Dustin Hoffmann
Dustin Hoffmann; drawing by David Levine


Early in 1317, a Marseilles court heard the case of a Jewish moneylender named Bondavid of Draguignan. His accuser, Laurentius Girardi, claimed to have paid back sixty shillings borrowed of the Jew, though Bondavid still had the bond in his possession and was still trying to collect on it. “A Shylock,” we have assumed on good evidence, could expect little mercy in a Christian court. Yet Joseph Shatzmiller accomplishes here what Carlo Ginzburg has done with particular trials for heresy and witchcraft—he uses a single legal process to pry open a partly hidden world.1

The moneylender Bondavid, precisely because the charges against him were so serious, counterattacked on two fronts. He brought depositions against the immorality of his accuser, who was alleged to have broken Christian laws against the preservation of his oath; and Bondavid produced twenty-four prominent Christian witnesses who swore to the social benefits of his own banking practices. (Four of Bondavid’s respectable witnesses had, with a fifth man, made up the panel that served the Council of Marseilles in promoting the canonization of Saint Louis of Anjou.)

Shatzmiller asks why Bondavid was considered so valuable a member of the Marseilles community. The answers take him into the whole world of pretense, evasions, and bad conscience that surrounded the medieval ban on usury. In certain places and times, Jews were supposed to be the only authorized takers of interest, since their law forbade usury only between fellow Jews.2 Because Jews were not allowed certain other forms of activity, open only to citizens of Christian states (through membership in professional and artisan guilds or inheritance of lands in the parish system), moneylending was one of the few economic activities left for Jews to live by.

As creditors in a feudal world where so much property was frozen, Jewish moneylenders were a convenience. But theirs was an exemption that carried with it few other legal privileges; and when debts became burdensome to a society, the Jewish holders of notes were easy targets for confiscation or worse. (Louis IX perfected the confiscation of Jewish property as a way of filling state coffers.) Often Jews could carry on their banking only by paying the authorities “kickbacks” or protection money.

That is the customary picture of Jewish moneylenders in the Middle Ages, and one that is true as far as it goes. But where does that leave Bondavid in Marseilles? The truth, carefully hidden in various ways, was that Christians were the major usurers of the Middle Ages. Even where Jewish moneylenders were allowed entry and activity, they tended to serve lower, poorer borrowers (as opposed, say, to the great Italian bankers who financed Europe’s monarchs and nobility). Thus they incurred popular hostility, as the creditors with whom some ordinary people had most direct report (if not experience).

Yet when Jewish moneylenders were, as often, driven out of a Christian realm, the exactions of Christian usurers made many people regret their departure. In 1306, for instance, the Jews were expelled from France; but a “popular clamor” (as King Louis X admitted) led to their readmission in 1315. People missed the lower rates created by their competition. Earlier, in 1145, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux had denounced Christian moneylenders who acted “in a manner worse than any Jew.” In 1253, Robert Grosseteste, the Bishop of Lincoln, praised Jewish moneylenders and criticized Pope Innocent IV for protecting Italian bankers with their high rates of interest.

Jews, forced to compete in the money market under many disadvantages, invented special forms of credit, gave preferential rates to good customers, and provided social services to make themselves indispensable to the communities on whose good will they could not otherwise rely. As Shatzmiller proves, they not only gave direct aid to the poor but provided capital for the Church’s charities. They tried to cultivate stable ties with preferred customers, for whom the Arabic word ma’arufia was used. The witnesses for Bondavid were clearly the beneficiaries of such treatment. They testified to the many favors done them by the defendant. Moreover, Bondavid was a member of a family with important connections in Marseilles through at least three generations.

There were no Bondavids in Shakespeare’s England. But there were no Shylocks, either. Jews had been expelled in 1290. An occasional exotic, like the Portuguese physician Roderigo Lopez, executed for plotting against the Queen, came to public notice, but Jewish moneylenders as a class belong where Shakespeare puts Shylock—in the busier money markets of Italy.

