Shylock, the Devil and the Meaning of Deception in The Merchant of Venice

in European Judaism


The article explores Shakespeare’s secularized retelling of the Christian theological narrative of deceiving the Devil, with Antonio playing the role of Christ and Shylock as the Devil. The article argues that recasting the contest between Christ and the Devil in the world of Venice sets the stage for Shakespeare’s larger exploration of the pervasive nature of deceit in human affairs. Although it seems that Shakespeare’s characters are resigned to live in a fallen world where truth is obscured, Portia’s invocation of mercy may be Shakespeare’s attempt to offer some hope of an earthly salvation. The article argues that this portrait of a world filled with deception resonated with Shakespeare’s audience. Men and women in early modern England lived in a world where they often had to hide their religious identities and loyalties. This interpretation challenges more recent attempts to see the play as primarily concerned with race and tolerance.

After more than four centuries, Shylock remains an enigma. He can be seen, of course, as the incarnation of traditional Christian ideas about the viciousness of Jews and Judaism. However, he also comes to life as the tormented victim of Christian intolerance. The Merchant of Venice offers contemporary audiences a choice of which Shylock they can or want to see. But it is difficult to understand how these two Shylocks co-exist. If Shylock is supposed to embody Jewish evil, why does Shakespeare give him his great speech that humanizes him?1 On the other hand, if Shylock is meant to be an object of pity and to challenge Christian prejudices, why is he brutally silenced by a forced conversion?2 I would like to suggest a way to understand Shylock and the play that avoids these confusing cross-currents. Doing so requires putting aside accumulated assumptions about Shylock either as the evil Jew or as a victim of Christian antisemitism. This article will explore traditional Christian theology about salvation as the controlling structure of The Merchant of Venice, an approach largely missing in a systematic way even from the best scholarship on the play. Interpretations of Merchant that emphasize the play’s purported focus on racial or national identity or that see the play as espousing a precociously liberal view of tolerance have tended to dominate recent scholarly analysis of the play.3 The increasing interest in both Shakespeare’s own religious identity and the role of religion in his work reminds us to look again at the religious elements in the play.4 Some scholars have been sensitive to the religious allusions in the play, arguing, for example, that Portia’s victory over Shylock is an allegory of the triumph of Christian mercy over a harsh Old Testament legalism. In fact, Israel Gollancz traced the trial scene back to the medieval drama, ‘The Parliament of Heaven’, in which Mercy pleads for human beings in the court of heaven.5 In a similar vein, Nevill Coghill argued that Shylock and the pair of Antonio and Portia personify the conflict between Justice and Mercy, or the Old Law of the Jews and the new dispensation of Christianity. Coghill believes that ‘Shylock, therefore, should seem a great Old Testament figure, a patriarch perhaps, standing for the Law; and he will be tricked, just as Satan was tricked by the Incarnation, according to the tradition of the Middle Ages’.6 He does not dwell on the deception of Satan, which I will discuss below, and instead argues that Shakespeare resolves the conflict between Judaism and Christianity through Lorenzo and Jessica’s union. In her well-known discussion of biblical sources in the play, Barbara Lewalski returned to the medieval theological narrative of the struggle between God and the Devil for man’s soul: ‘Antonio, who assumes the debts of others … reflects on occasion the role of Christ satisfying the claim of Divine Justice by assuming the sins of mankind … And Shylock, demanding the “bond” which is due him under the law, reflects the role of the devil, to whom the entire race is in bondage through sin – an analogy which Portia makes explicit when she terms his hold on Antonio a “state of hellish cruelty”’.7 However, the core meaning of the play for her, as it was for Gollancz and Coghill, remains the contest between Judaism and Christianity: ‘Shylock and Antonio embody theological conflicts and historical interrelationships of Old Law and New’. In other words, their struggle ‘symbolizes the confrontation of Judaism and Christianity as theological systems – the Old Law and the New – and also as historic societies’.8

