By Joseph Pearce
Joseph Pearce is a senior contributor to Crisis. He is director of book publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. An acclaimed biographer and literary scholar, his latest book is Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know (Augustine Institute, 2019). His website is jpearce.co.
The Merchant of Venice is perhaps the greatest and indubitably the most controversial of Shakespeare’s comedies. It has been misunderstood and misconstrued to such a degree, however, that it is often seen as a tragedy, not a comedy. Such is the critical blindness of the age in which we find ourselves.
Prior to a discussion of this critical blindness and the reasons for it, let’s look at the play itself.
The Merchant of Venice is a tensely wrought and yet delightful comedy centered on the necessity of self-sacrificial love. In terms of its form, it works in two distinct ways, which might be perceived visually as the horizontal forward movement of the plot and the vertical moral movement between the virtuous precepts of Belmont and the venal viciousness of Venice. With respect to the horizontal forward movement of the plot, it has three distinct focal “knots,” each of which is a moral test: the test of the caskets, the test of the trial, and the test of the rings. In each case, the passing of the test signifies a movement heavenward from the City of Man (Venice) to the City of God (Belmont).
The purpose of the first of the tests is the winning of the hand of the heavenly Portia in marriage. Portia, heiress to the mysterious other-worldly realm of Belmont, cannot be won in marriage by those who value gold or silver but only by those who embrace the leaden casket, signifying death itself. To be worthy of the virtuous love of the virtuous Portia, one must be willing to die to oneself so that one can lay down one’s life for the beloved.
The second of the tests is the test of the trial, or the testing of Shylock, in which Portia, in disguise as a lawyer, endeavors to persuade Shylock to abandon his demand for vengeance and to embrace instead the necessity of showing mercy that he might receive mercy. Her speech on “the quality of mercy” is one of the most beautiful monologues that Shakespeare ever wrote, the beauty and morality of which have all too often been eclipsed by the critical misreading of the play. But more on that presently.
The final test, the test of the rings, is set by Portia to test the fidelity of Bassanio, who had won her hand in marriage by his choice of the leaden casket. Is he true to his word? Will he really lay down his life for her in embracing the self-sacrificial bond of the sacrament of marriage, signified by the ring that Portia had given him?
Portia, still in disguise as the lawyer, persuades him to part with the ring, illustrating his weakness and his unwillingness to be true to his bond. Portia, having exposed Bassanio’s infidelity and weakness does not condemn him but forgives him in an act of mercy, in stark contrast to the vengeful Shylock who had resolutely refused to show mercy and forgiveness to Antonio in the trial scene. In this final test, therefore, Portia shows herself to be practicing what she had preached in the beautiful “quality of mercy” speech.
Having surveyed the plot of The Merchant of Venice in its panoramic entirety and integrity, we can see how it has been woefully misread by those modern “misreaders” of the play who have turned the comedy of the three tests into the “tragedy of Shylock.” Whereas the virtuous Portia is present and plays a crucial role in all three of the tests that form the focal points of the play, Shylock is only present in the second of them. Compared to Portia, Shylock is peripheral. Since this is clearly the case, we might wonder why he has stolen the show from the heavenly heroine. The reason lies in the alleged antisemitism of which he is perceived to be a victim.
In order to clear the play and its author of the charge of antisemitism, we need to see The Merchant of Venice through Shakespeare’s eyes and through the eyes of his contemporary audience. The first thing to understand is that Shakespeare and his audience would have had very little contact with any real-life Jews because the Jews had been expelled from England during the reign of Edward I three hundred years earlier. On the other hand, the only moneylenders practicing usury in Elizabethan England were the Puritans, the practice of usury being condemned by the Church but condoned by John Calvin.
Since it was illegal to present contemporary political and religious issues on the stage, it was not possible for Shakespeare to represent his villainous usurer as a Puritan. He does so surreptitiously, bypassing the censorship of the time, by presenting his usurious villain as being ostensibly Jewish. The allegorical mask would have been perceived by his audience as a thinly-veiled euphemism for the Puritan moneylenders who were making themselves very unpopular in Elizabethan England. Since the Puritans were also opposed to the theatre and would eventually succeed in having all theatres in England closed down, Shylock would have been reviled by the audience—but not as a Jew.
The foregoing having been said, it should also be noted that the anti-Jewish sentiment in the play is not racist but economic and theological. First, a close reading illustrates that Shylock is loathed primarily for his practice of usury and not for the practice of his faith. Insofar as Judaism is mentioned, it is considered in religious, not racial terms. The Jews are seen to be wrong in their refusal to accept the divinity of Christ, an honest theological perspective that does not constitute antisemitism. When Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, elopes with Lorenzo and becomes a Christian, she is embraced and accepted. We are told that her “blood” has no more in common with Shylock’s than red wine has with white, indicative of a non-racial perspective with respect to the differences between Christians and Jews.
In conclusion, let’s compare the character of Shylock with two similarly miserly characters in the works of Charles Dickens, one of whom is Christian and the other Jewish. Ebenezer Scrooge is such a central figure in A Christmas Carol that we would not feel that the work had been violated unduly were it to be given the new title of “Scrooge.” On the other hand, the figure of Fagin in Oliver Twist is not a central character, though an important one, which would make a change of title to “The Tragedy of Fagin” an absurdity. Shylock has more in common with Fagin than Scrooge. He is not the central character in the play, nor is he present in anything but a peripheral sense in two of the three focal points of the plot. He needs to be put in his place so that we can see the comedy that Shakespeare wrote and not the travesty of the tragedy that the critics have erected in its place.