The Merchant Formerly Known as Jew[1]: Redefining the Rhetoric of Merchantry in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice

Jennifer Rich
Hofstra University

Jennifer Rich. "The Merchant Formerly Known as Jew: Redefining the Rhetoric of Merchantry in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice". Early Modern Literary Studies 13.3 (January, 2008) 2.1-19<URL:>.


  1. In his one-man show Shakespeare's Villains, the actor Stephen Berkoff portrays Shylock as hunchbacked, rumpled, spitting out curses and delivering his famous "If You Prick Us" speech miming the stroking of a beard with Machiavellian gusto.  Berkoff's Shylock is not the humanized character that has come to dominate post-Holocaust reproductions of the play.[2]  It is, as Berkoff himself declares, the representation of a myth.  Berkoff's characterization, however, does not leave us with the question that so many others have tried to answer-is Shylock a representation of Shakespeare's anti-Semitism?  His representation (accurately anti-Semitic as it is, as this essay will contend) provides a more interesting quandary.   If we grant that Shylock is a myth, two important questions result: from what cultural material is he constituted, and more significantly, what particular purpose did this character serve in the seventeenth-century English imaginary?  In order to address these questions, the play must be critically re-examined in not only its historical context, but its economic one as well.[3] While critics have long examined Shylock's humanitarian appeal, almost no critical attention has been paid to how Shylock functions as a site wherein anxieties about the way capitalism and, in particular, usury affected national and religious identities.[4]  As economic historians such as Immanuel Wallerstein and Fernand Braudel have shown in their histories of capitalism, early modern England, like the continent, was feeling the sometimes uncomfortable push and pull of a new economic order at this time-one where the merchant was no longer conflated with the Jew, and one where Portia's question, "which is the Merchant here? And which the Jew?" took on an ontological significance beyond Portia's seemingly innocent query.[5]

    The Jew and the "English Jew" in the Early Modern Period

  2. In the English imaginary of the pre-readmission period (ante 1656), the expelled Jew was a Jew frozen in time: no matter what the particular economic circumstances of Jewish life in Europe (or, for that matter the roles of those few Jews living in England prior to 1656) the English perception of the Jews was overdetermined by England's experience with Jewish money-lending in the medieval period. [6]  Thomas Wilson concretizes this association in his Discourse upon Usury, written in 1572, almost three hundred years after the expulsion.  Vilifying usury, Wilson reminds his reader of its most hated practitioners and their banishment from the realm-a punishment he suggests for Christian practitioners of his day: 
    What is the matter that Jewes were so universallye hated wheresoever they come?  For soothe, usurie is one of the chief causes, for they cobble all men that deale with them, and undoe them in the end.  And for thys causes they were hated in England, and so banished wortheleye, with whome I woulde wyshe all these Englishemen were sent that lende their money or their goods whatsoever for gayne, for I take them to be no better then Jewes. (Wilson 232)
    As Joshua Trachtenburg notes, not only was the term "usury" synonymous with Jew in the Middle Ages and later, but the appellation of merchant connoted Jewishness in the English vernacular during this period (188-189).[7]

  3. English fear of the Jews arose primarily from paranoia around proto-capitalist activities such as usury with which Jews were intimately associated.  Understanding usury as the "labor pains of capitalism" Jacques Le Goff describes the epistemological trauma that accompanied capitalist activities during the medieval period:
    The sudden eruption and spread of the monetary economy threatened old Christian values.   Capitalism, a new economic system, was ready to take shape.  If it did not require new technology to get started, it at least made wholesale use of practices that had always been condemned by the church. (Le Goff 10)
    The fact that money-lending was perhaps the most visible symptom of this new economic relationship did nothing to help the perception of Jews either in the early modern period or in the Middle Ages.  Money-lending depended upon a discredited perception of money's possibilities-one that focused on money's unnatural generation through the charging of interest-on its transvaluative capacities.[8]  Jewish economic activity in these areas enabled a conception of their identity that stressed a diabolic otherness: in the early modern imagination, the cabal was initially defined through Jewish economic activity.[9] 

  4. Debates about the effects of the medieval English Jewish community and its economic activities on the English imaginary have ranged from Stephen Greenblatt's dismissive remark that "there was no Jewish question in Marlowe's England; there were scarcely any Jews" to an assertion of Shakespeare's irreducible Jewishness by some less reputable critics.[10]  Although the English "Jewish" question has been studied in great detail by historians of the period, literary critics had paid little attention to it until James Shapiro's work, Shakespeare and the Jews. Shapiro exhaustively surveys the literary and historical analyses of the English Jewish question. His analysis affirms the existence of a Marrano Jewish community in early modern London and questions the reasons behind the relative lack of material on this subject in early modern English studies.  Although his critique of historical omissions is important, what is most useful in Shapiro's book is his discussion of the Jewish presence in early modern England.  Having proved a minor Marrano/Jewish presence in early modern London, Shapiro abandons the counting game and concludes that what is interesting is  "not the raw numbers of Jews . . . as much as the kind of cultural preoccupation they became" (Shapiro 88).

  5. Shakespeare's representation of Shylock is a telling symptom of the unique perception of Jews that dominated the English consciousness at this time.  Apart from the consistency with which the Jew is figured in the English consciousness (as economic parasite), what is distinctive about the English preoccupation with the Jews is its continuity, given that there was no visible Jewish presence in England during this time.  While the Jewish question for other countries was a "living" issue-in the sense of there being active Jewish communities in many areas of Eastern-Europe at this time--English-Jewish stereotyping stemmed primarily from the English experience of the Middle Ages.  Thus, the English imaginary around the Jewish question was obscure and bogey-like: the characterization of Jews as economic parasites in their anti-English/Christian activities resulted from a kind of historical immaturity-a vision that depended upon the oft-recited tales about Jews that appeared in the nation's collective folk-lore.[11] As John Russell Brown notes in his introduction to the Merchant of Venice, "In England at this time, the Jews were not a people to fear, but were rather a fabulous and monstrous bogey belonging to remote times and places." Thus, at a time when Jews were integrated into diverse professions in other countries, English writers persisted in their association of Jews with usury, "sharp dealing" and counterfeiting. 

