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  • Sacramental Usury in The Merchant of Venice
  • Ken Colston (bio)

That use is not forbidden usury Which happies those that pay the willing loan.

(sonnet iv)

In the last two decades, critics have begun to explore the religion of William Shakespeare. In particular, the old suspicion, advanced by his first biographer, that he “dyed a Papist,” has been revived by Catholic partisans, mainstream biographers, and even secular academics, some of whom speculate that he was baptized, married, and housed as one. The evidence is mostly from the biography, and it is slippery and circumstantial.1 The plays are the thing, however, and increasingly they themselves are yielding concrete evidence of Catholic affiliations, long suspected intuitively by such literary giants as Chateaubriand, Newman, and Chesterton. David Beauregard has glimpsed such Catholic differences as the specific elements of sacramental auricular confession and of condign merit;2 Claire Asquith has seen an elaborate, winking Catholic recusant code systematically at work;3 Stephen Greenblatt has elaborated the “social energy” of that most contested Reformation bugbear, “purgatory,” in Hamlet;4 Beatrice Groves has found a key to Shakespeare’s “incarnational aesthetic” in the Catholic [End Page 98] mystery plays that he may have well seen in his youth at Coventry;5 Allison Shell has reviewed hints that persecuted Elizabethan Catholics criticized their fellow, well-placed literary sympathizer for not writing enough on behalf of their common Catholic cause;6 Peter Milward, laboring on the Catholic thesis for several decades, has even recently proposed an inventive correspondence between Shakespeare’s plays and the holy Rosary.7

In general, Shakespeare’s plays reveal important “field identification markers” of a Catholic dramatist in a Protestant land, I contend, not necessarily as code words but as a working theological vocabulary of a thinker formed, loosely and popularly, more in the traditional Augustinian-Thomist tradition than in the Calvinist-Lutheran reform. Where divergences between the Catholic and Reformation theologies arise, Shakespeare leans Catholic: toward hierarchy, natural law, cooperative grace (pilgrimage, penance, purgatory, indulgence), sacraments, liturgical pageantry, religious authority, supererogatory acts of supernatural gift-love, and laxity.8 To the presence and current relevance of these markers, which abound both as central themes and as casual allusions in a variety of plays, may be added a salient but surprisingly ignored one: the traditional Catholic understanding of economic order in Merchant of Venice, proceeding from sacramental union rather than from capitalistic contract, a contrast, partly imagined, partly reflecting a changing social reality, between a newer anxious economy of debt (Venice) and an older easy economy of sacrificial gift (Belmont), a difference expressed by dichotomous meanings of “bond” organizing the idea pageantry of the play: the legal “bond” as a temporary, limited, breakable written agreement between two hostile parties, and the “marriage bond” as a permanent, infinite, indissoluble spoken promise between lover and beloved, a total sacrifice of self that proceeds both by God’s operative grace and by an effect of man’s cooperative grace that we may call sacramental usury.

The word Catholic here does not necessarily mean that Shakespeare’s religious longing was ultramontane, recusant, seditious, underground, Marian Roman Catholic, theologically precise, clearly [End Page 99] demarcated, coded in a winking argot transparent to fellow Papist sympathizers, or confident about narrow propositions. It rather reflects a general, traditional Catholic orientation or play of mind, some of which can be found within, for example, even the (at times) Thomistic Richard Hooker or the Lutheran Tudor court itself (both Cecil and Elizabeth venerated the crucifix), but clearly opposed to radical Protestantism, represented by Calvinistic Puritans, the theology of which was ushering in a view of usury, moneylending, and money itself more friendly to capitalism. Shakespeare’s mind was fashioned in a conservative mold, orthodox but not rigid, skeptical of change and newness, biased toward older formulations, a popular-agrarian-feudal religiosity. If Shakespeare and his audience thrashed about in the “great muddled middle” between Protestant and Catholic extremes,9 the theological expression in his drama is clearly orthodox. At the same time, Shakespeare often seems simultaneously an heir of Thomistic essentialism and a forerunner of existential personalism, a religious thinker somewhat surprisingly relevant even to contemporary economic thought, with capitalism under...


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