By Jason Barney, Director of the Middle School Shakespeare Play
The Merchant of Venice has often been labeled one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, mostly because of the issue of anti-Semitism. This has been due to a failure to appreciate one of the play's deep themes, namely that grace will ultimately triumph over greed. A surface reading of the play reveals that the villain is a money-lending Jew and the heroes are Christians—a fact that does not sit well modern sensibilities. Is Shakespeare endorsing medieval anti-Semitism? Or is Shylock the Jew actually a tragic hero, since, after all, he has such powerful speeches? Neither of these alternatives seems to do justice to what we have been given in this deep play, but a satisfactory solution is hard to come by.
In light of this problem, the choice to perform this play, as a Christian school, is liable to misunderstanding, so let me be clear. To whatever extent Shakespeare does endorse a racist attitude (though I do not think, at the end of the day he does), we do not intend to go with him, even though we perform his play. However, neither have we decided to make Shylock the hero, since too much evidence of the play runs against this modern idea. Instead, I want to discuss one important and neglected theme in the play—what I would call, the triumph of grace over greed—in order to explain my personal opinion about why this play was a worthy choice for our middle school to learn and perform. In fact, the use of money in the play for good or for evil, in lending or in borrowing, giving or receiving, holds a powerful message for our culture today, and it seems to me altogether likely that it is a message Shakespeare drew from the Bible.
Throughout the play, the character of Antonio, the “Merchant of Venice”, for whom the play is named, stands out as a supreme model of Christian generosity. He holds his money loosely and lends freely, in direct contrast to Shylock. When Gratiano comments that Antonio has “too much respect upon the world” (1. 1. 74), he counters, “I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano,” (1. 1. 77). The reference to Jesus—“For what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36, KJV)—should not be missed. Antonio is claiming the Christian worldview, which holds heaven, and not the world, as its primary treasure. Moreover, his gracious, even eager willingness, to give to Bassanio is only matched by the knowledge we gain from Shylock (of all sources!) that he does the same to everyone:
How like a fawning publican he looks.
I hate him for he is a Christian,
But more for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice. (1. 3. 38-42)
What a reason to hate somebody! We learn here that Antonio “lends out money gratis” to so many people that the rate of usury has declined in Venice. Shakespeare’s choice of words is even more instructive; gratis is the Latin word from which we get the word grace. Here it means freely, liberally, or without constraint, but it and its related terms were used in medieval Christian theology for God’s free forgiveness to man and unmerited favor. Antonio’s graciousness, his generosity, is a truly Christian virtue because of its resemblance to God’s own character. Likewise, the fact that Shylock calls him a “publican” immediately calls to mind Jesus’ parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, and foreshadows for us who it is that will return home justified in God’s sight.
In direct contrast to Antonio, Shylock stands out as a cold-hearted covetous old sinner, devoid of any grace either for himself or others. Contrary to much modern criticism, Shylock is not disapproved of by Antonio because of his race or religion. Shylock himself reveals that it was rather “about [his] moneys and [his] usances” (1. 3. 105), and as Antonio says, that he would make “a breed for barren metal of his friend” (1. 3. 130).
On this issue of the immorality of usury one literary critic says, “Usury and increase by gold and silver is unlawful, because against nature; nature hath made them sterile and barren, usury makes them procreative” (Meres Malone, The Oxford Shakespeare, 124). The multiplication of money in this manner is thus unnatural. Furthermore, it adds nothing productive to society but merely feeds off of others’ productivity, and takes advantage of their loss. It is diametrically opposed to grace; it is the exact opposite of giving.
Besides the nature of his profession, the way Shylock talks about other people proves that he is filled with greed, which he quaintly calls “thrift” (1. 3. 47). To Bassanio’s offer of the loan he states that Antonio is a good man. The audience nods their approval… until he clarifies his meaning to Bassanio that by “good” he meant only that he was economically “sufficient” (see 1. 3. 15-17) for the loan. He views people entirely in terms of their economic worth. Indeed, he cares more for his money than even his daughter, as he makes quite plain to Tubal:
I would my daughter were
dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear! Would she
were hearsed at my foot and the ducats in her coffin! (3. 1. 83-85)
These are the harsh words of a man who sees people as a means for financial gain, rather than ends in themselves. Even his decision to murder Antonio is not a particular respect for any man but a calculated attempt to gain financially (cf. 3. 1. 120-121).
The circumstances surrounding Portia’s lottery and eventual marriage are similarly used to illuminate Christian views of greed and grace. It is no accident that gold and silver, the very symbols of greed and monetary gain, are the wrong choices in the lottery. This seemingly separate plot line carries at its core the same distinctly Christian view of worldly riches. The Moroccan, the first foil to Bassanio, chooses the golden casket only to learn that “All that glisters is not gold” (2. 7. 65), that is, true riches are not generally found in outward show. The Prince of Arragon, likewise, chooses the silver, judging himself to be worthy, only to find inside “the portrait of a blinking idiot” (2. 9. 53), and a reprimand for his foolish pride. This finds its biblical counterpart in Jesus’ words, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).