  6. In his study, European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism, Jonathan Israel notes the predilection in historiography of the early modern period to "treat the early modern period in Jewish history as basically just an extension of the Jewish Middle Ages."  Repudiating such an interpretation, Israel claims "that there is much to commend the drawing of a firm dividing-line between the medieval and early modern epochs in the historical experience and consciousness of western Jewry" (23).  Shylock's characterization, then, is a profoundly inaccurate representation of Jews' economic and social location in communities outside of England and France at this time.  Jewish usurers, while still extant, were increasingly becoming a rarity. They were supplanted, instead, by a new class of Jewish professionals-doctors, notaries, and merchants-who together drastically changed Jewish customs and life in Eastern Europe and Germany.[12]

    The Merchant and the Jew[13]

  7. While the Jew in the English imagination was a sort of bogey-man, embodied in the character of Shylock as bloodthirsty, vengeful and intractably anti-Christian, Shylock nevertheless functions as a palliative figure in the play.  Precisely because of his intractable Jewishness, he allows the early modern audience to reassert a needed epistemological divide between the (disreputable) merchant-Jew and the new breed of heroic commodity adventurers that began to dominate the (Christian) mercantile landscape.[14] The growth of early modern capitalism made the easy equivalence between merchant and Jew an epistemological impossibility.  To assuage anxieties around merchantry's inherently Jewish taint, Shylock must become super-Jew-too Jewish for even the other Jews in the play.[15]  The title of Shakespeare's play is a truncated symptom of the confusion of terms in this period.  As Martin Yaffe points out in his study, Shylock and the Jewish Question,
    Shakespeare's title . . . has the peculiarity of distributing the announced description of the play's one protagonist among more than one of its city dwellers, perhaps even among all of them to some extent, whether citizen (like Antonio) or mere resident. (48)
    Yaffe sees this peculiar vagueness as stemming from the commonalties that exist between Shylock and Antonio with regard to profession. Yaffe observes that Shakespeare "homogenizes his characters to a remarkable extent, by indicating their common dependence on a given political setting" (48).   In contrast to Yaffe, I would suggest that it is just this anxiety-provoking homogeneity that the play alleviates by dramatically resurrecting the bogey-like medieval Jew against which the early modern merchant-adventurer (Antonio and his ilk) might be contrasted.  The title is less an indicator of an enlightened recognition of the homogeneity of Christian and Jew than a reminder of the anxiety-provoking equivalence that it is the play's task to remedy.  Although for a medieval English audience the "Merchant of Venice" was most likely "the Jew of Venice," by the late 1500's burgeoning companies of merchants made such an association increasingly problematic.  Faced with a general public that viewed their financial dealings with considerable suspicion, the trading companies were at pains to avoid the taint of Jewishness that pervaded perceptions of their business practices, especially those that frequently employed usury as a means of accruing capital.  In a sermon dedicated to the London Company of Merchants, Daniel Price expressed his dismay about anachronistic understandings of the merchant in the popular imagination:
    That Aristotle detested them and their life, that the ancient laws did not admit any merchant to bear any office . . . that Cicero affirmeth their getting of money to be most odious, giving this reason . . . that they get their living by lying.  I hope the merchants of our time deserve not to be so thought of.  Many of these merchants were Jews, gentiles, heathens, infidels . . . I hope none such are to be found among you, for you are Christians. (Merchant 239)
    While Shylock is a sufficiently unsavory character against which to contrast the kindlier, gentler merchant that Price describes, his character does not allay anxieties wrought by another aspect of early modern capitalist relationships.  Unlike Christopher Marlowe's Barabas in The Jew of Malta who embodies the worst excesses of the speculative economy, Shylock does not represent a capitalist bogey as much as a medieval one.[16] He does not work to undo the economic bases of Venetian society, but rather insists on medieval forms of valuation that were antiquated by this time.  As such, Shylock at once seems to guarantee the literalism of contract-based relationships that seemed threatened by speculation while at the same time strengthening his characterization as an economic parasite par excellence-demanding Antonio's blood for currency.   Shylock here reflects an obsession with economic rationality and transparency that were singular features of the debate around the market and its effects on social relationships.  In his book, Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theatre in Anglo-American Thought, Jean-Christophe Agnew explains the economic logic that informed the relocation of the market outside city boundaries:
    By assigning an extraterritorial status to commodity transactions and by circumscribing those same transactions with a variety of ceremonial and festive practices, city leaders sought to turn the market's explosive aspect to creative and controlled account. . . . Here, as elsewhere, the point was to set clear bounds upon trade's mysterious capacity to bring incommensurable qualities meanings and values into equivalence through (what Plato and Aristotle considered) the purely fictive convention of the money form . . . (25)
    In an ironic confirmation of this ethos of transparency and legitimacy of bonds, we see Antonio while chained to his jailkeeper defending Shylock's insistence on the letter of the law as the sole basis for reliable economic exchange:[17]
    The duke cannot deny the course of law:
    For the commodity that strangers have
    With us in Venice, it if be denied
    Will much impeach the justice of the state,
    Since that the trade and profit of the city 
    Consisteth of all nations (III. iv. 26-31).
    By functioning (in one sense) as the erstwhile representative of the unbreakable sanctity of bonds, Shylock frames Antonio in an uncomfortable epistemology of economic relationships.  For Antonio, transvaluation is the new norm: what was once sacrosanct because untransformable (bonds/contracts) are, within his economic ethos, always a possible object of transformation.  His speculative ethos is exemplified most clearly in his exchange with Bassanio where he seems at first glance to sacrifice all for simple friendship's sake. In his article, "The Ideology of the Merchant of Venice" Michael Ferber confirms Antonio's "complicity" with the proxemics of the speculative economy even in his dealings with Bassanio:
    The play's general problem, the congruence of spiritual or moral values, may be adumbrated in its title.  It is easy to imagine a play about the friendship of two men put to the text . . . in a plot where practical, worldly concerns are not at issue . . . They might both be soldiers of fortune like Bassanio, devoted comrades-at-arms now on leave in a bewildering sophisticated city . . . But Antonio . . . happens to be a merchant. (431)
    According to Ferber, Antonio is a hero, but a hero encumbered by his identity.  As a merchant, Antonio can not but occupy an immanently ambiguous position morally. As Ferber continues, "Shakespeare makes Antonio a hero, but the strain is evident; if anything [Antonio] seems to collaborate in it [his ruin], and among the reasons he does so is his full complicity in the way things are done in Venice, even by his enemy Shylock" (451).

