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Usury and political friendship in The Merchant of Venice.

The subject of deep controversy in the late 1500s, usury was a necessary fact of life during this era of burgeoning mercantilism, despite attempts to condemn and outlaw the commercial practice. As Lawrence Danson explains, "[f]armers needed to borrow to buy seed for next year's crops; merchants needed to borrow to buy merchandise; and ... without the incentive of interest, the flow of capital would dry up." (1) Indeed, the heavily indebted Bassanio of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice reflects the financial situation of two-thirds of the Elizabethan peerage including Sir Philip Sidney, the Earl of Essex, the Earl of Leicester, the Earl of Southampton, and Queen Elizabeth. (2) Not only did the aristocracy sustain itself through moneylending, the business of theater itself relied upon borrowed capital. Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, had to borrow money at high interest rates to build both the Theatre and the Globe. (3) The law responded to these economic realities when Parliament in 1571 legalized moneylending at interest rates below ten percent, essentially the reinstatement of an Act of 1545. (4)

Nonetheless, usury was universally denounced based on ancient and biblical interdictions that it was "against nature for money to beget money." (5) As Danson observes, the "scarcely perceived divergence between the economic realities that demanded the growth of credit and the economic theory that condemned it produced exacerbating tension," (6) if not gross discrepancies. As a commentary on English practices of usury, The Merchant of Venice underscores the hypocrisy underlying the morally condemned practice. Though usury was "a trade brought in by the Jews, now perfectly practiced almost by every Christian and so commonly that he is accounted but for a fool that doth lend his money for nothing," (7) the irrational equivalence of moneylender and Jew was indestructible: as Danson explains, "since in theory the business of making barren metal breed more metal was inimical to the right-minded Christian, then ipso facto the usurer must, despite the attest of eyes and ears, be Jewish," (8) literally and/or figuratively. "The hypocritical practices of usury often involved, as Merchant depicts, a convenient scapegoating of the Jew while turning a blind eye to Christian usurers. Since the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, the usurers were of course English, most famous among them "a restricted circle of great London merchants, men who first made their money in overseas or retail trading and who then turned to the money-lending business." (9) The Merchant of Venice reveals how England sustains the commercial practice of usury through English moneylenders while maintaining the moral high ground by scapegoating the fictive Jew.

In the play, Antonio's attack on Shylock the usurer is flawed on two counts: 1) usury was a legal commercial practice useful in sustaining the Venetian economy, and 2) Shylock lends money to Bassanio and Antonio free of interest, i.e., without usury. Usury, practiced by both Jews and Christians during this era, is the red herring in Antonio's vehement opposition of the two groups. Far from being an anti-usury play as critics have argued echoing early modern moral tracts, The Merchant of Venice, a play about use and usury, (10) rescues these concepts from a false dichotomy that ignores, for instance, the biblical tradition of the Word turned flesh, the spirit on earth clothed in economic raiments. Shakespeare's play, in an insistent conflation of moral and mercantile values, demonstrates clearly that "metal is not barren; it does breed, is pregnant with consequences, and capable of transformation into life and even love." (11) The "coin of the realm and the coin of the soul" (2)--to use Robert Zaslavsky's terms--are more commingled than we care to admit. Against the traditional dichotomy between spirit and matter, morality and money, communion and commodification, the play aims to reconcile the dual meanings of "good," promoting both virtue and usefulness, moral and material well-being. (13) To this end, Merchant upholds Shylock, the Jewish usurer, over the Christians, Bassanio and Antonio, as the model of economic prudence, which propelled the emerging mercantilism. This prudence integrates both Judeo-Protestant thrift in saving money and Aristotelian liberality, the judicious use of money.

Shylock, the key character in this recuperation of use and usury, also lies at the crux of the divergent approaches to the play in its critical history. One direction, as Danson explains,
   is toward Shylock's social redemption, the idea of him
   as a potentially good man twisted by malignant social
   and religious prejudice. This approach to
   Shylock leads, of course, to the view (to simplify it
   only somewhat) that The Merchant of Venice is a deeply
   ironic play about hypocritical Christians.
   The other direction, frequently taken in the name of
   historical accuracy, dismisses as mere sentimentality
   any efforts toward Shylock's justification.
   In this view The Merchant of Venice is a typical romantic
   comedy, which only by historical accident has a Jew occupying
   the position otherwise filled by (say) a killjoy steward. (14)


This essay navigates between these critical poles to examine Shylock as a comi-tragic hero, who comes to ruin partly as a comic victim of circumstance and partly as a tragic agent: his liberality fails to make the traverse from an economic to a social virtue through an aborted act of gift-giving.

At the interface of religion, politics, and economics, The Merchant of Venice dramatizes an apparent clash between the spiritual usury of friendship and the commercial practice of usury intended to meet the eras expanding mercantilism. Whereas the "breed[ing] for barren metal" (1.3.129) (15) only produces more spiritually barren coin, the usury of friendship produces a never-ending spiral toward divine virtue through a perpetual circle of Graces, symbolized by the recurrent exchange of bonds and rings within the play: two "apparently irreconcilable obligations--that the giver give freely but that the recipient repay" (16)--which dissolve into an unforced mutually propelled reciprocation of generosity. Here, Aristotle's theory of friendship may be helpful in unpacking the opposition and rapprochement between use and usury, utility and gift exchange. In Book VIII of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes three types of friendship. In the first type, the friendship of utility, "those who love each other for their utility do not love each other for themselves but in virtue of some good which they get from each other." (17) So, too, in the second type,
   with those who love for the sake of pleasure .... [T]hose
   who love for the sake of utility love for the sake of what
   is good for themselves, and those who love for the sake of
   pleasure do so for the sake of what is pleasant to
   themselves, and not in so far as the other is the person
   loved but in so far as he is useful or pleasant. (18)


"Perfect friendship," however, is friendship of the good, between persons "who are good, and alike in virtue; for these wish well alike to each other qua good, and they are good in themselves." (19) Unlike the friendship of utility, this finest kind of friendship, to which Antonio aspires with regard to Bassanio, is grounded in gift exchange: actions and objects freely rendered upon a friend solely for his benefit. According to Seneca's De Beneficiis, as translated by Arthur Golding, the gift exchange of virtuous friendship involves a spiritual usury, spawning an infinite cycle of benefits directed toward the other:
   [T]o him that lends me money, I must pay no more than I
   have taken; and when I have paid it, I am free and discharged.
   But unto the other [one who gives a benefit] I must pay more;
   and when I have requited him, yet nevertheless I am still
   beholden to him. For when I have requited I must
   begin new again, & friendship warneth me to admit no
   unworthy person. So is the Law of benefits a most holy law,
   wheroutof springeth friendship. (20)


The circle of benefits in virtuous friendship "always assumes a return but makes it imperative that that fact not have the status of an expectation." (21)

Shylock, an outsider allowed to conduct commerce in Venice, is confined by his religious affiliation not only to a livelihood of moneylending but also to the community of fellow Jews in the Venetian ghetto. His business nonetheless compels him to interact regularly with Christians. While one could hardly imagine him in a virtuous friendship with Antonio, one could reasonably expect that Shylock would desire from the Venetians not simply toleration for the sake of Venice's thriving economy but the dignity and respect sought by all human beings. If his moneylending is useful to the economic flourishing of Venice, promoting its civil good, Shylock presumably would want the Christians to recognize that he himself is "good" (1.3.11): As a provider of commercial credit, Shylock seeks also to be acknowledged as a man of credit, as a valued and respected member of Venice. Unfortunately, Antonio's vehement animosity--spitting, rating, and kicking the Jew like "a stranger cur" (1.3.114)--has pushed Shylock to thoughts of retaliation: "If I can catch him once upon the hip, / I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him" (1.3.43-44). While critics have rightly read these lines in support of the Jew's desire for vengeance, I contend that such feelings of animosity can well coexist with desires for amity--at least until Shylock reaches a breaking point.

