Guest Post: Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” Shows How Bankers and Speculators Make a Mockery of Law and Custom

By Garrett Pace

The Moneylender

The pound of flesh which I demand of him
Is dearly bought, ‘tis mine, and I will have it.
If you deny me, fie upon your law!
There is no force in the decrees of Venice.
I stand for judgment. Answer: shall I have it?

So says Shylock, the villain and most interesting character in Shakespeare’s tragicomedy The Merchant of Venice. He says it in open court, and refers to a pound of flesh “nearest the heart” of Antonio, the reckless merchant who borrowed a capital sum to fund a dubious venture.

The venture is ultimately successful, but too late for Antonio, who cannot cover the bond and is forced into default. The condition of default is a pound of flesh, cut from Antonio’s body by the moneylender. Revenge for past wrongs drove Shylock to demand fulfillment, but he was nonetheless undone when the agreement is taken even more literally than he himself had taken it – after all, the agreement calls for flesh and not for blood.

In 1893 this writer’s great-great grandfather was a Mormon missionary in Norwich, England. There he had the opportunity to see a first-rate performance of The Merchant of Venice. Grandpa had read plenty, but as a provincial, cattle punching, rustler chasing pioneer settler in the high Arizona desert, he’d never been able to see anything like this. In his journal he wrote about the experience: “To the Lyceum and see Henry Irving & Ellen Terry play The Merchant of Venice. Irving in Shylock is just grand.”

Irving really was something – books have been written about him and his performances in the Lyceum Theater. He had a gift for humanizing the man Shylock, making him “Jewish patriarch of scripture more than the modern usurer. He portrays at once the grandeur and the failings of his race, but in such a way that the rank injustice which he suffers unwittingly wins for him not a little of the sympathies of his audience.”[i] Practically an Old Testament prophet! This was a considerable contrast to renderings from other time periods. To earlier audiences he had been a cackling, sinister animal, with no redeeming qualities and no merit of sympathy. To later ones he wore the sadness and futility of a century of genocidal suffering. To yet others he was deliciously evil; something like a Bond villain.

I don’t know what Shakespeare really thought about Jews. I do know that he gave Shylock the best lines, the best drama, and gave us all a villain so rich and nuanced that he’s compelled audiences for the past fifteen generations. Each time the same dialogues, given faithfully, strike a newer audience in a slightly different way than ever before.

Shylock prefers the well-ordered life of statutes and bonds – relationships defined by words, signatures and defined obligations, rather than to trust the flighty chambers of the human heart. And why wait for a change of heart in others when a document can give you ownership of their very heart? Most of us have felt the uncomfortable weight of debt, and the sting of some third party owning a portion of our labor, so long as we’re lucky enough to have any labor to perform. Shylock attains the apotheosis of this arrangement, barbarously laying claim to the flesh of another human being.

Even so, law is Shylock’s friend. He says he stands for judgment and justice.

The Merchants


…Should I go to church
And see the holy edifice of stone
And not bethink me straight of dangerous rocks,
Which touching but my gentle vessel’s side
Would scatter all her spices on the stream
Enrobe the roaring waters with my silks,
And in a word, but even now worth this,
And now worth nothing? Shall I have the thought
To think on this, and shall I lack the thought
That such a thing bechanced would make me sad?
But tell not me: I know Antonio
Is sad to think upon his merchandise.


Believe me, no. I thank my fortune for it
My ventures are not in one bottom trusted,
Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate
Upon the fortune of this present year.
Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad.

Antonio is the merchant that the title “The Merchant of Venice” refers to. Something makes him sad, setting him quite apart from his merchant mates, a jolly, haphazard and nervous bunch ever fretting about their value at risk, “even now worth this, and now worth nothing?” Antonio has nothing to say about the thrill, dash and euphoria of his next roll of the dice. His dice are all already cast and most any combination will make him a winner. To them he’s a bore, and Soliano takes the earliest opportunity to race off for further transactions.

These merchants are a grand bunch – they make a virtue of extravagance, and their money is bestowed on goods, investments and people haphazardly. Not so aware though – Antonio is not a self-aware individual. He does not see that his sadness comes out of boredom: his investments are so well hedged that he has no cause for care. So when a new thrill comes along, a great and expensive gamble on a dubious marriage suit intended by his worthless cousin Bassanio (who seeks the hand of the wealthy Portia), Antonio jumps at the opportunity.[ii] Borrowing to seek a thrill amplifies risk and amplifies the thrill, and Antonio’s depression is dispelled.

In the play merchants and moneylenders have some things in common – neither group ever really does anything; their fortunes are won by the efforts of others. But in all else Antonio is the opposite of Shylock. Where Shylock loves money and abhors risk, Antonio cares for the getting, and not the having.

The Trial

With such a contrast it’s no surprise at the bitter friction that has built up between the merchants and moneylenders, bringing heat in the denouement of the play. The fortunes of Antonio, Bassanio and several others all hinge on Bassanio’s choice in a “casket test” – choosing which of three boxes (made of gold, silver and lead respectively) contains the picture of his sweetheart. Choose right and he wins the fair lady. The challenge was designed as something of a test of character, but that’s not an area where young Bassanio would likely excel. Instead it becomes a gamble on whether the young lady likes Bassanio enough to assist his choice. Help him to victory she does, and with her money and her wisdom they fly back to court in Venice just in time to rescue Antonio – not from the clutches of the Jew, no, but from the unsound laws of the city.

The court scene is among the best ever written by anyone. Shylock storms about calling for justice, while the merchants wheedle and bargain, threaten and bribe, all to no avail. This drama is balanced by the absurd, where the beautiful Portia, cross dressing utterly unconvincingly, offers herself as a learned doctor of the law to adjudicate the matter. Unfortunately, even she is forced to recognize the justice of Shylock’s claim:

…There is no power in Venice
Can alter a decree established.
‘Twill be recorded for a precedent,
And many an error by the same example
Will rush into the state: it cannot be.

So serious, yet this is the play at its most absurd. Should the pattern and precedent for proper behavior in Venice be set by a signed agreement between a gambling layabout and a vituperative moneylender? Antonio bears responsibility for his part in this, too. Though he wagered his own very self on a lark, not every man takes on debt so cheerfully. Allowing a banker to claim the flesh of another man is madness of the first degree. Shylock’s refrain is repetitive – “I stand for judgment”, “I stand here for law”. What should we think of the law that allows such an arrangement?

As I mentioned earlier, Shylock is undone by a literal reading of the agreement – more literal than he had thought possible. But in the final judgment, Shylock wins a partial victory. Debt is treated as sacred, the claims of the moneylender supersede all others, and the bond is unbreakable by law, by custom, and even by kindness of the Christian or Jewish variety. Only when Shylock finally realizes what revenge will cost him does he demur, abandoning his faith in a bargain that preserves his life and fortune.

Shylock’s treatment after his defeat is shocking to us – it belongs to an era whose gods would accept coerced veneration. But while we cannot accept his forced conversion, we must recognize that we look at bankers in a way that people of Shakespeare’s time did not. In the play none of the other Jews of Venice were subjected to such treatment; Shylock was made a special case, for the embarrassment of demonstrating to Venice whose side the law was really on. Shylock felt at liberty to own not just the labor of another man, but his very life, and in this the law was his abettor, not his preventer. The laws and customs of their time did not allow Shakespeare’s audience literal justice, justice in the rightest sense, so the play gave them justice poetically instead.

