Love, Necessity and Law in The Merchant of Venice

Adam Seligman
Boston University


Within much of the mainstream of the West-Asian civilizations (our own), the difference between Law and Love has been one of the constitutive boundaries of our theological, political, social and communal identities. It has informed our vision of both perfect order and of the overcoming of all order. Law and the strictures of law have moreover often been identified with ritual prescriptions and obligations, while love—as absolute value—has been understood as obviating ritualistic modes of behavior by the sincerity of belief and the inward turning of the heart to God. [1] Posed in these terms, it is not difficult to understand how, again, in our civilization, the juxtaposition of ritual to sincerity, law to love, came to be understood as the juxtaposition of the Jew to the Christian. This has been a continual trope of European civilization for two millennia and continues, if no longer in high Christian art, then in the simple story books read to children. I recall a school book that my fifth grade children read in a Jewish school no less, The Bronze Bow, that contrasted “the proud Pharisees” trailing their phylacteries with the followers of the Jesus’ message of love. No one even recognized the cultural messages encoded in the story—so deep are they embedded within our taken-for-granted categories.

Stereotypes, of course, are no more than caricatures, as the juxtaposition of Jewish ritual law to the idea of Christian love has been throughout the ages—albeit with horrible consequences for the wellbeing of Jews in Christian Europe. As caricature they can be held up to ridicule (and so perhaps they should), but as part of the attempt to understand the nuanced ways each pole is developed within particular cultures, they should nevertheless be studied. Love as a category exists and plays a critical role in Judaism no less than law does in Christianity. All scholars of religion know this, however immaterial it may be to regnant cultural perceptions. A recent, posthumous book by Jacques Ellul, Islam et jude-christianisme (with a forward by the prominent philosopher Alain Besancon), exemplifies the continued use of these horrific stereotypes, with Islam replacing Judaism as the religion of law, devoid of all love. [2] It is just one example of how, today, the very dangerous boundary that once was understood as running between Jew and Christian is now seen as running between Western (Christian or, sometimes Judeo-Christian) Civilization and Islam. [3] The consequences of this, our contemporary apotheosis of imagined boundaries, may well be no less horrific than its earlier incarnation.

What I wish to claim in the following is that perhaps one of the most significant attempts to puncture these caricatures of law and love can be found in Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. There, Shakespeare manages to send up both the idea of law and love as absolute opposites as well as the cultural identification of the one with Jews and the other with Christians. He shows the hypocrisy of such an attitude as well as that caused by any claim to construct society solely on the basis of love. Much of this paper will thus be devoted to a study of The Merchant of Venice as a text that betrays a unique understanding of the issues of law and love and the consequences of their identification with Jews and Christians respectively within the culture of Western Christendom. In its very questioning of the absolutization of this prime boundary marker of our civilizational enterprise, it presents a major example of the type of approach I would argue is necessary today and which the current situation of the Moslems in Europe makes a pressing political no less than theoretical matter.

I will, however, first contextualize our study of Shakespeare’s play through a brief exploration of Freud’s understanding of the tension between love and necessity, which he presents in his book, Civilization and its Discontents. This opposition is, for Freud, central to our life in the world. It is perhaps at the core of our tendency to posit the tension between love and law in absolute terms (through the working of a mechanism that Freud termed the “narcissism of the small difference”). It has moreover had no small role in structuring the mutual relations between Jews and Christians as “representatives” of law and love respectively. I will conclude with a brief review of some Jewish and Christian traditions which show the complexity of the issues at stake, especially in connection to usury and the boundaries of community. Contextualizing our study by reference to these and other sources will, it is hoped, aid us in avoiding the prejudices of oversimplification and reification.

Eros, Ananke and the “Narcissism of the Small Difference”

central to the tension of Civilization and its Discontents according to Freud is that tension between Love and Necessity: Eros and Ananke. These two have become, in his words, “the parents of human civilization”. Necessity is imposed by the need to work together to transform the natural environment. [4] Love, Eros, arises out of two sets of bond, that between mother and child and that between men and their sexual objects. [5] Both serve as the basis of human community and thus of civilization.

Within the dynamics of civilization and the constitution of any human community, Love or Eros must be understood as the generalization of trust from the primal unit of mother-child and male-female to broader collective units. The original dyadic relation is abstracted and generalized until it becomes the basis of collective solidarity and group belonging. This generalization notwithstanding, its ideal is always that of the unmediated connection, that is, of immediate trust and the overcoming of all conflict, frustration, pain, and indeed of the frail and fragile, labile and mutable nature of human relations. It seeks unity rather than differentiation, wholeness rather than partiality, homogeneity rather than heterogeneity, unselfishness rather than selfishness, and in general the overcoming of that separation and loneliness that is our sad lot as human beings. [6]

Necessity—and dealing with the demands of necessity—on the other hand, is always, by definition, mediated. As Karl Marx pointed out in The German Ideology, our relation to the world is always a double relation. It is a relation with nature and a relation with other human beings. For we always intervene in nature to transform it together with other human beings (whether by building houses, planting fields, hunting animals, etc. even getting manicures). This is quite simply what we mean when we talk of the division of labor. Our social, communal or civilizational relation to the natural world is thus always mediated by other human beings, and more specifically by the laws that govern our relations to these other human beings. This law, upon which all social order, all civilization, is built, is and must always be mediate. It is, to give an example, constructed of precisely those promises, vows, oaths and obligations that for David Hume were the basis of justice and community. Law mediates our relation to one another in our communities.

If Eros represents a striving for wholeness, and so the overcoming of all mediation and of the boundaries they imply, Necessity, and the Law that it entails, implies a recognition of partiality, differentiation and separation, that is, precisely, of boundaries. The role of the Law is, after all, to mediate between these separate entities.

Interestingly, and congruent with the above, for Freud, Law emerged in the banding together of the brothers against the arbitrary will of the Father as part of coming to terms with the demands of Necessity. It represents, in his words, their own “self-limiting power” used to maintain the community of brothers against the father in the process of conquering Necessity. A tension or conflict is thus immediately visible between an idea and ideal of unmediated and generalized trust (Eros) on the one hand and, on the other hand, the mediation imposed upon us by Necessity. This tension, which exists in all civilizations, can take many forms: one form in which it has come down to us through the ages has been as the conflict between ethics and law. Ethics, and more especially, morality, are often used as a yardstick of a realm other than Necessity, of a higher, more just mode of interaction that takes us beyond the positivistic aspects of Law with its firm rooting in Necessity, in the need that is organize the division of labor in society.

In a sense, ethics or morality takes us outside the world of Necessity, presenting an idea and ideal of unmediated good beyond the exigencies of luck and fortuna and the law that is seen to organize our lives therein. This is in some senses caught by the Hebrew expression ” chesed emet “—true chesed, or true grace. As Matthew Arnold put it: “it is the not ourselves that makes for righteousness.”

Both ethics and law have, moreover, been part of all historical communities, though existing with different valences and different tensions in different civilizational contexts. One articulation of this conflict that we today recognize in all civilizations and their legal systems is that between justice and mercy—justice as the workings of law in its grandiose universality—in its general and abstract (hence by definition, always only mediate) manner, and the particularity of mercy, rooted in a call and a connection that is individual and particular and in an appeal to that which is unique and so seeks to overcome the generalized and mediate nature of law and establish a connection above and beyond its proscriptions. We are all familiar to these tensions from many sources; whether from the Jewish High Holiday service or the U.S. Supreme Court rulings on capital punishment and mandated sentencing. There is, ultimately, no solution to this tension.

