Genesis in Shakespeare

Image: “Jacob and Laban”, Jean Restout II (1692-1768), Before 1737

Shakespeare was no dope: his writing reflects his deep understanding of the cumulative nature of storytelling and the intense influences of early texts, including the bible, on modern writing. The Merchant of Venice synthesizes this relationship, borrowing from the bible in order to comment on the anti-Semitism that was prevalent in Elizabethan England. In particular, Shakespeare incorporates a story from Genesis directly into the play during an argument between Shylot and Antonio over the correct interest rate to charge. This story, involving an agreement reached between Jacob and his uncle Laban, not only serves as fodder for Shylot’s argument, but also additionally provides historical and biblical firepower to the story of Shylot’s downfall and eventual ‘salvation’.

A bit of background on the story: Jacob, a descendant of Abraham and nephew to Laban, goes to work on Laban’s farm, with the promise that he will earn the hand of Laban’s daughter (Rachel) in marriage. He is assigned to work on Laban’s flock, and is allowed to keep “all the speckled and spotted cattle, and all the brown cattle among the sheep, and the spotted and speckled among the goats” (King James Bible, Genesis 30.25-36) as payment. Jacob is wronged by Laban as Laban tricks him into 7 more years of labor and develops a cunning plan to make a profit: he essentially selectively breeds Laban’s flock, selecting the strongest animals to breed and to birth marked livestock, slowly ‘stealing’ from Laban. After Jacob marries Rachel, he escapes Laban’s farm with his wives, in hopes to return to the holy land. Laban pursues him in anger, but after receiving counseling from God to show mercy, the two eventually reach an agreement that neither will cross an artificially constructed boundary in the hills, and Jacob continues on his journey. Jacob’s 12 sons will later become the ancestors and namesakes of the 12 Jewish tribes, founding Judaism.

In his debate over the interest rate attached to his loan, Shylot references the story, arguing, “Thrift is blessing, if men steal it not” (Merchant of Venice 1.3.98). Shakespeare uses this biblical story as scaffolding for the events in his play, mirroring the relationships and message of one of the world’s oldest surviving texts. Shylot has a bold plan for profit through charging interest and bargaining, just as Jacob, a key figure in Judaism, executes his profit strategy. Additionally, in both stories a higher Christian figure saves the Jewish mortal. In the bible, God tells Laban to show Jacob mercy and forgiveness, allowing him to return to the holy land. In The Merchant of Venice, Shylot’s ‘salvation’ is twofold: the Duke, an almost god-like figure in the eyes of the law, shows Shylock mercy and urges Antonio to do the same. Additionally Shylock’ is religiously ‘saved’ in his conversion to Christianity.

Shakespeare’s biblical nod could be interpreted as a religious allegory of anti-Semitism common in Elizabethan England: while Christian mercy in the bible allows Judaism to flourish, in The Merchant of Venice the Christian’s mercy results in the collapse of Judaism, as Shylock is forced to renounce his faith in order to keep his fortune: In referencing The Book of Genesis and writing the ending to MV that he did, he turned the very root of Jewish history against the faith. Shakespeare may or may not have been anti-Semitic himself, but there is no doubt that he was willing and able to embody the sentiments surrounding Judaism in his society.