To Balk Logic and Practice Rhetoric: Allegories of Rhetoric and Dialectic in Shakespeare’s Plays
Chapter 4: To Be Ruled by Conscience: Material and Spiritual Blessing in The Merchant of Venice, Part 2
Theft or Blessing: Shylock's Allegory of Jacob and Laban
When in The Merchant of Venice Shylock tells his version of the story of Jacob and Laban, Antonio asks, "Was this inserted to make interest good?" and cuts off the debate by saying to Bassanio about Shylock, "The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose" (1.3.92 and 96). Impugning the character of one's opponent with a vile ad hominum slur is an effective if dishonest way to end a debate whose direction one finds abhorrent or threatening.1
However, Antonio's question requires our attention. I would like to suggest that Shylock's story and Antonio's pointed question announce an allegory of rhetoric and dialectic about lending and borrowing, and that Antonio's question should be the audience's question to Shakespeare, "Was this inserted to make interest good?" Despite Antonio's answer, I think that in the play it is an open question.
Shylock's version of the Jacob-Laban story has been variously interpreted, and even the "economic critics" have found allegorical significance in it, although they do not use the word "allegory" to describe it.2 At this moment in the play, Shylock is shown by Antonio to be in the wrong, according to commonplace notions of usury. This is part of the dominant discourse of the play. However, the dialectic of the secondary discourse questions the commonplace assumptions about moneylending, as skeptical economic and ideological critics of our own time have seen. Thus, through the Jacob-Laban story, Shakespeare creates an unstable moment, a case to be argued. Such contested moments, in which dialectic and rhetoric weigh in on opposite sides, are hints that we as an audience or forced to choose between or among interpretations.
We are presented with an allegory of reading (if we see it) that involves us, almost like characters, in the outcome, like a jury. This scene, rather than fixing meaning of usury, the allegory imports a complex range of conflicting opinions on lending and borrowing.
Of course, there is no allegory of reading, no contest of rhetoric and dialectic, if we do not see and hear a contest.
Let us examine the scene in all its complexity before deciding what it means. The Jacob-Laban story is placed at the center of Act One, scene three. The scene begins with Shylock's pondering Bassanio's request for a loan to which Antonio will be bound. In his attempt to discover on the Rialto what Antonio's overextended credit can do for him (1.1.177-185), Bassanio may have found that Shylock the moneylender is his only hope for the hefty sum of three thousand ducats.
The conversation between Shylock and Bassanio incorporates the rhetoric of competing dialectics regarding money and financial obligations. Bassanio the nobleman assumes that financial agreements are oral, based on a man's word and personal honor, but Shylock, the middleclass businessman, insists that such agreements be written and contractual, based on assurance of the ability of the borrower to repay.
In terms of Shakespeare’s use of Classical logic, the differing general ideas behind each man's particular statements result in a conflict of meaning, a problem of reading each other’s meaning that Shylock is careful to set straight. For example, when Shylock says, "Antonio is a good man," Bassanio assumes he refers to Antonio's reputation: "Have you heard any imputation to the contrary?" Realizing that his intended meaning has slipped, Shylock hastens to undo the syllepsis by making his precise meaning clear: "Ho, no, no, no, no. My meaning in saying he is a good man is to have you understand me that he is sufficient" (1.3.12-17).
In the same conversation, when Shylock says he may take Antonio's bond, Bassanio replies, "Be assured you may," meaning that Shylock may be sure of Antonio's honor and good character. Shylock picks up Bassanio's meaning of the word "assured" and turns it to his own use. (The rhetorical device is asteismus). Shylock makes clear to Bassanio that by "assured" he means "surety," whatever will guarantee the loan: "I will be assured I may, and that I may be assured, I will bethink me. May I speak with Antonio?" (1.3.27-29). Their dialogue introduces a basic conflict between competing general assumptions regarding money and financial agreements.
So far, through his precise definition of terms, Shylock controls the logic of the debate because he controls the terms that establish the grounds on which the fight is to be waged.
At this point Antonio enters. Bassanio, unaware of the long-standing animosity between Shylock and Antonio, attempts to introduce them to each other, but Shylock ignores Bassanio. Turning aside to the audience, Shylock voices his grievance against Antonio:
How like a fawning publican he looks!
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.
If I can catch him once upon the hip,
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.
He hates our sacred nation, and he rails,
Even there where merchants most do congregate,
On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift,
Which he calls interest. Cursed be my tribe
If I forgive him! (1.3.38-49)
Through Shylock's aside, Shakespeare introduces the traditional Christian position on moneylending, represented by Antonio, and juxtaposes it against Shylock's different and unorthodox set of assumptions.
As allegory, this aside, spoken directly to the theater audience, moves the debate from the financial world "here with us in Venice" to the attitudes about moneylending in Elizabethan London. Shylock refers to his business dealings as "bargains" and "well-won thrift," and he objects to what he regards as Antonio's humble, foolish Christian practice of lending money "gratis," driving down the "rate of usance" and reducing his profits, which Shylock says Antonio refers to by the opprobrious term "interest."
