Capital, Mercantilism, And The Merchant Of Venice

In this paper, I will argue that Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice offers a critique of the commercial republic of Venice. In particular, focusing on the character of Shylock, I will show how that Shakespeare rejects the idea that economics can erase long-standing historical divides and prejudices. Connected to this, I will argue that in showing the shallow and tenuous nature of the equality predicated upon private property mercantilism offers, Shakespeare offers a critique of Venice. To do this I will, first, introduce the concept of mercantilism. Second, I will introduce the original “merry bond” and explore the offer of trans-tribal ties it extends. Third, I will show how Jessica’s elopement leads to the foreclosure of such a possibility and the way in which Shylock intends to use the levers of mercantilism against Antonio. Finally, I will analyze the trial scene, reconstructing the arguments Portia and Shylock put forth. That Shylock is so easily stripped of the rights theoretically afforded him as a proprietor, I will argue, represents a profound challenge to merits of Venetian model.

Mercantilism produces new social structures. In Merchant, we are provided a depiction of the new financial arrangement it produces. While money is a crucial element of the play, little appears on stage. This scarcity drives much of the action. Bassanio has no money and so goes to Antonio (1.1.130). Similarly, Antonio has no money. This is because “all [his] fortunes are at sea” (1.1.184). This is why Antonio decides to “Therefore go forth: / Try what my credit can in Venice do,” to raise the sum Bassanio believes he needs to woe Portia (1.1.186-7). Finally, even Shylock does not have enough money to make though loan. So he goes to“Tubal, a wealthy Hebrew of my tribe” (1.3.58). In the case of Antonio and Shylock in particular, they are emblematic of a then emergent kind of economic relation: that of the borrower-lender. The existence of such arrangement suggests it may be more precise to say credit, not hard currency, drove the Venetian economy. Antonio and Shylock hold no values in common, be they rooted in religion or ethnic affinity. Instead they are united in deference to Venetian law. This law that protects the rights of property owners is what allows the system to function. An implication of this is the societal “good” in Venice is re-understood to signify merely the “sufficient” and is tied to one’s monetary worth (1.3.12; 17).

This lack of shared understanding means the agreement between Antonio and Shylock is fraught from the outset. Interestingly, the “merry bond” of a pound of flesh to stands out as an anachronism—the caskets being a notable other. In Merchant almost everything is assigned a monetary worth or described in the language of economics. We see this even in the case of love.

For example, Bassanio, says he “hazard” for Portia, “a lady richly left” (1.1.158; 168). The pound of flesh, meanwhile, resists such commodification. First, Shylock says that in lending the money without interest that “I would be friends with you [Antonio] and have your love” (1.3.149). This passage may be indicative of the way that economic relations can allow for the bridge of deeper, societal divisions. This is tied to the fact that, as Shylock notes, “A pound of man’s flesh taken from a man / Is not so estimable, profitable neither, / As flesh of muttons, beefs or goats” (1.3.177-9). While there is a darker subtext to this passage—human beings appear to have no worth beyond their ability to labor—that there is no value assigned to the bond adds to the feeling of “kindness” with which it is entered (1.3.154). Antonio says, “The Hebrew will turn Christian; he grows kind,” assimilating Shylock into a universal project, albeit a Christian one (1.3.191).

That this bond will be broken, however, and this vision of social harmony foreclosed upon is foreshadowed from the outset. Before the terms are finalized, Shylock declines Bassanio’s invitation to dinner. Shylock explains, “I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following; but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you” (1.3.35-7). This illustrates the limits of these transactional arrangements. While Shylock does latter accept an invitation to dinner, he is explicit this is not because of a sense of newfound friendship. “I am not bid for love. They flatter me. / But yet I’ll go in hate, too feed upon / The prodigal Christian,” he says (2.5.14-6). While negotiating, Antonio tells Shylock, “If thou [Shylock] lend this money, lend it not / As to thy friends [...] But lend it rather to thine enemy” (1.3.142-3; 145). After the bond is agreed to, Bassanio becomes suspicious. He says, “I like not fair terms and a villain’s [i.e., Shylock’s] mind” (1.3.192). So while mercantilism does engage diverse actors, such transactions produce neither trust nor friendship. Connected to this, it becomes evident that economics do not erase prejudice. Shylock, for example, reminds Antonio of his history of anti-semitism. “Youcall me misbeliever, cutthroat dog, / And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine,” Shylock explains, even when Antonio came to ask “for use of that [money] which is mine [i.e., Shylock’s] own” (1.3.121-3). Related to this is the kind of equality mercantilism offers. It must be purchased (Kitch, 150). Shylock asks, “‘Hath a dog money? It is possible / A cur can lend three thousand ducats?” in the hopes that through his ability to lend, Antonio will see his humanity (1.3.130-2). Because equality must be bought, it exists solely in the economic sphere. Thus only those in possession may access it and, even then, for many this access remains contingent. This points to the precarious position of the Jews in Merchant. They provide the banking services that allow the Venetian economy to function. Yet, they are still, as the trial scene shows, disposable.