Antonio, like Shylock, also pursues an ideal: an "aristocratic, Roman, and Christian" ethic, which strives for "the nobler goals of friendship, love, and honor" (22) toward which money is merely a means. Like the false oppositions of use and usury in their multiple and paradoxical senses, the two protagonists are false foes since the merchant, like Shylock, engages in commercial transactions and both of them strive implicitly for a more ideal civil state: Antonio, a society of friends, and Shylock, a commonweal of political friendship. In his antagonism with Shylock, Antonio could well be rebelling against those in his trade who, heavily engaged in moneylending, blur the line between merchant and usurer: "Which is the merchant here, and which is the Jew" (4.1.169), Shakespeare's quip on English merchants who "judaize." (23) In doing so, Antonio safely displaces the threat of taint by his own peers onto the Jew. Antonio's denunciation of Shylock and the usury he practices in this manner distorts and deforms their likeness into a religious clash. Like Jacob's pied lambs that represent usury as a means to material prosperity and the possibilities of self-flourishing, Shylock represents the practice of commercially sound usury against Antonio's unrealistic practice of coterie gift-giving.

As a commentary on Venetian practices of usury as they relate to civil rights and political friendship, Merchant highlights the injustices operant in the progressive republic of Venice. The city-state was lauded "as an exemplum of civil and social concord" by early modern travelers, among them "many English Commonwealth visitors [who] over the centuries regarded the city as a model of wise leadership, constitutional excellence, and careful law enforcement." (24) Promoting its reputation as an international trade center and a cosmopolitan city-state, Venice presented itself carefully "as a city founded on principles of equality, magnanimity, domestic harmony, and justice for all of its citizens." (25) Its foreign denizens, however, did not enjoy the panoply of privileges of its citizens. Specifically, the Jews living in the Ghetto had to wear identifying badges, respect a curfew, and rent rather than own property. (26) In depicting "the formation of communal identity through exclusionary practices," (27) Merchant illustrates the discriminatory policies of early modern England and European states in the treatment of a particular ethnic and religious minority, the Jews.

A flourishing state depends on the unanimity of fellow citizens who regard themselves in a relation of political friendship. The ending of the play suggests that such unanimity could be attained through a conversion of the Jews. Aside from the Christian doctrinal view of seeing the Jewish conversion as a necessary event in human salvation, this conversion could be read as the Venetians' misunderstanding of the concept of unanimity as ethnic homogeneity rather than the sharing of political visions and goals. More broadly defined, "the friend is one who shares the attributes of virtue necessary to maintain a working relationship that leads to the particular end they are united in pursuing." (28) In this respect, Merchant dramatizes the lost potential for more just relations between the inhabitants in the proto-pluralistic state of Venice as fortune shines on those born with advantages at the cost of further oppressing the disadvantaged. In a generic compulsion to end on "a merry note" (Love's Labour's Lost, 5.2.901), the comedy ostensibly upholds the pastoral leisure of the cavalier Christians over the Jewish thrift and Protestant husbandry of Shylock.

Embedded in this formal comedy is the tragedy of Shylock, who makes inchoate gestures toward civil friendship but whose economic liberality does not effectually garner him more social respect. In other words, he founders in the hazardous traverse between commercial usury and the usury of friendship. Shylock's personal calamity fatally redoubles his animosity toward Christians: His daughter Jessica flees with his riches to marry the Christian Lorenzo the very night the Jew is out dining with Bassanio and Antonio. This unfortunate timing of events (deliberate on Jessica's part) ignites Shylock's suspicions of Christian conspiracy against the Jew. When the aspiration toward political friendship expires stillborn, any inchoate possibilities of rapprochement explode into a bloodthirsty demand of a pound of flesh. The Christians strike the final blow to the potential for civil friendship in their insidious brand of "mercy," the subjugation of the Jew through conversion: the instantiation of ethnic homogenization instead of civil unanimity within plurality. While a vision of an egalitarian society lies centuries ahead, The Merchant of Venice nonetheless powerfully explores the cultural and characterological obstacles to its attainment and offers a glimpse into its prospective possibility, as presented through Senecan and Aristotelian ethical theories.

I. Bassanio and Antonio: Flawed Thrift and Liberality

The aristocratic Venetian society presents itself as one that prizes homogeneity and takes "comfort [in] the cultural same." (29) As the scenes of the casket selection indicate, Portia clearly prefers as mate someone of her own social and ethnic kind--a Christian, Venetian nobleman embodied in the young, handsome prodigal, Bassanio. The play presents the two as the golden pair, epitomizing the graces of the Christian Venetian culture. Within this Christian patriarchal society, beauty and wealth are the rewards of an impoverished but enterprising nobleman, a Venetian Jason, who hazards everything in a suit of love. In the most cynical terms, this charming improvident, who has been living beyond his means, looks to a fair "lady richly left .... [whose] sunny locks / Hang on her temples like a golden fleece" (1.1.161,169-70) "to get clear of all the debts I owe" (134). The motto of the lead casket that Bassanio selects, "Who chooseth me must give and hazard all be hath" (2.7.9), accords with his submissive stance of courtly love. Luckily for Bassanio, fortune-hunting was a more acceptable mode of personal advancement during the early modern period than our own, especially in his case, with charm to recommend him. In the same breath that he speaks of her wealth, he lauds her fairness and her "wondrous virtues," which, as Marjorie Garber explains, "we are given to understand, constitute her real wealth." (30) All in all, however, the play seems to operate under the myth of a divinely aided aristocracy, who get and "merit what they deserve" (2.7.7), the ethos of the silver casket. If Merchant truly upheld the ethos of the lead casket, Antonio and Shylock, as the real givers and risk takers of the play, would be the winners, not Bassanio, its false advocate, who risks upon others' money and chooses lead possibly by default or by tactically outwitting conventional morality.

As another instance of aristocratic reassurance, Bassanio peculiarly refers to his plan of gaining prosperity by winning Portia's hand as "thrift" (1.1.175), a virtue of increasing importance in Protestant humanist thought. What Lorna Hutson calls a "discourse of husbandry" "pervade[d] the entire Protestant-humanist literature of reform, from marriage doctrine to the education of the orator," toward a new kind of nobleman productive in action and discourse. (31) Cicero, in On Duties, a key classical source of humanist ethics, recommended that
   a mannes substance must be gotten, by those things, which
   bee farre from dishonestie: and must be saued, by diligence,
   and honest sparing: and by those same meanes also, it must
   bee encreased. Xenophon the Socratian hath gone thorowe these
   things verie handsomelie, in that boke, which is
   entitled Economicus .... (32)


This notion of thrift and industry is further illustrated through the New Testament parable of the talents in which the master, representing God, rewards two servants who had doubled the talents committed to them but punishes a third: "Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed." (33)

In the case of Bassanio, thrift, as he explains to his good friend Antonio, entails the shooting of another arrow after the first misaimed one, assured that he will "find both / Or bring your latter hazard back again" (1.1.150-51). Bassanio does not appear to be "slothful" like the servant in the parable of the talents, though neither would his aristocratic activities qualify as industrious work. Unlike the servant who has been given talents of which to make something, Bassanio wants and needs to borrow money to regain his credit, i.e., get himself out of heavy debt. Such unrestrained optimism in spending could in other circumstances indicate a gambler's addiction. A reasonable person would not call this strategy "thrift" but rather "speculation" and even further, as the saying goes, "throwing good money after bad." Shakespeare was apparently not the only one to use the imagery of double arrows for moral illumination. Bishop Joseph Hall (1608) also employed it to censure ambitious men like Bassanio: hope "persuad[es] him, like foolish boys, to shoot away a second shaft, that he may find the first." (34)

Antonio, in agreeing to lend Bassanio the means (or more precisely, to act as surety to borrow the sum needed for Bassanio's courtship), also engages in unusually risky behavior on the part of a creditor. Creditors do not usually lend more money to debtors deeply in the red. Antonio's own need to borrow to meet his friend's request compounds the error of his lending, which goes against early modern moral instruction. In the tradition of Cicero giving worldly advice to his son, two Elizabethan noblemen counsel their respective sons and an intended larger audience against surety friendship. William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1520-98), warns his son Robert: "Beware of suretyship for thy best friends; he that payeth another man's debts seeketh his own decay" (35) (my italics). Sir Walter Ralegh (ca. 1552-1618) counsels his son generally against borrowing and then expounds greatly on the dangers of suretyship friendship:
   borrowing is the canker and death of every man's estate ....
   [S]uffer not thyself to be wounded for other men's faults,
   and scourged for other men's offences, which is the surety
   for another; for thereby millions of men have been beggared
   and destroyed, paying the reckoning of other men's riot,
   and the charge of other men's folly and prodigality; if
   thou smart, smart for thine own sins; and, above all things,
   be not made an ass to carry the burdens of other men: if any
   friend desire thee to be his surety, give him a
   part of what thou hast to spare; if he press thee further,
   he is not thy friend at all, for friendship rather chooseth
   harm to itself than offereth it; if thou be bound for a
   stranger, thou art a fool: if for a merchant, thou putteth thy
   estate to learn to swim: if for a churchman, he hath no
   inheritance: if for a lawyer, he will find an evasion, by a
   syllable or word, to abuse: if for a poor man thou must pay
   it thyself: if for a rich, it need not: therefore from
   suretyship, as from a manslayer or enchanter, bless
   thyself .... (36) (my italics)