  8. The epistemological contrast between Antonio and Shylock is perhaps most evident in the latter's comments on the kinds of speculative trading ventures in which Antonio is engaged.  Considering the economic riskiness of Antonio's ventures, Shylock remarks to Bassanio:
    [M]y meaning in saying he is a good man, is to have you understand me that he is sufficient--yet his means are in supposition: he hath an argosy bound for Triples, another to the Indies, I understand moreover upon the Rialto, he hath a third at Mexico, a fourth for England, and other ventures he hath squandered abroad,--but ships are but boards, sailors but men, there be land-rats, water-rats, water-thieves, and land-thieves (I mean pirates), and then there is the peril of waters, winds, and rocks . . . (I. iii. 13-23).
    Shylock's anachronism rests in his refusal to adopt the new ethic of transvaluation that Antonio embraces.  While the latter becomes the representative of an economy based on speculation and risk, Shylock is stubbornly medieval in his insistence on the specific requirements of the bond, particularly the one between him and Antonio.[18]  As a result, Shylock becomes monstrous to the audience of the play precisely because he refuses to engage in the new ethic of transvaluation that where bonds of flesh or friendship are effortlessly transformed into bonds of currency.   While Antonio might easily be seen as a Christian Shylock at this point in the play, Shakespeare is at pains to rescue him from such an association.  By rejecting usury, Antonio becomes a new kind of merchant adventurer barely supported by the exigencies of the market-Christian yet capitalist, adventurous yet honorable: an identity that, as the play demonstrates, cannot survive within the new market economy.[19]

  9. Shylock himself recognizes the danger that he as a Jew and broker of bonds poses to Antonio.  Disingenuously, Shylock works to assuage the fears of Bassanio by acknowledging the inherent economic irrationality of the bond itself when understood in the context of transvaluation and speculation.
    O father Abram, what these Christians are,
    Whose own hard dealings teaches them suspect
    The thoughts of others!  Pray you tell me this,--
    If he should break this day what should I gain
    By the exaction of the forfeiture?
    A pound of man's flesh taken from a man,
    Is not so estimable, profitable neither
    As flesh of muttons, beefs, or goats,--I say,
    To buy his favor, I extend this friendship . . . (I. ii. 156-164)
    Shylock's protests to Bassanio, however, only confirm for the audience his unholy bloodlust. In his 1562 tract against usury, Thomas Wilson warns his readers against the suspicious meekness that characterizes the usurer's initial attitude towards his potential client.   Likening a crusade against usurers to King Edgare's crusade against the wolves, Wilson writes:
    Now yf your lordeship, with others, could procure by your good meanes that in your tyme there mighte bee never a usurers heade in England, I doe thinke you shoulde doe a greater good deede to thys lande, than ever was doone by the kyllinge of wolfes.  For these bee the greedie cormoraunte wolfes in deede that ravyn up both beaste and man, who whyles they walk in sheepeskynne, doe covertlye devoure the flocke of England under coloure of their wealth and counterfeit honesty.  (182)
    Although Shylock plays lip service to an ethic of transvaluation that he does not intend to honor, his role as usurer nevertheless inserts him within the kind of a relationship of speculation that his literalist economic bent would seem to disallow.  Here we notice an important contradiction that further alienates Shylock from his early modern audience.  Shylock appears to rely upon an economic epistemology of equivalency (where pounds of flesh can not be rendered currency) even though his role as usurer places him within just such a system of transvaluative exchange. Medieval in his insistence on his bond, Shylock nevertheless subsists within an economic order that even Antonio sees as founded in an unholy magic of economic relationships:[20] 
    That Shylock should "choose" to do wrong reminds us, though, of the simultaneously most damning and yet socially and ideologically most reassuring charge to be leveled at usurers in Shakespeare's time, namely that usurers are heretics, willful choosers of the wrong course and, therefore, most deserving of unqualified reproach. (Moisan 194)
    Drawing from Henry Smith's 1591 Examination of Usury,  Thomas Moisan confirms the English association of usury with heresy: "[O]ne saith well . . . that our usurers are Heretics, because after manie admonitions yet they maintaine their errours, & persist in it obstinately as Papists do in Poperie" (qtd in Moisan 194).

  10. In distinguishing the "merchant of Venice" from the "Jew of Venice" the play proleptically positions Shylock as the Jewish magician of old, breeding money through the debts of Christians rather than the lambs of Jacob and Esau.  As Lisa Jardine remarks in her essay "Alien Intelligence" the "barrenness of money was a fundamental tenet of early modern Christianity-so the vividly literal idea of 'making money' is fraught with difficulty" (107).[21] Although "making money" was commonplace in England at this time--so much so that even Elizabeth's parliament attempted to regulate the rates of interest that could be charged-anti-usury tracts nevertheless insist on its essentially alien and diabolical nature.[22] And as Jews were almost always historically "remembered" in these tracts by their usurious lineage, they are necessarily tainted by the sense of cabalistic mystery that attended the representation of usury in these writings. 

