Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Shakespeare's Forgivable Portrayal of Shylock

Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Shakespeare's Forgivable Portrayal of Shylock

Article excerpt

The extended equation "Shylock = detestable usurer = Jew" is an incendiary excuse for fostering anti-Semitism in Western civilization. The association of Jews with usury precedes Shakespeare's portrayal of Shylock in his play The Merchant of Venice; it had been used to mock and degrade and kill Jews before his time. However, the word "usury" has no negative connotation, as its original meaning is simply the fee for the "use" of borrowed money. The money we pay to live in the house of another person is called "rent." The money we pay to use the money of someone else is called "usury." (1)

The negative connotation developed in Christian writings. From the fifth century C.E., popes prohibited usury based on the words of the Gospel according to Luke 6:35: "lend, expecting nothing in return." (2) Nevertheless, lending for interest was so widespread in the church that from the 12th century onward Christian moneylenders taking usury were threatened with excommunication.

Jews were excluded from owning land and practising most professions in Christian countries but were allowed to lend money for interest, and Shakespeare knew that. The Protestant Reformation legitimized usury for its followers, and Shakespeare's own father was a money-lender among other businesses. (3) The Roman Catholic Church lifted its ban but in 1917, with an artificial distinction between "interest," which it said is reasonable return on a loan, and "usury," which is excessive return on a loan. (4) Despite these changes in Christian practice, the negative association of Jews with money-lending seems well imbedded in the Christian mind not only in Shakespeare's time but also until the present day. His audience probably accepted Shylock's demand for a pound of flesh as merely an aggravated example of the Jew-usurer's nature.

If Shakespeare had known more about Judaism, he would have understood that Shylock, an observant and committed Jew, could not under normal circumstances have acted as the playwright portrayed him. Nevertheless, his treatment of Shylock shows the depth of his understanding of human character and emotions. Shakespeare creates an immortal character even though "there are times when one might wish it were otherwise." (5)

Unwittingly, he makes Shylock, in his dealings with Antonio, commit four violations of biblical and talmudic laws concerning the lending of money:

First, on the issue of interest on a loan: If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor: exact no interest from them (Ex. 22:24). Implicit here is the permission to require interest from a non-Israelite. The distinction between lending to Israelites and non-Israelites is clearer in Deuteronomy. Moses tells the Israelites: You shall not [take] interest from loans to your countrymen, whether in money or food or anything else that can be [taken] as interest, but you may [take] interest from loans to foreigners (Deut. 23:20-21). According to Maimonides, the Jewish lender must require interest on loans to non-Jews: He writes in Mishneh Torah [The Code of Maimonides]: "It is an affirmative commandment to lend money at interest to a [foreigner]." (6)

Second, Shylock's earlier friendly posture changes by the time the loan is due, and he means to kill Antonio, which, of course, is a violation of the Sixth Commandment: You shall not murder. Something has happened in Shylock's life which almost turns him into a murderer. I shall explain that later.

Third, in one of the great speeches of English literature, Portia, pretending to be a lawyer, asks Shylock to reconsider his demand: "The quality of mercy is not strained, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place be neath; it is twice blessed, it blesseth him that gives and him that takes." (7) Shylock refuses, thereby violating instructions from the prophet Micah who said: He has told you, oh man, what is good and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God (Mic. …

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