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Usury was a hot topic in William Shakespeare’s day, and one which divided people on religious lines. It is interesting, therefore, that Shakespeare takes the Catholic side in the argument, as opposed to the Puritan position, a fact that surely heightens the possibility that Shylock is really a Puritan wearing a Jewish mask…

In my last essay, “Miasmic Misreadings: Exposing Shakespeare Abuse“, I highlighted the manner in which so-called “queer theorists” had manipulated and distorted the meaning of love in Shakespeare’s plays. In doing so, I highlighted the perverse misreading of male friendship in Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice. Another intriguing facet of these two plays is their engagement with Puritanism, especially in the way that Shakespeare presents us with two memorable villains, Shylock and Malvolio, the first of whom is tragic, the other frankly absurd.

One of the earliest Shakespearean critics, Nicholas Rowe, compared Shylock with Malvolio, seeing the former as much darker, “a deadly spirit of revenge,” whose every action is animated by “a savage fierceness and fellness”, giving the play its “bloody designation of cruelty and mischief.”[1] Is it any wonder that the very name of Shylock is generally believed to be derived from the Hebrew word shalach, meaning “cormorant,” a creature that is synonymous with gluttonous excess? Similarly, is it any wonder that Shylock is often likened to Satan? Take, for instance, the words of Solanio at the beginning of act three: Let me say Amen betimes, lest the devil cross my prayer, for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew (3.1.19-20). A few lines later, after Shylock states that his daughter is “damned” for her elopement with Lorenzo, Solanio responds that her damnation is “certain, if the devil may be her judge” (3.1.30-1). The riposte hits the mark. It is no sin to be “damned” by the Devil.

It is, of course, possible to sympathise with Shylock, in the sense that we can truly pity a person who is imprisoned by his own self-destructive pride, but it is wrong that we should sympathise with him in the sense of justifying his pride and his anger through a shifting of the blame onto others, which is the common practice of modern critics. The former approach displays a sympathy with the sinner, the latter a sympathy for the Devil.

Much of the sympathy for Shylock derives from an understandable distaste for what appears to be the anti-Semitic invective of some of the characters. In the wake of the anti-Semitic (and anti-Christian) debauchery of the Third Reich, modern playgoers can hardly be expected to hear such splenetic venting without shifting uncomfortably in their seats. Yet Shakespeare knew nothing of the Third Reich or of the pathological hatred of Hitler, and it is wrong to see the play out of its true Elizabethan context. There is no way that Shakespeare’s Christian imagination could conceive the post-Christian and anti-Christian hatred of the Nazis and, as such, it is wrong to accuse him of views that he could not even have contemplated or comprehended.

It must be understood, first and foremost, that the enmity between Christian and Jew in The Merchant of Venice is not rooted in racism but in theology. This is clear from the fact that a Jew can become a Christian, whereas it is not possible for a Jew in Nazi Germany to become an Aryan or for a black man to become a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Shakespeare, as a Christian, believed that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life and that none could come to the Father except through the Son. It was, therefore, good for Jews, Muslims, and pagans to convert to Christianity; their eternal souls were saved thereby. This might make the modern reader uneasy. We live in an age of pluralism and ecumenism, in which religious differences are not the topic of polite conversation, but Shakespeare did not live in such an age. He lived in an age in which people believed that Christ was the only way to salvation. We do not have to agree with Shakespeare or the age in which he lived, but we do need to understand his Christian worldview and distinguish it from the thoroughly modern secular disease of racism. Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, is accepted with an open heart by all the Christian characters as soon as she expresses a desire to convert to Christianity. Her equality with them is not in question; she is not seen as racially inferior but as theologically flawed. As soon as she sees the error of her beliefs, and changes her mind and heart, she is united with her Christian brothers and sisters. This is seen most tellingly in Salerio’s response to Shylock’s insistence that Jessica “is my flesh and my blood”: There is more difference between thy flesh and hers than between jet and ivory, more between your bloods than there is between red wine and Rhenish (3.1.35-7). There is, therefore, no doubt that Shakespeare perceived the difference between Christian and Jew as having nothing to do with race or “blood” but was rooted in issues of theology.

Ironically, considering the modern critical obsession with the alleged racism of The Merchant of Venice, the real enmity between Antonio and Shylock is rooted in their business practices. Shylock lends money at interest whereas Antonio, believing such practice to be immoral, lends money interest-free and berates Shylock in public for his “usury.” This economic or philosophical conflict between the two merchants has led several scholars, including Clare Asquith, John Klause, Peter Milward and Velma Richmond, to suggest a metadramatic allegorical dimension whereby Shylock is a thinly-veiled personification of a Puritan and Antonio an equally thinly-veiled personification of a Jesuit.[2] Evidence for such an allegorical reading is rooted in the thriftiness of the Puritans in Shakespeare’s time, who were called “Christian Jews” because of their work ethic, their refusal to associate with others, as Shylock refuses to associate with Christians, and their practice of usury in defiance of Christian convention. By extension, Antonio, as a victim of “Puritan” persecution, is seen as a long-suffering Jesuit who lays down his life for his friends. Here’s Peter Milward on the subject:

