Balaam, Shakespeare, Shylock

By Vogel, Dan | Jewish Bible Quarterly, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Balaam, Shakespeare, Shylock


Vogel, Dan, Jewish Bible Quarterly


Balaam and Shakespeare: Two gentiles, two excellent poets, each assigned to a task, one against the biblical Israelites, one against the European Jews. Concerning Balaam, we have the text in the Torah, Numbers 22-24, testifying to visitations by God to redirect his curses to blessings upon His nation Israel. Concerning William Shakespeare (1564-1616), we have no such testimony from any source. His creation of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender of The Merchant of Venice (ca. 1596) displaying both avariciousness and tragicalness remains an unexplained phenomenon. The text of the play, I will argue, will suffice to demonstrate that indeed Divinely-driven inspiration may have again redirected a poet's intentions.

The story of Balaam must have been well known to William Shakespeare. He read it in the most popular English translation of the Bible in his day, the Geneva Bible, first published by the Calvinists in Geneva in 1560, then published in England in 1575, about 20 years before he wrote The Merchant of Venice. One scholar calls it "Shakespeare's Bible." (1) Talent, intention, and perhaps embedded memory of the story may have combined to make Shakespeare ripe for such a Divine intervention.

To develop my case, first permit me to briefly synopsize the Balaam confrontation in a manner appropriate to the thesis of this article.

THE BALAAM SCENARIO

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

The children of Israel, after the Exodus from Egypt, and after their victories over Amalek, Edom, Arad, Sihon, and Og, came unbidden to the borders of Moab. King Balak of Moab decided something has to be done about it.

THE STORY

There lived in the town of Pethor, near the Euphrates, a wizard named Balaam, so talented in his art that some have actually called him a prophet. (2) So King Balak hired him to curse the children of Israel.

Balaam voiced no objection, but God was displeased. First he sent an angel and then Himself came to control the intended curses that Balaam was hired to heap upon His people. The Geneva Bible relates, God met Balaam ... And the Lord put an answer in Balaam's mouth and said, 'Go again to Balak, and say on this wise ...' (23:4-5). Thus, in a paroxysm of Divine inspiration, Balaam recognized Israel: 'For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations' (23:9). The Geneva Bible adds a marginal note: But shall have religion and laws apart. We shall hear oblique echoes of Balaam's apt description in Shakespeare's dialogue.

Because of Balaam's persistence in attempting to fulfill Balak's commission, The Lord met Balaam [a second time], and ... said, 'Go again unto Balak and say thus ...' (23:16). And so out of the mouth of Balaam flowed remarkable passages of prophetic biblical rhetoric about the future of the Israelite nation, climaxed by: 'Behold, the people shall rise up as a lion, and lift himself as a young lion: he shall not lie down, till he eat of the prey, and till he drink the blood of the slain' (23: 24).

Balak was appalled by the praises Balaam had laid, and continued to lay, upon Israel. To end the matter, Balaam rose up, and went and returned to his place, and Balak also went his way (24:25). And all this, too, in an oblique way, will be echoed in The Merchant of Venice.

AFTERMATH

Balaam went on to advise seducing the Israelites at Baal Peor and died an ignominous death (Josh. 13:22). In reality, nothing changed as a result of this encounter: the anti-Israelite prejudices of the ancient Near Eastern peoples were not quieted by Balaam's paeans.

SHAKESPEAREAN REPRISE

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

Between the expulsion of Jews in 1290, because of church-fanned prejudice and a mountain of royal debts to them, and the intermittent arrival in London of Marranos--Crypto-Jews--in 1492, England was empty of Jews. …

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