court of Venice” without putting Venice's reputation at risk. The play suggests that blindly promoting merchant law over equity and common law may make a city rich and beautiful, but it may also unintentionally give rein to the merciless and idolatrous lusts of unchristian beasts like Shylock. Merchant law and unbridled commercialism may build another Babel, another capitol of paganism and apostasy, another Rome.

Perhaps this is why Shakespeare's Duke, when he sends for a foreign judge to serve as auditor in this case, applies to the “learned Bellario” of Padua. Paduans were not Venetians, so Bellario is technically a foreigner, but according to legend, Venice was originally settled and founded by Paduans fleeing barbarian invasion. Padua, then, was Venice's father city and its link to a more traditional mainland past. Bellario qualifies as one of the “new Auditors,” but he also represents the old country and its more traditional systems of law. The Duke, having spent so much energy trying to get Shylock to settle out of court, selects Bellario hoping that he may know how to inject an older sense of equity into “this strict court of Venice.”

If this is so, Dr. Balthasar's first appearance in court must disappoint the Duke. Neither old, nor Paduan, Balthasar is astonishingly young and Roman. In his letter Bellario anticipates the Duke's disappointment by reassuring him that Balthasar is a puer senex: “I never knew so young a body with so old a head” (4.1.159-60). This could be code for “don't be disappointed; he's not the progressive young lawyer he appears.” So the Duke accepts Balthasar and formally installs him as judge: “Take your place” (165). But no sooner is he in place than Balthasar fulfills all the Duke's worst fears about an innovative young judge in this case. Before he has heard a word of testimony, young Balthasar has his judgment ready:

Of a strange nature is the suit you follow,
Yet in such rule that the Venetian law
Cannot impugn you as you do proceed.


This is summary enforcement of contract of the speediest sort! According to merchant law, apparently, this case is open-and-shut.

No doubt Portia's grand speech on the “quality of mercy” sounds very much like the sort of thing the Duke might have welcomed from the “old head” of Bellario. It seems the young Balthasar is familiar with the old notion that mercy should be above justice, but he doesn't let traditional notions interfere with his summary judgment in the merchant's favour:

I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.


There is a special irony in the ways the courtroom scene plays with the terms old, new, and young that is far more interesting and playful than the familar critical allegoresis of “Old Testament law” and “New Testament grace” allows for. To Shakespeare's Venetians “old” law is law the way it was practised before the recent innovations that established merchant law as distinctively Venetian and republican. Old lawyers from Padua might remember how to practise “old” law. “New” law means support for international commerce, summary judgments for merchants, a presumption in favor of enforcing contracts regardless of the parties' “nations.” Venice's old law is not blind to nationalities, social rank, and citizenship; it would force Shylock to “show mercy” or die. The new law that enables Venice's commercial success, however, favours strict literalist interpretation of contracts and does not allow arguments about equity and mercy to affect its judgments. To the English Protestant imagination, then, Venice's new merchant law looks suspiciously like the “old law” they associated with Jews. The Duke and Antonio are new law advocates, even though this time new law puts Antonio at Shylock's (nonexistent) mercy.

Shylock also likes this new law, nobody more than he. The new law offers some hope of ridding himself of the persecutorial Antonio. Antonio has been running a one-man crusade against Jewish usury (a.k.a. Shylock) for years, but under the new merchant law, if Shylock can once find a way to haul Antonio before a court, that court promises him a status Antonio and his friends have so far denied him.13 On the Rialto, Antonio calls him a dog and uses him like “a stranger cur” (1.3.107-124). He calls Shylock beast and devil with impunity. He does all he can to hinder Shylock's business, by fair means and foul (3.1.45-49). But in the “strict court of Venice,” Shylock knows (or thinks he knows) that all that anti-Jewish blather will not count. Graziano can call him a dog, claim that his soul once belonged to a wolf hanged for murder, but “Till [he] can rail the seal from off my bond,” says Shylock, he only hurts his lungs to shout so loud (4.1.132-137). Shylock believes that the Venetian court, famous for its practice of innovative merchant law, will allow him the status of a man, a homo economicus—a juridical emancipation. So, “new law” in this “strict court of Venice” does not stand, as so many critics have thought, just for Christian grace and mercy. In the first instance it stands, like Shylock, for summary justice according to a literal reading of the contract.

Unlike the Duke, Shylock was probably glad to see a young judge in Bellario's place. The legal innovations that favour contracts over equity and strive for judicial blindness to nation and citizenship hold out the promise to Shylock of judicial liberation. Shylock hopes the new Venetian law will allow him to stand as Antonio's equal before the law. But what Shylock cannot see is how the play has already associated Venice with Babel, legal innovation with merciless machiavellian business practices, and how the play is on the verge of making Shylock, the stubborn Jew (and therefore the false Jew), into the mascot for this new Babel. In the remainder of the scene, Portia—Daniel disguised as Balthasar—will unmask Shylock as truly the Nebuchadnezzar of the piece.


At first we might think that the play's allusion to Balthasar, Daniel in Babylon, draws attention to Shylock's position as a Jew in Venice. As we have seen, the English frequently thought of Venice as a latter-day Babel. Shylock makes his way, even prospers, in Venice much as Daniel did in Babylon (or Jacob in Laban's house, or Joseph in Egypt). Nebuchadnezzar's court rewarded sages and oneiromancers; Venice rewards merchants and financiers. Like Daniel, Shylock sets limits to his assimilation; he reminds the Venetians he is a Jew: “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” (1.3.29-32). This is a tempting interpretation, especially when Shylock invokes the story of Jacob and Laban, another instance of God's chosen man patiently prospering under oppression. But the play refuses to endorse this line of interpretation, preferring instead to play Shylock as the typically blinkered, self-serving hermeneut that Elizabethan Protestants believed all stubborn Jews were. This is especially evident when Shylock unwittingly casts himself as a self-righteous Pharisee when he calls Antonio a “fawning publican” (1.3.36).14 And we have seen how the play mocks his reading of the Jacob story as endorsing usury and miserliness. When Shylock reads the Bible all he hears is “thrift is blessing.” The play explicitly rejects such a reading of scripture as blindly and stubbornly “Jewish.” It endorses Antonio's Protestant reading that God's blessing is “a thing” not in one's own “power to bring to pass / But swayed and fashioned by the hand of heaven” (1.3.88-89). The play rewards the prodigal Bassanio with Portia's blessings of wealth; the casket lesson recommends giving and hazarding rather than careful thrift; Antonio first loses everything, and then gets most of it back as if by heavenly intervention (5.1.275-76). As Lewalski has argued, the play leans far more to the “take no thought for the morrow” end of the ethical spectrum and tends to indict Shylock's “fast bind, fast find” attitude as unchristian (Lewalski 328-330), and therefore, immoral.

I have already argued that the play undercuts and corrects Shylock's invocation of Daniel by presenting Portia disguised as Balthasar. Shylock tries to call to mind the clever young judge of Susanna, but the play insists that we pay attention instead to the prophet Daniel who preached Christ to stubborn Jews and mercy to oppressive Babylonians. When we do pay such attention, when we watch the play with the familiar stories of Daniel in Babylon fresh in our minds, some curious and fascinating readings emerge. I will conclude by sketching out just a few.

In the trial scene Dr. Balthasar is a kind of silenus figure. On the outside, he looks like a progressive young judge zealous for merchant law and summary judgments favouring contracts; inside he is Portia, heiress of Belmont, daughter of old money and imbued with ancient (even bigoted15) notions of citizenship, nationalism and privilege. This resembles Daniel in Babylon. Outside, he is Balthasar, sage and trusted councilor at Nebuchadnezzar's court, but inside he remains a Jew who worships the one true God. Every so often, Nebuchadnezzar must be reminded that Daniel is a Jew and that his God is truly “God of gods and Lord of kings” (Daniel 2:47). This is the Daniel the play endorses, but with a Christian twist—we must read Jew here as “real” Jew, or Christian. The play's Daniel is a Christian; Shylock's Daniel is just a false Jew's stubborn misreading of the Bible.

Shylock appears completely ignorant of the biblical Daniel's various encounters with Babylonian law. In Daniel chapter 6, certain officials, jealous of Daniel's success at court, conspire to catch him up with a new law. They urge King Darius to declare a new law forbidding worship of any god besides Darius knowing that Daniel will transgress. Darius realizes too late what he has done; he loved Daniel and “was much distressed” and “set his mind to deliver Daniel” from this strict new law, labouring “till the sun went down to rescue him,” but the jealous satraps have the law on their side: “Know, O king, that it is a law of the Medes and the Persians that no interdict or ordinance which the king establishes can be changed” (Daniel 6). Daniel is thrown to the lions. This story resembles Antonio's situation before the Duke. The Duke has been zealous for merchant law in Venice because it grows the economy and makes Venice famous and wealthy, but now Antonio has been caught on the wrong side of this new law, and the Duke, like Darius, wracks his brain for a way to save his merchant friend. But the law is the law; it cannot be changed even by the Duke's own voice. Just as Daniel must be saved from the lions by a miracle, so Antonio must be saved from the beastly Shylock's claws by a miracle—Portia.

This story, like the one in Daniel 3, is a cautionary tale about how strict application of novel laws can produce injustice. The Merchant of Venice is another such cautionary tale. When Shylock invokes the law, he unwittingly invokes the other side's champion, and ironically casts himself in the role of Daniel's Babylonian persecutors who would try to use the new laws to catch Daniel “on the hip.” Dr. Balthasar looks at first like a young devotee of merchant law, but turns out to be an old-style prosecutor of the alien statutes. Shylock is called “the Jew” in this case, but winds up looking like the envious Babylonian satraps. And the real Daniel turns the law back on the satraps who go to the lions (6:24) without God's protection, much as Portia turns the old alien statutes on Shylock.

According to this reading, Shylock is cast as a kind of false Jew, the Jew who stubbornly misreads both Torah (the Genesis story of Jacob) and the prophets (Daniel), who is blind to the salvation story they everywhere imply. According to Paul, Jews who stubbornly crave the law and ceremonies, especially circumcision and kashrut, are like children who refuse to see the “true” meanings of both (Galatians 4). Calvin's comments on this are typical:

It was not without cause that God distinguished between us and his ancient people, by training them like children by means of signs and figures, and training us more simply, without so much external show. … This was the state of the Jews under the law. But we are like adults who, being freed from tutory and curatory, have no need of puerile rudiments.

(Institutes 4.10.14)

Christians, then, are Jews grown up, the full grown children of father Abraham (Galatians 4:1-7). Jews who stubbornly remain Jews are, in a sense, not really Jews at all any more, no longer the sons of Abraham, but sons of the “bondwoman” who was “cast out” (Galatians 4:30). Grownup Jews are Christians like Daniel; Jews like Shylock are willfully stunted, pertinaciously puerile, literal-minded, and selfish.16

The play embraces this familiar anti-Jewish trope, especially by way of Portia in disguise. Beneath the Babylonian disguise and name is the true Jew, a Daniel who preaches a Christian mercy that the law and its zealots cannot comprehend. Shylock is exposed as stubbornly deaf—he cannot hear the gospel even when it is preached by a prophet. His Daniel is a rulemonger, but the biblical Daniel is a champion of mercy over the law. He mistakes the Babylonian for the Jew, the disguise for the real thing. The “real” Daniel turns out to be the Christians' champion.

Another episode from the book of Daniel reinforces this trope. In Daniel 4, King Nebuchadnezzar calls upon young Balthasar (Daniel) to interpret a dream that baffles his other sages. The interpretation Daniel offers is a prophecy: as punishment for his overweening pride and his failure to show mercy to the oppressed (particularly the Jews in exile) Nebuchadnezzar “shall be driven from among men” and shall dwell with “the beasts of the field,” eating grass and becoming “wet with the dew of heaven.” He will continue this bestial existence, says Daniel to the King, until “[you] break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed” (Daniel 4:27). According to the story, all this comes to pass; a “voice from heaven” condemns the great king to be “driven out from among men” and live like a beast until his “reason” returns, until he acknowledges the God of Israel and shows mercy on the oppressed (Daniel 4:32-37). This Daniel story directly challenges Shylock's caricature of Judaism as a legalistic religion—“I stand here for law.” In this story, Daniel is the champion of mercy over law, and the villain is the self-righteous Nebuchadnezzar who has forgotten God, and has forgotten to be merciful to the oppressed. He is condemned to live like a beast until his reason returns.

If we apply this Daniel story to the play, once again we find Shylock in the role of the pagan anti-Jewish oppressor steeped in his own self-righteous pride. Portia is cast as the prophetic Daniel disguised as Balthasar. The Duke and everyone else think the self-righteous Shylock is truly a beast—a dog, and an “inhuman wretch,” a “currish Jew”—but the merchant law under which he brings his strange suit allows him the status of a human plaintiff. No one but Portia (like Daniel) knows how to interpret the situation, how to strip Shylock (like Nebuchadnezzar) of his ersatz humanness and return him to his underlying bestial status. She manages this by encouraging him at every turn to overplay his role as a stereotypically stubborn Jew—literal-minded, self-righteous, legalistic, envious, and even bloodthirsty. Of course, he plays it perfectly, thus exposing himself as the opposite of the “true” Jew represented by the Christian Daniel. He is instead the false Jew, a beast. Once he is exposed as such a beast, he can simply be prosecuted as such.

The play, then, is anti-Jewish in ways more sophisticated than we have recognized. Shakespeare may very well eschew, even scorn, more pedestrian forms of anti-Jewish humour, but he lends his astonishing imaginative powers to support some very sophisticated and elaborate versions of Protestant anti-Jewish polemic. It exploits and even endorses anti-Jewish discourses woven ever so tightly into the fabric of Protestant Christianity and reformation readings of the Bible. The play also mocks the Venetians and betrays what appear to be typically English ambivalences about the growth of internationalism in commerce and law, anxieties that live on, perhaps, in the europhobias we read about today. Antonio, Bassanio, and the Duke, however, learn their lessons; they will not so blindly endorse the innovations of merchant law again. The play makes Shylock the mascot of stubborn misbelief, hermeneutic myopia, and a mercilessly machiavellian approach to business. He is cast as more Venetian than the Venetians, more Babylonian than even Nebuchadnezzar (who repented), and therefore not truly a Jew at all, for the true Jews, the verus Israel, says the play, are the Christians.


  1. I prefer the term anti-Jewish to anti-semitic as a description of the attitudes that are the focus of this essay because the latter implies attitudes based on late modern notions of race. The anti-Jewish attitudes depicted and endorsed by this play are more about theology, religion, and nation than about race as we conceive of it, but see Shapiro, 170. I am aware that scholars of early Christianity use these terms differently and more precisely than I think appropriate here; see John G. Gager, The Origins of Anti-Semitism: Attitudes Toward Judaism in Pagan and Christian Antiquity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983) 8-9.

  2. Yaffe even scorns historical evidence of the kind Shapiro assembles, claiming that “evidence from outside Shakespeare's play” can bring nothing useful to the issue (19). Yaffe also incorrectly claims that Shapiro “has no hesitation about calling the play ‘anti-Jewish’ (218)” (18). In the place Yaffe refers to, Shapiro attributes the characterization “anti-Jewish play” to someone else. Indeed, for reasons I respect but cannot share, Shapiro is very hesitant to call the play anti-Jewish.

  3. Yaffe's claim that “Shakespeare measures his Shylock by the standards of Jewish orthodoxy” is based on his unproved assumption that Shakespeare recognized a “common reverence for biblical morality” among Christians and Jews (125) and shared a common sense of biblical ethics, the so-called Judaeo-Christian ethics featured in modern right-wing rhetoric. In light of Shapiro's historical evidence, this is simply incredible.

  4. The Geneva annotations to the book of Daniel refer repeatedly to the non-apostate Jews of Daniel's time as “the Church.” In Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin frequently refers to the pre-advent “Church” of the prophets and patriarchs (4.1.18, 24). Throughout his Commentaries on the Book of the Prophet Daniel, Calvin refers to Daniel as the leader of God's Church in captivity. On Luther's sense of promissio and the pre-advent Church, see J. S. Preus, From Shadow to Promise, 268-269. See also Luxon, Literal Figures, 65-67.

  5. Jerome's Latin Vulgate spells the name as “Baltassar.”

  6. The implied judgment against Roman Catholic “Ceremonies, and legal Sacrifices” along with condemnation of the Jews is familiar to anyone who reads these commentaries.

  7. The Geneva annotations identify “the sonne of man” (7:13) as “Christ, who had not yet taken vpon him mans nature, neither was the sonne of David according to the flesh, as he was afterward: but appeared then in a figure, and that in the cloudes, that is, being separate from the common sort of men by manifest signes of his divinitie.”

  8. The Geneva annotations identify all these visions and voices, including the appearance and voice of Michael, as Christ.

  9. Lewalski highlights this (340-41).

  10. A more detailed explanation of merchant law, the Venetian courts, and Shakespeare's sense of both follows below.

  11. Spenser's sonnet appears on an unnumbered page immediately following the title page, as do the others mentioned below. Spenser's name appears as “Edw. Spencer.” The poem also appears in Ernest de Sélincourt, ed., Spenser's Minor Poems 482.

