Shakespeare on Jew and Christian: An Interpretation of The Merchant of Venice

"Shakespeare on Jew and Christian: An Interpretation of the Merchant of Venice," Social Research, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Spring 1963), pp. 1-22.


Venice was a republic; one of the few successful examples of such a political organization in its time. It had for several hundred years guarded its independence; it had an orderly form of government in which a large proportion of the citizens could take active part. It was prosperous and had even become powerful enough, in spite of its size, to cherish some imperial ambitions. During the Renaissance there was revival of the republican spirit among thoughtful men; it was thought that the proper practice of political life had deteriorated since the fall of the Roman Republic. For whatever reasons, the political, the condition of human dignity, had become indifferent to men and they lived under monarchs. The independence and pride that are a result of self-government had vanished; the political virtues praised by the ancients had no opportunity for exercise and withered away. One can find this point of view developed most completely in Machiavelli but it was shared by many eminent thinkers. Nonetheless, they also looked for examples of the possibility of republics in modern times and Venice was the most fitting one. From the end of the sixteenth century up to the middle of the seventeenth, Venice was constantly admired and written about as the model for a good political order in modernity. It preceded Amsterdam as the model and – to name only two of its most illustrious ad- vocates – Harrington and Spinoza drew liberally from it in the elaborations of their teachings. It was, indeed, a modern state and hence different from Rome in many crucial respects. And it is in these respects that it was of most interest to modern theorists, because it seemed to provide an answer to their central problems. Along with the taste for republicanism came a certain depreciation of the Biblical religions, partly because their other- worldliness seemed to be the source of the disinterest in the political, and partly because they were at the root of the religious fanaticism which issued in such occurrences as the religious wars and the Inquisition. These religious attachments, it was believed, led men away from their political interests and divided men on the basis of opinions. Modern republicanism had to overcome the religious question, to attach men to the here and now rather than the hereafter. The state had to become tolerant to be able to embrace men of widely differing beliefs in a stable order. This was a problem not directly addressed by ancient political thought, and its resolution is the most characteristic aspect of later political thought. It was believed that only by directing men’s interest to something which could subordinate their religious attachments would it be possible to establish a way of life in which religious doctrines and their intransigence would not play the leading part.┬áIt was not thought possible to educate men to a tolerant view nor to overcome the power of the established religions by refuting them; the only way was to substitute for the interest and concern of men’s passions another object as powerfully attractive as religion. Such an object was to be found in the jealous desire for gain; the commercial spirit causes men to moderate their fanaticism; men for whom money is the most important thing are unlikely to go off on crusades. Venice was above all a commercial city and had indeed succeeded in bringing together in one place more different types of men than any other city. The condition of Shylock’s living in Venice was its need of venture capital for its enterprises. The laws which would not be respected for themselves are obeyed because they are the foundation of the city’s prosperity