By Lori A. Davis Perry
In The Merchant of Venice, the Genesis narrative of Jacob appears in several forms, as the play interrogates the Biblical tradition of possession and dispossession. Within this narrative framework, love and wealth become conflated markers of divine favor while two nations vie for divine supremacy.
The Genesis story focuses on Jacob’s ability to acquire the family inheritances—first his father’s, then his mother’s—through calculated craftiness. In Shakespeare’s play, Bassanio re-enacts the Jacob narrative by acquiring the love and wealth of those closest to him, first in the male-centered world of Antonio and then in the female-centered world of Portia, with that wealth explicitly linked to family lineage and inheritance. Moreover, in Genesis, the divine prophecy that Jacob will usurp his older twin brother becomes activated and validated through his usurpation of the family inheritances. Jacob relies upon craft and deception to prove his claim to divine love, first by usurping his brother’s inheritance and then by usurping the inheritance of his maternal uncle. In each case, he relies upon the assistance of women to seal the deal.
In Shakespeare’s play, as in the Jacob cycle, love acts as a marker that anticipates the direction in which wealth will travel. Antonio loves Bassanio, and therefore offers him “My purse, my person, my extremest means.” And Antonio has given Bassanio his future earnings as well, the inheritance of his business ventures, by borrowing on Bassanio’s behalf. Antonio offers him his heart, his body as bond, and his money, as though they are interchangeable. Then Bassanio is free to travel to Belmont and pursue Portia—and her portion—as Jacob had traveled to his mother’s homeland. Having secured both the love and wealth of Antonio and Portia, Bassanio’s second important resemblance to Jacob appears during Portia’s legal intervention in the Duke’s court, for Portia manipulates the law similarly to the ways Rebekah and Rachel manipulated inheritance law in Genesis.
Despite three enactments of the narrative—through Bassanio, Lorenzo, and the clown Bobbo—Shakespeare also subverts the Jacob plot, for the play draws our attention to the disinherited through Shylock, the disinherited Jew. Unlike Jacob, who accrues inheritances at every turn, Bassanio cannot stay solvent—he is a spendthrift with both money and love. Lorenzo and Jessica, house-sitting in Belmont, echo Bassanio’s flaws, comparing themselves to ancient lovers whose relationships end in heartbreak, severed by infidelity, ignorance, or death. Shylock’s daughter, in duplicating and even intensifying Bassanio’s plot, exposes the discrepancies between Shylock’s ancient Jacob and our modern Bassanio, who only appears to be Jacob-like.
The Jacob narrative and the two nations who arise from it had traditionally been marshalled by European Christians to justify political hegemony and the marginalization of Jews, as the younger religion displaced the older. Protestants used the narrative to argue for ascendency over the Roman church, and reformist Protestants likewise turned to the Jacob narrative for theological and political authority. Yet the Bassanio plot illuminates the dangers of absolute principle in a world where betrayal, deceit, and falseness have become the normative framework of English life. Bassanio’s profligacy with money cannot be disentangled from the ephemeral, disruptive, and uncertain nature of love itself in the play, which remains rooted in a sensual experience.
The biblical narrative begins with Isaac’s faulty vision, which allows Jacob’s usurpation of his brother’s blessing. Yet the play persists in presenting us with lovers who rely upon vision and perception—both notoriously unstable—to cultivate and justify love, implying a certain instability in love. In Act I Bassanio acknowledges that he must be gilded with Antonio’s riches in order to secure Portia. The entire plot, indeed, stems from his need for capital to present a wealthy appearance. Bassanio in his borrowed riches understands that appearance does not reflect reality, so he chooses the lead casket, which appears to suggest that Portia’s wealth cannot be judged by appearances, though irony abounds. His earlier description of Portia with hair like “golden fleece” reminds us of the fleece used by Jacob to deceive his father and the manipulation of the fleece in his uncle Laban’s herds to increase his wealth. Stripped of her golden fleece, is Portia nothing more than a figure of lead? Stripped of his borrowed gilding, is Bassanio the same? If we cannot trust what we see because it is gilded, if love relies solely upon visual perception and that perception is constantly at risk of being blinded by gold, we must reconsider the permanence or reliability of love.
