The Protestant Reformation According to Launcelot Gobbo
By Clifford Stetner
It is not unreasonable that a great deal of Shakespeare criticism has proposed an implicit theological dimension to his work, as, according to the Christian Humanist Shakespearean, Roland Mushat Frye, ‘approximately half the books since the inception of printing had explicitly religious titles, and religious ideas figured prominently in most others’ (63). A recent theory by Mary MacGrail, for instance, argues that Hamlet is a covert adaptation of Foxe’s Life of Luther (Remnick 66-83). She argues that Shakespeare wished to admonish the new king, James I, ‘to avoid a return to Catholicism and the power of Rome’ (71).
Although similar concerns regarding the final establishment of the Anglican Church by Elizabeth were the overriding political issue at the period of The Merchant of Venice, criticism has remained focused on the play’s anti-Semitic elements, both racist and theological. Barbara Lewalski contends that ‘the Shylock-Antonio opposition... symbolizes the confrontation of Judaism and Christianity as theological systems—the Old Law and the New—and also as historic societies’ (Lewalski 240). A recent article in the New York Times also states that ‘...Shylock...accurately reflects Shakespeare’s intentions in a Renaissance England even more anti-Semitic than previously imagined’ (Smith 15).
While superficially anti-Semitic, in that the good guys are Christians, and the bad guy is Jewish, The Merchant of Venice does not address an issue of racial conflict in the simple terms of the popular prejudices of Elizabethan London, as did Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (Evans 250-251). Without necessarily implying anything about Shakespeare’s own beliefs, the allegory of The Merchant of Venice reflects sophisticated theological ideas, which are not reducible to a dialectic, opposing Christianity to Judaism, but which represent the entire spectrum of doctrine, relevant to the Anglican Reformation.
In 1596, every Londoner was discussing religion and theology. A brief history of the Anglican Reformation, as it stood when The Merchant of Venice came to the stage is as follows:
Henry VII; the Tudor revolution; the rise of English nationalism
Henry VIII; the conflict over the marriage bond to Katherine of Aragon; the battle in the ecclesiastical courts over the legality of the bond
The schism with Rome; the liberation of the Church of England from its Roman masters; the transfer of ecclesiastical legislation from Roman Pope to English king.
The schism extends into heresy under Edward VI, as Catholic doctrine is discarded along with Catholic sovereignty.
The swing back to Catholicism under Mary and Philip of Aragon.
The swing to the ‘middle way’ under Elizabeth, who adopts a spirit of comprehension, with theologians such as Cranmer and Hooker attempting to define a specifically Anglican doctrine. Anglicanism begins to include Lutheran and Calvinist rather than Catholic principles, but only the practice of worship is well defined, specific doctrinal belief is left largely to the individual.
Finally, the impending accession of James I placed his strong Catholic sympathies, as well as the increasing influence of the Puritans, in opposition to Elizabeth’s fledgling ‘middle way,’ while the execution for conspiracy of a Jewish courtier had recently renewed public interest in the relationship of England to the Jews.
It is to be expected that the average Londoner, with a healthy concern for the fate of his soul would be familiar with the points of contention between the various factions. The outcome of the dispute would be determined politically by the monarchy, but lack of political power may tend to increase the passion of debate.
In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare attempts to mythologize Elizabeth’s Church of England in a manner similar to Vergil’s mythologization of the Roman Empire of Augustus. He picks up the drama in medias res, in the present. He creates the opening mood with the sadness of Antonio, which is left unsatisfactorily explained. This mood of sadness is followed by a sense of peril, created by the description of Antonio’s hazardous ventures, and which culminates in Bassanio’s tale of financial woe, symbolized in his lost arrow. However, as Bassanio’s arrow story indicates, it will be necessary to enter more deeply into peril in order to pass out of it.
A hint has already been given as to the allegorical meaning of the disquietude that opens the play. Salerio’s comment that going to church itself can increase one’s anxiety, if the stone structure make him think on the rocks his ship might encounter at sea, reflects one of Calvin’s first objections to Catholic dogma, that God cannot intend for us to live under constant dread of perdition. And that religious worship should be a source of comfort, rather than fear and sadness.
It is Bassanio who is the imperiled soul, rather than Antonio, who does not care about the possible loss of his ventures, as he loves the world only for Bassanio’s sake. The identification of Bassanio with the prodigal son is made obvious by Bassanio’s reference to his own prodigal youth, but the development of Bassanio’s relationship to Antonio as a tropological equivalent to the individual’s relationship with Christ is subtly wrought. Bassanio’s spiritual debt is to Satan for his sins. However Antonio, offering his flesh, agrees to underwrite the debt. The forfeiture of the debt matters little to Antonio, but it matters a great deal to Bassanio, for to be the cause of such a sacrifice, would be a fate worse than death to the good hearted Christian.
