Shakespeare, Shylock and The Merchant of Venice: Protestants, Catholics and the Jewish Question in Elizabethan England

Shakespeare, Shylock and The Merchant of Venice:

Protestants, Catholics and the Jewish Question in Elizabethan England

Burton Weltman

1. The Jewish Question and The Merchant of Venice.

The Merchant of Venice is probably the most troubling of Shakespeare’s plays for modern directors, actors, scholars and audiences.  In the wake of the Nazi Holocaust, antisemitism of even the genteel sort that was common among the European and American upper classes during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and that was regularly found in literature and drama of the period, is no longer acceptable in public.  It is not that antisemitism has disappeared from the world.  It is just not generally acceptable to promote antisemitism in a play.  The problem with The Merchant of Venice is how to present and portray the greedy Jewish money lender Shylock, a central character in the play, without appearing to be antisemitic.

Antisemitic portrayals of Shylock had hitherto been standard fare.  Although the overwhelming majority of Jews were historically among the working class poor and did not engage in commerce, the common stereotype of the Jew from at least Shakespeare’s time to the twentieth century was based on the relatively few Jews who were bankers and merchants and who were often denigrated by Christians as mercenary money grubbers.

The Merchant of Venice was generally presented as a dramatization of what during the nineteenth century was termed “the Jewish question.” This was the question of what decent Christian society should do with an alien religious sect of Jews that was typified by the disreputable shyster Shylock.  The Holocaust has made this question and this interpretation of the play unacceptable in polite society.

Modern interpreters of the play have, as a result, had to scramble to try to reshape the presentation of Shylock.  But they do not seem able to get it right.  I have read many interpretations of The Merchant of Venice and seen many performances, most recently during the summer of 2013 at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario.  I have seen directors try vocal modulations, pantomime gestures and other stage directions to soften the harshness of the language that the Christians use against Shylock and to undercut the cruelty of the actions these characters take against him.  Nothing of that sort seems to work.  The Christian characters’ language is blunt and blatant.  Their actions are coarse and cruel.  Shylock is still treated as a despised Jew.  The play still comes off as antisemitic.

But it does not have to be that way and I do not think Shakespeare intended it that way.  The problem is that directors and interpreters have remained locked into a conventional way of presenting the Christian characters in the play as exemplary people.  The solution, in turn, is seemingly simple: As bad as the Jew Shylock is in the play, the main Christian characters, including Antonio the so-called merchant of Venice, are worse.  And that, I think, is the main point of the play.

2. Literature and the Method of History as Choice.

Interpreting literature is much like interpreting history.  A historian who is trying to make sense of a historical situation will have at hand a body of facts which must be accounted for in the historian’s interpretation.  For many situations, there may be more than one plausible interpretation that fits the available facts.  As a result, the historian often has to make a choice among differing legitimate interpretations.

Similarly, the director or other interpreter of a play has a script of written words that are like a historian’s facts.  The script will contain speeches by the characters, some descriptions of place and action, and some stage directions.  A director or interpreter must adopt a way of approaching the play that fits the words in the script.  But there are often different ways that one can legitimately stage a play and perform what is contained in the script.  These different ways will embody different interpretations of the play and lead to different conclusions about it.  The director or interpreter must choose.

With plays as with historical events, interpretations often take hold because they best fit the preconceptions and prejudices of a given time.  Prejudices against Jews and in favor of Christians played a major part in previous interpretations of The Merchant of Venice.  In turn, as with many social, political and cultural ideas and practices, an out-of-date historical or literary interpretation may hang on long after the reasons for its adoption have passed.  This seems to be the case with The Merchant of Venice.

Even as modern interpreters want to eschew the antisemitism of the past and are willing to portray flaws in Christians, an interpretation of the Merchant of Venice that portrays the main Christian characters as virtuous holds on despite the fact that it inevitably leads to an antisemitic portrait of Shylock.  More important to the integrity of the play, this interpretation does not fit as well with Shakespeare’s script as does one that portrays Shylock as the best of a bad lot.