  12. Contarini writes, “So great is the princes authoritie, that he may in whatsoever court adioine himselfe to the Magistrate therein, being president as his colleague or companion, and have equal power with the other Presidents, that he might so by this means be able to looke into all things” (41), but he also says, “Yet nevertheless so is this authoritie of his by lawes retracted, that alone hee may not doe any thing, neyther being ioyned to the other magistrates hath he any farther power then every other president in his office” (42).

  13. Stephen Greenblatt advanced the interesting suggestion that Antonio's persecution of Shylock resembles the activities of the Monte di Carita in “Marlowe, Marx, and Anti-Semitism” 294.

  14. See Luke 18:10-14 and Lewalski's excellent interpretation (Lewalski 331).

  15. See her bigoted remarks about Morocco earlier in the play (2.8.79).

  16. For especially good discussions of Paul and the anti-Jewish attitudes of the early Christian church, see Gager 113-269.

Works Cited

Annotations upon all the books of the Old and New Testament: this second edition so enlarged, as they make an entire commentary on the sacred scripture: the like never before published in English. Wherein the text is explained, doubts resolved, scriptures parallelled, and various readings observed. By the labour of certain learned divines therunto appointed, and therein employed, as is expressed in the preface. London, 1651.

The Bible: that is, the Holy Scriptures contained in the Old and New Testament. Translated according to the Ebrewe and Greeke and conferred with the best translations in diuers languages. With most profitable annotations upon all hard places, and other things of great importance. London, 1560.

Calvin, Jean. Commentaries on the Book of the Prophet Daniel. 2 volumes. Trans. Thomas Myers. Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1852-53.

Calvin, Jean. Institutes of the Christian Religion. 2 volumes. Trans. Henry Beveridge. Grand Rapids: Eerdman, 1983.

Cohen, Walter. “The Merchant of Venice and the Possibilities of Historical Criticism.” ELH 49 (1982): 765-789.

Contarini, Gasparo. The Commonwealth and Government of Venice. Trans. Lewes Lewkenor. London, 1599.

Della Mirandola, Pico. “On the Dignity of Man” from The Renaissance Philosophy of Man. ed. Ernst Cassirer, Paul Oskar Kristeller, and John Herman Randall, Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948, 223-54.

Diodati, Giovanni. Pious Annotations upon the Holy Bible. London, 1643.

Gager, John G. The Origins of Anti-Semitism: Attitudes Toward Judaism in Pagan and Christian Antiquity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “Marlowe, Marx, and Anti-Semitism.” Critical Inquiry 5 (1978-89): 291-307.

Joye, George. The exposicion of Daniell the prophete, gathered out of Philip Melanchton, Iho[n] Ecolampadius, Chonrade Pellicane, and oute of Ihon Draconite [et]c. London, 1550.

Katz, David. English Philo-Semitism and the Readmission of the Jews to England. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982.

Lewalski, Barbara K. “Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice.” Shakespeare Quarterly 13 (1962): 327-343.

Luxon, Thomas H. Literal Figures: Puritan Allegory and the Reformation Crisis in Representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Neusner, Jacob, trans. Genesis Rabbah: The Judaic Commentary on the Book of Genesis: A New American Translation. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1985.

Preus, J. S. From Shadow to Promise: Old Testament Interpretation from Augustine to the Young Luther. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969.

Ragussis, Michael. Figures of Conversion: “The Jewish Question” & English National Identity. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.

Shakespeare, William. The Comical History of the Merchant of Venice, or Otherwise Called the Jew of Venice in The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Shapiro, James. Shakespeare and the Jews. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Simon, Marcel. Verus Israel: A Study of the Relations Between Christians and Jews in the Roman Empire, 135-425. Trans. H. McKeating. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Sokol, B. J. “The Merchant of Venice and the Law Merchant.” Renaissance Studies 6 (1992): 63.

Spenser, Edmund. Spenser's Minor Poems. Ed. Ernest DeSelincourt. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1910.

Willet, Andrew. Hexapla in Danielem, that is, A six-fold commentarie on the most divine prophesie of Daniel. London, 1632.

Yaffe, Martin. Shylock and the Jewish Question. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Steve Patterson (essay date spring 1999)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14292

SOURCE: Patterson, Steve. “The Bankruptcy of Homoerotic Amity in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare Quarterly 50, no. 1 (spring 1999): 9-32.

[In the following essay, Patterson maintains that The Merchant of Venice analyzes the early modern tradition of male homoerotic friendship through Antonio's frustrated passion for Bassanio.]

Rather famously, The Merchant of Venice opens with a pitiful Antonio bemoaning his outcast state but unable to articulate just what has caused his disenchantment. His very identity seems to be at stake as he complains, “I have much ado to know myself” (1.1.7).1 Indeed, his worries over how much and in what terms he matters in Venice may be much ado about nothing—about the possibility of his being nothing. Antonio speaks as a man at odds with the changing values of his culture, someone whose role as virtuous friend has no serious register with his fellow men but whose identity as merchant has premium value. He has entered the stage in dialogue with himself as much as with his two companions, and as the scene progresses, Antonio is repeatedly unable to connect with those he encounters. His melancholy is diagnosed immediately as an effect of money woes by Salerio and Solanio, who swoon over their histrionic visions of how the course of a rich merchant's humors is surely tied to the swell of his argosies' sails. In keeping with this stress on Venice as a world in which even feelings are valued mainly in commercial terms, Gratiano intimates that Antonio uses his public displays of moodiness to “fish … with this melancholy bait / For this fool gudgeon, this opinion” (ll. 101-2). In short, his strange affect must be a calculated bid to gain attention—as if melancholy is best understood as an entrepreneurial gambit. Small wonder that Antonio protests the theory that his sighing must indicate some variety of love, since even love is a cheap commodity in Venice, something one puts on like a “sober habit” or the “boldest suit of mirth” (2.2.181, 193). The passionate Antonio can hardly fathom, let alone endorse, such a devaluation of his desires.

Despite Antonio's protestations, literary critics have debated the object and nature of his love. For some time it was held that Antonio has no particular referent in mind at all, that the subject is raised mainly as a dramatic device to cue the theme of romance or that it stands as “a relic of an earlier version of the play.”2 But this analysis has been superseded by the modern cliché (and, some insist, the anachronism) of Antonio as a lovelorn homosexual vainly in pursuit of the obviously heterosexual Bassanio. Certainly there is enough textual ambiguity to lend validity to almost any diagnosis of Antonio's melancholy, and the present understandings of the ways that same- and cross-sex passions mattered in early modern England are still confused enough to allow for a convincing reading of Antonio as a prototype of the lovesick homosexual. Alan Sinfield's “How to Read The Merchant of Venice Without Being Heterosexist” addresses this interpretation as it considers the play's resonance—and its correctives—for a postmodern gay audience.3

It may be that the current confusion about eroticism and sexual practices in Renaissance England does not mean that there were no early modern systems or structures that incorporated and even valued homosexual acts. This essay will argue that Antonio's love is a frustrated sexual desire for Bassanio and, further, that his passionate love falls into an early modern tradition of homoerotic friendship, or amity. Amity represented friendship as an identity premised upon the value of same-sex love which codified passionate behaviors between men. Its tropes, while now perhaps somewhat strange or ambiguous, were at the time of the play's production topical enough for both depiction and revision in several popular formats. Central to The Merchant of Venice is a dramatization of the failure of male friendship in a radically shifting mercantile economy—an economy that seems better regulated by a social structure based on marital alliance and heterosexual reproduction. The play's uncanny resonance comes from the way it anticipates modern romantic ideals by realigning the value and nature of amity's stock literary figures: the male lover and his beloved, the female marriage partner, and the social outcast.

Friendship themes were so often the subject of poetry and prose during the last decade of the sixteenth century that it would not have taken an audience long to recognize Antonio as the prototype of the passionate friend. The tradition he represents is exemplified by Sir Thomas Elyot's story of Titus and Gysippus in his Boke Named the Governour (1531), a redaction of the friendship narrative which is remarkable for its foregrounding of the homoeroticism implicit between inseparable male companions. Elyot revised the tale, familiar from a number of sources, especially Boccaccio's Decameron, in a way that emphasized men's intimate proximity. His Titus and Gysippus enjoy a “perfect amity” or “incomparable friendship,” as the tradition would have it, but they are further represented as physically passionate and amorously drawn to one another. In what might be considered an erotics of amity, the men are described as “embrac[ing] … and sweetly kiss[ing]” one another, and crying as if their bodies “should be dissolved and relented into salt drops”; they risk their lives for one another, swoon when parted, publicly proclaim their love, and make hyperbolic vows of eternal devotion. Although Gysippus is betrothed in order to “increase his lineage and progeny,” Elyot emphasizes that he had “his heart already wedded to his friend” and that the two men enjoyed a “fervent and entire love.”4 The icon of embracing lovers depicted such bonding as ethically sound (these model lovers were hardly shameful reprobates) and as a boon to the commonwealth.5 The depth of the lovers' passions served the economic and social well-being of their kingdoms.

Amity acknowledged eroticism's power to ensure loyal service in men whose economic and social bonds would otherwise be open to question. In a Tudor court where “new men” lacked the blood and property ties to one another characteristic of feudalism, and in a social world where men were as available to same- as to cross-sex attractions, a representation of male lovers compatible with heroic masculinity and good citizenship grasped the imagination with rhetorical force. Amity did not avoid the implication that deep friendships might have an erotic component but constructed same-sex desire in ways that made it commensurate with civic conduct and aristocratic ideals.6 Together, loving friends embodied a new kind of man, as evident in the master trope “one soul in bodies twain.” And indeed, over the ensuing decades the credibility of such an ideal figure was taken up by a range of writers and playwrights interested in the ramifications of the theory and practices of devoted gentlemen lovers.7

Until recently, the only thorough study of the friendship genre was Laurens J. Mills's One Soul in Bodies Twain, but there the literature of amity is treated as variations on a plot device traced to its classical origins.8 Mills eschews the notion of the friends as sexually passionate and thereby bolsters the modern truism that Renaissance male friendship was a rather baroque form of platonic male bonding. Mills concludes, moreover, that amity dies out as a genre in the early seventeenth century simply because its literary possibilities were exhausted. This neutered view of male friendship is sustained in many feminist treatments of amity as part of an ongoing debate between marriage and friendship. Amity is posited as a bonding stage both prior and inferior to a mature marriage of equals. To resist marriage or maintain bachelorhood becomes symptomatic of a psychological problem peculiar to unevolved males: the narrative progress, supposedly mirroring a psychic and historical telos, is toward the comic trope of the companionate marriage. Even when a sexual component in friendship is allowed, it is typically the case that homosexuality is seen as an immature or neurotic rejection of women or as an inherently narcissistic desire.9 But the friend in the tradition of amity is neither sick nor lonesome. His virtue and integrity come from an enduring love for his companion, and it is only gradually that this love is seen as a peculiar elitism or at odds with marriage. For Elyot—or, to quickly cite several who shared his vision, for Richard Edwards in his tragicomedy Damon and Pithias (1564) and even, perhaps, for Shakespeare in his early friendship play The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1594)—a social system based on amorous male friendships has an integrity that can accommodate marriage and even settle disputes over fortune, progeny, and property.10 The closing line of Two Gentlemen, as the two friends and their wives appear to settle under one roof, succinctly captures the idealism of amity: “One feast, one house, one mutual happiness.”

When Shakespeare writes Two Gentlemen, however, this happy house already seems remote, perhaps impossible, as if such accommodations belong in the realm of fantasy. Janet Adelman has noted how false the play's “magical” ending seems: the problems the play sets up between marriage and friendship are simply “wished away.”11 Similarly, in her introduction to The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Jean E. Howard observes “the strain under which Shakespeare labored in trying to join a tale of heroic male friendship to a tale of romantic love between men and women.”12 Traditionally, of course, tales of amity were comedies; sudden, happy denouements were prime characteristics of the genre. Elyot's Titus fears, for example, that his desire for Gysippus's betrothed will corrupt their friendship, but Gysippus tells him that amity incorporates the “power of Venus.” Indeed, it is Gysippus's kin, unforgiving patriarchs of contract marriage, who represent the blocking agents to this loving friendship, though finally “the noise of rejoicing hearts fill[s] all the court.”13 Even the duped Sophronia, conveniently silent and acquiescent, settles into marriage and produces children with Titus under the aegis of amity. In Two Gentlemen, however, the path to betrothal and marriage has entailed such base treatment of the female that comic closure seems compromised. The familiar bed-trick in Elyot's tale becomes rather more serious: an audience must overlook Proteus's threat to rape Silvia. Tensions that Elyot downplayed or elided begin to resonate in a way that makes the passionate conduct between two gentlemen seem, perhaps for the first time, costly.

These tensions do not represent the emergence of a natural incompatibility between the two kinds of love. Rather, the play's problems of closure may indicate that amity as a utopian narrative can no longer contain its inherent contradictions. The theater, its market conditions financially and artistically dependent on women and other consumers varying in social status, could not bank on selling stories that represented the uncontested interests of a select few. To make Silvia quiet and compliant despite her poor treatment may be true to form, but her narrow escape from abuse also challenges amity's ameliorating power. Howard concludes her analysis by speculating that the primacy of male friendship with which the play closes has seemed strange since the eighteenth century, mainly because heterosexual romance has since enjoyed an ascendancy over all other forms of bonding. But never before were early modern consumers of amity tales asked to witness the female's cooperation as a condition of brute force or muted protests.14 In short, the strains and pressures apparent in Two Gentlemen mark a faultline in the gentle practices of amity.

The Merchant of Venice comes across as a comedy even more deeply skeptical than Two Gentlemen of the promises and prices of amity. Marriage and amity are squarely at odds because the play questions the possibility of a homoerotic bonding that produces exemplary conduct. As Coppélia Kahn observes, “Merchant … is perhaps the first play in which Shakespeare avoids [a] kind of magical solution” and turns his “attention to the conflict between the two kinds of bonds”—amity and marriage.15 It also tests the tenets of loving friendship between men of different social status—a merchant and a gentleman. Merchant raises provocative questions about virtue, rank, wealth, gender, and desire which earlier friendship literature downplayed or idealized. The play wonders whose interests are served in a vision of a world governed by the bonds of amity and how practical a solution to complex social and economic questions such a system would be. More precisely, Merchant takes to task the ideals of homoerotic male friendships, even as it raises doubts about the ability of romance and marriage to offer any radical improvements to society or to be any more inclusive. What are the limits of amity's homoerotic love, the play asks? Might a wealthy merchant become a gentleman's dear friend? What if the betrothed female were given a voice? What advantages, if any, might a marriage-based economy have over one grounded on amorous male friendships?

Such questions are raised as the play dramatizes the travails of the ideal friend in a society that is re-evaluating its definitions of love and its virtues—a shift so disruptive that Antonio as amorous lover seems sadly outmoded, himself a kind of anachronism. Elyot's Gysippus had been outcast, too, when he defied the will of his father and a patriarchal system of contract love, and that familiar plot device makes Shakespeare's Antonio seem at first somewhat conventionally at odds with the values of Venetian society, in this case a world that commodifies every human transaction. The merchant's struggle to lionize friendship, however, is decidedly different from the one patterned by Elyot. In “Titus and Gysippus” contract marriage seems antiquated, in dire need of reform, and amity's power to match like with like in both homo- and heterosexual relations reinvigorates an ailing body politic. In Merchant the part Antonio must play in the marketplace of Venice is, as he himself seems to suspect, “a sad one” (1.1.79), and his faith in the tenets of amity seems no match for his community's cynical views on the value and purpose of relationships. Lawrence Normand has observed that “Antonio brushes aside his friends' attempts to put him into words, and offers no discursive version of himself,” but perhaps the merchant's difficulty in articulating his dismay is the fault of a discourse that has lost its clarity as a medium for expressing and securing his bond with a gentleman.16

Shakespeare makes his audience aware of Antonio's marginal position not simply by dramatizing the merchant's opening complaint but also by rearranging the conventions of friendship tales. Antonio and Bassanio, his “most noble kinsman” (1.1.57), are strikingly different in both temperament and demeanor; the customary emphasis in friendship literature on exact similitude is noticeably absent.17 Their longtime association has been characterized by Bassanio's indebtedness to Antonio, not by mutual pledges of munificence which friends typically made in the most public and histrionic ways. Likewise, Antonio's refusal to charge interest on loans, a long-standing, economically awkward Christian value, may also refer to amity's now-impractical ethic of a generosity that assumes equality and reciprocity between men. The merchant who lends gratis in the spirit of friendship does not automatically signal a noble character, as does the gentle exemplar of gift-giving in a tale of amity, but seems, instead, foolhardy and impetuous.18

Even the way Shakespeare brings the pair onstage emphasizes their differences. Elyot had observed of his protagonists that “nature wrought in their hearts such a mutual affection, that their wills and appetites daily more and more so confederated themselves.”19 But in Merchant the friends each appear separately and in obviously incompatible moods. Their conversation lasts only so long as Bassanio's financial needs are expressed and met. Although he says he owes Antonio “the most in money and in love” (1.1.131), Bassanio appears mainly interested in expediting a solution to his financial bind. In short, there is no unequivocal assertion of a deeply rooted physical and spiritual kinship that would immediately identify them as emotional twins and signal a familiar comic-plot trajectory. In Edwards's Damon and Pithias, to illustrate the contrast, the servant Stephano marvels at the convergence of the friends, who

In mutual friendship at no time have fainted.
But loved so kindly and friendly each other,
As though they were brothers by father and mother.
Pythagoras' learning these two have embraced,
Which both are in virtue so narrowly laced,
That all their whole doings do fall to this issue,
To have no respect but only to virtue:
All one in effect, all one in their going,
All one in their study, all one in their doing.(20)

Stephano goes on to muse that “they have but one heart between them,” thereby invoking the familiar metaphor of a shared identity between lovers. Antonio and Bassanio lack the fusion—troped both physically and metaphysically, as a shared heart—that marks a bona fide friendship.

