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  • The Merchant Of Venice:Shylock And Covenantal Interplay
  • Mary Jo Kietzman

Who is "the Jew that Shakespeare drew," and how important is his Jewishness?1 These are key hermeneutic questions for readings of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. In her recent essay, Emma Smith challenges the scholarly myth that reads Shylock as a negative Jewish stereotype based on assumptions of a virulent Elizabethan anti-Semitism and an invented tradition of Elizabethan stage practices. Her careful debunking of scholarship that wants "a red bearded Shylock" as "perverse relief from the play's delicate and evasive sympathies" opens space for a redemptive reading of Shylock.2 But Smith sidesteps this challenge by suggesting that "Jewishness could be semantic rather than Semitic—a metaphor, not an essence."3 In Smith's reading, Shylock becomes a figure for the immigrant strangers in London, and the play's representation of cultural friction in Venice an intervention in debates about integration of Huguenot refugees. Although I agree that Shakespeare is exploring the difficulties of human interaction in a multicultural city, the contributions and struggles of particular human beings are crucial to that exploration, and Shylock's particularity is his Jewishness—his feeling of belonging to a "sacred nation."4 It is what gives him "stupendous power" or the "power of idiosyncrasy" that takes over the play.5

Shylock's relationship to the history of Jacob in the Hebrew Bible gives his character density, opacity, and the sense of an inner life that looks forward to the great tragic roles that Shakespeare would later write. In my reading, his proposition of the "merry bond" is inspired by covenant theology which he takes very seriously, risking everything and bending his personal commitment not to eat, drink or pray with Christians (1.3.173). After the Christians, who, "play[ing] the thieves for wives," steal his daughter on the very night he leaves home to dine with them, Shylock treats the covenant reductively as a contract and attempts to use the law for vengeance (2.6.23). The Reformation preoccupation with both the Hebrew Bible and covenant theology encouraged a connection to biblical Jews and patriarchal religion (existing before the law and ceremony); and these factors made possible [End Page 423] a much more sympathetic early-modern reading of Shylock than has been thought possible.

To hear Shylock's character as early moderns would have heard it and to access areas of common ground between the Jew and the Christians of the play we must attend to the biblical allusions in his layered speech. Simon Palfrey observes that Shakespeare's language is often an interplay of immediacy and withholding: "The words will offer a quick sense, concordant with the movement of plot and broad delineation of character, mood, and conflict. … And simultaneously they will spark off other possibilities."6 It is the other possibilities that interest me in, for example, Shylock's first aside, which is often read as an unambiguous statement of his desire for revenge. "I hate him," Shylock tells us, because he is a Christian, interferes with business, and hates Jews (1.3.42). But from the ostensibly simple expression of hate, the speech unfolds a history of grudges and prejudice so complex that we cannot say who threw the first stone. Moreover, Shylock's wrestling metaphor—"If I can catch him once upon the hip"—hangs in our minds and becomes a clear biblical allusion when we soon learn how completely Shylock identifies with Jacob (1.3.46). Jacob began life struggling with his twin brother, but his covenant with God, climaxing in an all-night wrestling match, taught him lessons about how to manage conflict and turn rivalry into partnership. This allusion in Shylock's speech suggests that his feelings about engaging with Antonio are fraught with, among so much else, hope.7

This essay takes a series of turns. First, I discuss the centrality of covenant to the English Reformation. Then I look at stagings of covenant and Jewish characters that predate The Merchant of Venice. These sections recover the historical preoccupations and priorities that early-modern auditors took to their encounter with Shylock, preparing contemporary readers for the gestalt shift...


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