Indeed, Antonio's first words to Shylock indicate immediately that Antonio seeks to control the terms of their conversation. In words dripping with condescension, Antonio opens by saying, "Shylock, albeit I neither lend nor borrow / By taking nor by giving excess, / Yet, to supply the ripe wants of my friend, / I'll break a custom" (1.3.58-61). Antonio defines Shylock's thrifty bargains as "excess," a loaded term, against charging interest, in the sixteenth-century English debate over moneylending.3
Antonio, as spokesman for the traditional, Christian position in this debate, seizes the ground by controlling the definition of terms. Shylock attempts to wrest the ground from him by redefining "excess" profit as "advantage," a more nearly neutral term meaning "benefit."4
Shylock, who has just begun to contemplate the terms of the bond, interrupts himself to call Antonio on his previous statement: "But hear you: / Methoughts you said you neither lend nor borrow / Upon advantage." He has caught Antonio in a logical contradiction, but Antonio asserts that his request for an interest-bearing loan is merely an exception to his general rule. In response to Shylock's implied question, Antonio says, "I do never use it" (1.3.66-68).
It is Antonio's failure to acknowledge this contradiction that prompts Shylock to tell the Jacob-Laban story.5 Without transition, Shylock launches into a parable, his version of Genesis 27 and 30:25-43:
When Jacob grazed his uncle Laban's sheep--
This Jacob from our holy Abram was,
As his wise mother wrought in his behalf,
The third possessor; ay, he was the third-- (1.3.69-72)
Perhaps sensing that Shylock has an underlying, allegorical purpose in his fabling, Antonio peremptorily heads him off with a loaded question: "And what of him? Did he take interest?" (1.3.73). Shylock pauses to ponder the derogatory term "interest": "No, not take interest, not as you would say / Directly interest. Mark what Jacob did" (1.3.74-75 italics mine). Not to be dissuaded from his own rhetorical and dialectical purpose, Shylock continues his story of Jacob and Laban, as an allegorical example or emblem:
When Laban and himself were compromised
That all the eanlings which were streaked and pied
Should fall as Jacob's hire, the ewes, being rank,
In end of autumn turned to the rams,
And when the work of generation was
Between these woolly breeders in the act,
The skillful shepherd peeled me certain wands,
And in the doing of the deed of kind
He stuck them up before the fulsome ewes,
Who then conceiving did in eanling time
Fall parti-colored lambs, and those were Jacob's.
This was a way to thrive, and he was blest;
And thrift is blessing, if men steal it not. (1.3.76-88)
The parable or fable of Jacob as an allegorical example allows Shylock to replace Antonio's term "interest" with his own definition, "thrift," a way of thriving.
Through Shylock's allegory, Shakespeare imports a range of unorthodox opinions about moneylending, as Shylock links the skillful generation of capital with the efforts of "the skillful shepherd" managing "the work of [natural] generation." Profit is profit--in sheep or in money--and profit is a "blessing, if men steal it not."
In their debate over usury, Shylock offers Antonio a Classical example of rhetoric--a parable used for allegorical effect. He thinks he has made his point, but Antonio will have none of it. Again, Antonio seizes the dialectical ground of the debate, redefining Jacob's hard-won "thrift" as "venture," the gift of Providence:
This was a venture, sir, that Jacob served for,
A thing not in his power to bring to pass,
But swayed and fashioned by the hand of heaven. (1.3.89-91).
In countering Shylock's allegory with his own dialectical argument, Antonio reinterprets Shylock's version of Jacob's story in terms of conventional Christian dogma: "Was this inserted to make interest good? Or is your gold and silver ewes and rams?" (1.3.92-93).
Antonio reads Shylock's allegorical purpose in inserting the Jacob story into their conversation and rejects Shylock's implied analogy between the generation of profit from money and the natural generation of ewes and rams. It was a Renaissance commonplace that making money breed money was a perversion of natural generation.
Shylock's answer to Antonio's questions defies orthodox Christian opinion: "I cannot tell. I make it breed as fast. / But note, me, signor--" (1.3.94-95); however, Antonio is no longer in the mood to play Shylock's game. The debate is about to be foreclosed. Shylock's smart rejoinder about fast-breeding money sets him off. This is the point where Antonio demonizes Shylock: "Mark you, Bassanio, / The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose" (1.3.95-96).
Of course, Antonio is citing scripture to his own purpose (Matthew 4:6), and his purpose is to silence Shylock. We hear no more about whatever it was Shylock wanted Antonio to note about his allegory of Jacob and Laban, but for those of us in the audience who are interested in acknowledging what Antonio is bent on denying, the cat is out of the dialectical bag. Shakespeare introduces, through the emblem of the Jacob story and what follows it, an allegory encompassing the complex range of Renaissance attitudes about usury.6
By my count, there are between 450 and 500 references to money in the play. Much has been written about the play's preoccupation with usury, venture capital, and the economic aspects of human relationships.7 However, in light of the issues raised by Shylock in Shylock's allegory of Jacob and Laban in particular--and in Act One, scene three overall--I think it is worthwhile to revisit several sixteenth-century documents that have been cited by economic interpreters to see more clearly what sort of economic discourse Shakespeare was joining when he wrote the play.
