Christianity versus Judaism in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice

Essay, 2008

9 Pages, Grade: 2+


Christianity versus Judaism in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice

In Shakespeare's Merchant ofVenice the Jewish character of Shylock refers to the biblical story of Jacob tricking his uncle Laban (1.3.68-98) by tampering with the procreative process ofLaban's flock of sheep (Genesis 30.25-43). In the following, I will try to point out why Shylock teils this story, and in which literary context he ruminates upon it. Besides a critical comparison of how his speech interacts with the original biblical story, I will furthermore discuss this analogy foremost in terms of its religious and dramatic functions within the play. Against this background, it will be made evident that 'usury' as a negative Jewish stereotype, presumed by the judging eyes of medieval Christians, is put in the centre of consideration here. It will be argued that as a general declaration in MoV, a superiority of the New Testament to the Old Testament, of Christianity to Judaism, can be derived, and that this conclusion is strongly linked with the majoritarian mindset in Shakespeare's times and cultural sphere, rather than with Shakespeare's personal attitude towards Jews or Judaism, an often supposed attitude of unprovable nature.

After Antonio has told Shylock, whose profession is that of a moneylender, that he himself "neither lend[s] nor borrow[s] / By taking nor by giving of excess" (1.3.56-57), but in "[o]rder to supply the ripe wants of [his] friend / [he would] break a custom" (1.3.58-59), Shylock recounts the biblical story in which Jacob is able to encourage an increase in particolored offspring ofhis uncle Laban's sheep and goats by placing spotted rods before the eyes of the animals which leads to the desired result. According to his agreement with Laban, the offspring belongs to Jacob. Shylock calls the result a "thrift [which] is blessing, if men steal it not" (1.3.87). First of all, it is noticeable that Shylock speaks of Jacob's father as "our holy Abram" (1.3.69), not Abraham. Thus, he only refers to the father of the Isrealites, as he previously speaks of "our sacred nation" (1.3.42), not to the father of all nations which Abram later becomes: "As for Me, behold, My covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham" (Genesis 17.4-5). The literal function of the entire allusion in the shape of an argumentative attempt is tojustify Shylock's gains through interest opposite to the Christian Antonio. The latter at first engages in this argumentative discussion and replies that "this was a venture [...] that Jacob served for- / [...] fashioned by the hand ofheaven" (1.3.88-90). Antonio not only denies that Jacob himself was the producer of the increase, he also does not accept the analogy between living creatures and material objects: "[I]s your gold and silver ewes and rams?" (1.3.92). Therefore, he still doubts the good nature of interest. While Shylock refers to the agreement that Jacob had with his uncle Laban, Antonio is interested whether Jacob himself was the producer of the increase or not. As I will point out, this already alludes to two different religious systems with whose heritage we are confronted here.

The interconnection of Jews and money can be traced back to the story of Judas in the New Testament: "Then one of the twelve, named Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, 'What are you willing to give me to betray Him to you?' And they weighed out thirty pieces of silver to him. From then on he began looking for a good opportunity to betray Jesus." (John 26:14-16). In 1179 Catholic representatives on the III Consilium Lateranum had prohibited moneylending at interest for Christians. It even became part of the seven deadly sins. Every margin of profit that was not achieved by enhancing the condition of goods through someone's own efforts was considered being usury. Since Jews were not allowed to learn a trade or to purchase property, moneylending was one of the remaining types of activity for them in order to make a living. The customers of the disdained Jews were people who were not creditworthy anywhere else, and therefore had to pay high interests. This fact also added to the image of the Jewish profiteer. In the 13thcentury however, the reevaluation of the loan system underwent a fundamental change because of a modified economic system. Then also Christians gradually started to participate in that kind ofbusiness, but fundamentally margins of profit were still connoted negatively. As we see, the argumentative debate between Shylock and Antonio is suddenly over, when Shylock compares financial increase with the natural process of breeding, and moreover, ascribes this natural process to the efforts not of God, but of a human being, in this case himself: "I make it breed as fast" (1.3.93). Here, Shylock refers to an Aristotelian argument argument against money, an inert object, breeding itself in an unnatural way. Antonio takes Shylock's probable malicious humour literally here. This is ironic since it is Shylock who is continously faced with the allegation of heartless literal interpretation in terms of religion and law. Antonio responds with an apparent simple proverbial generalization: "The devil can cite scripture for his purpose" (1.3.96). What Antonio utters here can be traced back to the Gospel according to Matthew and Luke in the New Testament: "Then the devil took Him into the holy city and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, 'If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down; for it is written [...]'" (Matth. 4:6), "for it is written 'He will command his angels [...]'" (Luk. 4:10). Both quotations describe the biblical story in which the devil cites scripture as he tempts Jesus. The New Testament also explains the role of the Jews, guilty in particular wrongdoing, in that matter: Jesus turns to the Jews and says "You are ofyour father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father oflies" (John 8:44). According to Derek Cohen, the equalization of Jew and devil occurs nine times in MoV. One example is expressed by