Not much has changed since then. Four hundred years later banks still write agreements that get treated with the sanctity of scripture, and we accept it as the way things are. Individuals work like animals to turn their labor into capital to extinguish debt. Communities languish with homes that are better abandoned than occupied by deadbeats. Whole nations like Greece destroy their economy, impoverish their children and set aside a myriad of “secondary” obligations just so creditors can be repaid.


[i] The Life of Henry Irving, Vol 2, by Austin Brereton, p. 238-9

[ii] Some believe that Antonio’s melancholy comes from an unrequited romantic passion for Bassanio and not at all from the boredom of security. Arguing about it is silly though, for Antonio’s sadness really stems from both reasons, or neither, or either one, as it suits the actors who intend to portray the role. Shakespeare’s characters are written with a marvelous looseness that allows for considerable personalization. I do say that if it had been only romantic fancy, Antonio would have taken much more care to reduce his exposure than he ultimately did.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. PaulArt

    “….I don’t know what Shakespeare really thought about Jews.”

    Huh? C’mon dude, elsewhere in Shakespeare you find these words,’Good name in man or woman dear my Lord is the immediate jewel of their souls…’

    With this kind of a sentiment in his heart you think Shakes would really have chosen a Jew for Shylock? I can bet you a thousand shekels that he did not even pause for a moment before that casting decision, in fact it was probably already made for him. One of the disadvantages of our current political correctness atmosphere is our inability to affix blame and if we cannot affix blame then we forfeit apportioning punishment. Jews are damnably clever, the cleverest race in our midst but unfortunately a good portion of them use their brains to defraud Society, we should be able to say, ‘dear Jews, please use your grey cells for the good of the World’ but we can’t and that’s a sad thing. Consider two of our modern Shylocks, Madoff and Andrew Fastow, need one say more?

    1. Warren Celli

      Xtrevilism, the disease that affects one’s morality, knows no physiological boundaries. It’s duplicity plays to the human alliance destroying weakness of hate and fear in all of us and so amplifies and demonizes any difference in us that might deflect from its machinations. Xtrevilism is contagious and affects us all. Avoid the intentional deflections, keep your eye on the machinations…

      “Not much has changed since then. Four hundred years later banks still write agreements that get treated with the sanctity of scripture, and we accept it as the way things are. Individuals work like animals to turn their labor into capital to extinguish debt. Communities languish with homes that are better abandoned than occupied by deadbeats. Whole nations like Greece destroy their economy, impoverish their children and set aside a myriad of “secondary” obligations just so creditors can be repaid.”

      Deception is the strongest political force on the planet.

    2. LeonovaBalletRusse

      PaulArt, the Prophets of Israel did say this repeatedly. The Tanach is filled with the Highest Power’s wrath expressed definitively against those of “the chosen people” who gave “the chosen people” a bad name: the connivers, the murderers, those whoring after other gods, the worshippers of the golden calf. The Prophets of Israel were tortured by the transgressions of members of the tribes, especially of the kings (the insistence on rule by kings at the time of Samuel was itself a transgression, a folly of enormous magnitude). Abraham Joshua Heschel conveys the torture of the Prophets of Israel as they witnessed deeds by their people which they knew would bring shame and ruin to them:

      Abraham Joshua Heschel: “THE PROPHETS.”

      1. Warren Celli

        “Are Ethics and Morality Totally Dependent on Environment, Heredity and Culture?

        To understand the Eskimo, one must understand and share his life. He lies and steals, believing it will help him survive. He murders because of fear, or for what he believes to be necessity. He suppresses his baby daughters, not through wanton cruelty, but because he sincerely believes he is serving the general good. If, one day, he kills himself, it is because he feels he has become a burden upon the community, a useless mouth. “Primo vivere,” the philosopher wrote. “First, live!” To live. The entire Eskimo code of conduct is conditioned by that primary objective, and to it his morality has been adapted. “Primo vivere, deinde philosophare.” The Eskimos have neither the time nor the means to go beyond the first two words. And perhaps they would ask you how many caribou a system of philosophy would help you kill.

        Fr. Roger P. Buliard (Oblate missionary)”

        Deception is the strongest political force on the planet.

    3. Clem

      Hah! Just saw this posted on my local paper.
      Maybe it’s education?

      “Income levels of America’s major religious groups compared to the average U.S. income distribution.
      Over $100,000 per year:”

      8% Black Christians
      9% of Jehovah’s Witnesses
      13% of Evangelicals
      16% Mormons
      16% Muslim
      18% National Average
      18% (Other)
      19% Unaffiliated
      19% Catholic
      21% Christian (Mainline)
      22% Buddhist
      23% Christian (other)
      28% Orthodox
      43% of Hindus

      46% of Jews

      1. Nathanael

        This is distorted by the fact that rich people are more likely to change country of nationality, and more likely to change religion.

        Therefore, any religion which is in a minority in a given country and isn’t “homegrown” (you know, like the cult which sprung up last week) will be represented in that country mostly by rich people.

        Hence the prevalence of rich Hindus in the US in this survey, when most Hindus in the world are dirt poor.

    4. GittaM

      “we should be able to say, ‘dear Jews, please use your grey cells for the good of the World’ but we can’t and that’s a sad thing. Consider two of our modern Shylocks, Madoff and Andrew Fastow, need one say more?”

      Pol Pot and Hitler had black hair. Dear people with black hair, please use your grey cells for the good of the world. Oh, if only we weren’t locked into our political correctness and could just speak the truth to black haired people. Need I say more?

      1. HKJonus

        Ah but not all black haired people consider themselves part of the same group of “Chosen People”. They dont conspire together, dont offer preference or favor for each other, and I really doubt that Hitler even knew who Pot was. Try again.

      2. propertius

        Not to mention Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin, Genghis Khan, and Vlad the Impaler – all with black hair! It’s pretty clear there’s a strong correlation here.

  2. Flying Kiwi

    “….I don’t know what Shakespeare really thought about Jews.”

    Huh? C’mon dude.” Shakespeare has Shylock himself say:

    “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”

    Moreover I suggest Shylock’s ‘enforced’ conversion to Christianity indicates that Shakespeare thought of ‘Jews’ as just human beings labouring under a misapprehension.

    1. craazyman

      This is Shakespeare himself speaking:

      ‘How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
      Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
      Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
      Become the touches of sweet harmony.
      Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
      Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
      There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
      But in his motion like an angel sings,
      Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
      Such harmony is in immortal souls;
      But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
      Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it

      It’s quite clear he had no interest in categorizing people by religion or any other outward manifestation. Nobody who could see as deeply into the pysche as he could would have triffeled in such trivialities as that produced by their muddy vestures of decay. QED

  3. burnside

    Quite apart from the thrust of the essay, it would be worth something – surely – to have seen Ellen Terry, she of the John Singer Sargent ‘Lady Macbeth’ oil sketch and the object of G B Shaw’s admiration.

