Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 975. Tuesday, 28 December 1993.
From: Hirsh Schipper <
Date: Tuesday, 28 Dec 93 13:53:24 EST
Subject: RE: USURY AND SHYLOCK
I feel that I am in deep water because I am not an academic. Still, humbly, I
offer these reflections.
I have just read Shylock by John Gross, and my mind began to wander. The book
at 386 pages is a very extensive study of the subject, informative, well
written, delightful to read, yet I was a trifle unsettled.
The main critical aspect of Shylock is that he is a money lender, a userer. The
other flaw is that of being a Jew, which makes the character of Shylock more
fitting and exotic. However, the latter is not that severe a failing: there
were rare Jews in England in Elizabethan times and none were money-lenders,
Shakespeare took his plot and characters from a previous Italian story Il
Pecorone, and the only Shylock-Jewish aspects that are mentioned are the
synagogue, sabbath, and not eating pork. But his occupation as money lender,
usurer is stressed and maligned by Shakespeare, and by all critics and
commentators after him, to the present. The essence of the criticism is that
people paid interest to Shylock when he lent out money. This was considered
abominable, and we can all readily sympathize with the pathetic clients who
were forced to pay interest. It is so straightforward, so easy to hate the
usurer. Shylock served as representative of all money-lenders, particularly
Yet, when I first read or saw The Merchant of Venice, I was not that impressed
with the obloquy tendered to the main character of the play who to my surprise
was not the merchant of Venice. Because I am Jewish, I was a trifle more
sympathetic towards that character, and I hoped that there might be a more
sympathetic explication. I did have some experience in the business world, and
here was this money-lender who lent out his money without charging interest.
True, there was a deal, there was a bond set, but both parties considered it
preposterous, the money was certain to be repaid on time, it was unthinkable
that the money would not be available. Should there have been a possibility
that the money would not be available one would take as a bond other valuables;
real estate, commodities, furnishings, but never anything of which one could
not realize financial return. I saw the plot as a put-on, and if Shylock had
not been Jewish it would not have bothered me.
And, I recalled that in Medieval times and into the Renaissance period Jews
were indeed money lenders across Europe. I recalled that Jews were given rights
to settle in various communities by kings, princes, even the Popes in their
territories. I recalled that Jews were sometimes subjected to persecutions for
whatever reasons, and the authorities did usually protect them.
Reading Shylock was entertaining, but my mind wandered. In those long gone
days, I imagined the Jews in Europe practicing as money lenders, and I asked
myself where the money came from. I could not imagine that there were so many
Jews that were so rich, that they had all the money to lend out to so many
people. I asked myself whether, if indeed there were that many Jews with so
much money, why they needed to work. If they had all that money, why did they
risk lending it out, why risk incurring hostility among people when it was not
The answers came to me as a couple. First, these Jewish money lenders were not
rich. They were earning a living, they were working. They obtained their
capital by borrowing from their Christian neighbours. Secondly, their Christian
neighbours were not forbidden, nor averse to receiving interest. Their only
dislike was to pay interest, but the approach was the contrary when it came to
obtaining interest. The solution was a coupled one : The situation needed the
Jew, and the Jew needed the situation. The situation was such that many people
had funds and could do nothing with them, except to spend or give them away.
The situation was static unless they could obtain interest from a Jew by
lending him money. After all, the religious Christian prohibition was to obtain
interest from a Christian, but not from a Jew. This was a functional means to
increase one's wealth for those nobles, and burghers that were wealthy.
Further, it was a safe procedure: there were no stories, nor traditions of a
Jew not living up to his word, no histories of cheating, absconding with funds.
Perhaps there were hard bargains with some Jews, perhaps some Jews were miserly
in business and counted their pennies. But there was no violence ,no robbing,
no assaults, no assasinations. The Jew had a reputation of being peace-loving.
The Jew benefited from the situation by lending out the money he had borrowed
for a higher rate of interest than he paid, and thus earned his living. Of
course, he had to be careful to whom to lend the money that he had borrowed. He
indeed took risks of non- payment. He was exposed to market conditions. Yet,
there was no coercion on the Jew's part to force the lending. His clients came
of their own volition. Certainly, circumstances were often difficult, but the
client had the choice whether or not to borrow money from the money-lender.
Thus it is reasonable to expect rulers of territories, of municipalities, to
invite or tolerate Jewish money-lenders out of consideration of the desires of
their wealthy subjects to increase their incomes, and it was thus logical for
these rulers to give protection to those Jews who lived in their midst or in
ghettos. In effect, the Jewish money- lenders in Europe helped to invigorate
the economies where they practiced their occupation, giving a return to the
rich and in turn lending out their moneys and helping farmers, manufacturers,
tradesmen in their needs for investment capital. The rulers above referred to
probably did not tarry to tax these money lenders as our income tax departments
do, and thus achieve a good income. In the scenario I propose, everybody who
had anything to do with Jewish money-lenders benefited. They were a blessing.
Otherwise, why have anything to do with them?
To take the point a bit further, today we consider usury the excessive rate of
amount of interest for the lending of money. The word stems from the Latin
"usus" or use, and in the Dark Ages, in Renaissance times, that is what some
people did: they paid others for the use of the money lent to them. In
Shakespeare's day, the second half of the sixteenth century, the practice of
asking and paying interest became common and respectable in England.
Shakespeare's contemporary playwright Ben Jonson has a character, Vittoria, in
his play explain about money that she possessed: "I paid use for't": The White
Devil, Act Three, Scene two, line 223. So that William Shakespeare writing his
play and demeaning Shylock as a vicious money-lender was playing up to the
mob's prejudice, their ill-will, and their xenophobia. He was a bottom-line
man, the audience had to come pay and see his plays for him to be successful,
and he pandered to their tastes. Indeed he was successful and retired wealthy
at an early age from the vicissitudes of play writing and theatre production.
William Shakespeare wrote the Merchant of Venice as a comedy: Bassanio
instigated this messy affair, Shylock served as the dupe-villain, Portia with
cunning got the better of him, and he was hooted off stage. We, particularly
Jews, take the play too seriously because Shakespeare, genius character,
character- istically portrayed many of his characters with more character than
we can easily characterize.
Best. Happy new year Hirsh Schipper