This differential valuation of the ethical and the legal as ego-ideals can, of course, famously, be found in the difference between Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity—and most especially in their cultural representation. The destruction of the Second Temple led in point of fact to two separate civilizational projects; one privileged ethics or love over the law and the other privileged law over ethics. This is not to say that each developed an exclusive concern with one rather than the other, but that in each the different components presented what may be termed, in appropriate psychoanalytic terms, different ego-ideals, or perhaps in Weberian terms, world-images. In each, the boundaries between the two were drawn differently.

Within Judaism, the very act of fulfilling the law, God’s commands, affirms the covenantal relationship with God and so existence itself within the covenant, that is, within the Law. This is succinctly expressed in the legal maxim: tov hamitzuveh —that is, the value of a commanded act is greater than a supererogatory one. The clearly Biblical predicate of this is in the commandment found in Deuteronomy 13:1: “All this word which I command you, that shall ye observe to do; thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.”

The words of the Apostle Paul however, would come to structure a very different civilizational project:

When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness: and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all. (Romans 2:12-16, emphasis added)
But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (Romans 3:21-30, emphasis added)

The Christian interpretation of Paul’s distinction between sub lege and sub gratia ultimately came to privilege the realm of grace over the realm of law and with it, the internal realm of individual conscience and eventually an ethical claim beyond the law.

I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it is unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not food or drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:14-17)

Note the abandonment of the external jurisprudential authority of the Rabbinic court for the more inward and ethical, individual decision-making process in issues of purity and impurity.From this vision comes as well a new definition of the human community. No longer limited or circumscribed by the tribal bonds of Israelite monotheism, this new community of nascent individuals, precisely in their individuality, is what marks Christianity as a universal religion. Again, quoting Paul:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:28-29)

Paul reconstructs the circumscribed and circumscribing nature of the law. And the law, as Krister Stendhal reminds us, was but a paidagogos, a harsh, uneducated tutor, a custodian until, through faith, a new dispensation, and with it a new definition of community, would take effect, when all would be “in Christ.”

The new community rested on faith, as the old did on law. And just as the old rested on the relational matrix of individuals fulfilling the law as a covenantal body, the new rested on individuals whose very faith necessitated the type of distinctions between law and morality that Paul posited. Paul brings the Gentiles into the Jewish fold by redefining the terms of membership in the salvational collective (Israel) by opening it up to those not sub lege. This entailed redefining of the nature of the collective as well as of its individual members, recasting both in terms of faith, with the necessary correlate of internalized states of conscience as arbitrators of justification and hence of transcendent connectedness replacing those “ritual” laws of Pharisaic Judaism.

It is, I believe, not coincidental that this privileging of faith over law and so also of internal states over external actions was represented in the deepest iconic images of Christianity with the removal of the father from its representative vision. Mother and child, love, Eros remain—the father and the law he represents is distanced beyond the field of representative imagery.

It was this that led psychoanalyst Bela Grunberger to call Christianity a “narcissistic” religion. To quote him briefly: “The Christian, the son, is in effect reunited with the mother, the father having been deported to heaven.” Christianity, for Grunberger, like paganism, “gives a very great place to the maternal elements, Judaism, by contrast, presents itself above all as the worship of the father.” Grunberger continues: “the Jew, by introducing monotheism, has not only banished man from his intimacy with the mother … and from his narcissistic universe, but has installed within him a judge to persecute and punish him for his desires. The Jew has therefore done exactly the same as the father. He has imposed the rule of the father, which explains why he particularly has been chosen by the anti-Semite [for the abreaction of the Oedipus conflict].” [7]

This idea of Christianity and Judaism as carriers respectively of Eros and of the Law is not unrelated to Freud’s idea of the “narcissism of the small difference” and its role in anti-Semitism throughout the ages. This is the notion of absolutizing social or collective differences to define outsiders and build coherence among insiders. Perhaps the very inability to resolve the tension between particular and universal led to their reification as represented by difference concrete, historical communities. I do not know. For Freud, however, in Civilization and its Discontents, the role of the Jew, vis-à-vis Christianity, “after the Apostle Paul had posited universal love between men as the foundation of his Christian community”—was as representative of the rule of law, hence, necessarily in contrast to the terms of love as universal.

The Jew, the representative of the Law and so of Necessity, was left outside and beyond this community. As we all know, the absolutizing of this difference, indeed the very cultural, legal and social separation of the carriers of the idea of love and necessity respectively, led to horrible consequences, for Jewish history certainly, but for Christian civilization as well—and this too Freud notes. The “small difference” to which Freud referred, I suggest be understood precisely in the different valences given to law and love in both civilizational projects. For as both are caught in the self-same contradictory injunctions (as are all human societies), the difference is one of valence, not the absolute difference that has so often been projected onto the historical and cultural canvass.

The Merchant and the Jew

a) Kindness and the Boundaries of Community

Exemplifying the complexity of these different valences is Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice. This play is of such interest to us for in it, Shakespeare seems well aware of the ambivalence attendant on either law or love (what we are identifying as ritual or sincerity) as a ‘pure’ form of social behavior. [8] Indeed, two undercurrents of the play’s very structure are a) how Shylock’s strict legality, his insistence on the letter of the law, brings him to forfeit everything; and b) the hypocrisy that characterizes all the major Christian characters (with the possible exception of Portia, though this is debatable), whose statements on grace and forgiveness (and whose sincerity) are continually belied by their actions.

Shylock’s very scrupulosity, which results in his loss of fortune, position, status, indeed his very identity—is the mechanism of the play’s comic structure. [9] Indeed, until the nineteenth century and the portrayal of Shylock by the actor Edmund Keane, the play was performed as a comedy. It was Keane and, following him, such actors as Edwin Booth and Henry Irving who drew out the humanity of Shylock’s predicament. As Irving himself declared: “I look on Shylock as the type of a persecuted race; almost the only gentleman in the play and the most ill-used. …He feels and acts as one of a noble and long oppressed nation. In point of all intelligence and culture he is far above the Christians with whom he comes in contact, and the fact that as a Jew he is deemed far below them in the social scale is gall and wormwood to his proud and sensitive spirit.” [10] In fact and as Martin Yaffe, Richard Weisberg, Stanley Cavell and other (interestingly, Jewish) commentators have pointed out, the play is not at all unfriendly to Jews. [11] The easy, popular, assimilation of Shylock to anti-Semitic stereotypes was a hallmark of an all-too-popular political correctness avant la lettre. (And like political correctness today, a sign of people’s marked difficulty in dealing with ambiguous situations and characters. Ironically, a friend of mine studied The Merchant of Venice in a Yeshiva in New York in the 1950s, though it was not taught in the New York public schools in those days because it was seen as an anti-Semitic text).

It is not only in the familiar soliloquy of “Hath not a Jew eyes” that Shylock’s humanity is evinced, though we should recall those famous lines and what follows as well:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction. (Act III. 1, 60-75)

Note that Shylock not only claims to a shared, general humanity, its common capabilities and sentiments—but claims no more than his rights within the prevailing mores of the majoritarian Christian culture.

