Monday 21 December 2015

Why did Shakespeare portray the Merchant of Venice as Christ-like?

I have been interested for a few years in the idea that Antonio, the eponymous Merchant of Venice, is the personification of agape, Christian love, in Shakespeare's play.  While the argument I offer here in the week before Christmas has its basis in Christian doctrine as an atheist and a pragmatist I think the case is equally valid for secular pragmatists in emphasising the need to temper facts with values in order to escape the 'iron cage of rationality'.
Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is thought to have been written between 1596 and 1598 and was performed by the King’s Men at James’ I & VI court in February 1605 (Wilson, 1994:707). Context relevant to this argument is that Gresham College had been established in in 1598. Thomas Gresham had been born in London around 1519 into a prominent merchant family and was first appointed the ‘Royal Factor’ at Antwerp in 1551 but was replaced during Mary’s reign (1553‒1558). He returned to public service between 1560 and 1572 working to secure Elizabeth’s crown, notably by manipulating the Antwerp Bills market to ensure that Elizabeth could borrow cheaply (Burgon, 2004:9‒12), (Johnson, 1940:594‒600). When he died in 1579 he bequeathed most of his wealth to charity, through the Mercer’s Company, and to the foundation of Gresham College on his wife’s death.
The opening of Gresham College was the culmination of a long effort in Elizabethan England to bring about the establishment of a permanent, endowed foundation which would offer instruction and further research in the mathematical sciences and provide a convenient rallying point for all who were concerned with promoting progress in the practical application of these sciences to useful works.1 (Johnson, 1940::424)
Gresham was England’s most influential merchant of his age and a prominent public figure.
English merchants had sailed to the Arabian Sea in 1591 and then petitioned Elizabeth I to support ventures in the East Indies, with the East India Company being granted a Royal Charter on the last day of 1600. Elizabeth died in 1603 and within a year of his accession James VI & I authorised a new translation of the Bible that would satisfy the Puritan faction without undermining Anglican authority. The relevance of these observations are that at the time of creating The Merchant of Venice the London merchant class was growing in influence and were associated with the Puritans, well versed in scripture.
While a popular play, The Merchant is often regarded as problematic (Midgley, 1960:119). There are a number of themes that, to many contemporary readers, seem incoherent and the last Act of the play, coming after the drama of the trial scene, is sometimes thought of as redundant. The analysis that we undertake is rooted in Gollancz (1931) and Coghill (1950) that approach the play on the basis of a medieval allegory and we interpret it in the context of Renaissance humanism, synthesising classical philosophy and Biblical allusion. In taking this path we shall present the play as coherent and justify it on the basis that “Biblical allusion and imagery is so precise and pervasive as to be patently deliberate” (Lewalski, 1962:328).
Specifically the play can be read as a study of the four types of love: storge ‒ familial love;, philia ‒ friendship; eros ‒ physical love; and agape ‒ spiritual love. Antonio, the eponymous merchant of Venice, personifies agape, the highest form of love, and is a Christ-like figure (Lewalski, 1962:327; Sisk, 1969:219; Coolidge, 1976:256; Hamlin, 2013:71). Agape animates the central story of the flesh‒bond Antonio makes with Shylock: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”(John 15:13) and provides context for Bassanio’s capture of Portia by solving the casket riddle (Lewalski, 1962:335). On the other hand Shylock personifies the devil and is devoid of all love. His only friendship, with Tubal, focuses on business, in contrast to the amicable relationships of all other characters in the play. Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, absconds with his wealth, and what does Shylock love most: his daughter or his ducats (II.viii.15)2, pointing to the absence of storge. Jessica trades Shylock’s dead wife’s gift of a ring for a monkey, severing his connection to eros. Portia, resident of the heavenly Belmont, represents Mercy, or God’s Grace, and Bassanio, inhabiting worldy Venice with Antonio, represents ‘Everyman’. Her obedience to her dead father in submitting to the casket test emphasises the absence of storge in Shylock’s relationship with Jessica. Antonio’s willingness to sacrifice himself for Bassanio so that the young man can come into union with Portia parallels Christ’s sacrifice for mankind, central to Augustinian doctrine underpinning Puritanism and ratified by the Council of Trent in 15473.
