Things to consider while reading The Merchant of Venice
This is certainly one of the most troublesome of Shakespeare’s plays, due largely to the apparently anti-Semitic program that it embodies. It has been produced rather infrequently in recent years, and those directors who have dared to bring it to stage or film have usually felt it necessary either to apologize for Shakespeare or to indict him for bias either directly or indirectly. While there are certainly other dramatic issues in the play, this is without a doubt an important one that will not go away. I think it is responsible to deal with it thoughtfully in the course of our own studies. Some background is probably necessary to clarify the underpinnings of the drama, and to understand why Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, is painted as a villain.
Mediaeval church law was fairly strict about the matter of what was called usury — that is, taking money for the use of money. To do so was strictly against the law of the church for Christians (how this was gradually suspended, paving the way for modern capitalism, which is founded on just this forbidden principle, is an issue for another time). Making money by lending money at interest was considered wrong for a variety of reasons.
First of all, it was against Old Testament law for Jews to lend money at interest to other Jews, and the Christian church adopted this principle from the earliest times. During the Renaissance, this restriction broke down, but much of the older attitude toward it remained.
Second, it was seen, in the scholastic view of natural law, to be a perversion of nature. It was unnatural — a kind of “breeding” of money, in which the person lending money contributed nothing to its value, but received more back.
It is well to remember that the early Christian church was in many of its essentials an outgrowth of Judaism, and in the earliest years, though Christians were seen as a dangerous splinter group of Jews, they were primarily of Jewish extraction and upbringing. St. Peter was eager, in the first generation of the Church, to keep the Christian faith exclusive to the Jews; the book of Acts chronicles the rancorous debate between him and St. Paul, who believed that the Gospel was equally for Jews and gentiles — that is, non-Jews. Paul’s opinion ultimately carried the day, and there is every reason to believe that Peter was persuaded as well.
In pagan Roman culture, however, the Jews were regarded as a very peculiar group of people, since their ethnic and religious identity was founded at least in part on the notion of separation from the gentiles. They created endless trouble for Roman administration, refusing to bow down or sacrifice even the token incense to the “genius” of the Emperor — a quasi-religious demonstration roughly equivalent, in civic terms, to taking a pledge of allegiance to Rome. The administration of the Roman province of Judaea was considered a political hot potato best avoided if possible. The Jews remained, however, unshaken in their adamant beliefs that anyone dedicated to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could not acknowledge any other gods. This pattern was followed implicitly (but somewhat more noisily) by the early Christians as well, and led to the martyrdom of many.
In the centuries that followed, however, Christianity grew to be tolerated at Rome, and was eventually adopted as the state religion under the emperor Constantine, who lent the weight of the state to the proceedings of the first ecumenical council of the Church at Nicaea, the ultimate source of the Nicene Creed still used by many Christians as a fundamental statement of the essentials of the faith. In the process, Christianity was identified more and more strongly with Rome — its Jewish underpinnings were eroded and, in some cases, forgotten or suppressed. Jews were viewed with increasing suspicion by Christians across Europe, and at the worst, they were accused, as an entire race, of being responsible for the death of Christ — somewhat peculiar, inasmuch as Jesus was Himself a Jew. During the darker periods of European history, and especially in such crises as the Black Death (1348 and following), they were often targeted as scapegoats for the confusion of the masses, and blamed randomly for all manner of mishaps.
Precisely because the Jews and the Christians were by this point perceived as fundamentally separate, however, a curious symbiosis emerged between them. The Jews were forbidden to loan money at interest to other Jews, as has been mentioned; Christians were forbidden by Church law to loan money at interest to anyone (especially other Christians). There was nothing, however, to prevent a Jew from loaning money at interest to a Christian. And while various attempts were made to suppress the practice at different times, they were ineffective and generally not enforced. Because in many places the Jews were forbidden to own land, as well, few channels of livelihood were open to them — but the loaning of money did not require one to own land.