I have chosen texts whose arguments would have been sufficiently current in Elizabethan society that Shakepeare and at least some members of his audience would have been aware of them as he went about writing The Merchant of Venice in about 1597.8 Rather than showing a unanimous Elizabethan attitude against usurers, the documents reveal a heated controversy in which economic practices are caught in a web of debate. Critical opinion has tended to side with either Antonio or Shylock in the matter of the bond.
However, a comparison between the documents and what Shakepeare wrote in the play reveals that Shakepeare exploits this controversy with greater even-handedness than critics on both sides of the Shylock-Antonio debate have generally allowed. Whereas the dominant discourse concerning money pits Jew against Christian, a secondary discourse shows that Shakespeare may have used these documents on usury as an intertext to explore, in a dialectical way, questions of usurious intent, emotional and legal bonds, and spiritual contracts.
Instead of stabilizing the issue and fixing the play's meaning according to Elizabethan commonplaces (as the dominant discourse surely does), the dialectic of the secondary discourse questions these commonplaces. The dominant discourse of supposed Jewish greed and Christian generosity is destabilized by a secondary discourse that represents the open-endedness of late-sixteenth century Elizabethan debate over usury. If I am right, this instability marks the shifting ground of allegory as dialectic and rhetoric.
To open an examination of the Elizabethan debate, I shall begin with John Calvin's letter on usury, which represents the first real break from the medieval attitude toward moneylending.9 Written in 1545 as advice to a friend who asked Calvin for his opinion of usury, this letter expresses Calvin's private opinion, but his views became known in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, as shown in Thomas Wilson's refutation of them in A Discourse on Usury.
Thus, well before Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice, these views became ammunition in the English debate over lending money at interest. Calvin begins by saying that Christ's statement about lending without hope of interest has been misconstrued as forbidding all usury.10 Rather, Christ commands us to remember the poor rather than the rich.
Next, he says that the intention of God's law to the Jews concerning usury (Deut. 23:19) is political, to constrain us to act equitably, reasonably, and humanely ("equité et la raison d'humanité"). He goes on to say that certainly it would be better if usury were eliminated from the world, but because that is impossible, it is necessary to allow it to common use ("a l'utilité commune").
With his humanistic training in Hebrew, Calvin is able to point out that the Hebrew word usually translated as "usury" in Deuteronomy 23:19 is better translated as "fraud" because illicit attempts to commit cruel usury are often conjoined with evil tricks. Further, Calvin distinguishes between two words in Hebrew usually translated as "usury" that are in fact quite different: Neshek, which refers to "biting interest" because it gnaws or eats into the borrower ("parce que ronge"), and Tarbit, which signifies addition or extra, and not taken without cause. The latter is not forbidden by the prophets.
Calvin dismisses as frivolous the arguments (derived from Aristotle and codified by Aquinas) of church fathers such as Ambrose and Chrysostome that money cannot legitimately create money (as Shylock asserts in his analogy between breeding money and breeding sheep). Calvin concludes that one must judge usury not by certain passages from scripture but by the rule of equity.
Further, Calvin says that 1) no interest is to be taken from the poor; 2) lenders must help the poor through charity;
3) loans must be made according to the (golden) rule of Christ; 4) the borrower must make more from the loan than it costs; 5) one should not judge such practices by the rules of the wicked world and its vulgar customs; and 6) one should think of private use and public good.
When viewed through the lens of Calvin's letter, Shylock's bond with Antonio is an example of Neshek in the Torah. The pound of flesh would be literally "biting interest." Shylock intends to take his pound of flesh directly from Antonio's hide. However, Shylock's bond requires no interest at all in terms of monetary payment. Antonio is to pay a pound of his flesh as penalty if Bassanio defaults on the loan. A pound is certainly much less than a whole person put up to guarantee a loan, as noblemen were said to put up their servants as guarantors in late sixteenth-century England, since by law noblemen could not be held accountable for default on a loan.11
As in England, the guarantor of the loan in Venice is a commoner; however, he is not a nobleman’s servant but a merchant, a friend, like Shylock a member of the middle class. Because Antonio, unlike Bassanio, is not a nobleman, Shylock could easily sue Antonio for forfeiting a bond.
What are we to make of Shylock's pound of flesh in light of Calvin's reference to Neshek? Is Shakespeare offering us a parody of gnawing interest? Possibly. But some things are clear. Calvin's letter points to the fact that Shylock's bond is not equitable; it is not based on natural justice in that it is excessive, disproportionate, unreasonable, and inhumane. It violates the Golden Rule. And yet, Shylock is not taking interest. The pound of flesh is a penalty in the event of nonpayment.