Such advice against borrowing and suretyship friendship found in both early modern prose texts and dramatic fiction is put to the blade when Antonio must tender his flesh in quittance of Bassanio's debt. A "manslayer," suretyship, in Antonio's case, works also as an "enchanter" because he is enamored of Bassanio like the speaker of the sonnets subject to the will of the aristocratic youth, who irresistibly becomes, in Ralegh's phrase, "an ass to carry [his] burdens." Antonio assures Bassanio: "My purse, my person, my extremest means / Lie all unlocked to your occasions" (1.1.138-39). In this regard, Antonio follows the classical usury of friendship, which based on its key tenet that the possessions of friends are common goods, (37) operates in the idealized realm of immeasurable giving rather than the material world of calculated exchanges and thereby admits no bounds to the generous actions toward a friend. This kind of friendship is enduring and without qualification because it is based on virtue, the pursuit of the good life, (38) or in Platonic terras, eros, the infinite love of the noble and the good. This eros, through the medieval period, becomes directed at the union with God as the ultimate end--as the Neoplatonic ladder of love toward the transcendent Good becomes christianized.

Enthralled in idealized friendship with its Platonic and Christian registers, Antonio cannot heed the more accustomed fiscal prudence befitting a merchant. As Antonio himself avows in soliciting Shylock for a loan, "[A]lbeit I neither lend nor borrow / By taking nor by giving of excess, / Yet to supply the ripe wants of my friend / I'll break a custom" (1.3.59). Here, desire for Bassanio prevails over his supposed habit of liberality, the Aristotelian mean in the use of money between prodigality and meanness. Liberality is the companion to thrift: while thrift allows one to accumulate money in an honest and effective manner, liberality allows one to spend if in a judicious manner, considering the variables of a situation. In Shakespeare's rime, the golden mean was a cultural staple in the various spheres of life--religious, economic, political, social, and erotic--though, as Joshua Scodel notes, there was much divergence as to how it was to be construed. (39) The standard text in moral philosophy at the universities, with more than sixty editions published before 1600, (40) was Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, which "emerged from the Reformation struggles as a keystone of both Catholic and Protestant education." (41)

Aristotelian ethics were also mediated through one other influential ancient work of moral philosophy, Cicero's Of Duties (De officiis), available in English through Nicolas Grimalde's translation (1553). Here, Cicero, relying on Aristotle's general scheme of liberality as the just mean, further expounds that "liberalitie" can manifest itself as "bountiefulnesse" in personal service or generosity "oute of the coffer ... [the latter of which can] draweth drye the verie fountane of liberalitie: so liberalitie is by liberalitie wasted: and toward the mo that you do use it, the lesse ye can be able to use it toward manie." (42) Antonio, enacting the generosity of ideal friendship beyond one's economic means, goes against these very teachings, which came to embody the core of humanist Protestant husbandry. Moderation, Aristotle instructs, lies at the heart of "managing households or states," and entails first the philosophical knowledge of "what is good for themselves and what is good for men in general" (43) and then practical wisdom, the knowledge of how to secure these ends of human life. Accordingly, Cicero endorses moderation in those situations in which economic aid to the needy is appropriate:
   Oftentimes yet a man must give largelie: and this kinde of
   liberalitie is not to bee utterlie cast of: and wee must
   manie times give parte of our substaunce to mete men, that
   have need: but wee must doo it heedfullie, and measurablie.
   For divers have spoiled oute their livelod, by lavishing it
   unadvisedlie. (44)


To wit, Cicero would have viewed Antonio's actions of surety friendship as "lavishing [his means] unadvisedlie."

The Protestant Martin Luther would have been even more critical, regarding Antonio's standing surety for Bassanio as hubristic imitatio Christus:
   There is a common error, which has become a widespread custom,
   not only among merchants but throughout the world, by which
   one man becomes the surety for another; and although this
   practice seems to be without sin and looks like a virtue
   springing from love, nevertheless, it causes the ruin
   of many and brings them irrevocable injury. King Solomon
   often forbade and condemned it in his Proverbs ....

   Standing surety is a work that is too lofty for a man; it
   is unseemly, for it is presumptuous and an invasion of God's
   rights. For, in the first place, the Scriptures bid us to
   put our trust and place our reliance on no man, but
   only on God; for human nature is false, vain, deceitful,
   and unreliable, as the Scriptures say and as experience
   teaches every day.

   In the second place, a man puts trust in himself and makes
   himself God, for that on which a man puts his trust and
   reliance is his god. But of his life and property a man is
   not sure and certain for a single moment, any more
   than he is certain of the man for whom he becomes surety,
   but everything is in God's hand only, and He will not allow
   us a hair's breadth of power or right over the future or
   have us for a single moment sure or certain of it. (45)


Luther's conclusion is that the man who stands surety "acts unchristianlike, and deserves what he gets, because he pledges and promises what is not his and is not in his power, but in the hands of God alone." (46) Luther tries to resolve an exegetical problem as presented by the apparent contradictions within the Bible regarding the moral and economic interaction among human beings. On the one hand, both the Old and the New Testament reiterate the ethical golden rule of "Love thy neighbor as thyself" (47) and in doing so seem to advance communal identification with one's neighbor to the disregard of distinct ownership, of mine and thine. On the other hand, other sections of the Bible seem to espouse a more prudent and humble approach to moral and economic relations with our fellow beings. 17:17-18 of the Proverbs of Solomon encapsulates the conflict in Antonio's situation between generosity toward a fellow being and an injunction against surety:

17. A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.

18. A man destitute of understanding, toucheth the hand, and becometh surety in the presence of his friend. (48)

According to Luther, God can have Christ, His son, stand surety for humankind because He can ensure that He can make good on His pledge; in contrast, human beings cannot control the future. A man standing surety, however, acts as God, thinking that he can ensure certain outcomes. As C. S. Lewis once observed of the dangers of eros, "love begins to be a demon the moment he begins to be a god." (49) Accordingly, the man standing surety is infidel in that a true believer in God would defer to His powers and would not try to exceed his own limitations. 17:18 does not condemn the practice of surety on the grounds of economic imprudence but rather on those of theology, on the understanding of man's relation to the divine. Historically, Luther's view on suretyship lent itself to the practice of economic prudence and thereby came to promote, without explicit intention, proto-capitalist mercantilism.

In the case of Antonio, contradictions in his statements about his financial status indicate that beside the erotic influence, the merchant himself is disposed toward imprudent fiscal management. Antonio's current economic prosperity relies on his commercial prudence--in today's financial language, diversifying his investments: of not placing his ventures "in one bottom .... / Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate/ Upon the fortune of this present year" (1.1.43-44). Yet when Bassanio solicits him for money, Antonio tells him, "all my fortunes are at sea, / Neither have I money nor commodity / To raise a present sum" (l. 1.177-79). He contradicts himself, and/ or he proves to be less prudent than he claims to be by not having the nest egg he initially implied. Through fiscal imprudence and erotic vulnerability Antonio is drawn into Bassanio's prodigal ventures, becoming his buffer zone. If Bassanio ends up as the charmed man of fortune in winning Portia, his "golden fleece," the hazards of his "thrift" have not been eluded, just fatally diverted to his fall guy, Antonio.