Shakespeare’s underlying theological position is grounded in the fundamental doctrines of the Anglican Church, as they were in process of development during the reign of Elizabeth. Elizabeth enacted a policy of ‘comprehension’ which combined different forms of Protestantism (Bainton 208), especially Calvinist and Lutheran principles. The theme of The Merchant of Venice, which is suggested in its folk-tales sources,is based on the proposition, expressed by Calvin and echoed by Luther and Zwingli, that the covenant of Abraham had passed from the nation of Israel to the body of Christ and, by extension, from the Catholic to the Protestant part of that body (Bainton 115).
Roland Frye attempts to distinguish Shakespeare from the ‘tradition of explicit integration of Protestant theology with literary form’ which runs from Spenser through Milton and Bunyan. He suggests that ‘Shakespeare’s theological usage is instinctively drawn from intimate awareness’ (Frye 12), as opposed to any self-conscious doctrinaire thematic intention. However, an allusion to Spenser in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (as well as the name Cordelia, taken from the story of Lear in The Faerie Queene) shows that Shakespeare was familiar with the work of his more pious contemporary (Neilson and Thorndike 61). Because Shakespeare is never shy in demonstrating his ability to quibble with the ambiguities of language and meaning, there is no reason to doubt that he was aware of many or most of the theological implications of his own work, whether or not they are his thematic purpose.
Roland Frye’s position as to the absence of intentionality regarding the Christian allegory of The Merchant of Venice, although not unique, is unpopular. The more common view among modern critics is that the play’s ‘patterns of Biblical allusion and imagery...clearly reveal an important theological dimension’ (Lewalski 237). Roy Battenhouse, founder of the Christian Humanist school of Shakespeare criticism, now largely discredited, cites a number of critics who have suggested Christian symbolism in The Merchant of Venice, including J.A. Bryant, who points out that “in the Gesta [Romanorum] version of the casket story [Shakespeare’s second major source] Portia is the Christ ‘which the chosen men choose’ and in the bond story she is the daughter of Christ...” (Bryant 72).
One of the difficulties in attempting to abstract specific ideology from Shakespeare’s drama is that he is not obliged to use one symbol to suggest one allegorical interpretation, a fact to which the prolific history of allegorically oriented Shakespeare criticism attests. The assertion that a specific dramatic element symbolizes a specific idea is often taken to imply that it must, at all points, represent that idea, and no other. Mary McGrail’s theory that Hamlet represents Luther, for instance, implies that Hamlet may never, therefore, represent Christ, or Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet.
Although critics may be constrained to this principle of unity of symbolism, Shakespeare was not. As a dramatist, he was forced to make ‘a wide and immediate appeal to a large number of people of ordinary intelligence. The playwright must make his plots plain, his characters easily grasped, his ideas familiar’ (Goddard 82). In order to get his meaning across to his audience in one sitting, he must paint his symbols with broad strokes, rather than with attention to minute detail. The demands of his working situation must often require him to sacrifice the coherence of his allegory for the sake of dramatic or poetic considerations. He should have been content, therefore, with effectively suggesting, rather than completely developing, his underlying themes, an aim for which the perfect consistency of conventional poetic allegory would have been unnecessary.
Nevertheless, the allegory of The Merchant of Venice adheres approximately to the model defined by Dante.
The various dimensions of allegorical significance...are generally analogous to Dante’s four levels of allegorical meaning: a literal or story level; an allegorical significance concerned with truths relating to humanity as a whole and to Christ as head of humanity; a moral or tropological level dealing with factors in the moral development of the individual and an anagogical significance treating the ultimate reality, the Heavenly City (Lewalski 237).
Shakespeare did not adhere strictly to this model at all times, as Dante claims to have done, but to his own dramatic version, upon which Hamlet himself discourses: “‘Holding the mirror up to nature,’ describes the letter [literal meaning]; ‘showing virtue her own feature, scorn her own image,’ indicates the moral [tropological] meaning; and ‘the age and body of the time, his form and pressure,’ refers to the allegory, the meaning of the historic moment...(I,ii,24-26)” (Fergusson 4-5).