3. Weltschmerz and Other Discontents in The Merchant of Venice.

The interpretation of the play that I am proposing seems obvious to me from the first line of the first act.  The first act contains three scenes, each of which introduces us to one of the three main characters, first Antonio the merchant, then Portia, a wealthy heiress, and finally Shylock the moneylender.  Each of these scenes begins with a speech from that character which exemplifies his/her personality and values.  Each of these main characters is, in turn, surrounded by a caste of supporting characters who reflect and highlight the main character’s values and person.

Scene One: Antonio.  In the first line of the play, Antonio moans in luxurious self-pity to a group of young followers that “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad, it wearies me, you say it wearies you.”  Posturing world-weariness and boredom with life, Antonio betrays himself as a self-centered, self-indulgent shell of a man.  Not a model of Christian faith and hope.

Antonio is a wealthy speculator who invests in ocean-going merchant vessels that carry valuable goods around the world.  Ocean travel is dangerous and precarious so that this is a risky business, especially for sailors on the ships but also for investors such as Antonio, because ships often do not make it safely to their destinations.  When ships go down, sailors lose their lives and investors lose their money.  But the profits to investors for each successful voyage are so great that they can cover the loss of many ships.  In the course of the play when it appears that ships have been lost, Antonio expresses not one word of concern for the sailors.  His sole concern is for his money.  So much for Antonio’s Christian humanitarianism.

In this first scene, Antonio is sitting at a cafe bemoaning his weltschmerz with several younger men who seem to be idle rakes whose interests run to gossiping, partying and pursuing women.  They are sycophantically commiserating with him.  Antonio’s  protege Bassano joins the party.  Bassano is admittedly a wastrel and spendthrift who has run through his own inheritance and now wants to pursue marriage with the wealthy Portia so that he can take advantage of her inheritance.  Bassano is, however, broke and deep in debt.  He wants a loan from Antonio so that he can put on a good show of wealth for Portia and trick her into marrying him.  Bassano puts this request in purely financial terms as an investment for Antonio that will enable Bassano to repay to Antonio both the new loan and old debts owed by him.  As the scene closes, Antonio agrees to the loan with the caveat that he is currently cash poor so that he will himself have to borrow the money to give to Bassano.

Scene Two: Portia.  The second scene opens in essentially the same way as the first with Portia proclaiming her own weltschmerz to her handmaid: “By my troth Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world.”  Portia is a wealthy heiress whose father has left her his money conditioned on her marrying the first man who is able to guess a riddle that he has contrived.  She is lazy and self-indulgent, and is willing to accept the degrading and demeaning conditions imposed on her by her father in order to keep her great wealth.

When her maid Nerissa tells Portia that she is spoiled with too much money and too little to do, Portia admits to the accusation but responds with a classic hypocrite’s rationalization: “If to do were as easy to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces.”  That is, she knows what she should do but does not have the moral strength to do it and does not think others do either.  So much for Portia’s Christian virtue.

Portia is a clever-witted  person whose main delight seems to be in mocking and making fun of others’ foolishness.  She is seemingly a person whose self-loathing and lack of self-respect becomes a rationale for loathing and disrespecting others.  She spends the rest of  the scene belittling and making fun of her prospective suitors.  So much for Portia’s Christian humility.

Scene Three: Shylock.  Shylock’s first words illustrate his character as a man who feels unjustly oppressed but who is generally able to control his anger.  “Three thousand ducats, well” he says when Bassano proposes that Shylock loan him money for Bassano’s Portia venture with Antonio as the guarantor of the loan.  That little word “well” is a telling piece of self-control on Shylock’s part.

Shylock initially bridles internally at the request, for both business reasons he acknowledges to himself and personal reasons he does not like to admit.  Shylock tries publicly to present himself as a man who is concerned only with  business, and who sees Antonio as only a business problem.  But we can see that his deepest resentment against Antonio is personal, and is based on the way Antonio disparages Jews in general and Shylock in particular.

Antonio is a Catholic who objects on religious grounds to money-lending for interest, usury so-called.  For this reason, he claims, he tries to undercut Shylock’s business as a moneylender.  But Antonio also publicly insults Shylock every time they meet, and he has repeatedly spat on Shylock, and has even spat in Shylock’s face without any provocation.  His antisemitism goes beyond mere business differences.

