Biblical Themes in the Merchant of Venice in Three Parts

An Essay By Benedicta // 2/6/2019

“The merciful man doeth good to his own soul: but he that is cruel troubleth his own flesh” Proverbs 11:17
“For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.”- James 2:13
“For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.” James 1:20

The most famous speech in the Merchant of Venice is given in the courtroom by Portia. The opening lines are “The quality of mercy is not strained; It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven ... It is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:” and this is a huge theme throughout the entire play. In the scene where this speech is given, Shylock is demanding the life of Antonio because in the bond that Antonio agreed to, he gave power to Shylock to take his life if he did not pay the money back by a certain time. Portia is defending Antonio in the court but the bond seems, at the moment, airtight. The speech she then gives is directed towards Shylock, to convince him to have mercy on Antonio. In this scene, Portia (the Christian) is representing the New Testament, while Shylock (the Jew) is representing the Old Testament, specifically, the law.

Portia has been shown throughout the entire play to be a virtuous woman. She has wit, riches, knowledge, but more importantly, she here demonstrates her merciful attitude. This is the crux of Christian morality and is specifically seen in this quote from her speech“...Therefore, Jew, Though justice be thy plea, consider this, That, in the course of justice, none of us Should see salvation:...” This is the point of Christ. Without Christ, we are all condemned to hell because all of us break God's law. If God gave us justice, we are condemned, but God does not give us our just deserts! Christ came and fulfilled the law and took the blame for our sin, giving us a way to heaven, thus showing us mercy. This is what she means by without mercy “none of us should see salvation”. She is presenting the idea of mercy and salvation through Christ and Shylock is rejecting it. She is telling him that he should have mercy as is said so famously in the Lord’s prayer, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12), but he refuses to accept that. This is demonstrated when he says in the court, “My deeds upon my head! I crave the law”. Her speech is riddled throughout with allusions to God and also straight up says outright that mercy is an attribute to God himself. Portia is representing the gateway to heaven through Christ by pointing to God’s mercy. This scene in the courtroom really fleshes out Portia's character and gives us another reason why Portia was the most sought after woman in the country.

Shylock, on the other hand, is legalistic; specifically, he is representing the Torah. He feels that he is justified in his own actions and therefore has a false sense of his own righteousness. This is shown when the dukes asks him how he could hope for mercy when he is not showing mercy, Shylock replies, “What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?” This attitude throughout the entire story. Shylock thinks that just because Antonio has wronged him (which he has), he has the right to be bitter and greedy. Shylock is going for the “an eye for an eye” approach that is in the old law as seen in Deuteronomy 19:21, but in the New Testament Jesus says “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;” (Matthew 5:44). In the courtroom scene, Shylock is so focused on the law, both the Torah and the Venetian law, that he cannot see his own sin in claiming Antonio’s life. He says “I stand here for law” He thinks that it would be a greater sin to break the law of his vow or Venetian law of the bond, by showing mercy to Antonio. But this is rather a greater sin. Jesus addresses this in Matthew 23:23, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith:” This means that they think that they keep the law the best because they tithe a portion of what they own, all the way down to even their spices, but Jesus is saying that they are missing the greater picture of what the law represents, thus perverting it. They think that they can be righteous in and of themselves, not having faith in God or relying on his mercy. This is exactly how Shylock thinks of himself. He tries to have revenge but Shylock is forgetting is what God says in Deuteronomy 32:35 “To me belongeth vengeance and recompence;”. And, as it is shown, not being merciful cost him his fortune and self-identity. “The merciful man doeth good to his own soul: but he that is cruel troubleth his own flesh” Proverbs 11:17

Many people accuse this play of being Anti-Semitic, and if Shylock was just the Jew that you see in all Jewish stereotypes, I would agree with them but that is not all that Shylock is. Shakespeare made Shylock into a human, not a caricature. If a villain is just a plot device or a stereotype, rather than an actual person, then you will not have nearly as compelling of a story. And Shakespeare doesn’t just have Shylock as a plot device. He is a person with his own motivations and sympathetic qualities. We can see an example of this when Shylock’s daughter has eloped and taken a lot of money with her. His friend told him that his daughter traded a ring for a monkey and Shylock says “Out upon her! ... it was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor: I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.” Here we see a glimpse into Shylock’s past and the love he holds for his dead wife. It gives a sense that Shylock has had a life of his own, loved someone and had a family rather than him just being the rich money lender. And even the ridicule that Shylock faces from Antonino make him sympathetic. He brings up grievances that he has and they show that he has reason to be angry at Antonio. Antonio has called him a dog in the past and has spat on him which is not actions that one should condone. The actions that Shylock takes in revenge, however, are also not acceptable, so it's not necessarily always sympathy that you feel; rather, you feel a relatability to Shylock's character. If you were spat on and called a dog, you would/should not try to murder the person who did that to you but you would feel a certain anger and injustice in their actions. The bad actions of others do not excuse our own wrong actions. Some people could twist the text and use it to back up their own evil anti-semitic agenda, but I do not think that the play as a whole is anti-semitic.

