Despite what many modern critics say, Shakespeare's plays are written from a profoundly Christian perspective. This site presents literary criticism demonstrating that. To submit your essay for publication (arguing either for or against this position), email us - kevin @

Sacramental Usury in "The Merchant of Venice"

Ken Colston on Shylock, usury and The Merchant of Venice.

Sacramental Usury in The Merchant of Venice
Ken Colston

[Editor's Note: This article is also published in Logos Magazine.  We would like to thank Logos for allowing us to publish it here as well.  Also note: The Theater of the Word will be performing Scenes from The Merchant of Venice at the Shakespeare Festival at Aquinas College, produced by the Center for Faith and Culture on April 22, 2017, with commentary by Joseph Pearce.]

                    That use is not forbidden usury
Which happies those that pay the willing loan. (Sonnet IV)

In the last two decades, critics have begun to explore the religion of William Shakespeare. In particular, the old suspicion, advanced by his first biographer, that he “dyed a Papist,” has been revived by Catholic partisans, mainstream biographers, and even secular academics, some of whom speculate that he was baptized, married, and housed as one. The evidence is mostly from the biography, and it is slippery and circumstantial.[1] The plays are the thing, however, and increasingly they themselves are yielding concrete evidence of Catholic affiliations, long suspected intuitively by such literary giants as Chateaubriand, Newman, and Chesterton. David Beauregard has glimpsed such Catholic differences as the specific elements of sacramental auricular confession and of condign merit;[2] Claire Asquith has seen an elaborate, winking Catholic recusant code systematically at work;[3] Stephen Greenblatt has elaborated the “social energy” of that most contested Reformation bugbear, “purgatory,” in Hamlet;[4] Beatrice Groves has found a key to Shakespeare’s “incarnational aesthetic” in the Catholic mystery plays that he may have well seen in his youth at Coventry;[5] Allison Shell has reviewed hints that persecuted Elizabethan Catholics criticized their fellow, well-placed literary sympathizer for not writing enough on behalf of their common Catholic cause;[6] Peter Milward, laboring on the Catholic thesis for several decades, has even recently proposed an inventive correspondence between Shakespeare’s plays and the holy Rosary.[7]

In general, Shakespeare’s plays reveal important “field identification markers” of a Catholic dramatist in a Protestant land, I contend, not necessarily as code words but as a working theological vocabulary of a thinker formed, loosely and popularly, more in the traditional Augustinian-Thomist tradition than in the Calvinist-Lutheran reform. Where divergences between the Catholic and Reformation theologies arise, Shakespeare leans Catholic: toward hierarchy, natural law, cooperative grace (pilgrimage, penance, purgatory, indulgence), sacraments, liturgical pageantry, religious authority, supererogatory acts of supernatural gift-love, and laxity.[8] To the presence and current relevance of these markers, which abound both as central themes and as casual allusions in a variety of plays, may be added a salient but surprisingly ignored one: the traditional Catholic understanding of economic order in Merchant of Venice, proceeding from sacramental union rather than from capitalistic contract, a contrast, partly imagined, partly reflecting a changing social reality, between a newer anxious economy of debt (Venice) and an older easy economy of sacrificial gift (Belmont), a difference expressed by dichotomous meanings of “bond” organizing the idea pageantry of the play: the legal “bond” as a temporary, limited, breakable written agreement between two hostile parties, and the “marriage bond” as a permanent, infinite, indissoluble spoken promise between lover and beloved, a total sacrifice of self that proceeds both by God’s operative grace and by an effect of man’s cooperative grace that we may call sacramental usury.

The word Catholic here does not necessarily mean that Shakespeare’s religious longing was ultramontane, recusant, seditious, underground, Marian Roman Catholic, theologically precise, clearly demarcated, coded in a winking argot transparent to fellow Papist sympathizers, or confident about narrow propositions. It rather reflects a general, traditional Catholic orientation or play of mind, some of which can be found within, for example, even the (at times) Thomistic Richard Hooker or the Lutheran Tudor court itself (both Cecil and Elizabeth venerated the crucifix), but clearly opposed to radical Protestantism, represented by Calvinistic Puritans, the theology of which was ushering in a view of usury, moneylending, and money itself more friendly to capitalism. Shakespeare’s mind was fashioned in a conservative mold, orthodox but not rigid, skeptical of change and newness, biased toward older formulations, a popular-agrarian-feudal religiosity. If Shakespeare and his audience thrashed about in the “great muddled middle” between Protestant and Catholic extremes,[9] the theological expression in his drama is clearly orthodox. At the same time, Shakespeare often seems simultaneously an heir of Thomistic essentialism and a forerunner of existential personalism, a religious thinker somewhat surprisingly relevant even to contemporary economic thought, with capitalism under scrutiny again in the wake of the Great Recession.

Melancholia and Capitalism

Antonio’s melancholy (1.1.1) is not so mysterious.[10] The medieval theory of the four humors made melancholy a characteristic psychological condition that needed no further explanation, but Shakespeare has also arrayed sufficient circumstances to make Antonio’s “want-wit sadness” a consequence of capitalism. While Antonio denies his friend Salerio’s claim that he “is sad to think upon his merchandise” hazarded at sea (1.1.39), surely the merchant protests too much when he boasts that diversifying his ventures into several bottoms (1.1.41) has made him “thank his fortune” (1.1.40). The play as a whole shows that worry about enterprise is not unfounded. Capital-market commerce, investing in products at several removes from their production, is a game of constant risk and uncertainty. Salerio not only foreshadows Antonio’s misfortune but also depicts the entire anxious atmosphere of emerging capitalism:

My wind cooling my broth
Would blow me to an ague when I thought
What harm a wind too great might do at sea.
I should not see the sandy hourglass run
But I should think of shallows and of flats,
And see my wealthy Andrew docks in sand,
Vailing her high top lower than her ribs,
To kiss her burial. Should I go to church
And see the holy edifice of stone
And not bethink me straight of dangerous rocks,
Which touching but my gentle vessel’s side,
Would scatter all her spices on the stream,
Enrobe the roaring waters with my silks—
And in a word, but even now worth this,
And now worth nothing. (1.1.21–35)

Salerio inverts the image of the Church, the traditional rock of security instituted by Christ and founded upon the flinty Peter; in this puffy new international economy, even its stability cannot calm thoughts of danger. Secular commercial anxiety threatens the old religious serenity. “Argosies with portly sail,” “pageants of the sea” flying “with woven wings” (1.1.8,10,13), might suddenly wreck and “vail” their high tops lower than their ribs (1.1.27), seen as the exposed rib cage of a corpse, and require “burial (1.1.28); that is, sudden death might kill and rot away the “precious vessel” of silken cargo, seen as a feminine vehicle. The “sandy hourglass” of time drips a constant reminder that economic ventures might be reduced to “nothing” at any second. Antonio’s anxiety, despite his hubristic dismissal, has thus a well-founded economic basis. Moreover, Salerio’s choice of spices and silks as cargo reveals moral disdain for an economy founded on consumption of showy but empty superfluities to puff up the sails of mercantile “signiors and rich burghers on the flood,” fixing commerce in the aspirational upper-middle-class that “overpeer the petty trafficers/That curtsey to them, do them reverence” (1.1.9–13). At the same time, Salerio’s metaphor gently discloses the bountiful, mysterious God of nature as the creator of surplus value: the wind blowing fortune, as it were, like a Venetian glassmaker.