    1. Garrett Pace

      Oh, I know. Irving and Terry had a really good gig going in Westminster. I was gobsmacked when I realized from great great granddad’s journal what it was he got to see.

      Irving did a tour of the US, too, where his Shylock was very well received. The quote above was initially printed in a New Orleans newspaper. You Yankees may have ancestors who got to see him too.

  4. Capo Regime

    Ah there is a reason the classics stand up for centuries–the deep insights into human nature. Its no wonder we are in such a sorry state as a society for good ol Shakes, Dante, Cervantes, Tolstoy, Aristotle and the other dead white males have been thrown aside and we are to navigate the world and draw deep insights from Dale Carnegie, Don Brown, Toni Morrison and of course how needs Homer we have Maya Angelou!!!!!

  5. Capo Regime

    Garret you are lucky in being a long time beneficiary of a literate society and family. I too was similarly blessed. Nowadays few have multigenerational literacy (certainly not of a grandfather who experienced merchant of venice) and if we see the products of the schools we are certainly stepping back (compare writing on blogs or major dailies to civil war letters, or the speeches/porse of Hillary Clinton/obama to the prose and or speeches of Ulysses S grant or even Warren G Harding, slow but certain decline…

    1. Garrett Pace

      Amen. But at least the old classics are there to peruse, if anyone ever cares to. Imagine living in a degraded culture like ours, only with no heritage to appreciate?

      1. proximity1

        The following criminally-long screed is dedicated to
        Charlton Ogburn, author of The Mysterious William Shakespeare.

        see also:



        Amen. But at least the old classics are there to peruse, if anyone ever cares to. Imagine living in a degraded culture like ours, only with no heritage to appreciate?

        I’m trying to imagine it and it’s not that hard.

        I guess you’re banking on the possibility that, as long as there’s life, there’s hope. And, to some degree, so did Shakespeare, who thought that his work would outlast steel and stone.

        But I think that people, as Twain is said to have said or written, who won’t read are no better off than people who can’t read–and that the same goes for whole societies of people.

        But he didn’t take into account the significance of the fact that, for example, in his own day, almost no one read any Egyptian hieroglyphics (E.H.). Now, a sparse few could, I suppose, but who in Shakespeare’s time could or should have asserted that the collected works of Egyptian hieroglyphographers weighed importantly in the thought of 16th century Englishmen? Who’d have even argued that their english language translations were significant in that day?

        So, when did you last read and ponder a work orignally written in E.H.? Me neither. Not even a translated one. I’ve never read the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Never even picked up a copy. And it’s the only text I can even cite from ancient Egyptian culture. But, as you’ve said with regard to past writings, the E.H. works are there (somewhere, I guess; in libraries). But how many people read any of them?

        If the numbers of people actually reading Shakespeare ever dwindles–as it might, in one or two thousand years, (but who among us believes that any human society will exist one or two thousand years hence?)–what practical difference then would Shakespeare’s life and his writings make in that world of the future? I suggest that it would amount to about what E.H. texts import to our time–a degree that doesn’t show up in the measurable scale.

        You appreciate Shakespeare’s brilliant intellect. I would like to assert that I do, too, to the extent that I am able. But both of us depend for that appreciation on the fact that Shakespeare’s language–Elizabethan English–isn’t unintelligible to us. How nembered are the days when a significant proportion of the public reads anything from any literary style? and how, from Elizabethan literature’s styles?

        Some may reply that while we don’t “have E.H.” we do have Shakespeare and that is “just as good or better” since, perhaps they’ll say, ” Shakespeare’s writings are ‘ours’, after all.”

        Well, first, how in the world would we know that Shakespeare is better than the best writers of E.H.?–isn’t that simply making a virtue of neccessity? And, second, if and when almost no one can read and understand Elizabethan English such as Shakepeare’s plays and poems, but must rely instead on modern “translations” of them, can those people, that society, rightly assert that Shakespeare is still “theirs”?

        I’d like to advance the following very unpopular suggestions about Shakespeare, extrapolated a bit from assumptions I have concerning the long-dead (for most people other than Egyptologists) literature of E.H. A part, and a very important part, of the reason why almost no one today either knows or cares about the ancient writers of E.H. is that there is no one among them to whom we can point and say, by name, that he was called, such-and-such, was born on this date, lived here, did and thought these things, had this or these people for wives, children, and so on. How does that relate to Wm. Shakespeare? In this way–I warned you this is controversial– We have about as flimsy a physical record pertaining to academic orthodoxy’s version of the “facts” of Shakespeare’s life as of the lives of the E.H. writers.

        I know, I know. Wm. Shakespeare was son to an illiterate glover from Snitterfield, sometimes dabbling in the wool trade. William went to London in his early twenties and he hung around the theatres and, in various ways, he picked up what he learned from those in whose circles he was able to enter. That’s after the basic grammar school education he’s supposed to have gained in Stratford–for no one in his home could teach him to read.

        I guess, then, he picked up his knowledge of Latin, Greek–since there are allusions in his work to texts that were unavailable in English in his day–from the people in the neighborhood. Easy, that. He also got wonderfully acquainted with flora and fauna, knew about Italy, and also learned French from some french-speaking Londoners–though he learned to write it as well. And then, there’s law, as we find in The Merchant of Venice, and lots and lots of history of a kind in the plays.

        And, for a boy from a rural town and a family lowly schooled and apart from himself, illiterate, he was amazingly bold in addressing people of nobility. You know of course how he dedicated The Rape of Lucretia

        this way,

        the dedication to The Rape of Lucrece Shakespeare writes:

        TO THE



        The love I dedicate to your Lordship is without end: wherof this Pamphlet without beginning is but a superfluous Moity. The warrant I have of your Honourable disposition, not the worth of my untutord Lines, makes it assured of acceptance. What I have done is yours, what I have to doe is yours, being part in all I have, devoted yours. Were my worth greater my duety would shew greater, meane time, as it is, it is bound to your Lordship; To whom I wish long life still lengthned with all happinesse.

        Your Lordships in all duety.

        and the webpage from which I clipped-to-paste this goes on to observe:

        “Such a fulsome dedication is unparalleled in Elizabethan literature, and clearly betokens a close friendship. Hence many have thought that he might be the youth addressed in the sonnets, especially as he is also known to have been reluctant to marry, and to have turned down several proposed matches.”

        A glover’s cum-wool-merchant’s son wrote that.

        But of course he did.

        Published devotions to complete strangers among the nobility, on the part of a commoner from the sticks, who picked up the fine points of geography, foreign tongues and history, from the folks around playhouses—then not the most respectable of vocations, acting— a commoner did this sort of thing at that time, didn’t he? We’re told by the best authorities on Shakespeare that this was probably the case.

        Now, if you’ll forgive that long digression (some won’t forgive it, I know, but it’s an illness with me, this rage to “bloviate”) back to the present.

        How long may we expect the generations to come to devote what will be the increasingly lengthy and arduous effort required to get on easy terms with the language of Shakespeare–when fewer and fewer are bothering to do it? Will their fascination with this fellow from Stratford carry that kind of freight?