Shylock responds to the requested loan by debating with Antonio whether there is any difference between investing in commerce for profit as Antonio does and lending money for interest as Shylock does.  Shylock cites Biblical passages in support of his contention that they are the same thing and clearly has the better of the argument.  But Antonio won’t admit it and covers his defeat by declaiming to Bassano: “Mark you this, Bassano, the divel can cite Scripture for his purpose.  An evil soul producing holy witness is like a villain with a smiling cheek.”  Unable to beat Shylock in argument, Antonio resorts to insult.

Despite this insult, and maybe because of it, Shylock decides to loan the money to Bassano without any interest owing.  He states his intention of thereby shaming Antonio for defaming him.  Shylock’s only condition is that Antonio pledge a pound of his own flesh as bond for repayment of the loan’s principal.  Both Shylock and Antonio treat this as a playful jest and agree to the terms.  There is at this point no expectation that Antonio will not be able to repay to loan once one of his ships comes in.  As Antonio himself is forced to admit, Shylock is behaving with Christian charity.  In this scene, Shylock shows that, unlike Antonio and Portia, self-respect and the respect of others are more important to him than money.

Subsequent Events.  The end of the first act marks the high point of amity in the play and things run downhill from there.  Bassano succeeds in impressing Portia who, despite her avowed respect for her father and her father’s wishes, cheats on the riddle so that Bassano can guess it and win her hand.  So much for Portia’s honesty.  Antonio resumes his insults of Shylock and helps arrange for a friend to steal Shylock’s beloved daughter and some of Shylock’s wealth away from him.

Antonio is unable to pay back the loan on time and Shylock is so furious at Antonio for the loss of his daughter that he is seemingly prepared to exact the pound of flesh from Antonio and, thereby, kill him.  Portia saves Antonio by pretending to be a learned jurist and convincing the Duke of Venice through spurious sophistry that Shylock is the one who is really at fault.  She convinces the Duke that in return for sparing Shylock’s life, Shylock must forfeit his wealth and convert to Christianity.

In the course of her perorations, Portia makes her famous “quality of mercy speech.”  “The quality of mercy is not strained,” she intones, “It droppeth  as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.  It is twice blest, It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes…”  A previously self-admitted hypocrite, Portia declaims this paean to mercy even as she is insisting on the cruelest revenge and savage persecution against Shylock.  Shylock is the one who has attempted to do the most right and who has suffered the most wrong during the play.  Yet he is the one whom she insists on punishing.  So much for the quality of Christian mercy.

Happily Ever After…Not.  Having vanquished Shylock, Portia and her maid play tricks on their respective lovers and get the better of them.  The play ends with what the characters seem to feel is a “happily ever after scene” in which the various lovers come together in wedlock and what they anticipate will be everlasting bliss.  But is this likely?  The husbands are mercenary, feckless, sensitive to insult and prone to violence.  The wives are shrewish, smarter than their husbands and not reluctant to show it.  This is not exactly a recipe for everlasting harmony and bliss.

4. Internal and External Evidence in Interpreting The Merchant of Venice

The best evidence for the interpretation of the play that I am proposing comes from the words of the play itself.  Shakespeare accepts the stereotype of the greedy Jew for dramatic purposes, but then explodes it.  Shylock comes across as a deeply damaged character, but his flaws and faults seem in large part to be a product of his situation and the persecution he has faced.  He displays streaks of genuine humanity that are inconsistent with the attitudes and actions of the Christian characters against him.  His offering to lend the money to Bassano without interest, his grief at the loss of his daughter and the theft of a keepsake from his dead wife, and, especially his passionate “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech are evidence that Shakespeare intends us to empathize with Shylock.

The Christian characters have no excuse for their bad behavior toward Shylock.  Until the end of the play when he explodes in anger toward Antonio, Shylock has done nothing to harm them and has only courted their respect.  Given their despicable behavior towards him, it is hard to see them as virtuous or heroic. Likewise, given their own greedy materialism, it is hard to see them as better in that regard than Shylock.  People looking for a one-dimensional play with clear cut heroes and villains may see Shylock’s flaws and then conclude that the Christian characters must be the heroes, but this is mistaken.  Shakespeare wrote many plays that did not have clear cut heroes, for example, Julius Caesar and Coriolanus.  The Merchant of Venice seems to be of this sort.