Still, Elizabethans were very well acquainted with Christian usurers, as we see from Norman Jones’s God and the Moneylenders. Jones calls his book a “biography of the Act Against Usury of 1571.” Like other Christian principalities, England had been inconsistent in its treatment (and definition) of usury. Parliament had taken the matter away from ecclesiastical courts under Henry VII; but its absolute ban on usury proved unworkable, and Henry VIII allowed the taking of interest up to 10 percent. The ban was restored under Edward VI, but it could not be enforced. Elizabeth’s Parliament, while keeping the rhetoric of opposition to usury, passed the Act of 1571 saying that no loans at interest would be invalid except those exceeding 10 percent. This is the law men were still trying to enforce in the 1590s, when The Merchant of Venice was presented.



The rate of interest at that time was well over 10 percent, even though informers were zealous in their pursuit of usurers. (Informers got half the penalty, which was thrice the principal involved, when a usurer was convicted. The mere threat of informing could lead to informal “settlements.”) Still the law was evaded, in many ways—by keeping the interest off the bond, or writing it as an (unloaned) part of the principal. Moreover, there was a kind of “usage” that had been allowed even under Scholastic prohibitions of usury—damage money for unexpected losses or compensation for investments foregone. Partners who share risk can share profits—and these two notes, of friendship and of risk, are the most exonerating features in the theological literature around moneylending.

The loan Shakespeare’s Antonio gives Bassanio, to equip him for seeking a rich wife in Belmont, is emphatically marked by the notes of friendship and risk. When Shylock tries to justify sharp dealing by a story taken from the Bible, Antonio distinguishes that exemplum from Shylock’s own activity:

This was a venture, sir, that Jacob served for—
A thing not in his power to bring to pass,
But swayed and fashioned by the hand of heaven.
I. 3. 90–92 (emphasis added)3

The offense of usury was its predetermined rate of return on money, as if the money itself could breed, apart from the cooperative risk taking of partners. It is in response to this criticism that Shylock proposes to lend Antonio the money for Bassanio’s quest without interest—as a “single [unconditional] bond.”4 Shylock has made himself a partner in the venture to Belmont, sharing the risk and getting no profit but the success of a friend’s effort:

I would be friends with you, and have your love.
I. 3. 136

In short, Shylock poses as a Bondavid—and that is how Antonio receives this departure from usurious practice:

Content, in faith. I’ll seal to such a bond,
And say there is much kindness in a Jew.
I. 3. 151–152

That is just what the witnesses swore to at Bondavid’s trial. When Bassanio suspects this sudden conversion to risky partnership, Shylock puts the matter on a sound business basis:

I say,
To buy his friendship, I extend this friendship.
I. 3. 166–167

The Bondavid situation is one in which a Jew must perform some services freely in order to protect his imperiled profit making. And so Antonio accepts the “merry bond”:

Hie thee, gentle Jew.
The Hebrew will turn Christian; he grows kind.
I. 3. 176–177

The pound of flesh (jokingly proposed) is not interest, but a forfeit in case of entire default, something Antonio considers unthinkable.5

Laurence Olivier, in the 1970 performance under Jonathan Miller’s direction (a performance televised in 1973), played Shylock in the first act as a sincere Bondavid, one who takes the “merry bond” seriously only after his daughter runs away with his money. The time of the play was changed to the 1880s, to let Olivier become a frock-coated relative of Disraeli. But then Olivier had to omit Shylock’s early aside, which destroys any thought of his friendship’s being sincere:

I hate him for he is a Christian;
But more, for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.
I. 3. 40–43

How would gratis lending bring down the interest rate? Not by taking all business away from Shylock—unless Antonio could, indeed, follow the prescription of Mark 6:30 literally, “giving to all men freely.” But Antonio is not in the moneylending business. His loans are presumably to partners in his maritime ventures. Nonetheless, he is a convincing critic of others’ interest rates:

Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances.
1.3. 105–107

Some who discuss this play assume that only Shylock and his coreligionists are usurers in Venice. There would be no reason for Elizabethans, so familiar with their own Christian usurers, to assume that. In fact, the usurer, a common figure in the drama of Shakespeare’s age, is normally a Christian. Arthur Bivins Stonex found sixty plays in the period from 1553 to 1643 dealing with what he called “the ubiquitous usurer of English drama.”6 Few of these usurers are Jews.7 The popular resentment at miserly moneylenders for taking interest was a commonplace, irrespective of the usurer’s religion; and a regular punishment of this figure is to have a rebellious daughter take her own dowry and run off.8 The rhetorical assault on these usurers resembles the criticism of Shylock. In the anonymous Fair Maid of the Exchange, usually dated five years after The Merchant, the rescuer of the debtor calls the usurer a


vile slave
And drudge to money, bondman to thy wealth,
Apprentice to a penny…

and refers to

The forfeit of his bond. I could spit
My heart into his face; thou blood- hound that dost hunt
The dear, dear life of noble gentry.9

Shakespeare is attacking the usurer in Shylock, not the Jew, as one can see by comparing his figure with Marlowe’s Barabas, the Jew of Malta.10 Barabas is a villain, a “machiavel,” but he is also a pious and learned Jew. We hear him pray:

Oh thou that with a fiery pillar led’st
The sons of Israel through the dis- mal shades,
Light Abraham’s offspring; and di- rect the hand
of Abigail this night.
11.1. 12–1511

(He is praying that his daughter will deceive the nuns whose convent she is entering.) Barabas rejoices that those he kills never

Shall see the land of Canaan,
Nor our Messiah that is yet to come.
11.3. 307–308

Marlowe, despite or because of his own alleged “atheism,” is constantly playing with the theological animosities of the old mystery and morality plays, where the Jew is a Christ-killer. That is all omitted by Shakespeare, who makes the only ground for attack on Shylock his usury and miserliness. To supply this lack of religious emphasis in the text, those who want to inflate Shylock’s role resort to various kinds of liturgical “business.” Laurence Olivier, as the secular and assimilated character of the early scenes, solemnly puts on the tallit when grieving for his daughter. In his BBC production Jonathan Miller played the Kaddish over the last scene.

Those who want to emphasize Shylock’s Jewishness in other ways give him an accent—i.e., make him speak English with middle-European intonations and pronunciations. Shakespeare could indicate an accent phonetically when he wanted to—Fluellen’s or Sir Hugh’s Welsh, Dr. Caius’s or Princess Catherine’s French. As one would expect, this occurs in the Henry plays or Merry Wives, where “Englishness” is at issue.12 Shylock is a cosmopolitan inhabitant of Italy, speaking the same Venetian dialect as his fellow businessmen. Like Barabas’s on Malta, his normal speech is that of his setting—as Barabas proves by adopting a French accent (phonetically indicated by Marlowe) when in disguise.

Though Dustin Hoffman wears a yarmulke (which is brutally snatched off in the trial scene) in the current Peter Hall production, he does not adopt a special accent. In fact, he does little that is distinctive. He is the suffering victim of this play, cuffed about and literally kicked off the stage after his trial.

Hall does not excise the line “I hate him for he is a Christian,” but he gives it a simple justification by making all the Christians hateful. When the Prince of Aragon arrives to woo Portia, he is attended by Spanish Inquisitors, on the hem of whose white robes flames are depicted. Shylock’s hatred of music is justified by making the maskers who carry off Jessica and her money wear death’s-head costumes and wield bloody scythes. Geraldine James’s termagant Portia is racist in the dismissal of her African suitor, vindictive in the trial scene, and jealous of Antonio’s suspect love for Bassanio. Nathaniel Parker’s Bassanio is a wastrel reduced to ragged BVDs in the first scene, where he uses his sexual sway over Antonio to get credit for his expedition to woo Portia in Belmont.

Antonio is not merely reported to have spat on Shylock’s gaberdine during a dispute on the Rialto, but is seen spitting directly down on Shylock’s head for daring to mention that episode. Solanio spits full in Tubal’s face when he enters, and Shylock is threatened with spitting on three other occasions in the play. Jessica knows she has done wrong in becoming a Christian. Her love scene with Lorenzo is turned into a bitter (if obscure) quarrel. When her father’s forced bequest to her is mentioned, she bursts into loud bellows of sobbing, which the insensitive Christians ignore. No wonder Portia, in her last speech, rather than speaking to the men on stage, comes to the footlights and addresses these words to the audience:

It is almost morning,
And yet I am sure you are not satis- fied
Of these events at full.
V. 1. 295–297.