        Never mind that these lines

        Hall I compare thee to a Summers day?
        Thou art more louely and more temperate:
        Rough windes do ſhake the darling buds of Maie,
        And Sommers leaſe hath all too ſhorte a date:
        Sometime too hot the eye of heauen ſhines,
        And often is his gold complexion dimm’d,
        And euery faire from faire ſome-time declines,
        By chance,or natures changing courſe vntrim’d:
        But thy eternall Sommer ſhall not fade,
        Nor looſe poſſeſſion of that faire thou ow’ſt,
        Nor ſhall death brag thou wandr’ſt in his ſhade,
        When in eternall lines to time thou grow’ſt,
        So long as men can breathe or eyes can ſee,
        So long liues this,and this giues life to thee

        already need to be made-modern in spelling, so that you can the more easily read them:

        Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
        Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
        Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
        And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
        Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
        And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
        And every fair from fair sometime declines,
        By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:
        But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
        Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
        Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
        When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
        So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
        So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

        I guess that generation after generation to come will eschew the Cliff’s Notes and read the lines in that language written by Shakespeare, even if the spelling conventions and letter-styles have to be brought up-to-date.

        No, not really I don’t. What I really fear is that fewer and fewer are going to care or bother; and that a big part of the reason is that our idea of the person Shakespeare is so puny and so unbelievable that people will cease to see any believable person behind his words just as, with no believable person to attach to them, we today have no thought, no feeling, not even an idea of the brilliant minds which labored to produce Egyptian literature in hieroglpyhics.

        Until a real person can be allied to the author of The Merchant of Venice rather than some cypher from which we may make-anything-you-like of him, I have a very hard time turning my attention to the importance and the meaning of the drama, the conflicts and the principles at stake in that play.

        Already, I’ve taken–because I’ve had to–Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes, and Euripides as faceless blanks, speaking through a translator’s ear. That takes a toll, yes, on the manner and the force with which I can imagine them or their world and art. It has to take a toll on it.

        For Shakespeare, we can and we should do better.

        So, when I read, “Imagine living in a degraded culture like ours, only with no heritage to appreciate?” my first thought is that I’m already living in a culture which has a very odd idea of the person commonly supposed to be Shakespeare. A step further to imagine “no heritage to appreciate” is just a short step as I see it.


        The above criminally-long screed is dedicated to
        Charlton Ogburn, author of The Mysterious William Shakespeare.

        1. Garrett Pace

          The universal temptation is to view other cultures as identical to ours, the only difference they wear togas or straw skirts or nothing at all. That’s what we get in movies, even very good ones.

          I don’t know that this can be avoided, either in appreciating history or literature. Culture is the filter with which we interpret everything about our surroundings. In history the tendency is lamented, but should it be in literature? Shakespeare’s audience were just as merciless and arbitrary in their consumption of art as we are, even if they were (hopefully) more refined of discernment. If something didn’t make sense to them they wouldn’t patronize it, which is no different than we are today. Shakespeare’s words bore a hundred different fruits in a hundred different souls then as now. The idea that there is some single appropriate interpretation for everything in art is hard to accept and impossible to enforce. Art’s value is in its appreciation, and if culture moves and mars our understanding of the best stuff, well at least we still have a foundation to try and build something even better, if we ever care to.

          I don’t doubt that there were many of Shakespeare’s time that understood his plays only as well as I do, which is to say hardly at all. Indeed, they are the same as us in not understanding their neighbors, wives, husbands and children, despite the close interaction.

          It’s hard to understand even our own experiences. A great deal of my semi-conscious self is still a black box to everyone but God. Shall I lament? I suppose, but not for being out of the ordinary.

          What’s amazing to me about Ancient Egyptian isn’t that the door to their culture can’t be opened all the way, but rather that centuries of research, effort and cleverness have wedged open the door just a crack. So that even though our understanding of the ancient Egyptians is a grotesque parody, and anytime some egyptologist says they know exactly what this or that stela is saying I immediately tune them out, nonetheless the door is open just a crack, letting in some little flash of harsh sunlight, a fresh little breeze off of the flooded Nile, a little streak of red against the uniform yellowy sand where some priest crushed a votive clay pot.

          Let’s think about that – considerable effort and expense have drawn us and the long-ago dead just a little bit closer together. And now their writings are accessible to us, at least to an extent. I don’t know what people will make of the marvelous Admonition of Ipuwer in three hundred years, but it will at least have its chance to move them in some way.

          The fact that I only “get”, say,
          90% of Shakespeare
          75% of Piers Plowman
          35% of Beowulf
          6% of Ipuwer
          should be exhilirating, not discouraging. I’ll enjoy the burger I get to eat, and not worry overmuch about the ones I don’t even know about.

          Culture will change, improve or even disappear and we can’t do anything about it. What we can do is worry about our own link in the chain between past and future, find things beautiful to us, and share them with our children.

          1. proximity1

            I guess I don’t get it.

            Why title an essay,

            The Merchant of Venice Shows How Bankers and Speculators Make a Mockery of Law and Custom ”

            offering the play as if it is in some way instructive to us if, at the same time, you believe that

            “Shakespeare allows us to have it both ways, or whichever way we want. He has successfully catered to most every crowd for more than a dozen generations. A remarkable feat.”

            “Whichever way we want”? You may, of course, tell us that Shakespeare “allows us,” his readers, “to have it both ways,” –i.e. interpret the meaning both ways, one way or its direct contrary or indeed, “whichever way we want”– and, as a plain statement of fact, I suppose I have to say, yes, that’s true, since Shakespeare, being in his grave, does “allow us” to read (or not to read) his plays “as we like them”. But I don’t see how that’s a remarkable feat or a desirable feat.

            I’d be much more impressed if the dead Shakespeare had left us work that was so alive and so vigorous that, try as you might, you can’t just make or take his plays or his poems “anyway you want,” that, if you try to do that, you’ll find that “they work on you” despite the best efforts to make of them just a fashionable ornament to wear for the delight it brings. But, then, I don’t try to “teach Shakespeare” to others and certainly wouldn’t, if I did, as the scholars, especially the orthodox scholars of today do, to to students in high school or college.

            If it’s really the case that Shakespeare’s work is just whatever you, the reader, want it to be, then it seems to me that sort of reader has resigned a commision before he’s even turned the first page and, by that standard, there is really no reason to bother turning the first page.

            If you don’t mind, I’ll take offense at the idea that anyone of Shakespeare’s supposed genius could then or can now just go to work, put his time in and then leave, holding the view that, Well, maybe they’ll listen, hear, and make “whatever” out of this, but, really, it doesn’t matter. It’s all, I’m all, just in the eye and mind of the reader, casual or serious.

          2. Garrett Pace

            “But I don’t see how that’s a remarkable feat or a desirable feat.”

            Maybe you’re right. Maybe I overstate my case when I said we can have it “any way we want”. Though I protest that I was only applying that freedom to the narrow subject at hand in that comment: indulging racial and gender stereotypes and then challenging them.

            I should warn you, we are getting into deep waters here, where I am unaccustomed to swim. It’s possible I have nothing of value to say.

            Most artists, at least those that aren’t purely mercenary, have a point they want to get across to people. Shakespeare’s plays are surely about something, a something that cannot be contravened or reduced or ignored without making the play “not Shakespeare” anymore. I can’t disagree with that, and I’m sure it’s true of art in general.