  11. Wilson's Discourse upon Usury is an interesting document to examine for its subtle "jewing" of the merchant-usurer in its fictional recreation of a debate between a preacher, a doctor, a lawyer, and a merchant named appropriately, Gromel Gayner.  The Preacher, Ockerfoe, is usury's most vigorous prosecutor in this discourse. His strategy against the merchant, predictably usury's most vigorous defender, is to insist that usury falls beyond the bonds of Christian behavior, thus insinuating that its practitioners are not Christians. Given the Preacher's multiple mentions of Jewish usury (four to be exact, in a peroration of twenty pages) it is reasonable to assume that the Jew is posed as the existential "other" of the Christian-if, in other words, the Merchant is not a Christian, then he is made a Jew: 
    For you oughte to lende freely unto all men, riche and poore, lord and gentlemene, kyng and caysar so that God, being the lord of the ryche as well as of the poore, hath utterly and precisely forbidden all usurie amongst all men that are of the household of faith, except perhaps you will saye, that ryche men are no christians. (253)
    Earlier, Ockenfoe also intimates that the Merchant's behavoir is unchristian:
    Lawyer:  . . . [W]ho I pray you woulde lende but to have some benefite of his money?  And is that any harme when bothe do gayne?
    Merchant: Gods blessyng of your hart for so saying, for I did never lende money in my lyfe but for gayne, and whether my neyghbour gayned, or noe, I knowe not.  I wyshed well unto hum, but by Saynt Marye, I woulde bee sure firset to doe well myselfe, whatsoever came of him.
    : Herein you wanted charitie, and shewed yourselfe not to be a perfect Christian. (202)
    In a later passage, the Doctor amplifies the "jewing" of the lending Merchant:
    The chauses that have moved wyse and godly men to deteste usury besides the plaine prohibiton are diverse and substancial, and therefore woorthy to bee considered most diligently.  The Iewe, that hath used thys horrible sinne most above all others, and might lawfullye use the same, before Christs coming, upon any straunger, as appeareth plaine in Exodus, hath so robbed the Christians wheresoever hee came, that his evill lyvinge seene, hee is banished out of the most places in christendome, and worthely, for surely that common weale and country cannot longe stande in prosperous estate and welfare, where merchants and all others become usurers.  And no better do I call them then Iewes, yea, worse than any infidel that willing lyve by the onely gayne of their money. (283)
    The proxemics of the Merchant's economic survival mark him as other in this text in ways that are identical to the Jews of the Middle Ages:  he is not the heroic merchant-adventurer whose commodities sail openly on the winds of chance, but rather a character embodying the hidden parasitism that is necessary for the market's effective functioning.

  12. Shylock's house is one such metonymic indicator of his economic parasitism.  Not only were the homes of Jews physically different from their Christian counterparts (the homes of prominent Jews were built of stone rather than wood), but these residences were associated with the economic role of the Jews in England. Interestingly, Jewish homes were frequently located near royal residences so that resident Jews might obtain protection in times of riot from royal authorities (Pollins 21).

  13. Jewish homes were frequently perceived as the repositories of vast riches, a conception that led, especially in times of social unrest, to their destruction in the hope of recovering the presumed wealth inside.  William of Newburgh, a thirteenth-century monk, chronicles the York riots of March 16-17 1190 in his History of English Affairs (1201):
    The zeal of the Christians against the Jews in England . . . broke out fiercely.  It was not indeed sincere, that is, solely for the sake of the faith, but in rivalry for the luck of others or from envy of their good fortune. . . . [M]any of the province of York plotted against the Jews, not able to suffer their opulence, when they themselves were in need, and, without any scruple of Christian conscience, thirsting for the blood of infidels from greed or booty. . . . Some of these, having given up their estates to them [the Jews] for the money they had received, were now oppressed by great want; some, bound by their own sureties, were pressed by the exactions of the Treasury to satisfy the royal usurers.[23]  One stormy night no small part of the city became on fire either by chance, or as is believed, by arson perpetrated by the conspirators, so that the citizens were occupied with their own houses in fear of the fire spreading . . . And while the fire gloomily increased in strength, the robbers seized their booty and left the burning house, and by help of darkness retired unobserved and heavy laden [having, of course, murdered all the occupants of the house first]. (147)
    Although William of Newburgh chastises the rioters in this Chronicle, the invasion of Jewish homes and the destruction of their occupants-property and persons-was the dominant expression of English rage during the Middle Ages.  These pogroms were cathartic for several reasons: they destroyed a visible symbol of Jewish prosperity (the stone house) while at the same time invading, and thus psychically cleansing a culturally fraught site of suspicion and fear.  The question of what went on in Jewish homes was an overwhelming obsession to the English at this time and later-as is attested to by the various communal strictures against entering Jewish homes.[24]

  14. The invasion of Shylock's house-by his daughter no less-is the wished-for dream of the English who still struggled with "the Jewish question" although freed from a living Jewish presence for centuries.[25] Not only was the Jewish home a site of potential fear, but it was also understood to intermix economic and familial practice.  The role of Jewish males as money-lenders could not be separated from their roles as pater familias.     Luther's attack on the Jewish usurers in his "The Jews and Their Lies," for example, focuses on the idleness of the Jewish home as the clearest manifestation of exploitation: "they, pious crew, idle away their days at the fireside in laziness, feasting and display."  Thus, Shylock's admonition to Jessica to "look to his house . . . For I did dream of money-bags tonight" places him (even in his own psyche) within this particular ideological trope of the English imaginary by rhetorically collapsing the home with his economic survival. Shylock's cry "my daughter and my ducats, my ducats and my daughter" confirms the connection and sets up the Jew's home as the appropriate site of Christian economic revenge.  Jessica's robbery of the home's riches (her self-gilding) is an epistemic confirmation of the way in which the home, its inhabitants and economic positioning are all one to the English (and ostensibly to the Jew): "Jes. I will make fast the doors and gild myself/With some more ducats, and be with you straight" (II. vii. 49-50).[26] 

  15. The relational context of bond-making is also what finally distinguishes the merchant from the Jew in the play. Bonding continues as a trope throughout the play and causes us to question the supposed distinction between Shylock's bonding of Antonio and the Christians bonding of each other.[27]  For if Shylock is the economic parasite par excellence--breeding money and insisting on blood--how do we understand the relationships between the other characters in the play-the Christians whose bonds with each other are also constitutively economic in character?  Antonio's bond with Bassanio renders economic rationalization invisible.  It is instead based in a quintessentially Christian ethos--one of faith rather than the cold logic of economic calculation.  While Shylock calculates his bond (or purposely miscalculates, so that Antonio will be in his debt) Antonio seems to bind Bassanio to himself with the simple interest of faith and good will.  Bassanio's parable of economic faith relies heavily on the framing of such relations in terms of child-like innocence and good will:
    In my school-days when I had lost one shaft,
    I shot his fellow of the self-same flight
    The self-same way, with more advised watch
    To find the other forth, and by adventuring both,
    I oft found both: I urge this childhood proof
    Because what follows is pure innocence.
    I owe you much, and (like a willful youth)
    That which I owe is lost, but if you please
    To shoot another arrow that self way
    Which you did shoot the first, I do not doubt,
    (As I will watch the aim) or to find both,
    Or bring your latter hazard back again.
    And thankfully rest debtor for the first. (I. i. 140-151)[28] 
    Of course, Antonio's bond does not come without an "interest" payment of its own.  In some sense, Bassanio's flesh (the arrow) is what Antonio claims at the end of the play, the exchange of which is signified by the former's willingness to part with Portia's ring on behalf of Antonio.  