It is possible that Portia, who first appears in scene ii of act I, would have evoked Beatrice who descends from her beautiful mountain Paradise (Bel mont), to rescue Dante (Fergusson 119), or the Gesta Romanorum daughter of Christ, in the imagination of the Elizabethan spectator, and it is possible that she would have evoked Elizabeth herself, in her Gloriana persona, the embodiment of English nationalism. Her first conversation with Nerissa culminates with the latter’s pun: ‘it is no mean happiness to be seated in the mean’ (I,ii,8), evoking Elizabeth’s newly defined form of Anglicanism which was called with pride the ‘middle way.’ Nerissa’s discussion of the happy mean is followed by the description of Portia’s suitors reflecting English nationalistic stereotypes.
The strong current of nationalism, whose opposition to Roman domination since the middle ages played an instrumental role in the Anglican Reformation (Bainton 3), is explicitly demonstrated in Portia’s description of her suitors to Nerissa. Although the Englishman is fatally flawed along with the rest, his only flaw, beyond not speaking Portia’s language, is not being enough of an Englishman: ‘I think he bought his doublet in Italy, his round hose in France, his bonnet in Germany, and his behavior everywhere’ (I,ii,70). Moreover, Portia compensates him, even for this mild remonstrance of his nationalist pride by allowing him to smack the Scot and Frenchman. Scotland and France were incidentally allied with Spain in Catholic opposition to Elizabeth’s alliance with the Huguenots (Bainton 207).
On the allegorical level, that ‘concerned with truths relating to humanity as a whole and to Christ as head of humanity,’ Bassanio is the representative of the Anglican Protestant ethic, who alone wins salvation (and through whom it passes from Portia to the Anglican community: Gratiano and Nerissa; Lorenzo and Jessica; and on a less ideal level, Antonio and Shylock). If Bassanio plays an allegorical role ‘showing the age and body of the time his form and pressure,’ he stands before the caskets in the place of Elizabethan England, who must choose its means to spiritual salvation by establishing an English Church worthy of the new covenant and new dispensation.
Although the Anglican Church had been founded by her father, Henry VIII, there was ‘no official formulation of the doctrine of the Church of England until Elizabeth’ (Bainton 201). The dispute which precipitated the founding of the Anglican Church was not a positive theological doctrine, throwing the English Church into dispute with Papal teaching, as with Lutheranism and Calvinism, but rather the question of the legality of a bond, specifically, the marriage binding Henry to Katherine of Aragon.
To Henry, this bond symbolized the hopelessness of a male heir, which he considered necessary to prevent a reversal of the Tudor revolution. To many Englishmen, it symbolized the tyranny of the thoroughly corrupt Catholic Church and the Spanish monarchs who held political control over Rome. Although the political ideology of the Anglican Reformation was dictated by its interests as an emerging European sea power, the question of theological ideology was more complicated, in that it was of emotional relevance to every living Englishman.
The Merchant of Venice need not be understood as a work of state sponsored propaganda to be recognized as a part of the process of cultural definition, by which Anglican theology was established and disseminated. Because ‘for Elizabethans, Protestants of rather recent vintage, theater had in large measure replaced some of the high ritual and ceremony that went missing with the diminishment of Catholicism and the rise of Calvinism’ (Remnick 75), it was also an appropriate place to address cultural mythology, including the mythology of religion.
An Anglican theology which aspires to the biblically defined role of ‘elect’ must somehow interpret the schism with Rome in spiritual terms, rather than in the worldly political terms of an inconvenient royal marriage. After all, God’s covenant with the people of Israel is established in the Old Testament; His covenant with the Church of Peter is in the New Testament. Many Englishmen, such as Sir Thomas More, failed to see the claim of the Anglican Church to being rightful heir to that covenant. This theological controversy dates back to Wycliffe and the Hussites, who, in Chaucer’s day, identified Catholic Rome with the Babylon of the Apocalypse (Bainton 19). That the question had not yet been resolved by the death of Henry VIII, is evidenced by the brief return to Roman Catholicism under Mary, before the accession of Elizabeth.
While Calvin’s ‘doctrine of election,’ claimed the status of ‘elect’ for anyone who passed the three tests of: ‘profession of faith, an upright life, and participation in the sacraments’ (Bainton 115), such doctrine is notably absent from the early English Reformation. Anglican theology under Henry was Catholic theology with the exception of the sovereignty of the Roman Pope.
The Reformation, which had originally involved the application of the spirit of enquiry to the system of mediaeval Christianity, had in fact ushered in a period not of ‘enlightenment,’ but of embittered controversy. The Reformed Churches, appealing to Scripture against Rome found themselves, in self-defense, compelled to define their positions... (Willey 126).
