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The Bible and The Merchant of Venice

Patrick Grant: From “The Bible and The Merchant of Venice: Hermeneutics, Ideology, and Displaced Persons”

English Studies in Canada 16 (1990): 248-262. Reproducec by permission of the author.

When his daughter runs off with Lorenzo and becomes a Christian, and when conversion is forced upon Shylock himself after the trial, the entire general issue of the relationship between Christian revelation and the Hebrew scriptures, and between Gentiles and Jews, is pressingly upon us. Shakespeare keeps circling these ideas, which, as we see, are closely associated with the two attitudes to money.

The binary structure of these various elements is fairly obvious: mercy—justice; revenge—love; Jew—Gentile; the value of money—the value of relationship. And, indeed, as if to confirm this design, the play is just as obviously built up in sets of linked yet opposed pairs. This is evident first of all in the two main settings. On the one hand is the enchanted, golden world of Belmont, with its touches of harmony, its brimming silence and haunting moonlight, where the heavens are inlaid with patens of gold, and mysterious longings brought provocatively to the rim of consciousness through the fairytale motif of the caskets, are fulfilled at last in surprise and delight: “You are all amazed,” says Portia (v.i.266). On the other hand is Venice, a centre of nascent capitalism, opulent and hard. “I know not why I am so sad,” says Antonio in the play’s very first line, but Salerio and Solanio, Antonio’s so-called friends, help to remind him why. His mind is “tossing on the ocean,” they say; his “argosies with portly sail” are “like signiors and rich burghers on the flood” (I.i.89), and yet they are at risk, for Antonio’s merchant venture involves committing his capital to the vagaries of foreign trade and the dangers of sea-voyaging. . . .

The basic contrast between Belmont and Venice could not be stronger, and is repeated in a whole series of further oppositions. Thus, there are two trials, one in Venice, the other (involving the rings) in Belmont. There are two daughters, the first, Portia, under the rule of a magically benign father; the second, Jessica, under the rule of the father as ogre. There are two “venturing” lovers, Bassanio and Gratiano, who make two pairs with Portia and Nerissa; there are even two merchants, Antonio and Shylock. When we put all this along with the thematic twofoldness I have outlined (mercy against justice, and so on), it seems easy to conclude that Shakespeare’s play asks to be read through a series of oppositions, within which we are invited to assess the Biblical themes. Several critics have dealt with the general question of Biblical allusion in The Merchant of Venice, and I would like for a moment to have Barbara Lewalski stand as their representative.

Briefly, Lewalski argues that The Merchant of Venice is about Christian love and its antitheses. Antonio is a Christ figure, ready to give his life to redeem his friend’s debt. Shylock sinks further into vengefulness and evil, the opposite of redemptive love. The casket plot represents Everyman’s choice of spiritual life and death, and is about the soul’s worthiness to wed Christ. At the courtroom scene, Antonio’s plight resembles the crucifixion, and Portia represents Mercy. This is the allegorical side of Lewalski’s argument: the other side deals with specific Biblical allusions. For instance, the venture theme is associated with Christian love through Matt. 6:19-20: “Lay not up treasures for yourselves upon the earth. . . / But lay up treasures for yourselves in heaven.’’ Gratiano’s speech on loss and gain (“You have too much respect upon the world; / They lose it that do buy it with much care” [I.i.74-75]), recalls Matt. 16:25-26: “Whosoever will save his life, shall lose it. . . / For what shall it profit a man, though he should winne the whole world, if he lose his owne soule?”. The Sermon on the Mount, calling for forgiveness and love of one’s enemies, is exemplified by Antonio’s eventual patient submission to Shylock, and Matthew’s exhortation, “do good to them that hate you” (Matt. 5:44) is what Antonio attempts to enact. In laying down his life for his friend, Antonio also brings to mind John 15:13 (“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”). Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer in the Bishops’ and Geneva versions has the words, “Forgive us our dettes, as we forgive our detters” (6:12), and is alluded to twice in the trial scene, when Portia pleads with Shylock to “render / The deeds of mercy” (IV.i.200-01), rather than demand exact justice. Her famous speech on the quality of mercy that “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven” closely follows Ecclesiasticus 25:19 (“O how faire a thyng is mercy in the tyme of anguish and trouble: it is like a cloud of rayne that commeth in the tyme of drought”). Shylock’s cry, “The curse never fell upon our nation till now, I never felt it till now” (III.i.81-83), alludes to the curse pronounced on Jerusalem itself in Matt. 23:38. And when Shylock says, “I have a daughter; / Would any of the stock of Barabbas / Had been her husband” (IV.i.294-96), he alludes to the choice of Barabbas over Christ described in Matt. 27:16-21 (no doubt mediated by way of Marlowe). There are clear allusions also to the Book of Daniel, and a good deal else of the same sort, on the strength of which Lewalski concludes that in The Merchant of Venice “patterns of Biblical allusion and imagery” are “so precise and pervasive as to be patently deliberate” (328).

