The Merchant of Venice, Historical Materialism and the Impossibility of Consciousness

Pradeep Sharma


Hegel’s notion of historical development through dialectic was accepted by Marx and elaborated as ‘historical materialism,’ although Marx doesn’t agree with Hegel that the material world hinders our vision of the ‘true’ / ‘ideal’ reality. I look at The Merchant of Venice as Shakespeare’s statement on historical materialism, that it was not the material world of appearances that hid the true/ ideal reality (for instance, a world where mercy rules the heart) as demonstrated by Portia, but the specific social ideology that guided Shylock and prevented him from seeing the material conditions of the lives of other people, including Antonio.

Keywords: historical materialism, social ideology, idealism, consciousness/spirit, true reality


The action-/emotion-packed events woven into the plot of The Merchant of Venice are volatile enough to generate a plethora of reactions from Shakespeare scholars (e.g., Rizzoli 2017; Critchley, Simon, & McCarthy 2004; Mahon 2002; Ferber 1990; Cohen 1982; Hatlen 1980; Coghill 1964), especially in the contemporary postcolonial, postmodernist and interdisciplinary scenario. A very recent study by Renato Rizzoli (2017), for instance, interprets The Merchant of Venice as a document of transition from feudal to capitalist economy in Elizabethan England and the changes in social relations this transition ushered along with it. Reading the play as an anti-Semitic rant (Bloom 1998; Greenblatt 1978) is another interesting paradigm. Susie Campbell finds the play as a reflection of anti-Semitism in Shakespeare, while researchers like Aviva Dautch stand in support of Shakespeare saying that “in the face of a strong anti-Semitic hatred in the English society, Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice seems to suggest ‘that if the Jew is a monster, it is because the Christian population around him have treated him as such’” (Online, no page number)

The attempts to trace Shakespeare’s inspiration for the character of Shylock are in line with the claims of anti-Semitism in Shakespeare. Richard Popkin, for instance, believes that “Shylock was modelled on the real life character of Alonso Herrera, a Jewish merchant who stayed in London from 1596 to 1600” (329). Popkin dismisses the view that Shylock was modelled on Dr. Lopez or on Barabas in The Jew of Malta. To claim that the portrait called ‘Shylock’ was painted looking at a real-life model is to imply that there did exist Jewish characters like Shylock, and therefore, such a depiction by Shakespeare is justified. Joseph Pearce, on the other hand, purges Shakespeare of such a sin by alluding to the story of a pound of flesh to an earlier version of the story in an anonymously authored “Ballad of the Crueltie of Geruntus” or in an “oration,” translated from the French entitled “Of a Jew, who would for his debt have a pound of flesh of a Christian” (20-21). Marxist readings of The Merchant of Venice as a representation of class struggle in England are numerous (Rizzoli 2017; Royanian & Omrani 2016; Smith 2012; Critchley, Simon, & McCarthy 2004; Nerlich 1987; Hatlen 1980; Greenblatt 1978). The Merchant of Venice read as a moral story as well as a love tale is also equally promising (Trepanier 2014; Seligman 2013; Schalkwyk 2011). M. J. Wilson, on the other hand, finds the play as a critical comment on the prevalent system of justice in Elizabethan England as, according to Wilson, “achieving justice was highly problematic in Elizabethan England. The concept of justice often became secondary in a system preoccupied by form rather than substance. Civil wrongs were often denied justice, and criminal offenders frequently received punishments wholly out of proportion to the offence committed” (700).


My study of the play builds upon, and furthers, the observation made by Renato Rizzoli that The Merchant of Venice is a text documented on the economic transition in Elizabethan England. I invoke Hegelian dialectical movement of the historical process– thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis – and the germs of anti-thesis being inscribed in the synthesis itself to begin the process afresh and let the history repeat itself, to interpret the events unfolding in this drama. But, I’d like to steer clear of yet another possible interpretation which may visualize the same events as an instance of Hegelian idealism working in the play in the form of “mercy” as an ideal, the true form of consciousness / spirit we human beings strive for or should strive for. I’d rather go with Marx’s view that consciousness / spirit is not the actual guiding force to shape the material conditions of man, but rather the material conditions of man guide and shape his consciousness / spirit.1 Hegel believes that there exists something called ‘ideal reality.’ To Hegel, human being is the perfection of nature – in his form, intellect and spirituality; human beings, in form as well as intellect, are a representation of the divine, the ideal.2 Man’s material conditions hide his ‘real or the ideal’ nature. Hegelian interpretation of historical development through dialectic presumes an ideal social state where social tensions and contradictions are resolved through wise decisions arrived at and determined by interaction and mutual agreement. In such a state of affairs there is no hidden or implied ideology of a group socially dominant at a particular point of time which directs, orients and steers people’s thought process in a hegemonic way. To Marx, who accepts Hegel’s idea of dialectical movement of the historical process, man’s material conditions do not hide anything called ‘reality’ or the ideal state of being. It is rather the particular social ideology that hides the real material conditions of people from coming to fore and leading to social upheaval. So, in a sense, to Marx, there is nothing called ‘reality or the ideal state of being.’ In such a state of affairs, there is always a dominant mainstream group in the society whose ideology guides the thought process of the masses. In the form of a play, there cannot be a better example than The Merchant of Venice to illustrate this point, and Shakespeare brings this out through inherent contradictions in the structure of the play.

