The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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The Pound of Flesh

James Shapiro, Columbia University

What a matter were it then if I should cut of his privy members, supposing that the same would altogether weigh a just pound?—spoken by the Jew in the English translation of Alexander Sihayn's The Orator, 1596

I hope I shall never be so stupid as to be circumcised. I would rather cut off the left breast of my Catherine and of all women.—Martin Luther, c. 1540

Perhaps the least explicable feature of the ritual murder accusations was the charge that Jews first circumcised their victims before killing them. In some ways it must have made perfectly good sense. After all, it was well known that Jews circumcised young boys, and it was not all that difficult to imagine this practice as part of a more complex and secretive Jewish ritual ending in human sacrifice. In other ways, however, it made no sense at all, for as Menasseh ben Israel justifiably wondered, "to what end he was first circumcised" if "it was intended that shortly after this child should be crucified?" The confusion is understandable, since the ritual significance of what is described in the Bible as cutting the "foreskin" of the "flesh" remains poorly understood even by Jews and other peoples who have long practiced this rite. In the twentieth century we stand doubly removed from appreciating the effect of circumcision upon cultural identity. Even as circumcision is now routinely practiced in Western cultures for hygienic and aesthetic reasons, an awareness of its symbolic meanings (aside from psychoanalytic ones) has been virtually lost. Current debate about circumcision has focused almost exclusively on the pain it might cause the child, or on its effects upon reducing the spread of certain diseases. A very different situation prevailed in early modern Europe, where there was an intense curiosity about the often unnerving implications of a ritual bound up with theological, racial, genealogical, and sexual concerns. I am interested here not only in restoring a sense of the fascination and importance circumcision held for Elizabethans but also in arguing that an occluded threat of circumcision informs Shylock's desire to cut a pound of Antonio's flesh. Before turning to the presence of circumcision in The Merchant of Venice and its sources, it is important to consider what this ritual might have meant to Elizabethans, what their understanding of it was based on, and what light this casts on their cultural beliefs.

I. Elizabethan ideas about circumcision

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In the twentieth century circumcision has often been described as a symbolic form of castration or emasculation. This association has undoubtedly been influenced by the theories of Sigmund Freud, who, in an argument that bears a striking resemblance to Maria Edgeworth's ideas about childhood trauma and the wellsprings of anti-Jewish feelings, writes in Little Hans that the "castration complex is the deepest unconscious root of anti-semitism; for even in the nursery little boys hear that a Jew has something cut off his penis—a piece of his penis, they think—and this gives them a right to despise Jews. And there is no stronger unconscious root for the sensse of superiority over women."1 For Frued, the symbolic act of circumcision proves a vital source of both misogyny and antisemitism.2 The notion that circumcision could easily slide into the more definitive cut of castration did not originate with Freud and in fact had long circulated in English culture. D'Blossiers Tovey, in his account of instances in medieval England in which Jews were charged with being "emasculators," cites a case from the reign of King John in which "Bonefand a Jew of Bedford was indicated not for...

(This entire section contains 1532 words.)

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circumcising, but totally cutting off the privy member" of a boy named Richard.3 And Shakespeare's contemporaries used circumcision as a metaphor for castration: the poet Gabriel Harvey, for example, implores God to "circumcise the tongues and pens" of his enemies.4

For early modern English writers, though, the threat of circumcision did not begin and end with emasculation. In the sixteenth century circumcision was more than a cut, it was an unmistakable sign. But of what, exactly? When the Elizabethan preacher Andrew Willet tried to answer this question he found himself describing circumcision as not only a "a sign of remembrance or commemoration of the Covenant … made between God and Abraham" but also as a sign "distinguishing the Hebrews from all other people." To this genealogical, Jewish association, he added a few more that are distinctly Christian: circumcision prefigured "baptism" and demonstrated "the natural disease of man, even original sin."5 To these Willet might have added yet another: that through circumcision, one "is … made a Jew,"6 a troubling thought for a Christian who might find himself threatened with such a cut.

One such individual was Thomas Coryate, the celebrated Elizabethan traveler. Coryate describes how his efforts to convert the Jews of the Venetian ghetto soured, leading him to flee from the hostile crowd. Though this specific detail is never mentioned in the narrative itself, a picture of Coryate pursued by a knife-wielding Jew is included in a series of scenes illustrating the title page of his travel book, Coryats Crudities.7 For those who wrote commendatory poems to Coryate's book—including Laurence Whitaker—this Jew threatens not death but circumcision: "Thy courtesan clipped thee, 'ware Tom, I advise thee, / And fly from the Jews, lest they circumcise thee." Hugh Holland, too, draws attention to the danger to Coryate's foreskin: "Ulysses heard no Syren sing: nor Coryate / The Jew, least his prepuce might prove excoriate." Coryate's conversionary effort backfires, and instead of turning Jews into Christians he finds himself in danger of being religiously transfigured by means of a circumcising cut.8 Holland, comparing Coryate to Hugh Broughton, the evangelizing Elizabethan Hebraist, makes this symmetrical relationship between baptism and circumcision explicit:

He more prevailed against the excoriate Jews Than Broughton could, or twenty more such  Hughs. And yet but for one petty poor misprision, He was nigh made one of the circumcision.9

With the exception of a handful of infants circumcised by the radical Puritan group led by John Traske around 1620, and a few self-circumcisors like Thomas Tany and Thomas Ramsey thirty years later, there is no evidence that circumcisions took place in early modern England. Nonetheless, the same post-Reformation interest that led to this Judaizing impulse also inspired a broader curiosity about a ritual not only central to the Old Testament accounts of the patriarchs but also crucial to the theological position maintained by the apostle Paul in that central text of the Protestant Reformation, Epistle to the Romans. One result of this new interest was that English travelers eagerly sought out invitations to circumcisions and recorded what they witnessed for the benefit of their contemporaries. As noted earlier, the resilient Coryate, who in the course of his extensive travels had long desired to observe a circumcision, finally had his wish granted in Constantinople, at the "house of a certain English Jew called Amis" [i.e., Ames]. The fact that Ames and his two sisters spoke English no doubt made it easier for Coryate to have various details of the ritual explained to him. Coryate describes how the Jews

came into the room and sung certain Hebrew songs, after which the child was brought to his father, who sat down in a chair and placed the child being now eight days old in his lap. The whole company being desirous that we Christians should observe the ceremony, called us to approach near to the child. And when we came, a certain other Jew drawing forth a little instrument made not unlike those small scissors that our ladies and gentlewomen do much use, did with the same cut off the prepuce or foreskin of the child, and after a very strange manner, unused (I believe) of the ancient Hebrews, did put his mouth to the child's yard, and sucked up the blood.10

English observers were particularly struck by how the rite symbolically enacted the male child's passage from his mother to the community of men.11 Coryate observes that at the conclusion of the rite, the "prepuce that was cut off was carried to the mother, who keepeth it very preciously as a thing of worth," and Fynes Moryson, describing a circumcision he had witnessed in Prague, was alert to the fact that women were "not permitted to enter" the room and that they "delivered the child to the father" at the door. Like Coryate, Moryson records his surprise at witnessing another practice for which Scripture had offered no precedent, metzitzah, the part of the ceremony in which the circumcisor sucks the blood from the glans of the circumcized "yard" or penis of the infant. Moryson writes that "the rabbi cut off his prepuce, and (with leave be it related for clearing of the ceremony) did with his mouth suck the blood of his privy part."12 Apparently, this innovative practice, introduced during the Talmudic period, though not universally practiced by Jews, must have seemed to these English observers to have sodomitical overtones.13

Coryate, Moryson, and other Elizabethan observers express surprise at the discrepancy between the ceremonies that they witnessed and that which they had expected to see based on the divinely ordained precepts set forth in the Bible.14 There was also disagreement over whether the Jews were the first people to have practiced circumcision. At stake in this debate was whether circumcision should be viewed as something peculiarly Jewish. On one side there were those like Samuel Purchas, who had read too many accounts from too many foreign lands to accept the argument that all peoples who practiced circumcision had learned this rite from the Jews. Purchas insisted that the "ceremony and custom of circumcision hath been and still is usual among many nations of whom there was never any Opposing suspicion from that they descended from the Israelites."15 Opposing this minority view were those like Andrew Willet, who maintained that "circumcision was a peculiar mark of distinction for the Hebrews" and further urged that "some nations among the Gentiles retained circumcision by an apish imitation of the Hebrews, but they did abuse it superstitiously and did not keep the rite of institution as the Lord had appointed it."16 Writers who sided with Willet's position used this as a basis for substantiating claims about the discovery of the ten lost tribes of Israel. When Thomas Thorowgood, for example, writes that "many Indian nations are of Judaical race," he offers as evidence that the "frequent and constant character of circumcision, so singularly fixed to the Jews, is to be found among them."17

While it was widely accepted that others—especially Turks—practiced circumcision, there was still considerable resistance to abandoning the idea that it was a distinctively Jewish rite. An unusual story regarding Turkish circumcision—and murder—made its way to England in February 1595 when John Barton, the English ambassador in Constantinople, forwarded to Lord Burghley a report describing the events surrounding the accession of the Turkish monarch Mohamet III. The narrative, written in Italian by a Jew named Don Solomon, describes how Mohamet consolidated his power by inviting his nineteen brothers, the eldest eleven years old, to greet him: Mohamet "told them not to fear, he meant no harm to them but only to have them circumcised according to their custom.… As soon as they kissed his hand, they were circumcised, taken aside by a mute, and dextrously strangled with handkerchiefs. This certainly seemed strange and cruel, but it was the custom of this realm."18 The story offers yet one more instance, in the year preceding the first staging of The Merchant, of the association of circumcision with ritualistic and surreptitious murder.