What is evident, in place of new doctrine in the early Anglican Reformation, is a great deal of legalistic argument over the status of Henry’s marriage. Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry, a Catholic with Lutheran leanings, wanted the divorce judged by university rather than canon lawyers (Bainton 190). The argument put forward by Cranmer resembled Portia’s approach to dissolving Shylock’s bond. He argued that the letter of Catholic law itself rendered Henry’s marriage to Katherine illegal, as Portia argues that the letter of Shylock’s bond renders itself illegal. Specifically, Cranmer argued that Katherine’s earlier betrothal to Henry’s late brother meant that the second marriage was incestuous according to strict canon law. Clearly the Church was simply bowing to pressure by Katherine’s family, the Spanish monarchs.
Shakespeare’s Shylock behaves in a manner strikingly similar to the Anglican view of the Catholic Church, when he perverts the spirit of a fundamentally benevolent legal system to advance his own malignant motives. Portia acts in accordance with a biblical principle that Shakespeare found in the story of Giannetto, in Il Pecorone of Ser Giovanni Fiorentino [his primary source]: ‘He catcheth the wise in their own craftiness...entangled in...snares they laid for others (I Cor 3:19)’ (Holmer 86).
The crisis of Elizabethan theology must involve the reconciliation of the essentially legalistic origin of the Church of England with the eternal and divine principles of Christianity. Until Shakespeare’s time, the Catholic Church was not the ‘Catholic Church,’ but simply, the ‘Church,’ Christ’s ‘Church.’ Their new independence from a thousand year bond with Rome might cause the Elizabethan audience to sympathize with the predicament of Launcelot Gobbo when he complains:
‘to be ruled by my conscience, I should stay with the Jew my master [read Catholic Church], who (God bless the Mark!) is a kind off devil; and, to run away from the Jew, I should be ruled by the fiend, who (saving your reverence) is the devil himself’ (II,ii,25-30).
In a state where one is typically beheaded for heresy, there is little choice for the common man besides joining the state religion. Most English families would join and participate in the worship of whatever Church Elizabeth established. Shakespeare himself ‘lived and died a conforming member of the Church of England, by which he and his children were baptized’ (Frye 3).
The majority of the spectators at the Globe were also spectators at the drama of the Reformation. They were spectators who believed their souls to be at stake in the outcome. The schism with Rome, while resulting in a period of doctrinal uncertainty, appealed to the nationalist sentiments of the common people. As the corruption of most of the clergy among Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims attests, the existence of anti-Catholic sentiment in England did not begin with the Reformation.
Later Elizabethans, such as Thomas Middleton, explicitly equated the Catholic Church with the Hebrew Pharisees. If this idea was prevalent among Shakespeare’s contemporaries, then, on the anagogical level, ‘the courtroom scene evokes something of the crucifixion scene’ (Lewalski 245), with Antonio as Christ; while on the allegorical; level, it evokes the dissolution of the bond with the Roman Church. By superimposing these two cultural icons, Shakespeare has legitimized the nationalist political principles of the Anglican Reformation with a spiritual foundation in New Testament mysticism.
Although its primary ideological concern is with the relation of England to the Roman Church and Spanish monarchs, on its tropological level The Merchant of Venice also addresses the Anglican position towards the Jews. As a tropologic metaphor, the courtroom scene evokes the forced conversion of a Jew to Christianity.
The tradition of forced conversions of Jews in Europe began in earnest under the Spanish Inquisition, which had been ‘established...to fight heresies, of which the Jewish heresy was the first’ (Perera 168). The Inquisition had spread to Portugal by 1547, and the practice of forced conversions had quickly become an opportunity to confiscate the fortunes of Jews, in times of financial need. The unpleasant circumstances surrounding Shylock’s ultimate defeat and debasement make it doubtful that Shakespeare intended Shylock’s Christian salvation wholly as an act of mercy, but Shylock’s ‘pecuniary punishment under the laws of Venice precisely parallels the conditions imposed upon a Jewish convert to Christianity throughout most of Europe and also in England during the Middle Ages and after’ (Lewalski 247).
One of the central ideological disputes, about which the allegory of The Merchant of Venice turns is the condemnation of usury. Antonio resembles the earthly Christ overturning the tables of the money-changers, when he is described by Shylock railing against his usances in the marketplace (I,iii,49-53). Because, Pharisee and Papist were thoroughly identified in the Elizabethan imagination, Shakespeare could effectively attack them both in the single figure of Shylock.
The involvement of the Roman Church with capitalism and banking, since the days of the Medici popes, was associated by Reformation theologians with the money changers in the temple of Jerusalem. Shakespeare has certainly intended to cast aspersions on Catholic Italy and Spain who had effectively usurped the lion’s share of the banking business by the late sixteenth century, both in Venice and London.