Let me begin by taking up Renato Rizzoli’s argument that “The Merchant of Venice is a document of economic transition” (12). I extend the view further saying that the transition was inevitable as a dialectical historical process. The prevalent feudal economy, in which usury occupied some space, however hated it might have been, started dying under the weight of the State-sponsored mercantilism in collusion with the religious establishment. Usury is a crude form of capitalism but without direct State control since the money earned through the practice is not directly taxable. The very first contradiction occurs at this point. The practice of usury was associated with Jews, and usury is shown to be hated. So, are we supposed to accept that Elizabethan England was strongly against the rising capitalists? Perhaps no. Antonio was emerging as a capitalist, Bassanio was a capitalist and the heroine of the drama, Portia, hails from a capitalist background. Capitalism was on the rise in Elizabethan England, and it was supported by the mainstream ideology. Usury was fading away in a system of historical reorganization of wealth as the government could earn (more) through mercantilism than through usurers. Mercantilism (a national economic policy) was dominant in Europe from 16th to 18th century (beginning with the Elizabethan and Shakespearean era in England). It was a form of state capitalism as the government protected her merchants (and collected duties and taxes from them in return, leaving the larger share of their income with the merchants), at home and over the seas, especially as merchants were seeking newer territories to expand their trade and colonialism was taking roots. Mercantilism, that is capitalism in its nascent state, generated the idea of individualism and private property, and gave way fully to capitalism in 18th century after the industrial revolution and colonialism loosened the power of royalty over trade and commerce and a great many traders established their capitalist enterprises throughout Europe. It is not clear whether Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice is in favour of or against the slow but steady rise of capitalism in England, which in fact affected the common men as it consolidated wealth into a few hands and led to the suffering of the larger population we witness in the novels of writers such as Charles Dickens. Shakespeare seems to support the emerging capitalists, like Antonio, Bassanio and Portia, and denigrates Shylock, who is just a petty usurer, not a great threat to the common men.

I have hinted at the possible collusion of political and religious establishments in the growth of capitalism and in gaining a wider respect for the practice in the society. The reference is to Frederic William and his patronage for Calvinism. One of the five basic points or principles of Calvinism is “Perseverance of Saints or the Security of Believers” (Steele and Thomas 64), which means “to work is to worship.” So, if a man perseveres even in his worldly affairs, he worships God and is entitled to salvation. Perseverance is virtuous, no matter whether it leads to worldly profit or spiritual upliftment.3 Predetermination is yet another principle of Calvinism which implies that man’s fate is unchangeable and unchallengeable, except by God.4 If success in any field is a god-given, why not strive for it more and more? To have more wealth, more power, more profit, and more people at your command, and so on, has divine sanction. Max Weber, for example, suggests in this regard that the idea did not remain confined to only Calvinism as it disintegrated the traditional economic system. When capitalism came into full swing, the practice was already based on previous justifications and none would care for the implied protestant values or the spiritual origins of the psychology of the theory (Weber 56-79).

The apparent clash of the systems of justice in the Old Testament and the New Testament in The Merchant of Venice, as some scholars see it (e.g. Pearce 2010; Weber 1930), is also a reflection of the economic transition. The Old Testament system of justice is a pure materialistic thesis (an eye for an eye; loss of matter to be compensated by an equal amount of matter, or something valued to be equal by agreement, such as a pound of flesh valued equal to the money borrowed). The New Testament justice system involves consciousness, an ideal and abstract condition (matter to be equated with an ideal and abstract entity, such as mercy, pardon, love, and so on). Shakespeare himself wished material justice to be tempered with spiritual mercy, but the situation slips out of his hands as the ones who advocated mercy are immediately cruel to the victim when he is in their clutches. We cannot go for authorial intention here since Shakespeare’s intention is contradicted by his own admission.5 The text becomes a public object open to multiple interpretations. The related point is that the New Testament forbids usury – lending money on high interest – but there should be found a way to let the individual’s money, and the national economy, grow. Initially it was mercantilism, but since mercantilism as a national policy led to frequent wars between European nations (see Rizzoli 2017), it ultimately gave rise to capitalism, acceptable to all. It was easy to use a symbol in literary creations, which was already much used in caricatures, lampooning and negative image-building, to draw public opinion and sympathy for an economic policy put in sharp contrast to something maligned and associated with a particular, hated community. The symbols were readily available at hand – Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, Queen Elizabeth’s doctor Roderigo López, a Portuguese Jew who was accused of poisoning the queen, popular myth among the Elizabethans that “Jews ritually murdered Christians to drink their blood and achieve salvation” (Aviva Dautch).