Though he is a Jew of Venice … he might just as well have been, as he was no doubt in the dramatist’s mind, one of the Puritan merchants of London. In fact, each of [Shylock’s] characteristics is ascribed to the Puritans by celebrated Anglican authors of the time—by John Whitgift, later Archbishop of Canterbury, writing against the Puritan leader Thomas Cartwright; by Richard Bancroft, later Bishop of London and subsequently Archbishop of Canterbury, against the anonymous Puritan authors of the Marprelate tracts; and by Matthew Sutcliffe, Dean of Exeter, when returning to the attack on Cartwright and openly accusing him of engaging in detested usury. Moreover, this superimposition by Shakespeare of a Puritan character on a Jewish villain—which seems so paradoxical to traditionally minded Shakespeare scholars—is the more understandable when we reflect how little he would have had to do with Jews in his dramatic career, and how much with Puritans.[3]

Seeing Father Milward’s final sentence in its historical context, it should be noted that there were virtually no Jews in England in Shakespeare’s time, their having been expelled by Edward I in 1290, i.e. three hundred years earlier. Puritans, on the other hand, were rising in political and economic power and were highly critical of players and the stage, which they saw as evil and “papist.”

Why such a fuss over the issue of usury? Why is it so important? Why does it cause such division between Shylock and Antonio? Is it, as many critics have seemingly believed, much ado about nothing; or did Shakespeare and his contemporaries feel as strongly about usury as does Antonio? Perhaps, in order to understand The Merchant of Venice in the way in which Shakespeare understood it, we need to see the issue of usury through Shakespeare’s eyes. In doing so, we will see immediately that usury was seen in Elizabethan England as a grievous sin. Such a belief was rooted in the teaching of the Catholic Church and in the arguments of the greatest of ancient philosophers.

Plato, Aristotle, and Aristophanes all considered the charging of interest to be fundamentally unnatural, and Cato, Seneca, and Plutarch went so far as to condemn usury in terms that compared it to homicide. It is noteworthy in this regard that Antonio condemns usury in terms that resonate with the Aristotelian and Thomistic doctrine that the “breeding” of inanimate objects, such as money, through usury, was an offence against nature (“for when did friendship take a breed of barren metal of his friend?”—1.3.130-31). Similarly, when Antonio asks Shylock whether he considers his gold and silver to be ewes and rams, Shylock replies that he makes his gold and silver “breed as fast” (1.3.92-3).

Following the classical tradition, the early Church also condemned usury, specifically at the First Council of Carthage in 345, and the condemnation continued throughout the Middle Ages, at the Council of Aix in 789 and at several councils thereafter. This was still the official teaching of the Catholic Church at the time that Shakespeare was writing The Merchant of Venice. By contrast, Calvin had permitted usury and his disciple, Salmasius, had codified the rules by which interest-bearing loans were permissible. Thomas Cartwright, a contemporary of Shakespeare and one of the leading Calvinists in England, followed the teaching of Calvin and Salmasius and was consequently condemned for his defense of usury. It is also noteworthy that it was Henry VIII who altered the law forbidding usury, allowing for loans charging up to ten percent. Edward VI abolished that allowance, prohibiting all interest, a prohibition that remained in force during the reign of the Catholic queen, Mary Tudor. Queen Elizabeth reinstated Henry VIII’s law, setting the legal limit of ten percent. “While interest was legally allowed in Elizabethan England,” writes the economist James E. Hartley, “there was little change in the perceived morality of usury. It was, in this respect, much like modern laws on adultery; while it is not a crime, there are few who think the act is morally acceptable.”[4]

Clearly, this was a hot topic in Shakespeare’s day, and one which divided people on religious lines. It is interesting, therefore, that Shakespeare takes the Catholic side in the argument, as opposed to the Puritan position, a fact that surely heightens the possibility that Shylock is really a Puritan wearing a Jewish mask. Although such a possibility is all too often lost on modern readers of the play, it would clearly have been much more obvious and much more topical to the audience for which the play was written. For Antonio, and for Shakespeare, and for the vast majority of the audience in Elizabethan England, usury was not simply a crime but a sin, an evil practice that it was the duty of the virtuous to condemn.

Author’s Note: In the next part of this essay, I will focus on the character of Malvolio as another villainous Puritan depicted by Shakespeare.

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[1] Nicholas Rowe, The Works of Mr. William Shakespear (1709); quoted in Kenneth Myrick (ed.), The Merchant of Venice, New York: Signet Classic edition, 1998, p. 109

[2] See, for instance, Clare Asquith, Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare, New York: Public Affairs, 2005, p. 114; John Klause, “Catholic and Protestant, Jesuit and Jew: Historical Religion in The Merchant of Venice” in Dennis Taylor and David N. Beauregard (eds.), Shakespeare and the Culture of Christianity in Early Modern England, New York: Fordham University Press, 2003, pp. 208-10; Peter Milward, The Catholicism of Shakespeare’s Plays, Southampton, Hampshire: Saint Austin Press, 1997, pp.13-21; Peter Milward, Shakespeare the Papist, Naples, Florida: Sapientia Press, 2005, pp. 93-102; Velma Bourgeois Richmond, Shakespeare, Catholicism and Romance, New York: Continuum, 2000, pp. 122-3

[3] Peter Milward, Shakespeare the Papist, p. 98

[4] James E. Hartley, “Breeding Barren Metal: Usury and The Merchant of Venice,” published in Joseph Pearce (ed.), The Merchant of Venice, Ignatius Critical Edition, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009, p. 210

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2 replies to this post
  1. I love reading your work and thank you for the facts and ideas you present on Shakespeare and that period. I look forward to reading about Malvolio.
    I’d love to hear your ideas regarding Shakespeare’s treatment of Joan of Arc in Henry VI.

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