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And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the Lord, and said, If thou shalt deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, then that thing that commeth out of the doors of mine house to meet me, when I come home in peace from the children of Ammon, shall be the Lord's, and I will offer it for a burnt offering.
Judges 11:30-1 (1)
After Jessica steals his jewels and dopes with Lorenzo, a Christian, Shylock famously wishes her death in Act III of The Merchant of Venice: "I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear! Would she were hears'd at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin!" (3.1.87-90). (2) Presumably, Shylock does not intend to kill Jessica himself; her departure, however, transforms his "ancient grudge" against the Venetian Christians into active bloodlust. Buoyed by news of Antonio's doomed argosies, Shylock declares that he will "plague" (116) and "torture" (117) the Christian merchant by demanding their agreed-upon penalty--"an equal pound/Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken,/In what part of your body pleaseth me" (1.3.149-51)--should Antonio forfeit the loan he solicited on Bassanio's behalf. Though Shakespeare gives us clear evidence of Shylock's mercenary desires and cruelty in this scene, in Shylock's responses to his friend Tubal, who reports on Jessica's sale of Shylock's deceased wife's turquoise ring "for a monkey" (3.1.119) and provides consolatory news of Antonio's own economic misfortune, he also constructs a Jewish father more grief-crazed than pointedly homicidal Indeed, Shylock's heartfelt lament for Leah--"I had it of [her] when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys" (121-3)--reveals a history of familial loss that perhaps provides explanation for Shylock's brief reference to his synagogue at the end of the scene; an intimation of prayer and mourning ritual that flickers incongruously alongside his retributive declarations. Shylock's quick allusion, I believe, also foreshadows his audacious justification of Antonio's murder during the trial scene as the fulfillment of a private vow he has made to God.
In this essay I contend that early modern responses to Jephthah in Judges 11:29-40, a Jewish father honored as a "hero of faith" in the Epistle to the Hebrews despite the fact that he sacrifices his only daughter, illuminate our reading of Shakespeare's ambivalent depiction of the sympathetic would-be murderer Shylock. As I will show in my discussion of Judges below, the story's ambiguous entangling of pious and profane aspects fascinated Christian readers: in the immediate aftermath of leading the Israelites to victory, Jephthah fulfills his divine vow to sacrifice the first "thing that commeth out of the doors of [his] house" (should he defeat the Ammonite enemy) by killing his daughter who has run out of the house to greet him. Although Shakespeare does not explicitly refer to Judges 11 in Merchant, his allusions to Jephthah's vow and sacrifice in 3 Henry VI and Hamlet make clear his familiarity with this provocative story. (3)
Like Jephthah's unnamed daughter, Jessica devastates her father by leaving the family home. This narrative echo, however, also sharply distinguishes Jessica from the obedient daughter in Judges and highlights the difference between Jephthah's deadly turn upon his daughter's departure and Shylock's. Jephthah does not intend to kill his daughter yet ultimately does so in order to demonstrate his piety; Shylock's bitter vision of Jessica and his subsequent claim to "the heart of [Antonio]" (3.1.127) are driven by vengeance and pride--his refusal to be made "a soft and dull-eyed fool" (3.3.14) who passively accepts the Christians' affronts. Poised to take a pound of Antonio's "fair flesh" (1.3.150) in Act IV, Shylock's crude form of "justice" seems to confirm contemporary notions of Old Testament blood sacrifice as evidence of the Jew's spiritual inferiority. (4) This theological context has shaped typological approaches to the play, such as Barbara K. Lewalski's influential interpretation of Antonio as a Christ figure whose self-oblation ultimately transcends Shylock's unyielding attachment to Old Testament legalism. (5) Joan Ozark Holmer reads the Christians' annulment of Shylock's flesh-bond further as an embrace of Christian universalism, an inclusive ideology that supercedes the Jewish "chosenness" of the Old Testament: "The old emphasis on salvation through flesh-and-blood descent within the favoured nation Israel becomes now the new emphasis on rebirth in the spirit that enables all people, regardless of race or rank, to be part of God's kingdom." (6)
The Christians' rhetoric certainly invokes this allegorical shift from the Old order to Christian mercy and salvation throughout the play, but I compare the seemingly disparate Judges story and Merchant to argue that Shakespeare also characterizes Shylock as a Jewish father for whom murder serves as a legitimate expression of spiritual fervor. Through Shylock's "flesh bond," a complex expression of vengeance and familial and religious loyalties, Shakespeare associates the Jew with an interpretive slipperiness that calls into question Shylock's role as a static figure within an overarching Christological structure.
