The Merchant Of Venice : An Academic Analysis An evolution of interpretation surrounds the written bond between Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, and Antonio, the Christian merchant in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice taking place in Christian-dominated 1590s Venice. Originally portrayed as a villainous usurer in the early 1600s with many people in the original audiences clients of Shylock-figures or possibly Shylock-figures themselves, Shylock’s consequences due to the bond have evolved to embody the Jewish Anti-Semitism experience, especially after the Second World War. Understanding what the bond implies is key to understanding the shift in the play’s interpretation.
Thus, let’s first summarize the purpose and consequences of the bond between Shylock and Antonio. In essence, a written bond between Shylock and Antonio drives the plot of Merchant, with Shylock loaning 3,000 ducats in exchange for Antonio’s repayment when his merchant ships return to Venice. The bond includes a clause where if Antonio fails to make payment, he “be nominated for an equal pound / Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken / In what part of your body pleaseth me.” This bond in The Merchant of Venice reveals the difference in bonds made of seriousness vs. jest, showcases the surprising similarities between Shylock and mid-1500s Christian reformers such as Martin Luther and reveals the characteristics of the cut-throat hyper-capitalist nature of 1590s Venice.
Seriousness vs. Jest
In Act 1 Scene 3, Shylock and Antonio lay out the terms of the newly sealed bond on paper and hash out the terms over a face-to-face conversation. There’s one glaring problem, however. The men have two very different interpretations of the law’s seriousness as a result of their Jewish-Christian cultural divide. Shylock’s Jewish background in Christian-dominated Venice has forced him to be strict with the law to curtail others taking advantage of him, closely identifying with the law on multiple accounts stating that “I stand here for law,” “I crave the law,” and “is that the law?”
Shylock carries this tight association with the law over to the bond with Antonio as throughout the play, he references the exact wording of the written bond in moments of dispute, “so says the bond, doth it not, noble judge?” and “I’ll have my bond. I will not hear thee speak.” Antonio on the other hand, with the Christian power structure of Venice behind him, doesn’t fear being legally taken advantage of and thus, has not developed this same affiliation with the law as a means for survival and protecting his way of life.
While Shylock has no conception of mercy from a Jewish heritage, Antonio the Christian is well-versed in the tradition of mercy and interprets the bond through a lens of jest. Lacking absolute seriousness, he responds, “I’ll seal to such a bond, / And say there is much kindness in the Jew” to the possibility of losing a pound of flesh. Antonio is interpreting the bond tongue-in-cheek and lightheartedly, since how could anyone taking this bond seriously agree that removing a pound of flesh is “kind”?
However, Shylock reads into the oath with absolute seriousness and without any notions of jest, determined to receive his pound of flesh by any legal means necessary. This bond with two competing interpretations, one of seriousness and one of jest, not only results in Shylock appearing ridiculous to the audience, since it’s impossible to remove exactly one pound of flesh from a living human, but reveals this stark contrast by giving the audience in Antonio a model to interpreting the bond.
Venetian Christain Hypocrisy
The bond between Shylock and Antonio also reveals the hypocrisy of the Venetian Christians when Shylock is on trial in the Venetian court. In Act 4 Scene 1, Shylock demands that the Venetian government enforce the written bond with force to prevent law and order and “if [the Duke] deny it, let the danger light / Upon your character and your city’s freedom!” Ironically, Shylock is appealing to the teachings of Protestant reformer Martin Luther as he advocates for the city government to uphold the rule of law.
Benjamin Nelson in The Idea of Usury includes a written passage by Luther stating that “the world needs a strict, hard temporal government that will compel and constrain the wicked not to steal and rob.” By not supporting Shylock’s appeal to enforcing the written agreement, the court of Venice and the self-proclaimed “Christians” are failing to deliver on Luther’s principle of checking corruption and preserving peace through the enforcement of written law. Luther writes that government must “enforce the law of the land, and let the sword hew briskly and boldly against the transgressors, as Paul teaches in Romans xiii.” Shylock’s thwarted attempt to remove the pound of flesh via blade is metaphorically seen as Venice’s failure to implement the sword Paul refers to in the Book of Romans.
Disputing the bond in court also calls into question Christian mercy, with Portia disguised as Balthazar the lawyer attempting to impose Christain mercy onto Shylock and closing the trial with “then the Jew must be merciful.” Thomas Hobbes in On the Citizen writes that men condemn in others what they approve in themselves. It appears that the Venetian Christians are hypocritically attempting to cloak this “robbery” of Shylock’s possessions with a merciful disguise, transferring their sins onto Shylock, who in fact is operating most diligently according to Luther’s Christian teachings.
Luther in Nelson’s The Idea of Usury, excerpts also says that Christians should give freely to those in need and extend loans without the hope of a return of the principal. In Shylock’s view, this excess mercy serves to punish rather than save him. Lastly, this transfer of sin envokes a critical question regarding the timing of consequences resulting from sin. When exactly are sins recorded in God’s view? Can they be transferred to someone else at the time they are committed or at some future date?
Emerging Venetian Hyper-Capitalism
Shylock and Antonio’s bond also reveals the emerging hyper-capitalist nature of 1590s Venice and the concept of internalizing all human interaction in terms of potential financial gain. Throwing into question the authenticity of genuine personal connections in the play, this emerging notion of relationships, combined with new financial innovations such as borrowing on margin, creates a cut-throat financial environment with fierce competition. In Act 1 Scene 3, we get a sense of this competitive nature with Shylock commenting on Antonio that:
I hate him for he is a Christian,
But more for that in low simplicity,
He lends out money gratis and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.
Shylock stating that his hate for Antonio stems greater from his lending out money interest-free than from his religious principles reveals that the emerging financial world is taking precedence over the religious world in 1590s Venice. Antonio’s money-lending practices are stirring resentment among the competition and forcing other moneylenders such as Shylock to lower their interest rates in order to be competitive. Unable to lend out money interest-free due to his personal religious values, Shylock has no other option to compete but to remove Antonio entirely from the market with the removal of the pound of flesh.
Moreover, Shylock references the Old Testament passage of Jacob’s strange deal with Laban in the Book of Genesis where out of a flock of purely white sheep, Jacob agrees to receive any spotted sheep as payment from Laban. Only in God’s response to Jacob’s righteousness were there spotted sheep produced. Shylock states that “no, not take interest, not, as you would say, / Directly “interest”…parti-colored lambs, and those were Jacob’s. / This was a way to thrive.” Shylock schemes that by taking an unusual payment in the form of a pound of Antonio’s flesh, he will end up financially and morally better off. The payout from gaining more clients as a result of Antonio’s absence would exceed the 3,000 ducats plus interest he was slated to receive in the bond, all while remaining righteous in the face of God by not breaking his word.
Clearly, the bond between Shylock and Antonio in The Merchant of Venice teaches us the difference between bonds made in seriousness vs. made in jest, reveals the hypocrisy of the Venetian Christians, and illustrates the emerging, unchecked hyper-capitalist nature of 1590s Venice. Written and spoken bonds are only as sound as how the participating individuals interpret the words, which can vary drastically due to cultural backgrounds that have varying levels of seriousness towards the law and varying association with the law as a means for survival.
In conclusion, the bond also reveals the surprising philosophical alignment between Shylock the Jew and Martin Luther the Protestant reformer who both advocate for government to strongly enforce laws to keep peace and preserve civil society. Lastly, Shylock and Antonio’s bond is seen as the precursor to modern capitalism in 1590s Venice with its cut-throat nature emerging in transactional relationships taking priority over those made in personal friendship.