Despite this lack, Antonio plays the standard part of devoted friend. The pathos he evokes comes not from an ostentatious behavior that would alienate any man but from the lack of reciprocation between twinned companions. Indeed, according to the dictates of amity, Antonio exhibits an exemplary generosity in his willingness to help fund Bassanio's venture and especially in his desire to make Bassanio happy by enabling his courtship of Portia. He is that paragon who “more rejoiceth at his friend's good fortune than at his own.”21 That he sees no threat in his friend's profession of interest in Portia also marks Antonio's faith in the power of amity. In somewhat nervous terms, Harry Berger Jr. has complained of Antonio's ardor in gift-giving as shamelessly manipulative, as if he will “sink hooks of gratitude and obligation deep into the beneficiary's bowels.”22 Robert Hapgood also sees Antonio as “at once too generous and too possessive.”23 If today there remains something strange about a man in passionate pursuit of another male, such pursuits may have been more ambiguously coded then. In Elyot's text, Gysippus gladly sacrifices his betrothed to Titus in recognition of the “similitude in all the parts of our body.”24 His gift not only clarifies the depth of their intimacy but, eventually, contributes to social harmony.

It could be argued that there is a classical element of generosity in Antonio's willingness to bargain with Shylock. To an early modern English audience—and, indeed, to the citizens of Venice—such a venture might be recognized as beholden to the ethics of friendship, which would dictate a carefully choreographed excess of charity and sacrifice. Still, at this point in history these signs of friendship were already being tallied as strangely extreme (and perhaps the responses of Berger and Hapgood bear out this turn in values). Risk-taking is admired only insofar as it promises to deliver substantial gains—money, especially, but position or security, too—and Antonio's venture, pledging money and his own flesh for a gentleman who has given nothing in return, does not seem likely to earn a profit or produce domestic tranquillity. Indeed, Antonio's complaint that he is a “tainted wether of the flock” (4.1.114) may refer to his inability to deliver on the promise that amity's love will yoke men of equal character and virtue. The merchant's pursuit of Bassanio is wearisome and circular in a way reminiscent of Sir Thomas Wyatt's exhausted hunter in “Whoso List to Hunt”: like that frustrated lover, Antonio makes bids for a love quarry he cannot touch. It is as if noli me tangere demarcates Antonio's object of desire as it had the hunter's hind.

That an expectation of love in return for lending would hardly be an unorthodox interpretation of amity's purchasing power is, however, evinced in this quotation from Sir Thomas Wilson's Discourse vpon Vsury: “God ordeyned lending for maintenaunce of amitye, and declaration of love, betwixt man and man.”25 Likewise Miles Mosse, in his sermon The Arraignment and Conviction of Vsvrie, advises that a “lender may lawfully expect the loue and good will of the borrower. For that hath he iustly deserued by his kindnesse.”26 If Antonio presumes that his generosity will yoke his heart to Bassanio's, it is because humanist images of amity have taught him to do so. This promise of an intimate equity, delivered from the court and the pulpit, may account for the popularity of Elyot's tale of Titus and Gysippus in particular as well as the preoccupation with friendship themes in Renaissance prose and poetry; at any rate, it helps to make sense of Antonio's deep yearning. As Mosse preaches, “hee that expecteth loue cannot bee sayd to expect gaine from lending.”27 And so Antonio, who seems to believe his lending practices will generate love, professes to lend gratis even as he complains about a bewildering sense of loss.

On the other hand, the leveling force of amity also accounts for the apparent reluctance of the financially-strapped Bassanio to act in kind: friendship may make both borrower and lender indistinguishable, but in the case of a gentleman indebted to a merchant, it also risks betraying the men as mere partners in trade—not fundamentally different from merchant usurers such as Tubal and Shylock in being bound by the marketplace realities of what Wilson called “private benefit and oppression:”28 To be sure, when Bassanio visits the marketplace to beg for Shylock's backing, he risks ignoble submission; rather comically, amity diminishes Bassanio's greatness.29 In 1.3, as he urgently bargains with the Jew, Bassanio's manner of speaking is notably less ornate than the euphuistics he had used in private dealings with Antonio (nor does it approach the self-aggrandizing speeches he will deliver in his suit at Belmont). His awkward traffic with a usurer is an unaccounted price of amity's laws, or, put differently, the gentleman finds himself compromised by the merchant's amiable command to “Go presently inquire (and so will I) / Where money is” (1.1.183-84). In a bond that should give rise to an “incomparable friendship” or, as Wilson puts it, would pronounce the lovers “man and man,” Bassanio's status seems tenuous, if not degraded. Once in Belmont, Bassanio solves Portia's father's riddle by rejecting gold and silver, a turn that might also describe his attitude toward the mercantile bonds that financed his venture:

                              Therefore thou gaudy gold,
Hard food for Midas, I will none of thee,
Nor none of thee thou pale and common drudge
'Tween man and man. …


In bargains with men below gentleman status, “perfect amity” produces a rather disorderly love: the intimacies of friendship compromise and skew hierarchical alliances and are, perhaps, intimacies best forsaken.31 In pointed contrast, should Bassanio marry the “lady richly left” (1.1.161), he can at least appear to maintain his rank as lord and governor, even as he is beholding to her inheritance. Conjugal amity, not companionate friendship, allows the illusion of twinship to flourish.

Thus Bassanio's risk-taking to win Portia is announced as a heroic adventure. Cast as a sort of fairy-tale, this venture in romantic love promises that the prince (not the friend) will inevitably win his love, that shows of heterosexual passion will deliver the coveted goods and preserve the gentleman's integrity. Indeed, Bassanio's access to cash in Belmont seems so enchanted that by contrast his Venetian bartering with a merchant and a usurer seems petty and haphazard. After agreeing to sign a risky contract to finance his friend's voyage, Antonio reassured an anxious Bassanio, “I do expect return / Of thrice three times the value of this bond” (1.3.154-55). But when Portia invests in Bassanio's return to Venice, her confidence dazzles: “Pay [the Jew] six thousand, and deface the bond: / Double six thousand, and then treble that. … / You shall have gold / To pay the petty debt twenty times over” (3.2.298-99, 305-6). Her generosity also compasses sexual desire and domestic comfort in a way that Antonio's act of kindness could not quite effect: “For never shall you lie by Portia's side / With an unquiet soul” (ll. 304-5). Indeed, the impossible world of Belmont excites fantasies about the regenerative powers of money in the right hands, while Antonio's marketplace, fraught with the well-known risks of “shallows and of flats, / … dangerous rocks, / … [and] roaring waters” (1.1.26, 31, 34), comes across as a strange uncharted world. The vexing problem of Bassanio's apparent disregard for his patron once in Belmont may be explained by Antonio's reassurance to the eager suitor—“Let it not enter in your mind of love: / Be merry” (2.8.42-43).32 But the memory lapse might better be explained by the way the privileges of Belmont afford him the luxury of believing his newly won riches are a sign of virtue, not bargains.

This turn to courtship and marriage at the expense of friendship fits precisely into the behaviors of a burgeoning system of alliance in which, as Lorna Hutson puts it, “the contracting of matrimony will ensure productive social relations.”33 Marriage to an endlessly wealthy lady will allow the gentleman to avoid the awkward scene of plying a merchant for loans in a discourse that turns on an assertion of exact similitude. Thus, Bassanio expresses his interest in a language that lends Portia's wealth and her house at Belmont the mythic allure of destiny. Portia is described as having “sunny locks,” with “wondrous virtues,” “nothing undervalu'd / To Cato's daughter” (1.1.169, 163, 165-66). In pursuit of the “golden fleece” at “Colchos' strond,” Bassanio, her questing Jason, becomes “fortunate” (ll. 170, 171, 176).34 From the spectacular reception Portia provides for her “Hercules” (3.2.60) to Bassanio's Petrarchan complaints of the “happy torment” in romantic love (l. 37), the fiction that this bond is a marriage of true minds becomes irresistible in the way amity's myth of twinship enjoys.35 It is not that Antonio's conduct is melodramatic and wanton, while Bassanio's is sensible and shrewd: these are identical investments, the same excess of risk and passion. Rather, it is the social and economic implications of each man's desires that determine the credibility of his conduct.

Though Bassanio may seem sincere in playing the part of the virtuous suitor to Portia, Merchant does not allow for a complete mystification of his turn to romance. Bassanio is that enterprising gentleman whose courtesies and favors bond him to others only insofar as they promise to secure his wealth and station. Even Bassanio's way of begging Antonio for another loan reveals his faith in courtly artifice over amorous virtue, at least in terms of the élan necessary to ply a merchant for more money. Couching his new request in a simile extended to credibility's breaking point, he likens Antonio's lending habits to the sport of archery and then claims that his conceited request for Antonio's steady marksmanship is made out of “pure innocence” (1.1.145). The needy gentleman is pledged, or “gag'd” (l. 130), to the merchant because of prodigal spending habits, and his references to a “swelling port” (l. 124) and a “noble rate” (l. 127) reveal his concerns with maintaining a lavish lifestyle. Indeed, at the heart of his impassioned plea that Antonio “shoot another arrow” is not love but Bassanio's blunt self-interest—“to get clear of all the debts I owe” (l. 134). In Elyot, Titus's desire for Sophronia comes with passionate worry that because of his romantic love, “friendship is excluded,” a desecration he cannot forebear; and it is only when Gysippus reassures Titus that there could be no motive of “lust or sudden appetite” in matters of amity that Titus agrees to accept amity's gift of marriage.36 Notably, Shakespeare's gentleman suffers no such consideration for Antonio.

When Bassanio turns to romance in Belmont, his motivations are mercenary enough to mitigate his protestations of transcendent love. Observing the reputation for “magnificent improvidence” that defamed Elizabethan aristocrats, Katharine E. Maus argues that Bassanio apparently “feels socially obliged to display himself properly … [and so] spends huge sums of borrowed money equipping himself for his trip to Belmont.”37 Similarly, Bassanio worries that his traveling companion, Gratiano, may be unable to “allay with some cold drops of modesty / [His] skipping spirit” (2.2.177-78), though his friend assures him that when the time comes, he will “put on a sober habit, … / Like one well studied in a sad ostent / To please his grandam” (ll. 187-88). This facility with rhetorical flourishes and with suiting behavior to the needs of the moment undermines an audience's ability to completely invest in the romantic fantasy orchestrated at Belmont. And perhaps, too, such self-fashioning allows Portia to opine “There's something tells me (but it is not love) / I would not lose you” (3.2.4-5).

As noteworthy for its cool remove as for its enthusiasm, Bassanio's manner of speaking may belie its sincerity. Antonio, on the other hand, is repeatedly associated with language that creates an illusion of deep regard and heartfelt devotion—a common device in persuading an audience of the authenticity of a love. As the play opens, he is marked as a man of complex feeling, not only sad but worried over “What stuff [his sadness is] made of” and how it affects his ability to “know” himself. In a world “deceiv'd with ornament” (l. 74), where fashion, disguise, deception, prejudice, mistaken identity, and falsehood prevail, Antonio resists equivocation and pretense. His struggle to express his affection may be evident from the moment the merchant has Bassanio alone: Antonio momentarily loses his command of speech, a tell-tale sign of disruptive feelings, as he stutters the nonce sentence “It is that anything now” (1.1.113).38 In a show of pride that alludes to friendship's values, Antonio is properly insulted by the gentleman's circumlocutions that “wind about [his] love with circumstance” (l. 154). Then, as if to verify the bounty of his love, Antonio speaks in a direct, unadorned manner, not in the circumlocutions favored by courtiers: “but say to me what I should do / That in your knowledge may by me be done, / And I am prest unto it: therefore speak” (ll. 158-60).

This impassioned resolve is how friends speak on one another's behalf. It gives an impression that what matters most is the welfare of the other, certainly not the cost of the transaction or some private interest. With just such self-denial, Edwards's Pithias reacts to the news of his lover's condemned status: “Then how near is my death also!” When later Pithias offers to die for his Damon, he wants the king to witness the depth of the friendship bond “that [he] may not say but Damon hath a friend / That loves him better than his own life, and will do to his end.”39 Antonio's sacrifices and declarations are conventional signs of a friend who welcomes opportunities to make public his deep regard. Certainly the devotion becomes evident to Salerio, who observes that Antonio “only loves the world” for Bassanio (2.8.50). Unlike Bassanio's passions, however, which seem to shift as the context demands, the merchant's feelings vary only in the sense of growing more intense. He moves from risking his fortune for Bassanio to offering up his own flesh.

Antonio's grand gestures are further identified as signs of physical desire, not simply platonic love, and they help to account for the sense of competition between amorous friends and romantic lovers which this play excites. Salerio remarks on Antonio's “affection wondrous sensible” for Bassanio (2.8.48), and Antonio himself avows, “My purse, my person, my extremest means / Lie all unlock'd” to Bassanio's needs (1.1.138-39). As Seymour Kleinberg notes, the echoing pun on purse and person suggests a “sexual longing,” a love expressed in somatic terms.40 To give all, including one's body, was a commonplace in tales of amity (as it also is in tales of romance); to be “one in having and suffering,” a sign of supreme love.41 Like his ships, Antonio's love is cast upon the “very dangerous flat” of the “Goodwins” (3.1.4-5). According to the Norton editor, “‘Goodwin’ means ‘friend.’”42 And at least at first, such wrecked passion seems routine: in tales of amity, friends are separated from one another so that the integrity of their love may be tested. Lorenzo alludes to such a trial as he compares Portia's fortitude (and her sexual sacrifice) when faced with her new husband's departure to “god-like amity, which appears most strongly / In bearing thus the absence of your lord” (3.4.3-4). Such fortitude cannot be measured by “customary bounty” (l. 9). Moreover, the separation of lovers traditionally promises a consummation. In tales of amity, friends inevitably reunite with embraces, kisses, and simultaneous protests of their passion. Richard Brathwait's image of two men rushing into one another's arms, univocally declaring their love, “Certus amor morum est,” was his emblem for “Acquaintance” in his 1633 conduct book The English Gentleman, and it is precisely this familiar moment of ecstatic reunion which tales of amity celebrated.43 Antonio seems to believe that there must be blocking agents to this love's consummation—Bassanio's desire for a wife, for example, or, more seriously, a hostile usurer—and that they must be confronted to test the ameliorating power of amity's love.

Friendships such as those between Titus and Gysippus or Damon and Pithias allow the lovers to luxuriate in the ecstasy of painful separations and passionate reunions. Just as undying devotion is proclaimed, as kisses and embraces express what words fail to capture, as emotions burst forth publicly and unapologetically, the love of friends seems to take on a form outside the medieval (or modern) categories of transcendent brotherhood or platonic alliance.44 As it is put on trial, such love only accrues in value with an intensification of the theme of identities merging so close as to become one and the same. Indeed, this consolidation of identities creates the illusion of a new kind of man, what Elyot called “the other I.”45 In Damon and Pithias, Pithias explains the effects of amity's love—“when I am alone, / I forget I am Pithias, methinks I am Damon”—but this strange figure clearly confuses the uneducated, as when Dionysius inquires, “What callest thou friends? are they not men, is not this true?”46 Friends are so exceptional in their love that they become “[a]s it were transformed into another, which [is] against kind”47—the Ovidian metamorphosis of a new being evolved from erotic love. (Idealizations of heterosexual passion use this same device in the icon of the hermaphrodite.48) The risks and pleasures in this friendship “against kind”—distinguished from the view of sodomites as monsters against kind—are drawn out through the pattern of separation and return. Eventually, inevitably, the two become one, erotically linked by a conjoined heart.

Shakespeare borrows this device for producing the illusion of erotic metamorphosis in friendship by emphasizing Antonio's declarations of allegiance as he faces separation from Bassanio. Antonio behaves as if the gentleman will be his loving friend and, later, as if their bond is but temporarily interrupted by a usurious tyrant ignorant of the ideals of friendship. When first offered the loan he seeks, Antonio scoffs at Shylock for mocking the hallmark generosity of amity's philosophy of exchange: “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?” (1.3.127-29). Indeed, Shylock makes Antonio agree to his “merry sport” (l. 141) by defining his offer in the vocabulary of amity, a use of language that would communicate love and virtue:

I would be friends with you, and have your love,
Forget the shames that you have stain'd me with,
Supply your present wants, and take no doit
Of usance for my moneys, and you'll not hear me,—
This is kind I offer.