  16. The different kinds of bonds reach their points of contention and eventual (if uncomfortable) resolution in the trial scene.  The bonds here are framed by the anxious association of merchant-capitalism and (Jewish) usury with which the play grapples.  The literalist rhetoric of Shylock, for example, is an uncomfortable reminder of the rhetoric of English pro-usury pamphlets in the early modern period, the most noteworthy of which is perhaps Robert Filmer's defense of usury, entitled Quaestio Quadlibetica or a Discourse whether it may be Lawful to take use for money (London, 1653).  Filmer here relies heavily on a literalist interpretation of the Biblical discussions of usury in ways that resemble Shylock's own parsing of the law of the bond.  Dissecting each Biblical mention of usury for its exact prescription and attendant loopholes, Filmer's defense reads almost as a parody of itself, and when considered alongside the play-text, resonates uncomfortably with Shylock's prosecutorial ethic.  Introducing the subject to his readers, Filmer emphasizes his careful study of the Biblical sources that have been (mis)interpreted as forbidding usurers by readers less perceptive than himself:
    As soon as I had understand in the affaires of this World, I became sensible how grievous it was to lie under the heavy disease of paying Interest, Consideration or Use (term it how you will) for money: And finding it generally condemned by those whose judgments and learning I most esteem, I began to question with myself whether the sinne were not of that nature that I my self in paying did concur in the same offence with the taker. . . . Upon which occasion I began to search farther, and as for Scripture I confess the prohibitions in it seemed to me to have much of the Laws terms for no other than the common-wealth of the Jewes . . . (2)
    Ironically, Filmer's defense of Christian usury necessarily functions as a defense of Jewish usury as well primarily because he legitimates his arguments through a rigorously literalist reading of the Biblical proscriptions against usury.  For Filmer, what the Bible does not explicitly disallow is allowed.  Citing Nehemiah's rebuke of Jews who took interest from members of a community of heathens, Filmer glosses it as follows:
    So then Nehemiah never naming usury, nor mentioning the law against it, but supposing the act of Nobles to be lawfull, but not expedient, doth incline my belief to think that this oppression was not properly called usury, although it had a covenant for gain. . . Any man would think that to rebuke and reclaim men from their sin the way had been to have named it in particular, or the Law by which it was prohibited: but Nehemiah does neither of these, he only tells them, it was not good what they did, and asks them if they ought not to walk in the fear of their God because of the reproach of the heathen their enemies, not because of a particular law against usury. (12)
    Since Deuteronomic law only prevents Jews from lending to each other, Filmer argues that it in no way prevents the Jews (or anyone else) from lending with interest to a stranger.  And since Christians are not Jews, Filmer claims that Jewish laws do not apply to gentile communities:
    To give some brief accompt to the reader of the substance of the scattered arguments in this Tracture, he must know; That my scope and intention is to show that Usury is not where in Scripture forbidden to Christians: but that it is as lawfull as any other contract or bargain, unless the Laws of the Land do prohibit or moderate it as point of state or policy. (14)
    In order to contend with anti-usury tracts such as Robert Fenton's popular Treatise of Usurie (1611), Filmer debunks the anti-usury argument by offering a radically different understanding of the Biblical prohibition. Filmer continues his analysis of the semantic confusion around usury by offering this understanding of God's prohibition:
    I undertake to manifest, that the Definitions of Usury (wherein Dr Downam and Dr. Fenton mainly differ between themsel'es) are neither warrantable by the rules of art; nor justifiable by any proof or ground in Scripture, or by any testimony of antiquity either in Councils or Fathers. . .

    And the lawes given by God about Usury are such as by the Coherence of the Texts, and the Conference of other places, do sheweth that those lawes did only intend a prohibition of taking Usury of such as borrowed in case of extreme necessity, and were so poor that they were in charity to be relieved. (16)
    Where lending to the grievously impoverished might be seen as usury, lending to those who are financially competent is certainly not and may be considered a legitimate application of the practice of interest.  After all, argues Filmer, the lender must be guaranteed some surety, and be reimbursed for his temporary inability to "gain" from the stock of money that he has lent to his client.

  17. While it would be unfair to say that Filmer would agree with Shylock's reasoning in the trial scene, Filmer's rhetoric of literalism is nevertheless echoed by Shylock in his insistence on the letter of the bond with Antonio, rather than the spirit.  Like Filmer, Shylock willfully ignores the spirit of the bond: he refuses to commute Antonio's debt into anything but the pound of flesh stipulated.  Filmer, likewise, blinds himself (and tries to blind his reader) to the spirit of the Christian ethic which views usury as immoral and unchristian in all cases.  Like Shylock, Filmer points out the hypocritical ways in which the religious of his time have tried to disguise usury as charity.  Discussing the "mountains of piety" that were raised to relieve the poor ruined by the usury of the Jews, Filmer points out that even the managers of this charitable store charged interest:
    A mountain of piety is a stock of Money raised by the charity of good people, who observing the poor ruined by the Usury of Jewes, did voluntarily contribute good store at treasure, whereby they upon security might have money at low rate to relieve their wants, which because the mass is great, and the thing is pious and charitable in itself, is called a mountain of piety.  But in respect the officers and other charges incident unto it cannot be had without some emoluement, therefore the borrower pays somewhat by the month for the lone of that he receives. (19)
    Thus, while Shylock is at once a resurrection of the medieval Jewish usurer of old in order to serve as a palliative contrast to the "Antonian" merchant, he is also a reminder of the debate about usurers that dominated the English landscape at this time.  The English usurer, as represented in the works of Wilson and others, was constituted as monstrous in his own right--Wilson even goes so far to say that the English usurer is worse than the Jew: 
    I [Preacher in Wilson's Discourse] Shall say: they [English usurers] are worse than Jewes.  For go wither you will throughout Christendom and deale with them[Jews] you shall have under tenne in the hundredth, yea, sometimes for six in their handes, whereas English usurers exceede all goddes mercye, and will take they care not how much, wythout respect had to the partye that borroweth what losse, daunger, hinderaunce soever the borrower susteyneth. (232)[29]
    's argument draws considerable power from his comparison of the English usurer with the Jew.. To be worse than the Jews-in monetary or in any other matter-is to enter a realm from which moral rescue was almost impossible.  And it was precisely this fear of being "Jewed" that animated both defenses of merchants and Antonio's characterization.

