Shakespeare and Theology: The Merchant of Venice.

Table Talk, the theology discussion group of The University Church, is beginning to read The Merchant of Venice and to discuss the theology that underlies the play and that is emphasized in it. The full text of The Merchant of Venice is available here as a pdf file.

Some background to the period is given here that might be helpful in reading The Merchant of Venice.

William Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564 in Stratford where the Parish Register reads (in Latin): “Guiliamus filius Johannes Shakspere”; i.e., “William son of John Shakspere..” A reproduction of a facsimile of the record is available here.

Shakespeare’s birth is commonly celebrated on April 23rd, a date that fits well with the custom of baptizing children soon after birth and that coincides with the date of his death in 1616 and with the date of St. George’s Day.

There are no other public records of Shakespeare until a marriage license was granted on November 27, 1582 to “Wm Shaxpere et Anne Whateley” and a bond was posted on November 28, 1582 as a legality for the marriage between “William Shagspere” and “Anne Hathwey.” Reproductions of these records are available here.

Primary and secondary sources detailing the history of the period are available here and the PBS web site on Shakespeare, which is very readable, is here.

Some of the important dates over the decades preceding Shakespeare’s birth up until his death (i.e. the period 1500 – 1616) have been condensed from a more complete list available here and are:

1507 – First printing press in Scotland set up in Edinburgh by Andrew Myllar
1509 – Henry VIII becomes king of England (to 1547) at 17 years of age
1517 – Martin Luther fixes his 95 theses on church door at Wittenburg – regarded as start of the Reformation
1525 – New Testament translated into English by William Tyndale
1531 – Henry VIII recognized as Supreme Head of the Church of England
1533 – Henry VIII excommunicated by Pope Clement VII
1538 – Henry VIII issues English Bible
1545 – Start of the Council of Trent (Trento, Italy) – convened by the Catholic Church three times, ending in1563, as a response to the Protestant Reformation
1547 – Death of Henry VIII (succeeded by Edward VI, aged 9, to 1553) ; English replaced Latin in church services in England and Wales
1548 – Priests in England allowed to marry (about a third then did so)
1549 – First Book of Common Prayer sanctioned by English Parliament; First Act of Uniformity in England made Catholic Mass illegal
1552 – An ‘Act of Uniformity’ imposes the Protestant prayer book of 1552 in England
1553 – Edward VI dies; Lady Jane Grey queen for a few days only; Mary Tudor (‘Bloody Mary’) comes to the throne
1554-1558 – Brief Catholic restoration under Queen Mary Tudor – married priests forced to separate at least 30 miles from their wives.
1556 – Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer burned at the stake in Oxford
1558 – Queen Mary Tudor of England dies and is succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth – Protestantism restored in England
1559 –Acts of Supremacy passed in Parliament, ending papal jurisdiction over England & Wales; established Church of England
1563 – Papal recusants heavily fined for non-attendance at Church; The Test Act excludes Roman Catholics from governmental office
1570 – Pope Pius V issued the papal bull ‘Regnans in Excelsis’ to excommunicate Elizabeth I and her followers in the Church of England
1571 – Beginning of penal legislation against Catholics in England; Repeal of Act prohibiting lending of money on interest
1577 – James Burbage opens first theatre in London
1579 – Act of Uniformity in matters of religion enforced
1581 – English Parliament outlaws Roman Catholicism
1597 – Poor Law Act for erection of parish workhouses for the Poor
1605 – Nov 5: Gunpowder plot at Westminster (Guy Fawkes, etc)
1611 – Authorized (King James) Version of Bible in Britain
1613 – Jun 29: The Globe Theatre in London burns during a performance of Henry the Eighth
1616 – Death of Shakespeare; Ben Johnson becomes first Poet Laureate

In The Merchant of Venice, one of the intriguing figures is Shylock, a Jew. Jews played an unusual role in the economic system in England from 1066 – 1275. The church forbade the lending of money with interest (usury) and yet Jews were not subject to canon law and Jewish law allowed for Jews to lend money with interest to Gentiles. In the feudal system, in which serfs were subject to their lords and the lords were subject to the monarch, Jews were excluded and were direct subjects of the monarch. Accordingly, the monarch could directly tax any money-lending activity of the Jews with no restraint from the nobility.

In 1275, Edward I issued the Statute of Jewry, which outlawed usury and placed other restraints on Jews (e.g. Jews over age 7 had to wear a yellow badge on their outer clothing). In 1287, Edward ordered English Jews expelled citing lack of compliance to the Edict as one reason. It was only later with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497 that any considerable number found refuge in England and it was not until 1655 that Oliver Cromwell made possible the readmission of Jews to England without a special permit. At the time of Shakespeare, the number of Jews in England was likely to have been very small. One study guide states that at the time of Shakespeare, “almost no Jews lived in England.”

However, a physician serving Elizabeth I, Roderigo Lopez, was a Portuguese Jew and was accused of spying for the Spanish by the Earl of Essex. Lopez was convicted and then hung, drawn and quartered in 1594. Shakespeare likely wrote The Merchant of Venice some time between 1594 and 1598. When the quarto edition of the play appeared, it was entitled, “The Most Excellent History of the Merchant of Venice, With the Extreme Crueltie of Shylocke the Jew Towards the Said Merchant in Cutting a Just Pound of His Flesh.”

In Venice, in the 12th century, Jews were restricted to the island of Spinalunga (“Giudecca”). In 1516, following a Papal Bull, the Jews were ordered to move to the region of Cannaregio, an early Jewish ghetto. It has been suggested (here) that there were several thousand Jews living in this ghetto in the 1500s. As in England, Jews played a role in the economic system, largely as money lenders.

Feel free to join us as we look at The Merchant of Venice – we meet on Thursdays from 5:30 – 7:00 p.m. at “The Ark” (2080 Brookdale Road, Toledo, Ohio 43606)

Thanks for visiting!