There is also some historical evidence with respect to Shakespeare’s likely attitudes toward money-lending and toward Jews that seems to support this interpretation.  The prohibition against money-lending for interest which is at the heart of the Christian characters’ antipathy toward Shylock in The Merchant of Venice was a regulation of the Catholic Church.  This was one of the provisions of the Catholic Church that Protestants rejected when they broke from the Church.  Despite controversial claims by some scholars that Shakespeare was somehow a closet Catholic, it seems pretty clear from his plays that Shakespeare was a patriotic Protestant in an anti-Catholic country and, as such, would likely have wanted to promote the Protestant position on money-lending.

Many of Shakespeare’s plays take place in Catholic countries such as Venice or during times when England was Catholic.  In these plays, priests are invariably portrayed as, at best, well-intentioned fools who cause unintended mischief — for example, in Romeo and Juliet in which the priest is the inadvertent cause of the lovers’ deaths.  Church officials in Shakespeare’s plays are invariably portrayed as malicious connivers — for example, in Henry V and King John in which they induce England into disastrous wars for the benefit of the Church.

In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock makes what was essentially the Protestant argument in favor of money-lending for interest in his debate against the Catholic Antonio.  Shylock claims that profit-making on investments is essentially the same as money-lending at interest and has the better of the argument.  This seems to be Shakespeare’s argument.  In addition, despite their vehement denunciations of Jewish usury, the Christians in the play do not hesitate to borrow money at interest from Jews in order to pursue their investment strategies.  This was the reality in most Catholic countries including England when it was Catholic.  Catholics used Jews as the fronts for their own profit-making enterprises.  Shakespeare seems to portray this as hypocritical.

In addition to ideological and theological evidence, there also seems to be some family evidence that Shakespeare’s father was a money lender and was even jailed for this practice at one point by the then Catholic authorities.  And there is some speculation that Shakespeare himself engaged in some small-time money-lending.  If this is so, he would not likely have wanted his play to be seen as a diatribe against money-lenders.

Finally, there is some evidence respecting Jewish law and Shakespeare’s knowledge of Jews.  At the heart of the case against Shylock is his accepting the pledge of a pound of Antonio’s flesh as bond for the loan to Bassano and his insistence at the end of the play on exacting the pound of flesh.  Exacting the pound of flesh would have been a blatant violation of Talmudic Jewish law.  A Jew cannot demand fulfillment of a debt that causes physical harm to someone.  If Shakespeare wrote the play with any knowledge of Jews and Jewish law, Shylock could not initially have intended the bond as anything but a jest in which the Christian Antonio was symbolically putting his life in the hands of the Jew Shylock.

And there is reason to believe that Shakespeare knew a fair amount about Jews as he apparently lived for a time in the Jewish quarter of London.  As we can see from the play itself, Shakespeare was seemingly knowledgeable about the persecution and perilous situation of Jews in England in which it was illegal to be Jewish until the 1650’s.  Jews such as Shylock lived in England during Shakespeare’s time only at the sufferance of antisemitic Christians such as Antonio and only to the extent Christians found the Jews to be useful.  That Shylock appears to be willing to exact the pound of flesh from Antonio at the end of the play — and we do not know if he would have actually gone through with it — seems a testament to the overflowing of Shylock’s outrage and hurt at the way he has been treated.

5. The Shylock Question and History as Choice.

So what are we to make of Shylock and why should we care?

I think we can distinguish two aspects of Shylock in the play.  There is Shylock the miserly moneylender who openly and honestly articulates and practices mercenary values that the hypocritical Christians deny and denounce, but nonetheless practice themselves.  This Shylock is largely a creation of the Christians as a tool for their own business purposes and as a scapegoat for their bad consciences.  They project their own materialism onto him and then decry it in him and deny it in themselves.

Then there is Shylock the Jew who is a narrow-minded money grubber because money grubbing is the only path to success and to some measure of respect allowed him in the Christian society.  He is a bitter man who craves the respect of his Christian fellows and who will exact it through revenging himself on them if they won’t otherwise give it to him.  He is a scapegoat who kicks.