The ‘problematic’ nature of The Merchant was highlighted by Auden (2013) where the play is presented, in ‘Brothers and Others’, as focusing on a homo‒erotic relationship between Antonio and Bassanio. These interpretations sometimes begin by focussing on the melancholy hanging over Antonio at the start of the play and Salerio’s comment that “I think he loves the world only for him” (II.vii.50).
Auden recognises the Christian basis of The Merchant (Kirsch, 2008:94‒96) but misses the significance of Antonio’s Christ‒like persona and this oversight generates interpretations such as Ferber (1990) and Berger (2010) that see the play as unpleasant. The issue is that if Antonio is Christ‒like then his opposition to Shylock is in Shylock’s personification of the ‘Old Law’ rather than to his race: “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17). Augustinian doctrine centres on the idea that everyone is born into a state of ‘Original Sin’, and left to their own devices they are incapable of being anything other than selfish; even a ‘good’ non‒Christian acts only in their own self‒interest. Without Antonio’s agape and Portia’s Grace all the play’s characters become distasteful to some degree. In this context Antonio’s melancholy in the opening scene can be compared to Christ’s loneliness in the wilderness4 or immediately before the Passion (Matt 26:38).
Antonio’s past treatment of Shylock appears ‘un‒Christian’ (I.iii.116‒138) and Shylock seems to be presenting the other cheek. However, we know from Jessica that from the start her father was plotting against Antonio (III.ii.296‒300). Also, Shylock’s reference to Antonio as a “fawning publican” alludes to a parable (Luke 18:9‒13) where a Pharisee ‒ the pious adherer to the law ‒ is compared to a the publican ‒ who recognises his faults and begs for God’s mercy (Lewalski, 1962:331). Antonio’s past behaviour has the dramatic purpose that it inhibits the reader from seeing Shylock as completely unjustified and theologically it points to the humanity of Antonio/Christ (Heb 2:17‒18; Phill 2:7).
The relevance of these observations to debt markets are in that exchange pervades The Merchant. Sharp (1986:261) lists eleven major exchanges in the play, and in the context of the ten types of transactions that Seaford (2004:23‒26) gives, we can add another exchange: the prize of Portia, and her inheritance, that her father bestows on Bassanio for solving the casket puzzle (Seaford type (2)). There is the exchange of things for the sake of things (Seaford (10)); Jessica’s exchange of her mothers ring for a monkey. A bride-price (Seaford (8)) that Bassanio receives by marrying Portia and the money Jessica steals from her father and gives to Lorenzo (Seaford (1)). Shylock is forced to give property to Jessica and Lorenzo on his conversion, this falls into re‒distribution to create solidarity within groups (Seaford (4)) while the Duke’s confiscation of his property is a ransom (Seaford (7)).
There are three rings given as gifts between individuals (Seaford (3)), including the ring Shylock’s wife gave him and a ring that Portia’s lady‒in‒waiting gives to Gratiano in conjunction of the most significant ring, the one Portia gives to Bassanio as symbolic of all her wealth (III.ii.175) (Newman, 1987). Bassanio swears not to part with the ring, on his life (III.ii.187‒189), but gives it to Portia/Balthasar (IV.ii.11) by way of payment for saving Antonio. In the final scene, Portia realises Bassanio has passed the ring onto the ‘lawyer’ and vows never to share her bed with Bassanio until he recovers the ring (V.i.198‒249). Portia was the lawyer and is able to give the ring to Antonio (V.i.273) who pledges surety for Bassanio’s good behaviour in the future, and the ring is returned to Bassanio. Sharp (1986, :254‒257) gives a clear account of how there is no malice, directed at the possibility of an erotic relationship between Bassanio and Antonio, in the trick Portia plays on Bassanio. Rather the ring, as a gift, binds Portia, Bassanio and Antonio together, alluding to how Grace, Everyman and Christ are bound in Christian doctrine.
The key financial exchange is initiated by the loan Antonio secures from Shylock. Antonio is open in his willingness to pay usury for the loan, in recognition of the fact that there is no friendship between the merchant and the Jew
