If the word "democracy" allies itself or competes with that of aristocracy, it is because of number, of the reference to the required approbation of the greatest number. . . . Must friends be in number? Numerous? In great numbers? How many will there be? At what point do "great numbers" begin? What does "a friend" mean? . . . And what is the relationship between this quantum of friendship and democracy, as the agreement or approbation of number? We are saying here number as the greatest number, to be sure, but in the first place number as the deployment of a countable unity, of the "one more" and of this calculable form of presentable unity, the voice of the subject.—Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship1
My purpose in this essay is to show how Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice (ca. 1596) may be understood as an exercise in what we conventionally call political theory and especially in political theory pertaining to democracy, but it is also to suggest that the play requires us to specify in new ways what a "political" reading of Shakespeare might mean in light of late work by Jacques Derrida on the nature of friendship, calculation and decision, and justice. In the final years of the sixteenth century, of course, democracy was little more than a distant philosophical category—both Plato and Aristotle had regarded the prospect of government by the multitude with a distaste shared by the hierarchically minded writers of the medieval and early modern periods. And yet problems that would eventually become central to the notion of a democratic polity were discussed everywhere during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: in treatises on the nature of the commonwealth, natural law, and kingship and counsel; in ethical philosophy; in historiography and travel [End Page 413] writing; and in prose utopias, romances, lyrics, and plays across many different genres. How can The Merchant of Venice be said to contribute to such a project, at once so distant from and yet so relevant to our own moment?
The first and most obvious answer to the question lies in the vexed history of early modern republicanism, as David Wootton has recently observed.
The Romans had no word for democracy, but since they read the Greek philosophers they paraphrased the concept into Latin as government by the people. They introduced a new term, res publica, which included the three good forms of government [monarchy, aristocracy, and "democracy" as polity, or constitutional government among equals] and excluded the three bad forms [tyranny, oligarchy, and "democracy" as rule by the demos, the poor and the popular]. In the late fifteenth century, in the Florence of Savonarola, a remarkable linguistic revolution took place: the only real republic, it was argued, was a popular government (which was understood to be a way of paraphrasing the Greek term democracy into Latin). Monarchies were always tyrannies; aristocracies were always oligarchies, which were themselves a form of tyranny. Thus there were really only two forms of government: republics and tyrannies. . . . Thus a history of the concept of democracy needs to take seriously the idea that republic (or, in English, commonwealth) was for a long time . . . a synonym for democracy, and, since there was a strong preference for Latin over Greek . . . , the word "democracy" was rarely needed.2
When we trace modern notions of representative democracy back to a republican model of free citizens who govern through a system of elected rather than of inherited office—to the notion of a constitutionally defined government by equals—we are, in Wootton's view, referring to a tradition that originated in Florence at the end of the fifteenth century rather than in the Greek or Roman era, despite what many historians of political thought have presumed.3 The question of a specifically English tradition of republicanism prior to the mid-seventeenth...