Usury and ‘The Merchant of Venice’: An excerpt from ‘London’s Triumph’ by Stephen Alford

This excerpt from London's Triumph by Stephen Alford focuses on usury and The Merchant of Venice.Attitudes about usury and money-lending gave more moral weight to the work of merchants and traders in Elizabethan England, writes Stephen Alford in his new book London’s Triumph: Merchants, Adventurers, and Money in Shakespeare’s City, which traces the historical roots of London’s rise in the sixteenth century.

The following excerpt from London’s Triumph, published Dec 5, looks at the Elizabethan understanding of usury seen through Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and the characters of Shylock and Antonio.

Alford is professor of early modern British history at the University of Leeds and the author of The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I. He taught for 15 years at Cambridge University, where he was a senior lecturer in the faculty of history and a fellow of King’s College.

“Usury was not for Elizabethans a pretty word or notion. It was also a complicated one. Though lending out one’s money for one’s own financial return was very difficult not to class as usury, it was still a tricky thing to define precisely – in part because so many inventive minds and ingenious practitioners had spent centuries trying to get round it, finding loopholes in the law. The nearest we have to a dictionary definition of usury as Elizabethans understood it is by Dr Thomas Wilson, writing in 1572, a year after the law in England was relaxed to allow for an increase of interest up to 10 per cent: ‘usury is committed only where lending and borrowing is, and that when any overplus or excess is taken over and above the principal that was lent, for the very respect only of lending, and in consideration of forbearing money for time’. The ‘principal’ was the capital sum lent and the ‘overplus or excess’ the interest charged for the loan of it. But was all interest usury, as Wilson seemed to be suggesting, or was it really just excessive interest? Did it extend to more than money? Wrestled with for centuries, questions like these (and many more too) occupied anxious Elizabethans.

And so Sir Thomas Gresham’s pragmatism bumped up against one of the great taboos for the Church and Christendom. Money was as necessary as it was problematic. And it was problematic because how it was made was under the scrutiny of God, from which there was no escape. The Merchant of Venice (1596/97) illustrates beautifully Elizabethans’ ambivalence over usury, interest and money. The brilliance of Shylock is that he is an outsider, embittered and isolated – a rich Jew, that stock figure of fear and hatred in sixteenth-century Europe, who despises Christian society and its codes and values. In the characters of Shylock and the merchant Antonio, Shakespeare gives us two extreme positions on money. Where one is monstrously grasping, the other is admirably generous but hopelessly naive.

Antonio and Shylock operate their two businesses on entirely opposing principles. Shylock grumbles that Antonio’s Christian scruples are bad for the city’s moneylenders:

. . . in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis, and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice. (I. iii. 43–5)

By ‘usance’ Shylock means the period of the loan that determined the amount of interest to be paid on it. Easy to miss – but in fact the most significant thing to notice – is how being a merchant is very different from being a moneylender. Antonio is an old-fashioned merchant adventurer: he trades in commodities and puts ships out to sea. He is an amateur lender of money (and for good and just reasons), where Shylock is the professional moneylender, grasping and unscrupulous. There is a world of difference between the methods employed by the two men. Shylock simply uses his money to make even more of it. Trade plays no part in his business, and he is contemptuous of it. Where the moneylender is in this sense passive, the merchant is active. Antonio takes risks, whereas in merely lending money Shylock risks nothing. What Shylock calls his own ‘well-won thrift’ (I. iii. 50–51), Antonio calls ‘interest’. It was a word and a concept that would have been as offensive and oppressive as usury to many in Shakespeare’s audience.

For Southwark’s playgoers in the 1590s, Antonio’s practice of lending money for free would have seemed long out of date. Shylock’s business model was well established not only in London but throughout Europe. There was little difference in technique between a Shylock and a Fugger (though the Fugger, as tough as they were, stopped short of cutting chunks of flesh out of their debtors). ‘Interest’ was a significant word for the Elizabethans, who worried about the degrading of honest language. Some felt that sharp financial practices were being blunted by weasel words, and that clever obfuscations were disguising old sins. There is nothing, after all, like a euphemism to distract one’s attention from what is really being said or going on. One writer, in 1594, believed that gentlemen and merchants were using ‘fine terms’ to cover up their usury: ‘they will not say, let their money to usury, but to interest; or put it to usance, or they take consideration, rent or an honourable reward’. Usury, said another, was being covered up by a ‘goodly cloak to cover the shame thereof’: ‘I mean the name of interest, or profit of money.’ The idea that the purpose of money was simply to facilitate trade and commerce went all the way back to Aristotle. But what if trade played no part in making fortunes? What was frightening was the idea that money could simply regenerate itself, ‘multiplied by drawing of continual profit upon the use of the principal stock from month or month, or year to year, by the loan of money till it be repaid’. For the moralists, this was usury under the newly invented name of interest.

It is here that we can begin to see how Elizabethans made moral sense of the fortunes built up by merchants and traders. The Merchant of Venice helps once again. Antonio’s fortune means something: his merchant adventuring was red-blooded, vital, alive. Trade was hardwon and tangible. Textiles and spices, furs and oil, ships and caravans, encounters with foreign merchants and princes, risk with legitimate reward, or loss and misfortune according to the will of providence: goods and wares, and the wealth that came from them, spoke to mercantile prosperity and the common good. There was all the difference, in the Elizabethan mind, between sitting on ever-growing piles of money (like Shylock or any other usurer) and the hard slog of Anthony Jenkinson fighting his way to the silk road with the Muscovy Company’s fardels of London cloth.”

From London’s Triumph: Merchants, Adventurers, and Money in Shakespeare’s City. Copyright 2017 Stephen Alford. Used by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing.

One Comment

  • Shylock does risk something— he risks the money he loans to Antonio. Jews were barred from many professions but permitted to lend money to Christians, who were barred from lending money.

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