II. Romans and the theological meanings of circumcision

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This unprecedented interest in the physical act of circumcision was directly related to some of the theological preoccupations of post-Reformation England. Elizabethans knew that circumcision had caused something of an identity crisis for early Christians, especially Paul. Paul, who was himself circumcised and had circumcised others,"19 directed his epistles to communities for whom to circumcise or not to circumcise was a matter of great concern. But Paul's remarks on circumcision went well beyond approving or disapproving of the act itself: they offered a revolutionary challenge to what defined a Jew, and by implication, a Christian. Luther and Calvin both devoted themselves to explicating Paul's often cryptic remarks on circumcision, and a host of English translators, commentators, theologians, and preachers enabled the widespread circulation of these interpretations to the broadest community possible. More than anything else in the late sixteenth century—including firsthand reports like the ones described above—Paul's ideas about circumcision saturated what Shakespeare's contemporaries thought, wrote, and heard about circumcision. At times confusing and even contradictory, Paul's remarks, and the extraordinary commentary produced to explain and resolve various ambiguities contained in them, had an immeasurable impact on Elizabethan conceptions of Jews. This body of commentary, much of it gathering dust in a handful of archives, richly repays close examination.

The first problem confronting a Christian explicator of Paul's Romans was a fairly simple one. Since God had first ordered Abraham to undertake circumcision as a sign of the Covenant, what justified abandoning this practice? And what were the consequences of such a break? The immediate answer was that the Jews had misunderstood that this Covenant, like the Law, was not changed or abolished by Jesus, "but more plainly expounded … and fulfilled." "Surely," Philippe de Mornay wrote, in a text translated by Sir Philip Sidney, "in this point… we [Christians] be flat contrary to them." And sounding a bit like a modern deconstructive critic, Mornay adds, that the "thing which doth always deceive" the Jews is that "they take the sign for the thing signified," since circumcision was merely a "sign or seal of the Covenant, and not the Covenant itself."20

For John Calvin, the "disputation and controversy" over circumcision similarly masked a more consequential debate over "the ceremonies of the Law," which Paul "comprehendeth here under the particular term of circumcision." By equating circumcision with the Law and its supersession by faith, English Protestants drew an analogy between Paul's rejection of circumcision and their own repudiation of Catholicism's emphasis on justification through good works: it is "not circumcision, but faith [that] makes us wait for the hope of righteousness; therefore not circumcision but faith justifies."21 Calvin's interpretation of Paul had made it clear that "circumcision" had lost its "worth,"22 having been replaced by the sacrament of baptism. No longer even "a sign," it was "a thing without any use."23

But such an outright rejection of circumcision seemingly contradicted Paul's own assertion that "circumcision verily is profitable, if thou do the Law."24 Confronted with such a claim, commentators had to work hard to show that Paul's words actually meant quite the opposite of what literalists might mistakenly imagine. In order to achieve this end, the gloss to the Geneva Bible takes Paul's wonderfully concise and epigrammatic phrase and turns it into a ponderous argument: "The outward circumcision, if it be separated from the inward, doeth not only not justify, but also condemn them that are circumcised, of whom indeed it requireth that, which it signifieth, that is to say, cleanness of heart and the whole life, according to the commandment of the Law."25

The commentator's overreading is enabled by the fact that Paul in the verses that follow introduces a crucial distinction between inward and outward circumcision. It is a distinction central to his redefinition of Jewish identity in a world in which circumcision has been superseded: "He is not a Jew which is one outward, neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew which is one within, and the circumcision is of the heart, in the spirit, not in the letter, whose praise is not of men, but of God."26 Paul here attacks Jewish identity at its genealogical root.27 If he can deny that outward alone defines the Jew from generation to generation, he can insist on a figurative reading of the Law in all other matters as well. For Joseph Hall, Paul's message is unambiguous: "He that would be a true Israelite or Jew indeed must be such inwardly" and must be "cleansed from all corrupt affections and greed." More-over, this "circumcision must be inwardly in the heart and soul and spirit (in cutting off the unclean foreskin thereof) and not a literal and outward circumcision of the flesh."28

Before turning to the symbolic circumcision of the heart touched on here by Paul and his explicators—the most striking feature of his argument and the most relevant to a reading of The Merchant of Venice—it is important first to emphasize that Paul and his followers were reluctant to abandon the outward, physical implications of trimming the foreskin, in part because this surgical act so perfectly symbolized the cutting off of sexual desire. Andrew Willet, drawing on the work of Origen, remarks that even if "there had been no other mystery in circumcision, it was fit that the people of God should carry some badge or cognizance to discern them from other people. And if the amputation or cutting off some part of the body were requisite, what part was more fit then that … which seemed to be obscene?"29 The gloss to the Geneva Bible reads this puritanical perspective back into Genesis 17.11, explaining there that the "privy part is circumcised to show that all that is begotten of man is corrupt and must be mortified." And the 1591 Bishops' Bible similarly stresses the connection between circumcision and the curbing of sexual desire, explaining that Deuteronomy 30.6—"And the Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart"—means that God will "cut away thy ungodly lusts and affections." These commentaries effectively rewrite Old Testament allusions to circumcision, infusing them with Paul's deep discomfort with human sexuality.30

John Donne was particularly drawn to this line of thought. In his New Year's Day sermon preached in 1624 commemorating the Feast of the Circumcision, Donne imagines himself in Abraham's place after having been commanded by the Lord to circumcise himself and all the men in his household. Given that it was to be done "in that part of the body," Donne surmises that this command must have struck Abraham as too "obscene a thing to be brought into the fancy of so many women, so many young men, so many strangers to other nations, as might bring the promise and Covenant itself into scorn and into suspicion." Why, Abraham must have wondered, "does God command me so base and unclean a thing, so scornful and misinterpretable a thing, as circumcision, and circumcision in that part of the body?" The answer, of course, is that in "this rebellious part is the root of all sin." The privy member "need[s] this stigmatical mark of circumcision to be imprinted upon it" to prevent Abraham's descendants from "degenerat[ing] from the nobility of their race."31 Willet, Donne, and like-minded commentators never quite acknowledge that insofar as the cutting off of the foreskin effectively subdues that rebellious and sinful part of men's bodies, circumcision once again veers perilously close to the idea of a (partial) sexual castration and emasculation.

It was also clear to Christian theologians that for the Jews who literally circumcised the flesh, the Covenant could only be transmitted through men.32 This helps explain why Jewish daughters like Jessica in The Merchant of Venice and Abigail in The Jew of Malta can so easily cross the religious boundaries that divide their stigmatized fathers from the dominant Christian community. The religious difference of Jewish women is not usually imagined as physically inscribed in their flesh, and the possibility of identifying women as Jews through some kind of incision never took hold in England, though for a brief time in the fifteenth century in northern Italy the requirement that Jewish women have their ears pierced and wear earrings served precisely this function. In her investigation of this sumptuary tradition, Diane Owen Hughes cites the Franciscan preacher Giacomo della Marca, who in an advent sermon said that earrings are jewels "that Jewish women wear in place of circumcision, so that they can be distinguished from other [i.e., Christian] women."33 One wonders whether Pauline ideas about circumcising desire also shaped this bizarre proposal. Though this method of marking Jewish women was shortlived (other women also wanted to wear earrings) and apparently not widespread, a trace of it may possibly be found in The Merchant of Venice, when Shylock, upon hearing that Jessica has not only left him but also taken his money and jewels, exclaims: "Two thousand ducats in that and other precious, precious jewels. I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear!"34 Shylock fantasizes that his converted daughter returns, and through her earring is reinscribed at last as a circumcised Jewess.

