The climax of The Merchant of Venice, one of Shakespeare's most beloved comedies, is a court scene in which Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, is cunningly prevented from carving a pound of flesh from the body of the Christian Antonio. The spirited Portia, disguised as a male lawyer, explains that if Shylock wishes to claim the debt of a pound of flesh he is owed, he can cut out the pound of flesh but must not spill a drop of blood. Only flesh is stated as collateral in the bond, and the debtor Antonio, the title character of the play, escapes unharmed. It is truly a fascinating scene, and one that addresses so many important themes—vengeance, gender, liberty, justice, wisdom, and of course religion.
For the past couple of years I have been teaching high school English, and one of the highlights each year is teaching a different Shakespearean play to my students. The Merchant of Venice is one of my favorites. Many students enjoy reading the tense dialogue, the passionate oratory of Shylock, and the lighthearted frivolity of the couples Bassanio and Portia, and Jessica and Lorenzo. The complex portrayal of religion in The Merchant of Venice—the only Shakespearean play to feature Jewish, Muslim, and Christian characters—gave me plenty of material for quizzes and essays. There were many days that the class had some excellent discussions on the religious themes in the play, especially the treatment of Shylock by the Venetian Christians.
Yet while The Merchant of Venice, in addition to several other plays, deals heavily with religion and religious virtues, most of Shakespeare's views on religion are unknown to us and are typically learned via inferences and allusions in his plays and other writings. We do know that Shakespeare was Christian, partially because of the culture of Elizabethan, Protestant England, but also because so many of his Christian perspectives are expressed through the words of his fictional characters.
In The Winter's Tale, a tragicomic pastoral romance and one of Shakespeare's lesser-known plays, the ruthless King Leontes is given a second chance at life and love after the resurrection of his martyred queen. It is a play of two halves, the first written as a frigid tragedy and the second as a countryside comedy. The reunification of the king's lost family, the transformation from winter to spring, and the grace bestowed upon the wicked but repentant king by the Christlike Queen Hermione are all indicators that Shakespeare was not writing simply another revenue-generating drama. The Winter's Tale is the last play Shakespeare wrote, and it is possible that he even composed some portions on his deathbed. This is one possible explanation why the potentially climactic reunion scene is hastily told to us by a group of lords rather than actually acted out onstage.
I explain to my students that in his final play, an elderly Shakespeare, staring death in the face, explored spiritual themes of grace, forgiveness, mercy, regret, and resurrection, and because of that, The Winter's Tale can tell us as much about the bard's inner thoughts and philosophy of life as Hamlet, King Lear, or anything else he wrote. The increased emphasis on Christian values toward the end of his life shows the reader that Shakespeare believed people deserved a second chance, a shot at redemption.
Interestingly, another great thinker and author wrote on many of these themes while in the last days of his life, although in this case it was as a literary critic rather than a playwright. The final piece of written material published by Aldous Huxley, one of the twentieth century's great introspective and visionary writers, was an essay entitled "Shakespeare and Religion."* In it Huxley claims that the bard's "basic Christianity is beautifully expressed in Measure for Measure, where the genuinely saintly Isabella reminds Angelo, the self-righteous Pillar of Society, of the divine scheme of redemption and of the ethical consequences which ought to flow from its acceptance as an article of faith—ought to flow but, alas, generally do not flow."
Shakespeare's moving tribute to the Christian Savior, which Huxley included in his essay, can be found in Act 2, scene 2, of the comedy, where Isabella exclaims,
Why, all the souls that were forfeit once;
And He that might the vantage best
Found out the remedy. How would you be,
If He, which is the top of judgment, should
But judge you as you are? O, think on that;
And mercy then will breathe within
Like man new-made."
The author of Brave New World, not coincidentally a title taken from Shakespeare's The Tempest, continued arguing that "these lines . . . express very clearly the essence of Shakespeare's Christianity." The once-forfeited souls, the capitalized pronoun, man made new with mercy, all point quite clearly to a belief in Christ. However, "the essence of Christianity can assume a wide variety of denominational forms," Huxley explained. "The Reverend Richard Davies . . . declared categorically that Shakespeare had 'died a papist.' There is no corroborative evidence of this, and it seems on the face of it unlikely; but almost anything is possible, especially on a deathbed. What is certain is that Shakespeare did not live a papist; for, if he had, he would have found himself in chronic and serious trouble with the law, and vehemently suspected of treason."