  18. Set against the context of such debates, the relevant audience of Portia's "mercy" speech reaches far beyond the figure of Shylock.  Yet the play is anxious to collapse these unsavory practices of English merchants and moneylenders within the figure of Shylock.  He is made to contain, however uncomfortably, the usurious and unpopular facets of the English merchant, even if this resolution is subject to some leakage given the cultural context of continued English usury.  Like the purging of Jews that occurred in the English Middle Ages, the play attempts to purge the usurious and hence (Jewish) aura that tainted the merchant-class at this time.   Rather than the subject of a purge, then, the Jew is the agent of one-leaching out the bad blood from the semiotics surrounding merchantry and capitalism at this time.  In the trial scene, the play's audience is invited, with Bassanio, Portia and Antonio to "void its collective rheum" upon Shylock-to spit out, in other words, the Jewish taint that semiotically inflected the idea of the merchant in the early modern period.

  19. The vicious absurdity of Shylock's literalism encourages the view of the Jew as a resurrection not only of the Jewish usurer of England's past but also of the short-sighted economic logic of the Middle Ages.  Unlike the new ethic of speculation that allowed for the formation of the merchant-adventurer, Shylock is framed as a mad literalist-assigning the letter of the bond a sanctity that is incompatible with a capitalist ethos of continual transvaluation.  Shylock's exchange with Portia, when disguised as a judge, exaggerates the former's bloodthirsty literalism and its attendant villainy:
    Por.                             Why this bond is forfeit
    And lawfully but this the Jew may claim
    A pound of flesh, to be by him cut off
    Nearest the merchant's heart: be merciful
    Take thrice thy money, bid me tear the bond.
    Shy. When it is paid, according to the tenour.
    It doth appear you are a worthy judge,
    You know the law, your exposition
    Hath been most sound: I charge you by the law,
    Whereof you are a well-deserving pillar,
    Proceed to judgment: by my soul I sear,
    There is no power in the tongue of man
    To alter me,-I stay here on my bond.
    Ant. Most heartily I do beseech the court
    To give the judgment.
    Por.                             Why then thus it is,--
    You must prepare your bosom for his knife.
    Shy. O noble judge! O excellent young man!
    Por.  For the intent and purpose of the law
    Hath full relation to the penalty,
    Which here appeareth due upon the bond.
    Shy. 'Tis very true: O wise and upright judge,
    How much more elder art thou than thy looks.
    Por. Therefore lay bare your bosom.
    Shy.                             Ay, his breast,
    So says the bond, doth it not noble judge?
    "Nearest his heart," those are the very words [my italics]. (IV. i.  227-250)
    Portia's apparent descent into a similarly implacable literalism has been characterized by critics negatively, who see her as "sinking" to the level of Shylock's medieval madness.[30] I would argue, however, that Portia's entrapment of Shylock is more of a cathartic staging of purging and expulsion to which I alluded earlier.  By catching Shylock in the web of his own making, Portia resurrects the pleasing historical memory of the expulsion of the Jews from England under the direction of Edward I.  Forbidden usury yet prevented from practicing any other profession, medieval English Jews were necessarily doomed by their own actions (of money-lending), much as Shylock is condemned by the bond that he himself creates with Antonio.  In begging for mercy, Shylock acknowledges the way in which his livelihood and his life are interconnected-much as they were for Antonio and other "victims" of (Jewish) usury for which Shakespeare stages retribution:
    Nay, take my life and all, pardon not that, --
    You take my house, when you do take the prop
    That doth sustain my house: you take my life
    When you do take the means whereby I live. (IV. i. 370-374)
    The play achieves a further victory that eluded the medieval English in their relations with the Jews.  Shylock is made to convert-albeit against his own will. Through this forced conversion, the "voiding of collective rheum" is complete-not only is Jewish usury defeated and the new merchant-class freed from its uncomfortable tainting, but Shylock is ontologically eradicated and made to subsist within a quintessentially Christian economic order in which the merchant-formerly known as Jew-no longer exists.

[1] Many thanks to the "Artist Formerly Known as Prince" for inspiring this article's title.  I should note that this title has been used in a different form by Linda Charnes in her discussion of Hamlet; this article is entitled "The Hamlet Formerly Known as Prince," and may be found in Philosophical Shakespeares, edited by Hugh Grady.  

[2] For a detailed discussion of post-Holocaust representations of Shylock (and attendant controversies) see Robert King's "Shylock After Auschwitz" Chicago Review 40:4 (1994): 59-67 and John Gross, Shylock: A Legend and its Legacy (1994).

[3] Of course, historiographically, the economic and historical contexts are inseparable; however, much literary criticism of this play tends to telescope the issues of usury and alienness rather than contextualizing these two critical trouble spots within a sustained consideration of the play's economic horizon, i.e. early modern capitalism. For a very recent example of the problem I mention, see Stephen Greenblatt's recent reading of the Merchant of Venice in his book, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (Norton, 2004).

[4] A notable exception to this relative lack of discussion of capitalism in its various forms in The Merchant of Venice is a recent collection edited by Linda Woodbridge entitled, Money and the Age of Shakespeare: Essays in New Economic Criticism (Palgrave, 2003).  Three articles in this collection are devoted to The Merchant of Venice.  All consider the influence of monetary and economic theory upon the portrayal of the Christians of the play: ie, Antonio, Bassanio and Portia.  None of the articles, surprisingly, considers Shylock in light of the emergent capitalist market in early modern England.  And, although Eric Spencer in his fine article, "Taking Excess, Exceeding Account" acknowledges the ontological quandaries of the new economy, noting that money was a "great equivocator", and appropriately citing the famous speech in Timon of Athens (4.3. 28-30) to buttress his point, he does not consider the way in which Shylock's character-as usurer par excellence-works to differentiate the new breed of Christian capitalists from their Jewish forbearers.  It is this concern that is the focus of my article and which is critical for a complete understanding of the role of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice in particular and the English collective imaginary in general.

