Old and New Law in Merchant of Venice


By Roger Stritmatter

Reprinted from Notes and Queries, (March 2000)

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, it has long been acknowledged, displays many subtle and variegated manifestations of Shakespeare’s Bible knowledge. More than any other play, according to Richmond Noble,[i] the play con­tains numerous traces of Biblical influence indicating ‘very observant reading’[ii] of scrip­ture: ‘In this play the advocate of Shake­speare’s exceptional Biblical knowledge will find more material than in any others’.[iii]

In fact, Merchant is saturated with Biblical topoi, from both Old and New Testament, which sustain and give point to theological, ethnological, and legal precepts dramatized in Antonio’s conflict with Shylock.[iv] Comment­ators such as Barbara Lewalski read the dis pute over the bond as an allegory symbolizing ‘a confrontation of Judaism and Christianity as theological systems – the Old law and the New – as well as historical societies’[v] with kindred but competing theological systems. This latter emphasis is seen vividly in the many biblical references – to eating, inheritance, marriage prescriptions and proscriptions, animal hus­bandry, etc. – involving the ethnological dis­tinctions between Jew and Gentile as they may have been experienced or debated in sixteenth-century Venice.

When Shylock, for example, seeks a prece­dent for the otherwise forbidden practice of usury (Deuteronomy 23:19-20), he has re­course to the fructifying effects of Jacob’s animal husbandry (Genesis 27:30). In the play we find references to manna (V.i.294—5) and to Jacob’s staff (II.ii.70); Shylock calls Launcelot a ‘fool of Hagar’s offspring’ (II.v.44), Shylock sardonically announces that he will ‘feed upon the Prodigal Christian’ (II.v.14-15), and Jes­sica reports to Bassanio that she heard her father ‘swear / To Tubal; and to Chus, his countrymen’ (III.ii.287).

Shylock’s daughter, escaping in the footsteps of Rachel marrying Jacob, or as the Hebrew peoples from Egypt in Exodus, takes movable property as her usufruct, including the ‘tur­quoise’ her father ‘had … of Leah when I was a bachelor’ (III.i.126).[vi] Even the comic subplot of Lancelot Gobbo and his ‘sand blind’ father stages a parody of Isaac’s blessing of his trick­ster son Jacob (Genesis 27-8), which by invert­ing Shylock’s moral arrogance towards Jessica, directs the narrative resources of the Hebrew tradition for contemporary didactic purpose.

References to such Bible incidents are not merely decorative; by adumbrating the ethical dilemmas staged in the drama they create a typological foreground against which the actions of Shakespearian characters assume their fullest paradigmatic configuration in the minds of alert readers.

The Bible functions as an ethical thesaurus from which the author extracts exempla used to explore the ethical and legal conundrums of multi-ethnic existence. Shakespeare’s choice of exemplum, according to Noble, illustrates a profound sympathy for, and understanding of, Hebrew theology and custom: he ‘had assimilated to a remarkable degree the Hebrew character and outlook as revealed in the Bible’.[vii] Confirms Lewalski, the play ‘re­fuses arbitrary black and white moral estimates of human groups but takes into account the shadings and-complexities of the real world’.[viii] Indeed, Shakespeare can ‘divide the word’ against either Christian or Jew. When Gratiano, the uncompromising and violent anti-Semite, persists in demands for revenge even after Shylock has been stripped of his posses­sion and identity, the episode highlights ‘the disposition of Christians themselves to live rather according to the Old Law than the New’.[ix]

But the content of the categories of ‘Old Law’ and ‘New’ should not be mistaken for a stable and unproblematic quotient in the play’s spiritual calculus. Portia’s eloquent speech on mercy – delivered as the prologue to the forced confiscation of Shylock’s goods to enrich the coffers of the emerging Christian capitalism of Venice and Belmont – paradoxically draws its sources of inspiration from the ‘Old Law’ (Deuteronomy 32:2, Ecclesiasticus 35:19 and Ecclesiasticus 28:1-4).[x] Thus the author of Merchant places under ironic quotation marks the customary equation of the Old Law with strict judgement and the New Law with spiritual mercy. The source of the Chris­tian doctrine of mercy is seen – by well-schooled readers – to be the Jewish doctrine of mercy. Just as Jessica has, in imitating Rachel carrying off the household gods and jewelry of her father Laban, carried off Shy-lock’s jewels[xi] the Christian children are seen to have ‘absconded’ with the Hebrew philo­sophy of mercy.

