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Defining Judaism in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

Interpretations of an Old Testament

     “I am a Jew…” declares Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, “fed with the same food, hurt by the same weapons, subject to the same diseases” as a Christian.  “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” (III.i.60-61).  Though the two Jewish characters in the play are just as human as the Christians, their religious views affect the way they function in Venetian society.  Living in 16th Century England, Shakespeare would have had minimal if any contact with Jews, though it does seem he had a basic understanding of Jewish traditions and Jewish-Christian interaction, especially with regards to the traditional “stage Jew.”  Regardless of historical authenticity, however, it is interesting to see how Shakespeare portrays two differing perceptions of Judaism and how they affect the characters.  Shylock’s understanding of his religion is rooted in worship of an almighty God whose laws chiseled in stone, whereas Jessica’s understanding of religion is that it is a dynamic social construct with little emphasis on a higher being.  Jessica’s view of religion allows her to befriend Christians and eventually embrace Christianity while Shylock’s conception ensures that he and Christians share a mutual hostility stemming from the incompatibilities of the two religious lifestyles.

     Judaism is an orthoprax religion, which means that the correct observance of laws and rituals are emphasized over theological questions.  This contrasts orthodox religions such as Christianity, in which holding the correct theological belief is of the utmost importance.  Though Shakespeare would not have known these identifications by name, the precedence set by the religions and their practice was well established during his time. Shylock’s understanding of Judaism is very much orthoprax; by following these laws he will assure himself salvation.  Shylock refuses to attend Bassanio’s banquet because Christians do not follow kosher dietary law (I.iii.31-35).  Though he later decides to attend, there is no reason to believe he does not follow dietary guidelines.

     More importantly, Shylock’s adherence to orthopraxy extends to Venetian law, another system of values that, when followed, will theoretically yield happiness.  The trial scene shows Shylock trusting in and finally believing he will benefit from a system that has stripped him of his rights for so long.  “O noble judge! O excellent young man!” he rejoices as Portia asserts that Antonio is bound by the contract (IV.i.244).  His joy is short-lived, however, as Portia declares that not a drop of blood may be spilled if Shylock is to collect the bond, and that he may not accept Bassanio’s bond money.  Shylock’s only sign of disagreement is his half-hearted attempt to leave the court only to be denied once again by Portia.  He does not argue against Portia because he knows is bound by the exact terms of the contract, specifically “a pound of flesh” (IV.i.305).  It seems amazing how easily Shylock accepts his final sentence, but is not unbelievable in light of his orthoprax views.  In the end he accepts all the terms of Antonio suggests and weakly slips out of the courthouse, defeated by the system he entrusted and thought would redeem him.

     Shylock’s daughter, on the other hand, views religion as a social contract with a very loose code of ethics.  As she is stealing from her father with intentions of leaving she laments:

     Alack, what heinous sin is it in me

     To be ashamed to be my father’s child!

     But though I am a daughter to his blood,

     I am not to his manners.  O Lorenzo,

     If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife,

     Become a Christian and thy loving wife.

                                                            (II.iii.16-21)

     Apparently this grief is not enough to keep her from robbing her father and later trading her mothers wedding ring for a monkey, but this is besides the point.  According to Jessica, religion is neither an ethnic characteristic passed down through the generations or an overarching system of beliefs, but rather a social construct.  Presumably, Shylock’s “manners” are a direct result of his religion.  Jessica cannot identify with Judaism, therefore, because the religion and her father are inseparable.  When she takes on a new man in her life, she inherits his religion.  Her identity with religion is fluid, something that is as changeable as her surname upon marriage.  “Jessica the Jew” becomes not only “Jessica the Wife of Lorenzo” but also “Jessica the Christian.”

     Her faith may be more orthodox than orthoprax, but it is not orthodox in the sense that Christianity is.  Any connection her religion has with a divine being seems tenuous; rather, it is manifest in a strong male figure. The closest she comes to acknowledging the existence of God is in her argument with Lancelot in Act III when she retorts, “I shall be saved by my husband.  He hath made me a Christian” (III.v.17-18).  Jessica does not argue she will be saved by faith in a supreme being or by divine grace, but by association with her Christian husband.  It seems Jessica’s notion of religion has little if anything to do with God.  She is certainly not a devout scripture-quoting Jew like her father.

     Interestingly, Shylock can recite both Hebrew and Christian scriptures.  He is sensitive to the differences between the two religions, especially those aspects that benefit him commercially.  Even though the New Testament condemns usury, it is not forbidden under Venetian or Jewish law.  Jews serve a necessary economic function not open Christians, and are hated for it.  Shylock identifies this when he chastises Antonio:

     For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.

     You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog,

     And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,

     And all for use of that which is mine own.

     Well, then, it now appears you need my help.

                                                (I.iii.108-12)

     Shylock represents to Christians a necessary evil; they are not allowed to take part in usury, but it is the only way to secure a large loan.  There is a tension, one that is a result of Christian law but associated with Judaism because of Christianity’s dominance.

     While Shylock’s interaction with Christians has little to do with trust and respect, Jessica it seems can truly relate to them; because her religious identity is only superficial, the tensions between Judaism and Christianity are not important to her.  Shakespeare projects Shylock, though, as bearing an “ancient grudge” against Christians that dates back to the Gospel of John (I.iii.44).  This hatred is manifest in the notion that the Jews are responsible for Jesus’ death and extend to modern blood libel.  Ironically, Shylock embraces this persona as the Christian characters take little notice.  Antonio tells an indignant Shylock, “I am as like to call thee so again,/To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too” (I.iii.128-9).  He and the other Christians see Shylock as nothing more than a dog that may be kicked and teased for fun; they do not perceive him as a real threat.  Later in the scene Antonio puns, “Hie thee, gentile Jew.—/The Hebrew will turn Christian; he grows kind” (I.iii.176-77).  The gentile/gentle pun is used frequently throughout the play to contrast “rough” Jews and “gentle” Christians.  Shylock’s “roughness” sets him apart from Christians and is an essential part of his essentially religions character.  Jessica, one the other hand, escapes the notion of “roughness” by associating with Christians and eventually becoming one herself.

     Jewish-Christian relations is a more sensitive subject in the modern world in light of current religious intolerance, the Holocaust, and other genocides.  To read the play with disgust, however, is to treat it anachronistically.  Shylock is only Shakespeare’s representation of a member of a religious faith he knows little about.  Regardless, the accuracy with which Shakespeare identifies certain religious concepts is surprising.  Though the Jewish image is far from perfect in his play, it does give the reader a good idea of differing interpretations of the same religion.