However much Portia and Shylock dominate the drama, Antonio possesses the title. He is the Merchant of Venice, and his personal economic angst, an insistent death-dread unrelieved apparently by an insurance system, stands for the city’s emotional vulnerability—a peculiar setting with which to introduce a “comical history” (as the first published Quarto entitled it). While engaged in the new global economy, Antonio possesses the values of the old feudal order. Gratiano’s accusation that he is a Puritanical killjoy, a “Sir Oracle” of “wisdom, gravity, profound conceit,” does not really stick on this figure of the aristocratic past, whose values are those of love and gift, not contract and exchange. His frustration lies therein: he is a traditionalist in an uncomfortable business suit. Friendship with Bassanio is where his treasure resides; the “petty” acquaintances immediately yield to this deeper relationship when Bassanio, the jocular prodigal, bounces on stage and lightens Antonio’s dark mood. Bassanio’s self-accusation that he has spent his “time something too prodigal” connects with Salerio’s “portly sail” metaphor of line 9:

‘Tis not unknown to you, Antonio,
How much I have disabled mine estate
By something showing a more swelling port
Than my faint means would grant continuance (1.1.122–25).

Bassanio does not present himself as a victim of a credit economy; he recognizes that his own prodigality, his “willful youth,” has caused his “great debts” and that Antonio’s love has enabled it, and yet neither does he “make moan to be abridged/From such a noble rate” (1.1.126–27). Thus, we have here economy understood in its traditional way: as an expression of morality.

Catholic and Protestant Markers

Something, however, has changed in Bassanio’s credit history. On his secret pilgrimage to Belmont, this prodigal son has found a “lady richly left” (1.1.161). Often actors and commentators read Bassanio as a gold-digging playboy, but his emphasis in describing Portia to Antonio for the first time is on her “wondrous virtues, nothing undervalued/To Cato’s daughter” (1.1.163, 165–66). The words “undervalued” and “worth” for Portia are meant in their moral rather than in their commercial sense. The economic palette from which Portia’s values are colored shows how even Venice’s capitalistic atmosphere grasps at the transcendentals beauty and goodness. To be sure, Bassanio is not unaware of Portia’s wealth, but he sees it as an obstacle and her personal beauty and virtue as his true objects. Antonio’s deep friendship with Bassanio doesn’t prevent him from raising the question of Bassanio’s “secret pilgrimage” (a field identification marker of a Catholic practice condemned by the Church of England as idolatrous, the first connection of Belmont to Catholicism), listening patiently to his hyperbolic praise of his newest infatuation, and then, with his liquid assets at zero, offering an unlimited credit line with no twinge of jealousy of “fair Portia.” 

What have we learned of the text’s attitude toward the commodities market? It is associated with waste, acedia, and frivolity—consumer debt to purchase silk and spices, precisely one objection that Aristotle and Aquinas raised about trade as a state of life. Aristotle writes about the psychological turbulence of trade in the Politics: “Some people suppose that it is the function of household management to increase property, and they are continually under the idea that it is their duty to be either safeguarding their substance in money or increasing it to an unlimited amount. The cause of this state of mind is that their interests are set upon life but not upon the good life.”[11] Trade itself “is justly discredited, for it is not in accordance with nature, but involves men’s taking things from one another.” Usury was even worse than trade in the ancient and medieval tradition, “most reasonably hated,” because it is “the most unnatural form of wealth,” for its gain comes from money breeding on money.[12] Christ’s criticisms of trade in the Gospels occur in many places, but perhaps the most salient here is “Consider the lilies how they grow: they labor not, neither spin they” (Lk 12:27, Geneva version). Aquinas objected to trade’s serving “the lust for gain.”[13]

            In contrast, some Protestant preachers softened this traditional Catholic opposition against both usury and commerce itself.[14] For example, Daniel Price argued against the anti-commercial classical and medieval tradition, wherein St. Jerome called Arabian merchants “the thieves of the world,” Plato banned them from his Republic, Cicero blamed them for ruining Greece with pride, covetousness, luxury, and wickedness, and Erasmus denied them anything good or holy. Price’s sermon instead praises the Christian vocation of the merchant: “the stories and customs of Jews and gentiles, Grecians and barbarians, infidels and Christians, do acknowledge the necessity, dignity, and excellency of merchants . . . the most diligent for his life, the most assiduous in his labor, the most adventurous on the sea, the most beneficial to the land, the glory of his country, and the best pillar of his commonwealth.” The merchant is the type of the Pauline active Christian who runs the race for Christ: “We are all merchants. We cannot find the pearl of great price until we have fought for many good pearls. O then run, wrestle, strive, sail, toil, labor, fight the good fight, finish the course, seek to be like to the good merchant.” [15] 

  While this sermon was preached nearly a decade after Merchant was written, Shakespeare does not share its commendation of commerce. While he was himself a businessman, his text exploits that traditional Catholic prejudice against trade. Antonio is decidedly not Price’s merchant crusader or Max Weber’s ascetic Protestant. He cares for friendship, not ships; his concern is neither consumption nor production but sharing of his goods, his own person, and even his friend. The emotional register of Venetian commodities trading here moves from antic verbosity to unexplained angst; at any moment, fortunes may be lost. Wealth derives from capital and speculation, not labor and intrinsic value. A negative attitude towards the commodities market, if not against a proto-consumer society, in which Antonio’s unstable fortune exists, emerges in this first scene. This overvalued world of silly gentlemen of a nobility deeply in debt[16]—is a vulnerable, anxious world ruled by the blind chance of insubstantial wind and fickle weather arbitrarily yielding increase or loss (literally as windfall) and peopled with light acquaintances who come and go quickly, without labor or leisure, and an unfair world like ours, where we constantly check our smartphones for capital market updates. Against it rises like a distant dream the “richly left” and “undervalued” fair lady’s Belmont, a world not of business “venture” but of sacred “pilgrimage,” the home of a priceless heroine named after a classical figure known for her shrewd goodness, a land more appropriate for Antonio and Bassanio than their avaricious Venice.

Gabriel Egan points out that miserliness was especially wicked in the Elizabethan 1590s, which were experiencing serious inflation. In such circumstances, hoarding was a sure way to lose capital, and therefore Bassanio’s prodigality may be seen in the more favorable biblical light of the parables of the prodigal son and of the talents.[17] In contrast, Shylock later turns his ducats into a “commodity fetish,”[18] arguing that his right to Antonio’s must be upheld by the Venetian practice of slavery (4.1.89ff). Against Shylock’s narrow accountancy of a limited fortune, which he must borrow in turn from Tybalt and the success of which is the information economy of the Rialto (“What news on the Rialto?” [3.1.1]), stands Portia’s fabulous, boundless wealth. Her property, shared immediately with her betrothed and his circle, stands opposed to Shylock’s narrow, deadly sin of avarice. Who would be hated more than a moneylender? Her spontaneous offer of 36,000 ducats has been calculated to be worth almost ten million dollars in today’s money.[19] No wonder that Venice is anxious and Belmont is bored!

