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'We All Expect a Gentle Answer, Jew': The Merchant of Venice and the Psychotheology of Conversion

From: ELH
Volume 73, Number 1, Spring 2006
pp. 61-81 | 10.1353/elh.2006.0004

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ELH 73.1 (2006) 61-81

The Merchant of Venice and the Psychotheology of Conversion

Heather Hirschfeld

University of Tennessee

In his first scene in The Merchant of Venice, Shylock cites Genesis 30 and its description of Jacob's prowess in breeding "parti-color'd lambs" to defend the sanctity of his money-lending practices:

The skillful shepherd pill'd 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 eaning time
Fall parti-color'd 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.

The Venetian merchant Antonio recoils from Shylock's chronicle, arguing that Jacob was not blessed as a result of his "thrift[y]" success but rather that his success was a result of his blessedness: "This was a venture, sir, that Jacob served for, / A thing not in his power to bring to pass / But sway'd and fashion'd by the hand of heaven" (1.3.91–93).

One of many moments that call attention to the characters' competing modes of literary and legal interpretation, the scene has functioned for a long time as the touchstone for critical accounts of the way the play dramatizes the triumph, however complicated, of Christian over Hebraic biblical exegesis and of the new law over the old. In such accounts Shylock's understanding of the Genesis story is made to yield to Christian typological principles that identify Jacob as both Old Testament patriarch and type of Christ. In a recent essay, for instance, Julia Reinhard Lupton suggests that Shylock's paraphrase of the biblical story, handling as it does "the social and economic challenges of everyday life in an ethical, Torah-based manner," represents Shakespeare's version of midrashic commentary, a way of reading that is quickly negated by the Christian community of Venice: "It is not simply that Shylock's Jewish hermeneutics are rejected in favor of Christian techniques, but rather that the very possibility of imagining a specifically Jewish community of readers itself exists within the typological framework as an essential part of its historical vision." Or, in Marc Shell's socio-economic critique, Shylock provides a "discussion of usury and sexual generation that . . . is soon enacted in the related terms of a series of exchanges of a purse for a part of a person or for a whole person. The apparent commensurability between persons and purses that this enactment reveals turns out to be more typical of Christian law, which allows human beings to be purchased for money, than Jewish justice and practice, which disallow it."

In this paper I consider what happens when we recall that for the religious culture of Shakespeare's time the biblical Jacob served not only as the central figure of a transdenominational "hermeneutic tradition of [Christian] supersession" but also as the exemplary model in Reform accounts of divine election. In the religious literature that proliferated in England during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the account of Jacob and Esau is deployed as a proof-text for Protestant theories of predestination. Thus Shylock's invocation of Jacob in 1.3—like Launcelot's parody of Jacob and his father Isaac in 2.2—heralds the play's engagement with Reform doctrines of salvation. More specifically, it heralds the play's concern with the role of the Jew in such doctrines. Shylock's reference and the questions of divine and human causality it raises orient the play within a particular theological framework and catapult it into what I discuss as an increasingly compulsive interest in Shylock's conversion.

The conversion of Jews, as historians of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance have made clear, was the object for hundreds of years of intense theoretical as well as practical interest, speculation, and disagreement, as it provided an occasion for the working through of fundamental Christian positions on faith, guilt, and redemption and became a crucible for examining the perennial issues of religious doubt, intention, and authenticity. It was also the object of intense suspicion, as converts were assumed to continue to...

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