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CONTRACT, OATH, AND THE LETTER IN THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
Was Shakespeare a hater of Jews?
It is impossible to reconstruct the thought processes of dead author, as it is impossible to reconstruct our own thoughts. All we have are the plays. The question, then, ought to be revised:
Is The Merchant of Venice an Anti-Judaic play? There are certainly disobliging and unflattering references to Jews in the text. There are disobliging and unflattering references to Jews in other Shakespeare plays, as well. Confer Much Ado about Nothing and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, for instance.
The frequent charges of Anti-Judaism that have been leveled against The Merchant of Venice perhaps derive from the play’s presentation of a relationship between Jewishness and the calculation of interest, or usury. But more specifically, the play stages a relationship between the making of an oath and the accrual of a debt.
The debt that is owed to Shylock–a “pound of flesh”–is guaranteed by an oath. The pound of flesh is not, according to The Merchant of Venice, a metaphor for money. It refers literally to the flesh “nearest the merchant’s heart”:
And lawfully by this the Jew may claim
A pound of flesh, to be by him cut off
Nearest the merchant’s heart [IV:i].
The oath prevents Shylock from translating the debt into figurative terms, despite Portia’s urgent offer to give him three times the sum (“Shylock, there’s thrice thy money offered thee” [Ibid.]). The debt of the “pound of flesh” must remain literal, not figurative–the phrase must refer to the excised human flesh, not to money.
If Antonio is compelled to liquidate the sum of money owed to Shylock, “the Jew” is not similarly coerced. Portia’s injunction to forgiveness–“Then must the Jew be merciful” [Ibid.]–is groundless according to contract law. There is nothing, no contractual obligation, no force of law that compels Shylock to be merciful and to forgive the debt: “On what compulsion must I? tell me that” (Shylock) [Ibid.]. For the hateful Christian Anti-Judaist, “The Jew” is one who clings to the letter of the law and not the law of forgiveness. Justice and mercy may not coexist. To show mercy would be, according to Shylock, to disregard the letter of the contract. Nothing, according to Shylock, obligates him to forgive the debt or to be merciful. The contract, however, which Shylock follows to the letter, requires repayment of the debt within three months. Such is a way in which Christian Anti-Judaism is staged in The Merchant of Venice.
The law is transcendent and submission to it is mandatory, both for the Christian judge and the Jewish creditor:
It must not be, there is no power in Venice
Can alter a degree established:
’Twill be recorded for a precedent,
And many an error by the same example
Will rush into the state. It cannot be [Ibid.].
If the oath is binding, it is because it is based upon a transcendent law. But what is the source of the transcendent law? What gives it its force? And what compels one to follow it? The law, according to Shylock, has a divine origin:
An oath, an oath, I have an oath in heaven.
Shall I lay perjury on my soul?
No, not for Venice [Ibid.].
I charge you by the law,
Whereof you are a well-deserving pillar,
Proceed to judgment; by my soul I swear,
There is no power in the tongue of man
To alter me. I stay here on my board [Ibid.].
The law is beyond all human power and representation and demands absolute submission from humanity; it must be followed. Human language, “the tongue of man,” is powerless against it, even though the word of the divine is written in the form of a contract, another instance of “the tongue of man.” Divine law demands absolute fidelity and inscribes itself in the contract which is written in the tongue of man. The contract–again, written in human language–is binding because of its divine provenance. Here we encounter a Shakespearean version of the natural-law argument. The naturalism of the moral law is evident in the contract itself, which “the Jew” knows inside and out, inwendig and auswendig. Both Christian AND Jew are obligated to follow the law of Venice, which is theological in origin.
Portia’s response to all of this theological nonsense is a reductio ad absurdum argument. Dressed in the garb of a man, Portia will take Shylock’s desire for a “pound of flesh” to the limit:
Tarry a little: there is something else.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood–
The words expressly are “a pound of flesh”;
Take then thy bond, taken then thy pound of flesh,
But in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are by the laws of Venice confiscate
Unto the state of Venice [Ibid.].
“The Jew,” according to the stupidity of conventional Anti-Judaism (and is there any Anti-Judaism other than the conventional version?), ignores the spirit of the law in favor of the letter. “The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh’”: By literalizing his statement, Portia is able to undermine Shylock’s project to exact (and extract) from Antonio what these words denote. There is an absolutely unified relationship between words and what they mean. The codicil to the contract will state that “the Jew’s” property and land will be confiscated if the penalty is not carried out to the letter.
Shylock, of course, refuses to carry out the penalty; he refuses to punish the debtor, Antonio. Soon thereafter, the stage direction is given: “Exit Shylock.” Shylock disappears rather early in the play (Act Four: Scene One). The earliness of this disappearance is particularly strange for a Shakespeare play, given that the Shakespearean villain usually remains until the final act. Shylock’s fate will be a forcible conversion to Christianity, thus firming the play’s staging of a vehemently Anti-Judaic stance.
The question still remains unanswered: Is The Merchant of Venice an Anti-Judaic play? My impression is that it is. The Merchant of Venice shows a rabid hatred of Jews, as it stupidly identifies Judaism with literalism and the literalization of metaphors. The Merchant of Venice is about the literalization of the metaphor and the becoming-metaphor of the letter.
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