            However, as a playwright, Shakespeare is at a particular disadvantage in speaking to us, since his works are merely words and stage direction, while, according to some who have studied communication, the words we use account for only a small fraction of the impression we make on others.


            This leaves a lot of blank space for readers and actors to fill in. Thus, if the actor portraying Antonio sees his character saying, “In sooth I know not why I am so sad” and decides to play it as aimless boredom, or a gay crush, or merely faking so his amigos will give him attention – well, each of those has dramatically different consequences to the tone of Antonio’s scenes, but who is to say that any of them is “wrong”?

            This is the flexibility I am talking about, and while it’s reckless to think the following, I imagine that’s one of the reasons plays survive so well from Elizabethan times and even Ancient Greece – the artist has given the reader considerable liberty to overlay their own culture over the voices and events of the play, while still allowing for a sense of connection, of bridging time and culture.

            But what do I know. Shakespeare is marvelous, and if you say there is some ineluctable genius that hides in his words, not to be ignored or repressed, I am certainly not in a position to disagree.

        2. Nathanael

          My fiancee’s reading _The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor_. It’s taking her a while to learn the ancient Egyptian, though.

          Since you mentioned Hieroglyphics. :-)

          The mark of a great culture is that people can teach themselves hieroglyphics (or whatever). Andrew Carnegie had it right when he thought that public libraries were the key to a great society. I would measure the state of our culture by how hard it is for people to educate themselves. And that means not just access, but also *FREE TIME*.

          1. Nathanael

            By the way, one of the notable aspects of ancient Egyptian literature is that most of what we have does *not* have the racism and casual color- and nationality- based bigotry which permeates much ancient literature.

            It’s also notable that ancient Egyptian artwork felt that recoloring people’s skin was an artistic choice (!) and so you will find artwork of what is clearly the same person with totally different skin colors.

  6. jsmith

    “Not much has changed since then. Four hundred years later banks still write agreements that get treated with the sanctity of scripture, and we accept it as the way things are.”

    Exactly but this thought should be expanded to include all of the capitalist superstructure and not just the banks.

    What do you think makes a successful CEO or politician?

    It’s obviously not their brains or business acumen.

    No, mainly – which comes naturally with their sociopathy – it’s their acting skills, their abilities to treat even the most profoundly absurd and ridiculous lies as ideas worth considering and adopting in the rest of “mainstream” society.

    If the elite act as if something is not the laughable and outrageous concept it truly is, well then, the rest of society must pay attention.

    Take on more debt to get out of debt? Logical.

    Save the corrupt banks that started the crisis to solve the “crisis”? Absolutely.

    19 hijackers? Oooh, how scary.

    Kill thousands of innocent people to stop people from becoming radicalized? Brilliant.

    I do take issue with your last statement as it lays entirely too much reponsibility on the Greek people and not the ones staging the play.

    “Whole nations like Greece destroy their economy, impoverish their children and set aside a myriad of “secondary” obligations just so creditors can be repaid.”

    Not to get too “Plato” but:

    When you don’t know that you’re watching a play and you’ve been told by the actors on stage – especially by your “own” actors – over and over again that debts must be repaid, debts must be repaid, what do you think the people will do and who is then really responsible?

    It’s hard for people to realize that they are in fact witnessing a farce and that the entire theater needs to be burned to the ground.

    Furthermore, it’s even harder to find a guy with matches when people do begin to realize that what they thought was “reality” was really only the shadow play of the worst among us.

    1. SR6719

      +100! Excellent comment.

      “The Spectacle is a social relation of false consciousness mediated by images…

      The Spectacle conceals the antagonistic ground of class struggle and exploitation. It does this through the visible figures of racism, and xenophobia, sport and elections, which stir archaic oppositions around nationalistic and territorial aggressions which don’t aim to change anything but gain a moment of highly intensive social affection without any structural change….

      The real contradictions are repressed for the sake of the pleasure and entertainment of the Spectacle.

      “The situationist critique remains unwaveringly obedient to the Platonist tradition, opposing an order of essential truth … to the false order of the spectacle…”

      from Guy Debord, “The Society of the Spectacle”

  7. Peter Dorman

    Please bear in mind that Merchant of Venice plays with stereotypes of gender as well as Jewishness. As is typical for him, Shakespeare has it both ways. He challenges these stereotypes in the name of a universal humanism, but at the end he caters to the crowd. We can’t read his mind, but a reasonable guess is that his eloquent humanism is his true voice, but he knew what the commercial constraints were.

    1. Garrett Pace

      “…Shakespeare has it both ways…”

      I see what you are getting at, but I would turn it around: Shakespeare allows us to have it both ways, or whichever way we want. He has successfully catered to most every crowd for more than a dozen generations. A remarkable feat.

      His plays are a mirror that reflect our culture back at us. How we respond to, say, Shylock, reveals much more about us than it does about Shakespeare.

      1. MontanaMaven

        Shakespeare was one of the first psychologists. His plays are rich in large part because they acknowledge the different psychological types that are in human nature and the contradictions that are within us and between us. Brecht also embraced contradictions. If we could only see that we are all Shylocks and Antonios; Iagos and Othellos, Beatrice and Benedict (loving each other for their faults not in spite of them), and at times Bottoms and Pucks.

  8. F. Beard

    Most of us have felt the uncomfortable weight of debt, and the sting of some third party owning a portion of our labor, so long as we’re lucky enough to have any labor to perform. Garrett Pace

    If “loans create deposits” then we are driven into debt with our own stolen purchasing power. The choice is borrow or be priced out of the market (sans a deflationary Depression) forever.

  9. F. Beard

    “Practically [referring to Shylock] an Old Testament prophet!”

    Baloney. While the Hebrews did not have to forgive the debts of foreigners they were nevertheless commanded:

    Leviticus 19:34
    The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.

    Deuteronomy 10:18-19
    He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing.

    So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

    1. Garrett Pace

      You’re right but you’re missing the point. This is about the flexibility of the Shylock character, and actors being able to get audiences to see in him in so many different ways.

    2. p78

      Well, they clearly show their love for the aliens:

      “Israel has begun rounding up African migrants in the first stage of a controversial plan to intern and deport them. Around 60,000 individuals are due to be detained. Israel sees the migrants as a law and order issue and a threat to the Jewish character of the state. Sudanese protesters say they are refugees non criminals.”

          1. Garrett Pace

            Ha ha – as true as it may be, though, it is our loss. No deportations are being contemplated, however. For now the liquor laws keep the non-believers at bay…

          2. F. Beard

            Well, I note the prohibition on caffeine was ditched for the sake of profit.

            And why not allow the “unbelievers” access to alcohol and drugs? Or is the greater threat to the “faithful”?

            Btw, what is it about some societies that drive so many people in them to drink and drugs?

          3. Garrett Pace

            FB: “Well, I note the prohibition on caffeine was ditched for the sake of profit.”

            Whuh? I don’t know what you are talking about. Here is the LDS “prohibition” on caffeine


            which doesn’t even mention the chemical but does describe “hot drinks”, which is understood to mean coffee and tea. It has not been “ditched”. Vis a vis Pepsi, members generally are trusted to interpret the principle and put it in practice according to their own consciences.