Ask your merchants who visit Marseilles, Avignon, and the whole of Provence, Bruges, Antwerp, London, and other cities where there are great banks...whether they have seen the banks of the Medici, the Pazzi, the Capponi the Buondelmonti, the Corsini, the Falconieri, the Portinari, and the Ghini, and a hundred of others.... (Dei 166)
However, because economic, religious and social factors had combined to inextricably associate usury with Judaism in the Elizabethan popular mentality, a Jew was still the most appropriate allegorical symbol of usurious practices.
Shylock’s use of the story of Jacob and Laban to defend his usury serves both as an apt analogy to his relationship with his Christian patrons, and as an ironic justification of Jessica’s betrayal. Jacob owes his profit to the increase of Laban’s property, rather than of his own, so that by maximizing his own part, he simultaneously minimizes Laban’s, just as a usurer profits by the ventures of others, by taking as large a portion of their yield as he can. Once Jacob dominates the market, he forces Laban out of business. As a guest and trusted relation, he violates just about every tradition of the guest-host relationship. He robs Laban, cheats him, drives him into poverty and finally absconds with his daughter.
This tale of the life of the great Hebrew patriarch smacks of the same moral ambiguity that surrounds Jessica’s character. Jessica plays a secondary role on the literal and tropological levels, while playing a primary role on the allegorical and anagogical levels. Although Shylock is the villain of the piece, he is a little too human to allow us to approve entirely of Jessica’s filial betrayal. The whole episode is disturbing, and can only induce sympathy for Shylock, even by Elizabethan standards. However, despite being a morally ambiguous character on the literal level of plot, in anagogical terms, it is Jessica, rather than Shylock, who exemplifies the historic Hebrew paradigm.
Like the Israelites of old, she seeks to escape from Shylock’s all-too-Egyptian house of bondage to a land of promise. Like Jacob, she takes with her property to which she has a natural right. And like Rachel..., Jessica carries off, concealed under her clothes, her father’s household gods, his barren metal’ (Dobbins and Battenhouse 95)
Jacob’s ruin of his uncle’s prosperity is not generally viewed as morally ambiguous, in light of his faith and the favor of God, and on the grounds that his uncle has kept him in bondage for seven years and then cheated him of the promise of his fairer daughter, coercing him into seven more years of bondage. Jacob is generally considered to be crafty in a positive sense, as in the sense of Homer’s Odysseus, rather than a thief. By using Jacob as a tropological analogy for Shylock, Shakespeare implies that the grievances that fuel the latter’s passion for revenge may be justified.
While Jacob attributes his increasing prosperity to God’s favor, in relating the story to Antonio, Shylock credits Jacob’s cunning (Holmer 86). The device of peeling stalks and showing them to pregnant sheep, causing them to fall party colored lambs, was believed to be a scientific breeding method at the time of the Old Testament and continued so in Shakespeare’s day. Shylock’s interpretation implies that Jacob has simply taken advantage of his uncle’s ignorance of the latest techniques of animal husbandry.
However, Antonio argues that it is not Jacob’s cunning business practices, that bring him success, but his fourteen years of faith in God’s promise, combined with grace, bestowed by God. The birth of a disproportionate number of streaked and pied lambs, which fall to Jacob’s possession, is defined by Antonio as a gift of God, which property he disallows to the profits of usury. The latter he condemns as the breeding of what is by nature barren, in keeping with the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas (Tawney 130).
The argument between Antonio and Shylock over usury must have been familiar to an audience concerned with the moral and theological disputes of the day. It restates the principle upon which usury had been generally condemned by the Church, since the middle ages, and which was being used by the Reformation against the Roman Church. ‘One of the oldest arguments against taking interest was that it is against nature for money to breed money’ (Riverside 259).
Shylock’s version of the Laban story equates the breeding of gold, which is wrought by human cunning with the breeding of sheep which is wrought by God’s grace. Shylock’s assertion that he ‘cannot tell’ if his gold is lambs and ewes, because he makes it ‘breed as fast’ casts him in the role of ‘faithless Jew’ who can no longer recognize God’s work, next to man’s. While Anglican theology supported the idea that the Church of England was heir to the state of grace that the nation of Israel had forfeited, right wing Reformation theology took a more ambiguous position towards the Jews.
The fact that the same prophecy of St. Paul that was used by the Inquisition to justify forced conversions, also requires the participation of the Jews in the Holy City, was used by the Puritans, after the Restoration, to end the exile of Jews from England. “The Puritans building the new ‘Israel’ were mindful of their spiritual fathers” (Heer 315). anti-Semitism among European Christians was not universal, but in The Merchant of Venice, the forced conversion of Shylock, the literal Jew, is necessary before Jessica (the allegorical nation of Israel) is able to pass with Lorenzo into Belmont (an Anglican vision of Calvin’s ‘Holy Commonwealth,’ on the allegorical level).