The problems that circumcision raise for issues of gender and sexuality persist into our own more secular age. To cite an unfortunate instance of this, modern medicine, when confronted with the extremely rare cases of botched circumcisions, has found it advisable to alter the gender of the child by reconstructing female rather than male genitalia.35 Does this procedure confirm the kind of anxieties we have been exploring about the underlying castrating and feminizing threat of circumcision? Or does it suggest that doctors are perhaps so influenced by such deeply embedded cultural beliefs as to translate them into scientific practice? In either case it underscores how provisional the assignment of gender is, a point familiar enough to Shakespeare's audiences confronted in The Merchant with cross-dressing women and a hero who describes himself as a "tainted wether," or castrated ram. Circumcision, then, was an extraordinarily powerful signifier, one that not only touched on issues of identity that ranged from the sexual to the theological but, often enough, on the intersection of the two. The threat of Shylock's cut was complex, resonant, and unusually terrifying.

II Circumcision in the sources of The Merchant

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The foregoing analysis may help explain why The Merchant of Venice, more than any other depiction of Jews in this period, has continued to provoke such controversy and has also continued to stir long-buried prejudices against the Jews. I want to be careful here about being misunderstood. I am not proposing that Shakespeare is antisemitic (or, for that matter, philosemitic). The Merchant of Venice is a play, a work of fiction, not a diary or a polygraph test; since no one knows what Shakespeare personally thought about Jews, readers will continue to make up their own minds about this question. The Merchant of Venice is thus not "about" ritual murder or a veiled circumcising threat any more than it is about usury, or marriage, or homosocial bonding, or mercy, or Venetian trade, or cross-dressing, or the many other social currents that run through this and every other one of Shakespeare's plays. Plays, unlike sermons, are not reducible to one lesson or another, nor do they gain their resonance from being about a recognizable central theme. Surely, in the hands of a talented dramatist, the less easily definable the social and psychological currents a play explores, the greater its potential to haunt and disturb. We return again and again to Shakespeare's plays because they seem to operate in these depths and tap into the roots of social contradictions on a stunningly regular basis, leaving critics with the task of trying to explain exactly what these are and how Shakespeare's plays engage them. With this in mind, I offer the following interpretation of the pound of flesh plot.

Those watching or reading The Merchant of Venice are often curious about what part of Antonio's body Shy-lock has in mind when they learn of Shylock's desire to exact "an equal pound" of Antonio's "fair flesh, to be cut off and taken" in that "part" of his body that "pleaseth" the Jew. Those all too familiar with the plot may forget that it is not until the trial scene in act 4 that this riddle is solved and we learn that Shylock to intends to cut from Antonio's "Breast" near his heart.36 Or partially solved. Why, one wonders, is Antonio's breast the spot most pleasing to Shylock? And why, for the sake of accuracy, wouldn't Shylock cut out rather than "cut off a pound of flesh if it were to come from "nearest" Antonio's "heart"? Moreover, why don't we learn of this crucial detail until Shylock's final appearance in the play?

It is not immediately clear how for an Elizabethan audience an allusion to a Jew cutting off a man's "fair flesh" would invoke images of a threat to the victim's heart, especially when one calls to mind the identification of Jews as circumcisors and emasculators. On a philological level, too, the choice of the word flesh here carries with it the strong possibility that Shylock has a different part of Antonio's anatomy in mind. In the late sixteenth century the word flesh was consistently used, especially in the Bible, in place of penis. Readers of the Geneva Bible would know from examples like Genesis 17.11 that God had commanded Abraham to "circumcise the foreskin of your flesh," and that discussions of sexuality and disease in Leviticus always use the word flesh when speaking of the penis.37

Not surprisingly, popular writers took advantage of the punning opportunities made available by this euphemism. Shortly before writing The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare himself had played on the sexual possibilities of flesh in Romeo and Juliet. In the opening scene of that play the servant Samson, boasting of his sexual prowess, tells Gregory: "Me [the maids] shall feel while I am able to stand, and 'tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh." Playing on the contrast between erect flesh and flaccid fish, Gregory responds: '"Tis well thou art not fish." Mercutio returns to the same tired joke about the loss of tumescence when he says of Romeo's melancholy: "O flesh, flesh, how art thou fishified."38The Merchant of Venice is similarly replete with bad jokes about trimmed male genitals. As noted above, Antonio in the court scene speaks of himself as "a tainted wether" best suited to suffer the exaction of Shylock's cut.39 In addition, Salerio's jibe about Jessica having Shylock's "stones," that is, testicles, "upon her" and Gratiano's tasteless joke about "mar[ring] the young clerk's pen" (i.e., penis) offer two other instances from the play of men's obsessive anxiety about castrating cuts.40 It should also be noted that in Elizabethan England such a cut was not merely the stuff of jokes. As a deterrent to crime, convicted male felons were told at their sentencing to prepare to be "hanged by the neck, and being alive cut down, and your privy members to be cut off, and your bowels to be taken out of your belly and there burned, you being alive."41

Scholars have long recognized that Shakespeare drew upon a well established tradition in his retelling the story of the pound of flesh. Among the printed sources Shakespeare may have looked at were Giovanni Fiorentino's Il Pecorone and Alexander Silvayn's The Orator. Other scholars have uncovered a range of analogues and antecedents, including popular English ballads like "Gernatus the Jew" and medieval works like the Cursor Mundi that bear a strong resemblance to Shakespeare's plot. Surprisingly little attention has been paid, however, to what part of the body the pound of flesh is taken from in these sources and analogues. In fact, when Shakespeare came to one of the main sources that we are pretty confident he consulted, Silvayn's The Orator, he would have read about a Jew who wonders if he "should cut of his [Christian victim's] privy members, supposing that the same would altogether weigh a just pound?" Before turning to this story and its curious reception, I want to consider another first, one that is even more revealing about the significance of the pound of flesh: Gregorio Leti's The Life of Pope Sixtus the Fifth.

Leti was a popular Italian historian, born in the early seventeenth century, who left Italy and took up residence in Northern Europe after converting to Protestantism. For a brief period in the early 1680s he lived and wrote in England. Although there are no recorded performances of The Merchant of Venice during his stay there, Leti may well have become familiar with the printed text of Shakespeare's play in the course of the extensive research he undertook on Elizabethan England.42 The earliest edition of his biography of Sixtus V, first published in Lausanne in 1669, omits any reference to the celebrated pound of flesh story; the anecdote was only introduced in the revised version, published in Amsterdam after Leti's visit to England,43 which may suggest that Leti drew on English sources for this addition.

After 1754, when Ellis Farneworth translated Leti's story,44 those unable to read the Italian original could learn how in the days of Queen Elizabeth I it was "reported in Rome" that the great English naval hero, Sir Francis Drake, "had taken and plundered St. Domingo, in Hispaniola, and carried off an immense booty. This account came in a private letter to Paul Secchi, a very considerable merchant in the city, who had large concerns in those parts, which he had insured." Leti then relates that Secchi then "sent for the insurer, Sampson Ceneda, a Jew, and acquainted him with it. The Jew, whose interest it was to have such a report thought false, gave many reasons why it could not possibly be true; and, at last, worked himself up into such a passion, that he said, "'I'll lay you a pound of my flesh it is a lie.'" Secchi replied, "If you like it, I'll lay you a thousand crowns against a pound of your flesh, that it's true." The Jew accepted the wager, and articles were immediately executed betwixt them, the substance of which was "that if Secchi won, he should himself cut the flesh, with a sharp knife, from whatever part of the Jew's body he pleased."

Leti then relates that "the truth of the account" of Drake's attack "was soon after confirmed by other advices from the West Indies," which threw the Jew "almost into distraction, especially when he was informed that Secchi had solemnly sworn [that] he would compel him to the exact literal performance of his contract, and was determined to cut a pound of flesh from that part of his body which it is not necessary to mention." We move here from a cut "from whatever part of the Jew's body he pleased" to the more precisely defined "part of his body which it is not necessary to mention." The original Italian version conveys even more strongly a sense that only modesty prevents specifying that Secchi's intended cut will come from the unmentionable genitals of the Jew ("e che la modestia non vuo che io nomine").45 The circumcised Jew faces a bit more surgery than he reckoned for.