II. Shylock: Jewish Thrift and Protestant Husbandry

Juxtaposed against the risk-based "thrift" that Bassanio and Antonio jointly practice is a secure, non-risky practice of moneylending, which Shylock also proudly calls "thrift." Although limited to the production of money from itself by the laws which prohibited Jews from engaging in the exchange of commercial goods, Shylock invokes a Jewish forebear's ingenuity to link his thrifty practice imaginatively to the clever entrepreneurship of Jacob. By grounding his example of economic thriving on animal husbandry, Shylock collapses the classical distinction between unnatural versus natural breeding, the chief objection against usury, as Antonio puts it: "for when did friendship take / A breed for barren metal of his friend?" (1.3.128-29). Enterprising Jacob, by artfully breeding "streaked and pied" lambs (75) that by prior agreement with his uncle Laban would "fall as Jacob's hire" (76), also bred money by increasing his flock. Such was Jacob's "thrift" (86), his way to advance himself by increasing his substance without stealing. Even as Antonio approves of Jacob's "way to thrive" (85) as a "venture ... that Jacob served ... swayed and fashioned by the hand of heaven" (87-89), the Venetian merchant prevents Shylock from trying to use this example in defense of taking interest: "is your gold and silver ewes and rams?" (91). To this, the Jew replies equivocally: "I cannot tell. I make it breed as fast" (92), the simile implying that what is important here is the shared strategy of prospering, not the ancient distinction of unnatural versus natural breeding stemming from Aristotle and the Bible. (50)

Indeed, in the parable of the talents, God explicitly approves of "usury" in his rebuke of the third, idle servant: "Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury." (51) The double sense of "talent" as both natural endowment and a form of currency bridges the gap between laudable thrift and reprehensible usury. Shylock's answer to Antonio's first baiting question of whether Jacob takes interest, "No .... not, as you would say, / Directly int'rest" (1.3.72-73), suggests the further resemblance between Shylock's usury and Jacob's thrift: whereas Shylock takes interest in its literal, commercial sense of charging a percentage for the borrowing of money, Jacob takes interest in a related sense of increasing, say, his share of the pie. Jacob's entrepreneurial "thrift" is the bridge between Bassanio's speculative "thrift" and Shylock's lucrative moneylending. Shylock's modern-sounding defense shows the artificiality of the division between natural and unnatural breeding, as reinforced by the lack of distinction today between finance and venture capital: between financiers and bank lenders, on the one hand, and company shareholders and speculators, on the other hand. (52)

"Thrift," apparently, is in the eye of the beholder. Capital-lacking Bassanio and Antonio, seeing their commercial ventures through the rosy glass of prospective wealth, promote their practices of prodigality as "thrift"; the commercial moneylender Shylock conceives "thrift" as the accumulation of money through fiscally sound lending and socially justified gifting. But because The Merchant of Venice ostensibly promotes Christian ascendancy, the "reassuring guarantees of romance operate so smoothly for Christians while the Jew's share of the narrative spoils is loss, humiliation, defeat." (53) Merchant begins with a false premise--that prodigality is "thrift"--and follows it through toward a comic end, an effort which involves the scapegoating of Shylock and the economic prudence that he represents. Co-opting "thrift" for their prodigal ventures, the Christians, specifically Antonio, denounce the thrift of Shylock's moneylending in the name of contemptus mundi. While the Venetian Christians readily use economic language to advance matters of the soul--love and friendship--they do not permit the use of spiritualizing discourse to elevate the practice of usury and thereby refuse "to admit the way their spiritual lives depend on material prosperity." (54) When they refer to Shylock as a dog, the Christians are right in one respect: Shylock, to his credit, exhibits what Thomas Luxon calls a "carnal humanity," (55) fully attuned to the material and passional sides of life despite his thrifty husbandry. He understands better than the Christians how "the coin of the spirit" and "the coin of the realm" (56) are inexorably alloyed.

While applauding their economically unsound ventures as "thrift," Antonio and his ilk perversely oppose macroeconomic thrift when they condemn usury, without which the eras increasingly mercantile economies could not function. Shylock calls them on their contradiction: "You spurn'd me such a day; another time / You call'd me dog; and for these courtesies / I'll lend you thus much moneys?" (1.3.122-24). The Venetians are blithely able to have their cake and eat it too in this romance of Christian righteousness. They may wear the raiments of virtuous "thrift" without enacting it while Shylock, who practices legal usury in a thrifty, fiscally sound manner, is indicted as an exploitive dog.

Shylock's thrifty husbandry is by no means flawless. Jessica's complaint that "Our house is hell" (2.3.2) seems to imply that her father's household is austere, humorless, and somewhat puritanical, prompting her to run away. Launcelot leaves his master, partly because he is "famished in his service" (2.2.94). Erring on the side of excessive husbandry, Shylock considers the loss of Launcelot good riddance from an economic point of view:
   The patch is kind enough, but a huge feeder,
   Snail-slow in profit, and he sleeps by day
   More than the wildcat. Drones hive not with me;
   Therefore I part with him, and part with him
   To one that I would have him help to waste
   His borrowed purse ....

   Fast bind, fast find--
   A proverb never stale in thrifty mind. (2.5.44-53)


Despite his austerity, Shylock's frugal husbandry makes sounder fiscal sense than Bassanio's and Antonio's unwise economic actions from the ancient perspective of the household as the core of the private and public economy.
   Opposing this proto-capitalist view is Antonio,
   who in Shylock's words,
   lends out money gratis, and brings down
   The rate of usance here with us in Venice.

   He hates our sacred nation, and he rails,
   Even there where merchants most do congregate,
   On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift-Which
   he calls interest. (1.3.39-46)


In Shylock's eyes, the Gentile merchant Antonio is, moreover, "a fawning publican" (1.3.35), a contemptible "tavernkeeper" trying to ingratiate himself into the genteel circle. More problematic than this taint on Antonio's credibility is the merchant's reliance on the Aristotelian-Christian standard of liberality in condemning commercial moneylending. Pertaining to social interactions rather than commercial transactions, this standard is fundamentally biased against usury. At any rate, Shylock's practice of Judaic-Protestant thrift is ultimately a sounder base for an increasingly international mercantile system than Antonio's friendship gifting. (57) On balance, Shylock comes closer to the notion of the Aristotelian liberal man who "spends according to his substance and on the right objects" (58) as thrift and liberality converge in the virtue of prudence. In Merchant, however, Bassanio's and Antonio's prodigality is upheld over Shylock's Judeo-Protestant thrift and liberality.

In the parable of the prodigal son, God, as father, overlooks the protest of the diligent older son and forgivingly welcomes back the prodigal younger son, who returns home penitently after dissipating his fortune. The narrative of this parable seems to endorse eros over economics, affect over accounting, mercy over justice. Binary oppositions here as elsewhere within the play may be misleading, however. The return of the prodigal son focuses attention on the collective joy of reclaiming one of the flock deemed lost. This celebration is not intended to elevate the morally recovered son over the enduringly assiduous son.

Yet that is precisely what The Merchant of Venice seems to do in allowing the prodigal sons, Bassanio and Antonio, to triumph over Shylock, the thrifty son--in the name of Christian caritas, which prohibits usury for its putative pursuit of wealth through the exploitation of the debtor. (59) However, the distinction between selfish and altruistic which underlies Christian morality is a specious one. Bassanio's and Antonio's actions of love and friendship that appear unselfish turn out to be self-regarding and self-interested at a deeper level. Bassanio's love for Portia is also a means to his financial solvency; Antonio's fiscal generosity toward Bassanio at core indulges his homoerotic love toward the young nobleman. In contrast, Shylock, relying on a more positive, classical notion of self-interest, affirms the very self-oriented actions by which the Venetians censure him. The ancient Greek notion of virtue, arete (excellence), rests on the affirmation, nurturing, and flourishing of the individual concurrent with, not opposed to, the common good. Likewise, the humanist notion of husbandry is the sufficient care of oneself and one's oikonomia such that members of the state do not rely on public dole and instead contribute severally to the public good. In addition to providing good husbandry in the private economy, Shylock promotes the public economy through his important role in the circulation of money through credit. It is not a gratuitous detail that the money Bassanio borrows with Antonio as surety, Shylock himself must borrow from his friend Tubal. To contrast the play's plot with Venetian history, the city admitted Jews like Shylock as residents during the 1510s because their presence was "doubly beneficial": "they could provide the hard-pressed treasury with annual payments while their moneylending in the city itself was convenient for the needy urban poor." (60)

III. Economic to Social Liberality: The Failure of Civil Friendship

Advocate of a combined Senecan and Christian ethos, Antonio denounces usury, blatantly opposing the Venetian state policy of encouraging usury and contract as "necessary components of economic health," (61) a reflection of early modern England's economic policy. Thus, usury acts as a red herring for Antonio's aim to promulgate the Christian ethos and thereby to deflect medieval and contemporary suspicions leveled at merchants. Aside from the zeal to convert others in the name of their salvation, Antonio's advocacy of a Christian state can perhaps be understood--at least theoretically--from the civil perspective of friendship and its purpose to the state. As Aristotle reports in Book VIII of Nicomachean Ethics, "Friendship seems ... to hold states together, and lawgivers care more for it than for justice; for unanimity seems to be something like friendship, and this they aim at most of all, and expel factions as their worst enemy." (62) This notion of unanimity, implicit in the ancient notion of the body politic and the preoccupation of early modern states with order, becomes a special source of concern for a cosmopolitan state like Venice with its increasing influx of foreigners. How does a nation of culturally diverse members bind together in the common cause of individual and civil flourishing--the same difficult challenge of pluralistic societies in the modern age?