Further, Bassanio makes more from the loan than it costs. These points ought to work in Shylock's favor in Calvin's terms, but they do not, since Antonio is forced to stand guarantor against forfeiture in a bond that is inequitable, not to say cannibalistic. Shakespeare has created a play in which biting interest is an issue, but it is an issue about which no easy judgments can be made.
Shylock says to Antonio that the bond a "merry sport" (1.3.142), but to us he says it is a way for Shylock to "catch him once upon the hip [to] feed fat the ancient grudge" he bears against Antonio (1.3.43-4). His daughter Jessica says so, too: "When I was with him I heard him swear . . . / That he would rather have Antonio's flesh / Than twenty times the value of the sum / That he did owe him" (3.2.284-88).
Nonetheless, it really depends on Antonio and Bassanio whether the bond for a pound of flesh is the "kind" offer of an interest-free loan that Shylock claims it is (1.3.138) or a means to entrap Antonio. If Antonio repays the three thousand ducats in three months, the loan conforms not only to Calvin's notions of equity and reason but also to older, traditional notions of lending gratis, as outlined by Thomas Aquinas.
Thus, in the event of full performance on the part of Bassanio, Antonio goes free, and the loan conforms to ancient Christian principles. If Shylock is planning on revenge, he is counting on Antonio's bankruptcy through risky merchant ventures and prodigal generosity (Shylock calls him a "prodigal" at 3.1. 42). The matter of the bond is a complex business.
To explicate the issues, I turn for help to Thomas Wilson's A Discourse on Usury. Completed in 1569 and dedicated to the Earl of Leicester, Wilson's book was not published until 1572, after the act revising usury laws in 1571.12 The preface to the discourse opens the argument against usury in typical Christian humanist fashion, by citing the Bible and classical tradition.
After a "Prologue to the Christian Reader," Wilson presents four characters in a dialogue: Ockerfoe, a preacher and enemy of usury; Gromelgayner, a wrongful merchant and usurer; an unnamed pettifogging lawyer; and another lawyer who is a learned doctor of civil law. In the dialogue, the preacher argues against usury from the medieval Christian position of Thomas Aquinas derived from the Old Testament, the New Testament, and Aristotle.
In contrast, the pettifogging lawyer argues in favor of charging interest for practicality and self-interest. The merchant is audience to the proceedings. He mostly listens and applauds arguments that support his practices. The doctor of civil law arrives late to the conversation and shows the complexity of the usury issue and the universality of usurious practice.
The opening dialogue sets forth the basic issues concerning usurers and merchants. The preacher advocates lending money gratis out of charity in order to be a perfect Christian. The pettifogging lawyer suggests that self-interest and Christian benefit to one's neighbor can be combined, for "who would lend but to have some benefit of his own money? And is that any harm when both do gain? (Wilson 202). The lawyer and the preacher both agree that merchants are a national asset. The lawyer says, "Indeed your treasure is the welfare of the realm and country where you dwell, and where merchants are not cherished, that country or realm will soon perish" (203).
To this the preacher adds that "lawful trading and adventuring to bring in our want and to carry out our plenty hath ever been allowed, and without such traffic no country nor no kingdom can flourish" (203). In Wilson's dialogue we have the basic elements of the conflict between Shylock and Antonio, but in Shakespeare’s play, Wilson's wrongful merchant-usurer is divided in two; Antonio becomes the good merchant, and Shylock is the evil usurer.13
Wilson's book is as complex in relation to Shakespeare as is Calvin's letter. This is the Thomas Wilson who wrote The Arte of Rhetorick, and his skill at advocating multiple points of view in a convincing manner comes out strongly in A Discourse on Usury. One might assume that Wilson's own position is that of the preacher, whose argument is that any taking of interest when lending money is usury and thus contrary to God's law. This is the position Wilson argued before Parliament in 1571.14
However, in the Discourse on Usury, Wilson's preacher's argument is repetitious and, at least to a modern reader, rigidly ineffective. In contrast, some of the best arguments come from the pettifogging lawyer, whom Wilson describes as being "meanly studied, and yet of a goodly wit and great boldness" (198).
The lawyer's case sounds much like the letter of John Calvin: weigh usury by the rule of charity; do not call usury taking anything more than what is lent; there is a difference between lending to a poor man and lending to a rich gentleman or merchant who can afford to repay and who will make a profit on the loan; if one lends freely, another gains by the loan, and the lender loses the use of his own money; and Christ never meant to prohibit lending at interest but only to eliminate lending at interest to the poor.
Further, like Calvin, the lawyer makes Calvin's distinction between reasonable interest and biting interest. The passage is worth quoting at length:
Let us go to the very word of usury in the Hebrew tongue. It is called a biting, of the word Neshek, which is nothing else but a kind of biting, as a dog useth to bite or gnaw upon a bone; so that he that biteth not, doth not commit usury. For usury is none other thing than a biting, as I said, of the very etymology and proper nature of the word, otherwise it cannot be called Neshek, as the Hebricians say, and so call usury of biting only. And the Tigurine translation hath in Exodus Non inferes morsum fratri tuo, Thou shalt not bite thy brother, where as other translations have, Non foeneraberis fratri tuo, Thou shalt not take usury of thy brother. . . .I take biting and usury to be all one. (241)
When Shakespeare discovered the bond for a pound of flesh (probably in Giovanni Fiorentino's Il pecorone, The Dunce), the English discourse on usurers who extract biting interest was already well established.