The rest of the story should be familiar to anyone who has read Shakespeare's play, except, of course, that this time it is the Christian who is intent on cutting the flesh of the Jew. The Governor of Rome referred the tricky case to the authority of Pope Sixtus V, who tells Secchi that he must fulfill the contract and "cut a pound of flesh from any part you please, of the Jew's body. We would advise you, however, to be very careful; for if you cut but a scruple, or a grain, more or less than your due, you shall certainly be hanged. Go, and bring hither a knife and a pair of scales, and let it be done in our presence." This verdict led both Secchi and the Jew to agree to tear up the contract, though the affair was not fully settled until Sixtus V fined both of them harshly to serve as an example to others.46

Farneworth, in a note appended to his translation, states the obvious: the "scene betwixt Shylock and Antonio in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice seems to be borrowed from this story, though the poet has inverted the persons and decently enough altered some of the circumstances."47 Farneworth's comment that Shakespeare "decently enough … altered some of the circumstances" presumably alludes to the threatened castration of the Jew. And while we don't know why Leti in the version of the story has "inverted the persons," there is little likelihood that he did it out of love of the Jews. In his book on Great Britain published in England shortly before his departure, Leti reveals his familiarity with London Jewry, describes the services at the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London in somewhat mocking terms, and makes fun of the ridiculous gestures of the Jewish worshippers.48 We can only speculate about the original source of Leti's seventeenth-century story. Did it antedate Shakespeare's play, and was Shakespeare familiar with versions in which the Jew was the victim? Or did it emerge out of a tradition that was itself influenced by The Merchant of Venice? Did turning the tables and having the Christians threaten to castrate or symbolically recircumcise the Jew ultimately prove more satisfying to Christian readers?

Farneworth's translation of Leti's story made a strong impression on eighteenth-century English interpreters of The Merchant of Venice. Edmond Malone reproduced this passage in his influential edition of Shakespeare's works in 1790,49 and David Erskine Baker, though he does not acknowledge his source, wrote that Shakespeare's story "is built on a real fact which happened in some part of Italy, with this difference indeed, that the intended cruelty was really on the side of the Christian, the Jew being the happy delinquent who fell beneath his rigid and barbarous resentment." Tellingly, he adds that "popular prejudice, however, vindicates our author in the alteration he had made. And the delightful manner in which he has availed himself of the general character of the Jews, the very quintessence of which he has enriched his Shylock with, makes more than amends for his deviating from a matter of fact which he was by no means obliged to adhere to."50 Again, we are left with a set of difficult choices: is it "popular prejudice" that "vindicates" Shakespeare reassigning the "intended cruelty" to Shylock? Or is it Shakespeare's play that by the late eighteenth-century is influential enough to perpetuate and channel this "popular prejudice"?

Familiarity with this inverted version of the pound of flesh story was given even broader circulation by Maria Edgeworth in her novel Harrington, where she allows the Jew, Mr. Montenero, to present what he believes to be the historically accurate version of the facts in his response to Harrington, who had recently attended a performance of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. Edgeworth, too, sees the issue of "popular prejudice" as a central one, and has Mr. Montenero politely acknowledge that while "as a dramatic poet, it was" Shakespeare's "business … to take advantage of the popular prejudice as a power," nonetheless "we Jews must feel it peculiarly hard, that the truth of the story should have been completely sacrificed to fiction, so that the characters were not only misrepresented, but reversed." Harrington "did not know to what Mr. Montenero meant to allude." He politely tried to "pass it off with a slight bow of general acquiescence," before Mr. Montenero went on to explain that in "the true story, from which Shakespeare took the plot of The Merchant of Venice, it was a Christian who acted the part of the Jew, and the Jew that of the Christian. It was a Christian who insisted upon having the pound of flesh from next the Jew's heart." Seeing how struck Harrington is by this revelation, Mr. Montenero magnanimously offers that "perhaps his was only the Jewish version of the story, and he quickly went on to another subject." Edgeworth adds her own authority to Montenero's when she provides a footnote to the words "true story" directing readers to "Steevens' Life of Sixtus V and Malone's Shakespeare," where the Farne-worth translation appears. Strikingly, though, at the very moment that she insists on the original version, Edgeworth herself either misremembers or swerves away from a key features of Leti's "true story" in favor of Shakespeare's version of the events when she substitutes the words "having the pound of flesh from next the Jew's heart" for Farneworth's translation of Leti's original: "from that part of his body which it is not necessary to mention."51

Once nineteenth-century Shakespearean source-hunters like Francis Douce and James Orchard Halliwell-Phil-lipps pointed out that Leti's version could not have antedated Shakespeare's play, and, moreover, that this episode in Sixtus V's life was probably fictional, interest in Leti's narrative rapidly declined. H. H. Furness, in his still influential variorum edition of The Merchant of Venice, includes Farneworth's translation but then invokes the authority of those who dismiss it as a source. And though he quotes Farneworth's observation that Shakespeare's plot "is taken from this incident," he cuts off the quotation at the point where it leads Farneworth to point out that Shakespeare has also made the Jew the victim and left out indecent details.52 Interest in pure sources—rather than near contemporary versions that might cast light on various aspects of the story—has been influential enough in Shakespeare studies in this century to account for the virtual disappearance of Leti's story from editions or even from collections of Shakespeare's sources.53 Nowadays, Leti's version is no longer cited, mentioned, or even known to most Shakespeareans.

When we turn to Alexander Silvayn's The Orator, which these same source-hunters agree is one of Shakespeare's primary sources for the pound of flesh plot, we find a clear precedent for the argument that a Jew considers the possibility of castrating the Christian. The ninety-fifth declamation of The Orator, translated into English in 1596 shortly before the composition of The Merchant, describes "a Jew, who would for his debt have a pound of the flesh of a christian."54 In his appeal to the judge's sentence that he "cut a just judge's to the pound of the Christian flesh, and if he cut either more or less, then his own head should be smitten off," the Jew insists that in the original agreement the Christian was to hand over the said pound:

Neither am I to take that which he oweth me, but he is to deliver it me. And especially because no man knoweth better than he where the same may be spared to the least hurt of his person, for I might take it in such a place as he might thereby happen to lose his life. What a matter were it then if I should cut of his privy members, supposing that the same would altogether weigh a just pound?55

While Shakespeare's eighteenth-century editors included this source in unadulterated form,56 a century later it would be partially suppressed, apparently proving too obscene for Furness to reprint in unexpurgated form. In a strange act of textual castration and substitution, Furness alters the line to read "what a matter were it then, if I should cut of his [head], supposing that the same would weigh a just pound."57 This makes little sense, no matter how light-headed the victim might be, since in the next sentence the Jew continues, "Or else his head, should I be suffered to cut it off, although it were with the danger of mine own life,"58 and in the sentence after that wonders if his victim's "nose, lips, his ears, and.… eyes … make of them altogether a pound."59 Furness's textual intervention immediately influenced subsequent editions of the play; a year after his edition was published, for example, Homer B. Sprague wrote "head" (without brackets) in his popular school edition of the play.60 The bowdlerization of this source, and the lack of interest in Leti, have effectively deflected critical attention away from aspects of the play that touch upon ritual Jewish practices.

III. The circumcision of the heart

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     Why this bond is forfeit, And lawfully by this the Jew may claim A pound of flesh, to be by him cut off Nearest the merchant's heart.—The Merchant of Venice, 4.1.227-30

When Paul declares that "the circumcision is of the heart" and is "in the spirit, not in the letter," we are presented with a double displacement: of the physical by the spiritual and of the circumcision of the flesh by the circumcision of the heart. Elizabethan commentators were well aware that Paul's metaphorical treatment of circumcision builds upon a preexisting tradition in the Old Testament, expressed particularly in Deuteronomy 10.16 and 30.6: "Circumcise the foreskin of your heart," and "The Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart."61 Mornay, in Sidney's translation, also notes that when the Old Testament prophets "rebuke us, they call us not simply uncircumcised, but uncircumcised of heart or lips,"62 and Peter Martyr simply confirms that "Paul borrowed" this "phrase touching the circumcision of the heart … out of the Old Testament."63

Hugo Grotius understood that this substitution of heart for flesh neatly defined the relationship between Christian fellowship and the genealogical Judaism it replaced, since the Covenant "should be common to all people." He even argued that the Old Testament prophets recognized this "mystical and more excellent signification contained" in "the precept of circumcision," since they in fact "command the circumcision of the heart, which all the commandments of Jesus aim at."64 John Donne is particularly eloquent on this symbolic displacement: "The principal dignity of this circumcision was that it … prefigured, it directed to that circumcision of the heart." For Donne, "Jewish circumcision were an absurd and unreasonable thing if it did not intimate and figure the circumcision of the heart."65

