Shylock and Kabbalah

in

The Merchant of Venice

 

by

 

Mather Walker

 


This image of the Tree of Life can be seen on
the ceiling of the new London Globe Theatre Exhibition Hall

 

In some sense we are all merchants. Who is not in quest of gain? Who is not constantly faced with the need to assess value? Venice with its three divisions: merchant, pleasure seeker, and Shylock, treads close on the heels of the Christian parable of The World, The Flesh, and The Devil. The main incidents of the play comes from a collection of stories which were used by ministers of the period to illustrate some moral or the other. The original full title of the Gesta Romanorum was Gesta Romanorum Moralizata.  

The Merchant of Venice interweaves three plots commonly known as the casket story, the bond story, and the ring story. These all have to do with assessment of value. One must distinguish the true inner value and not be fooled by the apparent outer value. The casket story has this obvious moral. The moral of the bond story is that one should go not by the outer letter of the law, but by the inner spirit of the law. The ring story has the moral that it is the inner essence of a promise that is important, and not the outer form.  

The Merchant of Venice is like the other plays by virtue of the fact that Bacon has constructed it so it has two faces, one looking toward the past, and dealing with a particular aspect of ancient knowledge; and one looking toward the future and dealing with a particular aspect of future knowledge by demonstrating the operation of Bacon's discovery device in inquiring into the form of a related aspect of knowledge. The Merchant of Venice is different from most of the other plays by virtue of the fact that someone has recognized the presence of this aspect of ancient knowledge in the play, and has written about it. 

Daniel Banes has two books, "The Provocative Merchant of Venice", and "Shakespeare, Shylock and Kabbalah" in which he points out the presence of kabbalistic symbolism in the play, and furthermore that the very characters in the play are modeled upon and interact with each other as do the respective sefirot in the Tree of the Sefirot, the cosmological model of the Kabbalah. Like Nicholl in his study of King Lear, Banes is intimidated by his conclusion about the presence of the allegory in the play, and circles around it warily like a dog circling around a porcupine, but he has set the door ajar, and hopefully we may open it a little wider. The theme of "Merchant" is altogether applicable, since The Tree of the Sefirot also, in its essence, deals with assessing values.

The first indication of kabbalistic symbolism in the play comes with Antonio's first onstage encounter with Shylock. Shylock responds to the request for a loan for Antonio by launching into a detailed narration of the story in Genesis XXX-XXXI about the business transactions between Jacob and Laban. Antonio sees this as irrelevant to the discussion on usury, and some have confessed bewilderment over the insertion of the account into the dialogue.

But in classical Kabbalah, Jacob is the perfect man, meek and virtuous even in the face of oppression. Uncle Laban is the epitome of viciousness, and a idolator and a sorcerer, a vile hypocrite who purposes first to cheat Jacob of his just wages and then to destroy him and all his progency. Kabbalah says of Laban, as Shylock says of Antonio, "He hates our sacred nation." From Shylock's viewpoint, the troubled situation in Laban's household closely resembles the state of affairs in Venice. But Shylock's viewpoint reflects and requires a kabbalistic exegesis to understand it. And to understand the remainder of the play we require some kabbalistic background.

 

THE FACE LOOKING TOWARD THE PAST

 

Kabbalah is from a Hebrew word meaning tradition. Transmitted orally for more than a thousand years before emerging publicly around 1,200 A.D. It was composed of esoteric commentaries, on the Torah (first five books of The Bible), creation, transmigration, and angelic enities, and was born in same place and time, so fertile for mysticism, which gave birth to Gnosticism. It has many elements in common with Gnosticism. 

Subsequent to the Gnostic phase in the development of the Kabbalah there appeared, probably in Palestine sometime between the third and sixth centuries A.D., one of the most important works for the tradition. This was a small book named Sefer Yezirah (Book of Formation). According to the Sefer Yezirah, God created the universe through the means of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and the ten numbers, in 32 mysterious paths of wisdom.

The word Sefirot was used for numbers, and seemed, in context, to allude to metaphysical principles, or stages, in the creation of the universe. 

During the period from the seventh to the 11th centuries the center of mystical activity among the Jews shifted from Palestine to Babylonia. After its initial phases in Palestine and Babylonia Kabbalah spread to Italy, and then to Germany, and France and England and Spain. Of the initial stages of Kabbalah in Southern France the book titled Sefer ha-Bahir is the only extant example.

This book is a link between the Neo-Platonic doctrines of the Gnostics, and the speculative theories of the Mediaeval kabbalists.