During the trial scene, as we will see, Shylock recasts his initial "flesh" wager with the Christians as a divine oath that confirms his piety. It is my contention in this essay that Shakespeare's complex characterization of Shylock's "flesh bond" recalls Christian readers' ambivalence about Jephthah's sacrifice as both a prototype of religious constancy and a vestige of Old Testament barbarism. As Deborah Kuller Shuger argues, the Judges story, for its disturbing account of human sacrifice, provides a salient example of the conflicted relationship between the Christian reader and Old Testament text: "In the Renaissance, the paradox of sacrifice--its double character as loving self-oblation and barbaric ritual--epitomized the pervasive ambiguities attached to the humanist interpretation of the past as simultaneously authoritative and alien." (7) Constantly negotiating this contradiction, Reformists argued for the inferiority of Mosaic law while regarding the Hebrew scripture as the foundation of Christian selfhood, an entryway into the bible's essential meanings to which they intended to lay claim. I argue here that these competing desires to revere and reject Jewish authority emerge in exegetical explanations of Jephthah's sacrifice as well as in Shakespeare's representation of the Jewish father. In Shylock, Shakespeare figures both the sanctity of the Old Testament and its "alien" qualities: Shylock reminds us of his ancestry in his "holy Abram" (1.3.72) while also engaging in "barbaric" practice as a form of justice. In the same manner that Christian exegetes tried to reconcile Jephthah's reverence with his seeming impiety, I contend, Shakespeare amplifies the discrepancy between Shylock's murderous inclinations and his assertion of obedience to God.
By locating Shylock within this theological context, I elucidate Merchant's reproach of Jessica, a puzzling counter-narrative to the play's approbatory sentiments about her marriage and Christian conversion. Although Jessica initially deems her house "hell" (2.3.2) and rhapsodizes, "O Lorenzo,/ If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife,/ Become a Christian and thy loving wife!" (2.3.19-21), Shakespeare emphasizes Jessica's betrayal of Shylock through his allusions to Rachel's elopement with Jacob and theft of her father's idols in Genesis 31, contrasting Jessica's irreverent sale of her mother's ring with Rachel's safekeeping of the idols, which early modern exegetes understood as evidence of her ties to her father. I read Jessica against Jephthah's daughter to further examine the relationship between Shakespeare's intimations of Shylock's honorable vows of faith and Jessica's treachery. Jessica forgives herself for the "heinous sin" of being "ashamed to be [her] father's child" (2.3.16, 17), yet the play condemns her for leaving a father whose murderous utterances can also be understood as sacrosanct professions of faith. Just as Shylock may be understood as a type of Jephthah for his claim of divine obeisance, Jessica in her departure from her father's house suggests an anti-type to Jephthah's daughter whose acceptance of her father's demands gives evidence of her familial and religious fidelity.
Ultimately, Shakespeare places Jessica in a double bind: it is only her loyalties to her father that will provide evidence of her devotion to Lorenzo and his Christian ideology. The paradoxical position in which she finds herself--condemned for her disloyalty to Shylock but "damn'd" (3.5.6) if she obeys him--reflects also Shylock's unreconciled position in the play as spiritually inferior and exemplary, a signifier of a privileged connection to God that remains elusive to Christian authority. (8)
During the sixteenth century, Reformists regularly cited evidence of Catholic corruption in the prelates' misinterpretations of the scripture. Turning away from church authority to embrace the pure, unadulterated word of God in the holy text, they made analogies between textual certainty--"correct" …