Lorenzo alludes to this dilemma while he waits for Jessica to disguise herself, for in his praise of Jessica, Lorenzo raises the possibility that he might be seeing what someone (even himself) wants him to see. And Jessica promises to “gild” herself for him in reply. The gilding makes her “wise, fair, and true” for Lorenzo, as Portia’s wealth gilds her for Bassanio.
The tension between Acts IV and V makes more sense in light of the re-constructed Jacob narrative. Portia’s faith in Bassanio has been strained, and Shylock’s faith—both his faith in people and his ability to practice his religious faith as a Jew—has been destroyed. As Portia and all that she owns is converted to Bassanio, Shylock and all that he owns is converted to his enemies. Shylock and Portia pull the play in different directions, Shylock propelling it toward darkness and tragedy while Portia wrests it back toward comedy and romance. Act V reasserts romance over revenge, humor over hatred.
When Portia realizes how readily Bassanio would betray her love to save Antonio, she diffuses the potential for tragedy by making a joke of infidelity. Unlike Shylock’s, Portia’s world requires neither fidelity nor integrity. Bassanio is not what he seems, only gilded. But it is enough. Just as Portia accepts Bassanio’s poverty earlier in the play, she accepts the limitations of his love at the end of the play. Her forgiveness and acceptance of Bassanio is not Christian charity so much as an acknowledgment that love, “engender’d in the eyes,” is unstable at best. In Act V love is joyful, witty, good-humored and bawdy, but not sacred, eternal, or divine. Portia the pragmatist triumphs at the end of the play because she does not expect transparency or sincerity, and because she does not insist upon principled absolutes. Shylock is defeated because he does.
The play encompasses two locations as two potential futures for the contemporary audience. Belmont, where love is a negotiation, is a world in which betrayal becomes a moment to reconstruct, rather than abandon, relationships. Venice, however, and Shylock in particular, offers an alternative vision, in which principles take precedence. Most significantly, Shakespeare’s audience may have recognized in Shylock not only the Jew of Venice but also the Puritan businessman of the City, both metaphorically and literally.
The Puritan claim to be the new Israelites often invited pejorative comparisons even in the seventeenth century. The severe literalism of Puritans, only slightly exaggerated by Shylock, was frequently a source of friction. It is not the Protestant-Catholic schism that threatens London society, but the principled intensity of a Puritan faction in their midst. The cultural and political response to Puritanism through a surrogate and scapegoated Jew appears most directly at the end of Act IV, when Shylock’s reliance upon a strict interpretation of the law is used to assimilate and silence him. Shylock’s forced assimilation, therefore, re-enacts the desire of the authorities to absorb and thereby silence Puritan critics as well as Jews.
Tudor claims to religious and political authority required the repression of uncomfortable theological and historical facts. Shylock, as both Jew and Puritan-like figure, asserts his prior claims—legal, religious, and political. Portia and the Duke’s court assert their authority over Shylock by erasing his lineage, his memory of his own identity, and his future ability to reassert that heritage. By contrast, Bassanio, Jessica, and Launcelot, despite their Jacob-like plots, hardly inspire confidence in their steadiness or spiritual reliability as an alternative to Shylock. What they offer instead is a pragmatic, agile, clear-eyed understanding of legal, political, and personal possibilities among self-interested but potentially cooperative citizens, merchants, and gentry who accept the world order simply as it exists, not as it should be.
Shylock’s literal and absolute view of the world, ultimately represents a clear political and personal threat to an imperfect but relatively (for the time being) balanced political system. The play offers us a “gilded” and easily identified conflict between Jew and Christian, Old Testament Law and New Testament Charity. But beneath the apparent tension lies a reflection on the nature of ideological conflict itself—the sincerity of conviction represented by Shylock that leads inexorably toward vengeance, or the pragmatic adjustments represented by Portia that can defuse iconoclastic violence, civil war, or regicide by accepting something less than divine perfection in a human world. In the midst of internal tension and division, Shakespeare offers his audience in The Merchant of Venice a path out of an ideological dead end and political conflict toward a notion of accommodation to reality that offers a hopeful, if imperfect and tenuous, future peace.
The post above is adapted from the author's article, “Shylock, Bassanio, and the Jacob Narrative: Jewish Love and Christian Wealth in The Merchant of Venice,” published in Christianity & Literature 68.4 (September 2019). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.