The unexplained displacement of Shylock's cut from Antonio's "flesh" upward to his heart is now considerably clearer. Viewed in light of this familiar exegetical tradition, Shylock's decision to exact his pound of flesh from near Antonio's heart can be seen as the height of the literalism that informs all his actions in the play, a literalism that when imitated by Portia leads to his demise. Also echoing through the trial scene of The Merchant are the words of Galatians 6.13: "For they themselves which are circumcised keep not the Law, but desire to have you circumcised, that they might rejoice in your flesh," that is to say (as the gloss to this line in the Geneva Bible puts it), "that they have made you Jews." Shylock will cut his Christian adversary in that part of the body where the Christians believe themselves to be truly circumcised: the heart. Shylock's threat gives a wonderfully ironic twist to the commentary on Paul's Romans that "he is the Jew indeed … who cuts off all superfluities and pollutions which are spiritually though not literally meant by the law of circumcision."66 Psychoanalytically inclined readers will immediately recognize how closely the terms of this Pauline displacement correspond to the unconscious substitution central to Freud's secular theories. Theodore Reik, a disciple of Freud's, interpreted Shylock's bond in just these terms, arguing first that the "condition that he can cut a pound of flesh 'in what part of your body pleaseth me'" is "a substitute expression of castration." Reik adds that when it is later decided that "the cut should be made from the breast, analytic interpretation will easily understand the mechanism of distortion that operates here and displaces the performance from a part of the body below to above."67

In repudiating circumcision, [Paul] sought to redirect the Covenant, sever the genealogical bond of Judaism, distinguish Jew from Christian, true Jew from false Jew, and the spirit from the flesh (while retaining in a metaphorical sense the sexuality attendant on the flesh). Yet his actual remarks about circumcision are enigmatic and confusing. It is only mild consolation that they proved no less puzzling to the sixteenth-century theologians who tried to untangle the various levels of Paul's literal and symbolic displacements. Take, for example, the Geneva Bible's gloss to Romans, which reaches new depths of convolution in its attempt to iron out these difficulties by asserting that "Paul useth oftentimes to set the letter against the spirit. But in this place the circumcision which is according to the letter is the cutting off of the foreskin. But the circumcision of the spirit is the circumcision of the heart. That is to say, the spiritual end of the ceremony is true holiness and righteousness, whereby the people of God is known from profane and heathenish men." In their frustration, Paul's interpreters often turned against one another. Andrew Willet, for example, chastised Origen for misreading Paul and "thus distinguishing the circumcision of the flesh; that because there is some part of the flesh cut off and lost, some part remaineth still. The lost and cut off part (saith he) hath a resemblance of that flesh, whereof it is said, all flesh is grass. The other part which remaineth is a figure of that flesh, whereof the Scripture speaketh, all flesh shall see the salutation of God." Willet is sensitive to Origen's conflation of the two kinds of circumcision here, spiritual and fleshly—"Origen confoundeth the circumcision of the flesh and the spirit, making them all one"—but it is hard to see how to maintain hard and fast divisions when, on the one hand, commentators drive a wedge between the spiritual and the physical, while, on the other, they show how even in the Old Testament circumision was used both literally and metaphorically. For Willet, then, the correct interpretation, and one that seems to require a bit of mental gymnastics, requires that we think not of the circumcision of the flesh and the circumcision of the heart "as though there were two kinds of circumcisions" but as "two parts of one and the same circumcision which are sometimes joined together, both the inward and the outward."68

IV. Uncircumcision

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If the distinction between inward and outward circumcision were not confusing enough, Paul further complicated matters by introducing the concept of reverse, or uncircumcision. Even if a faithful Christian were circumcised in the heart, what if one's body still carried (as Paul's did) the stigmatical mark that revealed to the world that one was born a Jew? The seventeenth-century Scottish preacher John Weemse recognized that the early Christians were embarrassed by this Judaical scar: "When they were converted from Judaism to Christianity there were some of them so ashamed of their Judaism that they could not behold it; they took it as a blot to their Christianity."69 Uncircumcision, then, was the undoing of the seemingly irreversible physical act that had been accomplished through the observance of Jewish law, and it was a topic that Paul would return to obsessively (in large part because it was a pressing issue within the new Christian communities he was addressing). Paul asks in Romans "if the uncircumcision keep the ordinances of the Law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision? And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature (if it keep the Law) condemn thee, which by the letter and circumcision art a transgressor of the Law?"70 In Galatians he writes in a similar vein that "in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth anything" nor "uncircumcision, but faith, which worketh by love."71 His remarks in Corinthians on the irrelevance of this mark are even more forceful: "Is any man called being circumcised? Let him not gather his circumcision. Is any called uncircumcised? Let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God."72

Paul's shifts between literal and figurative uncircumcision in these key passages are dizzying, and the commentators had to scramble to keep up with him. Thomas Godwyn voices the question that must have been on many readers' minds: "Here it may be demanded how it is possible for a man, after once he hath been marked with the sign of circumcision, to blot out that character and become uncircumcised?"73 He is responding to Paul's warning that one should not "gather" or reverse one's circumcision. The gloss to this line in the Geneva Bible also takes Paul in the most literal sense imaginable, explaining that this "gathering" is accomplished with "the help of a surgeon" who undoes the effect of the cutting of the foreskin by "drawing the skin with an instrument, to make it to cover the nut" or glans of the penis. The Geneva Bible even directs readers to the medical source for this procedure, the seventh book of Celsus's De Medicina.74 Other writers explained that Paul forbids this literal uncircumcision in his letter to the Corinthians "because some that were converted to Christianity from Judaism did so renounce all their Judaical rites that they used means to attract the preputia again, which was an act of too much superstition and curiosity, and so is censured here."75 It also needs to be stressed here that uncircumcision, like circumcision, was understood by Paul's commentators to operate both spiritually and literally; Andrew Willet reminds his readers that "as there are two kinds of circumcision, so there is also a twofold uncircumcision, "an uncircumcision of the heart, and another of the flesh."

The belief that one could be uncircumcised, could have one's irreducible Jewish identity replaced with a Christian one, is also a fantasy that powerfully shapes the final confrontation between Shylock and Antonio in The Merchant of Venice. Antonio's consummate revenge upon his circumcised adversary, whose actions symbolically threaten to transform not just his physical but his religious identity, is to ask of the court a punishment that precisely reverses what Shylock had in mind for him. When Antonio demands that Shylock "presently become a Christian," a demand to which the Duke readily agrees, the "christ'ning" that Shylock is to receive will metaphorically uncircumcise him. The new covenant has superseded the old, as the sacrament of baptism, which has replaced circumcision, turns Jew into Christian.76 In his commentary on Romans Peter Martyr offers up a summary of Paul's treatment of the Jews that ironically foreshadows Antonio's victory over Shylock at the end of the trial scene: "In civil judgments, when any is to be condemned which is in any dignity or magistrateship, he is first deprived of his dignity or office, and then afterward condemned. So the apostle first depriveth the Jews of the true Jewishness, and of the true circumcision, and then afterward condemneth them."77

Antonio and Shylock, who fiercely insist on how different they are from each other, to the last seek out ways of preserving that difference through symbolic acts that convert their adversary into their own kind. Paradoxically, though, these symbolic acts—a threatened circumcision of the heart and a baptism that figuratively uncircumcises—would have the opposite effect, erasing, rather than preserving, the literal or figurative It is boundaries that distinguish merchant from Jew.78 It is just this fear of unexpected and unsatisfying transformation that makes The Merchant of Venice so unsettling a comedy, and that renders the even more deeply submerged and shadowy charge of ritual murder such a potent one. The desire to allay such fears produces a fantasy ending in which the circumcising Jew is metamorphosed through conversion into a gentle Christian. While this resolution can only be sustained through legal force in the play (Shylock's alternative, after all, is to be executed), its power was sufficiently strong for this spectacle of conversion to be reenacted in a number of English churches in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England, as a handful of Jews were led to the baptismal font.


Epigraph sources are as follows: Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1957-75), vol. 1, p. 483; and Leon Poliakov, A History of Anti-Semitism, 3 vols. (New York: Vanguard Press, 1974), vol. 1, p. 223. Poliakov does not provide the source of this quotation.

