How Every Fool Can Play Upon the Word! [1]

William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is a fascinating dilemma of a play. The rather heavy themes of bigotry and prejudice often belie the play’s comedic designation. Enhancing this weight is the wealth of biblical allusion found within the play. Shakespeare so imbues The Merchant of Venice with appropriations from both the Old and New Testaments that it is thoroughly difficult to understand the play in any way other than in theological terms. As a result, we are left with a play littered with allusions, each referent as semiotically charged as the next. Steven Marx, author of Shakespeare and the Bible, goes so far as to claim that “The Merchant of Venice contains more biblical allusions than any other play by Shakespeare” (Marx 104). This has made the play a frequent target of interpretation by historically orthodox exegetes. Recent times, though, have seen a rise in approaches by more hermeneutically imaginative scholars. As a result, the critical landscape has been besieged by readings both daring and conventional, each vying for legitimation by a return to the source of Shakespeare’s appropriations: the Bible. The result is, itself, a rather peculiar dilemma in which the scholar and critic makes a biblical appropriation to defend his or her own interpretation of Shakespeare’s biblical appropriations. With so many critical perspectives, each vying for dominance, how is it possible for new readers to approach such a play? My answer would be: with a fair amount of suspicion. It seems possible, in fact, to read The Merchant of Venice as a type of warning against biblical appropriation (or, at the very least, misappropriation), a warning that, perhaps, foresaw the interpretive battlefield that we now have before us.

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