Shylock’s fundamental humanness is, however, evinced throughout the play and not only in this scene—as is the overwhelmingly Christian refusal to entertain that shared human status and to admit Shylock into that realm of generalized Eros and extended and universal love claimed by the Christian characters. Recall Shylock’s pain at Jessica’s betrayal and her flight with Launcelot and subsequent conversion. Recall too Shylock’s desire for Antonio’s friendship and Antonio’s constant humiliating words to Shylock:

Shy : Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
You have rated me
About my moneys and my usances:
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug;
For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me a misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gabardine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help:
Go to, then; you come to me, and you say
‘Shylock, we would have moneys:’ you say so;
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold: moneys is your suit.
What should I say to you? Should I not say
‘Hath a dog money: is it possible
A cur can lend three thousand ducats?’ or
Shall I bend low and in a bondsman’s key
With bated breath and whispering humbleness,
Say this –
‘Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last;
You spurned me such a day; another time
You call’d me dog; and for these courtesies
I’ll lend you thus much moneys’?
Ant. I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.
If thou wilth lend this money, lend it not
As to thy friends; for when did friendship take
A breed for barren metal of his friend?
But lend it rather to thine enemy;
Who, if he break, thou mayest with better face
Exact the penalty.
Shy. Why, look you, how you storm!
I would be friends with you, and have your love,
Forget the shames that you have stain’d me with,
Supply your present wants, and take no doit
Of usance for my moneys, and you’ll hear me:
This is kind I offer. (Act I, iii, 96-136).

Antonio’s continual hatred of Shylock, refusal of offers of friendship, and exclusion of Shylock from the terms of a common humanity provide the clear background for Shylock’s desire for revenge quoted above. Recall that the “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech begins with Shylock’s recognition that a pound of Antonio’s flesh is good only “To bait fish withal: if it feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge” (III.1.54). And the revenge is prompted by the continual mockery to which Shylock is subject. Rejected from any participation in the community of love, he has no recourse but to the mediated relations of the law.

Shylock’s legalisms are continually juxtaposed to Christian “kindness.” Yet, this very “kindness” is shown to contain no small measure of hypocrisy. “The Hebrew will turn Christian: He growes kind,” declared Antonio (Act I.111,178). But where is that kindness? In the aid given to Jessica as she runs away from her father and steals his property? In the rejection of Shylock’s request for recognition by Antonio? In Launcelot’s leaving Shylock’s household? In the failure of both Antonio and Bassiano to keep their heartfelt promises to their betrothed (in the matter of the rings)? In Portia’s demand of Shylock to go down and beg his life from the Duke? In the final stripping of Shylock of all his property and leaving him with his bare life?

As much as the Christian characters are presented, on one level, as articulating messages of charity, mercy, kindness and of other-worldly grace—they are shown, on the level of their actions, to betray—even to their beloved—these very sentiments and ideals. In contrast, Shylock, the Jewish usurer, who demands a pound of flesh in payment for his loan, remains, notwithstanding, one of the most human and sympathetic characters in the play.

As noted above, the one possible exception to this characterization is Portia, whose very identification with mercy and forgiveness—when testing Bassiano in the matter of the rings, or to some extent with Shylock in attempting, in her requests to Antonio and Bassiano, to extend forgiveness to him as well—puts her somewhat beyond the framework of motives and passions to which all the other characters are subject. Portia, as Sir Israel Gollancz pointed out, is “actually mercy personified”—an image that he shows is rooted in medieval Jewish literature and the commentary on Psalm 85:10-14: “Mercy and truth are met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” From the Hebrew allegory on the four daughters of God (derived from Mercy, Truth, Righteousness and Peace) is drawn, according to Gollancz, the identification of Portia with Mercy. [12]

To be sure, her triumphal demands of Shylock to beg for his life somewhat belies this image of gentle Portia. Indeed, Belmont itself, infused with light, is an almost other-worldly and heavenly realm (in juxtaposition to mercantile and worldly Venice). Given these characteristics of Portia, we should perhaps recall what we stated earlier of Bella Grunberg’s theories of Christianity as a narcissistic religion. Banishing the father who represents the law, Christianity, according to Grunberg, replaces his presence with the primacy of maternal elements. The role of Portia as dispenser of grace, most especially in her triumph over Shylock as representative of the law, is an excellent illustration of this.

We would do well to remember, however, that even here, the world of Christian fellowship falls well below its ideal female representative. The plot’s whole engine turns, after all, on Bassiano’s loan of the ducats from Shylock to woo Portia, but Portia is uninterested in wealth, has rejected wealthy suitors, and in fact found favor in Bassiano on his first visit without borrowed wealth. The theme of the three caskets—to which we shall return later, with insights gleaned from Freud—also represents a rejection of wealth and the standards of worldly success as measures of Portia’s rightful suitor. Indeed, Bassiano only chooses the correct casket with the aid of external pointers. Hence, Bassiano himself comes to Portia very much bereft of the knowledge of grace and the other-worldly directives of love, thinking these can be won by gold and fancy dress. The juxtaposition of Portia is thus not only with the all-too-human (and very self-reflective) Jew, but even more to the oblivious other Christians whose hypocrisy is opaque to themselves—though made transparently clear to the observer, in among other ways, Shylock’s own asides along the order of “This be Christian kindness.”

b) The Qualifications of Mercy

The matter of Love and Law, of legal, if not legalistic, obligations and the mercy of forgiveness, the grace of love, goes to the heart of the play’s tension and its characters’ portrayal. It can perhaps be best accessed through the images of usury and the gift. Usury, represented by Shylock the Jew, is the icon of Law, with all its dual meanings—that is to say, it is both the Law of the Jews, represented by the Jews; but also the Law of Necessity—that of the division of labor upon which civilization itself turns. Recognition of this is made clear in the appeal of Shylock to the Duke:

Shy. If you deny it, let the danger light
Upon your charter and your city’s freedom. (Act IV, 1, 38-39).
And in the very recognition by Antonio that without the Law and respect for the Law Venice cannot thrive and prosper.
Ant. The Duke cannot deny the course of law:
For the commodity that strangers have
With us in Venice, if it be denied,
Will much impeach the justice of his state;
Since that the trade and profit of the city
Consisteth of all nations… (Act III, iv.25-30).

The Law of Necessity, the civilizing necessity of Freud, is firmly represented by the Jew Shylock—whose demands for justice are legitimized by the very sine qua non of ordered human existence (represented by the laws and charters of the city of Venice).

To these are juxtaposed the gift, as icon of love, grace and merciful forgiveness beyond the province of the law. Antonio himself, in his very sacrifice, is an almost Christ-like figure of sacrifice, offering himself up on the altar of mercantile necessity. In fact, his self-sacrifice, especially in terms of the cutting of his heart, calls to mind the medieval image of pelican, as icon for Jesus, plucking its breast to feed its young. [13] One scholar, Ronald Sharp, has in fact made a list of all the gifts given in The Merchant of Venice. [14] These include “1. The many gifts that Antonio gives to Bassiano prior to the action of the play. 2. The money Antonio borrows from Shylock for Bassiano. 3. The gifts Bassiano brings to Portia. 4. The estate Portia’s father wills to her. 5. The money Jessica gives to Lorenzo, a dowry stolen from Shylock. 6. The ring Shylock’s wife gives to him. 7. The ring Portia gives to Bassiano. 8. The money and property that Shylock is forced to give to Jessica and Lorenzo. 9. The ring Bassiano gives to the judge. 10. The right Nerrisa gives to Grantian. 11. The ring Gratinao gives back to the clerk.” [15] Even the inscription on the lead casket left by Portia’s father reads, “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.” Hence the gift—whose most important instantiation may well be Portia herself—is strongly positioned against the law of the marketplace and indeed of the city itself. The city, however, glories in its splendor, like Pisanello’s representation of the city in his St. George and the Princess, and cannot totally divest itself from the thieves hanging in the background.