1 Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Works, trans. James Strachey et al., 24 vols. (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-1974), vol. 10, p. 36. See, too, his Leonardo da Vinci (1910), where Freud notes that "here we may also trace one of the roots of the anti-semitism which appears with such elemental force and finds such irrational explanation among the nations of the West." For Freud, "circumcision is unconsciously equated with castration. If we venture to carry our conjectures back to the primaeval days of the human race we can surmise that originally circumcision must have been a milder substitute, designed to take the place of castration" (vol. 11, p. 95). He added this footnote in 1919. In his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis he similarly writes that there "seems to me no doubt that the circumcision practiced by so many peoples is an equivalent and substitute for castration" (vol. 15, p. 165). Sander Gilman's penetrating studies—The Case of Sigmund Freud, and Freud, Race, and Gender (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993)—discuss in great detail the historical and medical issues that informed Freud's ideas about circumcision; see especially the chapter on "The Construction of the Male Jew" in Freud, Race, and Gender, pp. 49-92.

2 In Freud's own analysis of Shakespeare's play he avoids Jewish questions, focusing not on the pound of flesh plot but on the tale of the three caskets. Marjorie Garber, turning Freud's psychoanalytic approach against him, brilliantly argues that by "turning The Merchant of Venice into King Lear, Freud occludes Portia and her own scene of choice, when, dressed like a man, she chooses between two men, two symbolic castrates, Antonio the 'tainted wether of the flock' (4.1.114) and Shylock 'the circumcised Jew.'" Garber wonders whether Freud, by focusing on this issue, is able to avoid confronting his own patriarchy and misogyny by failing to address the more disturbing "problem of the two things he does not want to think of, the two last things that remain on the periphery of the essay on 'The Three Caskets,' discreetly offstage and off-page, the two figures central to The Merchant of Venice: the cross-dressed woman and the Jew?" (Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare's Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny Causality [New York: Methuen, 1987], p. 187, n. 63).

3 Tovey, Anglia Judaica, p. 65. Bonefand, we learn, "pleaded not guilty, and was very honourably acquitted," raising the interesting question of how, given the medical evidence, the case could ever have been successfully prosecuted.

4 Gabriel Harvey, Works, ed. Alexander Grosart, 3 vols. (London, 1884-1885), vol. 1, p. 203.

5 Andrew Willet, Hexapla: That Is, a Six-fold Commentarle Upon the Most Divine Epistle of the Holy Apostle S. Paul to the Romanes (Cambridge, 1611), p. 203.

6 As Purchas puts it in his Pilgrimage (1613), p. 158.

7 While this woodcut no doubt relates to his reputed escape from a crowd of hostile Venetian Jews whom he sought to convert, there is no evidence anywhere in Coryate's book that these Jews bore weapons against him. Coryate himself explains that "that some forty or fifty Jews more flocked about me, and some of them began very insolently to swagger with me, because I durst reprehend their religion. Whereupon fearing least they should have offered me some violence, I withdrew myself by little and little towards the bridge at the entrance into the ghetto" (Coryate, Coryats Crudities [London, 1611], pp. 236-37).

8 Coryate is subsequently imagined as facing the danger of circumcision in his travels through Islamic nations. A poem written in 1615 to Coryate by John Brown, an English merchant residing at the time in India, warns Coryate to "have a care (at Mecca is some danger) / Lest you incur the pain of circumcision." Coryate published the poem in his Thomas Coryate, Travailer … Greeting … from the Court of the Great Mogul (London, 1616), p. 34.

9 Coryate, Coryats Crudities, sigs. D7v, Elr, and A2r.

10 Coryate adds: "All his privities (before he came into the room) were besprinkled with a kind of powder, which after the circumcisor had done his business was blowed away by him, and another powder cast on immediately. After he had dispatched his work … he took a little strong wine that was held in a goblet by a fellow that stood near him, and poured it into the child's mouth to comfort him in the midst of his pains, who cried out very bitterly; the pain being for the time very bitter indeed, though it will be (as they told me) cured in the space of four and twenty hours. Those of any riper years that are circumcised (as it too often commeth to pass, that Christians that turn Turks) as at forty or fifty years of age, do suffer great pain for the space of a month" (Coryate, Coryate 's Crudities; Reprinted from the Edition of 1611. To Which Are Now Added, His Letters from India, vol. 3, sig. U7rU8v.

11 See Daniel Boyarin's essay in which he notes that "at a traditional circumcision ceremony the newly circumcised boy is addressed: 'And I say to you [feminine pronoun!]: in your [feminine] blood, you [feminine] shall live,'" and offers as a possible interpretation that "circumcision was understood somehow as rendering the male somewhat feminine," or alternatively, "that there is here an arrogation of a female symbol that makes it male, and that circumcision is a male erasure of the female role in procreation as well" (Boyarin, '"This We Know to Be the Carnal Israel': Circumcision and the Erotic Life of God and Israel," Critical Inquiry 19 [1992], p. 496, and n. 64).

12 Charles Hughes, ed., Shakespeare's Europe: Unpublished Chapters of Fynes Moryson's Itinerary, 2 vols. (London: Sherrat and Hughes, 1903), vol. 2, pp. 494-95.

13 Cf. John Evelyn, who reports in his diary entry for January 15, 1645, in Rome, that when "the circumcision was done the priest sucked the child's penis with his mouth" (as cited in A. Cohen, An Anglo-Jewish Scrapbook, 1600-1840 [London: M. L. Cailingold, 1943], p. 292). Charles Weiss notes that metzitzah "was probably introduced during the talmudic period," and that "its practice never became universal" ("A World-wide Survey of the Current Practice of Milah [Ritual Circumcision]," Jewish Social Studies 24 [1962], p. 31). See too Bernard Homa, Metzitzah (2d ed., London, n.p., 1966), where the relevant Midrashic texts that are the source of the authority for this practice are cited. Michel de Montaigne also found an opportunity to observe and describe "the most ancient religious ceremony there is among men," which he "watched … very attentively and with great profit." He too was struck by the practice of metzitzah: "As soon as this glans is thus uncovered, they hastily offer some wine to the minister, who puts a little in his mouth and then goes and sucks the glans of this child, all bloody, and spits out the blood he has drawn from it, and immediately takes as much wine again, up to three times." After bandaging the child, the "minister" is given "a glass full of wine.… He takes a swallow of it, and then dipping his finger in it he three times takes a drop of it with his finger to the boy's mouth to be sucked.… He meanwhile still hath his mouth all bloody" (Michel de Montaigne, Montaigne's Travel Journal, trans. Donald M. Frame [San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983], pp. 81-82. The event was recorded by one of Montaigne's servants, assigned to compile the journal).

14 The Bible also failed to prepare English travelers for what they would witness in Africa: female "circumcision." Samuel Purchas, anticipating the skepticism of his readers, writes of one of the voyages into Ethiopia: "Let no man marvel which heareth this, for they circumcise women as well as men, which thing was not used in the old Law." He also notes that both in Cairo and "Abassine" they "circumcise not only males, but with a peculiar rite females also" (Purchas, Pilgrimage, pp. 1040, 841, and 1134). The Islamic practice of delaying circumcision until sexual maturity struck Elizabethan writers, versed in a scriptural tradition of circumcision occurring on the eighth day, as unusual. Richard Jobson's description of his trip to "Gambra" in 1620, provided readers in England with considerable details of the practice—locally known as the "cutting of pricks"—experienced by brave adolescent boys in Africa: "Hither we came in season for that solemnity, hearing before we came, shouts, drums and country music. The boy knew the meaning, and told us it was for cutting of pricks, a world of people being gather[ed] for that purpose, like an English fair.… We saw our black boy circumcised, not by a marybuck [that is, a priest], but an ordinary fellow hackling off with a knife at three cuts his praepuce, holding his member in his hand, the boy neither holden nor bound the while" (As cited in Purchas, p. 925). See, too, a later narrative where Richard Jobson speaks of the local African custom concerning circumcision: "It is done without religious ceremony, and hath no name but the cutting of pricks, the party stripped naked and sitting on the ground, and the butcher pulling the skin over very far, and cutting it, not without terror to the beholder" (As cited in Purchas, p. 1573).

15 Purchas, Pilgrimage, p. 121.

16 Willet, Hexapla, p. 204.

17 Thorowgood, Jews in America, pp. 13, 15. Similarly, when Queen Elizabeth's ambassador to Russia, Giles Fletcher, declared that the Tartars were the ten lost tribes of Israel, he too found confirmation in the fact that they "are circumcised, as were the Israelish and Jewish people" (Giles Fletcher, "The Tartars or, Ten Tribes," first published sixty-six years after his death in 1611, in Samuel Lee, Israel Redux: Or the Restauration of Israel [London, 1677], p. 22).