In the Bahir, the Sefirot, mentioned as the ten numbers in the Sefer Yezirah, become, for the first time, divine attributes and powers, each of which fulfills a particular function.

There were links between the Kabbalists of Provence, and those of Toledo, Spain, and it is certain that the tradition was also active there, but a special center of this activity developed in Gerona, Spain. Here from the beginning of the 13th century, existed a center of great and far ranging importance in the history of the Kabbalah. And in Spain, also, was written the most important book of the Kabbalah, The Zohar.

The development of the Kabbalah in Spain continued until 1492 when it was cut off by the explulsion of all Jews from Spain. The centers of Jewish life and culture, forcibly driven from their main medieval home migrated to other lands, to Palestine, to Italy, France, Germany, England and Turkey.

Shortly before this took place, however, an important new development in the history of the Tradition took place. This new development was the Christian Cabala, which was founded by Pico della Mirandola in Florence, Italy.

The prodigy Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola (1463-94) was a member of the brilliant circle around the Medici court in Florence from which the Italian Renaissance emanated. The next important figure in Christian Cabala was Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522), one of the greatest scholars of the German Renaissance, equally proficient in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew Learning. Bacon's light "A", dark "A" emblem had it's roots in De Arte Cabalistica of Reuchlin who, while describing the creation speaks of the Aleph and says,"..the dark Aleph is changed into the bright Aleph. For it is written: 'As is its darkness so is its light.' Francis Bacon seems to have followed his usual practice of appropriating someone else's idea and modifying and improving it to meet his own needs.

In Italy the Christian Cabala continued to spread, being fervently adopted by enthusiasts for Catholic reform. Among the most prominent of those who endeavoured to gain a mastery of the original Hebrew sources of the Kabbalah was Cardinal Egidio da Viterbo (1465-15320, and the Franciscan friar, Francesco Giorgi (1466-1540).  

Although the Kabbalah was composed of the contributions of a great many individuals with a multitude of approaches, nevertheless, from the time of the appearance of The Bahir there existed a common range of symbols and ideas which formed the foundation of the amazing mystical structure which was the Kabbalah. 

Creation, for the kabbalist, was a process of emanation from a primal source, and the subsequent formation of things through the powers of the Divine Name or Tetragrammaton, the ten numbers, the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and The Torah. In the early Kabbalah a basic formulation was, "all comes from the One, and all returns to the One." This One, or this primal source, was God, but with a fundamental distinction. Early kabbalists of Provence and Spain coined the term Ein-Sof, literally the Endless (from Ein, without, and Sof, end), but usually translated The Infinite, to express this distinction. They also used the term Ein-Sof Aur, The Endless Light. Ein-Sof was the Absolute, which only manifested attributes with the emanation through which creation was brought about. 

In the beginning existed tehiru (primordial space) occupied by Ein-Sof or Ein-Sof Aur. Creation began with the positive and negative forces mixed randomly together producing hyle, i.e. chaos or chaotic substance (the tohu and bohu, void and formlessness) of the first chapter of Genesis in The Bible. The negative force was darkness while the positive force was light. Thus the chaos or hyle was a mixture of light and darkness. Darkness was characterized by a blind, resisting, obstructing, harsh force. Light was characterized by a luminous, amenable, conducive, affirmative force. The Sefirot which made up the Tree were composed of some permutation of one, or the other, of these two forces.

 

 

The process of the creation, and of the formation of the Tree of The Sefirot could best be envisioned as a series of triangles, with the points of the various angles denoting the location of the sefirot. The sefirot were variously described as, powers, qualities, aspects, or stages. Imagine an upright equilateral triangle with the pinnacle as Crown, (the first emanation), the point on the readers left as Wisdom, and on the readers right as Understanding. Now imagine an inverted equilateral triangle directly underneath the first triangle. To the readers left is severity, to the readers right is Loving-Kindness, and the angle pointed down is Mercy. The next equilateral triangle, which is inverted, has Glory on the readers left, and Victory on the readers right, and Basis as the lower inverted point. The last Sefirot is Kingdom which is directly below Basis. The names of the Sefirot and the qualities associated with them are as follows:

SEFIROT QUALITY SPHERES

1. Keter Crown Primum Mobile

2. Hokhmah Wisdom Fixed Stars

3. Binah Understanding Saturn

4. Hesed Lovingkindness Jupiter

Gedulah Greatness

5. Din Judgment Mars

Gevurah Severity, Power

6. Rahamim Mercy Sun

Tiferet Beauty

7. Nezah Victory Venus

8. Hod Glory Mercury

9. Yesod Basis, Foundation Moon

Zaddik Righteousness

10. Malkhut Kingdom Elementary World 

The Tree of the Sefirot with the respective Sefirot equated with their corresponding characters in the play, is as follows: 