Portia’s dependence on the Old Law for her most exalted principles of mercy is no isolated incident, but rather a clue to the moral com­plexities introduced by the consistent use of sources of knowledge which contradict the supposed ethnicity[xii] of speakers and hence cast a penumbra of irony over the partial moralities of every character. This ironic func­tioning of biblical reference in the play’s theo­logical and legal debates becomes a primary mode of representing the moral ‘complexities of the real world’. The method seems like a sophisticated intercultural version of that pio­neered by the young Arthur Broke in his Agreements of Sondry places of Scripture (1563).[xiii]

One previously undetected instance of the use of this technique is Shylock’s ‘you have among you many a purchase slave’ speech, which makes reference to the ‘Old Law’ tradi­tion of Jubilee debt remission, codified at Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15:1-14. Shylock’s words assume a profoundly enhanced moral force when we realize that he is not merely making a reference to the Christian practice of slavery, but is actually placing his religious tradition in a superior moral light by referring to its legal prohibition on keeping debt slaves for more than seven years, a pro­hibition which is the historical source of modern laws placing a seven year limit on the negative effects of bankruptcy.

Declares Shylock:

You have among you many a purchas’d slave, Which like your asses, and your dogs and mules, You use in abject and in slavish parts, Because you bought them. Shall I say to you, ‘Let them be free! Marry them to your heirs! Why sweat they under burthens? Let their beds

Be made as soft as yours, and let their palates Be season’d with such viands.’ You will answer, ‘The slaves are ours.’ So do I answer you: The pound of flesh which I demand of him Is dearly bought as mine, and I will have it.

(IV.i.90-100; italics added)

This magnificent speech is often overlooked in favour of Shylock’s famous ‘has not a Jew’ speech, with which, moreover, it has much in common. The logic of Shylock’s justification is that, unlike the Christian followers of the ‘new law’, he has ground for repudiating the Chris­tian practice of slavery as an immoral practice which, if not strictly forbidden, is at least limited in scope by Hebrew canon. Shylock’s ground is Deuteronomy 15, in which we read that every seventh year is to be declared a jubilee ‘yere of freedom’ in which debt slaves ‘shall … go free from thee’ (Deuteronomy 15:12).[xiv] This important Biblical reference in The Merchant of Venice has unfortunately not been noticed by prior students of Shake­speare’s Bible knowledge and is documented for the first time in the present note.

In conclusion we might wish to consider the following proposition: by means of such subtle and supple knowledge of the law as that man­ifested in this speech, Shylock, although a deeply flawed character, manifests a nobility of spirit which makes him a kindred spirit to such Christian characters – also deeply flawed – as the merchant Antonio.

Roger Stritmatter

University of Massachusetts

[i] Noble, Shakespeare’s Biblical Knowledge (New York: The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1935).

[ii] Noble, 97.

[iii] Noble, 97.

[iv] Thomas Carter in his Shakespeare and Holy Scripture (1905) cites forty-two Bible references in the play; Noble (1935) counts thirty-eight; Naseeb Shaheen in Biblical Refer­ences in Shakespeare’s Comedies (1993) finds forty-nine.

[v] ‘Allegory in the Merchant of Venice’, in Roy Battenhouse   (ed.),   Shakespeare’s   Christian   Dimension (1994), 76-83.

[vi] IIl.i.126. The turquoise was apparently a courting gift from ‘Leah’. In Genesis 29, Leah is the elder sister of the beautiful Rachel. After Jacob has served him for seven years to  pay  the  bride-price  for  Rachel,  their  father  Laban employs the ‘bed trick’ to fool Jacob into marrying Leah instead; after serving for seven more years he also marries Rachel. Shylock’s reference to Leah as his own lover seems
to invoke the figure of him as the eternal Jew, a man as much Jacob as Shylock. The reference to Leah’s turquoise is not Biblical.

[vii] Noble, 96.

[viii] Lewalski. 79.

[ix] Lewalski, 79.

[x] Noble, 167-8.

[xi] Portia and Nerissa, similarly, abscond with their own marriage rings as their reward for rendering a judgement against Shylock which Antonio and Bassanio find satisfac­torily punitive.

[xii] Just how mistaken a reader may be about the actual, historically determined, ethnicity of a given character can be illustrated by the following counterfactual. At the close of the play, Shylock has been stripped of his fortunes and Jessica has – presumably – assimilated to a Christian exist­ence, bringing with her a substantial portion of Shylock’s plundered wealth. However – and it is a big ‘however – we should not forget that Jewish law, following a matrilineal schema of inheritance, specifically claims Jessica’s children as members of the nation. That they are not likely to be raised Jewish under the circumstances merely underscores the irony of the play’s arc of action and relentless pursuit of every possible ironic paradox of identity.

[xiii] STC, 13811.

[xiv] All citations are from the Genevan edition of 1570 (STC, 2106, Darlowe and Moule, 130), Folger library copy 1472.

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