Religion, kinship, and race in The Merchant of Venice
How can The Merchant of Venice’s obsession with flesh and blood help us to understand the conflict between Jews and Christians in Shakespeare’s problematic play?
How should we understand the conflict between Jews and Christians in The Merchant of Venice? Answers to this question depend on what makes someone Jewish and what makes someone Christian. Religious identities are tricky things: they are a mix of belief and culture, and often formed by kinship and race. All of these were seen as components of religious identity in Shakespeare’s Protestant England, and The Merchant of Venice extensively engages the intersections of religion, kinship, and race.
The idea that religious identity is primarily passed from parents to children was widely held among English Protestants. This belief was founded on their interpretation of the promise God made to Abraham and his descendants in Genesis – God made a promise to an entire lineage, a family, an entire race. Various English Protestants believed that God continued to work through lineage and family. John Jewel, for example, Bishop of Salisbury from 1559-1571, defended this position in a debate with an English Catholic exile named Thomas Harding: Jewel maintained, ‘the children of the faithful are born holy.’ Jewel and others believed that children are born with a religious identity that they inherit from their parents, a belief that effectively yoked religious identity with family and racial identity. Christian ideas of salvation and damnation were thus yoked to race: this explains Lancelot’s fear that Jessica is damned because Shylock is her father: ‘look you, the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children…therefore be of good cheer, for truly I think you are damned.’
This yoking of race and religion likely explains The Merchant of Venice’s obsession with flesh and blood, the bodily properties that make up an individual’s racial and religious identity. Race, both then and now, is often understood as determined by blood that connects people to genealogical lines of descent, and as manifesting itself both on and through the body – skin colour, hair, the shape and size of body parts, and predispositions to specific behaviors. References to flesh and blood appear frequently in the play, and often at points of conflict between people of different races and religions. The play’s central conflict is the bond that would grant the Jewish Shylock a pound of the Christian Antonio’s ‘fair flesh.’ As Shylock and the audience will eventually find out, it is impossible for Shylock to have Antonio’s flesh without shedding his blood. The loophole that makes the ‘happy’ ending possible also makes it clear that it is impossible to separate flesh and blood.
‘The yoking of race and religion likely explains The Merchant of Venice’s obsession with flesh and blood, the bodily properties that make up an individual’s racial and religious identity’
‘If children inherit their parents’ racial and religious identity, the flesh and blood of the parents is of utmost concern’
The interconnected nature of race and religion, flesh and blood, not only surfaces in the bond between Shylock and Antonio, but also in the romantic storylines of Jessica and Lorenzo and Portia and Morocco. This shouldn’t be surprising. The Merchant of Venice is a comedy, and we expect comedies to end in marriage – after which couples have sex, have children, and become a family. And if children inherit their parents’ racial and religious identity, the flesh and blood of the parents is of utmost concern. This concern is expressed clearly in the exchange between Salerio, Solanio, and Shylock, after Shylock learns that Jessica has eloped with Lorenzo, a Christian:
Shylock: My own flesh and blood to rebel!
Solanio: Out upon it, old carrion! Rebels it at these years?
Shylock: I say my daughter is my flesh and blood.
Salerio: There is more difference between thy flesh and hers than between jet and ivory; more between your bloods than there is between red wine and Rhenish.
Solanio misconstrues Shylock’s words: Shylock refers to Jessica’s elopement as a rebellion of his flesh and blood, but Solanio jokingly suggests that Shylock is too old to have rebellious, libidinous flesh and blood. Shylock clarifies, but Salerio’s language insists that Jessica’s flesh and blood are entirely different from her father’s. Moreover, Salerio uses colour imagery to make the difference more pronounce: Jessica’s flesh is like ivory (white) and Shylock’s is like jet (black), and her blood is like Rhenish (a white wine) while his is like red wine. None of this, of course, is true, but this denial that Jessica is Shylock’s daughter, that she is Jewish, is how Christian men in the play attempt to imagine her as a suitable wife and future mother. Interreligious marriage is interracial marriage. Christian men are unable to believe that a Jewish woman is a suitable wife because of the fear that she might transmit Jewishness to her Christian husband’s children. And here, we see Salerio link Jewishness to blackness.
The unimaginability of marriages between people of different races and religions is also expressed by Portia and her dislike of Morocco, who, according to the stage direction, is a ‘tawnie Moore all in white.’ The stage direction makes it clear that Morocco is not White and suggests that he may not be a Christian. ‘Tawnie’ tells us that he has brown skin. Labeling him a Moor creates a bit more ambiguity, but the term often refers to someone who is a non-Christian (usually Muslim) and North African – it, too, is a term that often yokes racial and religious identity. Nonetheless, Morocco enters the play stating that he is aware he may be disliked because of his skin colour:
Mislike me not for my complexion,
The shadow’d livery of the burnish’d sun,
To whom I am a neighbour and near bred.
Bring me the fairest creature northward born,
Where Phoebus’ fire scarce thaws the icicles,
And let us make incision for your love,
To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine.
Morocco enters the play well aware of racial prejudice, and his words ask us to interrogate the values attached to skin colour, flesh. Rather than skin, Morocco’s suggests that he should be judge by the redness of his blood – red blood was a sign of valor. Although Morocco challenges the racial prejudice that elevates the worth of people with white skin (‘fairest creature northward born’), in drawing attention to his blood he unwittingly points to the other bodily property that signifies racial difference. In suggesting that his blood is redder that White peoples’, he points to the fact that he has ‘different’ blood.
‘Racial identity is not always visible to the eye. Blood remains important to understandings of racial difference – in many cases, European Jews and Christians both have white skin’
Although Morocco attempts to change the way Portia views skin colour, she will still deem Morocco an undesirable husband because he doesn’t have white skin. After he chooses the wrong casket and departs, Portia says to Nerissa, ‘A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go. / Let all of his complexion choose me so.’ When all is said and done, it is Morocco’s complexion that she finds objectionable. Both flesh and blood can mark an individual as undesirable, but Portia’s statement here, coupled with Morocco’s defense of his complexion, suggests that skin colour is the primary marker of racial difference. But racial identity is not always visible to the eye. Blood therefore remains important to understandings of racial difference – in many cases, European Jews and Christians both have white skin.
The Merchant of Venice is a comedy, but it should force us to examine how the most intimate parts of private lives – faith, family, and who is seen as desirable – have been shaped by the crosscurrents of antisemitism, racism, religious discrimination, and skin colour prejudice.
Globe scholars will be joined by theatre artists and scholars to discuss race and social justice in The Merchant of Venice as part of our series of free online Anti-Racist Shakespeare webinars, on 15 March 2022, 6.00pm. This series is generously sponsored by Cambridge University Press.