Many of these passages are cited also by other critics and editors, and it is hard to deny their relevance. But as far as I can tell, nobody has done much with the simple fact that the preponderance of such allusions derives from the Gospel according to Matthew. This is the case with practically all of the examples I have cited from the New Testament. It is Matthew who gives us the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer, and Matthew is more concerned than any other gospel with the relationship between Jewish law and the new Christian church. Moreover, Matthew’s gospel is more explicitly concerned with money than any of the others, a fact commonly noticed by Biblical scholars. Matthew’s special material, by which he is distinguished from the other synoptics, shows a marked emphasis on people dealing with money: the stories of the treasure in the field (13:44), the pearl of great price (13:45), the labourers in the vineyard (20:1-16), and the wise and foolish maidens (25:1-13) occur only in Matthew. In the broadest sense, Shakespeare’s play is, in turn, quite clearly concerned with relationships between law and charity, and of course with money. . . .

Everywhere he insists on symmetry and balance, and everywhere he is fond of rhetorical structures exploring relationships between opposites. Thus the Sermon on the Mount is developed within the antithetical framework, “You have heard that it was said. . . But I say unto you” (5:27 ff.). Two senses of fire are opposed in John the Baptist’s promise that the Holy Spirit will baptize with fire, but also that “unquenchable fire” will burn up the chaff when the wheat is separated out (3:11-12). A man cannot have two masters (6:24), and houses built on rock and sand are compared (7:24-27), as are the fruits of good and corrupt trees (12:33), and so on. . . . This emphasis on binary structures is unique to Matthew, and it seems to me to be connected to the fact that Matthew alone among the synoptics gives an account of the Last Judgment, in which the Lord’s pronouncement divides the opposites: on the one hand, “Come, o blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (25:34); on the other, “Depart from me you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41). Matthew is fierce on this matter, and insists that in the final accounting, the difference between these opposites is absolute and terrible. And yet there is also the parable of the wheat and the tares, which again is unique to Matthew (13:24-30). In it, you will recall, the weeds (or tares) are allowed to grow along with the wheat, for fear that uprooting the young weeds would also uproot the wheat. Only at the harvest will two piles be made, and the weeds burned. The idea is, then, that fierce and final as the last judgment will be, we are not in a position to make it yet, while we are alive and kicking along the furrows of human existence. . . .

Clearly, God’s ways remain seismic, disconcerting, surprising to our expectation, and yet the measure of such disturbance is precisely that there is a foundation of expectation, a pattern to fulfil. Matthew thus seems quite aware of presenting us simultaneously with order—with clearly defined pairs, antitheses and doubles—and then with a disturbing tertium quid, the unsettler of our best-laid rhetoric.