            As far as I know, in Utah in the past century there have been no legal prohibitions on coffee, colas, chocolate, or anything containing caffeine.

            FB: “And why not allow the “unbelievers” access to alcohol and drugs? Or is the greater threat to the “faithful”?”

            Utah’s liquor laws are subject of considerable controversy. Even many LDS do not favor the arbitrary restrictions on the private behavior of other, as risky and harmful as those actions may or may not be.

            Regardless, laws are created by the State Legislature and not by any religious body. If the LDS Church was really calling the shots in Utah, we’d be seeing very different immigration legislation.

            FB: “Btw, what is it about some societies that drive so many people in them to drink and drugs?”

            I was not aware that active LDS had above-average consumption of alcohol or drugs. Source?

            Many LDS in the US ARE blissed out on antidepressants. I’ve no notion that this is an issue with LDS in other countries, however, but I have not researched the question in any detail.

            If you ask the question more generally, I will answer that, while the desire to escape from reality is general across many cultures, Americans in particular have a peculiar notion that any negative thought or emotion is a dangerous thing that should be medicated away.

          4. Nathanael

            Utah always had a significant non-LDS and lapsed-LDS population, and they’ve been massively on the increase lately, particularly in Salt Lake City. The LDS Church (Brigham Young schismatic branch) has had to tread relatively lightly, given that statehood was almost refused due to the church’s dominance over the state.

      1. Eitiop

        What about Eithiopian Jews? Aren’t they all part of the
        Chosen? I’m starting to think that Israel is a fake, a
        “HalluciNation” that only exists to loot money from American and Europe, a funnel for reparations and an excuse to claim victimhood.

        They of course serve their primary purpose, to block the creation of any kind of Pan Arab unity that might threaten our oil supplies. A convient “cop on the beat” as Chomsky calls them.

  10. Doug Terpstra

    “But the dealers and usurers will cry out that what is written under hand and seal must be honoured. To this the jurists have given a prompt and sufficient answer. In malis promissis. Thus the theologians say that some people give the devil something under hand and seal signifies nothing, even if it is written and sealed in blood. For what is against God, Right and Nature is null and void. Therefore let a Prince who can do so, take action, tear up bond and seal, take no notice of it, etc. …” –Martin Luther

    1. HKJonus

      All one must do is read the Jewish Talmad and you will understand quite clearly that it is in their own doctrine legal in the eyes of god, righteous, and a virtue to lie to, cheat, steal from and even murder the gentiles who are dogs to be preyed upon. If you think Im just another anti-semite making stuff up, you need to read the Talmad yourself.

          1. F. Beard

            Of course. The Talmud is NOT Scripture and apparently it shows.

            BTW, I subscribe to a famous quotes service but I soon quit reading them. There is no comparison to Scripture. I was embarrassed for my fellow humans to read them.

          2. Nathanael

            The Talmud is a long set of often-contradictory commentaries from many authories. Well, actually, it’s *two* long sets of often contradictory commentaries (Bablyonian Talmud and Jerusalem Talmud).

            It’s no worse and often better than the Bible, which is a long set of often-contradictory stories, songs, and proverbs.

            “Blessed is the one who grabs your little children and smashes them against a rock. ” — Psalms 137:9. Anyone who says the Bible is holy writ had better be prepared to deal with that.

            The Vedas are much more boring, being a set of rituals and rules, like Leviticus only much thicker. The Upanishads, which are a long set of philosophical commentaries on the Vedas — to the point of discursive reinterpretation — are of much higher quality and very, *very* much worth studying.

            The Hindu epics (Ramayana and Mahabarata) are also better, particularly because unlike the Bible, they do not usually attempt to directly force a moral viewpoint on you, leaving you to figure out the implications.

            I wouldn’t call myself an expert on any of these religious traditions, but I’ve studied a little bit of most of them, and the ones I think are most *philosophically* valuable — as opposed to being entertaining or historically interesting — are the Indian and Chinese philosophical texts.

            From the Western tradition, the really good stuff is the ancient Greek, the Roman, and then the Rennaissance and Enlightenment material — none of which is “religious” according to our usual interpretation of the phrase.

            If you’re more interested in the historical evolution of religion, it’s all worth studying, but particularly:
            – the pre-monotheistic Fertile Crescent material (the underlying pattern behind most religious traditions)
            – the earth-shaking philosophical religious development (dualism) made by Zoroastrianism, which were absorbed whole cloth by the majority of successful religions today, which in my opinion damaged most of them substantially
            – You also have to understand the influence of Platonism to understand the weird and incoherent philosophical mess which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam inherited.

        1. F. Beard

          The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. Luke 18:11 [emphasis added]

      1. LeonovaBalletRusse

        Forget the Talmud. Read the Torah, the Writings, the Psalms, the Prophets in order to be informed deeply.

        1. Nathanael

          I would say, read the Upanishads, the Tao Te Ching, and the writings of Thomas Jefferson. But tastes vary.

  11. Susan the other

    Gotta say I’m totally with Shylock here. What goes around comes around. He says, “There is no power in Venice can alter a decree established. ‘Twill be recorded for a precedent, and many an error by the same example will rush into the state: it cannot be.” This ancient reasoning must be applied to the megabanks today – the goniffs who illegally securitized MBS and screwed the world. All of the clouded titles must be cleared; all of the fraudulent debt cancelled. I wonder what Shylock would say about the very generous Trans Pacific Pact, which would leave him and his “decrees” without a hope.

    1. rotter

      LOL, im sorry but thats insane. Shylock was a monster. Thats the point of the play. We dont have to call him a Jweish monster, I think a Jew was chosen because Jews were as ubiquitous in banking then as now. What would a 16th century Theater manager know about Continental banking, or Laws, or the Jews of Venice anyway? It was written by Bacon.

      1. rafael bolero

        If Bacon had been able to write like Shakespeare, I think he would have done so, and published it in his name. Poetry and literary talent were admired skills, and displayed and circulated by Elizabeth, Raleigh, Sidney, and any other noble who could. Nobles paid people like Shakespeare for his sonnets so they could turn around and pretend they wrote them. Pretending that no one from a small town could become Shakespeare seems ignorant of the reality of a gifted child with a photographic memory, a genius. It happens. Shakespeare was as Mozart, with words as notes. Or, rather, vice-versa. I also think his fellow actors, who were also his elders and mentors, had great effect on what he wrote ‘for them’ to speak, even in its cadence and content. Do you think Shakespeare ever asked, “Burbage, how’s this sound?” Of course, in EM English.

  12. Stan

    Re: (the insistence on rule by kings at the time of Samuel was itself a transgression, a folly of enormous magnitude)

    What nonsense! Kingship comes with settlement and in the Bible it is divinely instituted–or “insisted upon” if you like. The kingships of David and Solomon, for example, are follies therefore?

    1. LeonovaBalletRusse

      Stan, you are misinformed. Please overcome your ignorance:

      I Samuel 8 – It’s all there.

  13. JIm

    Garrett Pace 11:15 A,M.

    “Shakespeare allows us to have it both ways, or whichever way we want. He has successfully catered to most every crowd for more than a dozen generations. A remarkable feat.”