‘As a voluntary convert to Christianity, Jessica may figure forth the filial relationship of the New Dispensation to the Old’ (Lewalski 242). A gloss from the Geneva Bible reads: ‘when bothe Jews and Gentiles embrace Christ, the world shall be restored to new life’ (Danson 92). Although Jessica does not embrace Christ, she embraces Christianity, insofar as she embraces a Christian, along with his Christian character and values, and we assume her children will be brought up in Lorenzo’s faith.
On the tropological level, that concerned with an individual’s moral development, Shylock is a fallen Jacob, an Israelite, who by forgetting the grace of God, has perverted his ‘thrift’ into a form of theft. Shylock’s reprobation is emphasized by his always referring to Abraham as ‘Abram’ (I,iii,96), the patriarch’s name before the covenant with Jehovah. On the allegorical level, concerned with historical processes, Shylock (representing Catholicism), is Laban, whose wealth (a symbol for covenant with God), has passed from him through his daughter to the faithful Anglican, Lorenzo, an allegorical Jacob, who must liberate her from her bondage to Catholic scriptural and ecclesiastical authority. According to Reformation theology, the Catholic Church, by undergoing a parallel process to that of the ancient Hebrews, of degeneration, from elect of God, to seat of corruption and usury, occupies a historical relation to the Reformation Anglicans, equivalent to that of the Pharisees to Christ and the Apostles.
In denying that Jacob’s wisdom could be sufficient to bring him his victory over Laban, without grace bestowed by a merciful and generous God, Antonio has explicitly raised one of the key theological disputes between the Reformation and Roman Catholicism, thereby aligning himself (and the Elizabethan Anglicans) with Protestant theology. It was “...St. Bernard, from whom [Luther] began to understand that ‘man is freely justified by faith’ rather than works - a principle that would form the core of his theology” (Remnick 71). “Calvin’s judgment accords with Luther’s and Hooker’s, as with Portia’s, when he writes that ‘we are received into the grace of God out of sheer mercy...why is it that we still trust or glory in works?’”(Frye 208). This concept is originally defended in the The Summa Theologica of St.Thomas Aquinas:
Hence man, by his natural endowments, cannot produce meritorious works proportionate to everlasting life; and for this a higher force is needed, viz., the force of grace...; yet he can perform works conducing to a good which is natural to man..., as Augustine says in his third Reply to the Pelagians.
Reply Obj.1. Man, by his will does works meritorious of everlasting life; but as Augustine says, in the same book, for this it is necessary that the will of man should be prepared with grace by God (Aquinas 60).
This Thomist theological doctrine concerning the insufficiency of human works to merit salvation, taken as a New Testament repudiation of Old Testament legalism, finds expression throughout The Merchant of Venice, for example Gratiano’s comment: that, ‘in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation’ (IV.i..271): as well as in other of Shakespeare’s plays including Hamlet, who, in a particularly Lutheran mood, asks: ‘...use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping’ (II.ii.552), and Henry IV Part I, in which Falstaff exclaims: ‘Oh if men were to be saved by merit, what hole in hell were hot enough for him’ (I.ii.20).
In order to support Augustine’s assertion as to the insufficiency of human works to alone merit anything from God, Aquinas appeals to the Aristotelian definition of justice:
...hence justice is simply between those that are simply equal;...but there may be a certain manner of justice, as when we speak of a father’s or a master’ right (Ethics.v.6), as the Philosopher says...there is no character of merit simply, but only relatively...Hence there can be no justice of absolute equality between man and God, but only of a certain proportion (Aquinas 60).
Aristotelian definitions of justice were popular (among the propertied classes) in Elizabethan England, not only because they supported separation from the oppressive Roman Church, but because they also supported the principles of aristocracy. ‘Aristotelian justice recognizes and encourages inequalities among men...The bestowal of titles, properties, annuities, and honorary sinecures was seen not as undemocratic preferment but as the right and duty of good government’ (Grudin 54). Although such preferments were merited by service to the crown, their bestowal depended ultimately on the generosity of the sovereign, rather than on legal entitlement.
Aristotle distinguished this form of justice, which he called ‘distributive justice’ and which is a positive justice of reward, from ‘commutative justice’ which applies to transactions between private individuals and/or institutions. Shakespeare illustrates both forms in The Merchant of Venice:
The loan-plot, which revolves around Antonio’s bond to Shylock and Shylock’s attempt to destroy Antonio, illustrates the workings of commutative justice...the love-plot concerns the workings of distributive justice. Portia’s father’s will stipulates that a reward - Portia and her riches be granted to the man ‘who you shall rightly love’ (I.ii.32-33)...The justice of Venice...hath no regard to the person; the justice of Belmont is...a testament to basic inequalities of character (Grudin 55).