If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not
As to thy friends; for when did friendship take
A breed for barren metal of his friend? (I.iii.142‒144)
This alludes to “Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury: that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all that thou settest thine hand to in the land whither thou goest to possess it.” (Deut 23:20). Out of ‘kindness’ Shylock declines the offer to pay usury but imposes a more legitimate poena, a penalty for default, on the loan: the flesh bond. In essence Shylock believes he is purchasing Antonio’s life, as Jessica will later explain (III.ii.296‒300). This contract is ended in the trail presented in Act 3, and this is where secular interpretations of the play believe the story should end. However the essential exchange is between Antonio and Portia. Antonio lends Bassanio the money so that he can marry Portia and hence Portia becomes indebted to Antonio. Portia repays this debt the final action featuring Antonio when she gives news to Antonio that his ships are not lost (V.i.294‒298). As Sharp (1986:263) explains, the letter carrying the news is presented to Antonio sealed, yet Portia knows of its contents. The interpretation is that she wrote the letter and has repaid the debt ‒ money for money ‒ and highlight the essential connection between Portia/Grace, Antonio/Christ with Bassanio/Everyman. Herein lies the key justification for the religious interpretation: it accounts for the whole play.
The relevance of this interpretation of The Merchant to the argument in this paper is in the message that the play delivers concerning the relationship of Justice and Mercy. Shylock stands for the law (IV.i.104; IV.i.144) while Portia represents mercy (Gollancz (1931); Coghill (1950); Lewalski (1962); Bradbrook (1969) ) echoing the medieval allegory ‘The Parliament of Heaven’ where humans are judged by a prosecution made up of Truth and Justice and a defence provided by Mercy and Peace. Coolidge (1976) argues that in The Merchant Shakespeare presents the essence of Christianity, in contrast to Judaism, as in judging not simply on the basis of ‘the Law’ but also on the basis of mercy: “the manner in which the complex relation between Gospel and Law can function as a paradigm for relating Christianity to all the values of humanity” (Coolidge, 1976:256). He begins his case with a discussion of usury, explaining how “If justice is the principle according to which the people of God are to deal with one another, usury is forbidden among them” (Coolidge, 1976:246). The Law, on its own, will alienate members of a community where as mercy brings them together. Coolidge refers to William Tyndale who ‘explains in the introduction to his translation of the New Testament, the Law, “through teaching every man his duty, doth utter our corrupt nature.”’ and “only love and mercifulness understandeth the Law, and else nothing.” Shakespeare takes a consistent line in Measure for Measure (Dickinson, 1962; Wilson, 1994).
The question presents itself: why did Shakespeare personify Christ and agape in the form of the eponymous merchant? It could be that merchants were perceived as being particularly virtuous, the doux‒commerce thesis. It could also be because Shakespeare recognised that merchants were exposed to a particular peril of focusing on the cardinal virtues of justice and prudence at the expense of charity; what McCloskey (1998) describes as P virtues at the expense of S virtues. In presenting the merchant as personifying the highest Christian virtue he would be engaging with the Puritan sympathies of the emerging merchant class (Brenner, 2003:240‒315) and reminding them that they had moral responsibilities.
The significance of mercy in commerce is not a redundant message (Rainbolt, 1990). The Merchant of Venice eloquently stands against the dominance in finance of both consequentialist ethics ‒ that transforms economics into a ‘cyborg science’ (Mirowski, 1998; Davis, 2008:357) ‒ and deontological ethics ‒ that is over-bureaucratic and rigid (van Staveren, 2007:23‒26) while susceptible to ‘gaming’ (Watts, 2012).


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1 Gresham’s (illegitimate, but only surviving child) daughter married the brother of Sir Francis Bacon.
2 Line references in the play are taken from Shakespeare et al. (2015), accessed on‒line in December 2015.
3 See The Council of Trent’s Decree on Justification, chapter III.

4 See, for example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 538.

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