Part II: Comparison of the Merchant of Venice with Pilgrim's Progress

Pilgrim’s Progress was written in 1678 by John Bunyan whereas the Merchant of Venice was written in around 1596, nevertheless, they do share certain comparisons of the Old and New Testament, specifically the Mosaic law.

The whole of Pilgrim's Progress is an allegory of a man named Christian making the Christian journey and eventually coming to heaven. The specific place that I want to compare to the Merchant of Venice is when Christian’s friend, Faithful, is recounting his journey to Christian. Faithful had just turned away from the first Adam’s house, (which represents original sin) when he felt an inclination to stay at the house and give in to his temptations, but then immediately reviles himself and continues on his journey. Soon after he sees Moses coming after him, (who is representing the Old Testament law), and he knocks Faithful down and nearly kills him because of his sin in wanting to stay at the first Adam’s house. Faithful cries for mercy, but Moses replies that he does not know how to show mercy. Moses would have killed Faithful then and there had not a figure with holes in his hands and a hole in his side come and intervened. This represents Jesus and his intercession for the sinful man by his mercy.

The figure of the Moses in Pilgrim’s Progress is analogous with the figure of Shylock in the Merchant of Venice. We can see this in several ways. Firstly, in not knowing how to forgive in accordance with the law. They both have provocations, although in the case of Moses (since it is an allegory) they are somewhat more extreme. But nevertheless in both cases, wrong has been done and mercy is not in the equation. Secondly, in mercy not being an option. With both Shylock and Moses, they are representing the law and do not give mercy when mercy should be given. Why is this? If we look into the Old Testament law, although there is mercy throughout, it is much more based on the idea of recompense for sin through sacrifice of animal’s blood. So the idea is that you must not break the law because your own sin is brought on your head unless you repent and offer a sacrifice. According to the law, both Antonio and Faithful are sinful men, therefore deserving of death if there is no sacrifice in their place. Faithful has Jesus explicitly as his Saviour, while Antonio has Portia who has been representing the ideas of Christ's intercession.

In both the case of Moses and Shylock, and Jesus and Portia, their actions are comparable. Portia also adds a new element to the comparison between her and Jesus. She is talking about Jesus’s mercy and the morality of God throughout this scene, referring to God as you can see in a quote from her speech “(Mercy) is an attribute to God himself; And earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice.” Shylock's actions are the same as Moses but he does not talk about Moses. Portia is talking about Jesus and at the same time doing things that are analogous to Jesus’s actions in Pilgrim's Progress. One thing to note is that there was a lot of censorship in Shakespeare's day in age when you were referencing God on the stage. Many people thought that plays would make a mockery of religion and there were laws against it. So even though Shakespeare does not explicitly say the name of Jesus, he is clearly talking about him. The most obvious comparison, though, in these two texts is when Jesus steps in to save Faithful’s life and when Portia saves Antonio's life by proving Shylock’s bond illegal. The center of both of these actions is mercy. In the case of Faithful, Jesus pays for his sins with His death. In Antonio’s case, Portia frees him by making his debt impossible to collect. But Portia does not free Antonio outside of the law. Everything that she does is in compliance with Venetian law and there’s no trickery or foul play involved. Portia completely fulfills the bond and frees Antonio legally, as is the same with Jesus. Jesus completely and perfectly fulfilled God’s law, thus giving Faithful a passage to salvation and taking Faithful’s sins upon himself. Portia also does offer to shoulder Antonio’s debt by offering the amount of money to Shylock that is owed. These two things, while not exactly the same, are grounded in the same principles-mercy and love.

Part III: The Conclusion

Overall this play is a well thought out masterpiece. Shakespeare has been honing in on core themes of Old versus New Testament and mercy throughout the entire play, but it comes to a peak in this scene. Here it is clearly put that in the old law there is death and judgment while in the New Testament, through Christ’s death, there is salvation by justice seasoned with mercy, (which is also in the scene from Pilgrim’s Progress). Shakespeare has his characters represent their religions while still keeping them people rather than just flat stereotypes. He gives each person depth and makes you care for his character and what happens to them. The references to biblical themes are intricately woven throughout the entire plot and although there are many nuances and ideas throughout the play, he keeps one theme very clear and central-the theme of mercy.

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