Antonio, in his blind faith, believes that the Gentiles are "gentle" and virtuous, a premise based on a discrepancy between how Christians ought to conduct themselves, imitating Christ, and how they, in fact, behave, falling short of this ideal--as numerously instanced in their cruelty, insensitivity, rapacity, and smug self-righteousness. The reality of morally flawed human beings reveals that Antonio idealizes the Venetian community as grounded in friendships of good rather than of utility. In Book IX, however, Aristotle further elucidates the concept of civil unanimity:
   Unanimity also seems to be a friendly relation. For this
   reason it is not identity of opinion; for that might
   occur even with people who do not know each
   other; nor do we say that people who have the same
   views on any and every subject are unanimous, e.g.
   those who agree about the heavenly bodies (for
   unanimity about these is not a friendly relation),
   but we do say that a city is unanimous when men have
   the same opinion about what is to their interest,
   and choose the same actions, and do what they have
   resolved in common. It is about things to be done,
   therefore, that people are said to be unanimous,
   and, among these, about matters of consequence and
   in which it is possible for both or all parties to
   get what they want; e.g. a city is unanimous when all
   its citizens think that the offices in it should
   be elective, or that they should form an alliance
   with Sparta, or that Pittacus. should be their ruler--at a
   time when he himself was also willing to rule ....
   Unanimity seems, then, to be political friendship, as
   indeed it is commonly said to be; for it is concerned
   with things that are to our interest and have an
   influence on our life. (63)


In Aristotle's clarification, unanimity is not "identity of opinion" among the people of a state but lies in the common cause "about things to be done ... [on] matters of consequence" toward civil flourishing. When he explains further that "such unanimity is found among good men" (my italics), Aristotle most likely means virtuous toward this civil purpose, rather than all-around virtuous, an attainment rarely found among people: "for they are unanimous both in themselves and with one another, being, so to say, of one mind .... and they wish for what is just and what is advantageous, and these are the objects of their common endeavour as well." (64) In sum, civil unanimity through political friendship necessarily contains elements of both virtue and utility. It is this political friendship in the penumbra between virtue friendship and advantage friendship that Shylock, in his regular association with Christians, (65) dares to desire in Venice and presents as a moral challenge to Antonio as if to say: "Prove me wrong that you are a religious bigot and dissuade me from my vengeance." In response, however, Antonio pursues friendship over generalized justice, an exclusionary civil policy straying from the Aristotelian conception of political friendship. Keeping in mind the historical realities that citizenry in early modern Venice was not inclusive of all Venetians, let alone foreigners, I will henceforth discuss political friendship in a "downgraded" form of civil friendship, shaved of the legal rights and privileges of citizens.

Antonio, the self-proclaimed opponent of usury, refuses to accept that its usefulness does not necessarily oppose spiritual goodness. When he and Bassanio come to borrow money from Shylock to finance the young Venetian's wooing of Portia, Antonio places himself grudgingly at the will of his enemy. But instead of requesting in a gentle tone, befitting his stance as a Gentile suppliant, Antonio demands a loan in a tone of truculent contempt, confident that the mercenary Shylock would not shy from this opportunity for profit. Antonio redoubles his contempt toward the Jew, who practices usury legally: "for when did friendship take / A breed for barren metal of his friend? / But lend it rather to thine enemy, / "Who if he break, thou mayst with better face / Exact the penalty" (1.3.128-32). Consenting to a loan agreement, the merchant, nonetheless, will not consider Shylock as a "brother" in commerce, let alone civil friendship.

Despite previous abuse from Antonio--with his quick assurance to "call thee [dog] again, /To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too" (1.3.125-26)--Shylock responds calmly:
   I would be friends with you, and have your love,
   Forget the shames that you have stained me with,
   Supply your present wants, and take no doit
   Of usance for my moneys; and you'll not hear me.
   This is kind I offer. (1.3.133-37)


Shylock here pointedly offers to lend Bassanio money interest-free, as Antonio himself would without judaizing. In other words, Shylock departs from the Judaic commandment on usury, which allowed the taking of interest from the foreigner but not from the tribal brother (Deuteronomy 23:19-20). If Shylock refrains from taking interest from Antonio, he has metaphorically embraced him as a tribal brother. Because he does not demand that Antonio convert to Judaism, this bond gestures toward inclusive otherhood rather than tribal brotherhood, a detente that could gradually develop into a civil entente rather than the religious conversion that the Christians exact from Shylock at the play's end. (66) The usury of commercial lending is hereby transmuted into the usury of potential friendship, which could develop by reciprocal kindness into civil amity or through non-reciprocation into its opposite, enmity. Contrary to the security and idleness leveled against commercial usury as part of its critique, Shylock, in this inchoate gambit toward civil friendship, ventures into the hazardous unknown and the benign prospects within its scope.

Though critics have well noted that Shylock is here baiting Antonio so that the Jew may "feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him" (1.3.42), I argue that Shylock's animosity coexists with a gesture toward friendship and, furthermore, that this double-sided response should be interpreted within an expansive phenomenological context of dramatic interaction rather than the strictures of literal text. As a more immediate visceral reaction to Antonio's persecution, vengeance does not preclude other competing desires of a marginalized character, who yearns for the due dignity and respect of all human beings. His renowned "Hath not a Jew eyes" rant of 3.1 is a call for revenge, but the humanity underlying that speech suggests that he has been pushed to extremity; had it been otherwise, Shylock might well have preferred to work toward the amity of mutually respecting residents over the animosity between intolerant ethnic and economic others. Like other marginalized characters within the Shakespeare canon--Kate, Caliban, and Emilia in Othello--the Jew ultimately seeks recognition rather than rebellion. Hence, Shylock's stipulation, in "merry sport" (2.1.141) that Antonio pay the Jew a pound of flesh as quittance is as much a hazy wish for a miracle as a premeditated plan of revenge: that Antonio regard him in "kind" for his "kind" action, not as a subpar inhabitant of Venice. In such an auspicious outcome, the "pound of flesh" stipulation, without ever growing teeth for a loanshark's exploitation of a debtor, would simply act as the legal consideration required of a binding common law contract (as opposed to a non-enforceable gratuitous promise) to insure that Bassanio would receive the agreed-upon sum. (67)

Embedded in the formal bond of the loan lies a gift, the forfeiting of commercial "usance" (1.3.136), igniting the usury of gift-exchange and the attitudes of trust and gratitude that the usury of friendship entails, coextensive with Shylock's vengeful motive. As Barbara Sebek explains, citing from Arthur Golding's translation of Seneca's De beneficiis, "trust and 'mens' consciences' ... make these relations of exchange binding and valuable .... The motive for giving benefits is not profit, but fellowship: a benefit is a thing which 'most of all other knitteth men together in fellowship.'" (68) Thus, as much as Bassanio and Antonio's loan depends on the Jew's good will, Shylock's gambit toward political friendship or degeneration into stony vengeance depends on the conduct of the Christian Venetians, especially Antonio, and the Jew's own further reactions to their actions. Shylock's gesture of rapprochement appears auspicious: Antonio agrees to the bond, telling Shylock "there is much kindness in the Jew" (2.1.149) and reiterates at the moneylender's leavetaking: "Hie thee, gentle Jew. / The Hebrew will turn Christian; he grows kind" (2.1.173-74). The double sense of "gentle" and "kind" attributes moral superiority to the Christian tribe. In doing so, Christian hegemony, upon which this seeming gesture of ethnic detente is grounded, is the very source of cultural faction and Shylock's downfall.