Some critics have claimed that Shakespeare has attributed to Shylock qualities associated by his contemporaries not with Jews but with Puritans. E. E. Stohl was the first, Peter Milward informs us, to assert that Shylock would have reminded Shakespeare’s audience of the Puritans, who were the “precisians and Pharisees in [their] midst.”[20] Milward develops the association more fully and finds seven parallels between Shakespeare’s Shylock and Elizabethan representations of Puritans: occupation of usury, habit of proof texting, reliance on Mosaic Law, application of cruel legalistic justice, emphasis on sobriety and thrift, demonstrations of pietistic hypocrisy, and refusal to eat and drink with common churchgoers.[21] (Milward has found ample evidence of Shakespeare’s animus against Puritans throughout his plays.[22]) Paul Siegel notes that the Puritans, like Shylock, were often seen by Elizabethans as usurious Pharisaic hypocrites and misers contemptuous of merrymaking and revelry and that Shakespeare’s Jew also has a modern parallel as a ruthless capitalist because his lending money gratis brings down the rate of usance.[23]  Max Weber himself called Shakespeare “a connoisseur of Puritanism who observed it with the keen eye afforded by hatred.”[24] One can see why: Weber’s Puritan ascetic eschewed sensuality, the feudal landed economy, ostentatious wealth, sport, and art itself—all a part of the medieval Shakespearean aesthetic.

The Anglican socialist economic historian R. H. Tawney refined Max Weber’s famous thesis within sixteenth century English circumstances. He attributed the rise of individualistic capitalism in England to Calvin and his English Puritan followers, whose participation in trade and finance and eventual cultural supremacy over landed aristocracy removed the stigma attaching to those domains considered vulgar and vicious by the medieval Catholic tradition. Of course, this revolution took centuries to complete, but Protestant economic individualism was beginning to split away from Catholic corporatism in Shakespeare’s day. While Calvin himself distinguished between legitimate moderate interest for loans to businessmen and usurious interest on loans to the poor, Calvinism opened the door to usury “by enabling its critics of the traditional doctrine to argue that religion itself spoke with an uncertain voice.”[25] Some members of Parliament regarded the usury laws as “an antiquated remnant of popery.”[26] Whereas medieval councils and early Protestant preaching condemned usury as a sin, with even small interest on loans condemned as late as Benedict XIV’s encyclical Vix pervenit in 1745, the Elizabethan House of Commons redefined usury to be the taking of interest above ten percent as early as 1571.[27] Even the Tudors favored the traditional Catholic distributist state of Chesterbelloc’s small craftsmen and peasant farmers, praised by Francis Bacon.[28] Aquinas (Summa Theologiae 2 q. 2, a. 77, ad 4) criticized the occupation of merchant for confusing means with ends and serving the lust for gain.[29] The traditional medieval model was the communist ideal, society as the body of Christ, trade was legitimate in a fallen world but dangerous to the soul, and finance was sordid.[30] English Catholic monarchs had controlled the economy through the Privy Council to protect stability and hierarchy against merchants and financiers and continued to do so against Puritan capitalists in the Restoration.[31] 

Shakespeare demonstrates much of this traditional Catholic bias against commerce in his depiction of Shylock as the real merchant of Venice, transforming Antonio into an aristocratic lord who eventually is brought into the gracious world of Belmont. Antonio’s success as a merchant has obviously not been due to the burgher’s vulgar skills of mathematical shrewdness, tough bargaining, and eye for value, but rather to the lord’s virtues of trust, generosity, and friendship—and, so far, simple good luck or Providence. Venice represents this emerging capitalistic economy, an economy, moreover, that causes textual anxiety maybe in particular because Shakespeare himself was a part of it as a stock-holder in a theater company, as the son of a usurer for whom he sought a coat of arms,[32] and as a usurer himself, both demanding and suing for payments on exorbitant interest rates.[33] In 1597, he was found guilty of hoarding ten quarters of malt during famine times in Stratford.[34]

The Weber-Tawney thesis continues to have its partisans among historians of early modern England. Norman Jones upholds the broad relationship drawn between capitalism and Calvinism,[35] and Craig Muldrew and Delloyd Guth argue that an “Age of Debt” was giving way to an “Age of Contract” as a result of the Protestant de-emphasis of works to pay off the debt of sin: the written word of a legal contract was replacing the unspecified trust and works exchanged between creditor and debtor.[36] It is not, however, that Shakespeare is necessarily winking at his Catholic audience or attempting to represent a social reality in fine detail. To be sure, Calvinist theologians and the Church of England’s own Book of Homilies urged generosity toward the poor and railed against avarice. Crucial for the audience instead is Shakespeare’s use of the broad perception of social reality and of Christian theology. In the agon or idea pageantry of literature, ideas about social reality carry the burden. Most importantly, it is the combination of the critical view of capitalism and the praise of aristocratic generosity that most plausibly marks Shakespeare’s religious thought as traditionally Catholic. The opposition between bourgeois Protestant Venice and aristocratic Catholic Belmont is a construction consistent with the social reality in early modern England, where Protestantism was strongest in London and Catholicism strongest in the countryside,[37] and where Puritans might have been seen as “middling classes.”[38] Shakespeare employs ideas as a playwright, however, not as an historian.

Belmont and Sacrificial Gift

Belmont represents the counterpart, the landed past, mythologized, to be sure, but carrying the moral center of the play. It is usually seen as the land of ease, grace, beauty, harmony, music, bounty, and generosity, but it also carries less obvious traditional meanings: prudence, entail, oaths, arranged marriages, laxity, infinity, timelessness. Whereas Venice is specific to actual geography, however unlike sixteenth-century Venice it may have been, Belmont is entirely mythical and gives the play the fairy tale character that many have observed. The suitors are lords hailing from the wide world, from Protestant, Catholic, and even Muslim countries, but the economic world is that of the passing feudal tradition. In contrast to pressing usury and trade of Venice, Belmont stands for natural wealth and wise if demanding entail. Its fortune is vague and mysterious but secure and natural: “beautiful mountain,” one of those places in the Mediterranean that is rich not because of industry but because of providential endowment—a wealth managed not by risky business ventures but by good marriages and paternal foresight. The ultimate source of its wealth is never explicit, lost in the mists of mountains, an uncountable accumulation and cornucopia[39] that neither toils nor labors nor spins. Gold and silver cannot purchase it, although three thousand ducats appear its qualifying opening bid or the travel money to venture there. Above all, Belmont offers the infinite, incommensurable, divine wealth of the human person; Bassanio’s suit is for Portia’s “wondrous virtues” (1.1.163), not her estate, as the Argonaut Jason (1.1.171–73) sails off in an extravagant, romantic quest, which, of course, marriage essentially is. Among several other associations of Portia with a Catholic lady, the suitor Morocco, Moorish but perhaps converted, employs two transgressive Catholic field identification markers in his comparison of her to a “shrine” and “mortal living saint” (2.7.40).