[5] Until the late sixteenth century, the word usurer was synonymous with both merchant and Jew.  Consequently, a semantic ellipsis resulted wherein the word merchant was intimately associated with Jew since Jews fulfilled this function for hundreds of years before the advent of Christian usury.  For a more detailed discussion of the etymology of usurer and merchant, see Bernard Grebainer, The Truth About Shylock, especially chapter 3 "Jingler of the Guinea: The Usurer."

[6] The debate around readmission also occasioned frequent expressions of anti-Semitic fear and suspicion:  One such example is William Prynne's Short Demurrer where he writes passionately against readmission: "the Jews themselves in all ages having been principle firebrands of sedition both in their own land, and all places where they have dispersed (qtd in Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews, 61).  For a detailed discussion of English perceptions of Jews from the Middle Ages to their return in the 1650's, see David Katz, The Jews in the History of England: 1475-1650.

[7] There is an interesting epistemological slippage here that rendered the "merchant" and the "Jew" as ontologically identical.  Since mercantile activity was so closely associated with usury in the popular imagination, and since the usurer was always already the Jew, the merchant was necessarily "Jewed" by his assumed participation in usury.  Thus, we have the following logical fallacy that recurs in discussions of merchants: All usurers are Jews; all merchants are usurers, therefore all merchants are "Jews." For a discussion of the etiology of this conception see Pollins, The Economic History of the Jews, Roth, History of the Jews in the Renaissance and Andrew McCall, The Medieval Underworld, esp. 281 and Joshua Trachtenberg's The Devil and the Jews.

[8] In transvaluation of any kind, value becomes embedded in a particular semiotic of value; the twenty dollar bill, for example, is not itself worth twenty dollars; the bill is simply a semiotic of value-its value resides elsewhere (in our collective agreement about the value of particular denominations).  In renaissance writings about language, symbols (such as metaphors) were frequently suspect as mechanisms for the perversion of meaning (see George Puttenham, The Art of Poesie); this suspicion also extended to other sign systems of value.

[9] Cotgrave's 1611 definition of the "cabal" affirms the common connection between Jews and magic:

Cabale: [f.] The Jewes Caball; or, a hidden science of diuine mysteries, which the rabbies affirme, was reuealed, and deliuered, together with the Law, unto Moses, and from him deriued, by successiue relation, vnto posteritie; (yet is it, in truth, no better than a vaine rabble of their owne tradition.)

[10]  For a thorough discussion of questionable contemporary analyses of Shakespeare, Jewishness and The Merchant of Venice, see Shapiro's Shakespeare and the Jews, especially pages 80-88.

[11] This folklore was primarily composed of Chronicle sources from the Middle ages and renaissance, such as those of William of Norwich noted above, as well as the chronicles of Ralph Holinshed and John Foxe and especially the medieval guild plays that dramatized the life of Christ. 

[12] For a fuller discussion of the effect of professionalization upon Jewish life in Eastern Europe, see Jonathan Israel's fine study, European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism.

[13] While Walter Cohen's article "The Merchant of Venice and the Possibilities of Historical Criticism" is an exhaustive account of the play within the context of emerging capitalism, it does not consider the way in which capitalism complicated understanding of the identity of the merchant and as such, imbricated figures like Antonio within an anxiety-producing nexus of rhetorical instability occasioned by this economic revolution.

[14] In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there was a concerted attempt to reframe the merchant in heroic terms.  Some pertinent examples may be found in John Wheeler's A Treatise of Commerce (1601) and Daniel Price's "The Merchant: A Sermon Preached at Paul's Cross."  Wheeler claims that merchantry is the cornerstone of England's financial well-being: "[T]his kind of life [merchantry] may be exercised and used with commendations, and without loss of one jot of honor in those who are honorable, or of eminent degree . . . Whereunto I add this further, that without merchandise, no ease or commodious living continueth long in any state or commonwealth. . . (Merchant 232).  And lest we object that Wheeler, as the secretary of the Society of Merchant Adventurers, had a compelling motivation to defend the merchant against disparagement, similar glorification came from different primarily religious directions. Daniel Price's "The Merchant: A Sermon Preached at Paul's Cross" also characterizes the merchant as the hero of the English state: "The doctrine I observe out of the word merchant, is this: that the state of a Christian is not in idle vain speculation, but must be a careful, painful, diligent, walking in his vocation. . . . The fool foldeth his hands, and eateth up his own flesh. . . . But contrariwise, the wise merchant, the true Christian, he seeketh, he taketh pains, he laboreth, he endeavoreth to follow hard to the mark . . . no peril, no danger . . . can confront him" (Merchant 237).

[15] Even Tubal, Shylock's friend and the only other Jew in the play, is presented as a relatively sympathetic character. In his exchange with Shylock, Tubal remarks that like Shylock, Antonio also has also had "ill luck" (III.i.73).  Tubal thus likens Shylock's anguish to Antonio's and thereby insinuates an empathetic bond between the two.

[16] The following soliloquy from Marlowe's Jew of Malta is perhaps the best example of the "bogey-man" that a figure like Barabas represented for the early modern English audience:

I walk abroad o' night
And will kill sick people groaning under the walls;
Sometimes I go about and poison wells . . .
Then after that was I an usurer,
And with extorting, cozening, forfeiting,
And tricks belonging unto brokery,
I fill'd the jails with bankrupts in a year,
And with young orphans planted hospitals,
And every moon made some or other mad,
And now and then one hang himself for grief,
Pinning upon his breast a long great scroll
How I with interest tormented him (II. iii. 167-214)

[17] Lisa Freinkel notes Shylock's particularist epistemology in her article, "The Merchant of Venice: 'Modern' Anti-Semitism and the Veil of Allegory." Commenting upon the punning of gentle/Gentile that occurs throughout the play, Freinkel writes, "The pun on gentle/Gentile . . . reveals that ways in which Shylock stands for a resistant particularity-for the principle of difference itself" (Hugh Grady, Ed. Shakespeare and Modernity, 134).  While I agree with Freinkel's characterization of Shylock as "standing for difference itself," I think it is important to consider the context of this difference-making.  It is the task of this chapter to assert that the particularism of Shylock-his medieval bond-making-marks him as different from the newly emerging merchant-class-the Christian merchant-adventurers who must be "de-Jewed" in the English popular imagination.  Thus, Shylock's difference is a particular difference, specifically relating to the philosophy of exchange and valuation.  Shylock is monstrous to the play's audience because he refuses to convert economically and religiously.

