Sunday, January 10, 2010
Debt in Venice
Anti-Semitism, which is the particular kind of bigotry I'll be discussing here, was more an issue for my parents' generation than mine. Because I went to Catholic schools for much of my childhood, Judaism was pretty much just a theological abstraction for me. Jews didn't believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the nuns told us. As far as I was concerned, they were entitled to their opinion.
For better or worse, there's a twelve-year-old in my head who still believes that.
The Merchant of Venice offers no clear answer to these questions--in fact, it's a play about questions, about ambivalence, and irreconcilable differences. Which is weird in itself, since comedy usually demands reconciliation. In my reading of (the interminable) Romeo and Juliet, I argued that the play begins as a comedy and turns tragic. The Merchant, by contrast, teeters on the edge of tragedy throughout--and the end, at least from our modern perspective, is decidedly disturbing and un-comedic.
The play's ambivalence begins with its title. Who, exactly, is the Merchant of Venice? My Norton Shakespeare (based on the Oxford edition) prints the title as The Comical History of the Merchant of Venice, or Otherwise Called the Jew of Venice. The "otherwise" refers not to the Merchant, but to the play. In other words, the play was known as The Merchant of Venice, but also as The Jew of Venice. The latter title obviously hoped to capitalize on the popularity of Christopher Marlowe's earlier play, The Jew of Malta. Marlowe's play is completely unambivalent about Jews--Barabas, the antagonist of the play, is a nasty piece of work--a monstrous, homicidal freak:
...I walk abroad a'nights,
And kill sick people groaning under walls,
Sometimes I go about and poison wells.
They were also pretty useful, or had been, before Edward I got greedy and decided that banishing Jews and taking possession of all the debt owed them was a good way to fill the royal coffers. There's more to the story than that, but I'll save that for a later post. The point is that Jews and Judaism were completely alien to Elizabethan people--no one had actually seen one in the country since the Fall of 1290. The Jews that remained in England pretended, under pain of expulsion (or worse) to be converts. So unless he traveled more widely than we assume, Will probably hadn't ever met a practicing Jew when he wrote The Merchant.
Shylock can't be the title character in any case, because Jews, even in Venice, weren't allowed to own property. So they couldn't buy or sell anything. They had to make money on...money. Christians considered usury--lending money at interest--to be a sin. Jews became moneylenders because that was the only form of commerce open to them. And it was a profitable one, since aristocrats like the Christian Venetians in the play inevitably lived beyond their means, racking up considerable debt. One of the most interesting things about this play is the way Will links money, debt, and interest to love, justice, and religion. It's brilliant, and, I think, more relevant than ever to our times. I'll have a lot to say about that, as well, in the coming weeks.
The actual Merchant of Venice is Antonio, the guy who almost has to give up a pound of flesh at the end. Despite being the title character, however, Antonio isn't much of a presence in the play--he exists, I think, as a Christian foil to Shylock. Generous where the Jew is stingy, loyal, congenial, and commercially adventurous where Shylock is suspicious, mean-spirited, and miserly. He's also a bigot, and Shylock has no reason to like or trust him.
Love and commerce are all mixed up in this play--as in The Taming of the Shrew, all the male wooers are obviously interested in "wiving wealthily." Bassanio loves Portia for her beauty, intelligence, and virtue, but he's wooing her for her money; he makes it clear that he's got none of his own. Money also bears a metaphoric relation to religion and to law. Loaning money at interest, Shylock doesn't extend "credit" in the etymological sense. He doesn't have faith--he's not a believer. He lives according to the Old Covenant, not the New. The letter, not the spirit. Justice, not mercy.
Reading this play, one can see why the marriage of Christianity and capitalism has been such an enduring one. Both are about deferral, in some sense. Christians have traditionally (here I exclude recent materialist manifestations of Christianity) privileged the next life over this one. The last shall be first, blessed are the meek--miserable on earth, you'll be happier in heaven. Be charitable today and you'll get credit for it in the afterlife. Capitalism, as The Merchant dramatizes so well, runs on promises, hopes, wagers. Invest today for a big return tomorrow. Enjoy today and pay tomorrow. The word "credit" is from the Latin "credo." I believe.
Interestingly, two of the modern era's most important thinkers wrote about The Merchant of Venice. Karl Marx, a Jew himself, saw Shylock as an allegorical figure representing the cruel rapacity of capitalism. In Capital, protests against the inhumanity of child labor go unheeded because the literal interpretation of the law allows practice to continue:
Workmen and factory inspectors protested on hygienic and moral grounds, but Capital answered:
"My deeds upon my head! I crave the law,
The penalty and forfeit of my bond."
Capitalism, like Shylock, will have its pound of flesh. Freud--also Jewish--wrote an essay called "The Theme of the Three Caskets," but it's most interesting in that it begins with the three caskets scene from The Merchant, but ends up talking about King Lear instead. Repression, anyone? As everyone knows, Freud had a problematic relationship to Judaism--it's no wonder he would sidestep the shadow of literature's most famous fictional Jew.
When I decided to write about this play, I started thinking about the concept of debt. We Americans are a nation of debtors--in fact, our nation has a lot in common with Will's Venice these days. Christianity has a lot to say about debt, too. When I was a Catholic schoolgirl, I recited The Lord's Prayer daily, with the rest of my class. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. I was surprised to learn, later in life, that some Protestant sects use the version in Matthew 6:12--And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. To me, this sounded crass. Like it was just about money, not ethics. And yet, now that I'm older, I think I like that version better. "Trespasses" sounds like a violation of boundaries. "Debts" is much more encompassing. Quit thinking about what you're owed. Get rid of the balance sheet in your head.
After I turned that around in my mind a few times, I decided to keep writing the blog. Without keeping a balance sheet. Just because I like doing it.
Next: Money and melancholy.