Wilson's final member of the discussion is the doctor of civil law, whose oration at eighty pages is by far the longest in the book. Wilson was himself a learned doctor of civil law as well as a master of her Majesty's honorable court of requests, as he points out to us on the title page of his book. (In The Merchant of Venice, it is Portia as the impostor Judge Balthasar who gets to play this role.)
The learned doctor begins with a definition of usury, expanding the concept to include not just lending money but lending anything in which the lender gains back more than he lent: "Usury is not only in money, but also in wares and merchandises, such as can be consumed or spent by using of them" (277). Like Calvin in his letter and the pettifogging lawyer of Wilson's Discourse, the civil doctor applies the rule of charity to questions of lending: "Where no charity is, there is no virtue. But in the usurer's heart there is no charity: therefore the usurer is devoid of virtue" (278).
The doctor of civil law tells us that this want of charity or love in making moneylending bargains is specifically associated with the conscience of the lender and the lender's intention in making the terms of the loan: "If the usurer had charity, he would have compassion of his poor and needy neighbor and aid his want to his power, as by God's law he is bound. But the remorse of conscience is not in him, but only a desire to enrich himself, which is a wicked intent and meaning, and directly against God" (279-80).
This want of charity and conscience is specifically associated by the civil doctor with the usurious practices of Jews:
The Jew, that hath used this horrible sin most above all others, and
might lawfully use the same, before Christ's coming, upon any stranger,
as appeareth plain in Exodus, hath so robbed the Christians wherever he
came, that his evil living seen, he is banished out of the most places in
Christendom, and worthily; for surely that common weal and country
cannot long stand in prosperous estate and welfare, where merchants
and all others are usurers. And no better do I call them than Jews, yea,
worse than any infidel, that wittingly live by the only gain of their
The learned doctor's traditional bigotry concerning the stereotypical Jewish moneylender has an interesting twist that relates directly to The Merchant of Venice.
First, it judges any financial transaction according to the intention and conscience of the lender and, by inference, to the good faith of the borrower as well.
Second, and I think more significant, is the learned doctor's statement that any persons who "wittingly live by the gain only of their money" are Jews or worse than Jews. In the dialectic of the play's secondary discourse, the question of who or what is a Jew is a serious problem of interpretation.
Third, following upon the civil doctor's odd redefining of "Jewishness," we find in section three of the doctor's discourse copious examples of sharp practice and shady business dealings by these Christians turned Hebrew. The argument is unpleasant to the modern reader, but it does have the slim virtue of tarring everyone with the same brush. Like Wilson himself, the civil doctor has apparently tried hundreds of cases involving financial arrangements devoid of Christian love and neighborliness. Most of his examples sound like Laban and Jacob getting the better of one another over daughters and sheep.
In fact, the doctor's example of the usurious "gentleman or lord" who lets his "thirty milch kine and seven hundred sheep" to a farmer for ten years (Wilson 295) sounds like the financial arrangement between Laban and Jacob cited by Shylock (MV 1.3.68-71, 73-87). When interpreted through the eyes of Wilson's civil doctor, the play's reference to Jacob's getting even with Laban for Laban's hardhearted bargains over sheep and wives has particular relevance to Christian sharp practice in the rest of the play.
Since all of the personal relationships in The Merchant of Venice exude the odor of unfair financial gain, there is particular importance to the civil doctor's comment that such practices make Christians as bad as or worse than Jews or infidels. Whether Shakespeare read Wilson’s book or not (and I think he did), the ideas presented by Wilson were probably common knowledge by the time Shakespeare wrote his play.
The civil doctor's fourth point, the difference between interest and usury, also bears on Shylock and the Christians in Shakespeare's play. As the civil doctor points out, whereas usury involves taking money above the principal for lending for a certain time, Wilson says that canon law defines interest as that which is "demanded when I have sustained loss through another man's cause" (Wilson 319). This is called damnum emergens--literally, damages or penalty owed to the lender arising from the failure of the borrower to repay by the date stipulated in the contract "for the losses sustained through another man's fault, that hath not paid me mine own in due time" (319). According to Wilson, under civil law and under canon law, adjudicated in so-called equity courts, the lender was entitled to this kind of interest:
All laws do allow that men may have their damages awarded to them. And in so doing an equality and just proportion is observed in this sort,> that whereas one hath had benefit by me, I should likewise sustain no harm by him, much less be undone for my well doing, and he that waxes rich by my loss that meant so well by him. This is agreeing to all laws and to natural equity, to justice and to reason. (319)
In words that echo Calvin, the civil doctor says that a person in Shylock's situation is entitled by natural equity, justice, and reason to recompense beyond his principal if the bond is not repaid on time. Shylock makes sure that Antonio knows that he is offering to lend money on Christian terms: "This is kind I offer," and "this kindness will I show" (1.3.138, 140).