In this article, I would like to extend the insights of these scholars about the role of allegory and, in particular, the way the play, I believe, mirrors the traditional theological narrative of how the incarnation deceived and ultimately defeated the Devil. Many different explanations of the incarnation and salvation circulated as early Christians tried to make sense of ideas only sketched out in the New Testament. The Greek Fathers in particular imagined the incarnation as the way that God resolved his contest with Satan. Given that man had still acted of his own free will in disobeying God in the Garden, so early Christians argued, God could not destroy the Devil by the arbitrary use of his power. The Devil was exposed to God’s justice only if he overstepped his limited rights to claim human beings at their deaths. Christ’s incarnation tricked the Devil into overreaching: the Devil had thought Christ was only a mortal human being. Once the Devil had violated the established rules of their struggle, God could act to redeem human beings.9 In the twelfth century, Anselm famously revised this theology in Cur Deus Homo. Human beings were redeemed not because the Devil had exceeded his remit, but because Christ’s sacrifice on the cross reconciled God and humanity. The struggle between God and the Devil was like the one between a lord and servant. When the servant trespassed against his rightful master, he could be punished, thus vitiating the Devil’s power over humanity. However, even if the idea of the deception of the Devil was no longer central to this new understanding of redemption, the trope remained a very visible element of medieval and early modern understandings of salvation.

In Merchant, Shakespeare, I believe, has created a secular version of this traditional motif of the struggle between Christ and the Devil. Shylock was tricked into claiming Antonio, just as the Devil was seduced into seizing Jesus. Both were deceived into thinking their victims were mortal, and both overreached. They then became vulnerable to justice, from God and from Venice. Shakespeare infused the theology of the Devil’s deception into the language and structure of the play. The theological drama between God and the Devil is not a passing image or allusion in the play to serve a more abstract notion of a confrontation between Judaism and Christianity, or between mercy and the law. It is the animating force of the play and possibly can lead us to Shakespeare’s true concerns about the nature of human relationships and the possibility of earthly salvation. Virtually all the characters in the play draw attention to the demonic aspects of Shylock’s personality and behaviour. Even when Shylock is not explicitly called a devil, Shakespeare makes him appear demonic. Shylock’s incarnation of the Devil is also apparent in Lorenzo’s ‘kidnapping’ of Jessica, which mimics the harrowing of Hell when Jesus descended into Satan’s kingdom to free the righteous souls who had died before the Incarnation. We should remember, too, that the flight of Jessica and Lorenzo takes place at Easter, the time of the resurrection, and a time when the Devil should fear Christ’s power. Shylock can feel a threat looming: ‘Look to my house. I am right loath to go; / There is some ill a-brewing towards my rest, / for I did dream of moneybags tonight’.10 Jessica escapes her father’s house – her self-proclaimed Hell – by embracing a Christian, one who, as she imagines, will make her a Christian, thus offering her salvation and freedom from her father.

At the core of the play is the contest between Antonio and Shylock. Antonio is a merchant and that occupation brings to mind Christ’s role in the economy of salvation: he purchases the freedom of humanity with his own death. Antonio suggests that he is playing a role, just as Christ was playing a role to entrap the Devil: ‘I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano, / A stage, where every man must play a part, / And mine a sad one’.11 Antonio quickly assumes the central role of the saviour in the play. Only he can free Bassanio from his debts and guarantee his earthly happiness. Indeed, Antonio behaves in the same way that Jesus does, in that they both ‘save’ only by passive suffering. He describes his own meek opposition to Shylock: ‘Out of his envy’s reach, I do oppose / My patience to his fury, and am armed / To suffer with a quietness of spirit / The very tyranny and rage of his’.12 In fact, Antonio is resigned to his fate: ‘I am a tainted wether of the flock, / Meetest for death; the weakest kind of fruit / Drops earliest to the ground, and so let me’.13 When Bassanio admits to Portia that Antonio has offered himself as guarantor of Shylock’s loan, his language again suggests Antonio’s Christ-like qualities: ‘Here is a letter, lady, / The papers as the body of my friend, / And every word in it a gaping wound / Issuing life-blood’.14 The letter embodies Antonio in the same way that Christ is embodied in the words of Scripture. The letter ‘bleeds’ just as Christ bleeds for those he is about to save.