Bassanio’s choice of the leaden casket, however, is deeply symbolic of the grace of giving rather than taking. Significantly the leaden casket bears the inscription, “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath” (2. 7. 16). And herein lies the moral: rather than greedily taking of the gold or assuming his own worth, true love is to give and hazard all you have. Furthermore, Portia also has this same grace that Bassanio and Antonio have; she shows this most clearly when she is freed by marriage to give generously to Bassanio and, by extension, to his friend Antonio. Another example of grace triumphing over greed lies in Act V, which critics who gloss over this Christian theme generally call ‘uneventful’ or ‘anticlimactic’. If we see the grace of giving as a prevalent theme in the play, the significance of the giving of the rings suddenly springs to life. Bassanio and Gratiano give in to the pressure of their disguised wives, not because they lack faithfulness to their wives or to their vows, but because this Christian grace is so present in them. They cannot hold on to greedy gold and silver, but must give it away, and through the providence of God (and their good wives’ cleverness) they joyfully receive all back again.
Lastly, the grace of mercy overshadows the suspenseful courtroom scene, where Shylock seeks his greedy revenge in the attempt to cut out Antonio’s heart and weigh it out, as if it were a product he had bought. When Portia turns his bond against him, that gracious mercy, which Shylock is now in need of, the Duke and Antonio are all too happy to provide. The Duke and Antonio do not take selfish advantage of their upper hand, but show mercy to Shylock and generosity to the unfortunate couple. First, the Duke states wisely,
That thou shalt see the difference of our spirit,
I pardon thee thy life before thou ask it. (4. 1. 364-365)
Thus the Duke illustrates the difference of the Christian community’s spirit, and so proves Shylock’s justification at the beginning of Act III entirely wrong. Shylock had claimed, “If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge.” (3. 1. 64-65). The Duke knows nothing of this, yet immediately, before Shylock can even gather his wits to beg mercy, pardons his life. Similarly, Antonio goes above and beyond in showing mercy, asking the court to quit the fine for half his goods and relinquishing the other half that should be his. All he asks is for others: that one half be put in trust for Shylock’s own son-in-law, that upon his death Jessica and Lorenzo get his inheritance, and that Shylock become a Christian. These three things are deliberately picked to care for the needs created by Shylock’s hate and greed. Concerning the money, Antonio, in effect, forces Shylock to care for his own with that money, thus making Shylock more generous than he is.
While requiring conversion causes our modern sensibilities to revolt and cry “freedom of conscience,” we should pause for a moment and try to understand the implications of this in the very different spirit of Shakespeare’s age. Religious affiliation was a much more political and social issue than in our world, and it is worth noting than a primary consequence of Shylock’s conversion would have been his inability to charge interest, since he must consider Gentiles as fellow brothers. Thus, Antonio’s primary motivation may actually have been to prevent Shylock from continuing to abuse the poor through his usury. More than that, perhaps requiring that Shylock become a Christian is, in Antonio’s eyes, the most gracious thing that can be done for him. The mere rite may not save Shylock—there is no clear reason to suggest that Antonio does not know this—but it is the most practical thing he can do towards that end. In effect, this is Antonio’s way of actively seeking Shylock’s eternal blessedness and happiness, which far outweighs what any earthly mercy might afford. We may disagree on Shakespeare’s plot choice in light of our cultural situation, but we must admit that hindsight is always twenty-twenty, and that this turn of events is more understandable and meaningful within its historical context than we might have at first supposed.
In short, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is a comedy that celebrates the triumph of grace over greed. Antonio is a heroic character fully exemplifying the Christian traits of gracious generosity, self-sacrificial love, and benevolent mercy. He stands out as a noble example to us all and is set up for our emulation. Shylock, on the other hand, is the prototypical unbeliever, ensnared in the love of money. He unnaturally schemes to make money out of money, not caring a button for the poor whom he abuses. He ruthlessly tries to murder the man who loses him business by saving the poor out of his clutches. Therefore, the Jewishness of Shylock—that is, the fact that he is repeatedly referred to as a Jew—is not for Shakespeare a racial designation based on prejudice. After all, Jessica his daughter is loved and embraced by the Christian community. Even Shylock, as we have seen, receives grace and mercy at the hands of Portia, the Duke, and especially Antonio, his would-be victim. Instead, the title is a religious one. It signifies how he, as a character, is outside of the Christian community, how he has not yet embraced the Christian values of grace, love and mercy, and how he is tragically enslaved by his own greed, hatred and legalism. With this play we invite you all to consider the grace of generosity in a greedy world.
Edited by Jay L. Halio. The Oxford Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice). New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.