(ll. 134-38)

“I extend this friendship,—” Shylock challenges, “If [Antonio] will take it” (ll. 164-65). In turn, as if he has taken literally Elyot's emphasis on amity as a code of ethics available for education and reform, Antonio marvels that the reprobate has become a new man. When Shylock demands his pound of flesh after all, Antonio speaks as if a Jew's heart is beyond the scope of friendship: “You may as well do any thing most hard / As seek to soften that—than which what's harder?—/ His Jewish heart!” (4.1.78-80). The anticipation of a confrontation with this enemy of friendship allows Antonio to prepare for his love to take a turn—for him an essential, even natural turn—toward public recognition and union.

Thus, in his summons to his friend, Antonio implores, “Sweet Bassanio, … all debts are clear'd between you and I, if I might but see you at my death: notwithstanding, use your pleasure,—if your love do not persuade you to come, let not my letter” (3.2.314-20).49 What may seem desperate or effeminate devices to ensnare a man are heroic actions in the friendship tradition. Antonio wants Bassanio to be present at his trial as a sign of their love, perhaps in hopes of having his friendship, like the amity between Elyot's twins, “throughout the city published, extolled, and magnified.”50 To believe that his own society, the mercantile world of Venice, devalues the erotic possibilities of male friendship nearly to their vanishing point would not only nullify Antonio's love but turn the merchant himself into a kind of hapless, friendless “other”—possibly a sodomite but certainly a suspect character, since outside the bonds of amity and romance, his excessive behavior would seem useless or reckless. Poised at amity's limits, he does not consider that its claims on equality and reciprocity are only about nobility and love when they are also about good manners. Perhaps Portia recognizes in Antonio's letter a call for a scene of friendship since she not only urges Bassanio to go to his friend but encourages him to repay the bond twenty times over. Her reference to “an egall yoke of love” (3.4.13) may be a tribute to the “‘greater love’” of biblical heroes, as Lawrence W. Hyman observes,51 but as a description of amity, its contingencies are apparent:

                                                                                … for in companions
That do converse and waste the time together,
Whose souls do bear an egall yoke of love,
There must be needs a like proportion
Of lineaments, of manners, and of spirit. …

(ll. 11-15)

The limiting condition of amity's stress on loving bonds is its clause about the congruence of well-bred bodies.

Perhaps Shylock also understands that amity excludes even as it invites, since neither the alien Jew nor the female possesses that combination of features, breeding, and soul that would allow either to participate fully in amity's myth of twinship. When bargaining with Bassanio in 1.3, Shylock limits the term good to mean commercially sound, an equivocation that seems less a symptom of stereotypical greed when read in the context of Elyot's advice “to remember that friendship may not be but between good men” who are “engendered by the similitude of age and personage, augmented by the conformity of manners and studies, and confirmed by the long continuance of company.”52 In his pound-of-flesh bargain, then, there is a delicious irony that mocks Antonio's belief in the promises of friendship even as the terms of the agreement corroborate his desire as physical. Shylock wants a pound of “fair flesh, to be cut off and taken / In what part of [Antonio's] body pleaseth” him (1.3.146-47). This demand is erotic, as Alan Sinfield argues, because it can be read metaphorically as an attack on the genitals, as castration.53 But it is erotic also because Shylock chooses to cut the flesh from Antonio's breast, his very heart-in amity, as in romance, the somatic sign of love. This violation will allow the Jew to expose the exclusionary rhetoric of amity: the love between the two Venetians runs no deeper than their “varnish'd faces” (2.5.33).

Even Bassanio's disregard for the merchant reveals that Antonio's expectations of requited love are both too passionate and too expensive. In Shakespeare and Ovid, Jonathan Bate argues that the details which Shakespeare chooses in order to liken Bassanio to the classic Jason figure bring to mind Jason's worst human qualities, that is, Jason as “an archetype of male deceit and infidelity.”54 This allusion, Bate notes, foreshadows Bassanio's attempt to win and, later, to trick his female lover, Portia. But as a sign of deceit, it also refers back in time to his betrayal of Antonio's faith in friendship practices. The merchant's failure to capitalize on the tropes of amity makes his yearning less like the momentary suffering of a friendship on trial and more like some love-sickness, a bona fide Renaissance illness with its own tell-tale symptoms—a tremulous body, a distracted mind, an obsessive and futile desire for another.55 The emphasis on Antonio's love as physical is not Shakespeare's way of innovating a homoerotic yearning peculiar to a lonesome and confused Antonio; indeed, homoerotic desire, as this essay has argued, had long distinguished the protagonists of the friendship genre. What is striking is how the amorous pursuit of a gentleman seems both strange and unproductive when risked by a merchant.

In Act 4 the trial scene becomes a showcase for exposing and manipulating the limits of amity's erotic power. To sever the love of friends is to cut deeply into the body; as Antonio puts it, if the “cut [is] deep enough, / I'll pay … instantly with all my heart” (4.1.276-77). Antonio will have a pound of his own flesh cut away and thus allow all who witness such spectacular violence to evaluate the transformative powers of male friendship, to judge “Whether Bassanio had not once a love” (l. 273). In the competitive, mercenary world of Venice, amity is in danger of being misunderstood as a rather ill-advised way to profit or, perhaps more worrisome to Antonio, to be devalued altogether as usurious appetite for self-promotion and status. The integrity of male friendship—its virtues of generosity, self-sacrifice, and intimacy—is so atrophied that only a radical staging of amity's power to secure bonds between men can reinvigorate its appeal. Antonio's willing self-sacrifice can be seen as a daring performance on behalf of an exemplary devotion. In the moment of the merchant's epic display of generosity (traditionally both grand and grotesque), amity will be memorialized as love “wondrous sensible” (2.8.48). It is Antonio's own nostalgic citation: when his “tale is told” (4.1.272), the true love between friends will be as inspirational in Venice as it was when Pithias proclaimed that no one “may … say but Damon hath a friend.” Antonio implores Bassanio to “live still and write mine epitaph” (l. 118), as if there could be no more everlasting proof that “Bassanio had … once a love” than this familiar gesture of sacrificing the body in the name of amity.

As if to travesty Antonio's belief in amity's power to yoke the heart of a merchant to a gentleman's love, Shylock demands the right “To cut the forfeiture from that bankrupt there!” (l. 122). This attack on amity from an outsider threatens to show how the social realities of Venice betray amity's ideals. However questionable Bassanio's investment in his role as friend may be, he takes his cue when an alien endangers male bonds. The gentleman arrives in time to properly reciprocate the merchant's sacrifice: “The Jew shall have my flesh, blood, bones and all” (l. 112). The sudden turn in Bassanio, from mercenary borrower to benevolent friend, would seem virtually inexplicable were it not for Portia's encouragement that he protect his own kind in the face of a foreigner's threat. Certainly, in the preceding acts, Bassanio has demonstrated that he can play any part necessary to his welfare. What is evident, too, is that Portia's quibbling with the law during the trial is not simply a means of nullifying Shylock's financial threat to Venetian mercantile practices. Portia seems aware of the trial's double bind: should Shylock expose the limits of amity, the universal values it claims will be disgraced by a foreigner; but if Antonio manages to redeem amity's appeal, her role as wife will be diminished. As Keith Geary has argued, in rescuing Antonio from public execution, she saves the merchant and subverts a classic display of ideal male friendship: “Portia has fastened the homoerotic tendency of Bassanio's sexuality and the obligations of masculine friendship on to herself.”56 There will be no mockery of the Venetian practices of borrowing and partnership, but there will also be no public spectacle of amity as the supreme form of love.

It is as if the typically acquiescent or even absent female character from tales of amity refuses at this point in history to remain silent or vanish. Portia, like each of the characters in the competitive world of Venice, opts to recast herself on a stage where everyone plays a part. For her the “will of a living daughter [is] curb'd by the will of a dead father” (1.2.24-25), curbed by a discursive bind such that a marriageable daughter “cannot choose … nor refuse” (ll. 25-26). In short, Portia resists an enforced silence—as if she only pretends to honor a cooperative spirit in earlier scenes. Portia's bid for power depends on both Antonio and Bassanio playing their parts, but it depends, too, on the failure of amity's climactic scene of transcendence. Her clever orchestration of the trial scene—and, later, her neat turn on the stock bed-trick57—speaks to her shrewdness and her determination. Disguised as Balthazar, she uses equivocation and illusion not only to save the merchant from the usurer but also as a way of liberating herself from a part that keeps her “little body … aweary” (l. 1), her voice faint. If the very heart of friendship is plucked from Antonio's breast for the world to witness as a sign of his deep love, Portia seems aware that then the “greater glory [will] dim the less” (5.1.93). Within the generous system of amity, marriage will not be devalued as cheap or worthless (the early tales had no complaint against marriage per se), but it will also not shine nearly so brightly as it could if elevated above amity. “A substitute shines brightly as a king,” Portia cannily observes, “Until a king be by” (ll. 94-95). What better way to effect a re-evaluation of marriage and friendship than to have an ardent devotee of amity pledge himself to ensuring the husband will “never more break faith” with the wife (l. 253).58 The friend will enter into the service of marriage, a minor player in a reconfigured narrative.

Shakespeare takes up two key moments from tales of amity—an inspirational trial of friendship; the dissemination of amity's ideals—and presents them in altered, fairly cynical versions. Even though Antonio has behaved according to form by making a spectacle of his devotion to Bassanio, there is no sense that the power of friendship (or of any kind of love for that matter) can be trusted to reform a hardened heart. A murderer in Elyot's Titus and Gysippus fable, for example, witnesses “the marvellous contention of these two, … [and is] vehemently provoked to discover the truth.”59 There friendship has the power to improve and to educate. The proclamation of devotion between Shakespeare's two men, however, is set against the comic presence of the disguised wives, so that the amorous vows ring more of betrayal than loyalty. These friends seem histrionic and loose-tongued. Portia has encouraged her husband to play his part in the trial of friendship, but her disguised presence and confidential asides have also allowed a new reading of that once untroubled scene. The females standing by seem cheated, not invited into some endlessly generous circle of amity; and as if to underscore this exclusion, another outsider scoffs, “These be the Christian husbands!” (4.1.291). Constructed in a way that exposes the pitfalls in the landscape of amity, the ecstatic devotion of the lovers loses the universal appeal it enjoyed in Elyot's hands. The depth and endurance of Bassanio's commitment are suspect, and they become even less credible when the gentleman abandons friendship in the last act as readily as he had turned to its rhetoric in the trial scene.60 The presence of Shylock and Portia-in-disguise during the proceedings draws out with some force the exclusionary subtext of friendship: should amity work its magic after all, both the Jew and the Lady would be muted, if not ostracized. Understandably, neither witness is impressed by the performance of masculine love in action.

The supposedly contagious display of devotion between friends does not register at all with the citizens of Venice, whose ethic of an eye-for-an-eye strains the quality of amity's kindness. Here friendship on trial fails to elicit virtue from spectators; it seems, quite perversely, to have encouraged a cry for blood revenge, a decidedly different effect than Elyot's magical scene of conversion. Quite regularly Merchant makes it clear that few of the characters in Venice are genuinely impressed by anything that does not produce wealth or allow for a profit margin, though their rhetoric speaks to higher interests. Shylock's real crime may not be his claim on a pound of flesh but his habit of turning the platitudes of Venice against their selfish speakers. He accuses the Christians of taking interest while calling it thrift, of keeping “many a purchas'd slave” (l. 90), and of professing humility while practicing revenge. The two characters who believe deeply in values outside the marketplace, Shylock and Antonio, for all their faults and transgressions, have no place in Venice and are neither of them understood by its citizens. Thus there is something sickening in Merchant's turn on the traditional scene of conversion. If the Jewish heart cannot be inspired by amity's practices, it can at least be subjected to force—ironically by the very merchant who believes in the power of friendship to improve by example. Even though Shylock's money must be willed to his Christian son-in-law and daughter, his penalty will be represented as “a special deed of gift” (5.1.292). Forced to speak as a new man, the Christian Jew exits broken and ailing: “I am not well” (4.1.392).

This enforced transformation casts a pall over Act 5 as the married couples struggle to collect on the promise of an ecstatic reunion in such a night that seems to be “the daylight sick” (5.1.124).61 In a final twist of the conversion plot, transposing it from a staple of amity to an element of romance, Antonio himself is subjected to reform. Perhaps awestruck by the mystifying display of the law's power, the merchant is moved to alter the nature of his own love. The merchant redefines the role of the friend from lover to grateful guest, an outsider invited within the circle of marriage. When he vows to play his part in keeping safe the ring, Antonio agrees to limit the range of its symbolic value to a sign of the amity in marriage. Indeed, by the end of the play, there is an emphasis (the context of bawdy jokes and frivolity notwithstanding) on the need for overseeing certain social practices connected to friendship bonds. The early modern custom of same-sex bed companions—and a literary sign, too, of male friendship—is alluded to twice in the play's final moments (ll. 284, 305), but its homoerotic valence is drawn out as a luxury in need of surveillance.

As Jeff Masten has observed, male companions sharing a home, a bed, and even the same clothes changed from being perceived as a convention in early modern England to being an oddity, a “‘strange Production’.”62 In Merchant, the domestic scene is represented as conjugal in a way that highlights the turn away from the customs of companionate amity. Life at Belmont, it appears, will not include erotic male friendships, most certainly not an open intimacy between men of different status; nor will it include wives who would quietly comply with such arrangements. Essential—and essentializing—choices have been made. Bassanio is granted his bed companion not in Antonio but in Balthazar, the youth whose eloquence saved the merchant's life, and the gentleman has learned, further, that the friend is his wife: “Sweet doctor,” professes the contrite gentleman to Portia, “you shall be my bedfellow” (5.1.284). The bawdy ring jokes suggesting cuckoldry and sodomy make same-sex desires resemble infidelity, if not concupiscence. As the butt of these jokes, Gratiano heads off to his marriage bed confessing “But were the day come, I should wish it dark / Till I were couching with the doctor's clerk” (ll. 304-5).

These lines, as Coppélia Kahn has observed, “voice [a] homoerotic wish”;63 perhaps, too, they voice a fantasy of social mobility, namely, a clerk and a gentleman as lover and beloved. Such relationships were briefly encouraged as a possibility when, at the end of 4.1, Antonio succeeded in using the ring to signal the deep bond, enabled by a doctor of law, between a merchant and a gentleman. An ending that exalted amity would be familiar, not radical or dissident, to an early modern audience, as when Elyot closes his comedy as an “example in the affects of friendship.”64 But Shakespeare's version anticipates the modern convergence of homoerotic desire with secrecy—wishes made in the dark—and with betrayal. Friendship's claim on the ring seems somewhat underhanded and disruptive. If the fifth act's formal turn toward romantic closure is compromised by Shylock's sentence, it also bears the burden of having foreclosed on a conventional moment of consummation: the coupling of two friends, whose amity will “Be valued 'gainst [a] wife's commandement” (4.1.447). The play ends, furthermore, as Gratiano admits (his desires notwithstanding) that he will “fear no other thing / So sore, as keeping safe Nerissa's ring” (ll. 306-7). In these final, comic moments, even fantasies of male friendship trigger anxiety.

This skewed arrangement—two friends pledging service to a lady—offers a corrective to applications of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's theory of the homosocial.65 Although Sedgwick did not propose her model as a lens for detecting the homophobia inherent in erotic triangles, the idea of homosociality is typically applied to every instance in literature where desire for a female affects male bonds, as if the woman serves mainly as a handy alibi for a potentially embarrassing homosexual desire. But the early representatives of English Renaissance friendship do not traffic in shame; nor do they invariably deflect same-sex desire onto a female decoy. The protestation of love between friends was public and straightforward—and perhaps this difference helps to explain why modern critics, accustomed to the homosexual tropes of the clinic and the closet, have debated whether amity could in fact be homoerotic. Indeed, shame as the necessary condition of the homosocial lends credibility to the cliché that the erotic language of male friendship was, at best, strategically ambiguous. Homophobia—in this instance an anxiety between men in intimate proximity with one another—appears to become a shaping force in erotic triangles as the sixteenth century comes to a close. There is no sense in Merchant's first three acts, and certainly none in the early tales of amity, that an expression of love between friends must yield before some heterosexual imperative. Only at the end of Merchant do the men experience, much to their bewilderment, a pressure to confess their “true” feelings as a desire for, or an allegiance to, marital fidelity.