My second point concerns the idea of ‘mercy’ in The Merchant of Venice, and the inner contradiction Shakespeare has displayed there. Mercy falls in the realm of human consciousness or the realm of spirituality. The Merchant of Venice contains lengthy oration by Portia on mercy and its spiritual rewards. Mercy appears, or is made to appear, to be a factor that determines the ‘being’ of human beings and guides their behaviour. Portia emphasizes that this spiritual nature of human beings remains hidden because of their attachment to the matter while human beings should be guided in their behaviour by mercy / spiritualism to be called true / ideal human beings. The idea was further elaborated by Hegel in the notions of true / ideal reality. But the narrative events in the play don’t sit well with Hegelian idea of the ideal / true / spirit / consciousness hidden by the material world, shaping the worldview of the humans and that is what human beings strive for and express in their aesthetic creations and creative urges. The narrative rather goes well with Marx’s idea that the material conditions of the humans shape their consciousness, or in other words, there is no possibility of a pure / ideal consciousness as consciousness is a product of the material. The dialectical analysis is that the thesis, we encounter in the play, is the justice system established in the mercantile city of Venice which allows the monetary materials to be equated with anything that a man possesses, including his / her body parts (a form of barter system of justice that puts financial value in anything non-monetary. Prostitution can be justified through this barter system. The system has been handed down to Islam through Judaism, where a murder can be settled in monetary terms, if the family of the affected party accepts it. Similar practices are adopted by modern governments when loss of life is compensated through offering money to the affected family). This is pure materialism. Anti-thesis to this system is presented by Portia in the outline of a system in which mercy is of a higher value than mere dry sentiment of justice which may even ignore the precious value of human life. This is based on idealism / spiritualism / consciousness. Synthesis is achieved by overturning the system of justice on its hinges revealing its own weak foundations that lay on equating one thing with the other, forgetting that most often things are interconnected and therefore cannot be equated in their entirety, such as cutting a pound of flesh from human body is connected to his / her life, and one cannot take a pound of flesh without taking that life, which goes beyond the justice of equating one thing with the other. Now, after winning the case against their adversary, the adversary is charged of conspiring of the murder of a Christian, and as a punishment he is forced to convert to Christianity. This is again a new thesis, based purely on material aspects of human life. I argue that if mercy / consciousness was presented to guide the behaviour of individuals, why was it not followed in the case of the adversary, even knowing that he stood completely ruined at that moment? Simply, it is all material conditions that rule human behaviour; consciousness is an impossible idealism. That might be the reason why Shakespeare was Marx’s favourite author and Marx has commented very favourably on several of his works, including The Merchant of Venice. Marx even condemned Shylock’s behaviour. He saw Shylock as “an example of the one who, hiding behind the law, dehumanizes others and alienates them into mere property” (Mahon 16).        


To sum up, in reality it is the ‘social being’ of human beings that determines the state of their consciousness (mercy), even in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The Christians (Portia, Antonio and Bassanio) force the Jew (Shylock) to convert to Christianity as they are following the dictates of their “social beingness” and not the other way round (being dictated by their consciousness). So, in a way, there is an inner contradiction in Shakespeare’s argument in The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare imposes a spiritual, and in his view logical, structure upon the material state of affairs in The Merchant of Venice. Portia and company are guided by the dominant ideology (Christian, Calvinist) of their time, not by their consciousness, to pronounce their judgement on Shylock. Similarly, it is the material condition of Shylock that determines his actions towards his adversaries. There is an element of predictability in the behaviour of both the parties, which reveals social constructivism / predictability of behaviour in social contexts. Shylock is predictable in his behaviour since he is a “Jew,” while Portia is predictable since she is a Christian (love, compassion, mercy, and so on Christian notions).

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.

Campbell, Susie. “Is that the Law?: Shakespeare’s Political Cynicism in The Merchant of Venice. Longman Critical Studies –William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, edited by Linda Cookson & Bryan Loughery, London: Longman, 1992.

Coghill, N. Shakespeare’s Professional Skills. Cambridge: CUP, 1964.

Cohen, Walter. “The Merchant of Venice and the Possibilities of Historical Criticism.” ELH, vol. 49, 1982, pp. 765-89.

