Money, Merchants, and Maus
What role does economics play in the Merchant of Venice? In keeping with the play’s theme of hypocrisy as seen in the relationships of appearances and reality, words and actions, the theme of greed seems to be one of the primary motives for the characters’ actions and appearances. It seems appropriate then, that a story about greed be set against the backdrop of the city of Venice, one of the primary trading cities of 16th century Europe.
In an essay published in The Norton Shakespeare on the Merchant of Venice, Kathrine Maus asserts that Venice was “the richest city in Renaissance Europe, located where the products of Asia could most conveniently be exchanged with those of western Europe.” Because of the location and commerce activity of Venice, it contained a much larger percentage of ethnic diversity among its residents than did many other western European cities. And because of the wealth brought in by the trade, Venice tolerated that diversity and offered a certain level of legal protection for fair treatment of all.
Maus makes the observation that the “laws of the marketplace seemed to have little to do with religion or nationality.” This is interesting, because in Shakespeare’s drama, religion and nationality have a lot to do with the laws of the marketplace. In fact, religion especially is related to the economics present in the play.
The tension between Shylock and Antonio is mainly business related, yet both characters blame the other’s religion and tie that in to their business tactics as reason enough to dislike each other. For example, Shylock says of Antonio, “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” (1.3, lines 37-40). And Antonio repeatedly makes reference to Shylock as being a villainous Jew, even calling him a devil because he charges interest.
While Antonio believes usury to be damaging to friendships by blurring the distinction between things of the spirit and material things, Shylock refuses to differentiate between human relations and money relations. In fact, as Maus points out, “his ‘pound’ of flesh proposal, baldly insisting that flesh is convertible to ducats, demands that the Christians violate their own taboo against confusing categories of spirit and matter, flesh and money, live and dead.”
Maus then goes on in the essay to explain how Shylock appears to view people in purely economic terms, but he becomes a “moving” character when he shows his feelings about other ways to value people. Antonio and Bassanio (along with most all of the other “Christian” characters of the play) claim to value people (as long as those people are of their own belief system) as more than simply for economic gain, but their actions undermine their words’ authenticity. Bassanio marries Portia both for love andbecause he needs her money; Antonio attempts to buy Bassanio’s friendship with his bond; Graziano and Lorenzo want Shylock to be taken advantage of because as Antonio’s business partners, they would profit off Antonio’s financial gain. Here are three types of love – love to spouse, love to friend, and love to enemy – that are rooted in economic greed. This is particularly hypocritical for persons claiming to follow Christ’s teachings about the selfless nature of love, especially as it relates to loving one’ s enemy.
Furthermore, in the courtroom, Shylock refuses to be swayed with the appeal of money – he recognizes that human flesh is of infinitely more value than any money. But the “Christians” continue to press for the eventual confiscation of all Shylock’s wealth, mercilessly uncaring as to his state at all. What makes this even worse is Portia’s exacting greed (if Antonio gets Shylock’s wealth, she will receive some indirectly through Bassanio) after her beautiful speech on mercy. And Lancelot’s speech in 3.5, lines 17- 20, give an appallingly economic view on the purely spiritual matter of soul’s conversion to Christianity. He says, “This making of Christians will raise the price of hogs. If we grow all to be pork eaters we shall not shortly have a rasher on the coals for money.” This is greed at its finest: complete desire for one’s own preservation and betterment with total disregard for others’ conditions or needs. If these nominal Christians had followed Christ’s teachings, they would have known that “You cannot serve both God and Money”(Matthew 6:24c).
While this play is titled the Merchant of Venice, there are many more than one merchants in this play – almost every character is out to make a profit by selling commodities at whatever price they are able to charge. But most of them fail to recognize that what is most desirable can never be bought with gold or silver, and so they end up unhappy, unfulfilled, greedy, miserable, hypocritical merchants.