As for the trope of well-matched or twinned lovers, Antonio finally mirrors Shylock, not Bassanio. This irony, a bonding of the merchant with the Jew, is made apparent in the way friendship's twin motif, significantly absent between Antonio and Bassanio, yokes the supposedly contrary figures of the usurer and the friend.66 The play's title might refer to either of the two moneylenders, both of whom justify their lending practices by citing a common biblical ancestor, yet each a stranger in the marketplace. Shylock's relationship to money is, like Antonio's, not reducible to self-interest, as becomes evident when the Jew bemoans the loss of Leah's priceless ring or when he cries to his judges, “you take my life / When you do take the means whereby I live” (4.1.372-73). His “strange, outrageous” equations—“‘Justice, the law, my ducats, and my daughter!’” (2.8.13, 17)—mirror Antonio's commingled valuation of love, money, and flesh. If Bassanio and Antonio have been remarkably different in respect to their manners, Antonio's melancholy and Shylock's discontent make the two merchants seem like kinsmen in humors. Neither seems quite able to participate in the festive masquerades that dominate the Venetian streets. As if to foreground this similitude, there is a pointed instance of confusion when Portia as Balthazar sets eyes on the two men for the first time: “Which is the merchant here? and which the Jew?” (4.1.170). A strange question, perhaps, but its rhetorical power is striking, particularly as an ironic citation of amity's signature trope. In amity tales it was a mark of distinction that no one could tell the friends apart.

Merchant repeatedly draws the antagonists as one. Each seems from his entrance not only socially alienated but an obstacle to the progress of courtship and romance, though it is not until the final scene that the effect of such a kinship between ostensible enemies becomes clear. As Portia warns in a truism that might describe the disposition of either moneylender,

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils,
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted.


The suspect nature of the alien Jew is ferreted out and disabled in the trial scene, and Antonio's bids for amity seem at Act 5's close to have been strategies treasonous to marital amity. In the end his spoils may be his status as bachelor. Having neither wife nor loving friend, he is accepted on terms that seem conditional. The rescripting of the friendship narrative in Venice threatens to make the presence of the needy friend as troubling as that of the greedy Jew, whose history of representation in Christian mythography has included perversion, unnatural uses of money, and an antagonism to divinely ordained bonds.67

Indeed, as Simon Shepherd has argued, there was in Elizabethan England a growing pressure on men to exhibit masculinity by demonstrating decorum in such matters as money-handling, dress, and heterosexual desire68—a codification of right conduct that even rhetorics of male friendship would admire, though of course to different effects. But masculinity was also demanding that men perform as if the object of their desire was naturally and exclusively the female. The excess of emotion allowed by the friendship tradition, albeit at select moments and supposedly for noble reasons, became more and more suspect in relations between men; and certainly acting as if erotic male friendships were a socially viable form became anathema. Shepherd argues that friendship behaviors were increasingly associated with womanish men and came to signal a perversion as well. As erotic preference for females became more and more an indication of productive behavior, attacks on aimless sexual conduct and approval of gender fidelity were used to regulate the varieties of male desire. Economic and social traffic between men were supposed to be uncomplicated by an active or open eroticism. Indeed, without a public show of desire for the female, there could be no masculinity, no noble friendship—and, in extreme cases, no citizenship.69 In The Merchant of Venice, however, Shakespeare makes us aware of a tactic besides the innuendo of effeminacy or the humiliations of sodomy used against men who, like Antonio, professed excessive feelings for a dear male companion: a cultural politics of speech and silence.70

Borrowed, perhaps, from antifeminist traditions or, equally likely, from the representation of strangers such as Shylock, silence signaled a sort of parole status for otherwise transgressive figures. The type of the demure lady traditionally signified a good woman, but this ostensibly positive image was contingent on her utter voicelessness. The woman who speaks, especially the woman who speaks out of turn, degenerates from wife or maid to shrew, whore, or virago. Similarly, when foreigners speak, they appear to plot, connive, or corrupt. In Edwards's play, Damon and Pithias are considered suspicious strangers until they can persuade the king otherwise. It is precisely this patriarchal demand for silence that confronts Portia as she worries if she can finesse the letter of her father's law in getting a husband and, also, as she voices her indecorous opinions in private quarters with her waiting woman. Her power as a female figure stems from her refusal to remain silent, whether that means she must give hints to obtain the man she desires or disguise herself to speak freely in court. At the close of Act 5, part of the pleasure of watching Portia comes from her play with language as she teases and cajoles the men.

Yet Portia remains her husband's wife. Her superiority within marriage hinges on her willingness to use tricks to prevent men from acting on desires that have been suppressed, not erased; and it is her own weary body—offering and withholding herself as bedmate—that insures fidelity. In the third act she elaborates on the vows she must make to her future husband, and even if her professed desire to be “trebled twenty times myself, / … to stand high in [Bassanio's] account” has the ring of irony, she must nevertheless move from being “Queen o'er [her]self” to accepting Bassanio as “her lord, her governor, her king” (3.2.153-54, 169, 165). After her exhilarating performance as Balthazar at the trial, where the “device” of burlesquing the “thousand raw tricks of these bragging Jacks” (3.4.81, 77) has been instead a virtuosa turn on patriarchal ethics and laws, she returns to Belmont to perform a second time. Portia's spirited wit is expressed in the final moments of the play through costume travesty and “raw tricks,” and considering her performance at the trial, such behavior (now more like the parodic device she concocted with Nerissa in 3.4) seems anticlimactic. Portia has gained the pleasure denied to Sophronia and Silvia, the pleasure of hyperbole typically enjoyed by heroes of amity and romance; certainly she is having a good time making fun of masculine vanity. But this luxury is not enjoyed “without a fee” (5.1.290): the consummate moment of the play has its costs. There is little sense that in its inversion, or reversal, of the amity model the companionate marriage will necessarily subvert its tactics and limitations.

Of course, if this play is mainly concerned with the effects of social changes on friendship, it is noteworthy that Antonio stands among the couples. He is not dismissed from the final scene, and arguably, he is even invited in, not left alone as so many modern productions insist.71 Yet it is telling that his penultimate words announce his own entry into silence: “I am dumb!” he cries (l. 279). It is as if the friend has traded places with the female character in Elyot's tale. Ostensibly, Antonio's bond with his friend Bassanio will still run deep, but there is no pledge of passionate devotion, only a vow to stand as “his surety” in the marriage bargain (l. 254). The one image he uses that recalls the friendship valuation of depth—the soul—is defined at the play's end merely as collateral, a wondrous but no-longer-sensible piece of the merchant submitted to ensure that the husband “will never more break faith” with his new-found friend, his wife. That the relationship will now be without physical intimacy becomes clear when Antonio speaks shamefully of the risk he took for Bassanio: “I am th' unhappy subject of these quarrels / … [who] once did lend my body for his wealth” (ll. 238, 249). Whether in or out of the circle, Antonio stands dumbfounded—awed by the wife's magnanimity but perhaps also by the way he has been betrayed by his own faith in amity, a system that has contained mechanisms to exclude him.

The play closes with a procession of married couples, as the munificence of marital bonds overshadows amity's claims to generosity. By some “strange accident” (but it is not love) Antonio's ships have been brought safely to port; indeed, a sense of divinely ordained economic privilege seems to proliferate like “manna in the way / Of starved people” (ll. 278, 294-95). Nevertheless, some, such as Antonio or the usurer's daughter, who might still complain “I am never merry when I hear sweet music” (l. 69), are counted as present only on a contingency of silence. Perhaps the lingering melancholy that so famously marks this play as a problem comedy arises from the way an audience becomes uncomfortably aware that the price paid for the pleasure of a happy ending has been the forfeiture of the right to speak unashamedly of fantasies and desires. To identify with Antonio, with Shylock, or with Jessica—all reduced to silence—to speak up on behalf of the identities they have lost, is to forfeit the appealing and fanciful notion that comedy's comforts are gratis. To give these characters their voices is to risk being tainted, as if somehow of their ilk.

The contrite words of the twinned merchants—“I am dumb,” “I am not well”—resound with a modern familiarity, perhaps especially to those spectators who feel themselves disregarded or silenced by culture and by literature. As Michel Foucault has observed, the sort of panoptic, reified identities that have come to define marginal figures gained credibility as “truth” largely because of an interplay between discourses of silence (including that formal promise to return to silence, the confession) and avowals of illness.72 The early modern period was developing powerful uses for both of these tactics. For many it became difficult to speak on behalf of same-sex passions without finding one's self falling into an abject position of immorality, illness, or incoherence; or, if these choices sound perhaps too shrill, without finding one's self represented as a minor player, as comic relief, as a stock villain or a fool. Amity's ideal of a passionate friendship that also accommodates a marriage, that has more to do with virtue and heart than with blood or breeding, is increasingly represented in subsequent Renaissance literatures as an impractical solution to economic and social problems or as a promise made to a few. Nonsexual or homosocial male friendships become a rather empty pretext for executing business and career moves, while true or reproductive love enriches the province of matrimony.73 Like Antonio in Merchant, the type of the homoerotic friend becomes loveless and lonesome; only within the bounds of platonic bonding does he traffic with men. He finds himself with little to say that will make sense of his strange desires.


  1. Quotations from The Merchant of Venice follow John Russell Brown's edition for the Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1955).

  2. Brown, ed., 4n.

  3. See Alan Sinfield, “How to Read The Merchant of Venice Without Being Heterosexist” in Alternative Shakespeares 2, Terence Hawkes, ed. (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 122-39. Many essays have dealt with Antonio's homosexuality. In the main, they tend to treat the possibility as secondary to more pressing issues, as Catherine Belsey does when she writes, “We can, of course, reduce the metaphysical burden of Antonio's apparently unmotivated melancholy to disappointed homoerotic desire” (“Love in Venice,” Shakespeare Survey 44 [1992]: 41-53, esp. 49). Others contend with the problem of a homosexual in a heterosexual society. W. Thomas MacCary, for example, sees the “pathetic” Antonio as “arrested” in “primary narcissism” and sadly “looking for that archaic image of himself” (Friends and Lovers: The Phenomenology of Desire in Shakespearean Comedy [New York: Columbia UP, 1985], 168). See also Lawrence Danson, “‘The Catastrophe Is a Nuptial’: The Space of Masculine Desire in Othello, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale,SS 46 (1994): 69-79; Keith Geary, “The Nature of Portia's Victory: Turning to Men in ‘The Merchant of Venice’,” SS 37 (1984): 55-68; Lawrence Normand, “Reading the body in The Merchant of Venice,Textual Practice 5:1 (1991): 55-73; Seymour Kleinberg, “The Merchant of Venice: The Homosexual as Anti-Semite in Nascent Capitalism” in Literary Visions of Homosexuality, Stuart Kellogg, ed. (New York: Haworth Press, 1983), 113-26; and Joseph Pequigney, “The Two Antonios and Same-Sex Love in Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice,English Literary Renaissance 22 (1992): 201-21.

  4. Sir Thomas Elyot, “The wonderful history of Titus and Gisippus, whereby is fully declared the figure of perfect amity” in The Book named The Governor, ed. S. E. Lehmberg, (London: J. M. Dent and Sons; New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1962), 136-51, esp. 136, 145, 142, 139, 137, and 138. (My own essay uses the more common spelling Gysippus.) One of the many changes Elyot makes in the tale as he knew it from Boccaccio was to soften the female character, eliminating her protests against being “gifted” to Titus by her betrothed. Nor is she even aware of the plan, as she is in Boccaccio's version. Elyot's decision to make Sophronia ignorant and docile fuels the fantasy that amity can accommodate marriage in a way that ensures social harmony. The men's close physical resemblance is also added and emphasized, and the length of their friendship is extended in number of years. Elyot revises the tale to exalt “perfect amity,” not conjugal or romantic love. See Clement Tyson Goode, “Sir Thomas Elyot's Titus and Gysippus,Modern Language Notes 37 (1922): 1-11.

  5. Ethics is used here in a sense commensurate with Elyot's views on virtuous male conduct; that is, educable behavior that promotes ideal civic and social relationships among men in traffic with one another. Elyot was not, of course, envisioning, let alone advocating, homosexual sodomy. His ethos allowed that love between noble-minded men could be generative and conservative if properly acted out, and his concept of a heroic same-sex love set it apart from the degradations of sodomy.

  6. This argument for the erotic intimacies of friendship is especially indebted to the work of Michel Foucault and Alan Bray. Foucault speculates, for example, on friendship as “a social relation within which people had … a certain kind of choice (limited of course), as well as very intense emotional relations. … You can find from the 16th Century on, texts that explicitly criticize friendship as something dangerous” (“An Interview: Sex, Power, and the Politics of Identity,” interview by Bob Gallagher and Alexander Wilson, The Advocate [7 August 1984]: 26-30 and 58, esp. 30). See also “Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England” in Queering the Renaissance, Jonathan Goldberg, ed. (Durham, NC, and London: Duke UP, 1994), 40-61, where Bray argues that the sodomite as shadow figure to the masculine friend helps to explain the credibility of such criticism. For other works that take up the question of homoeroticism in male friendships, see Jeffrey Masten, Textual intercourse: Collaboration, authorship, and sexualities in Renaissance drama (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 1997); Mario DiGangi, The homoerotics of early modern drama (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 1997); and Bruce R. Smith, Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics (Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1991).

  7. The emphasis on a construct of masculinity that emphasized proximity and intimate touch—as opposed to distance and the remote gaze—is part of a larger project that includes this essay. For a discussion of the sense of touch as traditionally associated with ideological disruption and homosexuality, see Sander L. Gilman, Sexuality: An Illustrated History (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1989), 31 and passim. The coupling of the transcendent and the physical was not unique to Elyot. Irving Singer discusses various efforts to reconcile the erotic and the spiritual; see The Nature of Love 2: Courtly and Romantic, 2d ed., 3 vols. (Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1984), 10-15. There was also a subversive or “pornographic” tradition of highlighting the eroticism in Renaissance depictions of intimate transcendence, as well as efforts by writers such as Pietro Aretino to represent the aroused body as a window to the soul; see Lynn Hunt, ed., The Invention of Pornography: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, 1500-1800 (New York: Zone Books, 1993).

  8. See Laurens J. Mills, One Soul in Bodies Twain: Friendship in Tudor Literature and Stuart Drama (Bloomington, IN: The Principia Press, 1937).

  9. Coppélia Kahn asserts that “same sex friendships, in Shakespeare (as in the typical life cycle), are chronologically and psychologically prior to marriage” (“The Cuckoo's Note: Male Friendship and Cuckoldry in The Merchant of Venice” in Shakespeare's “Rough Magic”: Renaissance Essays in Honor of C. L. Barber, Peter Erickson and Coppélia Kahn, eds. [Newark: U of Delaware P, 1985], 104-12, esp. 105). In the same volume, see also Janet Adelman, “Male Bonding in Shakespeare's Comedies,” 73-103.

  10. John Lyly's Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578) might be included also. His companions, Philautus and Euphues, part with their friendship severed, and neither man wins the female. But the tale may be read as cautionary, warning against true friends falling prey to unbridled desires and self-interest.

  11. Adelman, 79.

  12. In The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Co., 1997), 77-83, esp. 83.

  13. Elyot, 140 and 149.

  14. Sylvia is spared the rape. Shakespeare compounds the troubling moment with an allusion to Ovid's tale of Philomela, whose rape transforms her into a doleful nightingale who can, at least, endlessly broadcast her plight in song. As Jean Howard further observes, Sylvia is also denied this Ovidian complaint. Still, the oblique citation might prompt an audience to ask, at least momentarily, about the degree of complicity a tale of amity requires for its idealism to work. Even the context of the allusion—raised as Valentine laments that he can “sit alone … / And to the nightingale's complaining notes / Tune my distresses and record my woes” (5.4.4-6)—embarrasses amity. The bird's song, traditionally decoded as Philomela's lament, is summoned to serenade Valentine's own sadness (Greenblatt, ed., 82).

  15. Kahn, 105.

  16. Normand, 60.

  17. Mills notes this emphasis on difference, but attributes it to “dramatic contrast” and argues further that the two men are nonetheless equal in noble character (268). Brown, ed., discusses Bassanio and Antonio as exemplars of amity and concludes that this alteration from the play's source, Il Pecorone, lends the men an air of nobility and virtue (xiv-xvi). He sees no tensions in the differences in status of the two friends, nor does he consider an erotic component in amity. Frank Whigham analyzes the play's “context of social mobility and class conflict,” but he tends to see the Christians as singular in their revisionist use of marital courtship as a vehicle for mystifying aristocratic solidarity and economic privilege (“Ideology and Class Conduct in The Merchant of Venice,Renaissance Drama n.s. 10 [1979]: 93-115, esp. 93). This essay stresses amity's tradition of representing friends as gentlemen, the humanist rhetoric of an educable character notwithstanding. Men of lower status are often amazed, perhaps even moved to emulate amity's code of conduct, but they are never depicted as ideal lovers, let alone peers to the entitled heroes.

  18. Walter Cohen discusses the politics of early modern England's awkward shift from an opposition to usurious practices to a capitalist-based economy. Equivocations are apparent in terms such as venturing, advantage, interest, and risk; see “The Merchant of Venice and the Possibilities of Historical Criticism,” ELH 49 (1982): 765-89. Henry Abelove argues that the ascendancy of marriage and reproductive heterosexuality is homologous with changes in demographics and a rise in capitalist ethics; he contends, however, that the role of “same-sex sexual behaviors” in such developments warrant “separate treatment” (“Some Speculations on the History of ‘Sexual Intercourse’ During the ‘Long Eighteenth Century’ in England” in Nationalisms and Sexualities, Andrew Parker et al., eds. [London and New York: Routledge, 1992], 335-42, esp. 340).

