The thesis of this essay is simply stated: The Merchant of Venice is a Christian play and a comedy that ends well for all. I argue for this reading not because I am a Christian--I'm not--but because Shakespeare was, his audience was, and the play is. The great majority of critics who interpret Shakespeare's plays from an ideological stance strive to make him accord with them and it: Catholics will have a Catholic Shakespeare, Marxists discover a proto-Marxist Shakespeare, Queer Theorists have outed a queerish Shakespeare (vide Shakesqueer: The Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare, 2010). Unlike such critics I am not proselytizing for any credo I hold, seeking rather to provide a disinterested analysis of this highly contested play. Or as they say down home, I got no dog in this theomachia. Nevertheless my thesis, put simply, is that Antonio's stipulation that Shylock convert to Christianity stands as the greatest act of kindness and mercy that he could have possibly rendered his tormentor. Antonio saves Shylock from eternal damnation. At least in the Globe, in the 1590s.
Some years ago, in John Gross's Shylock, an exemplary study of the four hundred year long career of this vexing character, I encountered this claim by a French critic, Pierre Spriet: "It is unthinkable to imagine that today's audiences could adopt, even for the brief moment of a performance, the Christian version of a world which prevailed in medieval and Renaissance times." Indeed, he concluded, "The play must be abandoned." Intrigued by the boldness of this assertion and by the title of his article, "The Merchant of Venice's Doom," I ferreted it out in the Cahiers Elizabethians to find a perceptive and provocative revisiting of the not unfamiliar argument that the play enacts the conflict between the Judaic concept of the Law and the Christian concept of Mercy (or Grace); but unlike the conciliatory interpretations of this conflict--Nevill Cog-hill's probably the best known: "we return to Belmont to find Lorenzo and Jessica in each other's arms. Christian and Jew, New Law and Old are visibly united in love"--Spriet stresses instead the supersession, the express rejection, of the Judaic faith in the law in the Pauline formulation of the Christian doctrine of salvation. "Saint Paul, being a convert from Judaism, did not attempt in any way to underline the continuity between the Jewish faith and the new Christian one. On the contrary, he built his whole system upon the irreconcilable opposition of the two visions. ... The Jews, instead of acknowledging that the Old Alliance [with Yahweh] had been replaced by the new one, persist in obtaining justice through their strict observance of the letter of the law and, so doing, they only hasten their condemnation. In direct opposition to this reliance on justice and the law, the Christians put their trust in grace, that is, the mercy of God obtained through Christ." Spriet's hardnosed analysis of The Merchant in such orthodox Pauline terms trumps Coghill's sweetness-and-light reconciliation, its falseness revealed in the inaccuracy of his illustrative instance: Christian and Jew are not in each other's arms at Belmont, Christian and (converted) Christian are; New Law and Old are not united in love, the New just having demolished the Old in the trial scene. Sentimental readers in the nineteenth century and humanitarian readers in the twentieth recoil at the play's unequivocality in condemning Shylock--and have tried in a variety of ways to mitigate or even reverse it--but why would not an at least nominally Christian audience rejoice that, through Antonio's act of mercy, Shylock's soul is saved? Why should that denouement prove so unpalatable to an audience today?
To address that question, let me adopt Polonius' strategy by indirection to find direction out. My indirection is a short 1773 poem by the slave Phillis Wheatley, "On Being Brought from Africa to America":
'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land, Taught my benighted soul to understand That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too; Once I redemption neither sought nor knew. Some view our sable race with scornful eye, "Their color is a diabolic dye." Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train. In her own day the last two couplets, presumably, would have been the controversial ones, a matter of contention; now the first two, the poem's given, would prove far more problematic. I never had the nerve to teach this poem, but my educated guess is that, in a class with a sizable contingent of Christians, not one would have been willing to defend the institution of slavery on Wheatley's grounds: that it saved her immortal soul. If slavery, that is, instructed millions of otherwise benighted Africans "to understand/ That there's a God, that there's a savior too," then, in the Christian scheme of things, wasn't it actually beneficial, a sort of felix dolor? Shouldn't today's African-American Christians give thanks for the "mercy" of the slave traders who, however incidentally, brought their chained ancestors to salvation, spiritually speaking? These are what are called rhetorical questions, since there is not--to retain the theological terminology--a snow-ball's chance in hell of getting affirmative answers, probably even from the most pious.