Hall must be given credit for ruthlessly following the logic of his sympathy with Shylock. He tells us in the Playbill what he thinks is important: “If you look at this play with a clear eye you’ll see that it’s written for a prejudiced audience, and it warns them of the danger of prejudice. And I think it still does.” So when Portia says of the Moor,

A gentle riddance. Draw the cur- tains, go,
Let all of his complexion choose me so.
II. 8. 78–79.

she proves she is a bigot toward blacks as well as toward Jews.

Admittedly, Portia is not a Desdemona, though neither is Morocco an Othello. He is presented as a pompous fool, to balance Aragon’s calculating fool; and though Portia mocks both, she mocks all her suitors except Bassanio. She calls the Neopolitan horsey, the Palatine gloomy, the Frenchman flighty, the Englishman tongue-tied, the Scot pugnacious, and the German a drunk. For Hall, this is perfect: it just makes Portia inclusive in her bigotry. Yet one loses not only a string of good jokes by this reading, but the plight of a Portia bound by her father to a process she fears.

Bassanio comes not just to win an heiress in the “Colchis” of Belmont, but to rescue her. She must maintain her father’s will, as Shylock maintains his contract; but where he says, “I stay here on my bond” (IV.1.239), she says, “I stand for sacrifice” (III.2.57). By making the focus religion instead of money, Hall loses all the poetry and plot material that turns on love’s risks, ventures, hazards. Not only is Portia at stake in the ordeal by caskets; Bassanio must hazard all hope of future marriage simply to take the test. Five of the suitors turn back, unwilling to face this risk.

Bassanio’s and Portia’s are the two largest roles in the play, the two that dominate both its worlds, Belmont as well as Venice. They were presumably played by Burbage (Shakespeare’s principal theatrical commodity)13 and a very skilled boy actor (perhaps the same one who played Juliet about a year earlier).14 By making these lovers just part of a chorus of Christian hate, Hall subordinates the most prominent players in his troupe to an actor who appears (as Shylock) in only five of the play’s twenty scenes, all placed in Venice. What is even worse, by making Jessica’s discontents the center of the last act, Hall subordinates Belmont itself to the third boy actor in the troupe, with the smallest female part. Yet this boy actor, with no express lines of grievance against the Christians or regret for her father, is supposed to convey deep religious tragedy by mere expression and loud wailing.15

Jessica is one of only two Jewish women to appear in the drama of Shakespeare’s age—the other being Abigail, who runs away from Barabas in Marlowe’s play and is poisoned by him in revenge.16 Both these daughters are clearly the sisters of the many runaway daughters of Christian usurers in dramas of the time. And so much at home in Belmont is Jessica that she is made queen-regent of the realm in Portia’s absence—a social role with great significance in Shakespeare’s world. Portia is hardly describing a displaced person when she says to Lorenzo and his bride:

My people do already know my mind,
And will acknowledge you and Jes- sica
In place of Lord Bassanio and my- self.
III. 4. 37–39

Other directors have sacrificed the rest of the play—much of its poetry, almost all of its humor—to Shylock and have at least produced a vivid and interesting performance of that role. Hall fails even here. By so thoroughly victimizing Shylock, he leaves no room for scathing hate and loftiness, for a crushing fall and pathos. Shakespeare’s text can be mistreated with surprisingly good dramatic results, as Olivier liked to prove. But Hoffman is condemned to begin under everyone’s boot and never get much higher. He reads the lines adequately, but can aim only at a kind of beaten pitifulness (like that of “Ratso” Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy). He does not so much flunk as avoid taking the supreme test of a Shylock—the searing oscillation between glee and despair in his formalized duet with Tubal. The power of that scene must come from its contrast with Solario’s mocking earlier report of Shylock’s reaction to his loss. Shylock’s genuine grief, seen firsthand, must be both silly and sublime, as Olivier contrived to make it. Poor Hoffman, mistreated in this play by his director as well as the actors, delivers lines of malice in a flat unthreatening way (beginning with “I hate him”) and protests at injustice in loud shouts of resignation. Being dull is the one sin Shylock cannot be forgiven. Rather than that, give us Barabas.

This Issue

January 18, 1990