  19. Elyot, 136.

  20. Richard Edwards, Damon and Pithias in The Dramatic Writings of Richard Edwards, Thomas Norton, and Thomas Sackville, ed. John S. Farmer, Early English Dramatists (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966), 1-84, esp. 14. Edwards's depiction of homoerotic friendship seems indebted to Elyot's idealism, although its dramatic action seems to be a defense of amity as a viable solution to social problems. The heroes must justify their friendship, which at first appears suspicious to the members of the court, and distinguish themselves from the self-serving and crass forms of alliance that define male relations in Dionysius's kingdom. The tropes of Elyot's homoerotic amity—that is, an emphasis on a transcendent physical intimacy—are advanced, and, in the end, the sovereign becomes a third friend to the gentleman heroes. The question of friendship's compatibility with marriage is not an issue in Edwards's comedy.

  21. Elyot, 134.

  22. Harry Berger Jr., “Marriage and Mercifixion in The Merchant of Venice: The Casket Scene Revisited,” Shakespeare Quarterly 32 (1981): 155-62, esp. 161.

  23. Robert Hapgood, “Portia and The Merchant of Venice: The Gentle Bond,” Modern Language Quarterly 28 (March 1967): 19-32, esp. 26.

  24. Elyot, 139.

  25. Sir Thomas Wilson, A Discourse vpon Vsury (London, 1572), N7r.

  26. Miles Mosse, The Arraignment and Conviction of Vsvrie (London, 1595), M[1]v.

  27. Mosse, M[1]v.

  28. Wilson, N7r.

  29. The stage practice of playing Antonio as an older man in pursuit of a young, handsome aristocrat may arise from the play's skeptical view of amity's promises of equity, not from any reference to the men's ages. The elided tradition of an emphasis on twinship creates the sense of an imbalance between the two men, as does Antonio's unrequited yearning. The modern stereotype of age enamored of innocent youth obfuscates such inequities.

  30. Whigham observes that this passage reminds an audience that Bassanio's fortune has been “bred from Shylock's gold” (101).

  31. DiGangi distinguishes between “orderly” and “disorderly” homoeroticism (10-19). He argues that the value and effects of homoeroticism in early modern England can be understood only in context, not according to beliefs about its inherent unruliness or theories of its propensity for containment. This argument has further support in Masten, in Smith, and in Valerie Traub, “Lesbian Desire in Early Modern England” in Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage, Susan Zimmerman, ed. (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), 150-69.

  32. See Brown, ed., xlvi.

  33. Lorna Hutson, The Usurer's Daughter: Male Friendship and Fictions of Women in Sixteenth-Century England (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 70-71. Hutson does not consider homoeroticism as a factor in amity. Similarly, Cohen explains, “Romantic comedy, firmly founded on marital love, … dramatizes the adaptation of the nobility to a new social configuration, an acceptance of change inextricable from a reassertion of dominance” (781).

  34. Bassanio's description of Portia has been often observed as a crass devaluation; see, for example, Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and Ovid (Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1993), 151-53; and Whigham, 95-96.

  35. Adelman observes that one source of male identity in early modern England came from the friendship trope of twinship or the mirror self (75-76), but the rhetoric of the companionate marriage was appropriating that metaphor.

  36. Elyot, 139 and 140.

  37. Katharine Eisaman Maus in Greenblatt, ed., 1,081-88, esp. 1,084.

  38. Brown, ed., tries to make sense of the line by providing missing punctuation or speculating on possible pronoun referents (11n), but its incoherence may be deliberate. Shakespeare uses confused or disrupted speech as a way to show emotional turmoil most famously in Othello, when the Moor's characteristic eloquence collapses into disjointed phrasing and obsessive repetition once Iago has seduced the Moor into believing he is a cuckold.

  39. Edwards, 31 and 40.

  40. Kleinberg, 117.

  41. Elyot, 134.

  42. Brown, ed., 70n; and Greenblatt, ed., 1,115n.

  43. Richard Brathwait, The English Gentleman, 2d ed. (London, 1633). The embracing gentlemen in Brathwait's conduct book are replaced in the 1641 edition with the icon of a disembodied handshake; the title is also expanded to The English Gentleman and English Gentlewoman. Jeff Masten, whose essay in Goldberg, ed., includes a reproduction of this image, brought these changes to my attention. In the 1707 broadsheet The Woman-Hater's Lamentation a woodcut of two men embracing serves to defame the homosexual molly; see Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (London: Gay Men's Press, 1982), 83; and Jeff Masten, “My Two Dads: Collaboration and Reproduction in Beaumont and Fletcher” in Goldberg, ed., 280-309, esp. 281.

  44. Normand argues that in the exalted tones of amity “the sexual is banished, leaving only the spiritual” (66), but amity, like romance, advanced the opposite logic: a sexual relationship expressed through exalted language. It is not unlike the excited verse Romeo and Juliet use to express their profound love and physical passion for one another. See also Allen J. Frantzen, Before the closet: same-sex love from Beowulf to Angels in America (Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1998), where Frantzen argues for homoeroticism in Anglo-Saxon and medieval categories of male bonding.

  45. Elyot, 134.

  46. Edwards, 41.

  47. Edwards, 18.

  48. Linda Woodbridge explains that the hermaphrodite in Renaissance poetics represented “the essential oneness of the sexes,” a reference to Plato's idea of the original unity of the self (Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620 [Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1984], 140). Although Geary sees Portia's donning of men's clothes as a homoerotic allusion to Ganymede (57), the invaginated figure might represent the heteroerotic ideal of “one sex,” especially once Portia reveals the wife's value as helpmate in reforming patriarchal law and economic order.

  49. On the erotic possibilities in the tradition of letter-writing between friends, see Forrest Tyler Stevens, “Erasmus's ‘Tigress’: The Language of Friendship” in Goldberg, ed., 124-40.

  50. Elyot, 149.

  51. Lawrence W. Hyman, “The Rival Lovers in The Merchant of Venice,SQ 21 (1970): 109-16, esp. 112.

  52. Elyot, 151 and 149.

  53. Sinfield, in Hawkes, ed., 125.

  54. Bate, 153.

  55. Love melancholy, also known as love-sickness or erotomania, was catalogued most famously in Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy (1655), but love troped as an illness was part of a medical heritage dating to medieval and even classical times. See D. A. Beecher, “Antiochus and Stratonice: the Heritage of a Medico-Literary Motif in the Theater of the English Renaissance,” The Seventeenth Century 5 (1990): 113-32.

  56. Geary, 67. See also Karen Newman, “Portia's Ring: Unruly Women and Structures of Exchange in The Merchant of Venice,SQ 38 (1987): 19-33.

  57. Elyot uses the bed-trick as well. To fulfill his friend's desire for Sophronia, Gysippus allows Titus to replace him in the marriage bed, where the marriage ring is presented and the “girdle of virginity” removed (141). Elyot's female accepts the switch without complaint. Thus amity displays not only its charity but also its capacity to improve an outdated system of contract marriage which has failed to consider the role of (male) desire. Shakespeare complicates this motif by having Antonio usurp the ring from its romantic context, then by having Portia later reclaim its value (and bargain with her chastity) when Antonio re-presents the ring as a sign of conjugal amity.

  58. For a discussion of Portia's use of her knowledge and wealth to alter the circumstances of her role as daughter, see Lisa Jardine, Reading Shakespeare Historically (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 58-64. Louis Adrian Montrose analyzes the sexual politics in Elizabeth's court in terms similar to those used here to describe Portia—that is, her efforts to “advance or frustrate the worldly desires of all her subjects”; to exploit “[r]elationships of power and dependency, desire and fear” (“‘Shaping Fantasies’: Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture” in Representing the English Renaissance, Stephen Greenblatt, ed. [Berkeley: U of California P, 1988], 31-64, esp. 45 and 55). Jonathan Goldberg complicates this argument by widening the sweep of court politics to include same-sex erotic bonds (as opposed to limiting desire to heterosexual and “homosocial” relations); see Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1992), 29-61.

  59. Elyot, 148.

  60. Bassanio resembles the false friends in Edwards's Damon and Pithias, one of whom, Aristippus, accuses his double, Carisophus, of betrayal: “My friendship thou soughtest for thine own commodity, / As worldly men do, by profit measuring amity” (68).

  61. The fifth act begins with Lorenzo and Jessica trying to “out-night” one another in a scene that may be played, certainly, as a light-hearted game between newlyweds (ll. 1-23). But Jessica's way of emphasizing themes of infidelity in each of Lorenzo's citations can foreshadow the upcoming exposure of unfaithful husbands and may also recall the betrayals in scenes past.

  62. Masten in Goldberg, ed., 301-4. On men as bed companions, see also Bray in Goldberg, ed., 42-43; and Bray, Homosexuality, 50-51.

  63. Kahn, 111.

  64. Elyot, 149.

  65. See Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia UP, 1985), 1-5.

  66. See Kleinberg's argument that the homosexual Antonio pits himself against Shylock because, as reviled outsiders, they are essentially the same (120). See also 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, Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O'Connor, eds. (New York and London: Methuen, 1987), 188-206.

  67. Usury as an unnatural use of money was often coupled with sexual perversions. The Jewish body has a history of being depicted as monstrously deformed, a grotesque amalgam of male and female, and his lusts—a confusion of greed, sex, and profanity—as sodomitical. See Gilman, 86 and 258-59; and Marc Shell, “The Wether and the Ewe: Verbal Usury in The Merchant of Venice,Kenyon Review 1 (1979): 65-92.

  68. See Simon Shepherd, “What's so funny about ladies' tailors? A survey of some male (homo)sexual types in the Renaissance,” Textual Practice 6:1 (1992): 17-30. See also Bray, Homosexuality, 67-70.

  69. Such changes were by no means steady or consistent. There was, for example, the luxurious if short-lived position of the late-seventeenth-century rake, who displayed his masculinity by flaunting his interest in boys and women. For a study of shifts in the perception of same-sex relations, see Randolph Trumbach, “The Birth of the Queen: Sodomy and the Emergence of Gender Equality in Modern Culture, 1660-1750” in Hidden From History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, Martin Baum Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey Jr., eds. (New York: New American Library, 1989), 129-40.

  70. For sodomy's role in defamatory politics, see Bray in Goldberg, ed.; and Goldberg, Sodometries, 40-61.

  71. In Damon and Pithias the corrupt and obdurate Aristippus and Carisophus are exposed for practicing “no friendship, but a lewd liking” (68) and are, at the end, sent away.

  72. See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1990).

  73. That men sometimes appropriate a discourse of reproduction, including claims that the male body is generative or capable of pregnancy, may not always or only be a misogynist or patriarchal assertion, nor a sign of perversion or gender confusion. In some contexts, such language and parody defend the worth of other kinds of love or bonds. Mollies who pretended to be pregnant and mimicked the female as wife or mother to the male may have been burlesquing an ideology that limits concepts of (re)generation, nurturance, and devotion as peculiar to the body and nature of the female. On the molly figure, see Bray, Homosexuality, 81-114.

A longer version of this essay was presented in February 1998 to a session of a year-long colloquium entitled “Sexuality, Subjectivity, and Representation in Early Modern Literature,” chaired by Susan Zimmerman at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. I am grateful to the colloquium members, especially Susan Zimmerman, Jeff Masten, and Michael Neill. Gail Kern Paster and anonymous readers at Shakespeare Quarterly also offered valuable criticism and suggestions.

Martin Japtok and Winfried Schleiner (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Japtok, Martin and Winfried Schleiner. “Genetics and ‘Race’ in The Merchant of Venice.Literature and Medicine 18, no. 2 (1999): 155-72.

[In the following essay, the critics argue that The Merchant of Venice demonstrates that “racism was already fully operational” in the late Elizabethan era, despite the fact that “race” as a concept had not been fully developed.]

Can a cultural historian of Shakespeare's period speak about genetics and eugenics in relation to Jews and Moors? Not only did words like Jews, Moors, and race mean something different then from what they have meant since the nineteenth century, but a glance at a historical dictionary will tell us that the term genetics did not yet exist.1 Therefore it might be the better part of valor for us as cultural historians to avoid such terms and, someone might suggest, even such topics altogether. The alternative is to sin boldly, i.e., to do what “really” shouldn't be done, but not naively, rather with the consciousness of stretching what is permissible. Some fears are productive, and taking some comfort from Claude J. Summers's essay on the early modern scholar's anxieties of anachronism, we hope to negotiate the narrow path between the Scylla of anachronism and the Charybdis of pedantry.2 Can we talk about notions of genetics in Shakespeare or about notions of Jews and Africans? We suggest that if we historicize properly, a process in which, for instance, “genetics” will become something quite different from what it is at present, we can. When we examine genetics in Shakespeare, however, we find not just one idea of genetics but several. Also, when we let the terms Jew and Moor drift a little from their modern racial and religious moorings, in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice they move surprisingly close together as versions of the alien or Other. While the play, in its very obsession with otherness, demonstrates that racism was already fully operational, ironically, it also illustrates the extent to which the concept of “race” was still under negotiation, hovering between the spheres of religion and genetics.

With all the critical attention (in relationship to Shakespeare's play) given to what Jews could or could not do in Elizabethan England and Renaissance Venice, the depth of the underlying scientific and pseudo-scientific notions about inheritance has not yet been sounded.3 Some of those notions are recondite and so complicated that even the most careful modern editors cannot hope to do them justice; others are so unpleasant (because they use human beings as a mere means to an end) that they seem to have been surrounded by taboos even in Shakespeare's time. Any attempt to elucidate them on today's stage would seem not only futile but strangely out of place. But students of Shakespeare will not be content to leave taboos unexplained, particularly if some passages then remain inexplicable, because “cruxes” are intellectually bothersome. We will examine two passages in Merchant of Venice that point to larger themes: the first is Shylock's use of the biblical passage about breeding of ewes (I.iii.66-69 and 71-85), which introduces the “natural” boundaries of genetics; the second is Lorenzo's charge that Launcelot has impregnated a black woman (III.v.35), which invokes notions of “race.” In the former case, this discussion adds an undercurrent that has not been seen in this play; in the latter, we offer an explanation of what is truly a crux, for John Russell Brown says that “[t]his passage has not been explained; it might be an outcrop of a lost source, or a topical allusion.”4 More than literary puzzles, however, these passages invoke some understanding of genetics and of “race,” and of the instability of both terms in Merchant of Venice.

In Merchant of Venice, Shylock, a Jewish money lender, is approached by Antonio, a prominent Venetian merchant in need of a loan. Shylock is willing to supply the money but puts into the contract that the borrower will forfeit a pound of his flesh upon non-payment. When (because of some unforeseen reversals of business fortune) the merchant is unable to repay the debt, the money lender, seizing upon the opportunity to get even for past abuses, demands that the contract be fulfilled literally. By the ingenuity of a young woman cross-dressed as a lawyer, who out-literalizes Shylock with her request that he cut off exactly a pound of flesh or be indicted for murder, the merchant is acquitted and Shylock condemned for endangering the life of a Venetian. Important subplots concern the marriage of Shylock's daughter, Jessica, to a gentile, and the wooing of Portia, a noblewoman, by a number of suitors.

In Act I Shylock tells the story of Genesis 30:33-43 to Antonio and Bassanio, two Venetian noblemen, beginning “when Jacob graz'd his uncle Laban's sheep,” in what seems to Antonio and Bassanio a long-winded way. When Shylock points out that Jacob was only the third generation after Abraham (apparently genetic closeness to Abraham heightens Jacob's status in Shylock's eyes), Antonio interrupts impatiently asking, “And what of him? Did he take interest?” (I.iii.70). Shylock denies that he did “directly,” but tells the rest of the story, possibly to remind himself and also Antonio that craft or ruses are legitimate:

No, not take interest, not as you would say
Directly int'rest,—mark what Jacob did,—
When Laban and himself were compromis'd
That all the eanlings which were streak'd and pied
Should fall as Jacob's hire, the ewes being rank
In end of autumn turned to the rams,
And when the work of generation was
Between these woolly breeders in the act,
The skilful shepherd pill'd me certain wands,
And in the doing of the deeds of kind
He stuck them up before the fulsome ewes,
Who then conceiving, did in eaning time
Fall parti-colour'd lambs, and those were Jacob's.
This was a way to thrive, and he was blest:
And thrift is blessing if men steal it not.


Jacob's stratagem, if it is not evident, would have been explained by any biblical commentary in the Renaissance: Jacob's white pilings, erected close to the water, were reflected as streaks on the dark surface of the water (the biblical passage mentions watering troughs). At the moment of generation, the moment when the conceived fetus would have been eminently impressionable by what the mother saw or imagined, these streaks were seen by the ewes, who in time bore lambs that were streaked.

Antonio knows the story, but he understands it differently, for he replies somewhat perplexedly,

This was a venture sir that Jacob serv'd for,
A thing not in his power to bring to pass,
But sway'd and fashion'd by the hand of heaven.
Was this inserted to make interest good?
Or is your gold and silver ewes and rams?


