Money Matters - Christian Ventures and Jewish Usury in Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice'

Seminar Paper, 2009
20 Pages, Grade: 2,0
stud. phil. Lisa Mevissen (Author)


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Historical background - Jews and Christians in Shakespeare's time

3. The conflict between Jews and Christians in“The Merchant of Venice“
3.1 Jewish attitude towards Christians in “The Merchant of Venice“
3.2 Christian attitude towards Jews
3.3 Dependence and Dislike

4. Christian ventures in Shakespeare's “The Merchant of Venice“
4.1 Antonio’s ventures
4.2 Portia and Bassanio’s ventures

5. Jewish usury
5.1 Shylock’s usury

6. The Importance of Money

7. Summary

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In Shakespeare's “The Merchant of Venice“ we are confronted with a lot of opposities: friendship versus hatred, male versus female power, mercy versus justice or Judaism versus Christianity; just to name a few examples. By contrasting these opposing themes, Shakespeare evolves a lot of problems, which raise unsolvable questions. If we take for example Shylock, we constantly change our opinion about him: on the one hand we dislike him for he is villainous, greedy and merciless, and on the other hand we pity him because of his losses and his isolation in society. Yet, one cannot make a clear-cut statement about him for he bears opposing characteristics in his attitude.

So, one can see, Shakespeare does not only depict opposities, but he also creates opposing opinions about the same topic in our heads. Thus, the oppositions he shows in his play should be looked at more carefully.

Therefore, I want to focus on the contrast between Jewish usury and Christian ventures, for the conflict between both groups constantly leads to essential problems in the play. As a preliminary step, I want to look at the historical background, an important impact, which influenced the play's final conception.

In the following, I want to compare the attitudes of Christians towards Jews and vice versa. In addition to that, in this paper I want to concentrate on the instance that complicates the tension between Christians and Jews: money. Money binds both opposing groups - Christians and Jews - unwillingly together and causes essential conflicts. Therefore, I want to analyse how Christianity and Judaism is interwoven by money, usury, ventures and the characters' behaviour. Therefore, a depiction and an analysis of the Christians and their ventures in the play on the one hand and Jewish usury on the other hand becomes necessary.

I want to show that money in “The Merchant of Venice“ is rather important for the plot of the play, since all actions are merely able via money, people (and even their lives) are dependent on money and almost every problem and solution is only able due to money. Additionally, in this paper, the connections between money and the characters will be described. I want to analyse the impact money has on the characters and on the plot in general.

Eventually, as regards plot and characters, the inextricable dependence on money will be elucidated, and the results will be summarized.

All quotations from Shakespeare's “The Merchant of Venice“ in this paper are taken from: Shakespeare, William. 42008 (11992). The Merchant of Venice. (Cambridge School Shakespeare). Morris, Jonathan; Smith, Robert, eds. Cambridge: CUP.

2. Historical background - Jews and Christians in Shakespeare's time

If we want to understand the interreligious tension between Jews and Christians in “The Merchant of Venice“, we have to note the historic circumstances which Shakespeare took as a basis. We have to account how Jews and Christians were reputed in society, and how they interacted with one other.

Thus, taking a look at Jewish and Christian history one can easily see that, of course, Shakespeare did not invent the conflict between Jews and Christians. A deep-rooted mutual dislike between Jews and Christians can be detected over centuries in history. Christians were always suspicious of Jews and demonised them: in Shapiro's essay we learn, for example, that John Foxe, an Elizabethan cleric, called Jews in his “Sermon Preached at the Christening of a Certain Jew, at London“ a

'circumcised Race' directly, decrying (them as) 'intolerable Scorpionlike savagenes, so furiously boyling against the innocent infants of the Christian gentiles: and the rest of your haynous abominations, insatiable butcheries, treasons, frensies, and madnes' (Shapiro 1992: 74).

This source is just one of many indicators hinting at a rather hostile relationship between Christians an Jews. Another hint is that “Jews had been expelled from England by E]dward I in 1290“ (Cerasano 2004: 16) so that in Shakespearean England Jews tried to hide their identity in society and practised their religion secretly (cf. Shapiro 1992: 73) due to societal ostracism and religious persecution initiated by the Christians. If Jews were detected, they were either converted to Christianity and had to live in London in the “Domus Conversorum of House of Convertities“ (Cerasano 2004: 16), or were forced to live in a Ghetto, which made the Christians' mental rejection ofthe Jews actually visible.