Wisdom, Severity, and Glory on the reader's left form the pillar of darkness. Understanding, Loving-Kindness, and Victory on the reader's right from the pillar of light. The center pillar made up of Crown, Mercy, Basis, and Kingdom form the pillar of rightness or righteousness establishing harmony between the pillars on each side. As a result was established a kingdom of order in what formerly had been only chaos. The twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet had their role in the formation of the Treeof The Sepiroth since they made up the relationships or "paths"between various of the ten centers of activity. 

In this structure the first three Sephirots formed a separate division from the subsequent seven. The first three were known as the concealed Sephirot, and did not enter into the phenomenal universe at all, while the remaining seven were known as the Sephirot of Cosmic Construction. Also contained in the doctrinewas the idea that the light flowed from Ein-Sof through the Sephirot as through vessels, and of a reflection or reverse flow whereby the light returned to its source so that there was a continual circulation.

An important feature of the Sefirotic Tree were three pillars: that of the lefthand column of sefirot (Binah, Din, and Hod); that of the middle column of sefirot (Keter, Tiferet, Ziddik, and Malhut), and that of the righthand column of sephirot (Hokmah, Hesed, and Netsah). The middle pillar, however, which represented the equilibrium or balance between the lefthand pillar and the righthand pillar, did not receive as much speculation notice as the two opposing pillars. The lefthand pillar was the pillar of darkness, the righthand pillar the pillar of light. With the left hand pillar was associated the qualities of severity, harshness, and wrath. With the righthand pillar was associated the qualities of mildness, love and mercy. The presence of evil in the universe was explained as arising from entities associated with the left hand pillar, left hand side, or simply sitra ahra (the other side). The doctrine which gradually developed saw the source of evil in the superabundant growth of the lefthand side through its separation from the restraining and offsetting influence of the righthand side. From this unnatural imbalance resulted a domain of dark emanations and demonic powers, which were not a natural part of the organic whole, but were a cancerous like growth. 

The Merchant of Venice is an allegory symbolizing the creation of the Tree of The Sefirot and the process by which the proper balance and harmony is restored within the Tree of The Sefirot. The main characters in the play equate with the various Sefirot.

In addition to symbolizing the sefirot Din, i.e. severity, and Judgment, Shylock symbolizes the left hand pillar, the pillar of darkness, harshness and wrath. The allegory in The Merchant of Venice symbolizes an unnatural imbalance where the left hand side has grown too strong. Like a line from Star Wars, "the darkside of the Force is very strong." This imbalance produces the same symptoms as described in "The Anatomy of Melancholy" which Bacon wrote under the mask of Robert Burton. The result is sadness, loss of joy of living, and the other attendant flock of miseries which accompany melancholia. At the very beginning of the play, Antonio says: 

"In sooth I know not why I am so sad,

It wearies me, you say it wearies you;

But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,

What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born,

I am to to learn:" 

And, evidently, this melancholy has spread. Bassanio says to Salerio and Solanio a little later in the play: 

"Good signiors both when shall we laugh? say, when?

You grow exceeding strange: must it be so?" 

And the first words of Portia in the play are: 

"By my troth Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world." 

Jessica says:

 

"Our house is hell..."

All of this reflects the result of the imbalance in the Tree of The Sefirot. It is necessary that this excess of the force of the left hand side be curbed, and the balance restored.

Antonio represents the opposite to Shylock. Salerio says of him:

"A kinder gentleman treads not the earth." 

Bassanio calls him: 

"The dearest friend to me, the kindest man,

The best-condition'd and unwearied spirit

In doing courtesies:"

 

Antonio says of Shylock:

 

"I oft deliver'd from his forfeitures

Many that have at times made moan to me," 

all of which shows the kind hearted nature of Antonio. So Antonio is the natural opposite as loving-kindness to the severity of Shylock. But Antonio's natural nature of loving-kindness has been affected by the excess of Shylock's power of the left hand side. Antonio has begun to take on the harshness of his enemy. He has spit on him, and threatens to do so again. The ultimate degree of this is seen when Shylock attains his ascendancy and brings Antonio to court so he can exact his pound of flesh. Here the left hand side has totally extinguished the power of the right hand side and we see Antonio in a curiously powerless state of total apathy.