The rapprochement between Shylock and the Christians proceeds a bit further only to collapse violently. While Antonio remains civilly aloof, it is the more sociable Bassanio, who, conflating moral and mercantile values, reinforces a friendship of utility with that of pleasure by inviting Shylock to dinner in a gesture of good will, the basis of civil friendship. Initially, Shylock himself discourages fraternizing outside of his tribe when he rejects Bassanio's invitation to dine with him and Antonio: "I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following, but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you" (1.3.30-32). But actions seem to speak louder than words: later in 2.5, Shylock goes guardedly to Bassanio's banquet "to feed upon the prodigal Christian" (2.5.14), both echoing and possibly revising his previous thought to "feed fat the ancient grudge I bear" (1.3.42). Unfortunately, we shall never know the outcome of this potential trajectory toward civil friendship because Shylock's arrow, unlike Bassanio's, is struck down in mid-flight.

The very night that Shylock is away dining with the Christians, his daughter Jessica, in a more precipitous consorting with a particular Christian, runs off with Shylock's wealth to marry Lorenzo--a betrayal that completely vitiates her father's more deliberate efforts to improve Jewish-Christian relations and thereby constitutes the core of the play's tragedy. The fragile circle of benefits that Shylock initiates collapses shortly after birth and turns into its opposite: a circle of detriments within the Jewish-Christian relation. Just by the concurrence of Shylock's dinner at Bassanio's and Jessica's elopement, (69) the Jew, instead of becoming more trustful of the Christians, suspects that they are colluding to persecute him further, adding to the litany of Antonio's mistreatments: "He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies" (3.1.46-49). Accusing Solanio and Salerio of knowing "of my daughter's flight" (3.1.21-22), Shylock breaks into his famous "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech, which ends with the logic of negative rather than positive reciprocity: a cycle of inimical retaliation instead of friendship gift-exchange.

In the face of his daughter's defection to the Christians, who invariably mock him, one can easily imagine the outraged and humiliated Shylock seeking the emotional satisfaction of the pound of flesh from Antonio--retribution for past hostility and for perceived ingratitude of colluding against him in response to his own overture of generosity. According to Seneca, ingratitude is the radix of vices and crimes, (70) including revenge. Shylock's loss of trust in his recipients, key to gift-giving, diverts him from the potential path of civil amity back to the path of religious and ethnic animosity. Shylock's bond initially drafted with a mock forfeiture now grows shark's teeth, with law to enforce it. The pound of flesh by which Shylock pursues his revenge so viscerally under the cover of law underscores the quittance for "those wrongs [for] which there is not Law to remedy" (71)--the ethnic abuses and civil inequalities that ignite his revenge. With social and political remedy out of reach, only a pound of flesh from Antonio will tender Shylock's visceral wounds. Quittance in flesh is the only vindication that will "content" (4.1.389) the Jew in the double sense of "satisfy" and "contend." Seen as a Satanic adversary from the Christian perspective, Shylock, from his perspective, might be seeking to nail Antonio as a false Christ, though such a lesson would fall on deaf ears in the lions' den of the Christian courtroom. In one respect, however, Shylock's intent to cut Antonio's flesh brings the two enemies closer: as Christopher Colmo observes, Antonio, who wants to distance himself from these usurious merchants, ironically becomes a Jew in the sense of being a martyr on behalf of a "sacred nation" (1.3.43). (72)

As John Drakakis argues, Shylock is "an externalization, and a demonisation, of a force that Venice finds necessary in order for it to conduct its daily commercial activity, but which it cannot acknowledge as such." (73) More than a Jew "in the strictly ethnological sense of the terra," Shylock is "a rhetorical means of prising open a dominant Christian ideology no longer able to smooth over its own internal contradictions, and therefore a challenge and a threat." (74) With the ugly head of anti-alien sentiment rearing at the resolution of the trial, the play highlights how grossly the Venetians have deviated from the good and the useful--as informed by Christian mercy and the Judeo-Christian ideal of thrift--ideally to promote universal brotherhood and global commerce. Instead, the Venetian adjudicators--Portia, the Duke, and Antonio--in a concerted effort turn the Christian doctrine of mercy on its head, thereby conducting themselves by the same principle of tribal brotherhood (instead of inclusive otherhood) undergirding the Judaic commandment on usury, which allowed the taking of interest from the foreigner but not from the tribal brother. If we view usury in a broader sense as a taking by advantage rather than due compensation for services or goods exchanged, (75) the confiscation of Shylock's property through the deeding of his estate to his son-in-law and Christianized daughter, together with the Jew's forced conversion, enacts the exploitation, expropriation, and erasure of the other that homogenizes and aggrandizes the Christian tribe--not the unconditional embrace of the other that caritas is supposed to enact. In beseeching mercy from Shylock, the Christians hold the Jewish outsider to a higher standard of morality than they themselves practice. Like any other human being subject to enduring injustice, Shylock conducts himself exactly as prescribed in his "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech: "If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction" (3.1.58-61). Needless to say, the ethnic/religious conflict that rises from the commercial dispute between merchant and moneylender might well have been avoided had Antonio shown himself in the first place more tolerant and charitable toward Shylock.

Following the Christian commandment to "love thy neighbor" in his generosity to Gentiles, Antonio fails to abide by the more stringent test of charity: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which hurt you, and persecute you." (76) If Merchant is a commentary on not simply Venetian but more pointedly English commercial, social, and legal practices, the Venetians in the play act against (English) Christian sermons on unkindness. The sixteenth-century clergyman Thomas Bankes counsels:
   We may not then ... for any cause give such broad way unto
   malice and inhumanitie, as that we should account other
   mens danger our owne securitie, other mens losse our own
   advantage, other mens dishonour our owne credit, other mens
   weaknes our own strength, and other mens overthrow
   our own uprising. For in so doing, wee shall become
   monsters whom nature hath no stroke in, streames of a
   corrupt fountain, branches of a rotten roote,
   beames of wrong Sunshine, yea, the verie offspring of
   Satan, and no true Christians. (77)


In the play, the Venetians are the true "usurers," employing the law to their own advantage much as Edward I, in late thirteenth-century England, had many Jews "arrested and executed under trumped-up charges of financial misconduct, while the Crown lay claim to their property and assets." (78) In their desire for ethnic homogeneity, the Venetian Christians outdo the Jew by distinguishing between brothers and others while Shylock seeks the sharing of socio-political visions and goals: civil unanimity in plurality. (79)

According to Aristotle, rectificatory justice enjoins a person inflicting a loss upon another to redress that loss. (80) Reasonable justice would rule that Shylock have the "due and forfeit of [his] bond" (paid by Portia's wealth), without physical harm done to Antonio. When Shylock unreasonably refuses to trade a pound of Antonio's flesh for a double payment of his bond, on the one hand, the Jew gets what he deserves for trying to seek revenge through the enforcement of his bond. On the other hand, he is demanding the enforcement of a brutal law from Roman times, (81) sanctioned by the Venetians themselves. By keeping such a barbaric law in force, the Venetians are thus partly complicit in Shylock's intent to inflict bodily damage upon Antonio.

Moreover, the Venetian court, with power to resolve the issue in an equitable manner, instead resolves it in a clearly unjust manner. Portia's matching demand for exact enforcement (without a drop of blood) effectively terminates Shylock's demand for literal satisfaction of the forfeiture (a pound of flesh). The fact, however, that she not only rescinds the double payment of the bond but punitively confiscates Shylock's entire estate based upon an obscure anti-alien law amounts to retributive prosecution/persecution of a Jewish plaintiff. Moreover, Shylock's coerced conversion to retain his halved and entailed estate involves a metaphorical taking of life--the cannibalistic engulfment of a Jew in the maw of hegemonic Christianity. What begins as a case of rectificatory justice on behalf of a claimant turns into a transgression of distributive justice, confiscating what Shylock has thus far legally earned. The just distribution of wealth in society, Aristotle claims, should proceed according to merit, noting disagreement however on the interpretation of merit: "democrats identify it with the status of freeman, supporters of oligarchy with wealth (or noble birth), and supporters of aristocracy with excellence." (82) By her judicial discretion, Portia ties merit to religious affiliation, severely punishing those outside of the Christian faith.