In the structure of the play, Law: Love :: Necessity: Mercy, :: Usury: Gift :: Jew: Christian, :: Shylock: Antonio/Portia (both in essence lovers of Bassiano). Except—and most critically—it is in the last two couplets Jew: Christian // Shylock: Antonio that is, in the particular empirical, individual embodiment of these principles, that the whole construct begins to unravel. [16] For, as discussed above, Shylock himself is rejected, humiliated and scorned by Antonio, whose friendship he seeks. Except for Portia, the Christian characters themselves show just how unchristian are their actions. They, in fact, cannot be trusted, even to keep their promises to their wives. They aid in the theft of Shylock’s jewels via Jessica. Despite their most beautiful words and noble sentiments, Shylock—in asides—is continually showing for what their actions really bespeak—mendacity, rapaciousness, vengeance and hypocrisy. The Christians attitude towards Shylock hardly approaches the idea of loving one’s enemies; indeed, it does not meet the most elementary standards of trustworthiness (a theme also developed in Christopher Marlowe’s plays). [17]

It is the very unraveling of the dichotomies of Love and Law, Grace and Necessity that is so instructive in the play. For what Shakespeare is in the way of teaching us is that these categories cannot be experienced (and I stress experienced, rather than simply thought or theorized) as absolute contradictions. In the real world of men and women, and their interaction, motives are mixed and action is moved along very different axes. “Which [indeed] is the merchant here and which the Jew” (IV, 1, 171). That would seem the epitaph of the play as a whole. It is of course the opening line in Portia’s entry into the trial scene which is the most revealing area to view the moral complexity of the plot and its characters.

The trial scene begins with Shylock’s refusal of the money in lieu of Antonio’s bond (earlier, Portia was willing to offer 36,000 ducats instead of the 3,000 owed). In his explanation he makes two things quite clear: a) for the Duke, failure to enforce the contract would threaten the city’s wellbeing, and b) his refusal of the sum and demand for enforcing the contract is motivated by nothing other than his “humor.” He will not seek to explain why, other than “a certain loathing I bear Antonio.” In the exchange that follows between Antonio and Shylock the former points out that:

You may as well go stand upon the beach
And bid the main flood bate his usual height;
You may as well use question with the wolf
Why he hath made the ewe bleat for the lamb,
You may as well forbid the mountain pines
To wag their high tops, and to make no noise
When they are fretten with the gusts of heaven;
You may we well do anything most hard
As seek to soften that – than which what’s harder? –
His Jewish heart. (IV, I, 70-80).

Here again, the Jew is distanced from the world of mercy, grace and forgiveness – from love. To which Shylock replies:

What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?
You have among you many a purchased slave,
While, like your asses and your dogs and mules,
You use in abjectd and in slavish parts,
Because you bought them: shall I say to you,
Let them be free, marry them to your heirs?
Why sweat they under burdens? Let their beds
Be made as soft as yours, and let their palates
Be season’d with such viands. (90-98).

Shylock, in invoking the keeping of slaves by Christians, turns the situation on its head. [18] First he shows the duplicity of those who identify themselves with love and mercy, which does not prevent them from keeping slaves as property; then as he exclaims “fie upon your law” if they do not keep the law—their own law of the bonded creditor when it ceases to suit their interests. Property is property, he is saying, whether of the slave or the creditor’s bond. Law, he is implying, in Christian societies, is only mediated by grace when one’s very material interests are at stake (but, not as in the case of one’s slaves, when one’s comfort must be sacrificed in having the slave’s bed as soft as the master’s).

In his insistence on being paid Antonio’s flesh and the keeping of the agreement, Shylock is, of course, not motivated by material interests. To feed fish is all the flesh is worth and, as we know from Jessica, he would refuse any compensation. In an interesting way then, Shylock is not at all about material interests. He is iconic of law, but not of material wants and desires (that seems the province of Bassiano and the Merchant himself, Antonio). Representing the necessity of law, he does not act from material interests. Rather, it is his hurt and his anger at Antonio, rooted in the other’s cruel treatment of him throughout the play, that motivates his desire for revenge. His “lodged hate” of Antonio is no mere argument drawn from the necessity of contract law. Rather, hate itself is the mirror of love. It is love rejected, friendship despised. It refers to the world of sentiment, empathy and sympathy—not to the world of exchange, barter and the rule of the division of labor.

Following the entrance of Nerissa, Portia appears in the trial scene with her famous “The quality of mercy is not strained” speech (IV, i. 180). Mercy, she points out, “is an attribute of God himself” and “that in the course of justice, none of us would see salvation, we do pray for mercy. And that same prayer doth teach us all to render mercy.” To which of course Shylock responds, “I crave the Law.” While I will not analyze Portia’s famous soliloquy in depth, I would like to draw our attention to two aspects of the brief lines just quoted. First, her appeal to the godlike qualities of mercy echo the Jewish, Biblical description of God’s attributes: “Eternal, Merciful, Gracious, Long-suffering, Abounding in Kindness and Truth, Preserving Clemency unto the thousandth generation, Forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin.” The Jewish God is a god of mercy and forgiveness, and the Jews have always recognized that salvation could not be found “in the course of justice alone.” Portia can thus be seen, not as juxtaposing a Christian trope to the Jewish Shylock, but rather as reminding him of his own sources, and appealing to him through these. [19] The old law, the law of the Old Testament that Shylock quotes to justify usury, is also the law of mercy and forgiveness. Moreover and as the famous nineteenth-century critic and essayist William Hazlitt pointed out, “the appeal to the Jew’s mercy [given their treatment of him throughout], as if there were any common principle of right and wrong between them, is the rankest hypocrisy, or the blindest prejudice.” [20]

After reminding Shylock of his own sources of moral authority, she makes a critically important claim to empathy: that our own need to appeal to God’s mercy (rather than to rely simply on his justice) should teach us to render mercy to our fellow humans, “to mitigate the justice” that is Shylock’s due. We therefore need to extrapolate from our own situation to that of our fellow humans and on this basis, be merciful. We need to feel empathy and sympathy and on that basis be merciful to one another. Yet it is precisely empathy and sympathy and fellow-feeling that Antonio has consistently denied to Shylock. Cast beyond the boundaries of a common humanity, of a shared empathy, excluded by the “narcissism of the small difference” from the universality of love, Shylock has no recourse but the demand for the law. The law, of course, regulated relations between strangers, those not included in the intimate circle of love and family affection. And “stranger” he was to remain, as his conversion to Christianity on pain of death is hardly an example of mercy—no more indeed than Portia’s “Down then and beg mercy of the Duke.” Recall too, how Portia’s speech which ends with these lines, begins by threatening Shylock with the laws of Venice, enacted “against an alien that by direct or indirect attempts seek the life of any citizen” (IV.1, 348). Shylock remains, for every the alien and the stranger.