I think that Shakespeare has written a play about Christian ideals and their debasement by Christians through their debasement of Jews.  The play is not usually performed in this way.  But I think it is important that we see that it can be performed in this way.  In so doing, I am not merely trying to rescue Shakespeare from the taint of antisemitism.  I am also trying to rescue that period in history from a one-dimensional interpretation as antisemitic and, thereby, to suggest new possibilities for what people in Shakespeare’s time might have understood.  Maybe they were not as antisemitic as we have thought.  Maybe there were currents of empathy and tolerance that could have led England in a different direction if other choices had been made.

Whenever we uncover new possibilities in the past — new options for what could have happened as well as new ways of understanding what did — we discover new possibilities for understanding the present and creating a better future.   This hope is the underlying rationale for studying history and literature as a process of people making choices.


I wrote this essay two years ago.  It has come to my attention that the British director Jonathan Dumby recently staged at Lincoln Center in New York and at Navy Pier in Chicago a version of The Merchant of Venice that is substantially similar to the interpretation I am suggesting in the essay.  See the reviews by Charles Isherwood in The New York Times (July 7, 2016) and by Chris Jones in The Chicago Tribune (August 8, 2016).  Although I live in Chicago, I was unfortunately unable to see the play because the tickets were sold out before I could get my act together to get some.  Hopefully, the play will come around again.

Burt Weltman   August 10, 2016


2 thoughts on “Shakespeare, Shylock and The Merchant of Venice: Protestants, Catholics and the Jewish Question in Elizabethan England

  1. I see this play as being in origin a tribute to St Antony of Padua. He is the saint of lost people and lost things. More important to them than a dispute between two wealthy men over a pound of flesh, the many Venetians distressed at the loss of relatives in the crews of Antony’s argosies would have been praying to St Antony. The ships begin to turn up in the end – the answer to a prayer.Those who knew Antonio would have prayed to the saint who looks after debtors – also St Antony of Padua. Antonio the debtor gets a fair deal – another answer to a prayer. Some who knew Antonio would be praying that Shylock get a Christian conscience. St Antony famously converted a Jewish merchant to Christianity. It happens again and Shylock converts – as Antonio said he would at the signing of the deal. The other Jewish moneylender/businessman is Tubal. He provides the balance of the 3,000 ducats Shylock does not have. So at the end of the sequence, a Christian (now Shylock) remains in hopelessly in debt to a Jew (now Tubal). I would say Shylock’s first prayer as a Christian would be to St Antony. Tubal is worth checking out. His is a name with provenance. Shylock’s is a name without provenance. Interestingly, none of the characters in the play suggests that there could be a backlash against the Jewish community if Shylock succeeds in injuring or killing Antonio. Nothing is going to disturb the serenity of la Serenissima Repubblica. Shakespeare’s father was a debtor but he wasn’t gaoled, so maybe the Shakespeare household were grateful to St Antony.

    Portia’s father as unconcerned about which of the three suitors would choose the right casket. Any of the three could provide support for Venice against the advance of the Ottoman Turks. So would most of the six who didn’t make the shortlist.. If anyone finds this interesting, I uploaded a piece on it some years ago.

    • That is a very interesting interpretation. I never thought of connecting St. Anthony of Padua to Antonio the Merchant of Venice. Thank you.
      Although it seems to run counter to my views of Antonio, your interpretation of St. Anthony and Antonio works well with the play. In defense of my interpretation, I would suggest as an additional idea the possibility that the connection between St. Anthony and Antonio could be seen as ironic.

      I believe that St. Anthony of Padua was revered for his devotion to the poor and his own practice of poverty. He was a colleague of St. Francis of Assisi and joined the Franciscan Order which was devoted to the poor and shunned worldly goods. Many Franciscans in the century after St. Francis even got into trouble with the Pope over their refusal to own material things and their belief that the Church should not be as grandiose as it was at that time. This conflict is a major theme in Umberto Eco’s novel “The Name of the Rose,” which I particularly like.

      In any case, St. Anthony the monk who shunned material goods and materialistic society could be seen as an ironic contrast to Antonio the merchant who dealt in material goods and surrounded himself with materialistic society.

      Thanks again for your comment.

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