18List and Analysis of State Papers: Foreign Series, Elizabeth I, vol. 6 (January to December 1595), ed. R. B. Wernham (London: HMSO, 1993), p. 269. For a facsimile and transcript of Don Solomon's letter, see H. G. Rosedale, Queen Elizabeth and the Levant Company (London: Henry Fraude, 1904), pp. 19-33.

19 See Acts 16.3. Unless otherwise noted, scriptural passages are quoted from the 1589 edition of the Geneva Bible, published in London (I have modernized spelling and orthography here as well).

20 Philippe de Mornay, A Woorke Concerning the Trewnesse of the Christian Religion, Written in French, Against Atheists, Epicures, Paynims, Jewes, Mahumetists, and Other Infidels, trans. Sir Philip Sidney and Arthur Golding (London, 1587), pp. 581-82.

21 William Perkins, A Commentane or Exposition, Upon the First Five Chapters of the Epistles to the Galatians (Cambridge, 1604), p. 380.

22 Jean Calvin, Sermons of M. John Calvine Upon the Epistle of Saincte Paule to the Galatians, trans. Arthur Golding (London, 1574), fol. 325r.

23 John Calvin, A Commentane upon S. Paules Epistles to the Corinthians, trans. Thomas Timme (London, 1577), fol. 82v. Others offered an evolutionary model that would explain the different attitudes the earliest Christians held toward circumcision. For example, the Scottish preacher John Weemse writes that in the "first period," Christians "might only circumcise; in the second period, circumcise and baptize; (for they had yet more regard to circumcision than to baptism); in the third period they baptized and circumcised (now they had more regard to baptism than circumcision); in the fourth period, they only baptized" (Weemse, The Christian Synagogue, 4 vols. [London, 1633], vol. 1, p. 129).

24 Romans 2.25.

25The New Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ Translated Out of the Greek. By Theod. Beza, trans. Laurence Tomson (London, 1596). Different editions offer slightly different wording. The first edition of Tomson's revision of the Geneva New Testament (based on Beza's 1565 Latin text) appeared in 1576. It was subsequently published both independently and as part of the larger Geneva Bibles. This was the final and popular form of the Geneva Bible.

26 Romans 2.28-29.

27 For this aspect of Paul's thought, see Daniel Boyarin, who astutely observes that Paul's problem with circumcision was that it "symbolized the genetic, the genealogical moment of Judaism as the religion of a particular tribe of people. This is so both in the very fact of the physicality of the rite, of its grounding in the practice of the tribe, and in the way it marks the male members of that tribe (in both sense), but even more so, by being a marker on the organ of generation it represents the genealogical claim for concrete historical memory as constitutive of Israel." Thus, by "substituting a spiritual interpretation for a physical ritual, Paul was saying that the genealogical Israel 'according to the Flesh,' is not the ultimate Israel; there is an 'Israel in the Spirit'" (Boyarin, '"This We Know to Be the Carnal Israel,'" p. 502).

28 See Joseph Hall, A Plaine and Familiar Exposition by Way of Paraphrase of All the Hard Texts of the Whole Divine Scripture of the Old and New Testament (London, 1633), p. 160.

29 Willet, Hexapla, p. 142. Origen's own position may have been qualified by the possibility (according to Eusebius) that he had castrated himself in his youth in order to work unconstrained with female catechumens.

30 It should also be noted that there is a Jewish tradition that values circumcision because it curtails male desire. Daniel Boyarin cites the observation of Maimonides that circumcision was instituted "to bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question, so that this activity be diminished and the organ be in as quiet a state as possible" (in Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, trans, and ed. Shlomo Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), p. 609, cited in Boyarin, '"This We Know to Be the Carnal Israel,'" p. 486, note 37. Boyarin also notes the Platonic, allegorizing view of circumcision in Philo as well. Some of the complex ways in which circumcision was understood symbolically in Jewish exegetical traditions are explored by Elliot R. Wolfson in "Circumcision, Vision of God, and Textual Interpretation: From Midrashic Trope to Mystical Symbol," History of Religions 27 (1987), pp. 189-215, and "Circumcision and the Divine Name: A Study in the Transmission of Esoteric Doctrine," The Jewish Quarterly Review 78 (1987), pp. 77-112.

31 Donne concludes, "God would have them carry this memorial about them, in their flesh," in "A Sermon Preached at Saint Dunstan's Upon New-Years-Day, 1624," Sermons, vol. 6, pp. 190-92.

32 The gendering of the act had long been a problem for Christian interpreters of the Bible, some condemning the Jews for leaving women out of the Covenant, others answering the objection "that circumcision was an imperfect sign, because it was appointed only for the males, the females were not circumcised," by saying that "the priviledge and benefit of circumcision was extended also unto the females, which were counted with the men, the unmarried with their fathers, the married with their husbands" (Willet, Hexapla, p. 205).

33Diane Owen Hughes, "Distinguishing Signs: EarRings, Jews, and Franciscan Rhetoric in the Italian City State," Past and Present 112 (1986), p. 24.

34Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, 3.1.82-84.

35 This problem is usually due to excessive electrocautery used in some hospitals, which burns off too much of the infant's penis to warrant reconstructing the organ. The surgeons perform a "feminizing genitoplasty," that is, reconstructing female rather than male genitalia (and at the age of puberty performing a second operation, a vaginoplasty, supplemented by estrogens). See John P. Gearhart and John A. Rock, "Total Ablation of the Penis After Circumcision with Electrocauter: A Method of Management and Long-Term Follow-up," Journal of Urology 142 (1989), pp. 799-801. The authors note that the "successful adaption and normal sex life of our 2 older patients are a tribute to early gender reassignment, the involvement of a complete team of specialists, including a medical sexology expert, and extensive familial counseling from the time of injury" (p. 801). I am indebted to Dr. Franklin Lowe of Columbia Physicians and Surgeons for making this scholarship available to me. I am also grateful to Patricia E. Gallagher, of Beth Israel Medical Center, for providing me with material on circumcision procedures.

36 Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, 1.3.146-48, and 4.1.249. The first hint appears in act 3, when Shylock says to Tubal "I will have the heart of him if he forfeit" (3.1.119-20).

37 "Whosoever hath an issue from his flesh is unclean because of his issue," Leviticus 15.2. Biblical anthropologists have traced the practice of using the euphemism basar (flesh) when referring to the penis to the priestly redactors (rather than the Jahwist, who did not use this euphemism). See Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, The Savage in Judaism: An Anthropology of Israelite Religion and Ancient Judaism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), pp. 170-71.

38 Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 1.1.29-30, and 2.4.37.

39 Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, 4.1.113. Antonio's next lines—"the weakest kind of fruit / Drops earliest to the ground, and so let me" (4.1.114-15)-—may connect back to the recurrent biblical identification of fruit trees with circumcision. In his chapter on "Uncircumcised Fruit Trees," Howard Eilberg-Schwartz notes the frequent comparison in biblical literature between "fruit trees and male organs" (p. 149; see, for example, Leviticus 19.23-25), and concludes that "the symbolic equation of an uncircumcised male and a young fruit tree rests on two, and possibly three, associations. The fruit of a juvenile tree is proscribed like the foreskin of the male organ. Furthermore, a male who is uncircumcised and not part of the covenantal community is infertile like an immature fruit tree. Finally, this symbolic equation may draw part of its plausibility from an analogy between circumcision and pruning," Eilberg-Schwartz, The Savage in Judaism, p. 152. See, too, his "People of the Body: The Problem of the Body for the People of the Book," Journal of the History of Sexuality 2 (1991), pp. 1-24.

40 Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, 2.8.22, 5.1.237.

41 As cited in J. H. Baker, "Criminal Courts and Procedure at Common Law, 1550-1800," in Crimes in England, 1550-1800, ed. J. S. Cockburn (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), p. 42.

42 Before he had to leave in 1683—having run afoul of the Duke of York and England's Catholic community—Leti had even been elected to the Royal Society and asked by Charles II to write a history of England from its origins to the Restoration. See the introduction to Nati Krivatsy, Bibliography of the Works of Gregorio Leti (Newcastle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Books, 1982).

43 Gregorio Leti, Vita di Sisto V, 3 vols. (Amsterdam, 1693), vol. 3, pp. 134ff. Since the first English translation of Leti's biography—The Life of Pope Sixtus the Vth (London, 1704)—was based on the 1669 text, it does not contain the pound of flesh story.

44 Gregorio Leti, The Life of Pope Sixtus the Fifth, trans. Ellis Farneworth (London, 1754). A subsequent edition of this translation was published in Dublin in 1766.

45 Leti, Vita di Sisto V (1693), vol. 3, p. 136.

46 And, conveniently, to pay for a hospital that he had recently founded. See Leti, Sixtus the Fifth, trans. Farneworth, pp. 293-95.