Shylock’s status notwithstanding, his demand, in its very scrupulous legality, provides for Shylock’s undoing and loss of all. The law, when demanded too rigorously, too obsessively, is turned on its head and becomes self-defeating. In our terms, ritual itself becomes a type of sincerity. Shylock’s refusal to be merciful is met with Antonio’s refusal to show mercy to him. His response to Portia’s request that he show mercy is to divest Shylock of all his provisions (half in the fine, half to put in a trust to go to Launcelot on his death) and to forcibly convert him. Shylock’s own legalistic precision is met with Antonio’s own. The law of necessity is turned into a vehicle of revenge. Love is nowhere to be seen, except, again, in the person of Portia, who forgives her husband’s breach of his own vows. Portia, the woman, is the final unsullied dispenser of grace, and I believe it is not coincidental that it is she, rather than any of the male characters who overcome the dialectic of Law and Love. Necessity and Mercy. Her defeat of Shylock and triumph is, after all, through the medium of law (trial), even—in fact through which—she acclaims the qualities of mercy.

c) Gender, Boundaries, and Their Transcendence

In some of the scholarly literature, much has been made of the role of gender, as indicating both boundaries and the manner in which they may be crossed in The Merchant of Venice. There is, most obviously, the case of Jessica, the Jewess who runs away from her father and steals his jewels into the bargain. John Gross, in his study of the character of Shylock, argues that Jessica plays on the inversion of the long-standing popular legends on the Jewess as temptress and murderess. Gross discusses the thirteenth-century ballads describing how the Jewess tempted “little Hugh of Lincoln” into her house, only to slaughter him on his arrival. [21]

In quite different terms, the beauty of Jewish women was attributed by Chateaubriand, for example, to the fact that they had no part in the murder of Jesus, an event presumably laid exclusively at the feet of the male members of the Jewish race (again Grunberger is relevant). Such ambivalence relating to Jewish women is perhaps not surprising given their role as identity markers for the collective as a whole. [22] Jessica’s very name, we recall, invokes Jesse—father of David and the messianic line. In her name, as in her actions, she is a marker of the “small difference” and the crossing over of it. She effects the move from Jew to Christian (in love, no less, while Shylock’s conversion is coerced), again bespeaking a resolution of dichotomies not given to the male characters of the play. Though she is no Portia, who, after all, presents the resolution of all dichotomous categories and instantiates transcendent love—she does point in that direction, in her abandonment of the codes of her father and easy assimilation into those of the Christian world. Portia, the obedient daughter of a dead father is, in fact, countered to Jessica, whose father (though alive) cannot control her actions. Again, then, the themes raised by Grunberger recur:the negation of the position of the father and his role as authoritas, removed from the scene either by death or weakness vis-à-vis his daughter. [23] Indeed, if there are anti-Semitic elements in the play, it is in the guise of these two women who, in their person, represent the overcoming of the contradictions and ambivalences that define the real life of people in the world and who overcome such in terms of Christian terms and tropes. One’s attitude towards this and the extent of its anti-Semitic valence will, of course, depend on one’s attitude towards the possibility of such overcoming.

The second arena where gender issues make themselves felt is in the interwoven themes of circumcision, mutilation and castration. No less a thinker than Stanley Cavell has seen in the threatened mutilation of Antonio a symbol of castration, if not circumcision—at once making him Jew-like and unmanned. [24] James Shapiro has shown how, in the popular imagination, Jews were understood to have circumcised their victims before killing them in ritual murders. John Foxe’s own rendition of the murder of Hugh of Lincoln has him circumcised before he was murdered. [25] More tellingly, Shapiro relates how one of the themes for the “pound of flesh” theme is in Alexander Silverg’s work The Orator (1596, in English translation), [26] but it also appeared in such works as Il Pecorone and the German Mosche (1599). In all, the idea of the Jew willingly shedding Christian blood is approached via the figure of the usurer demanding his pound of flesh to enforce the bond. [27]

Mutilation, castration and circumcision are all woven together in the “pound of flesh.” If under cover of carnival, (which Shylock abhors) with its mistaken identities, Jessica goes from being Jewish to being Christian, from being daughter to being lover/wife; Shylock threatens Antonio with a similarly multivocal change of identities—from Christian to Jew, from whole to part, from man to non-male: all under the changed terms of identity that such mutilation implies. Such is Cavell’s point, I believe.

The murdering Jew is, on some level, connected with the castrating Jew. And castration is not totally beyond the pale when images of circumcision, i.e. Jewishness (of which circumcision is the marker) are invoked. Jewishness is thus evocative of loss of life, loss of manhood, loss of self—of the dissolution of all boundaries, into their negation. Shylock is that negation, at the same time as he is the most human character in the play. If, as a usurer, he is the mirror to Antonio, who is after all a merchant with vast empires, his more weighted symbolic double is Portia. She is merciful to his intransigence. She is wealthy while he is identified with the crassness of money. She has Aristotle’s virtues of right measure, while he is single-minded in his pursuit of what he is owed. She is the Christian—indeed the only Christian if the word is to carry its full freight—he the Jew. And yet, she too represents, as Freud has argued, a dissolution of self and boundaries, no less thorough and alarming than that invoked in the threatened mutilation of Antonio.

Freud’s essay “The Theme of the Three Caskets” develops in more psychoanalytic terms some of themes that we have been discussing here. In that essay, Freud analyses The Merchant of Venice along with a number of other stories and plays that have as their theme the choice of one woman ( King Lear, the Judgment of Paris, Grimm’s fairytale “The Twelve Brothers,” where indeed the choice is of the man not the woman) or one casket from among three. Freud aptly demonstrates how in all three the chosen one is the silent one, the one who remains dumb. In the case of Bassanio, the proper, “silent” choice was the lead casket, where, in Bassanio’s speech, the theme of muteness also comes to play: “Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence.” In all the proper choice: of the goddess of love (Paris), the wise and fairest of women (Portia), the loyal daughter (Cordelia) is only arrived at only through choosing the silent one—and silence, Freud unequivocally identifies with death. Hence a seeming contradiction—of the fair, wise, loyal, of love itself identified with death. It is the attempt to make sense of this contradiction that forms the core of Freud’s analysis.

Freud’s resolution of this contradiction is telling. For he claims in essence that in these tales, the inevitable is made into a choice. Death, which is ineliminable, is turned into the conscious choice of the man. In Freud’s own words: “Choice stands in the place of necessity, of destiny. No greater triumph of wish-fulfillment is conceivable. A choice is made where in reality there is obedience to a compulsion; and what is chosen is not a figure of terror, but the fairest and most desirable of women.” [28]

Necessity here is identified with the recognition of Death, as Freud himself shows in the continuing connection of Aphrodite herself to the underworld. More tellingly, Freud develops the connection of the Greek Moera (rulers over fate) with the Graces or Horae (goddess of the seasons, of the divine order and the “unalterable sequence” of nature). [29] “The ineluctable severity of Law and its relation to death and dissolution, which had been avoided in the charming figures of the Horae, were not stamped upon the Morae, as though men had only perceived the full seriousness of natural law when they had to submit their own selves to it.” [30]

Freud is thus in essence claiming that there is a sense where the three terms of our title come together. Love, Necessity and Law—while worked out in life as contradictions—are also, in some final sense, the same. Death, the supersession of all order, is not less a necessity than the Law which, by necessity, must regulate the orders of life. Love, which in the world of men and women, is posed as opposite from, if not beyond Law, is, similarly, not to be totally unconnected from Death—in which both Love and Law must dissolve—the final Necessity.