It is Jessica’s, Shylock’s daughter, abandonment of familial and religious ties that leads to the mutation of the original “merry bond” into a vehicle for Shylock’s vengeance. That Jessica illustrates the continued existence of familial and religious ties even a mercantile setting. Shylock’s intent is clear, the pound of flesh, “if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge” (3.1.52-3). The pound of flesh is means of not recouping economic loss but achieve a sort of cosmic justice, as least as Shylock sees it. “[Antonio] hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation,” he says (3.1.53-5 emphasis added). What is noteworthy about the use of the bond to achieve these ends is that Shylock hopes to leverage the rights mercantilism has conferred upon him as a property owner. Shylock as a Jew is, functionally, a second class citizen in Venetian society. This means that while Jews may often lack meaningful legal protection, the new social structures mercantilism has produces may offer Shylock a path to a sort of recourse. For the Venetian system to function, everyone’s property rights must be protected. While imprisoned, Antonio explains that, “The duke cannot deny the course of law, / For the commodity that strangers have / With us in Venice, if it be denied, / Will much impeach the justice of state” (3.2.29-32). The bond must be enforced to ensure the property rights which undergird the Venetian economy remain viable.

The trial scene makes explicit many of the connections between religion, commerce, and the law that appear throughout the play. Shylock emphasizes his individual rights and freedoms in the marketplace. As a proprietor, the law affords him certain privileges, privileges the court must protect regardless of his Jewry. Bassanio and the duke both attempt to dissuade Shylock of his course. Bassanio offers to pay double the bond; the duke entreat Shylock to show mercy. Shylock rejects these offers. He observes “You have among you many a purchased slave, / Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules, / You use in abject and in slavish parts / Because you bought them. Shall I say to you / ‘Let them be free!’” (4.1.91-6). This argument does two things. First, it is an argument for the supremacy of property rights, not abolition (Greenblatt, 37-8). Second, it expands the scope of the trial; Venice itself must now take the stand. Pressing his case, Shylock says, “The pound of flesh which I demand of him / Is early bought; ‘tis mine and I will have it. / If you deny me, fie upon your law: There is no force in the decrees of Venice” (4.1.100-3).In the face of this challenge, the duke threatens to “dismiss this court” right then (4.1.105). Mercantilism appears to afford Shylock a measure of equality bound up with his rights as proprietor. Bringing to bear the law against a Christian has then brought the court to impasse.

It is the arrival of Portia, disguised as Balthazar, that allows the trial to proceed and this tension resolved. To accomplish, Portia shifts the focus of the court away from the law and toward (Christian) mercy. In doing so, she attempts to incorporate Shylock into a Christian project (Kitch, 151). “[Mercy] blesseth him that gives and him that takes,” explains Portia, “Therefore, Jew / Though justice be thy plea, consider this: / That in the course of justice none of / Should see salvation” (4.1.193; 203-6). Portia hopes to convince Shylock to abandon his literalism and vengefulness. She wants Shylock to adopt a reading of the law predicated upon mercy and rooted in New Testament, Christian principles. But Shylock rebuffs such reasoning. “I crave the law,” he says (4.1.213). The argument Portia makes highlights the religious divide in the courtroom and Shylock’s insistence on the law precipitates relegation to “alien” status (4.1.365).

Unable to convince Shylock to submit to her Christian project or buy him out of the bond, Portia shifts strategies. She bond as written cannot be executed. In doing so, she defeats Shylock with the law he craves—albeit it of a precise construction (Greenblatt, 35). For this strategy to succeed, a change in the nature of the trial was needed. It was transformed “from a civil to a criminal matter—that is, to a Jew’s attempt to take the life of a Venetian Christian” (Greenblatt, 38). To do this, Portia observes, “This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood. / The words are expressly are a ‘pound of flesh’” (4.1.319-320). Then she claims “But in the cutting it, if thou dost shed / One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and good / Are by the laws of Venice confiscate” (4.1.322-4, emphasis added). Faced with the literalism he relied on earlier, Shylock concedes. He says he will allow himself to be paid out of the bond, a proposition Bassanio agrees to. At this juncture, Portia could have concluded the trial. Antonio would have lived; Shylock would have been handsomely; Bassanio could have returned to Belmont. Nonetheless, Portia chooses to press the case forward. She claims: “If it be proved against an alien [...] He seek the life of any citizen, / The party ’gainst the which he doth contrive / Shall seize one half his goods; the other half / Comes to the privy coffer of the state (4.1.365-9). While the court is quick to accept such a punishment, it is wholly unnecessary. The comedic structure requires resolution that often comes in the removal of the “blocking” character—in this case Shylock—that allows a courtship to go forth. It does not demand, however, humiliation. A humane resolution was offered, Portia refused it. She strips Shylock of his property and with it the privileges it affords him, turning him into an “alien.” Antonio does commute the sentence, slightly, allowing Shylock to keep half his property which will be transferred to Jessica upon his death. The decision to spare Shylock’s life is dubbed a“mercy” but Shylock, correctly, perceives the hollowness of this. He begs the duke, “Nay, take my life and all. Pardon not that. / You take my house when you do take the prop / That doth sustain my house; you take my life / When you do take the means whereby I live” (4.1.390-393). Deprived of property, Shylock understands he has lost access to the rights mercantilism affords the propertied classes. He may still possess his life but he has lost both his livelihood and access equality. The ease with which Shylock is deprived of these rights also raises questions about the meaningfulness of this de jure equality. What mercantilism offers members of marginalized groups appears, at best, highly contingent or, at worse, meant to deceive the oppressed classes. The promise of equal protection pacifies them. Viewed in this light, the play is forward looking. While capitalism has evolved in the four hundred years since Merchant was published, structurally, similarities persist. Thus the critique Shakespeare offers of Venice remains, in many respects, relevant. True equality cannot be bought in the marketplace. Instead, Shakespeare may suggest, it comes only through the abolition of all classes, be the predicated upon race, religion, or economics.

Works Cited

Greenblatt, Stephen. “Shakespeare's Cure for Xenophobia.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 3 July 2017,

Kitch, Aaron. "Shylock's Sacred Nation." Shakespeare Quarterly 59.2 (2008): 131-155.