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Faculty View | Shakespeare and the Nations

by Dr. William Tate, professor of English


In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare draws on a dense network of biblical allusion to dramatize the complex history of relations between Christians and Jews. One important strand of criticism understands the play as an allegory of the superiority of grace over law. Other critics, however, reject this allegorical reading because of the undeniable and ugly hypocrisy of the Christian characters of the play. My own view is that the play simultaneously affirms a theology of grace and calls for deeper Christian reflection on the implications of a theology of grace for Christian treatment of the racially “other.”


At least some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries grappled with the problem. A famous theologian of the English church, Richard Hooker, introduces an interpretation of Romans 9 (one of the key biblical passages concerning Christian understanding of Jews) by reminding his readers “that God hath made of one blood all mankind.” (See Acts 17:26.) Hooker understands the election of the Jews as a means of God’s grace for the nations. The Jews, he says, are “a people that had been the wellspring of life to all Nations” (156). Shylock’s remark that “the trade and profit of the city [of Venice] consisteth of all nations” may register Shakespeare’s awareness of this point. More clearly relevant for the play, however, is Hooker’s suggestion that God has “made of one blood all mankind.”


In act three, Shylock refers to his daughter Jessica (who has eloped with the Christian Lorenzo) as “my flesh and my blood” (3.1.32 and see line 30). Salerio, a hypocritical Christian, absurdly claims that “There is more difference between thy flesh and hers than between jet and ivory” (suggesting that Jessica is more fairskinned, and therefore more attractive, than Shylock) and also that there is “more [difference] between your bloods than there is between red wine and Rhenish” (a white wine; lines 33-35). Shylock’s response to Salerio includes the famous line: “If you prick us do we not bleed?” (line 54). His point, of course, is that Jews are as human as Gentiles; they are of one blood.


In the crucial courtroom scene which makes up most of act four, Shylock’s intention to take a forfeited pound of Antonio’s flesh is thwarted because their contract has not given him the right to take any of Antonio’s blood. Portia warns him that he will be subject to punishment “if thou dost shed / One drop of Christian blood” (4.1.304-305). But the passage we have noticed from act three makes it clear that there is no such thing as specifically “Christian” blood. To state the point another way, it isn’t race but grace that makes a person a true child of Abraham. God has “made of one blood all mankind.”


Taken together, these passages suggest that the Christians in the play, though they rightly (but abstractly) understand themselves as recipients of grace, have failed to understand that one of the implications of that grace ought to be expressed in a charitable hope for the conversion of all nations, including the Jews.


This essay is adapted from a lecture delivered by Prof. Tate in honor of President Halvorson’s inauguration. You may listen to this and the other three inaugural faculty lectures by Professors Jay Green, Tim Morris, and Rebecca Pennington at