Critchley, Simon, and T. McCarthy. “Universal Shylockery: Money and Morality in The Merchant of Venice.” Diacritics, vol. 34, no. 1, 2004, pp. 3-17. DOI: 10.1353/dia.2006.0017.

Dautch, A. “A Jewish Reading of The Merchant of Venice.” 15 March 2016 Accessed 16 October 2020.

Ferber, M. “The Ideology of The Merchant of Venice.” English Literary Renaissance, vol. 20, no. 3, 1990, pp: 431-464.

Greenblatt, Stephen J. “Marlowe, Marx, and Anti-Semitism.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 5, no. 2, 1978, pp. 291-307.

Hatlen, B. “Feudal and Bourgeois Concepts of Value in The Merchant of Venice.” Shakespeare: Contemporary Critical Approaches, edited by Harry Garvin, Lewisburg, Pa: Bucknell UP, 1980, pp. 91-105.

Mahon, J. W. “The Fortunes of The Merchant of Venice from 1596-2001.” The Merchant of Venice: New Critical Essays, edited by J. W. Mahon & E. M. Mahon, New York: Routledge, 2002, pp. 1-94.   

Marlowe, Christopher. [1590]. The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta, edited by David Bevington. New York: Manchester University Press, 1997.

Nerlich, M. Ideology of Adventure: Studies in Modern Consciousness, 1100-1750, vol. 1, translated by Ruth Crowley. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1987.  

Pearce, Joseph. Through Shakespeare’s Eyes: Seeing the Catholic Presence in the Plays. (Chapter 2: Venetian Blindness: Critical Mistakes and Dramatic Errors, pp. 20-25). San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010.    

Popkin, R. “A Jewish Merchant of Venice.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 3, 1989, pp. 329-331.

Rizzoli, R. “Shakespeare and the ideologies of the market.” European Journal of English Studies, vol. 21, no. 1, 2017, pp. 12-25.

Royanian, S., and E. Omrani. “Class Oppression and Commodification in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Merchant of Venice.” World Scientific News, vol. 50, 2016, pp. 186-196. Available online at Accessed 25.10.2020.

Schalkwyk, D. “The impossible gift of love in The Merchant of Venice and the sonnets.” Shakespeare, vol. 7, no. 2, 2011, pp. 142-155.

Seligman, Adam. “Love, Necessity and Law in The Merchant of Venice.” The Journal of Scriptural Reasoning, October 2013. Online, no page numbers.

Smith, Christian. “Shakespeare’s influence on Marx, Freud and the Frankfurt school critical theorists.” PhD thesis, University of Warwick, 2012.

Steele, D. N., and C. C. Thomas. The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended and Documented. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing Company, 1963.

Trepanier, Lee. “Contract, Friendship and Love in The Merchant of Venice.” Perspectives on Political Science, vol. 43, no. 4, 2014, pp. 204-212.

Weber, Max Weber. [1930]. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Translated by Talcott Parsons. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Willson, M. J. “A View of Justice in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure.” Notre Dame Law Review, vol. 70, no. 3, 2014, pp. 695-726.


  1. Karl Marx’ ideas on consciousness/sprit have been summarized from, ‘Materialist Conception of History,’ in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, available online at Accessed on 28.10.2020.
  2. Hegel’s ideas on dialectics have been summarized from “Hegel’s Dialectic” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available online at Accessed on 28.10.2020.

3 Weber, Max. (1992 [1930]). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Trans. Talcott Parsons. New York: Routledge. Pp. 56-79.).

4 Calvinism in this respect is much closer to Hinduism, especially Hindu fatalism, differing only in that Hindus believe fate to be the result of one’s accumulated karmas from previous births. In any case, to both Hindus and Calvinists fate is unchangeable and man’s material success in the world is a clear indication of God’s favour to him – he is surely the chosen one.

5 What I mean by ‘authorial intention’ and his own ‘admission’ is the reflection of the author’s intention and point of view in the dialogues and the action scenes in the play. Shakespeare makes Portia deliver a long lecture to Shylock on the virtue of mercy – that is authorial intention, while in the very next scene he makes the Christian characters show no mercy to Shylock, even forcing him to convert to Christianity – that is, he admits that mercy is only an idealistic notion. Thus, owing to such a contradiction, the authorial intention is unreliable.

About the Author:

Pradeep Sharma has taught English language and literature at universities in India, Libya, Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia. He has contributed chapters in books and articles in research journals interpreting texts through the lens of contemporary critical theories, such as poststructuralism, postcolonialism, postmodernism, feminism, and so on. His book, Limits of Language: Poststructuralism and Ancient Indian Theories, by Motilal Banarsidass, is coming soon.