The central action of the play follows the pattern of the struggle that we have seen in the theological drama between Christ and the Devil. Antonio puts himself at risk to guarantee Bassanio’s salvation – albeit in Bassanio’s case it is an earthly paradise of love rather than a heavenly one. He draws Shylock’s attention and lures him into agreeing to the bond. When Antonio cannot pay off the bond and submits himself to ‘justice’, in the same way that Christ submits himself to the judgement of the Romans, Shylock seeks to claim his piece of flesh, just as the Devil would claim human beings. Where Christ is protected from the Devil by virtue of his divine nature, it is the law of Venice that makes Antonio immortal, or at least immortal in the sense that Shylock cannot kill him. As Portia warns Shylock: ‘Take then thy bond: take thou thy pound of flesh. / But in the cutting it, if thou dost shed / One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods / Are by the laws of Venice confiscate / unto the state of Venice’.15 She repeats the admonition a few moments later, but the threatened penalty is now death. Antonio, rendered immortal by the protection of the law, becomes like Christ who, as a divine being, is not subject to the Devil’s authority. Antonio’s own ‘resurrection’ brings about Shylock’s defeat and Bassanio’s salvation, just as Christ escaped from the Devil and freed mankind.

Shylock’s fate after his condemnation by the court mirrors the experience of the Devil as imagined in the theological tradition. Upon Christ’s resurrection, the Devil lost his dominion over Hell. So, too, did Shylock lose his property; all he owned was granted to Lorenzo and Jessica. He lost his very identity and power when condemned to become a Christian. His daughter also became a Christian and disowned him. He lost dominion over his property, his hellish house, and the future that Jessica offered him.

Deception was at the core of the theological struggle between Christ and the Devil, and it is deception that I believe was the animating idea behind Shakespeare’s recasting of theology into secular drama. The imagery and language of deception in the play is pervasive and acts as an echo chamber for the deception at the root of Shylock and Antonio’s relationship.16 It begins when Shylock invokes the story of Jacob tricking Laban to justify his own talent to make money. Antonio responds with a more general indictment of deception: ‘Mark you this, Bassanio, / The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. / An evil soul producing holy witness / Is like a villain with a smiling cheek, / A goodly apple, rotten at the heart. / O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!’17 Jessica, of course, deceives Shylock when she escapes with his jewels. Bassanio lives beyond his means in order to romance Portia. Lancelet tricks his father by hiding his identity from the old man. The entire system of caskets by which Portia’s fate will be determined is designed to deceive. And, later in the play, Portia and Nerissa fool Bassanio and Gratiano when they disguise themselves as men in order to manipulate the events of the trial. Deception is woven into the very nature of the world of the play. Faced with the choice of caskets, Bassanio chooses knowing the world is false: ‘So may the outward shows be least themselves, / The world is still deceived with ornament. / In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt, / But, being seasoned with a gracious voice, / Obscures the show of evil? In religion, / What damned error but some sober brow / Will bless it and approve it with a text, / Hiding the grossness with fair ornament? / There is no vice so simple but assumes / Some mark of virtue on his outward parts’.18 Bassanio sees through the deceit of the caskets and chooses without regard to outward appearances, but he is still blinded by Portia’s later disguise. The concluding dialogue between Lorenzo and Jessica is a litany of relationships marred by deceit and betrayal. Lorenzo, perhaps speaking for Shakespeare, as did Bassanio, acknowledges that deception is part of the human condition. In some way it is the original sin. It is impossible to get at the truth of existence, Lorenzo asserts, because the physical world disguises a more vital reality: ‘Look how the floor of heaven / Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold. / There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st / But in his motion like an angel sings, / Still choiring to the young-eyed cherubins. / Such harmony is in immortal souls, / But, whilst this muddy vesture of decay / Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it’.19

How can human beings navigate such a treacherous world where even religion offers only redemption based on trickery? By translating the epic confrontation between God and the Devil into the mundane contest between a merchant and a Jew, Shakespeare highlights the emptiness at the core of traditional Christian theology. But Shakespeare seems to want to go further than mocking a traditional way of understanding salvation. The deception of Shylock in the world of the play is in a world where nothing is certain; the play becomes an indictment of the potential for truth and authenticity in any human relationship. Such cynicism is not surprising since Shakespeare lived in a world where traumatic religious revolutions forced generations of English people to hide their inner beliefs and identities. Whatever Shakespeare’s own religious identity, he understood the dangers of revealing too much of oneself to the world. The only hope for human beings is, perhaps, what Portia seeks from Shylock: mercy. ‘It is an attribute to God himself, / And earthly power doth then show likest God’s / When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew, / Though Justice be thy plea, consider this: / That in the course of justice none of us / Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy, / And that same prayer doth teach us all to render / The deeds of mercy.’20 Shylock rejected mercy, but Portia’s speech still celebrates the power of mercy to redeem tainted human relationships. Racial ideas, theories of tolerance or intolerance, economic models, or even ideas about Judaism and Christianity seem to pale against these more universal concerns.