To my mind, this effect is prominent also in Matthew’s money stories. His little parables about investments and riches and treasures and so on are in fact awkward bits of subversive narration when we look at them closely. The parable of the labourers in the vineyard (20:1-11) is an example. You’ll recall how it tells of workers who are hired early in the morning, and who work all day. Then, at the eleventh hour, some new workers are hired, and at the end of the day everyone is paid the same wage—one denarius. To me, that is bothersome, and if the householder is God, then he acts unfairly. Exegetes of course try to find a solution by saying that the parable really describes how the Gentiles came late into Israel’s history through Jesus, but are no less worthy. Or, since one denarius is a subsistence wage, the employer really wanted to be sure nobody starved. I don’t know: I have never been able to like that story much.

The parable of the ten maidens provides another example, though I will not dwell on it, except to notice that we are asked to sympathize with the selfish young women who will not share their oil, and this strikes me as being in flat contradiction to the Sermon on the Mount: “Give to him that begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you” (5:42). Again, there are hermeneutic explanations, but at the last I am not sure if my opinion is much changed regarding those selfish ones who refuse to share. . . .

As I mentioned earlier, uncomfortable money stories are Matthew’s specialty, and they belong with the general tendency in his gospel to deflect us from plain, symmetrically arranged pairs of opposites, which nonetheless we need to know about. And you can see that I am about to bring this back to The Merchant of Venice by claiming that Shakespeare’s play also is an uncomfortable money story, which upsets the binary symmetries of his structure and themes. . . . I am not sure how interested Shakespeare would have been in studying Matthew’s doublets. But the money stories are another thing, and, as I have shown, they link with everything else, including the parable of the wheat and the tares. And it does seem clear that Shakespeare knew the moralizing glosses on the parables that we find in the Geneva Bible and Tomson’s New Testament, the Bishops’ Bible, and perhaps the Rheims New Testament, and with the kind of spirituality that informs these, deriving from Calvin and Beza, in contention with various shades of Catholic opinion. It is therefore highly instructive to watch how these commentators paper over the cracks between the gospel narrative and their own special, often politically interested interpretations.

In his commentary on the parable of the labourers, Calvin dodges and weaves from the start. “If any man should resolve to sift out with exactness every portion of this parable, his curiosity would be useless,” he tells us. And yet, he goes on to say that “there will be no harm in examining the words, that the doctrine may be more clearly evinced” (II.409). There is some evident, self-conscious throat-clearing here, and it suggests that Calvin feels pressure, and well he might. The parable for him, it turns out, means simply that the Lord “owes no man anything”: that is, God’s dealings have nothing in common with the laws governing human economic practice. Calvin draws this tough conclusion without flinching, even though it does threaten to leave God the unabashed exploiter of human labour, but Calvin prefers to avoid “all subtleties” (II.410), as he says, pertaining to issues like that. It might not come as a surprise for us to learn that Calvin was advanced for his times in arguing that taking interest on the principal of a loan was not un-Christian: in other words, he defended what was known as usury. And there is a consistency in all this, for if redemptive love is indeed so far transcendent and above economic calculation, then economic practice must in turn be allowed to work according to its own laws.

By contrast, the kinds of subtlety Calvin hopes to avoid are made conspicuous in the gloss to the Rheims New Testament of 1582, which claims that the denarius (or “penny”) is “life everlasting,” and that different kinds and degrees of labour contribute to earning it. Calvin at least sticks to the story and allows the penny to be a penny. Rheims tries to rescue a hard case by making it a different case: the penny is not a penny, but something else. . . .

As in all these commentaries, we are forced here again uncomfortably upon the difference between worldly calculus and spiritual economy, and confronted with the simultaneous awareness that the two seem more distinct than they are. Clearly, Shakespeare was exposed to a variety of such fitful and floundering attempts to make seemingly plain meanings come clear, and to separate sheep from goats, good from bad, wheat from tares, in a manner that often only confirms how problematic such an enterprise is.