Because the contest of the caskets is Shakespeare’s most significant emendation of his immediate sources (along with the secondary episode of Jessica’s elopement) (Shakespeare, MV vi), it offers strong evidence regarding his thematic purpose. Along with the trial scene, the episodes surrounding the contest for Portia contain the most fully developed allegorical structure in the play. Their allegorical relevance to the Reformation lies in their illustration of specific theological principles supporting the legitimacy of the Church of England.
The plot of The Merchant of Venice employs the medieval tradition of combining two or more folk-tales into a single story, as in the medieval mystery, The Second Shepherd’s Play, or Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale. In this case, the tale of ‘the pound of flesh bond’ is combined with the originally Asiatic folk tale of the ‘three caskets’ and the ‘winning of the other-worldly wife’ (Shakespeare, MV vii). The structure contains both dualistic and triadic elements.
The play’s triadic elements can be traced throughout. The trial scene, for example, can be divided into three phases, the first two containing three explicit appeals, the last containing three penalties (Brennan 42). This continually emphasized triadic structure, along with the triad of caskets, evoking the idea of the Trinity, is subsumed under a larger geographic duality: Antonio, the pound of flesh bond and Venice lying on one side; Portia, the caskets, the ring bond and Belmont lying on the other side of a palpable dramatic barrier, as is found in several other of Shakespeare’s plays, across which the fortunate and few elect cross to safety and happiness.
In attempting to interpret the symbolism of the three caskets theme, Sigmund Freud looks beyond Dante, beyond the medieval sources, and beyond Old Testament vs. New Testament principles to the ancient mythology, from which the folk-tale sources sprang. He points out that caskets (vessels) are symbols of woman, which puts Bassanio’s dilemma in the tradition of the judgment of Paris, as well as of myths surrounding the three Fates, and Psyche (Freud 516). Whether, or not Shakespeare was working within this mythological tradition (consciously or unconsciously), he applied its symbolism through tropology and allegory to the historic ideological context in which it was performed. Even if Shakespeare recognized the three caskets as symbolic of the Fates, with the leaden casket representing Atropos, the inexorable (death, as Freud suggests), he would only have chosen the symbol for its compatibility with his theme.
As protagonist, Bassanio is the character, whose dilemma is the theme with which Shakespeare wishes the audience to identify their interests. There are several ways in which Bassanio’s choice of the leaden casket specifically represents Anglican principles, as Morocco’s and Arragon’s choices represent theological ideas opposed to Anglicanism. The character of Morocco is a representative of medieval Islam. He represents a state religion which wielded tremendous wealth and power, but which Englishmen considered purely temporal and devoid of true grace. The skull within Morocco’s chosen casket points to the transitory nature of temporal wealth, while his rejection of the lead, owing only to its mean appearance earns him Portia’s rejection on the same grounds: ‘Let all of his complexion choose me so’ (II,vii,79).
In relation to the caskets, Arragon serves as a representative of the Spanish Catholics who had had control of the Vatican since the early sixteenth century. Shakespeare’s Arragon might evoke Charles V, the Aragon, who prevented Pope Clement II from setting aside Henry’s marriage, but as an unwanted suitor, he was more likely to have evoked the marriage, of Mary to Philip II, which was extremely unpopular in England, not only because it represented a marriage of England to Catholicism, but because it offended growing English nationalism.
Arragon’s error in choosing the silver casket reflects the same dispute over the question of the sufficiency of human endeavor to merit salvation that was raised originally in the argument between Shylock and Antonio over usury, and which is later reemphasized in Portia’s argument in the court scene: ‘For, as thou urgest justice, be assured/Thou shalt have justice, more than thou desirest’ (IV,i,433-5). The Catholic Church had been the Church of the Apocalypse throughout the middle ages, and its insistence that holy acts and good deeds could tip the scales of the last judgement was the basis of its power to sell indulgences, which practice most offended the original Protestants.
The Gesta Romanorum Portia, as the Christ ‘which the chosen men choose’ has clearly chosen Bassanio, above all other suitors. However, her grace is insufficient, in itself, to earn him salvation. Although Portia provides him with as many clues as her father’s conditions allow, having her minstrel sing a song, while he is mulling it over, in which every line rhymes with lead, and whose subject is the deceptiveness of outward appearance, his salvation, and the salvation of his friends depends on his choice of the principle which best reflects Elizabethan Anglicanism.