For Antonio, Jacob's acquisition of wealth is as miraculous as a cane turning into a snake or a well bubbling out of the spot that has been struck. Shylock, however, is intrigued by Jacob's ingenuity, which seems to him to be at least two-fold: Jacob accepts a bond and eventually holds Laban to its terms; and he is a successful husbandman. Shylock's gloating over the enforcement of potential bonds is anticipatory and private—Antonio cannot possibly understand him and is not supposed to do so. He may, and possibly does, understand Shylock's sense of the heads of the herd as capital (in the etymological sense of caput—head). He does not, however, read Jacob's feat as of a piece with the specific notions of the human medicine of his time, a correspondence between human medicine and what we now call animal science. It is Shylock who will constantly bring together ewes and humans. He is not the only character in this play to engage in such reduction, though, because some Christian low-lifers (i.e., Launcelot) will reduce the problematics of conversion to the economics of pork, its relative plentifulness or scarcity. Before Antonio signs Shylock's bond for a pound of flesh, Shylock denies the equivalence of human flesh with mutton, but he is only pretending, and the spectators (in contrast to Antonio) are supposed to see through this pretense:

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


How “good” are we to think Shylock's science? What kind of “genetics” does he advance here?

The strength of the medical and psychological commonplaces invoked by the Laban story cannot be overestimated. For convenience, we use for demonstration the Dutch physician Levinius Lemnius (1505-1568)—most of his works were translated from Latin into French and English—but we could also use Campanella, who in his utopian City of the Sun recommends in the interest of a certain eugenics that one control what wives see in their bedrooms at conception.5 However, although Lemnius partakes of a broad tradition, he is perhaps more outspoken than most Renaissance physicians on the principle at issue. Speaking of the power of imaginations, Lemnius says in The Touchstone of Complexions (1576).

which ymaginations are of so great force and efficacie, that the things by her in mynd earnestly ymagined in and at the very instant time of her conception, is derived into the infant and child then begotten. For this Sexe being wanton, toying, and stedfastly eying every thing that is offered to sight, it happeneth that the naturally facultie being then in workinge and forming of the child, directeth her cogitations and inward conceiptes that way, and bringeth unto the Infant, an other forein shape and forme, in nature and condition altogether unlike the right parents.6

Lemnius then adds as an example from his own experience in Holland that women, after looking at the gallant soldiers of the army of Charles V, bore infants with eyebrows and hairs black and curled, and he insists that this happened “among right honest and tryed Matrones.”7 The force and effect of the mother's vision and imagination are here seen as opposed to and stronger than the force of inheritance. They overcome features including those we may today (and some people possibly did then) consider “racial.” In fact there is a poem of the first half of the seventeenth century on this very subject (titled Callipaedia) in which the African parents, an “Aethiopian” mother and her “sooty Sire,” are shaken when they have a “Babe deform'd,” namely a white child, because the mother has been looking on the picture of a white woman.8

In his book De miraculis occultis naturae libri quatuor (1564), which Shakespeare might have seen in the French translation of 1567 (the English translation, The Secret Miracles of Nature, is of 1658), Lemnius goes over similar material, but in greater detail. This time it is primarily the woman's “secret” or “tacite” imaginations “whilst the man embrace” that influence the child:

For such is the power of the Imagination, that when the woman does intentively behold any thing, she will produce some thing like that she beheld, so it falls out, that children have the forms of divers things upon them, as Warts, Spots, Moles, Dashes, which cannot easily be wiped off, or taken away. So some of our women seeing a Hare, bring forth a child with a Harelip; so some children are born with flat Noses, wry mouths, great blubber lips, and ill shaped of all the body, because the woman when she conceived the child, and in the time she was big of it, had her eyes and mind busied upon some monstrous creature.9

In a different context, it would be worth pointing out what to today's reader is obvious, namely that responsibility for birth marks and particularly birth defects is here shifted to women alone; however, our interest at present is in the archaeology of the notion of genetic manipulation. Lemnius goes on to point out that the principle invoked can be ingeniously used: “Men use to effect the like by art in other creatures, setting before them when they are to conceive the colours of divers things.” “Art” has here the meaning of “artifice” or rather, in the modern sense, science or genetic manipulation. In fact, all his examples are from animal husbandry: “Jacob used that stratagem, who was afterwards called Israel, laying rods he had pilled off the rinds from, before them every where, and so he made the greatest part of the flock spotted and party-coloured. So we make painted birds, dogs and horses dappled, with divers spots.”10 The biblical story of Jacob's stratagem appears here integrated into “scientific” discourse. It is not a miracle; in other words, it appears as Shylock's version, not Antonio's.

If any proof is needed that the notion of imagination over inheritance (as encapsulated in the idea of the malleability of the young fetus) was strong even before Lemnius wrote, we may point to a Latin poem by Thomas More that wittily plays on it and with it. In this we follow Lemnius, who quoted it in its entirety, undoubtedly because he realized that More was refuting the common argument (which Shakespeare's Paulina was still to use effectively in A Winter's Tale) that similarity proves progeny. Here is what Lemnius calls More's “witty epigram” in the English verse translation of the English Lemnius edition of 1658:


Those four boys, Sabine,
Which thy Wife brought forth
Thou think'st are not thine,
Unlike thee, nought-worth.
But that Boy alone
That she lately bore,
Like thee, for thine own
Thou tak'st, and no more.
Four as bastards born
Rejected are in scorn,
Yet wise men suppose
That the Mothers mind
Doth the Child dispose
For likeness in's kind.
Four were begot
When that many miles
From home, thou wert not
Feared, nor thy wiles.
This last like to thee,
Was begot in fear,
Thy Wife was not free
Thou wert then too near.
This I think was it,
That thy likenesse hit.(11)

All of his wife's children were begotten by other men; her fifth child only looked like him because his presence in town made a detection of her adulterous act more likely. She thought of him and thus her child looked like him. The Dutch physician drew the conclusion from the medical notions he recorded and from More's poem that it would be vain to assign fatherhood from the likeness of the child: “For neither the Law of Nature, nor the publick consent of Mankind will suffer a child to be laid to any man because it is like him.”12

In Christian exegetical tradition, for which we let the medieval Nicholas de Lira stand as representative, there are both camps: those who believe that Jacob was taught by an angel, and those who consider him knowledgeable in natural science (in cognitione virtutum naturalium). In explaining Jacob's knowledge of science, Nicholas de Lira points to Jerome's reference to a Spanish horse-breeding practice of putting beautiful horses within sight of those being covered. He also tells the case of a matrona accused of adultery because she had borne a black child (peperisset Aethiopem) but found innocent after the picture of a black person was found in her bedroom.13

For Shylock the immediate relevance of the story of Jacob breeding ewes is that it points to his thriving by ingenuity while sticking to a bond or contract, but the biblical passage—highlighted by Antonio's lack of comprehension—also introduces the theme of passing on traits, of inheritance from parent to child. This is the primary use to which the story has been put in western civilization, and whatever extra “spin” Shakespeare could give it through the character Shylock, its center of gravity would have been exactly there.

Swearing “by the Jacob's staff” (II.v.36) and with a wife about whom we know little else than that she was also called Leah, Shylock is conceived to recapitulate in some sense the ingenious Jacob/Israel, who, more than for his sheep breeding is famous for the ruse through which he obtained the blessing from his father, who mistakes him for his first-born brother Esau. In a related scene loosely parodying the biblical episode or at least playing on it, the “sand-blind” Gobbo meets his son Launcelot and fails to recognize him.14 Launcelot kneels and asks for the blessing of his father, who will feel his son's skin and comment on his excess of (facial) hair. Their meeting includes this exchange:

Do you not know me father?
Alack sir I am sand-blind, I know you not.
Nay, indeed if you had your eyes you might fail of the knowing me: it is a wise father that knows his own child.


Dismissing his father's excuse, Launcelot here generalizes in the manner of the Shakespearean wise fool: the father's eyesight would not guarantee recognition of his son. Thomas More and the physician Levinius Lemnius would have agreed. In an ironic reversal, then, sight cannot guarantee recognition of genetic descent, but it may cause transmission of genetic traits.

The transmission of such traits is thus configured as an area of radical insecurity that allows “race” to be manipulated by the various characters in the play. The poles of this manipulation are established early in the play by Shylock, who insists twice that Jessica is his flesh and blood (“my daughter is my flesh and my blood” [III.i.33]), and by Salerio, who responds, “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” (III.i.34-36). While on the surface Salerio can be understood to deny modern notions of “race,” his denial may presuppose exactly such a notion in that it relies in part on “racial” imagery to make its point. Even more crudely, Launcelot the clown tries to demean Jessica with some such understanding, holding out to Jessica what he succinctly calls “a kind of bastard hope”: “Marry, you may partly hope that your father got / you not, that you are not the Jew's daughter” (III.v.9-10). Realizing fully how demeaning this “way out” is, Jessica confirms the fittingness of the phrase “bastard hope”: “That were a kind of bastard hope indeed,—so the / sins of my mother should be visited upon me” (III.v.11-12). The general opprobrium that the period associated with illegitimate birth was anchored in canon and civil law, which excluded the illegitimate from certain honorable professions. We cannot tell whether another irony is unintentional, namely that in Jewish understanding the proof of Jewish descent is through the mother rather than the father. The very crudeness of these jokes underlines the insecurity surrounding the question of transmission of traits, an insecurity reflected, as we shall see, in the construction of “race.”

Shylock's story of Laban's sheep and the genetic paradigms into which it was integrated in Renaissance medicine relates also to a somewhat complicated and often discussed passage in Act IV: Gratiano's slur berating Shylock when the latter keeps insisting on the pound of flesh as his due:

                    thy currish spirit
Govern'd a wolf, who hang'd for human slaughter—
Even from the gallows did his fell soul fleet,
And whilst thou layest in thy unhallowed dam,
Infus'd itself in thee.


In the interest of dating the composition of the play, scholars have—correctly, it would seem—seen a reference in the “wolf … hanged” to the execution on 7 June 1594, of the Portuguese Jewish physician Lopez (with an etymological play on lupus “wolf”), sentenced as a traitor for allegedly trying to poison Queen Elizabeth.15 Our interest is not to date the play, but to note that the berating slur again questions fatherhood on the principle explained earlier, namely the impressionability of the young fetus in the womb. Rather than a eugenic argument, this is demeaning cacogenics (nonsensical genetics) intended to be witty. On the surface, the slur questions Shylock's humanity by inserting a ravenous (slaughtering) beast as father. For those spectators at the Globe, however, who understood the reference to the executed Jewish physician, it allied Shylock with Lopez and possibly all Jews, questioning the humanity of the religious other.

Religious otherness indeed preceded “racial” otherness as main category of difference in Renaissance Europe. Muslims and Jews were usually seen in terms of religion and culture (though the use of those terms often verged on what could be termed “racial” difference). But the Renaissance witnessed large scale encounters of Europeans with peoples of colors and cultures different from those of Europe. Shylock alludes to these encounters in his speech on Antonio's business interests, when he lists Antonio's ships en route to Tripoli, the Indies, and Mexico. One result of these large-scale encounters was a gradual shift from religion as the main marker of otherness. David Brion Davis's comment concerning European terminology for sub-Saharan Africans indicates such a shift: “It was only in the fifteenth century that Europeans, possibly following Arabic precedents, began to identify sub-Saharan Africans not simply as ‘black Saracens’ but as ‘blacks.’”16 The events of 1492 in Spain, the reconquista against the Moors and the expulsion of the Spanish Jews—Spain ridding itself of the African and Jewish “other” at the same time—point to a historical conflation of the two categories as well. Fifty years later, however, Cabeza de Vaca, in his Relation of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, sees religion as the main differentiating factor between Europeans and Native Americans, referring to Spaniards as “Christians,” not as Spaniards or as people differing in color, suggesting that both terminology and related attitudes were still under construction.17 Shakespeare's play, as we shall see, might be said to bear witness to the shift from religious to racial otherness. Though Daryl W. Palmer reminds us that “early modern notions of ‘race’ must never be reduced to color,” we may also conclude with him that “this injunction must not stop us from appreciating the ways in which a supremely influential dramatist like Shakespeare has contributed to the obsession with color.”18

In this play, Shylock is primarily the cultural and religious other, though the boundaries between “race” and religion are indeed porous, as Mary Janell Metzger notes when pointing out that Jessica gives as her father's ancestors—or as his genetic descent—two individuals: Tubal and Chus (III.ii.285); “the first is a Jew and the second the mythical originary black African.”19 That religious and “racial” otherness are differentiated in the play is exemplified most clearly by Jessica's marriage. Although her otherness may be removed by conversion, thus facilitating her marriage with a Gentile, Morocco's otherness appears to be an insurmountable obstacle and is expressed in terms of “racial” difference. Although for the modern spectator some of the innuendo used by the Christians (for instance, the “bastard hope” held out to Jessica) as well as some of the language used by Shylock (his wish that someone “of the stock of Barrabas” [IV.i.292] might have been Jessica's husband) will have racial overtones, religion is primary. Shylock is forced to convert at the end of the play, in the process losing most of his money (in his account of the Jews of Venice, Coryat regretted that the costliness of conversions acted as a deterrent to becoming a Christian).

When we study how Africans are presented in this play, however, we see again the play's challenge to some of the most basic and seemingly commonsensical genetic assumptions, for instance the one that child is like father. When the Prince of Morocco first appears as one of the three suitors to Portia's hand, he is described as “a tawny Moor” (II.i, stage direction). The meaning of tawny is a bit of a puzzle: it could mean “dark,” but possibly a shade of skin color contrasting with a “black” Moor.20 Be that as it may, Morocco is very much conscious that his skin color is different from Portia's and from that of her European suitors, for his first words are:

Mislike me not for my complexion,
The shadowed livery of the burnish'd sun,
To whom I am a neighbour, and near bred.


Of course, complexion, as a term in humoral physiology, had a fuller meaning than it has now: it meant not only skin color, but the entire principle imagined to effect it. Morocco fears that his looks might cause dislike. Fear of rejection because of his different looks makes him say that “this aspect” of his “hath fear'd the valiant” and attracted the most prized young women of his clime: “I would not change this hue, / Except to steal your thoughts my gentle queen” (II.i.11-12). Again we may disagree about what shade of skin is intended, but it seems to be clear that complexion, aspect, and hue in some way refer to the otherness of the African and that otherness is conceptualized in terms of “race.” Indeed, “racial” otherness comes across as a liability in this passage.

Portia denies that she is “solely led / By nice direction of a maiden's eyes” (II.i.13), where nice might indicate an over-fastidious attention to mere looks. All her remarks are potentially reversible, however, for even the denial just mentioned may imply that Morocco lacks conventional good looks. Portia on the whole remains courteous and polite, even when punning on the two meanings of fair: under certain conditions Morocco might have “stood as fair / As any comer I have look'd on yet / For my affection” (II.i.20-23). However, ideas of beauty and “whiteness” are firmly linked elsewhere in this play, as in Lorenzo's exclamation, upon seeing Jessica's letter, “I know the hand, in faith, 'tis a fair hand, / And whiter than the paper it writ on / Is the fair hand that writ” (II.iv.12-14). Portia's courtesy and politeness during both this scene and the casket scene (II.vii) contrast with the unambiguous rejection of him and “all of his complexion” the moment he has left at the end of that scene, after choosing the wrong casket: “A gentle riddance—draw the curtains, go,—/ Let all of his complexion choose me so” (II.vii.78-79). In the context of this play, “all of his complexion” means “all Africans.” This dismissal, then, appears to be based to a high degree on Morocco's otherness. Not only is he unacceptable as an individual suitor, but so is his whole “race.” It seems that that “race” is understood to be reason enough for his rejection so that no further explanations are needed—an implicit commentary on what one may assume to be Globe audience's attitudes. Indeed, the social meaning of this otherness is highlighted by the fact that Morocco is the suitor of the highest societal standing, so that matters of “race” appear to overrule all other considerations here.

Not surprisingly, Portia is not the only one with narrow and parochial standards of beauty. As Bassanio mulls over the virtues of gold, silver, and lead in his casket scene and particularly over the deceit of appearance, he says, “Thus ornament is but the guiled shore / To a most dangerous sea: the beauteous scarf / Veiling an Indian beauty” (III.ii.97-99). Although (as John Russell Brown reports) some editors have tried to emend Indian beauty because of the jingle and fuzzy contrast, the meaning—with an emphasis on Indian, whether East Indian or American—is consistent with the Elizabethan aversion to dark skins that speaks through this play.21 The long cultural and religious roots of this aversion need not be argued here, except to point out that in addition to such elements as the hostile “Saracen” of medieval romance, there is also a societal tradition of valuing white skin, shaded from the sun, as aristocratic, while tanned skin marked shepherds, farmers, and artisans as members of the lower classes. The latter were, to use a modern Americanism with similar associations, “rednecks.” Even in Prince Morocco's understanding of his dark skin, its color was the effect of the sun, for in a passage already cited he called his “complexion” the “shadowed livery of the burnish'd sun” (II.i.2).

