Gratis

Yesterday, we saw Antonio’s Christianity as the root cause of Shylock’s antipathy toward The Merchant of Venice. However, at the end of the entry, we hinted at another reason, and here it is:

I hate him for he is a Christian,
But more for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.
If I can catch him once upon the hip,
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.
He hates our sacred nation, and he rails,
Even there where merchants most do congregate,
On me, my bargains and my well-won thrift,
Which he calls interest. Cursed be my tribe,
If I forgive him!

— I.iii.38-49

Sure, there’s the whole Christian/Jew hatred at work, but “MORE” (emphasis mine) important is the fact that Antonio lends money, too, and WITHOUT INTEREST (“gratis”). On a purely business angle, this is bad for the Jewish money-lenders, as it lowers the amount of interest they can charge on the open market.

But this raises the basic question of money-lending: Is it ethical? The Book of Exodus has God stating, “If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.” The Catholic Church took “my people” to mean all men, and thus usury was forbidden. Many Jews, however, interpreted “my people” to mean only Jews, thus allowing them to lend money to Christians for profit.

This would have a large sociological repercussion. As anti-Semitism kept Jews from gaining employment in many fields, they were left (by their own Biblical interpretation) to become primarily money-lenders for profit, and thus usurers, which would be cursed by Christians… which would fuel the anti-Semitism.

It would be nice to think this is a red herring, something to throw into the speech to add a little flavor to it, but something not as important to Shylock. But, remember, this is an aside, one that usually bring true emotion and thought. And this non-interest-charging is revisited again in Act Three, Scene Three, when Shylock mocks the now-jailed Antonio: “This is the fool that lent out money gratis” (III.iii.2), and Antonio realizes that this may all be because Antonio “oft delivered from (Shylock’s) forfeitures // Many that have at times made moan to (Antonio)” (III.iii.22-23). This must be important to Shylock if even the anti-Semitic Antonio (who has “sp[a]t upon [Shylock’s] Jewis gaberdine” [I.iii.109]) believes that it is the reason Shylock “hates” (III.iii.24) Antonio.

Is this secular question more important to Shylock than the sacred one?

before we leave this concept, one not-so-tangential tangent: Shylock doesn’t have the money to lend to Bassanio, as the Jew tells him,

I cannot instantly raise up the gross
Of full three thousand ducats. What of that?
Tubal, a wealthy Hebrew of my tribe,
Will furnish me. 

— I.iii.52-55

Isn’t it ironic that Shylock has to borrow the money to lend to Bassanio. Of course, it’s clear that he’s going to borrow it from one of “(his) tribe” or “people”… and thus, he borrows it gratis.

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