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diacritics 34.1 (2004) 3-17

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Universal Shylockery

Money and Morality in The Merchant of Venice

What if Nietzsche were a Jew, and a mean-minded Venetian Jew at that? We'd like to begin with the thought experiment of imagining The Merchant of Venice as a genealogy of morality and imagining Shylock as Nietzsche. What is The Merchant of Venice about? What is at stake in this oddly inside-out drama, where a piece of good old Elizabethan comic Jew-baiting rotates 180 degrees into a devastating study of Christian anti-Semitism only to flip back into what it seemed to deny? Our initial hypothesis is that it is nothing less than an inquiry into the origin of our moral concepts of justice, good and bad, and more particularly guilt, law, mercy, and love. It is here that a link with Nietzsche suggests itself, particularly with the Second Essay of On the Genealogy of Morals.

* * *

How do we breed an animal with the right to make promises? For Nietzsche, the human being is an originally forgetful creature, like a young child. To make this originally forgetful creature remember requires physical discipline; it behooves punishment. The teaching of morality is never gentle; it never droppeth from heaven like gentle rain. On the contrary, if something is to be retained in memory, it must be burned in. The origin of memory lies in pain and cruelty: "Man could never do without blood, torture and sacrifices when he felt the need to create a memory for himself" [GM 61]. Nietzsche's first, astonishing hypothesis in the Second Essay is that the origin of concepts like responsibility and conscience lies in cruelty—cruelty administered and maintained through a corporal and corporeal regime. Further, as religions are systems of cruelty, all forms of asceticism originate in the same painful place. "Consider the German punishments," Nietzsche proposes—and we all know that there's nothing quite like the German punishments: stoning, breaking on the wheel, piercing with stakes, tearing apart or trampling with horses, boiling in oil, flaying alive, cutting straps from the flesh, smearing the wrongdoer with honey and leaving him to the flies in the blazing sun. As Nietzsche quips, with magnificent understatement, "With the aid of such images and procedures one finally remembers five or six 'I will not's'" [GM 62]. It is on the basis of this burned-in memory of cruelty that good, decent, upright burghers such as ourselves acquired the habit of moral reasoning:

Ah, reason, seriousness, mastery over affects, the whole sombre thing called reflection, all these prerogatives and showpieces of man: how dearly they have been bought! How much blood and cruelty lie at the bottom of all "good things."
[GM 62] [End Page 3]

"Dearly bought": let's hold onto that trope of purchasing. In another extraordinary passage of the Second Essay, Nietzsche explains the origin of thinking itself in terms of economic activity:

Setting prices, determining values, contriving equivalences, exchanging—these preoccupied the earliest thinking of man to so great an extent that in a sense they are thinking [das Denken ist].
[GM 70]

In the beginning was trade. Human activity begins with exchange, with the to and fro of buying and selling, which are forms of life older than all other social alliances and organization. It is from here, Nietzsche insists, that human beings arrive at the first moral canon of justice:

"Everything has its price; all things can be paid for"—the oldest and most naïve moral canon of justice, the beginning of all "good-naturedness," all "fairness," all "good will," all "objectivity" on earth.
[GM 70]

Which brings us to the origin of das Bewusstsein der Schuld and schlechte Gewissen, the consciousness of guilt and bad conscience. Nietzsche's hypothesis here, and our theme is beginning to come into focus, is that the origin of guilty conscience lies in the relation between a creditor and debtor, Glaubiger und Schuldner. The spiritual concept of guilt, Schuld, originates in the very material concept of Schulden...