As a result, in many parts of Europe — chiefly on the continent, but from time to time in England as well — the minority Jewish population began to fulfill a critical function in the growth of a capitalistic economy. While Christians could not loan money to each other at interest, and there was little motivation to engage in loans for risky business ventures without some promise of return, more and more of the growing mercantile economy of the later Middle Ages, especially that of southern Europe after the Black Death, came to depend on a supply of capital to finance fabulously expensive, and very dangerous, trading ventures that were beginning to transform European life and culture. Thus the Jews, despised on the one hand, were, on the other, a critical link in the economy.
Like most moneylenders of any age (you need only think of the conventional image of the “fat cat” banker in the twentieth century — think of Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life), they inevitably came in for harsh criticism for greed. Doubtless some were greedy; there are loan sharks of every race and in every culture. But because the moneylenders were almost all Jewish, and Jews were, by their separation and visible differences in dress, speech, and religious observance, highly visible, the more unsavory characteristics of the moneylender were often attached to Jews without regard for their actual employment, personal integrity, or good will. While understandable, this is of course unreasonable.
The Merchant of Venice is set in a powerful and cosmopolitan center of trade. The Republic of Venice (fiercely independent and distinct from other Italian city-states) was the most aggressive maritime power on the Mediterranean; it had more or less exclusive trade access to Constantinople, prior to its fall to the Turks in 1453. Venetian merchant-ships dominated the eastern half of the sea.
But The Merchant of Venice is also an English play. The relationship of the English toward the Jews is peculiarly tenuous in this period, due to the fact that, in the reign of Edward I (1272-1307), the Jews had officially been banished from the land, and the law was still in force during the reign of Elizabeth. A few remained, but they became very secretive about their identity and practices — understandably enough, since discovery could mean (at least) deportation or (possibly) death. Accordingly, it is highly likely that Shakespeare had never met, or even seen, an actual Jewish person — or that if he had, he didn’t know it. Such is the extent of his probable familiarity with the group he so freely seems to vilify here.
It’s worth considering, therefore, that he takes his understanding of Jewishness, so to speak, not from personal experience, but from popular literature of the period. He is drawing on the caricatures painted in the lurid tales that come from the continent — where Judaism is seen as virtually equivalent to witchcraft. I hope it doesn’t need to be stated here that such a picture is grotesquely distorted and false: the traditions of Judaism are at least as hard on witchcraft and anything related to it as are those of Christianity.
There are a few final points worth mentioning in this regard.
First of all, it’s interesting that the story of the fierce and evil creditor who seeks a pound of flesh is of considerable antiquity, and comes, according to the usually reliable Riverside Shakespeare, from parts East, where the original villain may not have been Jewish at all.
Second, a sensitive reader will note that, while Shylock is indisputably the villain of the play, his fierce nature is not actually shown as being a specific outgrowth of his Judaism. There are a handful of other Jews in the play who are depicted differently.
Third, it is hard to overlook the fact that Shakespeare is acutely sensitive to the irony of the cultural presuppositions — the general truth that the Jewish moneylenders are dearly needed even by the Christians who condemn them, and in particular the fact that Antonio, depicted superficially as a “nice guy” routinely abuses Shylock and spits at him in a way that seems quite inconsistent with courteous behavior. This latter is specifically cited as one of the motivations for Shylock’s eagerness for revenge.
Finally, the play contains, despite all its abuse of Shylock, a very telling speech that has become legendary as a kind of statement of the commonality of human experience, namely Shylock’s speech to Solarino in Act III, sc. 1: “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes?...etc.”
All of these things need to be weighed together, I think, when one comes to an understanding of how to take the overall thrust of the play.
A narrative retelling of The Merchant of Venice from Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb is linked here at the Eldritch Press Site.
The Merchant of Venice and what has come before
The Merchant of Venice is a very social play. It tends not to deal extensively with the kinds of spiritual and personal issues that have emerged in some of the other comedies we’ve covered. Nobody flees to a forest; nobody has magical or semi-magical adventures; arguably there is not a great deal of self-discovery in the play — which is, one could argue, one of the things that makes some of Shakespeare’s other comedies so remarkable. There are, though, some similarities.
Structure in Shakespeare’s Plays
Themes that emerge in the play (only a few of the many)
Symmetries in the play
Problems in the play
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