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Merchant of Venice – The Great Conversion

The source of the Jew’s alien threat in the Elizabethan consciousness, of course, lies in their religious ostracism. Curiously, however, the religious perception of Jews in Elizabethan England was a double-sided one of both villification and hope. On the one hand, the ancient slander that the Jews had murdered Christ and were thus cursed by God were alive and well (and “explained” for some why God refused to let them assimilate into society like other immigrants). On the other hand, they were still considered to be play an important role in God’s ultimate plan.

Specifically, English Protestants, in their conflict with Catholics, needed some explanation for why God had allowed the false faith of the Catholic Church to rule for hundreds of years. To greatly simplify the matter, they looked for their answers in the Book of Daniels and the Book of Revelation:

And I saw an Angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit, and a great chain in his hand. And he took the dragon, that old serpent which is the devil and Satan, and he bound him a thousand years.
(Revelation 20:1-2)

This passage, taken from the Geneva Bible of 1587, was interpreted to mean that the Catholic Churhc had, in fact, been doing Satan’s work for a thousand years. The Pope was thus transformed into the Antichrist and the fact that God had allowed the false Catholic Church to flourish was, in fact, all part of the divine plan leading to Christ’s return. The rise of the Church of England was interpreted as the breaking of Satan’s chains, the fulfillment of God’s promise, and the beginning of the end of days.

And at that time Michael shall stand up, ye great prince, which standeth for the children of thy people, and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there began to be a nation unto that same time: And at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book.
(Daniel 12:1)

Combined with the visions of Revelation, the visions interpreted by the prophet Daniel linked the salvation of the Jews to the end of the world. For the Elizabethans, this meant a mass conversion of the Jews to Christianity. (How else could they be saved?)

So if they were right and the Catholic Church was wrong, it meant that the end of the world was nigh. And if the end of the world was nigh, then the Jews should all be converting very, very soon now. In other words, Elizabethan Protestants needed the Jews to convert in order to prove them right.

Around this time there was a major debate regarding whether the Jews should be allowed to return to England. There were, of course, political and economic factors driving this debate. But the major reason cited by proponents of a Jewish return was that Jews should be brought to England so that they could be converted in God’s chosen land (and, thus, bring about the end of the world).

When Shakespeare has Shylock (and then Gratiano) name Portia a “second Daniel” repeatedly throughout the final trial scene of The Merchant of Venice, there is a specific invocation of a millenaristic prophecy which was directly tied in the popular mind to the conversion of the Jews… which is then immediately sequeled by the conversion of a Jew.

Many modern texts will gloss the reference to Dnaiel as referring specifically to the tale of Susannah (in which Daniel saved Susannah from false accusation in a public court by cleverly questioning her accusers). If so, the choice is interesting: The tale of Susannah is not, in fact, part of the Jewish Tanakh and appears only in Christian scripture. Shakespeare would likely have been aware of this, because the tale of Susannah was also explicitly excluded from being a part of official church doctrine in the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (for similar reasons). Thus, in a religiously charged sequence, Shakespeare may be choosing to specifically allude to a key division between both Jews and Christians, and also between Catholics and Protestants.

But I’m not certain Susannah is the essential crux here, as Daniel was generally understood to be “ten times better than all the enchanters and astrologians that were in all [King Cyrus'] realm” (Daniel 1:20). Daniel was, in particular, given a particular speciality in the matter of visions and dreams (Daniel 1:17), and in that role he interpreted the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar while under the false name of Belteshazzar (just as Portia is appearing under the false name of Balthazar).

In either case, the allusion to Daniel in general ties the conversion of Shylock to a more universal debate regarding the importance of converting Jews to Christianity. Which, in turn, raises questions regarding the universal quality of the conversion-as-punishment: Shylock sought to unmake Anthonio’s Christianity; so the punishment meted by Anthonio is to unmake Shylock as a Jew. So (in the Elizabethan conception) did the Jews seek to destroy Christ and would be converted in the due course of God’s plan. And Daniel evokes Christ for us by revealing Nebuchadnezzar’s vision of a statue of gold, silver, brass, and iron (in a play where gold, silver, and lead caskets are similarly given symbolic meaning) destroyed by a great stone (later interpreted as Jesus) cut from a mountain (as the flesh is to be cut from Anthonio).

Have we delved deep? Are we now staring into our own navels instead of the play? Perhaps.

But what is certain is that the religious content of The Merchant of Venice is not a thin glaze applied to coat Shylock’s villainy. The Biblical allusions are thick in this play, and the scriptural questions often explicit. If the play thus opens itself to the rich ambiguities inherent in the apprehension of the religious experience it is almost certainly to the play’s credit.

One comment on “Merchant of Venice – The Great Conversion

  1. [...] Textual History of Merchant, Elizabethans and the Jews (Part 1 and Part 2), The Pound of Flesh, The Great Conversion, The Soul of Shylock, and The Four [...]

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