It becomes apparent that due to the Jews' isolation, they were hardly present in the society's consciousness, so that “[f]or the members of Shakespeare's audience, Jews and Jewish customs would have been as foreign and as exotic as the setting of The Merchant of Venice“ (ibid.). The play is set in Venice, and just as in many other cities, in Shakespearean time, Jews were almost exceptionlessly dependent on moneylending (cf. ibid., 15), since other professions were forbidden to Jews. However, if Christians had taken interest when lending money, they would have been frowned upon because their religion forbade usury (ibid., 14). Thus, although Jews were disliked and persecuted, Christians were dependent on them, if they wanted to deal with other Christians. Jews, on the other hand, were dependent on taking high intrest on the money they lent, because it was the only way to earn money and thus the only way to survive.

As one can see, the interaction between Jews and Christians in history bears a lot of conflicts and tensions. This tension has also a great impact on Shakespeare's “The Merchant of Venice“. Therefore, in the following, the conflict between Christians and Jews in “The Merchant ofVenice“ is depicted and analysed.

3. The conflict between Jews and Christians in“The Merchant of Venice“

In Shakespeare's play, different values oppose each other: the Christians venture with each other in a friendly and helpful way, but, when venturing with Jews, their behaviour becomes rather harsh. Jews and their moneylending are for the Christians just means to an end, but so are the Christians for the Jews. How the tense relationship between both ethnical groups looks like and what the reasons for the conflict in the play may be will now be continued with. Therefore, I want to look at Shylock as a pars pro toto (or representative) of the Jews in Venice on the one hand, and Antonio as a pars pro toto of the Christians and their attitude on the other hand.

3.1 Jewish attitude towards Christians in “The Merchant ofVenice“

We get to know the Jewish attitude towards Christians through Shylock's utterances. His reasons for disliking the Christians is simply their Christianity. This becomes apparent when he directly utters: “I hate him for he is a Christian“ (I, iii, 34). But he also adds that it is not merely the different religion as a such, but also the consequences the religious affiliation has: the Christians are not allowed to take intrest on money they lent and thus do it gratis, so that Shylock's business is ruined and his livelyhood is taken away. A discrepancy between both groups arises which cannot be overcome, because both groups consider the religion of the other group to be the worst; an approach of both groups becomes impossible: Shylock says that he “will not eat with you (the Christians), drink with you, nor pray with you“ (ibid. 30) (and when he finally does eat with them, they just use this moment to conduct Jessica's elopement).

Another scene which depicts the bad attiude towards the Christians is, when Shylock gets to know about the failed venture ofAntonio's ships:

SHYLOCK. (...) Ill luck, ill luck?

TUBAL. - hath an argosy cast away coming from Tripolis.

SHYLOCK. I thank God, I thank God. Is it true, is it true?(...)

SHYLOCK. I thank thee, good Tubal: good news, good news! Ha, ha, heard in Genoa!

(III, i, 79-84)

A direct hatred and schadenfreude cannot be ignored, when reading these lines. Thus, Shylock, as a representative of the Jews, embodies the hatred towards the Christians. Realizing that there is quite much tension initiated by the Jewish side, one now has to note the Christian attitude towards Jews in Shakespeare's play.

3.2 Christian attitude towards Jews

Taking a look at the Christians in „The Merchant ofVenice“, one has to see that they do not think of Jews in a better way than Jews do as regards Christians. Via a conversation between Shylock and Antonio we get to know that there is much hatred and disgust shown towards the Jews in the play:

SHYLOCK. Signor Antonio, many a time and oft In the Rialto you have rated me About my monies and my usances.[...]

You called me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,

And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,

And all for use of that which is mine own.[...]

ANTONIO. I am as like to call thee so again,

To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.

(I, iii,98-123)

Shylock is offended by many of Antonio's insults which are not even revised but confirmed by Antonio. When offering friendship, Shylock is ignored by Antonio who just demands money. It seems that Antonio (as a pars pro toto of Christianity in Venice) wants to keep a hostile relationship towards Shylock (as a pars pro toto of Judaism in Venice). It just can be assumed that there is much prejudice and distrust among different religions, and of course a lack of tolerance which keeps both groups as far apart from each other as possible.

3.3 Dependence and Dislike

Nontheless, both ethnical groups are dependent on each other: the Jewish moneylenders need Christian merchants who borrow money from them. The merchants need money for their ventures from the Jews, for Christianity forbids taking interest, while Jews are hardly allowed to do something else apart from moneylending due to societal restrictions and laws. Thus, as long as both parties are not treated equally by law and treat each other as friends, the conflict has to continue.