Belmont is the rich land of traditional family-building marriage aligning choice with prudence; Venice is weakened by such family-destroying elopement as Jessica’s and Lorenzo’s. It is not, of course, that Shakespeare is writing an economic treatise or ethics manual, but his sympathies are clear: Portia’s dead father is not seen as a tyrant but as a “holy” and wise father (1.2.27), nor can his entail be construed as constraining but should be rather interpreted as freeing the young betrothed, “unlessoned, unschooled, unpracticed” (3.2.159), from an inexperienced decision. It is a way of correcting infatuation with virtue. He knows that her fortune will make her prey to gold diggers and that marriage must be founded on a permanent thing, a total commitment demanded by the lead casket: “Who chooseth me shall give and hazard all he hath” (emphasis mine). In a Catholic emphasis on the cooperative grace of man’s effort rather than on the operative grace of God’s will, Shakespeare stresses here human self-donation by substituting it for God’s providence in his Gesta Romanorum source, “Whoso chooseth me shall find that God hath disposed.”[40] The word give insists on the essence of the suitor’s quid pro quo: he receives a chance on everything by risking everything in a donation unrestricted in every direction and dimension: “all he hath.” In requiring the risk of lifelong celibacy on a bet for infinite joy, it even echoes the Catholic priest’s evangelical counsel rejected by the Reformation. It is not, in worldly terms, a fair contractual lottery because, as marriage and love always do, it requires giving everything for the only one. While Antonio’s credit is a foreshadowing of generosity and self-gift, it is partial: a pound of flesh for three thousand ducats—as Shylock insists, no more, no less. Belmont’s casket lottery is the true lottery of chance requiring one to be all in, but it is grounded in an entail that rewards not luck but traditional wisdom—Chesterton’s famous “democracy of the dead in Orthodoxy—that can still live and act, whereas the notarized bond is subject only to the immediate desires of the current parties.”

Antonio’s bond with Shylock is time-sensitive at three months, and the action in Venice in general moves quickly, like bidding at a stock market. Shakespeare may be reflecting the rapidly increasing use of the bond in early modern England, which sometimes included even penal clauses and usurious penalties for tardiness as high as 100 percent.[41] In contrast, Belmont’s ventures draw on, like simple interest-free “oral credit” that had characterized the earlier feudal economy.[42] When Bassanio approaches the caskets, Portia wishes that he would “tarry” and “pause a day or two”; she would “detain [him] some month or two.” A day or two, a month or two, Shylock is not there to count. He will be in the courtroom, however, when Portia asks him to “tarry a little” (4.1.301) before executing his bond; a few extra minutes to read the bond more scrupulously render it null and void. What Shylock claims as the greatest violation of the bond is not that Antonio has failed to pay but that he has failed to pay on time! (Weber’s first noted maxim of Benjamin Franklin was, “Time is money.”[43] Which, for a usurious money lender, it most certainly is.) Belmont’s very language is cast under the timeless spell—almost entirely poetry, long batches of blank verse, riming tetrameters, even song, whereas the copious prose in Venice is choppy, nervous, manic, whether Lancelot’s wayward inanity or Shylock’s nervous repetitions: “Ho, no, no, no, no: my meaning in saying he is a good man is to have you understand me that he is sufficient: he hath an argosy bound to Tripolis, another to the Indies. I understand, moreover on the Rialto, he hath a third at Mexico, a fourth for England, and other ventures he hath squandered abroad,” (1.3.14–19) or “I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, and so following. But I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you. What news on the Rialto? Who is he comes here?” (1.3.31–33). In contrast, Belmont is rich with leisurely set pieces to accompany long ceremonious pageants: Morocco’s (2.7.13–60), Arragon’s (2.9.19–52), Portia’s (3.2.1–23, 39–62), Bassanio’s (3.2.73–107), and Lorenzo’s and Jessica’s (5.2.1–88). Order, control, harmony, and timelessness are the linguistic rule at Belmont.

Infinity and totality are the modes of love’s sacrifice. An oath of celibacy, silence, and exile binds the suitors if they choose wrong. If they choose rightly, Portia tells Bassanio as he deliberates, she in turn will bestow her entire being:

One half of me is yours, the other half yours—
Mine own I would say—but if mine then yours,
And so all yours. (3.2.16–18)

In contrast to the pound of flesh demanded by Shylock as forfeit on three thousand ducats, Portia promises an unspecified but immediate totality of self-donation:

Myself and what is mine to you and yours
Is now converted. But now, I was the lord
Of this fair mansion, master of my servants,
Queen o’er myself: and even now, but now
This house, these servants, and this same myself,
Are yours, my lord’s. (3.2.166–71)

“This same myself”—Portia gives, it is important to see, not merely her entire fiscal and landed inheritance, but her very self, her entire being, forgoing, Katharine Maus points out, the common Elizabethan custom of “coverture,” by which the bride could reserve a portion of the estate to a male trustee to protect her from a spendthrift husband like Bassanio.[44]

If Venice represents the everyday workaday world, Belmont represents festival—marriage festival specifically: holiday, the Catholic excess to which Luther objected.[45] Joseph Pieper elaborates on the meaning of festival as the antithesis of utilitarian existence in its sacrifice of labor for the sake of the love of God:

The antithesis between holiday and workday, or more precisely, the concept of the day of the day of rest, tells us something further about the essence of festivity. The day of rest is not just a neutral interval inserted as a link in the chain of workday life. It entails a loss of utilitarian profit. . . . The day of rest, then, meant not only that no work was done, but also that an offering was being made of the yield of labor. It is not merely that the time is not gainfully used; the offering is in the nature of a sacrifice; and therefore the diametric opposite of utility.
. . . A festival is essentially a phenomenon of wealth; not, to be sure, the wealth of money, but of existential richness. Absence of calculation, in fact lavishness, is one of its elements.
 . . . We do not renounce things, then, except for love.[46] (emphases mine)

Pieper cites an early work by Aquinas (Commentary on the Sentences [of Peter Lombard], 3 d. 37, I, 5, I and I) in which he makes the beatific vision the object of contemplation of festival days and reproaches the Jews, agreeing with Seneca, for filling the Sabbath with empty rituals and missing the divinorum contemplatio.[47]

Marriage in Belmont reconstitutes an idealized feudal world of bonds not through notarized contracts but by oaths, with fealty, in vassalage, of the entire person. The difference is immense—it is immensity itself. Bassanio will be Portia’s lord, governor, and king (3.2.165), whereas Shylock will control only a precisely measured pound of flesh. The marriage bond, in contrast to the contract bond, has no exit clause, no surety, no forfeit penalty: two souls are indissolubly united into one common life and fortune. It is a supernatural arrangement, not contrary to nature like usury but perfecting it, a sacramental union insisted upon by Trent and rejected as a sacrament by the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. Shylock’s narrow imagination wants only a pound of flesh, whereas Antonio would have been willing to give him his entire body, as Portia gives Bassanio hers. He fails to see the totality of the human person, which, as Portia intimates, is of infinite and not fungible value. Instead of a written legal document specifying limiting terms, the symbol of the wedding bond, the ring, confirms an open-ended but life-and-death (rather than piece of flesh) commitment, the perfect circle of love. Not writing anything down and therefore free from a legalistic and narrowed interpretation, Bassanio promises his own ontological totality in a spoken, open vow:

But when this ring
Parts from this finger, then parts life from hence.
O then be bold to say Bassanio’s dead. (3.2.183–85)

The marriage bargain, as Gratiano calls it, yields immediate infinite increase, not limited interest, for he announces that his own spontaneous decision to marry Nerissa came as love bred love: “You loved; I loved” (3.2.199). These explicit monetary metaphors to describe the mutual self-gift of marriage are meant to contrast with the bargain that Shylock has struck with Antonio. Portia does a different kind of arithmetic to parody, not emulate, the accounting language of commercial transaction:

Though for myself alone
 I would not be ambitious in my wish
To wish myself much better, yet for you
I would be trebled twenty times myself—
A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times
More rich; that only to stand high in your account
I might in virtues, beauties, livings, friends
Exceed account. But the full sum of me
Is sum of something, which to term in gross
Is an unlessoned girl, unschooled, unpracticed. (3.2.150–59, emphases mine)

When she learns that Antonio’s losses at sea have made him forfeit the bond, she immediately offers, “Pay him six thousand and deface the bond;/Double six thousand and then treble that, . . .” (3.2.298–99). Extravagant inexact increase was curiously the condition of Shylock’s own inapposite defense of usury to Antonio on biblical grounds; his money, he claims, “breeds as fast” as the “work of generation” of Jacob’s flocks, an allusion that shows that Shakespeare was aware of the traditional Church objection against usury, going back to Aristotle, that it was sinful because it was unnatural for money to breed money. It is supernatural, however, for love to breed love. Shylock’s biblical proof texting, like that of Puritan money lenders,[48] fails according to the infinite promises of Belmont. His choice of a text ironically reveals the ultimate source of worldly wealth: beyond human ingenuity or duplicity to God’s fertility expressed in animal husbandry, a natural miracle implicitly more represented by mythical Belmont than by money-crazed Venice.

The world of supernatural grace, however, is not a fairy world without “sufferance,” as Shylock calls the pain of his escaped daughter and stolen ducats. Hazarding all may mean losing all. One cannot give, so the Incarnation and the Cross teach, without complete sacrifice. Portia does not shrink. She testifies to this existential flesh-and-blood commitment just before the song accompanying Bassanio’s perusal of the caskets:

I stand for sacrifice,
The rest aloof are the Dardanian wives
With bleared visages come forth to view
The issue of th’exploit. (3.2.57–60)

She is the giving sacrificed thing itself, her entire person, like that of the Homeric warrior, and we are reminded both of Antonio’s partial flesh-and-blood sacrifice for Bassanio and of Shylock’s later contrasting self-characterization in the Venetian court: “I stand here for law” (4.1.141). The sacrifice of grace is not the exact quid pro quo of exchange but the indefinite hope and trust of an oath. The first two false caskets are money caskets of silver and gold, the metals of the New World inflating the Venetian economy of commerce and usury, commodities and finance.

Shakespeare makes Portia a lady on a landed estate of traditional, somewhat mysterious, but immeasurable wealth, whose source is not human speculation but heaven itself. Portia lives not in the doges’ republic but in the Pope’s domain, unspecified Italy, a country of sacramental marriage, virtue, and blessing in contrast to the city of vice, idle bachelorhood, and curse. Jessica makes the association of Belmont and its lady with heaven in the comic scene following the marriage scene, a scene that will yield three marriages, for Belmont proliferates self-gift:

. . . It is very meet
The lord Bassanio live an upright life,
For having such a blessing in his lady
He finds the joys of heaven here on earth. (3.5.66–69)

Thus, in its embrace of sacramental marriage as a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, Belmont may represent one of the great Catholic estates in Lancashire, a “hotbed of recusancy,” that Shakespeare might have enjoyed in his twenties as a tutor, such as Hoghton Tower, whose recusant and ultimately exiled owner may have bequeathed Shakespeare a small annuity.[49]

Applying Shakespeare’s use of ideas in Merchant, Sean Lawrence analyzes the binary opposition between “gift” and “exchange,” or the two meanings of “bond” as contract or marriage, in the frameworks of the major anthropologists and philosophers Mauss, Douglas, Levinas, and Derrida. Lawrence reviews the arguments that Bassanio’s and Portia’s mutual gifts are really self-serving, that total and pure gift is impossible, and that Belmont is a satirical aristocratic mirror of middle-class Venice, embroiled in the same mercenary and mercantile anxiety and stratagems, and that the Reformation theology of radical grace fails in the courtroom scene.[50] Without engaging in this philosophical and anthropological controversy, Karoline Szatek argues that Belmont’s green, fairy world is a mere disguise for its own, and especially Portia’s, Venetian commercial bondages.[51] A Catholic Christian reading of the play, however, works against such interpretations.

First, Bassanio wins the lottery, it must be noticed, because he follows, as it were, the evangelical counsel of hazarding his sexuality, the beatitude of meekness in choosing lead and receiving Portia’s heavenly kingdom, and the Gospel principle of seeking the last in order to become the first. Second, the “special deed of gift” (5.1.292) of all of Shylock’s remaining possessions that Portia, through Nerissa, enjoins upon him to pass to Jessica and Lorenzo in the trial scene (4.1.384ff), is called by this rewarded gentleman “manna” (5.2.293), which is of course, a typological figure of Christianity’s most significant sacrament, the Eucharist, the source and summit of divine love: “Fair ladies, you drop manna in the way of starved people” (5.1.293–94).[52] Like Portia’s “mercy,” landed wealth “droppeth like the gentle rain of heaven upon the place beneath” (4.1.189–90); Holy Eucharist is thus a special figure of Belmont’s mysterious, miraculous wealth. Human effort may augment it, but heaven endows it—indeed, an aristocratic estate is a working example of that traditional Catholic category, cooperation with grace. Shylock’s “title” or justification of usury, the animal breeding of Laban’s flocks, ironically applies rather to Belmont’s agricultural wealth of “husbandry” (3.4.25). The anthropologists and philosophers may see all gifts as impossible, but the theologians can see them as supernatural.

Third, Shakespeare explicitly associates Belmont’s lady to the lost Catholic world with specific Catholic practices condemned by Protestants. After “commending” the “husbandry and manage of [her] house” to Lorenzo, Portia, to whom Bassanio had earlier gone on “secret pilgrimage,” uses the language of forbidden Popish religion to deceive Lorenzo:

. . . For mine own part,
I have toward heaven breathed a secret vow
To live in prayer and contemplation,
Only attended by Nerissa here,
Until her husband and my lord’s return.
There is a monastery two miles off,
And there we will abide. (3.5.26–32, emphases mine)

In act 5, the messenger Stephano brings the news that Portia, “a holy hermit” of Catholic monasticism, is tarrying over Stations of the Cross on her return to Belmont:

. . . She doth stray about
By holy crosses where she kneels and prays
For happy wedlock hours. (5.1.30–32)

Portia is treating the banned pilgrimage cross as a forbidden Catholic sacramental: her marriage preparation, as it were, includes contemplation and penance. Prayer cannot be considered a necessary part of a system of exchange. Contemplatio is yet another Catholic field identification marker.

            Fourth, yes, sacramental marriage involves obligations, debts, duties, and sacrifice, but can Portia’s selfless service to Bassanio, the infinite opening of her purse, the free outpouring of gift upon gift in the Belmontification of Venice, really be reduced to a system of mutual exchange? The exchange is neither equal nor proportionate nor even rational; it is hazarded recklessly and freely; it cannot be bound by quantity or time. While Portia does submit originally to the concept of an arranged marriage, Shakespeare frees her absolutely from that bondage of her will by having providence grant her Bassanio, the object of her personal desire, whereas in Shakespeare’s likely source Il Pecorone she is a figure of duplicity and avarice.[53] Moreover, in an act gratuitously beyond her father’s entail, she freely accepts Bassanio a second time in act 5, despite his subsequent pseudo-infidelity in giving away her marriage ring. Thus, she personifies both the sacrificial and superfluous dimensions of grace.