The play's insecurity as to the exact meaning of “race” is not only reflected in the implicit controversy over whether it is a matter of nature or nurture but also in its implicit equation of Jewishness and Blackness in terms of presumed religious values. We might point to three passages in this respect: one concerns Portia's anticipation of rejecting Morocco as a suitor because “if he have the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should / shrive me than / wive me” (I.ii.123-25). The second passage deals with Launcelot's assessment of Shylock as a “kind of devil” (II.ii.23). The third passage illustrates Solanio's view of Shylock and, by extension, all Jews, when Shylock is approaching him: “Let me say ‘amen’ betimes, lest the devil cross my / prayer, for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew” (III.i.19-20). Jewishness as religion and Blackness as a marker of “race” function equivalently here. Not only are they signs of otherness, but this otherness also has a moral value: it is regarded as evil. Though we have seen that Jewishness may change into Christianness, thus making “evil” appear to be a matter of “nurture,” Blackness cannot be erased in the same manner. Here the transitional stage of the concept of “race” exposes itself. While “race” and “religion” may operate as functional equivalents, both translating into generic otherness associated with evil, they are also parting ways, one assigned to nurture, the other to nature.

One passage that has befuddled the editors becomes intelligible when read through the lens of “race” and genetics. It is the passage following Launcelot's ridiculing and belittling of Jessica, in which he holds out to her a “bastard hope,” namely that she might not be Shylock's daughter. As the exchange continues, Jessica puts her hopes on her husband, Lorenzo, who, she says, has made her a Christian. Launcelot the Clown, in a kind of Brechtian reduction to the most materialist aspect of the situation, responds to this that her husband is the more to blame, for “this making of Christians will raise the price of hogs” (III.v.21-22). At this point, the new husband enters and is told by Jessica, apparently in full earnest, Launcelot's allegations. Lorenzo responds in a way that is not immediately understandable:

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.


John Russell Brown says that Lorenzo's remark has not been explained, and he surmises, “It might be an outcrop of a lost source, or a topical allusion. Perhaps it was introduced simply for the sake of the elaborate pun on Moor/more.”22

The notion that the entire passage is motivated by punning recalls Samuel Johnson's low view of word-play in the period but too easily dismisses Launcelot's words. Clearly Lorenzo's reply, that Launcelot has impregnated a black woman, is meant to repay Launcelot's unpleasantness. Popular belief at that time held that a syphilitic could cure himself of his disease if he slept with a black woman.23 In his Luis venereae perfectissimus tractatus (1597), the well regarded Italian physician Hercole Sassonia (or Saxonia) writes,

But one needs to inquire into what I have heard was experienced by some people in Venice: they claim [dicunt] to have been cured instantly of gonorrhea by having intercourse with a black woman [mulier Aethiopis]. The experimentum [experience; experiment; demonstration or proof] is true and it seems can be confirmed by [Julius Caesar] Scaliger's exercitatio 180, c. 18, according to whom Africans are cured from lues venerea by sleeping with a Numidian or Ethiopian woman. That I know, too, even though I would consider as invented the reports that indeed more men were freed from gonorrhaea antiqua by sleeping with a virgin spouse; but then the woman gets infected.24

At least three matters are important here: that in the 1590s such a view is thus documented of all places in Venice; that not only some experiential but also some literary evidence for what we may call a canard is given; and, although not evident from this passage, that the remedy was surrounded by strong taboos.

If we recognize the importance of taboo in this matter, namely that Sassonia was severely criticized for even recording this belief without assenting to it (since this kind of knowledge might induce the diseased to a desperate and unethical act), we will not be surprised that the view is not more often documented in medical texts.25 For literary documentation, however, Sassonia refers to Julius Caesar Scaliger (1484-1553), who in his Exoticarum exercitationum liber reports that in Africa the disease was first imported from Spain and that “those suffering from it recover when they go to Numidia or Black Ethiopia by a gift of the Heavens without any other medications.”26 Scaliger says nothing about intercourse, nor does Leo Africanus, who in turn seems to have been Scaliger's source, for Leo reports that if anyone in Lybia, where the disease is yet rare, gets infected, he (Leo uses the masculine form) travels to Numidia or the region of the Black Ethiopians (in Numidiam aut Nigritarum regionem), where he is healed by the temperateness of the air.27 Leo, who as an African was the period's main informant on that continent, claims that he saw such cures, effected without drug or physician, many times with his own eyes.

However, the notion reported by Sassonia to be current in Venice, that intercourse with a black virgin would cure the syphilitic, might supply the logic or deep structure to Lorenzo's counter-charge, after he learns that Launcelot has insulted Jessica and him: “The Moor is with child by you Launcelot!” Launcelot's response, “It is much that the Moor should be more than reason,” would not be a mere and empty play on the words much, moor, and more, but an acknowledgement of the charge with explanation or excuse, for “more than reason” would refer to the special powers attributed to the mulier Aithiops. Even Launcelot's next statement, “but if she be less than an honest woman, she is indeed more than I took her for,” which continues the play on moor and more, makes considerable sense in the context of the beliefs reported by Sassonia, for Launcelot's surface sense may be that, rather than womanizing, he was only interested in having intercourse with a virgin, as Sassonia puts it, cum uxore Virgine. The sense hovers precariously between two possibilities. One possibility is that Launcelot wanted an “honest” woman for medical reasons—this would be some sort of an acceptance of the charge and an excuse. The other possibility is that more in the sentence quoted last is read as Moor and than as that: “But if she be less than an honest woman, she is indeed more / Moor than / that I took her for.” The latter would acknowledge his attempt at womanizing, his awareness of her being “less than an honest woman,” and his intent to have sex with an African woman, but as a response to Lorenzo's charge such an acknowledgment would make little sense. However, the view Sassonia reports from Venice supplies a continuous sense to the passage. That it is not widely reported (although documented in Theodor Zwinger's voluminous commonplace book) need not be surprising or bothersome considering that the subject matter is highly tabooed and Sassonia was taken to task for only mentioning it.

At the beginning of this essay, we acknowledged our uneasiness in projecting modern meanings of words like eugenics, Jew, and race into the past. Ultimately, though, this seemingly linguistic problem is a version of the hesitancy that Emily C. Bartels has well noted in a recent book on Marlowe: “Critics have been hesitant to ascribe racism and homophobia to early modern culture, in large part because the idea of race and homosexuality seemed poorly formed at best.”28 After acknowledging these anxieties, the scholar overcomes them: “Racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and the like, though they did not have a local habitation or name, had their beginnings here, with cross-cultural and domestic discourses whose uncertainties amplified difference, allowing the self to impose its terms of supremacy on the world, over the alien abroad and the alien at home.”

In The Merchant of Venice some of the most time-honored and accepted Elizabethan commonplaces about inheritance of traits and about non-European skin color are held up to inspection: the likeness of child to parent and a quasi-instinctive negative reaction to the otherness of dark skin. The expectation that the child should be like the father is rehearsed several times and set against the view that Jessica is very different from Shylock and the view that Launcelot is not recognizable to Gobbo, his father. Shylock, most likely unaware of the implications, cites in detail one of the proof-texts of contemporary scientific discourse, namely the view, by Thomas More attributed to the graves Sophi or wisemen, that the fetus is influenced by the imaginations of the mother. In terms of attitudes about race, Portia's negative reaction to Morocco and to “all of his complexion” would find its counterpoint in Launcelot's veiled defense when he was charged with impregnating a black woman or “Moor.”

More significant than any claim to have solved a “crux” is the realization that the play sexualizes Otherness—this holds for the female “Moor” as well as for Morocco as potential sexual partner for Portia. We also recall that some of the most striking examples illustrating concepts of Renaissance “genetics” are those in which the Other is so powerful that merely looking at or imagining the Other will turn one's offspring into it. The synchronic presence of religious and racial otherness in this play, and the significantly different modes of plot intrigue for dealing with them, may mark a point on the diachronic scale (or history of European consciousness) at which religious otherness is shifting to the predominance of “racial” otherness. The “tanning” theory professed by Morocco as cause of his blackness, as well as Shylock's ewegenics and similar notions about acquiring traits at conception (notions that go deep into the fabric of this play), warn us to place race in quotation marks. The difference from later notions of race, for instance nineteenth-century ones, is salient.

Our explications call into question readings of the play that favor insurmountable dividing lines among people, like those James Shapiro recently demonstrated from Shakespeare's contemporary Andrew Willet, who believed that if an Englishman settled in Spain, his heirs would be Spaniards, but that “‘Jews have never been grafted unto the stock of other people.’”29 Our attempt has been not to replace such readings with modern cultural constructions with which we feel more comfortable, but to demonstrate that certain medical commonplaces underlying various passages, some of them obscure, put imagination over inheritance, and question fatherhood and the transmission of traits from father to son. These passages reveal a medical pseudo-science that was much stronger than Shakespeare scholars generally acknowledge. Of course such commonplaces did not die with the early modern period, but they gradually sank from the works of recognized physicians and serious literary authors to the realms of popular belief, whence they have occasionally reared their arcane heads among impostors and charlatans. Thus in the eighteenth century, as Dennis Todd has recently shown, one Mary Toft held England in suspense in 1726 with her claim of rabbit births (she said that, just a couple of weeks pregnant, she had been startled by a rabbit in her garden). She was initially believed by some medical practitioners because this claim, as Todd puts it, “was more or less in accordance with respectable medical opinion about the power of prenatal influence.”30The Merchant of Venice may be seen as recording a moment when notions of otherness, while they had apparently not hardened yet into the concept of “race” as later times would know it, were in the process of formation. However, the play also illustrates that, while the concept of “race” was not yet fully formed, racism surely was.


  1. See Winfried Schleiner, “‘That Matter Which Ought Not To Be Heard Of’: Homophobic Slurs in Renaissance Cultural Politics,” Journal of Homosexuality 26 (1994): 41-75; and “Renaissance Exempla of Schizophrenia: The Cure by Charity in Luther and Cervantes,” Renaissance and Reformation 9, no. 3 (1985): 157-76.

  2. Claude J. Summers, “Homosexuality and Renaissance Literature: Or, The Anxieties of Anachronism,” South Central Review 9 (1992): 2-23.

  3. See, for instance, Benjamin Arbel, Trading Nations: Jews and Venetians in the Early Modern Eastern Mediterranean (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995).

  4. William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, ed. John Russell Brown (London: Methuen [Arden Edition], 1977), 25, n. Subsequent quotations are from this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  5. Tommaso Campanella, La Citta del Sole (1623): The City of the Sun, ed. and trans. Daniel J. Donno (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981), 106-7: “Restano pitture solo o statue di grand' huomini, e quelle mirano le donne formose, che s'applicano all'uso della razza.” (Only the pictures and statues of great men survive, and these the shapely women devoted to the perpetuation of the race gaze upon to improve their offspring.) There is a similar passage about the women's preparation for coition by looking at statues (pp. 54-55).

  6. Levinus Lemnius, The Touchstone of Complexions (London, 1576), 40.

  7. Ibid., 40v.

  8. Claude Quillet, Callipaedia, or, An Art How to Have Handsome Children … Written by Monsieur St. Marthe, Physician to Henri III, trans. N. Rowe (London: 1710), 3:21-22.

  9. Lemnius, The Secret Miracles of Nature (London, 1658), 1:11.

  10. Ibid.

  11. The modern More edition prints the Latin poem “Ad Sabinum” and a modern prose translation of it (Thomas More, Complete Works, vol. 3, pt. 2, ed. Clarence H. Miller et al. [New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1984], 234-37).

  12. Lemnius, Secret Miracles, 1:12.

  13. Nicholas de Lira, Biblia Sacra cum Glossa ordinaria, 6 vols. (Antverp, 1634).

  14. We owe this suggestion to Louise Schleiner.

  15. See John Russell Brown, introduction to The Merchant of Venice, xxiii.

  16. David Brion Davis, Slavery and Human Progress (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, (1986), 331 n. 86.

  17. Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, Relation of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, in The Heath Anthology of American Literature, 2d ed., ed. Paul Lauter et al. (Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1994), 1:130-40.

  18. Daryl W. Palmer, “Merchants and Miscegenation: The Three Ladies of London, The Jew of Malta, and The Merchant of Venice,” in Race, Ethnicity, and Power in the Renaissance, ed. Joyce Green MacDonald (Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1997), 36-66, quotation p. 57.

  19. Mary Janell Metzger, “‘Now by My Hood, a Gentle and No Jew’: Jessica, The Merchant of Venice, and the Discourse of Early Modern English Identity,” PMLA 113, no. 1 (1998): 52-63, quotation p. 55. Metzger's excellent essay explores through Jessica “how Shakespeare may have struggled with competing notions of Jewishness circulating in early modern England” (p. 53). These competing notions were whether Jewishness was a matter of religion or “race,” indicating the same gradual shift we argue can be detected in the juxtaposition of the depictions of Jewishness and Africanness in the play.

  20. See Brown's note to that stage direction.

  21. Brown's note to “Indian beauty,” 82.

  22. Brown's note to III.v.35-36.

  23. See the chapter “Syphilis and the Power of Virgins,” in Winfried Schleiner, Medical Ethics in the Renaissance (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown Univ. Press: 1995), 186-202.

  24. Ercole Sassonia, Luis venereae perfectissimus tractatus, c. 37, fol. 40 (Patavii, 1597), quoted in Schleiner, 201 n. 58: “Sciendum autem est, quod habui a quibusdam expertis Venetis; Dicunt se a Gonorrhaea statim curatos usu Veneris cum muliere Aethiope. Experimentum est verum, et videtur posse confirmari ex Scaligero exercitatione 180. cap. 18. qui scribit Affros a Lue Venerea curari, dum in Numidiam, et Aethiopiam sucedunt. Haec quoque scio, si tamen literis consignam licet antiqua gonorrhaea plures fuisse liberatos, qui cum uxore Virgine rem habuerunt, sed mulier inficitur.”

  25. See the discussion of Giovanni Battista Sitoni and Paolo Zacchia in Schleiner, 190-93.

  26. Julius Caesar Scaliger, Exoticarum exercitationum liber XV de subtilitate, exercitatio 181, c. 19 (Hannover, 1620), quoted in Schleiner, 201 n. 59: “Qui eo laborant, si in Numidiam aut Nigriticam sese conferant Aethiopiam, solius Caeli beneficia, sine ullis medicamentis convalescere” (p. 563).

  27. Ioannes Leo Africanus, De totius Africae desciptione libri IX (Antverp, 1556), 33, chapter titled “Morborum, quibus afficiuntur Africani, genera.” For an English translation, see Leo Africanus, A Geographical Historie of Africa, trans. John Pory (London, 1601); see also Oumelbanine Zhiri, L'Afrique au miroir de l'Europe: Les fortunes de Jean Léon Africain à la Renaissance (Geneva: Droz, 1991); and Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economics of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1995).

  28. Emily C. Bartels, Spectacles of Strangeness: Imperialism, Alienation and Marlowe (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Univ. Press, 1993), 9.

  29. Andrew Willet, Judaeorum Vocatione (Cambridge: 1590), quoted in James Shapiro's excellent chapter “Race, Nation, or Alien?” in Shakespeare and the Jews (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1996), 168.

  30. Dennis Todd, Imagining Monsters: Miscreations of the Self in Eighteenth-Century England (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995), 8.

Further Reading

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Anderson, Douglas. “The Old Testament Presence in The Merchant of Venice.ELH 52, no. 1 (spring 1985): 119-32.

Contends that Shakespeare's depiction and understanding of forgiveness in The Merchant of Venice is modeled on Shylock's faith.

Barthelemy, Anthony G. “Luxury, Sodomy and Miscegenation: English Perceptions of Venice in The Merchant of Venice.” In Shakespeare and Intertextuality: The Transition of Cultures Between Italy and England in the Early Modern Period, edited by Michele Marrapodi, pp. 165-77. Rome: Bulzoni, 2000.

Examines the ways in which The Merchant of Venice explores sexual, racial, and religious otherness, arguing that Shakespeare's Venice is in some ways reflective of Elizabethan England.

Coolidge, John S. “Law and Love in The Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare Quarterly 27, no. 3 (summer 1976): 243-63.

Maintains that The Merchant of Venice may be interpreted as a hermeneutic play which represents the conflict between Christianity and Judaism for ownership of Hebrew scriptures.

Echeruo, Michael J. C. “Shylock and the ‘Conditioned Imagination’: A Reinterpretation.” Shakespeare Quarterly 22, no. 1 (winter 1971): 3-15.

Explores the influence of Marlowe's The Jew of Malta on The Merchant of Venice, and suggests that an antecedent tradition, such as Il Pecorone, influenced both dramatists.

Holderness, Graham. “Comedy and The Merchant of Venice.” In New Casebooks: The Merchant of Venice, 1993. Reprint, edited by Martin Coyle, pp. 23-35. London: Macmillan, 1998.

Studies the play's resistance to generic classification and underscores its comic aspects.

Sokol, B. J. “Prejudice and Law in The Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare Survey 51 (1998): 159-73.

Examines The Merchant of Venice from the perspective of legal history, and asserts that the play depicts ironic portrayals of social prejudice—images which were offensive in terms of Elizabethan notions of decency and fairness.

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