Difference, Usury and the Jew

In the last analysis, the identity of Shylock the Jew with the law and of Antonio, the Christian, with love rests on the practice of usury. Shylock lends money at interest. Antonio, by Shylock’s account, lends money gratis —thus debasing trade. The role of the Jew and even more the image of the Jew as usurer is central to the consciousness of European societies. In this role more than any other, the Jews have evinced their outsider status and confirmed the cultural and collective boundaries of their exclusion. As the issue of usury has been seen to be so critical to the definition of boundaries between insider and outsider, Jew and Christian, it would repay a brief (if necessarily sketchy) review of some Jewish legal attitudes towards usury before we conclude this inquiry. Understanding them in light of the transformation of wrought to collective boundaries in Protestant Europe is especially helpful.

The most relevant laws are those noted in Deuteronomy 15:2-3 and 23:20-21. [31]

And this is the pronouncement concerning the release: Every creditor shall release from his hand the debt [for] which he can claim [payment] from his neighbor. He may no longer exact payment from his neighbor and from his brother, because he has declared a release for the sake of God. From the foreigner you may exact payment; but that of yours which is with your brother, your hand shall release. (15.2-3)

You must not pay your brother any interest, be it interest in money or interest in food, no interest at all, nothing that could be construed in any way as interest. You may pay interest to the stranger, [but] to your brother you must not pay interest, so that God, your God, may bless you in everything to which you may put your hand in the land to which you are coming, to take possession of.23:20-21

The law of love, of minor difference, of distinguishing insiders from outsiders and demanding what would appear to us supererogatory acts towards insiders, is what is conveyed in the biblical passages quoted. Note too that the first quote on release of debts is brought in connection with the seventh, sabbatical year. What is enforced in both injunctions is the duties we owe to insiders, to those to whom a special kindness must be shown, our duties to the particular and not the general, to the kin group and not the stranger. There are universal injunctions and universal moral obligations. To be sure. Yet is it only a modernist reading that reduces all obligations to such terms. Other societies, other times, have recognized that such obligations do not encompass the whole realm of morality. Michael Sandel, in our own day, has made the argument that particular ties evoke demands not countenanced by universal laws. He has reminded us that individuals are always “members of this family or community or nation or people, bearers of this history, sons and daughters of that revolution, citizens of this republic,” to whom I owe “allegiances” and “obligations” that go beyond those that “justice required or even permits.” A similar argument on the claims of particular identities and so its obligations has recently been made by Rabbi Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom. In much of the secular world today, we tend to bracket such responsibilities under the rubric of a morality that cannot be legislated. The Deuteronomist insists that they can. Love, in term of our dichotomy, can indeed by legislated—or rather, it has a clear legal dimension. This distinction was made clear in Nachmanides’ commentary on the second passage:

Scripture admonishes the borrower as well. And he explained here that a heathen’s interest is permissible. This he did not mention with reference to robbery and theft, as the Rabbis have said, “theft from a heathen is forbidden.” But borrowing for interest, which is agreed upon by both parties and is done voluntarily, was forbidden [by the Torah] only because of brotherliness and kindness, as He commanded, and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, and as he said, Beware that there be not a base thought in thy heart etc. [ and thine eye be evil against thy needy brother and thou give him nought]. Therefore he said [here] that the Eternal thy G-d may bless thee, for it is an act of mercy and compassion that one does for his brother by lending him without interest, and it will be accounted to him righteousness. The release of debts [in the Seventh year] is also an act of mercy among brothers, and therefore he said Of a foreigner thou mayest exact it, and of him [who releases the debt of a brother] he designated a blessing for Scripture mentions a blessing only in connection with charity and acts of mercy and not for [the mere abstention from] robbery and fraud. [33]

Nachmanides makes perfectly clear the difference between the law that regulates relations between strangers and that which is to regulate relations between brothers, between those to whom real kindness is owed. But let us not forget that it is precisely this status, that of a friend, that Antonio denied Shylock, continually casting him aside beyond any thought of shared empathy, as one who cannot be loved—the perpetual alien of Portia’s trial speech.

David Hume—and with him all of modern economics—has famously shown how the maintenance of the contract is predicated not on any shared sympathy, but simply on interests. [34] Promises, like all other rules of justice, were but artifices of society and their maintenance, predicated on no “real kindness” but on our selfish pursuit of interest, which is what he understood as at the core of all exchange. Hence his famous explication of contractual relations:

‘Tis profitable for us both, that I shou’d labour with you today, and that you shou’d aid me to-morrow. I have no kindness for you, and know you have as little for me. … Hence I learn to do a service to another, without bearing him any real kindness; because I foresee, that he will return my service, in expectation of another of the same kind, and in order to maintain the same correspondence of good offices with me or with others. [35]

The laws of Deuteronomy, however, distinguish the laws regulating the contract from those commanding responsibility to the objects of our love (insiders). This is a critical distinction and counterintuitive to the way we tend to parse the world of obligations, feelings and reciprocity. Laws regulating contract, organization of the division of labor and the structuring of Necessity are, and have always been, taken for granted. That is to say, they are a necessary aspect of any and every public social order. We, however, are given to seeing the existence of a separate sphere—an internal one, or private realm—regulated by passion, feeling, sincerity, what W.H. Auden identified with the mystery and personal choice of falling-in-Love and so, critically, freed from the necessity of Law. [36] As we see above, in the Biblical quotes, as well as the medieval Jewish commentary, this distinction hardly exists within Judaism. There, the intimate realm, the realm of personal freedom and sincere action, is also regulated by law and its obligations, if only obligations to mercy. Hence it is the individual as a member of the bounded community (of insiders) rather than the individual as agent who becomes the object of mercy and charity. Individuals beyond those communal boundaries are owed what is owed by a general, universal and reasoned, legal ethical order—no less, but no more either.

This, of course, raises the whole issue of the boundaries of community and community obligations which have been parsed in different ways by different Jewish legal decision-makers over the past millennia. One of the earliest explications is in the Talmudic Tractate Baba Batra (7-11), where the rules and regulations of charity in one’s township are discussed, as are residency requirements. Critically, town membership, which is a requirement for charity and carries responsibility for the provision of aid to the poor and hungry, is not at all connected to religion—but to property ownership and terms of residency. Over the centuries, different moves have been made within the Jewish tradition to further explicate this issue or what is owed to whom as a member of which community. Of great significance is the type of move made in the thirteenth century by philosophers such as R. Menachem HaMe’eri of Provence, who posited new terms of community, of Jews among Gentiles, at least among such as maintained the Noachide laws. These Noachides were seen as pertaining not simply to individuals who lived in accordance with the Noachide laws, but as pertaining to whole societies: what he termed “nations who were defined by religious obligations”—that is, who accepted the Noachide laws and led an organized social life, predicated on the existence of legal rules, courts and a political rule of law. In the thought of Ha’Meiri, then, whole social systems of non-Jews were granted legitimacy, and not solely righteous individuals. Ha’Meiri’s idea of umot hagedurot bedrachei hadatot, that is—peoples whose organized community was that of law—was thus of a more or less expansive definition of the potential political community, of those among whom principles of equity and compromise must be implemented, as instantiated in other non-Jewish forms of monotheistic religion (and not just among Jews).