    Indeed it is a remarkable feat.

    At the beginning of the play Antonia speaking to his friend Gratiano says “I hold the world but as the world,Gratiano/A stage where everyman must play a part/And mine a sad one.” (1.1 77-79).

    For Shakespeare, we all seem to be faced with the infinite enactment of roles because there doesn’t seem to be any script pertaining to how our lives unfold that we are able to claim uniquely as our own.

    Our condition as human beings is possibly duplicated by the condition and state of language. Every part of a sentence “must play a part.” as well. Just as its impossible to get to the essential nature of a human being it may be impossible to get to the essential meaning of a sentence.

    Portia gives an argument against a strictly literal interpretation of Antonio’s pound of flesh.

    “This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;
    The words expressly are “a pound of flesh.” (4:1 303-304)

    Portia’s conceptual clarification says that flesh cannot include blood and thus we are left with a monetary equivalent of the flesh.

    Shakespeare seems to have accentuated the idea that there is an extremely loose fit between words and things as well as between self and roles.

    1. Garrett Pace

      Jim (JLM?):”Shakespeare seems to have accentuated the idea that there is an extremely loose fit between words and things as well as between self and roles.”

      Indeed – Shylock’s legalism is quenched by an even more absurd legalism. Eventually we are left with words having no meaning, except as they serve the ultimate interests of the state – in this case the free flow of capital and a safe harbor for moneylenders.

      What’s interesting to me is that something similar happens when the same sort of ugly actuarial thinking is applied to love. The fool Launcelot Gobbo puts his finger on it, with his peculiar objection to the marriage of Lorenzo and Jessica, the (soon-to-be-formerly) Jewish daughter of Shylock:

      I shall be saved by my husband; he hath made me a Christian.

      Truly, the more to blame he: we were Christians enow before; e’en as many as could well live, one by another. This making of Christians will raise the price of hogs: if we grow all to be pork-eaters, we shall not shortly have a rasher on the coals for money.

      He is strictly right – there may be some minute macroeconomic effect of having one more Christian and one less Jew. It may affect the lives of many to some slight extent. But of course, what is that to affect a person’s decisions? We laugh it off, but then furrow our brows when we consider the many other mercenary behaviors that have gone before us in the play without eliciting any ill response.

  14. Flying Kiwi

    “Not much has changed since then. Four hundred years later banks still write agreements that get treated with the sanctity of scripture, and we accept it as the way things are.”

    I don’t altogether agree. In the British legal system at least the Court and principles of Equity exist and take precedence over any inviolate sanctity of contract. In many ways Portia’s argument to the Court is based on the Equitable principle that one who seeks equity must do equity. No written agreement allowing, say, a lender to sleep with a borrower in default would be upheld by any court. Shylock’s enforcement of the contract with Bassiano would undoubtably have killed him and whatever Venecian Law might allow, no Common Law court under the British system would uphold an agreement to be murdered, or even a consent to a suicidal act.

    1. Garrett Pace

      I won’t disagree, except to say that the Duke’s dilemma in hearing Shylock’s claim wasn’t an objective appraisal of law and precedent, but rather a calculus of the cost to the city if they deny a moneylender his claim.

      Then as now, once the wealth of the powerful is at stake, the needed heads seem to roll every time.

  15. rafael bolero

    The whole play is built around the punch line, the ‘conceit,’ of blood not being part of the flesh. It’s just a verbal cleverness around which S. wrote characters and jokes and drama. Of course the duke must rule for Antonio–this is a comedy that must end in marriage, not a tragedy that must end with a funeral or death on stage. Taking it as a metaphor or guide for modern banking is okay, I guess, if you have time to kill, and maybe points out that modern banking is built upon conceits, like CDS, and J.Dimon and Blyth Masters are certainly conceited people, to blend the modern and early-modern meanings of that word. Compare Shylock to Lear, and you can see the difference between S. knocking one off fast while young, and writing one for the ages after gaining wisdom, with some pain.

  16. Matt Franko

    “28 For not that which is apparent is the Jew, nor yet that which is apparent in flesh is circumcision;
    29 but that which is hidden is the Jew, and circumcision is of the heart, in spirit, not in letter, whose applause is not of men, but of God” Romans 2:28-29

    Looks to me like this would disqualify Henry Paulson, Jamie Dimon, Pete Peterson, Robert Rubin, Hugh McColl, Lloyd Blankfien, etc. all from being Jews. rsp

  17. Ellen Beth Gill

    I want to know why, in 2012, we are talking about banking in terms of 16th -17th century anti-Semitism and why this usually very well-researched and well-written blog is supporting this post.

    1. proximity1

      I don’t pretend to know precisely “why” in this instance. But I’m ready to offer you this, my hunch, and explain how I reason my way to it. This offers at the same time an example of how I approach things more generally when tying to understand something. (For the most direct and authoritative answer, apply to the blog’s proprietor, of course.)

      This thread may be, while perhaps not the most salutary example of the general idea, still, an exercise in what could be seen an attempt to bring to bear on these troubled times some other sources of insight, other angles of analysis, for light on our predicament. That may be in part the impetus behind such threads as L. Strether’s on May 27th, “War document: General William Tecumseh Sherman to the Mayor and Councilmen of Atlanta” and, on May 28th, “War document: Iliad, Book XVI, verses 297 – 341 and, on June 4th, Yves’ post “Aeschylus’ Eumenides: The Furies on Justice.”

      If I am correct in that, then, in principle, I welcome this sort of thing because I’m convinced that the sources of much of our social and economic woes are found in erroneous habits of thought that aren’t at all strictly limited to practices of quantitative analysis–though they combine very dangerously with those and that leads to very big problems “down-stream”.

      Much of our trouble is that business is not a science but an art; however, it’s persented and taught to the those who take the vows and enter business schools as though it were a science and that places everything and everyone on a false course filled with false assumptions and false methods.

      It appears that Yves’ has come to that recognition from her own prior experiences in the business world and helped along by experience in commentary and arguments she’s found since the launch of this site–a site which looks askance at much conventional thinking about business.


      a Caveat:

      Those who want just the brief answer can stop reading at this point; because what follows takes up more specifically whether, in this instance, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice has anything interesting to tell us about our present circumstances and, if so, what it could be.

      I think it might but only in the most general way that relates to people’s same tendencies then as today to let emotions lead to false hopes for returns on investments and, the presence of people who are always ready to take advantage of those who allow themselves to be carried away by false hopes in the gain of riches.

      And another caveat:

      These views are conditioned, too, on the fact that I see, with others of the “Oxfordian view”, the person of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, behind Shakespeare. I take that view because for me it throws clarifying light on everything while the standard view strikes me as simply blind to everything that common sense tells us about human nature and history and asks us to believe incredible stuff. If you’re not open to the idea that the person behind Shakespeare was actually Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, then you probably won’t find what follows worth your time.

      In the following, I’m relying on two main sources; First, Eva Turner Clark’s book, Hidden Allusions in Shakespeare’s Plays: A study of the Oxford theory based on the records of early court revels and personalities of the times, and, second, Charlton Ogburn’s The Mysterious William Shakespeare; and I hope that the few errors that scholars have since found in their work–and which I can’t off hand recall at this writing– are located elsewhere than in this case.

