In an old article in the Shakespeare Quarterly, Barbara Lewalski suggests that Merchant of Venice is a moralistic allegory depicting the character of Christian love. In the play, Christian love involves “giving and forgiving: it demands an attitude of carelessness regarding the things of this world founded upon a trust in God’s providence; an attitude of self-forgetfulness and humility founded upon recognition of man’s common sinfulness; a readiness to give and risk everything, possessions and person, for the sake of love; and a willingness to forgive injuries and to love enemies.” Lewalski finds that Antonio embodies all these qualities but the last, and that Shylock is posed as an antithesis to Christian love.
She finds evidence of Antonio’s Christian attitude toward material goods in the use of the word “venture,” which reminds her of Matthew 6′s exhortation not to lay up treasures on earth. Instead of hoarding, Antonio has put his talents out in the wide world, risking loss in order to gain profit. His willingness to assist Bassanio, even when his own funds are tied up, is evidence that he obeys Jesus command to “give to every many that asks of you.” Antonio is willing to “risk and venture” all his has – his credit, even his life – for his friend, thus fulfilling the evangelical demand of the lead casket at Belmont: “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”
Shylock, by contrast, is all about thrift, savings, hoarding.
He despises Antonio’s practice of lending money gratis, despises the festivities of the Christian Venetians as much for their waste as for their prurience, cries “my daughter, my ducats” when his house is plundered by Jessica, who leaves for the promised land in a symbolic exodus.
The moral tension of the play is not only in the different attitudes toward material wealth, but in the way Shylock and Antonio respond to wrongs. Here the characters cross paths in the course of the play. Shylock initially poses as the Christian who turns the other cheek, forgets Antonio’s slights and insults, and generously lends him money. While Antonio is generous with his friend from the beginning, he is contemptuous toward Shylock, hating him intensely. As the play progresses, however, both are faced with situations of wrong and thus faced with a choice between revenge and forgiveness. Shylock insists on “justice” and “law,” which translates into revenge; his great “hath not a Jew eyes” speech climaxes with a defense of Jewish revenge. Given the opportunity to pay Shylock back for his attack, Antonio determines that Shylock’s fortune will go to Jessica and that Shylock will become a Christian, brought into the same religious community as Antonio himself. Antonio begins with the expected stance of willingness to love and forgive a friend; he comes to the evangelical position of forgiving his enemy.
Lewalski rightly sees the play as a quasi-Lutheran allegory of Law and Grace, or in scholastic terms, of the conflict between Old and New Law. She writes, “the emphasis of the Old Law upon perfect legal righteousness is opposed to the tenet of the New Law that righteousness is impossible to fallen man and must be replaced by faith.” That is only partly right, because in the trial scene Portia insists that the letter of the law must be perfectly and exactly fulfilled. She opens up the possibility of grace not by diminishing the force of the letter, but by insisting that the letter be kept to the letter. The bond, that certificate of ordinances standing against Antonio, is nailed to the cross. This is the theological, the Pauline, brilliance of the trial scene.
Lewalski sees this to some degree, since she recognizes that the court scene alludes again and again to the crucifixion: “Both plot situation and language suggest a typical killing of Christ by the Jew. Antonio, baring his breast to shed his blood for the debt of another, continues the identificationw ith Christ occasionally suggested at other points in the play. Shylock’s cry, ‘My deeds upon my head’ (IV. i. 202) clearly suggests the assumption of guilt by the Jews at Christ’s crucifixion . . . and his later remark, ‘I have a daughter / Would any of the stock of Barrabas / Had been her husband, rather than a Christian’(I V. i. 291-293) recalls the Jews’ choice of the murderer Barrabas over Christ as the prisoner to be released at Passover (Matt. xxvii. 16-21).”