In consideration of equity, the court could have compelled Shylock to accept Bassanio's offer of many times the amount of Antonio's forfeiture, or probed deeper the justified reasons for Shylock's "lodged hate" (4.1.59) toward Antonio. Instead of breaking the cycle of retribution through equitable adjudication, Portia only perpetuates it by turning Shylock's literalism back on him. This is the play's "golden fleece," the labile referent of "tainted wether" (4.1.113) suddenly shifting from Antonio to Shylock, who has lost his religion, his livelihood, and thereby his life. In this Christian-Jewish contention, Portia coerces Shylock's "I am content" (4.1.389) to "satisfy" Christian prepossessions and possessions. The false mercy of the Christians ultimately turns distributive justice into retributive injustice. Sadly, the circle of benefits, with its potential of civil friendship, is played out only in the romantic plot, as Portia's and Nerissa's rings, which Bassanio and Graziano unwittingly gift back to their fiancees in male garb, are returned to their original recipients with forgiveness of their betrayal.

Merchant's fictionalized Christian pastoral offers its members "equality, equanimity, and amicability" (83) in its idyllic world only by eradicating differences. In the Venetian subjugation of the Jew, Shakespeare sounds the dangers of nostalgically retreating to an illusive golden world, a warning brought into full play in his late romance, The Tempest. There, Prospero learns through a hard-earned lesson the consequences of avoiding civil responsibility by retreating into his books. (84) Kevin McNamara argues cogently that the betrothal masque figures as a significant element of the play in warning the court, comprising the ruling class, of "the mind-warping potential of kingly power," which distracts rulers by "comfortable fictions" (85) from the imperatives of responsible governance. The dangers of retreating into a more pleasurable world of art and contemplation exist in regard to both the historical figure of James I and the fictional character of Prospero. In the case of the latter, Prospero's "throne was not so much usurped by, as given to, his brother through [his] preoccupation with the study of 'liberal arts' and 'secret studies' (I.ii.73, 77) to the neglect of all affairs of state." (86) In other words, Prospero abandoned his duties of governance in favor of otium literatum in the classical conflict between active and contemplative life. (87)

While the masque could have been played to a conventional ending of a naive romance such as Merchant, its sudden dissolution works to a wholly different effect. Prospero's reaction to the threat of the "piss-drenched usurpers"--Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban--attempting to reenact his brother's usurpation demonstrates the philosopher-king's "hard-gotten knowledge of how to govern. Twelve years earlier Prospero was a reclusive innocent oblivious of such threats; ... [now he] is resolved to face up to disharmony and death." (88) Instead of presenting the masque as a betrothal blessing projecting an idealized world in which good triumphs over evil, Prospero chooses to break it off in order to correct a political mistake of the past. He substantiates the "lead" world of fallible human life over the gilded world of the masque. In this sense, The Tempest serves as "a warning against taking courtly dreams too seriously, to the neglect of the actual affairs of state," (89) a caution that underlies the early romance comedy, The Merchant of Venice, without breaking the gilded illusion of harmony. Contrary to the moral lessons of the casket test, the play ends on the false notes of gold and silver, as also suggested by the commonly noted illusion of harmony and "rhetoric of dissonance" in 5.1. (90) The late romance of The Tempest is the proper gloss on Shakespeare's earlier romance comedy, which less forcefully but just as clearly adverts to the political and economic dangers of regressive self-delusion on the part of a ruling class. "With his grandest dreams beyond his reach, Prospero must concentrate his efforts on winning what reconciliation he can with the most recalcitrant of his onstage audience/unwilling actors." (91) Portia and her Venetian circle, lacking Prospero's hard-gained wisdom, retreat blithely into their gilded world.

Notes

I would like to thank the anonymous reader for insightful comments and opposing views, which have compelled me to a more cogent and sophisticated essay than otherwise. A special thanks goes to Elizabeth Rivlin for her keen editorial eye.

(1.) Lawrence Danson, introduction to The Merchant of Venice, ed. Lawrence Danson (New York: Pearson Education, 2005), 163.

(2.) Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 543-44; Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare After All (New York: Random House/Anchor Books, 2004), 284.

(3.) Garber, 284.

(4.) Danson, The Harmonies of The Merchant of Venice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), 144.

(5.) Francis Bacon rationally analyzes "the incommodities and commodities of usury" in his defense of this commercial practice. Francis Bacon, "Essay XLI--Of Usury," Complete Essays of Francis Bacon (New York: Belmont Books, 1962), 125.

(6.) Danson, Harmonies, 142.

(7.) William Harrison, The Description of England (1587), ed. Georges Edelen (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1968), 203, quoted in Danson, Harmonies, 146.

(8.) Danson, Harmonies, 147.

(9.) Stone quoted in Danson, Harmonies, 146.

(10.) Both words are cognates of Latin usus. See OED, use and usury, etymology.

(11.) Sigurd Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), 213.

(12.) Robert Zaslavsky, "'Which is the merchant heere? and which the Jew?': Keeping the Book and Keeping the Books in The Merchant of Venice," Judaism (1995): par. 11. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0411/is_n2_v44/ai_17379712/. Accessed 4 Sept. 2009.

(13.) OED, s.v. "good," adj., A.

(14.) Danson, Harmonies, 127.

(15.) Citations of Shakespeare are from The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1997).

(16.) Danson, Harmonies, 190.

(17.) Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. W. D. Ross, in Introduction to Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1947), VIII. 1156a 10-12. Henceforth cited as NE.

(18.) Aristotle, NE, VIII. 1156a15-18.

(19.) Aristotle, NE, VIII.2.1156b6-7.

(20.) Seneca, The Woorke of the Excellent Philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca Concerning Benefyting, That Is too Say the Dooing, Receyving, and Requyting of Good Turnes, trans. Arthur Golding (London, 1578), sig. E4; quoted in Barbara Sebek, "Good Turns and the Art of Merchandizing: Conceptualizing Exchange in Early Modern England," Early Modern Culture 2 (2002): par. 12. http://emc.eserver.org/1-2/sebek.html. Accessed 3 Nov. 2009.

(21.) Ronald Sharp, "Gift Exchange and the Economies of Spirit in The Merchant of Venice," Modern Philology 83 (1986): 250-65; quoted in Jason Gleckman, "The Merchant of Venice. Laws Unwritten and Unwritten in Venice," Critical Review 41 (2001): 85.

(22.) Gleckman, 83.

(23.) Bacon, 125. See also Walter Cohen: "Writers of the period register both the medieval ambivalence about merchants and the indisputable contemporary fact that merchants were the leading usurers: suspicion of Italian traders ran particularly high." Walter Cohen, "The Merchant of Venice and the Possibilities of Historical Criticism," ELH 49 (1982): 768-69.

(24.) Margaret Rosenthal, The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth-Century Venice (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 12. See also David C. McPherson, Shakespeare, Jomon, and the Myth of Venice (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1990), 27, for "Venice the Rich, Venice the Wise, Venice the Just," quoted in Gleckanan, 86.

(25.) Rosenthal, 3.

(26.) Murray J. Levith, Shakespeare's Italian Seltings and Plays (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989), 21.

(27.) John Picker, "Shylock and the Struggle for Closure," Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought 43 (1994): par. 2. http://find.galegroup.com.libproxy.usc.edu/gtx/ start.do?prodId-EAIM&userGroupName=usocal_main. Accessed 31 Oct. 2009.

(28.) Francis Vander Valk, "Political Friendship and the Second Self in Aristode's Nicomachean Ethics," Innavations: A Journal of Politics 5 (2004-05): 60.

(29.) Geoff Baker, "Other Capital: Investment, Rotura, Alterity and The Merchant of Venice," The Upstart Crow 22 (2004): 23.

(30.) Garber, 287.

(31.) Lorna Hutson, "Why the Lady's Eyes Are Nothing like the Sun," in New Feminis, Discourses: Critical Essays on Theories and Texts, ed. Isobel Armstrong (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), 165.

(32.) Cicero, Marcus Ciceroes Thre Bokes of Duties to Marcus His Sonne, trans. Nicolas Grimalde, ed. Gerald O'Gorman (Washington, D. C.: Associated University Press, 1990), sig. N3v-N4, 1.1319-24.

(33.) Matthew 25:26, in Geneva Bible, trans. William Whittingham, Anthony Gilby, Thomas Sampson (Geneva, 1561), n.p. Early English Books Online: Text Creation Parmership.

(34.) Joseph Hall, "The Characterism of the Ambitious," in Characters of Vertues and Vices in Two Bookes (London: Eleazar Edgar and Samuel Macham, 1608), 155.