Launcelot: "Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation" (2.2.22-23). Antonio continues and refers to Shylock as "a villain with a smiling cheek, / A goodly apple rotten at the heart" (1.3.99- 100).

For the biblically well versed audiences in Shakespeare's times, the equalization ofJew and devil, and the concept of evil seemingfair, were familiar themes. The concept of Jews having a good literal outside, but a bad spiritual inside, like a good looking apple rotten at the heart, "may be intended to reflect the supposed rottenness ofliteralistic Jewish hermeneutic practices", argues Janet Adelman. This concept is a recurrent theme in MoV. One example is the famous scene of the choice of the three caskets, where, according to Coolidge, the "beautiful inside of proper Christian scriptural interpretation, epitomized by the lead casket" is used as a metaphor. As we will see, this theme will lead to the actual victory of Christian love and mercy over the idea of Jewish revenge because of literal exegesis at the end of the play where Shylock loses his money, his daughter, and where he is forced to convert to Christianity.

The equalization of Jew and devil can also be found in the position of Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism: "Know Christian, that next to the devil thou hast no enemy more cruel, more venemous and violent than a true Jew". In England, this attitude did not arise with King Henry VIII who did not only have advisors who were sympathetic to the new ideas of Martin Luther, but who also split the English church off from the Roman church. The hatred against Jews has its beginning in the Christian allegation that they had refused to accept Christ as their Messiah ab initio and also in the Christian claim that the Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Christ. Again, not only Shakespeare, but also the Elizabethan audiences who lived in a Christian England that had massacred Jews on a grand scale in the 13thcentury and that had eventually expelled them in 1290 by a decree of King Edward I, were featured with something that in modern terms would be called mindset of anti-Semitism, based on religious tradition that had started to grow in antiquity and that had evolved into a strong cultural significance in European society in medieval times. Yet there is an actual allusion between the Christian view of the involvement in Christ's crucifixion and Shylock's situation on trial in MoV. Portia makes a speech in the courtroom in which she says: "mercy is above this sceptered sway" (4.1.197) and "Therefore, Jew, / Thoughjustice be thy plea, consider this- / That in the course ofjustice none of us / Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy" (1.4.201-204). Shylock yet utters "I crave the law" (1.4.210).

In the biblical equivalent it is Pilate who says: "'Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?' They [the Jews] all said, 'Crucify Him!'" (Matth. 27:22-23). Shylock, numerously addressed as simply the Jew, repeats his demand various times. Only one example is his direct statement to Antonio, where he utters: "I charge you by the law" (4.1.43). Shylock who, from a Christian point of view, seemed to have been almost more Christian than the actual Christians by proposing the other refers to Shylock as "a villain with a smiling cheek, / A goodly apple rotten at the heart" (1.3.99-100).


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Christianity versus Judaism in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice
Harvard University  (Department of English)
Shakespeare and Modern Culture
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This essay is politically and historically engaged and evinces the care and acuity you put into its research and composition. I take seriously your claim that Shylock’s mixed but largely anti-Semitic depiction is a product of cultural matrices pertinent to early modern Europe, and the distinction you point up between individualizing details and essentializing, ‘majoritarian’ (great term!) predications is a useful one.
Christianity, Judaism, Shakespeare, Merchant, Venice
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Andrea Oberheiden (Author), 2008, Christianity versus Judaism in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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