This parallel and opposition between Shylock and Antonio is the framework of the whole play because the correction of the imbalance between the lefthand side and the righthand side in the Tree of the Sefiort is the framework of the whole play.  

If you look at the Tree of The Sefirot you see that excluding Kingdom, it is made up of three levels.  

Just as the first part of the Tree of the Sefirot is a triangle made up of the concealed sefiort, Crown, Wisdom, and Understanding, so the casket story deals with a triangle of concealment made up of Gold, Silver, and Lead. In Kabbalah the first three Sefirot were considered as being on a different level, so the story of the three caskets takes part at Belmont, and not at Venice. The theme of the casket story deals with the delusion of outer appearance, and thus with wisdom and understanding. If you look at the diagram of the Tree of The Sefirot you see that (Rahamim:Tiferet,-Mercy:Beauty), Portia, is connected to all of the first three sefirot. In this drama, however, she represents her aspect of Beauty, the desire of all men:

"Why that's the lady, all the world desires her.

From the four corners of the earth they come

To kiss this shrine, this mortal breathing saint.

The Hyrcanian deserts, and the vasty wilds

Of wide Arabia are as throughfares now

For princes to come view fair Portia.

The watery kingdom, whose ambitious head

Spets in the face of heaven, is no bar

To stop the foreign spirits, but they come

As o'er a brook to see fair Portia." 

Daniel Banes says of the episode:

"Some Kabbalists maintain that the souls awaiting their assignments to inhabit the bodies of mortals are already paired for marriages preordained in Heaven. According to this view, Bassanio inevitably must win Portia, because the two had been soul-mates from the beginning of human history, and were predestined to meet and wed on earth. All of the other suitors are doomed to failure, no matter how astutely they interpret the inscriptions attached to the caskets in the lottery. But other Kabbalists believe that complicating factors may intervene. In a remarkable discourse on matrimony, (Zohar, Volume I, pages 300-01), one of the discussants quotes the aphorism that a man always gets the wife he deserves ("Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.") But he continues that because of practical difficulties, such as prolonged separation of one soul-mate from the other, even the Almighty encounters problems in His matchmaking endeavors. Furthermore, there may be some latitude in choice. A man of high principles should aspire to the daughter of a wise man steeped in Torah, and for her sake he must be prepared to give up all his earthly possessions ("Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.").

The discussion ends as a rapsodic tribute to the joys of cleaving to Torah, with a quotation from Proverbs 3 identifying Torah with Wisdom itself, with Truth and the perfect Way of Life, the state of beauty." 

This Kabbalistic passage may possibly have been the original source of the inscription associated with the leaden casket set before the suitors at Belmont. The inscriptions associated with the gilded and silvered caskets presumably were borrowed from a tale in the Gesta Romanorum involving a similar choice between vessels of gold, silver and lead. However, the Zohar's citation of the verses in Proverbs identifying Torah with Wisdom may provide a clue to the ultimate origins of these formulas and their fateful significations as well. 

In Proverbs 8:10-11, Wisdom-Torah says: 

Choose my discipline, and not silver

Choose understanding, and not fine gold;

For Wisdom is better than rubies;

All those things that many desire are not to be compared with her! 

Wisdom's manifesto in Proverbs 8 concludes (35-36): 

Whoso findeth me findeth life,

And obtaineth favor of the Lord;

But he that turneth away from me wrongeth his own soul;

All they that reject me love death.

In accordance with these decrees, Morocco, who rejects the rigorous discipline of Wisdom and chooses that which the many desire, wrongs his own soul and finds that the likeness of his inamorata in the glistering golden casket is a carrion Death. Arragon similarly rejects Portia when he scornfully turns away from ascetic discipline, and his silver casket affirms that he is a fool devoid of wisdom and that his soul-mater is, appropriately, "a blinking idiot."

As Tiferet Portia also represent the sun. Bassanio's first reference to her proclaims that she is, "...fair, and fairer than that word, of wondrous virtues...her sunny locks hand on her temples like golden fleece." She is the sun in the center of the heavens vivifying and governing all of the other characters who revolve around her. In the final scene she is explicitly recognized as the light giving sun: 

Portia:

This night methinks is but the daylight sick;

It looks a little paler. 'Tis a day

Such as the day is when the sun is hid.

 

Bassanio:

We should hold day with the Antipodes,

If you would walk in absence of the sun.

 

Portia:

Let me give light, but let me not be light.