To clarify the difference between the transactions between Christians among themselves and interreligious transactions between Jews and Christians, one has to take a closer look at Christian ventures and Jewish usury in the play.

4. Christian ventures in Shakespeare's “The Merchant of Venice“

In “The Merchant of Venice“ the Christian characters venture in rather extensive but different ways. On the one hand, I want to take a closer look at Antonio, who deals with loads of money by shipping goods all around the world. On the other hand, the venture between Bassanio and Portia is different: the currency they trade with is - instead of money - wit, but the way of the transaction to 'get' Portia is rather trade­like. To confirm these statements, a closer insight on the text and its interpretation is necessary.

4.1 Antonio's ventures

When Shylock enumerates the vast amount of ships, Antonio ventures with, we directly get an idea ofAntonio's wealth:

SHYLOCK. (...) he hath an argosy bound to Tripolis, another to the Indies; I understand moreover upon the Rialto he hath a third at Mexico, a fourth in England and other ventures he hath squandered abroad. (...)The man is notwithstanding sufficient. (I, iii, 15-21)

Antonio's life depends on the success of these ventures at sea, for, if they fail, his life is endangered, too. Antonio, however, is rather careless as regards his argosies because he reacts rather indifferently to Solanio's utterance: “Believe me sir, had I such venture forth, / The better part of my affections would / Be with my hopes abroad“ (I, i, 15-18). One can see that Antonio is not upset at all. On the contrary, when he says: “my merchandise makes me not sad“ (I, i, 45), his carelessness is explicitly depicted.

This carelessness of his own life could be a result of his ventures. After many ventures he does not differentiate between his life and goods or money any more. To him, life has become just another object to trade with. This may be a reason (apart from an alleged affection towards Bassanio) why he seals the dubious and rather dangerous bond with Shylock by saying “Content, in faith! I'll seal to such a bond“ (I, iii, 145). He is too sure of the success of his ventures and he acts on the assumption that Shylock is merciful. Not even Bassanio is able to prevent Antonio from signing the bond, because Antonio kind of ignores Bassanios intervention “ You shall not seal to such a bond for me; / I'll rather dwell in my necessity“(l, III, 147-148) with the words “Why, fear not, man, I will not forfeit it“ (I, iii, 148).

Antonio is an experienced salesman and therefore self-confident. He does not realize that he and Shylock take different social conventions for granted: Antonio assumes that humanity has to stand in the first place, while for Shylock justice is the most important value. Antonio is not aware of this, while Shylock maybe has realized these different assumptions, and thus wants to hurry to the notary as soon as possible. As one can see, Antonio underestimates Shylock' villainy. He is not used to venture with Shylock, because Antonio condemns Shylock for his greed. Antonio is only used to deal with other Christians and so he assumes that good-fellowship is the ruling principle. The only currency these Venetians understand is the currency of friendship where he who has is deptor to him who has not not, where the only enemy is the man who will not accept such currency but exalts a lower meed of worth and sanctifies it in the name of justice. (Plowman 1931: 79)

He does not really believe that Shylock's hatred could be so great to kill him because of 3000 ducats. Thus, his frivolity misleads him and he ventures his life for Shylock's ducats.

4.2 Portia and Bassanio's ventures

Antonio and Shylock's flesh-bond is initiated by Bassanio's need to woo Portia, because of whom Bassanio is in a dilemma. When he laments his problem when facing Antonio, we can see that, because of his rich rivals, Bassanio needs money to woo Portia. Since he lacks of money, he turns to his close friend Antonio to borrow money:

BASSANIO. In Belmont is a lady richly left,

And she is fair, and - fairer than that word - Ofwondrous virtues. [...]

And many Jasons come in quest of her.

Oh my Antonio, had I but the means To hold a rival place with one of them,

I have a mind presages me such thrift That I should questionless be fortunate.

(I, i,160-175)


Excerpt out of 20 pages


Money Matters - Christian Ventures and Jewish Usury in Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice'
RWTH Aachen University  (Lehrstuhl für Anglistische Literaturwissenschaft)
William Shakespeare: The Tempest and the Merchant of Venice
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
440 KB
money, matters, christian, ventures, jewish, usury, shakespeares, merchant, venice
Quote paper
stud. phil. Lisa Mevissen (Author), 2009, Money Matters - Christian Ventures and Jewish Usury in Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Money Matters - Christian Ventures and Jewish Usury in Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice'

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free