Nor was all this made any simpler by the strenuous debate about usury in Shakespeare’s day, in response to the Elizabethan act of 1571, repealing the 1552 act of Edward VI, and allowing the taking of interest up to ten percent. For the sake of clarity, I should point out that usury was traditionally understood as contracting intentionally for more than the principal of a loan without risk to the lender. Interestingly, the Elizabethan statute unequivocally condemned all interest taking, even though in effect it permitted what it was unable to prevent, thereby offering what in practice became a highly complex compromise position. . . .

In fact, taking interest on loans was contrived in Elizabethan England by innumerable pretences, evasions, subterfuges, and hypocrisies. People knew how the world went, no matter what they thought fit to say about it. Theoretically, charity is everywhere praised, and usury condemned: that is the official, ideological position, everywhere dominant, and so these opposites—charity and usury—are conveniently and ubiquitously mounted as shibboleths, while concealing a wilderness of evasive behaviours and sharp practices. And everywhere the tracts keep struggling for a solution, but mainly instead they keep reproducing an enmeshment that I can see only as a parodic inverse of that seismic reconstitution of the whole question of God and Mammon that fractures the tombstone sealing up the Christ in Matthew, and which also, I will want to say, explodes the allegory in Shakespeare.

But what is the equivalent of this seismic effect in The Merchant of Venice? For a start, the series of pairs in The Merchant of Venice that I outlined earlier sits uncertainly in relationship to a relatively undeveloped yet insistently subtending interest in threes. Shylock’s three thousand ducats are loaned for three months, and of course there are three caskets, and three suitors make choices. At the end, three pairs of lovers are united, with Lorenzo and Jessica turning up in Belmont on their own recognizance, as it were, to support the principal two pairs. Although the ring trial at the end parallels the courtroom trial, it is possible to see the casket scenes also as a trial, thus making three. And it has recently been argued (Boose) that the really effective merchant, in the play is neither Antonio nor Shylock, but Portia, who, because she is a woman, is even more subversive in her rewriting all the male bonds, financial and otherwise. In short, the play has a way of making us aware of a tertium quid, even in the midst of its foregrounded display of opposites.

You might recall that I suggested how the most obvious of Shakespeare’s pairs of opposites is the setting at Belmont and Venice. The first is a golden, enchanted world, the second, where Antonio finds himself unaccountably sad, is the real world of financial anxiety and venture capital. Yet, when we move from act I, sc. i (that is, Venice), to act I, sc. ii (Belmont), we move from a scene written entirely in poetry to one entirely in prose. It is not exactly what we might expect: the poetry, surely, should belong to Belmont. Moreover, Portia’s first words are “By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world.” The tone is at once brisk and deflated, and the line echoes Antonio’s lament about being sad. Shakespeare thus obscures the contrast between Venice and Belmont even as he draws it. Indeed, the more we think about it, the interdependency between these two worlds becomes increasingly, and uncomfortably, obvious.

For instance, despite her golden fleece and caskets, mysterious music and enchanted ambience, Portia is well-moneyed, resilient, capable of vindictiveness, cosily vigorous in the conduct of character assassination from within her protected estate, and an accomplished entrepreneur. Certainly, she can knock the stuffing out of the Venetians at their own hard games. Moreover, her glamorous, eloquent, and true lover, Bassanio, explains to Antonio that he is off to Belmont because a lady there is “richly left,” is “fair,” and has “wondrous virtues” (I.i.161-63). That is, she has an inheritance, is good looking, and happens also to be virtuous: Bassanio’s order of priorities is a markedly disenchanted one, and again we see that values in Belmont and in Venice are not as distinct as we might want them to be. The very Venetian worldliness of Portia’s attractions is, apparently, necessary for her to find the true romantic love that ought (apparently) to be above such venality.