The next major episode in the play is the bond trial. Shylock, severity, judgment is determined he will have his pound of flesh. Antonio, loving-kindness is curiously apathetic. The lefthand side, Din, has attained its utmost ascendancy over the righthand side. But here Portia, mercy comes into play. She identifies herself with the famous speech which some commentators have viewed as beside the point and out of place, but which is central to the whole theme: 

The quality of mercy is not strain'd

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest,

It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes,

'Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown.

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty,

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings:

But mercy is above this sceptred sway,

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute of God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God's

When mercy seasons justice 

Daniel Banes says this,

"is a garland of beautiful metaphors garnered from the literature of Kabbalah, and that the word attribute employed twice in the speech, both times denotes the technical kabbalistic meaning."

Furthermore he says, that the statements asserting that

"Mercy is an attribute to God himself" and "it is enthroned in the heart are fundamental doctrines in Kabbalah. " 

At this point in the Tree of the Sefirot it is the office of Mercy to restore the proper balance, and that she does. As Daniel Banes says in "The Provocative Merchant of Venice,"

"Portia comes to Venice not to interpret the law or to dispense justice, but to save civilization vy restoring harmony through whatever means are available to her."

The power of Shylock is reduced to destroy the imbalance.

In the next scene after the reconciliation of the trial between Shylock and Antonio we see Lorenzo and Jessica on a bank on a grove or Green Place before Portia House with the moon shining brightly up above. Then comes the famous speeches by Lorenzo:

"The moon shines bright. In such a night as this,

When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees...

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!

Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music

Creep in our ears-soft stillness and the night

Become the touches of sweet harmony:

Sit Jessica,-look how the floor of heaven

Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold,

There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st

But in his motion like an angel sings,

Still quiring to the young-ey'd cherubins;

Such harmony is in immortal souls,

But whilst this muddy vesture of decay

Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it:"

This signals the restoration of the proper balance in the Tree of the Sefirot. In "Shakespeare, Shylock and Kabbalah" Daniel Banes says that many passages in the Zohar ,

"observe that the moon shines bright when the forces of good prevail, but is obscured when evil ranges abroad. More specifically, the Zohar declares that the moon became corruped when Adam sinned and again when the Israelites worshipped the Golden Calf, but its excellence was fully restored at Sinai when the Ten Commandments were delivered. Moses' virtuous acts often enhanced the moon's refulgence and so did the erection of the temple in Solomon's time. In a lecture on the mystical significance of New Year's Day, the Zohar affirms that when severe Judgment stalks the world the moon disappears. But when the sound of the shofar rouses Tiferet, and Mercy gains supremacy, harsh Judgment is banished, and the moon shines bright."

Some have questioned why it was necessary to have the ring story in the play at all, and have dismissed the fifth act of the play as an absent-minded afterthought with little or no relevance to the rest of the play. On the other hand it enables us to see the interaction of the characters who compose the next portion of the Tree of The Sefirot. The name of the character Bassanio is obviously derived from the Latin equivalent: Basis. Portia and Bassanio are in direct relation to each other as Mercy and Basis.

In addition, among the alchemisticla kabbalists lead was associated with the ninth sefirot Basis, and Bassanio had chosen the lead casket. Lorenzo means "Crowned with the laurel of glorious victory." So we see Jessica and Lorenzo in direct relation to each other as Glory and Victory. This also places Jessica on the lefthand side and connects her to Shylock. This leaves only one of the Sefirot (Kingdom) which is apparently Gratiana. The Latin equivalent of Mercy is Gratia, and this similarity of Gratiana with Mercy denotes his place in the center pillar.

 

The Face Looking Toward the Future

 

The particular which is present in the first 32 speeches, and absent in the second 32 speeches is melancholia. In "The Provocative Merchant of Venice Daniel Banes, says, "The facts, observed by Antonio's friends and by Antonio himself are these: the subject is unaccountably sad; his outlook and behavior are markedly different from his habitual demeanor; his mental acuity is impaired. These symptoms accord with the classical syndrome that Robert Burton describes in his "Anatomy of Melancholy." He quotes a Dr. Jacchinus and others who hold that melancholy is a strange kind of dotage accompanied by sadness and fear without any apparent cause. Burton further asserts that

"not even the eminent Dr. Jacchinus, nor Galen, nor any other authority really knows what this humor is, or whence it proceeds or how it is engendered in the body. Antonio does not profess to know, and we, too, have yet to learn much about these mysteries."

If Banes had delved a little deeper into the play he might have changed his mind about the,

"...we too have yet to learn about these mysteries."

The obvious form of this melancholia is the imbalance which is present in the Tree of the Sefirot, or universal structure of things.

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