(35.) William Cecil, Lord Burghley, A Multitude of Counsellors: Being a Collection of Codes, Precepts and Rules of Life from the Wise of All Ages, ed. J. N. Larned (Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press, 1901), 242. I am indebted to Benjamin Nelson for pointing out this and the following reference.

(36.) Walter Ralegh, "Instructions to His Son and to Posterity," in Larned, 256-57. Polonius, in a litany of commonplaces, offers similar counsel to his son: "Neither a borrower not a lender be; / For loan oft loses both itself and friend, /And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry" (Hamlet 1.3.75-77).

(37.) Benjamin Nelson, The Idea of Usury: from Tribal Brotherhood to Universal Otherhood, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 148.

(38.) Aristotle, NE, VIII.3.1156b6-23. In Plato's Symposium, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), eros is rendered incarnate as a demigod, who, as the offspring of penury and resource, instantiates ceaseless striving for the beautiful and noble (203c). See also Plato, Meno, 77b-78b.

(39.) Joshua Scodel, Excess and the Mean in Early Modern English Literature (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002), 8-11.

(40.) Albert D. Menut, "Castiglione and the Nicomachean Ethics," PMLA 58 (1943): 317.

(41.) Charles B. Schmitt, "Aristotle's Ethics in the Sixteenth Century: Some Preliminary Considerations," in The Aristotelian Tradition and Renaissance Universities (London: Variorum Reprints, 1984), 94. See also Charles B. Schmitt and Quentin Skinner, A History of Western Philosophy: Renaissance Philosophy, Vols. 1-3 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 3:778; and Henry S. Turner on NE's influence on poetic discourse, The English Renaissance Stage: Geometry, Poetics, and the Practical Spatial Arts 1580-1630 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 47-50, 62-63, 65.

(42.) Cicero, sig. L4v-L5, 2.757-62.

(43.) Aristotle, NE, VI.5.1140b9-12.

(44.) Cicero, sig. L5-L5v, 2.785-90.

(45.) Martin Luther, Von Kaufshandling und Wucher (1524), quoted in Nelson, 151-52.

(46.) Ibid., 152.

(47.) Leviticus 19:18, Leviticus 19:34, Matthew 7:12, Matthew 19:19, Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:33, Luke 6:31, Luke 10:27, Romans 13:9, Galatians 5:14, James 2:8, in Geneva Bible, Early English Books Online.

(48.) Proverbs of Solomon 17:17-18, in Geneva Bible, Early English Books Online.

(49.) C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harvest Books, 1960), 17.

(50.) Aristotle, NE, IV.1.1121b33-1122a2; Exodus 22, Deuteronomy 24:23, Leviticus 25, Nehemiah 5, Ezechiel 22:18, in Geneva Bible, Early English Books Online; and Philip Stubbes, The Anatomy of Abuses, excerpted in Danson, The Merchant of Venice, 169.

(51.) Matthew 25:27, in Geneva Bible, Early English Books Online.

(52.) Graham Holderness, Merchant of Venice (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 22.

(53.) Ibid., xii.

(54.) Katharine Maus, introduction to The Merchant of Venice in Greenblatt et al., The Norton Shakespeare, 1087.

(55.) Thomas H. Luxon, "A Second Daniel: The Jew and the 'True Jew' in The Merchant of Venice," Early Modern Literary Studies 4.3 (1999): par. 3. http://purl.oclc.org/emls/O4-3/luxoshak.html. Accessed 8 Feb. 2008.

(56.) Zaslavsky, par. 11.

(57.) Nelson, 155-56.

(58.) Aristotle, NE, IV.I.1120b22.

(59.) In a slightly different configuration of the three male characters conflating the merchant and the Jew, the comedy seems to play out an Augustinian reading of the parable as a religious allegory: Antonio and Shylock together fill the role of the elder brother/Jew vis-a-vis Bassanio as the prodigal son/Gentile. I am indebted to Katharine E. Maus for this information.

(60.) "Venice," Jewish Virtual Library. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org. Accesscd 31 Aug. 2011.

(61.) Gleckman, 87, 86.

(62.) Aristotle, NE, VIII.I 155a23-25.

(63.) Ibid., IX.6.1167a21-1167a4.

(64.) Ibid., IX.6.1167a21-1167a5-9.

(65.) See Christopher Colmo's cogent argument that Shylock leans very much toward assimilation despite indications of ethnic separation. Christopher A. Colmo, "Law and Love in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Oklahoma City University Law Review 26 (2001): 317-18.

(66.) See also Charles Spinosa, "The Transformation of Intentionality: Debt and Contract in The Merchant of Venice," Cardozo Studies in Law and literature 5 (1993): 395-96, for another reading of Shylock's gesturing toward friendship. For this reference, I am indebted to Michad Bristol and Sara Coodin, "Is Shylock Jewish?," SPRITE, Shakespeare in Performance Research Team Colloquium, Montreal, 18 Jan. 2007.

(67.) "The Making of Contracts (2)--Consideration," 23-25. http://www.londonexternal.ac.uk/current-students/programme- resources/lse/lse-pdf/foundation-units/intro-com-law/intcomlaw-ch3.pdf. Accessed 9 April 2010.

(68.) Seneca, sig. A4v; Facsimile rpt. The English Experience (Amsterdam: Walter J. Johnson, 1974), 694, quoted in Sebek, par. 11.

(69.) When Jessica rebels against her father's austere, joyless house, she (and, apparently, Shakespeare) associate this severity with a Jewish household when it could just as well fit a Puritan one.

(70.) Seneca, sigs. AI, B3v, quoted in Sebek, par. 11.

(71.) Francis Bacon, "Of Revenge," in Essayes and Counsels, Civil and Moral (London, 1664), 20.

(72.) Colmo, 310.

(73.) John Drakakis, "Historical Difference and Venetian Patriarchy," in New Casebooks: "The Merchant of Venice," ed. Martin Coyle (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998), 186.

(74.) Ibid.

(75.) John Ruskin, Mundera Pulveris in 7be Crown of Wild Olive (Boston: Dana Estes, 1890), 172. I am indebted to Karoline Szatek for drawing my attention to this citation.

(76.) Matthew 5:44, in Geneva Bible, Early English Books Online.

(77.) Thomas Bankes, "A Verie Godly, Learned, and Fruitfull Sermon against the Bad Spirits of Malignitie, Malice, and Unmercifulnesse" (1586), D2r-3v.

(78.) SPRITE, Shakespeare and Performance Research Team, 2008. http://shakespeare.mcgilLca/merchant/page3.html. Accessed 26 March 2009.

(79.) See Janet Adelman's fascinating theological account, Blood Relations: Christian and Jew in The Merchant of Venice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), on the relations between the Christians and the Jews within the context of the conversion narrative: "the knowledge that Merchant simultaneously gestures toward and defends against us is that the Jew is not the stranger outside Christianity but the original stranger within it" (4).

(80.) Aristotle, NE, V.4.1132a5-10.

(81.) See John Gillies, Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 127. The Roman law on debt, according to the first-century legal historian, Aulus Gellius, ruled that a debtor unable to pay his bond would be imprisoned for a period of sixty days, after which rime he could be condemned to death and/or his body quartered and distributed among the creditors if they so wished.

(82.) Aristotle, NE, V.3.1131a26-29.

(83.) Karoline Szatek, "The Merchant of Venice and the Politics of Commerce," in The Merchant of Venice: New Critical Essays ed. John W. Mahon and Ellen Macleod Mahon (New York: Routledge, 2002), 326.

(84.) Kevin McNamara argues cogently that the betrothal masque, contrary to the standard view, figures as a significant element of the play, in warning the court, comprising the ruling class, of "the mind-warping potential of kingly power" (197), which distracts rulers by "comfortable fictions" (199) from the imperatives of responsible governance. Kevin McNamara, "Golden Worlds at Court: The Tempest and Its Masque," Shakespeare Studies 19 (1987): 183-202.

(85.) Ibid., 197, 199.

(86.) Ibid., 191.

(87.) For a more detailed discussion of this conflict, see my essay, "Idleness, Leisure, and Virtuous Activity in Shakespearean Drama," Selected Papers of the Ohio Valley Shakespeare Conference 2 (2009): 1-16.

(88.) McNamara, 195.

(89.) Ibid., 197.

(90.) Elise Bickford Jorgens, "A Rhetoric of Dissonance: Music in The Merchant of Venice," John Donne Journal 25 (2006): 109.

(91.) McNamara, 197.

Unhae Langis, Santa Cruz, California
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