Finally, a more Catholic theology of grace, characterized by mercy, laxity, and accompanying works (Portia’s “deeds of mercy” in her famous speech), operates in Merchant differently from Calvinistic irresistible grace and in opposition to Puritan rigorism—the latter represented, according to Peter Milward, by Shylock’s strict observance of law. Milward quotes Matthew Sutcliffe’s depiction of Puritans (Answer to a Certain Libel, 1592) as guilty of inhuman cruelty in racking rents, demanding usury, and “skinning the poor” generally.[54] He quotes the moderate Anglican John Whitgift (Defence of the Answer to the Admonition, 1574) in charging the Puritan Thomas Cartwright of wishing to apply the strict Mosaic law of capital punishment upon idolators, adulterers, and moneylenders.[55] Shylock boldly proclaims in the trial, “I stand for law.” His rigorism stands thus explicitly contrasted with Portia’s earlier generous promise to Bassanio, “I stand for sacrifice.” Sacrifice is spoken gift; law is written demand. Sacrifice is a pledge, an oath; law is a bond, a contract. Perhaps Shakespeare was aware of the post-biblical tradition that Baltasar, which he adds to his course, was one of the three gift-bearing wise men to the Christ child, for Portia in her juris doctor disguise dispenses gifts in her table-turning of narrowly interpreted but generously applied justice: through the executive arm of the Duke and plea-bargaining with Antonio, the gift of life and property to Antonio, of a stay of execution or pardon of Shylock’s own forfeited life and property, a deed to Lorenzo and Jessica, and of Christian conversion to Shylock. Portia’s justice as mercy operates through forced legalism for the goal of generosity. Her mercy, departing from the Lutheran formulation against works righteousness, is the traditional Catholic understanding of freely offered works cooperating with grace. She tells the “Jew” that God’s grace is of course not deserved but itself teaches corporal works of mercy:

But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute to God himself,
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this—
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. (4.1.189–98, emphasis mine)

Earlier, the silver casket contained the image of a “blinking idiot,” Pelagian fool’s silver, as it were: he who thinks he deserves heaven’s graces, like the arrogant Aragon who “assumes desert” (2.9.50), is giving trust to the efforts of a fool.

Imitating the duplicitous means of the unjust steward (Lk 16:1–13), Portia’s justice ultimately yields mercy, forgiveness, pardon, cancelled debts—all gifts, since they are not due in strict justice. These are in addition to the gifts of life that Antonio and Bassanio have made to each other in the trial scene. Antonio’s offer of self-sacrifice has been somewhat grandiloquent:

Say how I loved you; speak me fair in death.
And when the tale is told, bid her be judge
Whether Bassanio had not once a love.
Repent but you that you shall lose your friend
And he repents not that he pays your debt;
For if the Jew do cut but deep enough,
I’ll pay it instantly with all my heart. (4.1.271–77)

Bassanio’s reply was to make a substitute sacrifice of total self-gift:

            Antonio, I am married to a wife
Which is as dear to me as life itself;
But life itself, my wife, and all the world
Are not with me esteemed above thy life.
I would lose all—aye, sacrifice them all
Here to this devil—to deliver you. (4.1.278–83)

The total mutual friendship of Bassanio and Antonio does not really threaten the marriage of Portia and Bassanio, which must be seen as a higher union, for both Bassanio and Antonio are transported by rhetorical excess that envisions a contrary-to-fact hypothetical. Shylock would not accept any substitute for his pound of flesh. Moreover, Portia witnesses this betrayal full on, and yet she not only pardons Bassanio for this rhetorical infidelity but also bears the letter with the news of Antonio’s three argosies “richly come to harbor” (5.1.277). Her forgiveness and restoration of the ring with no sign of jealousy (she merely teases later) are further gifts, and Antonio declares, “Sweet lady, you have given me life and living” (5.1.286), his melancholy restored, and friendship not endangering but rather adding to married love. Indeed, Gratiano appeals to the Catholic doctrine of the intercession of saints to deliver Antonio from Pharisaic legalism:

I have a wife who I protest I love—
I would she were in heaven so she could
Entreat some power to change this currish Jew. (4.1.286–88)

The Duke characterizes this world of immediate and proliferating gift as Christian in essence and in contrast to Jewish law:

That thou shalt see the difference of our spirit,
I pardon thee thy life before thou ask it.
For half thy wealth, it is Antonio’s;
The other half comes to the general state,
Which humbleness may drive unto a fine. (4.1.364–68)

In other words, the state itself offers to reduce its title in law to half of Shylock’s estate to a small fine, itself acting generously beyond its due. When Shylock points out that taking the means whereby he lives is to take his life, Antonio makes a second stay of execution by immediately forswearing his half of Shylock’s goods until his death but holding them in “use” or trust, where the estate will go to the new Christian couple of his Jewish house, Lorenzo and Jessica, as a “gift . . . of all he dies possessed” (4.1.385). For this “favor,” Antonio proposes terms that would have been seen as generous then but strike most readers today as cruel: that Shylock “presently become a Christian” (4.1.383). They are ironic to either set of readers, for Antonio stipulates that Shylock “record a gift” of his estate in writing to the Christian couple, and Portia orders a clerk to “draw a deed of gift” (4.1.384, 390). The “mercy” that Portia preaches in her famous set piece returns in Act V when she practices it herself in forgiving Bassanio’s infidelity, after teasing him mightily, and in herself remaining true to her own marriage vow. Her last words in the play perhaps pun on the exclusivity requirement of the marriage bond: “And we will answer all things faithfully” (5.1.299). Mercy and gift have stretched—but not broken—justice and law.

The hell of Venice has given way to the heaven of Belmont, confirmed by Lorenzo’s poetry in act 5 as the traditional Platonized Catholic “state of music” and “perpetual cosmic dance” that E. M. W. Tillyard found in the words of the medieval encyclopedist Isidore of Seville: “҅Nothing exists without music; for the universe itself is said to have been framed by a kind of harmony of sounds, and the heaven itself revolves under the tones of that harmony.’”[56] Lorenzo exudes thus:

Sit, Jessica—look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with pattens of bright gold;
There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubims. (5.1.58–62)