      Here’s what we get from a reading of those sources as it applies to The Merchant of Venice.

      From the records of the Court revels, taken from Clark’s book,

      On Tuesday, February 2nd, 1579–80 “The history of Portio and demorantes [was] shewen at whitehall on Candlemas daie at night enacted by the Lord Chamberleyns seruants”….

      ….”Stronger evidence is to be found in Stephen Gosson’s School of Abuse, published in 1579. The book is a diatribe against the stage of that day, but Gosson exempts from criticism, in fact praises, two plays he has recently seen at the “Bull,” one called “The Jew” and the other “Ptolome.” Of the former he states that it “represented the greediness of worldly chusers, and bloody minds of userers.” (cited from the introduction to the Irving Shakespeare) Plays were given at small private theatres like Blackfriars, or in large inn-yards like the “Bull,” in preparation for presentation at Court and it was in one of these places that Gosson would have seen the plays named before they were shown at Court. The fact that his book, in which a description of The Merchant of Venice is found, was published in 1579, and that a play with a title suggesting that drama was produced at Court about the same timeor shortly after, is at least an interesting coincidence.

      “The literary sources* on which The Merchant of Venice was based were of course familiar in the original to the Earl of Oxford. To these he added episodes of contemporary history which were of highly dramatic interest, and these episodes (,) confirm my belief that Gosson’s, “The Jew,” the Court revels Portio and Demorantes, and Shakepeare’s The Merchant of Venice are simply different titles of the same play.”

      ( In 1579 de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, was 29. Edward’s father, the 16th Earl, had died in Sept. of 1562 and Edward, then 12, became a royal ward and was raised in the household of William Cecil (later, Lord Burghley), one of Elzabeth’s closest advisors. In 1571, Oxford married Cecil’s daughter, Anne. )

      In 1578, the explorer Martin Frobisher was preparing his third expedition to the New World. On the first expedition (1576) they’d found “what they believed to be ‘gold ore’ and returned with a large quantity of it.” Michael Lock (spelled variously “Lock” or “Lok”) was a promoter in the Frobisher expeditions (and is cited as the treasurer of the Cathay company, and previously the director of another exploring venture, the Muscovy Company). Clark writes,

      “The belief in an almost certain reward for the investors in the Third Expedition added particular interest to it. Among the investors was the Earl of Oxford. …In addition to this amount (£1000), at the last moment before the ships sailed, the Earl bought more shares to the value of £2000 from Michael Lock, who, besides being one of the promoters, is supposed to have had a large financial interest in the Expedition, thus giving the Earl a total investment of £3000, a sum approaching £30,000 in to-day’s (1931) money. On September 25 (note, Wikipedia’s article on Frobisher has the return of the Third Expedition as being in October) (four days prior to the deadline given by Oxford in a bond he signed, due “upon Michaelmas day next coming” (Sept. 29th) ) the convoy returned and anchored off the Cornish coast. Frobisher immediately repaired to the Court at Richmond, and samples of the ore were brought to London to be tested. But the hopes of the adventurers were destined to be dashed to the ground. The ore was found to be worthless. Desperate quarrels arose between Frobisher, who claimed the salary due to him, and Michael Lock, who, as Treasurer of the Cathay Company, defied even the orders of Privy Council on the subject. Frobisher publicly complained that Lock was “a false accountant to the company, a cozener to my Lord Oxford, no venturer at all in the voyages, a bankrupt knave;” and, as Lock urged in a letter to Sir Francis Walsingham, he (Frobisher) “entered into great storms and rages with him like a mad beast, and raised on him such shameful reports and false slanders as the whole Court and City were full of!” It was apparent from all the testimony that Lock knew the ore was worthless when he sold Lord Oxford his shares, and for this trickery Lock was sent to the Fleet.” (i.e. Fleet Prison)

      “We turn now to the drama and try to identify some of the characters. Portia has already been recognized (supra) as Queen Elizabeth. We identify Antonio as Lord Oxford, Bassanio (probably “Demorantes” in the first production), one of (the Duke of) Alençon’s envoys (Alençon being at the time in quest of Elizabeth’s betrothal); and Shylock, the tricky knave, Lock, Treasurer of the Cathay Company. In considering the name “Shylock,” we shall refer to Murray’s “Oxford Dictionary” (i.e. the Oxford English Dictionary, of course) for a colloquial use of “shy,” which means “of questionable character, disreputable, shady.” Murray also points out that ‘shy-cock’ is a slang term, now obsolete, which means ‘a wary or cowardly person; also, one who keeps within doors for fear of bailiffs. Using ‘shy’ in this sense and adding to it ‘Lock,’ the ‘cozener to my Lord Oxford,’ we have Shylock, the famous character in The Merchant of Venice.

      Oxford, of course, lost his £3000 investment (made by bond) and found himself obliged to sell property to pay the debt.

      From Ogburn’s work, The Mysterious William Shakespeare, we have an account of Oxford’s journeys of 1576, in which he left London in January and visited Calais, Paris, Strasbourg, going into Germany, and around the Alps, avoiding Milan, and on to Padua and Venice then, on the return, through Verona and Florence. On the way he met with troubles, had to separate from some of members of his trip’s original party, and on occasion had to borrow money to cover expenses.

      Still away on the voyage, Oxford is writing to his father-in-law, Lord Burghley, (pp. 547-548 of Ogburn)

      “ When he sat down to unburden himself to Burghley, Oxford must have felt that, like Antonio in The Merchant of Venice he was going to indite ‘the unpleasant’st words / That ever blotted paper’; and the words would in fact be of the same tenor as Antonio’s confession that ‘my creditors grow cruel, my estate is very low,’

      “My Lord, I am very sorry to hear how hard my fortune is in England, as I perceive by your Lordship’s letters; but knowing how vain a thing it is to linger a necessary mischief–to know the worst of myself, and to let your Lordship understand wherein I would use your honourable friendship–in short, I have thus determined. That, whereas I understand the greatness of my debt and the greediness of my creditors grows so dishonourable and troublesome to your Lordship, that that land of mine which in Cornwall I have apportioned to be sold, according to that first order for mine expenses in this travel, be gone through and withal. And to stop my creditor’s exclamations–or rather defamations I may call them–I shall desire your Lordship by virture of this letter, which doth not err, as I take it, from my former purpose–which was that always upon my letter to authorize your Lordship to sell any portion of my land that you will sell more of my land where your Lordship shall think fittest, to disburden me of my debts to Her Majesty, my sister, or elsewhere I am exclaimed to you. …


      • most notably, Il Pecorone by Giovanni Fiorentino which scholars date as written between 1378 and 1385 in Italian. An Italian edition from 1558 (de Vere was then eight years old and already learning the Latin, Greek, French and Italian he’d draw upon later as a playwright and poet. ) is mentioned by in the sources cited in the Bantam Shakespeare by David Bevington. However, no English translation is today known to have existed in Shakespeare’s time, though, of course, a translation might have been made and since lost. As Oxford became a fluent reader of Italian, by the time we first hear mention of The Jew in Gosson’s text of 1579, he neeedn’t have had a translation.


Comments are closed.