Lewalski notes that the Old/New contrast is not static in the play. Rather, the Old (Shylock) is eventually brought into the New, as Jews would, according to Elizabethan Christians, finally be brought into the kingdom. Lewalski notes the various anticipations of this conversion scattered throughout the play: “The first such reference occurs, most appropriately, just after Shylock’s feigned offer to forego usury and forgive injury. Antonio salutes Shylock’s departure with the words, ‘Hie thee gentle Jew’ – probably carrying a pun on gentle-gentile-and then prophesies, ‘The Hebrew will turn Christian, he grows kind’( I. iii. 173-174). ‘Kind’ in this context implies both ‘natural’ (in foregoing unnatural interest) and ‘charitable’; thus Antonio suggests that voluntary adoption of these fundamental Christian principles would lead to the conversion of the Jew. The second prediction occurs in Lorenzo’s declaration, ‘If e’er the Jew her father come to heaven, / It will be for his gentle daughter’s sake’ ( II. iv. 33-34)- again with the pun on gentle-gentile. As Shylock’s daughter and as a voluntary convert to Christianity, Jessica may figure forth the filial relationship of the New Dispensation to the Old, and Lorenzo’s prediction may carry an allusion to Paul’s prophecy that the Jews will ultimately be saved through the agency of the Gentiles. At any rate, the final conversion of the Jews is symbolized in just such terms in the trial scene: because Antonio is able to rise at last to the demands of Christian love, Shylock is not destroyed but, albeit rather harshly, converted.” We might press this one allegorical point further: It is precisely the Jewish insistence on law, on taking a pound of flesh from the Son of God, that leads to salvation. Antonio awaiting the knife is Isaac and Jesus, dead and risen again, so that Israel may be saved.
The trial scene raises the conflict between Shylock and Antonio to an allegorical level in another sense as well. Lewalski notes that the petition, “Forgive us our debts,” is alluded to twice in the court scene, which makes “the debtor’s trial in the court of Venice a precise analogue of the sinner’s trial in the court of Heaven.” Antonio is forgiven his debt, the law is humbled. And, unlike the forgiven servant in Jesus’ parable, Antonio responds to the forgiveness of his debt by forgiving Shylock’s.
Lewalski notes that Shylock’s appeal to Daniel is inverted in the trial scene. Portia has anticipated the Daniel reference by adopting Daniel’s Babylonian name, Balthasar, when she plays a jurist in the court. In the Apocryphal stories to which Shylock and Portia are alluding, Daniel plays the sleuth and unmasks treachery, false accusations, and trickery. He is not one to be fooled by appearances; he knows that all that glisters is not gold, and not all that goes by the name of justice is just. So does Portia, and as Gratiano annoyingly repeats, she turns Shylock’s bond against him. ”A second Daniel” for sure.
These various contrasts overlap, and come to a focus in the practice of usury. Usury is presented in the play as a Jewish, Old-Law practice; lending gratis is a demand of the gospel. Shylock’s insistence on justice in regard to his bond is already there in his practice of usury: He wants payback from those who use his money. Shakespeare probably never read Thomas, but the play presents a Thomist position against usury: Jews could charge usury to stranger, but Christian “ought to treat every man as our neighbor and brother, especially in the state of the Gospel whereto all are called.”
The other major plot of the play – the casket plot – is also about Christian love, though here in a romantic context. Again, conceptions of love are tied in with attitudes toward material wealth. The gold casket is the way of death, as the Prince of Morocco finds. Desert also has no place in romance, as Aragon discovers. As in the Antonio-Shylock-Bassanio plot, so in the romantic Bassanio-Portia plot, the reward goes to the one who ventures, who is willing to give life to gain it.
The ring plot that ends the play also fits, Lewaksi says, into the notion that the play is an allegory of love. The ring represents Bassanio’s claim to his wife and her riches, and by handing the ring over to Balthasar, he gives up all that he has. He replicates in small symbolic compass Antonio’s love for him. But he finds that giving up all finally means gaining all, because in the magical realm of Belmont – the beautiful mountain – all is forgiven, “the whole crisis dissolved in laughter and amazement.” Bassanio is “tried” by Portia, found to be a sinner; but mercy triumphs over justice.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Wednesday, September 5, 2012 at 9:52 am
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