Love and Marriage as Supernatural Usury

What can be said about Shakespeare’s moral-economic thinking concerning emerging capitalism from this analysis of Merchant? First, capitalism engenders an atmosphere of anxiety, greed, Pharisaic legalism, and revenge in contrast to the atmosphere of ease, generosity, laxity, and mercy surrounding traditional landed wealth. Second, it proceeds by blind chance (sailing winds) rather than wise Providence (entail and prudent choice). Third, it reduces human relationships to narrow contracts rather than broad oaths of fealty, prohibiting friendship as self-gift and making persons into things. Fourth, it privatizes economics and obscures the common good. Antonio, for example, begins the play as a profiteer who is certainly not a miser but is the private entrepreneur whose purse is open only to one who has penetrated his lonely heart. At the end, he has become not only a trustee for a new family beyond his deepest friendship, Lorenzo, Jessica, and even his sworn enemy Shylock, but even, in ratifying the stiff fine of the Duke upon Shylock’s usurious estate at the rate of fifty percent, an agent of the state as what we would now call a financial regulator. Whereas Tawney attributes to Calvinists (more, he says, like Weber, than to Calvin himself)[57] the gradual separation of economics from ethics that culminates in laissez-faire free-market capitalism,[58] even to the point where friendship itself was seen as threatening thrift, diligence, and frugality,[59] Shakespeare follows more traditional Catholic thinking that commerce must be oriented toward the public good and that the state or Crown must intervene in the economy to maintain order and render justice.[60] In fact, Antonio’s movement as a merchant who seeks gain for the private end of liberal friendship to one who becomes concerned with public goods is consistent with Aquinas’s tolerance of commerce despite its propensity toward greed. Commerce may be turned toward a virtuous end, such as the maintenance of a household or of the state, “public advantage,” and so it cannot be condemned as intrinsically evil.[61] Antonio’s and Shylock’s wealth and their very persons become part of Belmont’s protected households: Jessica and Lorenzo’s, Nerissa and Gratiano’s, and Portia and Bassanio’s—protected by the state and endowed by the musical heavens and favorable winds of Providence. Above all, in eschewing interest absolutely (“lends out money gratis” 1.3.39 and “I do never use it” 1.3.65), Antonio is explicitly identified with the stricter, more conservative, medieval tradition of canon and pontifical law that defined usury as any taking of interest, not with the more liberal, contemporary Calvinistic interpretation (followed by the Elizabethan Thomas Wilson) that defined it as extortionate interest or of interest on loans to the poor.[62] Shakespeare makes Antonio’s refusal of not only usury but also legal interest (yet accepting to pay it to an enemy out of friendship) a romantic gesture of the idealized economic past.

Whereas nearly all the characters in the play give freely, Shylock and Tybalt alone lend strictly. Shylock looks down upon Antonio’s generosity as unintelligent business practice, “low simplicity” (1.3.39), and understands Antonio’s own hatred of the Jews to be grounded in economics, specifically the hypocrisy of engaging in commerce while condemning the engine of commerce, lending at interest:

He hates our sacred nation and he rails,
Even there where merchants most do congregate,
On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift,
Which he calls interest. (1.3.44–47)

As Tawney has shown, “well-won thrift” is precisely the economic virtue extolled by Calvinistic Protestants from the merchant classes.[63] Moreover, it was Calvin, whose departure from the scholastic condemnation of usury (upheld firmly in Sixtus V’s Detestabilis avaritia in 1586), who provided the theological reasoning necessary to allow moneylending on interest in Protestant countries such as England, although many schemes and dodges had existed in Catholic countries for centuries.[64] In England, two Protestant wings, one following Calvin, another Aquinas, emerged, and Jones claims that the liberal wing following Calvin eventually prevailed over the conservative wing because of the more radical Protestant ecclesiology, opposed by Hooker, that neither the church nor the state could provide salvation, thus “loosening the theoretical bonds that made human law answerable to God’s law.” Pragmatically, too, it was argued that the state could no more eradicate usury than it could eliminate pride or drunkenness.[65] While Shakespeare shows no signs of splitting hairs in this debate, he clearly leans to the traditional scholastic side that condemns usury wholesale as any sort of interest taking.

In the Catholic tradition, usury is violence against the body and its goods. Dante put usurers with the violent even lower than murderers (Inferno, Canto XVI), and Trent equated usury with murder.[66] Conversely, to a Christian and especially a Catholic audience, one nearly overt analog of Antonio’s flesh sacrifice, a loving offer of atonement for Bassanio’s spendthriftness, would have been the bloodless sacrifice of the Holy Eucharist. To a Catholic, the Eucharistic sacrifice is not a personal possession but a communal sharing, and it is opposed to the market. In a recent book opposing Christian economic teaching to the new world “free market” economy, William Cavanaugh writes that “the abundance of the Eucharist is inseparable from the kenosis, the self-emptying, of the Cross. The consumer of the body and blood of Christ does not remain detached from what he or she consumes, but becomes part of that body: ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them’ (John 6:56).”[67] Antonio’s gesture of crucifixion for his friend has been dramatized in productions of Merchant as a Christ-like act, and the allusion is made explicit in Bassanio’s and Antonio’s offers of mutual self-sacrifice in the trial scene:

Bassanio: Good cheer, Antonio! What, man, courage yet:
The Jew shall have my flesh, blood, bones and all,
Ere thou shalt lose for me one drop of blood.
Antonio: I am a tainted wether of the flock,
Meetest for death; the weakest kind of fruit
Drops earliest to the ground, and so let me. (4.1.110–15)

John Drakakis sees in Antonio’s comparison of himself to a sick castrated ram a conflation of the Abrahamic substitution of the ram for Isaac (Gen 22:13) and the Johannine Lamb of God sacrifice, which takes away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29).[68] Catholic sympathizers in the audience might have seen in Shylock’s merciless bond on Antonio’s life the bloodless sacrifice of the Mass denied to them by the English Reformation and deemphasized by its desacralized celebration of the Last Supper.

Throughout his work, however, Shakespeare also employs usury as a fanciful metaphor for the miraculous increase of love and marriage, which make something out of nothing.[69] We may call this kind of usury, in contrast to Shylock’s, good or sacramental usury. Its increase comes from self-giving love, not from the extorted sweat of man’s labor exacted by merciless financiers. It is sought freely by the debtor, and it yields happiness. Unlike Shylock’s usury, it follows the supernatural law; it is an effect of cooperative grace. Shakespeare draws this comparison out in several places. In Sonnets IV and VI, the persona enjoins the unnamed bachelor “niggard” to forgo the selfish “forbidden” usury of celibacy and to take up the sacramental usury of marriage:

Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largess given thee to give?
Profitless usurer, why doest thou use
So great a sum of sums yet canst not live?
For having traffic with thyself alone,
Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive. (Sonnet IV, 5–10.)

That use is not forbidden usury
Which happies those that pay the willing loan;
That’s for thyself to breed another thee,
Or ten times happier be it ten for one. (Sonnet VI, 4–8)

In “ten times happier” Shakespeare may be playing on the Elizabethan legal limit of ten percent annual interest set on a loan; the sudden unfolding of increase “that happies” is like Portia’s extravagant promise to be “A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times more rich” (3.2.154) when Bassanio chooses wisely and wins her hand in marriage: she will be “trebled twenty times” herself (3.2.153). In Romeo and Juliet (probably written just after the Sonnets and just before Merchant), Friar Lawrence contrasts the true use of life for married love with the evil usury of suicide, which Romeo contemplates after Mercutio’s death and his own banishment from Verona for killing Tybalt:

Fie, fit, thou shamest thy shape, thy love, thy wit,
Which, like a usurer, abound’st in all,
And useth none in that true use indeed,
Which should bedeck thy shape, thy love, thy wit. (3.3.122–25)

It is not merely the increase of progeny that grounds sacramental usury in these examples, but the increase of love in marriage, which cannot be bound or counted but must be used: sacramental usury leaps to excess, but, unlike Shylock’s, has no precise terms and yields infinitely beyond its scheduled payments. It requires indefinite sacrifice, not named costs, and it never expires. It increases through both God’s operative and man’s cooperative or created grace, merited by man’s works of love,[70] a Thomistic doctrine ignored by the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, repudiated by the Reformers, and endorsed by Trent in Canon 32 of the “Decree Concerning Justification” in 1547.[71] The prodigal Bassanio’s original request was in fact less for a loan than for an outright gift, and that gift was not a down payment on a material possession but a chance on an eternal reward. It was for Holy Matrimony, which grows “in use.”  Portia’s own generous responses of her entire self and then 36,000 ducats to Bassanio’s lottery victory were themselves absolute gift borne of married love, even before the marriage was technically made. Sacramental usury breeds love from love like the Eucharist, which falls like the mercy of manna on the place beneath, in what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has called the “nuclear fission in the heart of being.”[72]