[18]   The discourse of the marketplace and the way it which it threatened to sunder not only value from its material expression (gold, silver) but muddied the reliability of communication even in a non-economic context was remarked by such writers as Francis Bacon.  In his Organum, Bacon focuses on the marketplace's creation of "idols" of discourse that obstruct the clear understanding of meaning and message,  "There are also Idols formed by the intercourse and association of men with each other, which I call Idols of the Market-place, on account of the commerce and consort of men there.  For it is by discourse that men associate; and words are imposed according to the apprehension of the vulgar.  And therefore the ill and unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding . . ." Later in the same section of the Organum, Bacon continues, "[T]he idols of the market-place are the most troublesome of all: idols which have crept into the understanding through the alliances of words and names . . .   Whence it comes to pass that the high and formal discussions of learned men end oftentimes in disputes about words and names; with which (according to the use and wisdom of mathematicians) it would be more prudent to begin, and so by means of definitions reduce them to order" (87).  Thus, Bacon ends up prescribing a return to strict ontological correspondence to clear away the obfuscations caused by the proliferation of ambiguous signs in the context of economic and human commerce.

[19] As Ferber explains in "The Ideology of the Merchant of Venice," the distinction between landowner (seigniors) and rich merchants (burghers) was not very clear.  "In the real Venice, it is true, 'seigniors and rich burghers' were the same people: the noble families in the closed Venetian oligarchy were nearly all 'royal merchants.' On the other hand, these same oligarchs whether in commercial, political or military affairs . . . were renowned for their gravity, caution and hard bargaining" (Ferber).

[20] For Antonio's reaction to Shylock's Biblical rationalization of usury (the Jacob/Esau story), see I. 3. 67-8. In regards to the suspicion of sorcery that fed English anxiety about Jewish money-lending, it is important to note that alchemy was said to originate with a Hellentistic Jew, known as "Maria the Jew". The writings of Maria were familiar to early modern readers, so much so that her theories were said to influence such minds as Newton and Goethe (Patai 5).  And, although alchemy and magic were distinct "specialities" to their respective practitioners, alchemists were commonly perceived as magicians in the Western early modern imaginary.  Also, alchemists frequently practiced as physicians, a profession which was clearly associated with Jewishness in Shakespeare's time especially given the collective trauma around the alleged conspiracy against Elizabeth by a Jewish doctor, Roderigo Lopez. (For an interesting discussion on the epistemological interrelationship between alchemy and medicine in the Middle Ages and the renaissance, see Raphael Patai, The Jewish Alchemists, Princeton: 1994).

[21] The argument that usury defies natural law dates back to Aristotle:

The most hated sort of money-making, and with greatest reason, is usury, which makes gain out of money itself, and not from the natural use of it.  For money was intended to be used in exchange, but not to increase at interest.  And this term usury, which means the birth of money from money, is applied to the breeding of money from money because the offspring resembles the parent.  Wherefore of all modes of making money this is the most unnatural (qtd in The Truth about Shylock, 79).

[22] For a detailed discussion of Christian usury in England, see Cecil Roth, History of the Jews in England.

[23] The "state" is here implicated because of their role in assisting the Jews in collecting debts, of which the governing authority took a large percentage.

[24] The chronicle of William of Norwich, an infamous blood libel in English-Jewish chronicles, stresses the dangers inherent in associating with Jews in their homes or communities: "So it came to pass that when the holy boy, ignorant of the treachery that had been planned, had frequent dealings with the Jews, he was taken to task by Godwin the priest . . . and he was prohibited from going in and out among them any more.  .  .  .  But the Jews, annoyed at the thwarting of their designs, tried with all their might to patch up a new scheme of wickedness . . . Accordingly, they found a man . . .  who was a most treacherous fellow and just the fitting person for carrying out their execrable crime . . . they sent him out to find and bring back with him the victim, which , as I said before, had slipped out of their hands" (137).  The chronicle continues by detailing the ways in which William was first feasted at the Jewish home during Passover and then subjected to the tortures of a mock circumcision.  The site of terror and helplessness for the non-Jew in these chronicles is the Jewish home; once captured and taken into the home and community, there seems to be no escape-like the spider that entangles the fly in her web. 

[25] For a further description of the particular form the Jewish question took in the early modern English imaginary, see James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews.

[26] It is important to note that Portia is also economically positioned vis į vis her home, Belmont.  Like Shylock's, her value is literally encased within the halls of Belmont.  This metynomic conflation is indicated by Bassanio's first mention of Portia to Antonio: "In Belmont is a lady richly left . . ." (I. i. 161).  This collapse is further confirmed by the casket game in which choosing the correct encasement (of Portia's image) functions performatively as marriage.  The fact that Portia's image is hidden in a leaden casket, however, differentiates the Christian-Portia from the Jewish Shylock in terms of the logic underlying this metonymical equivalency.  Portia, unlike Shylock, has value in and of herself.

[27] In her article, "Portia's Ring: Unruly Women and the Structure of Exchange" Karen Newman reveals how even the love plot is inflected with a mercantile ethos.  In her betrothal to Bassanio, for example, Newman discusses how Portia refers to herself in the third person-as a thing to be exchanged; as such her persons becomes synechdocally conflated with the ring she gives Bassanio: "[Portia's] account of herself [to Bassanio]  . . . illustrates the exchange between the erotic and economic that characterizes the play's representation of human relations.  The rhetorical distance created by the mercantile metaphor shifts the speech from her more personal commitment to a more formal bond marked by the giving of the ring . Shakespeare Quarterly (38)1:  (Spring 1987), 25. 

[28] Of course, Antonio's bond does not come without an "interest" payment of its own.  In some sense, Bassanio's flesh (the arrow) is what Antonio claims at the end of the play, the exchange of which is signified by the former's willingness to part with Portia's ring on behalf of Antonio.

[29] I am thankful to one of the EMLS readers for pointing out that the question of whether usury is a "Jewing" agent is raised in Richard Brome's The English Moor (1638).

[30] See, for example, Karen Newman's essay "Portia's Ring: Unruly Women and Structures of Exchange in The Merchant of Venice" Shakespeare Quarterly 38(1): 19-33, 30.

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