The unsettling effect of all this is aggravated in several further ways. For instance, Bassanio is not really at risk in the casket trial, if only because Morocco and Aragon have already made the wrong choices of gold and silver. By the fairytale law of threes, it is quite clear that Bassanio will choose correctly. Indeed, the main action at Belmont is so perfectly and poetically just (each of the suitors chooses in character, and true love is vindicated) that we suspect our own self-indulgence in such a fantasy, as W.H. Auden has pointed out. On the other hand, Shylock’s bond for the pound of flesh is itself an age-old fairy-tale motif, so that the supposedly real and threatening prospect of Shylock using the knife he whets before us is effectively absorbed. But again we feel this is evasive, for so powerful is Shylock’s resolve, and so ferocious the animus he expresses, that we hesitate somehow to commute it by a structural subterfuge into just another fairytale motif. The opposition between Belmont and Venice that would, on the surface, provoke our moral judgments on the issue of money and human relationships is thus repeatedly unsettled and destabilized.

Something of the same effect accompanies the play’s best-known speeches. Portia’s famous words on mercy in the courtroom scene of act IV, sc. i introduce an amazing, momentary stillness into the tense, half-demented atmosphere of the trial:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. . . .
    (IV.i.183 ff.)

And so on. The feeling of release and refreshment is unmistakable, and unmistakably welcome as soft rain, and as a gift. Such mercy is “mightiest in the mightiest,’’ and is more powerful than the power of monarchs. It is greater even than that, and yet “It is enthroned in the hearts of kings”: it is concealed at the centre, in the secret heart of things where overarching transcendence and vulnerable interiority are presented as mysteriously at one. We pray for that quality of mercy, says Portia, “And that same prayer doth teach us all to render / The deeds of mercy.” There is a kind of confidence, here, that in its very defencelessness is free from anxiety, and

Portia recommends it. But then, even in mid-line, she snaps out of it.

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

It is back to business: she knows that he will want the bond, and she knows already how she will trip him up on a technicality. The mercy speech is beautiful, but is oddly dislocated from what precedes and follows, abruptly relinquished, almost a kind of move, we might suspect, designed to drive another nail into Shylock’s coffin, for he will soon learn that he has not listened. But she knows he will not listen, and the speech rounds out the design of an accomplished entrapment. She goes on to enclose him entirely.

Or take Shylock’s famous plea in act III, sc. i, in reply to Salerio, who asks what good taking a pound of flesh will do.

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?—fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
(IV.i.56 64)

Indeed, these words enliven us to our common condition—we all have senses, blood, are vulnerable to disease, and so on. Shylock is one of us, and in the name of the body’s vitality, basis of all human community, he makes his demand. And yet, the very meagreness of Shylock’s scope, here, is menacing: he sees only the reflex actions of the autonomic nervous system as our common inheritance. And the aggressive questioning expresses an antagonism that comes to light at last, again in the riveting conclusion: “And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” There is no real distinction between the account of hands, organs, bleeding, disease, and the moral issue of revenge. For Shylock they appear the same (or he makes them appear so): revenge is as instinctive as eating. Perhaps we had thought revenge to be another kind of thing—and yet, the miserable vindictiveness of the play’s Christian gentlemen and husbands is also much as Shylock describes it. As with Portia’s speech, we are stopped at the very moment when we might extend a degree of unguarded sympathy, and we are thrown back on something altogether less self-indulgent, less secure.

Much else in the play resembles these examples, but I would like to move toward a conclusion by citing one brief point that highlights again the theme of material and spiritual wealth. The annoying and verbose Gratiano has just told Bassanio and Portia that their success with the casket test has enabled his betrothal to Nerissa. He turns then enthusiastically to his bride-to-be, his heart full (presumably), and, dumbfoundingly, he says to her, “We’ll play with them the first boy for a thousand ducats” (III.ii.213-14). That is, let’s make a bet of a thousand ducats on which of us couples produces the first baby boy. It is another bargain, another bond, this time dealing with a few extra pounds of flesh, but never mind. It seems obvious that we are meant to see this in relation to the pound of flesh story in Venice, but this Belmont version, though in one way a merrier bond than Shylock’s, is a tainted enough thing, and it seems that love and money, charity and revenge, accountability and accountancy, are not after all distinct, however pleasing it might be to think of them that way. . . .

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This page last updated on 28 August 2006. © Michael Best, 2002.