Bassanio’s choice is a rational decision, based upon an understanding of the meanings of the several inscriptions, rather than on action consistent with them. Although the inscription on the leaden casket speaks of giving and hazarding, it is Shylock who has given, and Antonio who has hazarded to make Bassanio’s contest possible (Goddard 86), not to mention Morocco and Arragon, who both give and hazard all. Clearly, in rejecting the golden casket, Bassanio is not rejecting gold, as it is Portia’s gold which is, in large measure, the prize for which he is hazarding. He is, rather, rejecting the principle which the gold symbolizes.
Neither does he forfeit the claim to merit of Portia’s hand in marriage by rejecting the silver casket, but rather, by explicitly rejecting it as a device of Aristotle’s commutative justice, ‘pale drudge between man and man,’ and appealing to faith in a hidden treasure, Bassanio merits salvation. However, his merit is nothing more than his adherence to the principle of faith and his noble character which has won the grace of Portia, rather than good works, which the Reformation universally defined as irrelevant to God’s benevolence.
The inscription on the leaden casket is distinguished from the other two, in that the gold and silver speak of gaining and getting, while the lead speaks of giving. The choice of the leaden casket is a metaphor of the Gospel parable of the treasure buried in a field, which a man sells all he has, in order to buy. This Gospel parable, along with a number of others, expresses Jesus’s teaching, that the kingdom of heaven can only be gained by one willing to give and hazard all. Bassanio examines the casket and its inscription, just as every good Elizabethan Anglican should examine the newly translated biblical parables, carefully and rationally.
The principle of judging by outward appearence which is exemplified in the golden casket and specifically negated in the lead, while reflecting the austerity of Anglican practices of worship, also reiterates the repudiation of legalism, both Jewish and Papist, and supports the emphasis on the spirit over the ritual of worship and the loosely and personally defined approach to doctrine of the Church of England.
This theological position is introduced by Antonio in response to Shylock’s perversion of the story of Jacob and Laban: ‘The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose...O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!’ (I,iii,98-103) and reiterated by Bassanio as he contemplates the caskets:
In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt/But, being season’d with a gracious voice,/Obscures the show of evil? In religion,/What damned error but some sober brow/Will bless it, and approve it with a text...There is no vice so simple but assumes/Some mark of virtue on his outward parts (III,ii,75-82).
In both these cases the value of the spirit of text over the letter of text, especially legalistic and theological text, is specifically associated with the ability of fair exteriors to conceal rotten interiors. This principle is observed in the Reformation attitude towards holy scripture as well as in the recent memory of the Catholic Church’s attempt to enforce the bond of Henry’s marriage, which precipitated the foundation of the Church of England.
Shakespeare must have recognized an analog of this Reformation principle when he came across the symbol of the skull in the golden casket, as well as in the medieval flesh bond story. He must also have recognized the principle of fallibility and forgiveness that is exemplified in the ring bond. By weaving these multifaceted allegorical elements together in The Merchant of Venice, and introducing his own, such as the moral difficulties of the predicaments of Jessica and Launcelot Gobbo, as reflections of Reformation cultural crises, he has created a more complete and eloquent expression of the theology of the Church of England, as it developed under Queen Elizabeth, than was ever declared by the leaders of the Church themselves.
The probable date is given by G.L. Kittredge as 1596, towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign.
Marlowe’s villain, Barabas, is a purely stereotypical caricature of the Elizabethan anti-Semitic idea.
”The courtroom scene is an adaptation of the medieval allegorical theme of the ‘Parliament of Heaven,’ in which Mercy and Justice, two of the four daughters of God, argue over the fate of mankind after the fall” (Bloom 236).
Bassanio reflects Lutheran doctrine, in that only faith embodied in the leaden casket, and grace, embodied in the preferment of Portia are necessary for his salvation. He reflects the Calvinist doctrine of election in that, once assured of salvation [Portia and her wealth], he need no longer worry about his fate, but may live happily in the Calvinist ‘Holy Commonwealth’ (Bainton 117).
Francis Fergusson’s definition of allegory: ‘This realistic orientation upon the actual individual is characteristic of the allegory as distinguished from the trope, which has to do with the timeless truths of reason’ (121) is an inversion of Barbara Lewalski’s, based on Dante, to which I apply in this essay (p.6).
However the preoccupation with outward appearance can be taken to condemn, not only the ostentation of the Islamic princes, but the grandiose ceremony and ritual of the Roman Catholics, and the Hebrew adherence to the letter over the spirit of the law.