This understanding of re’ah (neighbor) is not far from certain understandings of the rabbinic injunction of dina d’malchuta dina. This very important dictum states that the law of the land is the law and must, as such, be obeyed (interestingly, Shylock’s injunction to the Duke). The traditional interpretations of this dictum have understood it as a concession to political expediency and nothing more (as Jews lived in exile, ruled over by non-Jews, they could do nothing but comply with the laws of lands where they resided). Yet some recent work by R. Bleich and by Suzanne Last Stone on Rashi’s (eleventh century commentator on Bible and Talmud) understanding of dina d’malchuta dina stresses his interpretation of its roots in the Noachide commandments as a non-halachic yet substantive component of the Jewish legal system. In Last’s terms, “the Noachite command of dinin is a residual source of law for Jews.” [37] This is a fascinating argument, as it opens up the possibility of a legal pluralism based on a common human morality, akin to natural law, and with it a full responsibility towards a shared human community. It is this recognition of full human responsibility—inherent to such ideas as the expanded conception of the Noachides—that can only be achieved through bringing together both ethics and law, love and necessity—as foundational of all social order embracing both Jewish and non-Jewish collectivities.

There were additional moves in this direction—of substantive recognition of the other within Judaism—not predicated solely on the Noachide commandments. Thus, one of the strands in Jewish medieval philosophy to which one could draw attention is that stressing the universality of reason and the rules of reason, and of a natural morality that in a sense “precede” the obligations of the Torah, as can be seen in the commentaries of Nachmanides and the writings of Yehuda HaLevi. Both provide an opening towards a natural morality and general ethical imperatives and hence too, to an expanded community of obligation. This has, for example been the case in interpretation of Nachmanides’s Commentary on the Torah, Devarim VI, 18 – v’asita hayahsar v’hatov b’einei adoshem, “thou shalt do what is right and good in the sight of the eternal,” which sees the Jewish principle of lifnim mishurat hadin (supererogation) together with the principle of compromise as mandated by the general and abstract nature of the God-given law to Moses. That is to say, the law has to be developed or applied practically beyond its general principles. However, the issue at stake here is not solely casuistic interpretation but a method of adjudication which incorporates as tools ethical principles that do seem to refer to some sort of natural, or extra-halachic, legal imperative. [38] Similarly, Yehdua Ha’levi, in the Kuzari, would seem to posit the existence of general principles of natural reason that precede the legislative principles of halachic command. Rational Laws—and here I quote—are “the basis and preamble of divine law, preceding it in character and time and being indispensable in the administration of every human society” (II, 48).

The above are just indications of the recognition within the tradition of the existence of a universal reason independent of revelation and so, by implication, the legitimacy of alternative forms of social life defined by a natural law and natural reason, and not by God’s revelation to the Jews on Sinai. We see here, as we may find in other texts as well, a recognition of alternative, non-Judaic sources of law and morality. All imply a much more nuanced approach to the whole issue of boundaries and obligations to those beyond the ritually defined community than is all too often assumed. There can be little doubt that the recognition of a natural reason, and with it of a natural morality, opens up a space wherein ethics and law, love and necessity can engage in a dialogue and at the very least the possibility of something other than their cultural and social segregation.

On the other side of this historically constituting dichotomy stands Christianity, whose history is no less complicated or nuanced. Christianity, famously, denied the distinction of insiders and outsiders in its universalism of love, which, as perhaps Shakespeare argues, is not really possible without a heavy dose of hypocrisy, some aspects of which were the source of Freud’s analysis of the “narcissism of the small difference.” [39] To be meaningful, love must be bounded and circumscribed. However much the desire for a transcending instauration of love, we all recognize its fragile, mutable and circumscribed nature. Hence the need for a Second Coming when such a universal rule will be realized. In this world, however, we must recognize too its conflicts with other goods, such as Truth and Justice and Righteousness. Hence, indeed, its only eschatological unity with those virtues as in the Psalms quoted above. As we know, however, Christian tropes tend to de-emphasize these contradictions as well as the severely mediated nature of love as it exists in the world. Hence, for example, and in terms of usury, St. Thomas Aquinas devolved a general prohibition on all usury from the Jewish prohibition of usury among brothers—arguing the new, universal terms of brotherhood. This was, of course, never a workable doctrine, as love is, unfortunately, not either (hence, of course, the role of the Jew and other non-Christians within the medieval economies of Europe).

Of great importance is the fact that the Protestant Reformation did away with such prohibitions as the new understandings of individual and community (now a societas of contracting individuals each concerned with the salvation of their own souls and no longer a universitas of Christian fellowship) obviated the terms of shared brotherhood. This was the thesis of Benjamin Nelson’s famous study of the changing laws of usury in terms of a new doctrine of “universal otherhood.” [40] The English historian R. H. Tawney explicated this change wonderfully in terms of the changing doctrine of salvation and its implication for society and the relations between men and women in society.

Since salvation is bestowed by the operation of grace in the heart and by that alone, the whole fabric of organized religion, which had mediated between the individual soul and its Maker—divinely commissioned hierarchy, systematized activities, corporate institutions, drops away, as the blasphemous trivialities of a religion of works. The medieval conception of the social order, which had regarded it as a highly articulated organism of members contributing in their different degrees to a spiritual purpose, was shattered, and differences which had been distinction within a larger unity were now set in irreconcilable antagonism to each other. Grace no longer completed nature: it was the antithesis of it. Man’s actions as a member of society were no longer the extension of his life as a child of God: they were its negation. Secular interests ceased to possess, even remotely, a religious significance: they might compete with religion, but they could not enrich it. Detailed rules of conduct—a Christian casuistry—are needless or objectionable: the Christian has a sufficient guide in the Bible and in his own conscience. In one sense, the distinction between the secular and the religious life vanished. Monasticism was, so to speak, secularized; all men stood henceforward on the same footing towards God; and that advance which contained the germ of all subsequent revolutions, was so enormous that all else seems insignificant. In another sense, the distinction became more profound than ever. For, though all might be sanctified, it was their inner life alone which could partake in sanctification. The world was divided into good and evil, light and darkness, spirit and matter. The division between them was absolute; no human effort could span the chasm. [41]

The false, unrealizable and ultimately exclusionary universalism of the Catholic Church was to be replaced by the universal otherhood of Humean social agents, each “a faceless algebraical cipher” to the other—faceless, precisely to the degree that salvation became a purely individual project and no longer a collective venture. [42] The religious dynamics of this move have interested scholars from Max Weber to today, one of the most insightful explanations was that proffered by R. H. Tawney, who I continue to quote.

To insist that the individual is responsible, that no man can save his brother, that the essence of religion is the contact of the soul with its Maker, how true and indispensable! But how easy to slip from that truth into the suggestion that society is without responsibility, that no man can help his brother, that the social order and its consequences are not even the scaffolding by which men may climb to greater heights, but something external, alien, and irrelevant—something, at best, indifferent to the life of the spirit, and at worse, the sphere of the letter which killeth and of the reliance on works which ensnares the soul into the slumber of death! In emphasizing that God’s Kingdom is not of this world, Puritanism did not always escape the suggestion that this world is no part of God’s Kingdom. The complacent victim of that false antithesis between the social mechanism and the life of the spirit, was to tyrannize over English religious thought for the next two centuries, it enthroned religion in the privacy of the individual soul, not without some sighs of sober satisfaction at its abdication from society. [43]

It was this doctrine of salvation and its implications for society which, of course, permitted, the triumph of the type of understanding of individuals, no longer bounded by a salvational social matrix, that was exemplified, as noted above, in David Hume’s philosophy.