"There is, therefore, every reason to suppose that Shakespeare lived [as] a member of the Church of England," Huxley wrote. "However, the theology which finds expression in his plays is by no means consistently Protestant."
While the endless speculation over Shakespeare's religious allegiance can be fascinating, it is not the most important part of the discussion. Rather, learning how Shakespeare viewed other religious groups as well as how he understood the concept of religious freedom can give us insight into the literature that readers otherwise might miss.
The Merchant of Venice, much like The Winter's Tale, is a tragicomedy. But unlike the royal story of Leontes and Hermione, the tragedy in The Merchant of Venice does not affect whole families and does not last for an entire three acts. Rather, the tragedy is confined to a single character, the miserly and vindictive Shylock.
In the beginning of the play Shylock agrees to lend money to the merchant Antonio, so that he can, in turn, lend money to his companion Bassanio. Shylock despises Antonio not only because the merchant lends out money without charging interest, and therefore reducing Shylock's profits, but also because he is a Christian. There is wickedness committed by both Jews and Christians in the play, but it is clear that Shylock is the villain of the story, intent on carving up the body of Antonio like a goat. The harmful Jewish stereotype that Shylock represents, one that has caused so much pain throughout history, has led many to label the script anti-Semitic. It is easy to see why they would believe that, given that many productions portrayed Shylock with a comically large nose, obsessed with money. But there is more to the discussion than one might believe.
Another view is that Shakespeare was not writing an anti-Semitic tract, but rather argues against it, on the side of toleration. While it would be an error to state that Shakespeare was in favor of freedom of religion for the Jewish people (it is unlikely that the bard had anything more than the rare, surface interaction with Jews in London), it is difficult to read The Merchant of Venice without feeling a great deal of sympathy for Shylock. His greatest speech, and one of the most moving monologues in Shakespeare, is an impassioned plea for equal treatment and an appeal to the Christians of Venice to view him as a person and not anything less than that.
Disgusted by his poor treatment at the hands of Antonio, who near the beginning of the play spits on him, Shylock asks, "Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?"
It becomes clear during the play that the hatred in Shylock's heart, the greed, the selfishness, the willingness to kill, stem ultimately from his barbaric treatment at the hands of Christians. When Antonio's contemporaries are angry that Shylock actually intends to claim his debt of flesh, the Jewish moneylender explodes at them. He claims he is only following the example given to him by Christians and that he fully intends to take what he is owed.
"If you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute."
The nineteenth-century editor and journalist Israel Davis explained that Shylock is "not evil by nature, but made evil by the treatment to which he has been subjected. The moral suggests itself, that if the Jew had been treated in a better way he would have been a better man."
"Shakespeare cannot have been unconscious that he preached that moral," Davis continued. "Although the purpose of his play was to preach no lesson, but to describe human life."
For attempting to unjustly murder Antonio, the punishment inflicted upon Shylock at the end of the play—in addition to the loss of his daughter, who steals his fortune and elopes with a Christian—is that he must renounce his faith. The most important implication for religious liberty in all of Shakespeare is a mere five words. The judge orders that "he presently become a Christian," to which Shylock meekly replies that he is content. It is an unusual response from such a faithful Jew. Perhaps he is grateful to simply escape with his life, perhaps the loss of revenge, his wealth, and his child are too much to bear and he is numb.
Shylock leaves the play with these haunting words: "Give me leave to go home from hence. I am not well." There is no second chance for the deeply scarred villain in The Merchant of Venice. Mercy does feature strongly in the story; it simply does not apply to this man. While Portia gives one of literature's most beautiful speeches on the value of mercy only pages before, calling it a divine attribute like gentle rain from heaven, such treatment is only requested for Antonio, not Shylock. While perhaps counting himself lucky not to have been executed, there is no true mercy for Shylock, not because Shakespeare did not believe in the redemptive power of grace and second chances for even the most despicable of characters, but because the Christian society of Venice will not allow for it.
*Show Magazine (1964). Available online at www.sirbacon.org/links/huxley2.htm.
Author: Martin Surridge
Martin Surridge has a background in teaching English. He is an associate editor of ReligiousLiberty.TV, an independent news Web site. He writes from Calhoun, Georgia.