[1] Michael Wood, Shakespeare (New York: Basic Books, 2003).
[2] David N. Beauregard, Catholic Theology in Shakespeare’s Plays (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2007).
[3] Claire Asquith, Shadowplay (New York: Public Affairs, 2005).
[4] Stephen Greenblatt, Hamlet in Purgatory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).
[5] Beatrice Groves, Texts and Traditions: Religion in Shakespeare 1592–1604 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007).
[6] Alison Shell, Shakespeare and Religion (London: Arden Drama, 2010).
[7] Peter Milward, The Pattern in Shakespeare’s Carpet (Hyogo, Japan: Bookway, 2012).
[8] See my “A Catholic Dramatist in a Protestant Land,” New Oxford Review (Fall 2014).
[9] Arthur F. Marotti, “Shakespeare and Catholicism,” Theatre and Religion: Lancastrian Shakespeare eds. Richard Dutton, Alison Findlay, and Richard Wilson (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2003), 219.
[10] All references to Merchant of Venice are to the Third Arden Series, ed. John Drakakis (London: A & C Black, 2010).
[11] Politics, 1, 3, 1257b, trans.  H. Rackham for the Loeb Edition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1922).
[12] Politics, 1, 3, 1258b.
[13] STII-II, q.77, a. 4.
[14] Norman Jones, God and the Moneylenders: Usury and Law in Early England Modern (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, Inc., 1989), 166.
[15] Daniel Price, The Merchant: A Sermon Preached at Paul’s Cross on Sunday the 24 of August, being the Day Before Bartholomew Fair, 1607, excerpted in The Merchant of Venice, Norton Critical Edition, 110–14.
[16] R. H. Tawney, “Introduction” to Thomas Wilson, A Discourse Upon Usury (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1925 [1572], 34.
[17] Gabriel Egan, Shakespeare and Marx (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 99.
[18] Egan, 106.
[19] Egan, 105.
[20] Peter Milward, The Mediaeval Dimension in Shakespeare’s Plays (Edwin Mellen Press, 1990), excerpts reprinted in Readings on The Merchant of Venice ed. Claire Swisher (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000), 69–70.
[21] Milward in Swisher, 72–76.
[22] Peter Milward, Shakespeare’s Religious Background (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1973), 144–63.
[23] Paul N. Siegel, Shakespeare in His Time and Ours (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990) excerpted in Swisher, 53–59.
[24] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism eds. Peter Baehr and Gordon C. Wells (New York: Penguin, 2002 [1905]), 268.
[25] R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1926 [Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1962]), 120.
[26] R. H. Tawney, 35.
[27] R. H. Tawney, 160.
[28] Tawney, Religion, 151.
[29] Tawney, Religion, 35.
[30] Tawney, Religion, 33.
[31] Tawney, Religion, 166–68.
[32] Anthony Holden, William Shakespeare: The Man Behind the Genius (Boston, New York, and London: Little, Brown and Company, 1999), 146, 153.
[33] Charles Edelman, “Which Is the Jew that Shakespeare Knew?: Shylock on the Elizabethan Stage,” Shakespeare Survey 52, ed. Stanley Wells (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 103–04, excerpted in The Norton Critical Edition of Merchant of Venice, ed. Leah S. Marcus, 243–45.
[34] Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England (New York: Viking, 2012), 212.
[35] Jones, 166.
[36] Craig Muldrew, The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), 131–32.
[37] Adrian Morley, The Catholic Subjects of Elizabeth I (Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978), 14.
[38] Philip Benedict, “The Historiography of Continental Calvinism,” Protestant Ethic: Origins, Evidence, Contexts ed. Hartmut Lehmann and Guenther Roth (Washington, DC: German Historical Institute, Cambridge University Press, 1993), 317.
[39] Marc Shell, “The Wether and the Ewe: Verbal Usury in The Merchant of Venice in Money, Language, and Thought (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1993), 79.
[40] A Record of Ancient Histories Entitled in Latin Gesta Romanorum, trans. Richard Robinson (1571; rpt. London, 1595), “The 32nd History,” sigs. 02-05r., excerpted in The Norton Critical Edition of Merchant of Venice, ed. Leah S. Marcus (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006), 83–84.
[41] Muldrew, 109–110.
[42] Muldrew, 106.
[43] Weber, 9.
[44] Katharine Eisaman Maus, Being and Having in Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 61–62.
[45] Tawney, Religion, 92.
[46] Joseph Pieper, In Tune With the World: A Theory of Festivity [Kosel-Verlag, 1963] trans. Richard and Clara Winston (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 1999), 18–21.
[47] Pieper, 18.
[48] Jacob is extolled as a “man of grace” by Shakespeare’s Puritan contemporary Thomas Adams in Works of the Puritan Divines ed. Richard Baxter, cited in Weber, 188.
[49] Holden, 53–55.
[50] Sean Lawrence, Forgiving the Gift (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2012), 40–82.
[51] Karoline Szatek, “The Merchant of Venice and the Politics of Commerce,” in ‘The Merchant of Venice’: New Critical Essays, eds. John W. Majon and Ellen Macleod Mahon (New York and London: Routledge, 2002), 325–52.
[52] John 6: 31; 1 Corinthians 10:3; Revelation 2:17.
[53] Ser Giovanni Fiorentino, “Il Pecorone,” excerpted in The Merchant of Venice (Norton Critical Edition), 84–99.
[54] Milward, The Medieval Dimension, 74.
[55] Milward, The Medieval Dimension, 71–72.
[56] E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (Cambridge: Macmillan, 1944 [New York: Vintage Books, 1959] 101.
[57] R. H. Tawney, “Introduction” to Thomas Wilson, A Discourse Upon Usury (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1925 [1572], 118.
[58] Tawney, Religion, 278
[59] Tawney, Religion, 243.
[60] Tawney, Religion, 262.
[61] Aquinas, ST, II-II, q. 77, a. 4.
[62] R. H. Tawney, “Introduction” to Thomas Wilson, A Discourse Upon Usury, 116–19.
[63] Tawney, Religion, 110.
[64] John T. Noonan, Jr., The Scholastic Analysis of Usury (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957), 220.
[65] Norman Jones, God and the Moneylenders: Usury and Law in Early Modern England (Oxford, UK and Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell), 166–67.
[66] “Seventh Commandment,” The Catechism of the Council of Trent trans. John McHugh, OP and Charles Curran, OP (Fort Collins: Roman Catholic Books, 1923), 445–46.
[67] William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), 95.
[68] Drakakis, 341.
[69] John Russell Brown, “Introduction,” The Arden Merchant of Venice (London: Methuen, 1955),liii–lv.
[70] Thomas Aquinas, ST I–II, q. 111, a. 2
[71] Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent: Original Text with English Translations, trans. H. J. Shroeder (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1941), excerpted in Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation, ed. Mark A. Noll (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991), 188.
[72] Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, “Homily” (World Youth Day, Cologne, Germany), August 21, 2005.