Antonio shows that he understands Shylock's meaning: "The Hebrew will turn Christian: he grows kind" (1.3.175). Shylock's words to Antonio just before these statements sound more beseeching than ominous when read along with the learned doctor's words that such a kind, Christian lender "should likewise sustain no harm" by a Christian borrower. Echoing Wilson, Shylock says, "And, for my love, I pray you wrong me not" (1.3.167).
If Antonio fails to repay on time, Shylock is entitled to the principal plus a penalty. Shylock writes this into the contract to be signed before a notary by the two parties. This prescribed penalty is called a poena conventionalis, a conventional penalty agreed to by the lender and the borrower in the event that the borrower fails to repay on time.15
Such a clause was legal in Venice, but more importantly it was clearly legal in England in Shakespeare's time and earlier. For a non-interest-bearing loan, a contract specifying a penalty for default would have been perfectly acceptable, provided that it could not be proved in court that the lender intended in advance to harm the borrower.16
At the time in which the play was written, the focus of contract law begins to change from things lent and borrowed to the conscious intention of the parties to the contract--that is, to questions of conscience.17 This issue of conscious intention is as important to The Merchant of Venice as it is ambiguous. We do know two things, however: Shylock's stated intention is to lend Antonio money on Christian terms, offering the bond penalty as a jest; and Antonio's stated intention is to repay Shylock's kind offer before the expiration of the three month period of the loan, accepting Shylock's definition of the penalty as "merry sport."
Only Bassanio mistrusts Shylock's intention: "I like not fair terms and a villain's mind," and "you shall not seal to such a bond for me" (1.3.176 and 151). Bassanio questions Shylock’s motives, but he is not party to the bond, no matter how deeply he is implicated in the outcome.
Shylock has offered a risky loan to a man who is seriously overextended and whose assets are tied up in hazardous shipping ventures around the world. The bond requires no interest and has no built-in forfeiture of money or property for not repaying the principal within the specified time. Except for the grotesque penalty of a pound of flesh--and this is, of course, an enormous exception--the contract conforms to Christian charity and civil and canon law. In the way it is constructed, such a contract would have been valid in Shakespeare's England.
In terms of Wilson's elaboration of law, charity, and equity, Shylock goes wrong only when he breaks his understanding with Antonio by altering his expressed intention and decides to turn "merry sport" into deadly revenge. It could--and will--be argued in court that Shylock intended all along to harm Antonio, but the expressed intention between the parties to the bond was perfectly legal and above reproach.
It is now clear that questions of intention were closely connected with matters of conscience in the Elizabethan discourse on usury by the time Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice. This connection is amplified in Miles Mosse's The Arraignment and Conviction of Usury, six sermons based on Proverbs 28:8, published in 1595, just before Shakespeare wrote the play. As Norman Jones points out in God and the Moneylenders, Mosse separated the sin of usury from the act itself.18
In his third sermon, Mosse deals with usurious intent, a sort of spiritual usury, as the real source of sin. In Mosse's view a contract for interest would not be usury if the lender had no usurious intent. By the same reasoning, a loan without interest, with or without a written contract, could be usurious if the lender intends some kind of gain thereby, even if the goal is not monetary reward. Mosse makes this point specifically.
To expect such a reward would be spiritual usury, the kind of gratitude or sense of binding obligation that Antonio expects from Bassanio, as Bassanio acknowledges when he says, "To you, Antonio, I owe the most in money and in love" (1.1.130-31). Although the dominant discourse of the play presents this relationship as loving friendship, in Mosse's terms it would be usurious. Shylock makes explicit the spiritual usury inherent in supposedly charitable "Christian" loans when he offers to purchase Antonio's friendship and love by providing an interest-free loan to him:
I would be friends with you and have your love,
Forget the shames that you have stained me with,
Supply your present wants, and take no doit
Of usance for my moneys; and you'll not hear me.
This is kind I offer. (1.3.136-140)
In case Antonio and the audience miss the point, Shakespeare has Shylock repeat it: "I say / To buy his favor I extend this friendship" (1.3.166-67). Shylock understands the nature of such Christian "kindness" and the usurious spiritual interest in love and friendship expected in such a bargain. By repeating it, he points it out--the rhetorical device deixis.
Thus, Shylock, in his usual, precise way, makes his overt intention perfectly clear. For Miles Mosse, usurious intent defines whether a transaction between individuals constitutes the sin of usury. That Shakespeare read Mosse's book is supported by the fact that Mosse is the only source anyone has found that connects usury to the Laban-Jacob story.19
John Calvin's letter, Thomas Wilson's Discourse on Usury, and Miles Mosse's The Arraignment and Conviction of Usury reveal the complexity of opinion not only on usury but also on the whole realm of financial transactions in Shakepeare's England. That Shakespeare was aware of the complexity of the debate can be seen in the ways he uses conflicting dialectical arguments in his play.