As we can recognize today, however, the Humean solution is only a partial one. This makes the need to rethink the issue of boundaries between insiders and outsiders all the more critical. In today’s world we have witnessed the horrors of too grand an apotheosis of the principle of love, as indeed we continue to witness the horrors of too narrow an understanding of law and of its necessity. Both make of Freud’s “narcissism of the minor difference” a principle of murderous import. If our own work in the study of margins and boundaries is to mean anything, it much be oriented towards the nearly impossible task of rethinking the past centuries, of bringing together what the modern world tore asunder and of overcoming the worst forms of civilizational narcissism.

Many decades ago, when I was a child in the Yeshiva of Flatbush in New York, we had posted in front of every class room the saying ” derech eretz kadma la’torah “—that is, ethical behavior precedes the Torah. A simplistic reading would see that as love preceding the law. We now know that no such simplistic reading is possible. As young students, however, we just treated it as one more less-than-serious homily taught to us children. After all, we had a good measure of what was serious, and we were never tested in derech eretz. I had failed enough examinations in Talmud (Jewish law) to know the consequences of inadequacy in a serious realm, and so the definition of seriousness, and this definitely wasn’t included. In many ways it still isn’t. Perhaps we have all to learn from the Confucians who, in the concept of li, unite the ethical and the legal, the rite with the duty, the mores of tradition with the “reasonable conventions of society.” To do so, however, we must overcome those dichotomies which, to such a great and tragic extent, define who we still are.


[1] That this attitude has developed together with a strong Gnostic stress is a major theme in the work of Eric Voegelin and his understanding of European historical development; see Eric Voegelin, New Science of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952).
[2] Jacques Ellul, Islam et Jude-Christianisme. (Paris: Presses Universitaries de France, 2004).
[3] See debate over European Constitution.
[4] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology. Edited by S. Ryazanskaya, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1968).
[5] P. J. Wilson, “The Promising Primate,” Man 10:1, 1975, pp. 5-10.
[6] Aspects of this clearly intersect with death drive, Thanatos. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents. trans. James Strachey, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1961).
[7] Bela Gurnberger, New Essays on Narcissism. (London Free Association Books, 1989), p.78.
[8] An appreciation of but some of the dimensions connected to this dichotomy can be found in John R. Cooper, “Shylock’s Humanity,” Shakespeare Quarterly 21:2, Spring 1970, pp. 117-124.
[9] It may well be that this very scrupulosity should be seen as a form of sincerity—and self-defeating for just this reason.
[10] Quoted in Toby Lelyveld, Shylock on the State (Cleveland: The Press of Western Reserve University, 1960), pp. 82-83.
[11] Martin D. Yaffe, Shylock and the Jewish Question. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997); Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason, (Oxford University Press, 1979). Other Jewish commentators sharing this view have been James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews (New York:Columbia University Press, 1996), Hermann Sinsheimer, Shylock: The History of a Character (New York: B. Bloom, 1947) Richard Weisberg, “Antonio’s Legalistic Cruelty,” College Literature 25, Winter 1998, pp.12-20.
[12] Sir Israel Gollancz, Allegory and Mysticism in Shakespeare: A Medievalist on The Merchant of Venice (Folcroft PA: The Folcroft Press, 1931), pp. 27, 39, 64.
[13] See Maryellen Keefe, “Isolation to Communion, A Reading of The Merchant of Venice,” pp. 213- 224 in John W. Mahon and Ellen M. Mahon (eds.) The Merchant of Venice: New Critical Essays (New York: Rutledge, 2002), p. 216.
[14] Ibid., p. 261.
[15] Ronald Sharp, “Gift Exchange and the Economies of Spirit in The Merchant of Venice,” Modern Philology 83, Feb 1986, pp. 250-265.
[16] Richard Weisberg, “Antonio’s Legalistic Cruelty,” College Literature 25, Winter 1998, pp.12-20.
[17] See Thomas Cartelli, “Shakespeare’s Merchant, Marlowe’s Jew: The Problem of Cultural Difference,” Shakespeare Studies 20, 1988, pp. 255-60.
[18] See A. D. Moody, “The Letter of the Law,” pp.79-102 in Thomas Wheeler (ed.), The Merchant of Venice, Critical Essays (New York: Garland Publishing, 1991), p. 82.
[19] On this see, Roger Stritmatter, “‘Old’ and ‘New’ Law in The Merchant of Venice: A Note on the Source of Shylock’s Morality in Deuteronomy 15,” Continuous Series (New Series) Vol.47, No.1, Notes and Queries, March 2000, pp. 70-72.
[20] William Hazlitt, “The Merchant of Venice,” pp.241-246, in Thomas Wheeler (ed.), The Merchant of Venice, Critical Essays. (New York: Garland Publishing, 1991), p. 242.
[21] Ibid., pp. 70-71.
[22] Rachel H. Wasserfall, Women and Water Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law. (Hanover: NH, 1999).
[23] For a study of Jessica see, John Drakakis, “Jessica,” pp. 145-167 in John Mahon and Ellen Mahon (eds.) The Merchant of Venice: New Critical Essays (New York: Rutledge, 2002).
[24] Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason (Oxford University Press, 1979).
[25] James Shapiro, “Shakespeare and the Jews,” pp.73-91, in Martin Coyle (ed.), The Merchant of Venice William Shakespeare (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), p.82.
[26] Ibid., p. 83.
[27] John Gross, Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), p. 29.
[28] Sigmund Freud, “The Theme of the Three Caskets,” pp. 291-301, in James Strachey, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1976), vol. XII, p. 299.
[29] Ibid., p. 297.
[30] Ibid., p. 298.
[31] On Venetian charters to Jews see: Charles Edelman, “Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice,” Explicator 60:3, Spring 2002, pp. 124-126.
[32] Michael J. Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference (London: Continuum Press, 2002).
[33] Ramban, Commentary on the Torah. trans. Rabbi Dr. Charles Chavel, vol.5, (New York: Deuteronomy Shilo Publ. Co.,1976), pp. 293-294.
[34] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960).
[35] Ibid., p. 520.
[36] W. H. Auden, “Brothers and Others,” pp.59-78, in Thomas Wheeler (ed.), The Merchant of Venice, Critical Essays. (New York: Garland Publishing, 1991), p. 63.
[37] Suzanne Last Stone, “Sinitic and Noahide Law: Legal Pluralism in Jewish Law,” Cardozo Law Review vol. 12, #3-4, Feb/Mar 1991, p. 1211.
[38] Aharon Lichtenstein, “Does Jewish Tradition recognize an Ethic Independent of Halakha?” in Marvin Fox (ed.) Modern Jewish Ethics, Theory and Practice. (Ohio State University Press, 1975) pp. 62-87.
[39] Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches. Vol. 1, (New York: Harper and Row, 1960).
[40] Otto von Friedrich Gierke, Natural Law and the Theory of Society, 1500-1800. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1950); Benjamin Nelson, The Idea of Usury: From Tribal Brotherhood to Universal Otherhood. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1969).
[41] Ibid., p. 98.
[42] W. H. Auden, in Thomas Wheeler (ed.), The Merchant of Venice, Critical Essays. p. 77.
[43] Ibid., p. 254.
[44] Herbert Fingarette, Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), p. 6.