See Kenneth Gross, Shylock is Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 10. For a history of the reception of the play, see John Drakakis’s introduction to the Arden Shakespeare Merchant of Venice (London: Methuen, 2010). See also John W. Mahon, ‘The Fortunes of The Merchant of Venice from 1596–2001’, in The Merchant of Venice: New Critical Essays, ed. John W. Mahon and Ellen Macleod Mahon (London: Routledge, 2002), 1–94.


Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare and Modern Culture (New York: Anchor Books, 2008), 124–153.


See, for example, James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016); Martin Yaffe, Shylock and the Jewish Question (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 47; and Nicole M. Coonradt, ‘Shakespeare’s Grand Deception: The Merchant of Venice – Anti-Semitism as “Uncanny Causality” and the Catholic-Protestant Problem’, Religion and the Arts 11 (2007), 74–97.


See, for example, Ken Jackson and Arthur F. Marotti (eds), Shakespeare and Religion (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011); Kenneth J.E. Graham and Philip D. Collington (eds), Shakespeare and Religious Change (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); Allison Shell, Shakespeare and Religion (London: Methuen Drama, 2010); David Bevington, Shakespeare’s Ideas: More Things in Heaven and Earth (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008); Dennis Taylor, ‘Sorting Out Catholic and Protestant Elements in Shakespeare’, Religion and the Arts 7, nos. 1–2 (2003), 175–190; Arthur F. Marotti, ‘Shakespeare and Catholicism’, in Lancastrian Shakespeare: Region, Religion and Patronage, ed. Richard Dutton, Alison Findlay and Richard Wilson (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), 218–241; Maurice Hunt, Shakespeare’s Religious Allusiveness: Its Play and Tolerance (London: Ashgate, 2004); Beatrice Groves, Texts and Traditions: Religion in Shakespeare 1592–1604 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); see, now, David Kastan, A Will to Believe: Shakespeare and Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).


Israel Gollancz, Allegory and Mysticism in Shakespeare: A Medievalist on The Merchant of Venice (London, [privately printed] 1931).


Nevill Coghill, ‘The Theme of The Merchant of Venice’, in Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Merchant of Venice, ed. Sylvan Barnet (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1970), 108–113, at 110–111.


See Barbara Lewalski, ‘Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice’, Shakespeare Quarterly 3, no. 3 (1962), 327–343; Gary Grund, ‘The Fortunate Fall and Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice’, Studia Neophilologica 55 (1983), 153–165; Craig Bernthal, The Trial of Man: Christianity and Judgment in the World of Shakespeare (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2003); and, more recently, Susannah Heschel, ‘Christian Supercessionism and The Merchant of Venice’, Harvard Theological Review 99, no. 4 (2006), 381–405, here 334.


Lewalski, ‘Biblical Allusion’, 334.


C.W. Marx, The Devil’s Rights and the Redemption in the Literature of Medieval England (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1995), 11. The classic discussion of the deception motif is in Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement (London: SPCK, 2010). See also John D. Cox, The Devil and the Sacred in English Drama, 1350–1642 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), although, interestingly, he does not discuss The Merchant of Venice.


I use the Arden Shakespeare edition, edited by John Drakakis (London: Methuen, 2010). 2.5.16–18, 251.












See Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1981), who emphasizes that the central theme of the play is ‘ambiguity’. Lawrence Danson argues that ‘The Merchant of Venice abounds in provocative confusions’. The Harmonies of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978), 135. Most recently, see Marci A. Hamilton, ‘The End of Law’, Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature 5 (1993), 125–136.


1.3.93–98, 213.


3.2.73–82, 297–298.


5.1.58–65, 372–373.


4.1.191–198, 348.

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Contributor Notes

Jonathan Elukin is Associate Professor of History, Trinity College, Hartford, CT, USA. He is the author of Living Together, Living Apart:Rethinking Jewish-Christian Relations in the Middle Ages (Princeton University Press, 2007).

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