Like Wilson, Shakepeare presents multiple positions. The dominant discourse of the play clearly favors Antonio over Shylock, as shown when Antonio forecloses their debate by invoking commonplace arguments against usury and then demonizes the moneylender, in much the same way that Wilson in his Discourse on Usury, after introducing diverse, compelling opinions about lending money at interest, closes the debate (arbitrarily it seems to me as a modern reader) by siding with standard Christian arguments against usury.
However, in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare's secondary discourse allows questions raised by Wilson's dialogue, Calvin's letter, and Mile's Mosse's Arraignment to remain open. The source documents do not help us to know whether Shakepeare advocated one or another opinion on usury or the broader issues of love and money, but they do show us that The Merchant of Venice echoes a complex debate in Shakespeare's culture, and it would be naive to say arbitrarily that Shakespeare clearly favored Shylock on one side or the Christians on the other.
1 Many years ago, in a psychological reading of MV, Harold Goddard addressed the question of Antonio's "savage detestation of Shylock," The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951) 81-116:
Shakespeare is careful to leave no doubt on this point, but, appropriately, he buries the evidence a bit beneath the surface: Antonio abhors Shylock because he catches his own reflection in his face. "What! Antonio like Shylock!" it will be said. "The idea is preposterous. No two men could be more unlike." They are, in some respects. But extremes meet, and in one respect they are akin. It is Antonio's unconscious protest against this humiliating truth that is the secret of his antipathy. "Wilt thou whip thine own faults in other men?" cries Timon of Athens. Shakespeare understood the principle, and he illustrates it here. The contrast between Shylock and Antonio is apparently nowhere more marked than in the attitude of the two men toward money. Shylock is a usurer. So strong is Antonio's distaste for usury that he lends money without interest. But where does the money come from that permits such generosity? From his argosies, of course, his trade. For, after all, to what has Antonio dedicated his life? Not indeed to usury. But certainly to money-making, to profits. And profits, under analysis, are often only "usury" in a more respectable form. Appearance and reality again. (88)To rephrase Goddard's psychological insight in terms of Shakespeare's dialectic, when "extremes meet," categories of a dialectical argument that seemed to be opposite have to be merged into a new, larger hypothesis that includes them both. Shylock and Antonio then become extreme forms ( avarice and prodigality) of the same category, abuse of money.
2Joan Ozark Holmer, a self-proclaimed allegorizor, speaks for the dominant discourse in the play: "Shylock's moral condition as worldly chooser" connects him to "the patristic tradition of adversus Judaeos," which, according to G. K. Hunter, saw "'Jewishness as a moral condition, the climactic "Jewish choice" being that which rejected Christ and chose Barabbas, . . . rejected the treasure that is in heaven and chose the treasure that is on earth'" (60), and "The very idea of Shylock as a usurer brands him in the Elizabethan mind as a worldly man, a lover of barren metal, whose occupation is opprobrious because it denies the commandment of brotherly love" (61), Holmer, "Loving Wisely and the Casket Test: Symbolic and Structural Unity in The Merchant of Venice," Shakespeare Studies, Knoxville, TN, 11 (1978): 53-76. To Mark Shell, Shylock prefigures Francis Bacon and echoes Saint Bernardino of Siena, when Shylock says that, like the sexual generation of Laban's ewes under Jacob's management, "money as capital has a creative power" (50), in "The Wether and the Ewe," Money, Language, and Thought: Literary and Philosophic Economies from the Medieval to the Modern Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982) 47-83. I infer that for Michael Ferber Shylock's Jacob-Laban story exemplifies Calvin's "ideology of thrift" (447) versus Antonio and Bassanio's "ideology of risk" (446) in "The Ideology of The Merchant of Venice, ELR 20 (1990): 431-464. Lars Engle says that "Shylock's apparently irrelevant and patently incomplete retelling of the Jacob story, which is so evidently meant to justify usury . . . is a multivalent subtext" the meanings of which he cannot contain because they are multiple and unstable: "the Jacob story thus is full of danger for Shylock" (87-88). "Money and Moral Luck in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespearean Pragmatism: Market of His Time (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993) 77-106.
3Oxford World's Classics edition of The Merchant of Venice comments on usury as "excess": "Compare Philip Caesar, A General Discourse against the Damnable Sect of Usurers (trans. 1578): 'Usury, or as the word of God doth call it, excess . . .'". The Merchant of Venice, The World's Classics, ed. Jay L. Halio (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993) fn 59, 121.
4Like other terms that have to do with material and spiritual blessing, the term "advantage," undergoes the scrutiny of dialectical inquiry as events unfold in the play.
5I owe the distinction between "knowing" and "acknowledging" to Stanley Cavell, who says that "a failure to acknowledge"(84) is "a refusal to see" (85) what we clearly cannot fail to know. Cavell is talking about characters in King Lear, but in the words quoted he is referring specifically to Shakespeare's audience and what we acknowledge or refuse to see. "The Avoidance of Love," Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987) 39-123.