47 Leti, Sixtus the Fifth, trans. Farneworth, p. 293, n. 19.

48 Leti writes of their "gesti ridicolosissimi." For his remarks about London's Jews, see Leti, Del Teatro Brittanico o Vero Historia dello Stato, Antico e Presente … della Grande Brettagna, 2 vols. (London, 1683), esp. vol. 1, pp. 251-52, 549-50, as cited in Jonathan I. Israel, "Gregorio Leti (1631-1701) and the Dutch Sephardi Elite at the Close of the Seventeenth Century," in Jewish History: Essays in Honour of Chimen Abramsky, ed. Ada Rapoport-Albert and Steven J. Zipperstein (London: Peter Halban, 1988], p. 269).

49 Edmond Malone, The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare (London, 1790), vol. 3, pp. 111-13.

50 David Erskine Baker, Biographia Dramatica or a Companion to the Playhouse Containing Historical and Critical Memoirs, 3 vols. (London, 1812), vol. 3, p. 34. First published in 1782.

51 Edgeworth, Harrington, p. 96.

52 Furness, ed., The Merchant of Venice, A New Variorum Edition, pp. 295ff.

53 For one of the few twentieth-century citations of Leti's story in relationship to Shakespeare's play, see Berta Viktoria Wenger, "Shylocks Pfund Fleish," Shakespeare Jahrbuch 65 (1929), esp. pp. 148-50.

54 Bullough, Sources, vol. 1, p. 483.

55 Bullough, Sources, vol. 1, p. 484. In other sources the cutting is to be done to the eyes (as in Anthony Munday's Zeluto), or is left ambiguous or unspecified, in the words of Fiorentino's Il Pecorone (1558), "wheresoever he pleases."

56 Malone, ed., Plays and Poems of Shakspeare, vol. 3, p. 114.

57 Furness, ed., The Merchant of Venice, A New Variorum Edition, pp. 311-12.

58 Bullough, Sources, vol. 1, p. 484.

59 Furness, ed., The Merchant of Venice, A New Variorum Edition, p. 312.

60 Sprague, ed., The Merchant of Venice (New York: Silver, Burdett, 1889).

61 See Willet's gloss on this passage in Hexapla. Elizabethan editions of the Bible constantly read Pauline doctrine back into the Old Testament passages. Thus, for example, the Bishops' Bible gloss explains: "That is, let all your affections be cut off. He showeth in these words the end of circumcision"; and "Cut off all your evil affections."

62 Mornay, Trewnesse of the Christian Religion, pp. 581-82.

63 Peter Martyr [Vermigli], Most Learned and Fruitfull Commentaries of D. Peter Martir Vermilius, Florentine … Upon the Epistle of S. Paul to the Romanes (London, 1568), p. 49v. Andrew Willet also cites the prophet Jeremiah, who proclaims that "all the nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in the heart" (9.26).

64 Hugo Grotius, True Religion Explained and Defended (London, 1632), p. 274.

65 Donne, Sermons, vol. 6, p. 193.

66 Henry Hammond, A Paraphrase and Annotations Upon All the Books of the New Testament (London, 1653), p. 475.

67 For this psychoanalyst (who had first witnessed Shakespeare's play as a young boy at the turn of the century in antisemitic Vienna), only "one step is needed to reach the concept that to the Gentile of medieval times the Jew unconsciously typified the castrator because he circumcised male children." The "Jew thus appeared to Gentiles as a dangerous figure with whom the threat of castration originated." Theodore Reik, "Psychoanalytic Experiences in Life, Literature, and Music," in The Search Within (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Cudahy, 1956), pp. 358-59; first printed as "Jessica, My Child," American Imago 8 (1951), pp. 3-27.

68 Willet, Hexapla, pp. 130-31.

69 Weemse, The Christian Synagogue, vol. 1, p. 127. There is considerable medical evidence for uncircumcision or reverse circumcision as far back as classical antiquity. See, for example, J. P. Rubin, "Celsus' decircumcision operation: medical and historical implications," Urology 16 (1980), p. 121; and B. O. Rogers, "History of External Genital Surgery," in Plastic and Reconstruction Surgery of the Genital Area, ed. C. E. Horton (Boston: Little, Brown, Co., 1973), pp. 3-47. Willard E. Goodwin's "Circumcision: A Technique for Plastic Reconstruction of a Prepuce After Circumcision," Journal of Urology 144 (1990), pp. 1203-1205, offers a helpful overview of both the history of and the procedures for reversing circumcision.

70 Romans, 2.26-27.

71 Galatians, 5.6. He would return to this idea again shortly, when he states that "in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature" (Galatians, 6.15).

72 Corinthians, 7.18-19.

73 Thomas Godwyn, Moses and Aaron: Civil and Ecclesiastical Rites Used by the Ancient Hebrewes, 4th ed. (London, 1631), p. 242.

74 The same information was also made available in the margin of the Geneva Bible, where Elizabethans, who had no need of this procedure themselves, were nonetheless informed that "the surgeon by art draweth out the skin to cover the part circumcised." The Geneva Bible also cross-references 1 Maccabees 1.16, which describes how the Jews followed the "fashions of the heathen" and "made themselves uncircumcised, and forsook the holy Covenant." The table of contents to the 1589 Geneva Bible (which usefully cites all biblical passages that mention circumcision) cites this passage as one in which the "Jews did uncircumcise themselves, and became apostates," indicating that the act carried with it associations of abandoning one religion for another.

Those curious enough to follow up the medical reference would have read in the Latin text of A. Cornelius Celsus (the first English translation, from which I quote, was not published until 1756) that this procedure requires that "under the circle of the glans, the skin" is "to be separated by a knife from the inner part of the penis." Celsus explains that this "is not very painful, because the extremity being loosened, it may be drawn backwards by the hand, as far as the pubes; and no hemorrhage follows upon it." Next, the "skin being disengaged, is extended again over the glans; then it is bathed with plenty of cold water, and a plaister put round it of efficacy in repelling an inflammation." Celsus offers as postoperative advice that "the patient is to fast, till he almost be overcome with hunger, lest a full diet should perhaps cause an erection of that part." Finally, when "the inflammation is gone, it ought to be bound up from the pubes to the circle of the glans; and a plaister being first laid on the glans, the skin ought to be brought over it" (A. Cornelius Celsus, Of Medicine. In Eight Books, trans. James Greive [London, 1756], pp. 438-39).

75 Hammond, A Paraphrase, p. 565. Hammond also describes the "practice of some Jews, who under the Egyptian tyranny first, then under Antiochus, and lastly under the Romans, being oppressed for being Jews, of which their circumcision was an evidence, used means by some medicinal applications to get a new praeputium. And these were called by the Talmudists mishuchim" (I transliterate the Hebrew here). Following the Geneva Bible gloss, Hammond cites as a medical authority "the famous Physician" Celsus, and, unusually, also invokes Talmudic antecedents, citing Rabbi "Aleai of Achan," who "made himself a praeputium."

76 Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, 4.1.383, 4.1.394. Cf. Reik, who argues that if "Shylock insists upon cutting out a pound of flesh from Antonio's breast, it is as if he demanded that the Gentile be made a Jew if he cannot pay back the three thousand ducats at the fixed time. Otherwise put: Antonio should submit to the religious ritual of circumcision." In addition, at "the end of the 'comedy' Antonio demands that Shylock should 'presently become a Christian.' If this is the justified amends the Jew has to make for his earlier condition, it would be according to poetic justice that the Jew be forced to become a Christian after he had insisted that his opponent should become a Jew" (The Search Within, pp. 358-59).

77 Martyr, Most Learned and Fruitful Commentaries, p. 48r.

78 See the fascinating discussion of the philosophical implications of Shylock's circumcising cut in Stanley Cavell, The Claims of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy [(New York: Oxford University Press, 1979], pp. 479-81). Marjorie Garber notes that both "Reik and Cavell predicate their insights upon an assumption of doubling or twinship, a moment of perceptual equipoise that enforces the disconcerting confusion of identities.… Cavell, with 'skepticism with respect to other minds' and the epistemological uncertainty of identity. Each reader appropriates Shylock's scene, persuasively, to his own theoretical project, and finds the twinship of Shylock and Antonio in the courtroom a theatrical hypostasis, an onstage crux that reifies his own perceptions" (Garber, p. 187, n. 63). See also

Source: "The Pound of Flesh," in Shakespeare and the Jews, Columbia University Press, 1995, pp. 113-30.


The Merchant of Venice (Vol. 87)