Christianity is at once universal and exclusivistic: universal in accepting into its fold all who believe, regardless of ethnicity, color, nationality, condition of servitude, or as Donne puts it in a Holy Sonnet "most true and pleasing to thee, then/ When she's embrac'd and open to most men"; exclusivistic in claiming itself the only true path to salvation: "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one cometh unto the Father but by me." Such, at least, was the claim of Christianity from the beginning and still very much operative in Shakespeare's age. So seriously was religion then taken, so significant the correct doctrinal beliefs held to be that even among the various Christian sects heretics were burned, martyrs were martyred, thirty-years wars fought and the populations of Europe despoiled. In Mary Tudor's England, for instance, from 1555 to 1558, 280 Protestant men, women, and children were burned at the stake. Comparing European practices unfavorably with those of the New World cannibals, Montaigne averred, "I think there is more barbarity in eating a man alive than in eating him dead; and in tearing by tortures and the rack a body still full of feeling, in roasting a man bit by bit, in having him bitten and mangled by dogs and swine (as we have not only read about but seen within fresh memory, not among ancient enemies, but among fellow citizens, and what is worse, on the pretext of piety and religion) than in roasting and eating him after he is dead." (I am reminded of the story, perhaps apocryphal, of the papal legate in the crusade against the Albigensians, who advised his troops about to attack a town, only some of whose inhabitants were heretics, "Kill them all. God will know his own.")
This is Christianity militant, hegemonic, supremely self-confident, the Christianity of the Globe audience for The Merchant of Venice. That was then; this is now. The twentieth-twenty-first century version has morphed into an accomodationist, ecumenical, rather-ashamed-of-its-past humanitarianism, with occasional biblical verses about love thrown in. The Revised Standard Version should now probably read: "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one cometh unto the Father but by me--or some other prophet of your choice--or some spiritual uplift movement or self-actualizing philosophy--whatever." Recently The New York Times reported that the Archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual leader (more or less) of the world's eighty million Anglicans, made nice with Muslims by proposing that some elements of Sharjah, their Koran-based legal system, be incorporated into British law. A firestorm of protest broke out, but the Archbishop received a "standing ovation" after delivering an address on the subject to the church's governing body. The ever-so-tolerant Anglicans clearly wanted to have their communion wafer and eat it too.
At the same time, in an instance more directly germane to my subject, Pope Benedict XVI roiled the ecumenical waters by approving a revision of the Good Friday prayer in the traditional Latin or Tridentine Mass, only recently resurrected from the graveyard for superannuated rituals to which Vatican II had relegated it. The old prayer for the conversion of the Jews referred to their "blindness" and called upon God "to lift the veil from their hearts"; the new, presumably improved version reads: "Let us pray for the Jews. May the Lord Our God enlighten their hearts so that they may acknowledge Jesus Christ, the savior of all men." Spiritual dynamite still, in our new world order, where being prayed for is insulting. In any event, an international assembly of Conservative Judaism's rabbis declared the prayer "cast a harsh shadow over the spirit of mutual respect and collaboration ... making it more difficult for Jews to engage constructively in dialogue with Catholics." Expect papal backpedaling, dialogue proving much more sacrosanct than dogma these days. Only Southern Baptists, the most retrograde among the mainline Protestant denominations, and some fired-up evangelicals on the fringes of Christendom still target Jews explicitly for their missionizing efforts, but they are considered gauche by their politer, more politically correct co-religionists. In 1994 the largest Lutheran denomination in America repudiated Martin Luther's calumny, Against the Jews and their Lies. But the extreme (so far) in mea culpaing may have been reached in a resolution of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2000 condemning parts of the New Testament itself as anti-Jewish and recommending that their use in the liturgy be avoided.