6Harold Goddard says that by the Jacob-Laban story Shylock means, "Look a bit closer, Antonio, and you will see that your profits amount to the same thing as my interest. We are in the same boat" (90). Lars Engle interprets it as follows: "Shylock proposes the Jacob/Laban story as a model for the relation between usury and venture capitalism with the former 'blessing' the latter" (90), and "Shylock's abortive scriptural explanation of the usurer's relation to the capital needed by merchants is in fact an extraordinarily progressive one (rather like Bacon's in 'Of Usury'); what the scene illustrates is the diabolism forced on Shylock by Antonio's near-hysterical resistance to any formal acceptance of the nature of the economic system he lives in" (91). As an explanation of Shylock's purpose in telling the Jacob-Laban story as an allegory, Goddard's psychological reading and Engle's economic reading are both compatible and convincing. My own purpose is to go a little further and see what Shakespeare's purpose might be.
7Some of the best essays on money and MV may be Walter Cohen's "The Merchant of Venice and the Possibilities of Historical Criticism," ELH 49 (1982): 765-85; and those of Marc Shell, Michael Ferber, and Lars Engle (cited above).
8The limits indicated for the play are after July 1596 when the ship Andrew was captured, mentioned at 1.1.27, and before 22 July 1598 when the play was entered in the Stationers' Register.
9John Calvin, Ioannis Calvini Opera quae supersunt omnia (Corpus Reformatorium), ed G. Baum, vol. 10 (Brunsvigae, 1875), 16. In my translation, I have attempted to preserve Calvin's wording as closely as possible. See also Norman Jones's translation in God and the Moneylenders (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1989) 18.
10Calvin was not the only Protestant reformer to say that scripture would not support forbidding usury. Benjamin Nelson says that "Zwingli, like Luther and Melanchthon, seems loathe to concede that a strict prohibition of usury might be inferred from Scriptures. [Zwingli declares that] to deny the name of Christians to those who extend loans with a hope of profit is to torture the texts [especially Luke 6:34-35]," The Idea of Usury: From Tribal Brotherhood to Universal Otherhood, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 65. Cited by Marc Shell, "The Wether and the Ewe: Verbal Usury in The Merchant of Venice," Language and Thought: Literary and Philosophic Economics from the Medieval to the Modern Era (Berkeley: U of California Press, 1982) fn 50, 75.
11Citing Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 520-21, Lars Engle makes the point that noblemen in Shakespeare's time could not be held or sued for debt (85-6).
12The 1571 revision of the usury law says that usury is a sin but the sinner may only charge ten percent. This distinction, derived as a compromise, has a modern libertarian sound to it. "Act Against Usury," reprinted by Joseph Keble in The Statutes at Large in Paragraphs and Numbers from Magna Carta Until this Time (London, 1684).
13Ferber points out that Shakespeare has over-simplified the distinction between usurer and merchant to create "strong contrasts between . . . ideal types" (438). My point is that, after setting up these binary opposites, Shakespeare undercuts them through the unfolding dialectic of his plot.
14See R.H. Tawney, Introduction, A Discourse on Usury, 1572, by Thomas Wilson, ed. R. H. Tawney (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1963).
15Norman Jones, God and the Moneylenders: Usury and Law in Early Modern England (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989) 10.
16Jones discusses usurious intent on pages118 and 120. Of penalty for non-payment, Jones says, "The penal bond was an ancient and honorable part of the law. In its simplest form it bound someone to perform a promised action or to suffer a penalty, and it was used to secure all kinds of pledges, from good behavior to payment of debts. In financial transactions such as non-interest-bearing loans, it protected the lender from financial loss and gave specific damages to him or her if the loan was not repaid. In the process, of course, the bond gave the agreement standing in court, making it enforceable" (130).
17Charles Spinosa, "Shylock and Debt and Contract in The Merchant of Venice," Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature, Volume 5, Number 1 (Spring 1993): 65-85. Spinosa refers to the breakdown of common law agreements called compurgation and the beginnings in England of the 1580s of a form of contract called assumpsit, the origin of modern contractual arrangements, in which all details are spelled out according to clear intention (69), and any violation of the contract was viewed as an intention to deceive (70).
19Concerning Shylock's connection of moneylending to the Jacob-Laban story, Joan Ozark Holmer notes that "Shakespeare's elusive source may well be Miles Mosse's The Arraignment and Conviction of Usury. . . . According to R. H. Tawney, Mosse follows Thomas Wilson in producing the most elaborate discussion of usury in the latter part of the century. But most importantly, Mosse specifically refers to the Jacob-Laban episode not once but twice--in the Preface 'To the Christian Reader' and in his conclusion" (64). "'When Jacob Graz'd His Uncle Laban's Sheep': A New Source for The Merchant of Venice," Shakespeare Quarterly, 36 (1985): 64-65.