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Shylock and the Slaves: Owing and Owning in The Merchant of Venice


This essay argues that approaching The Merchant of Venice as a play about debt, rather than one about usury, elucidates how it works through the complex idea of ownership in an expanding credit economy marked by a rise in forfeiture. In its exploration of the controversial aspects of possession in debt, Shakespeare’s play advances an ideal of ethical ownership by demonstrating that the coterminous entitlements that were encouraged by debt transactions mirrored the second- and third-party possession of land known as usufruct. By the mid-seventeenth century, John Locke would identify usufruct as the righteous response to the morally dubious aspects of property ownership, even as he and others championed the tenets of possessive individualism. The decision of the trial in The Merchant of Venice hinges on the notion of ethical ownership, as the play considers whether the legal mechanism of debt buttresses theological precepts of the origins of possession, as well as the state’s investment in them, even as forfeiture raised the distressing prospect of human chattel. The dilemma of forfeiture could only be resolved if the debtor’s collateral functioned as an equivalent to the original loan. But what did this mean when the debtor’s collateral was his person? The Merchant of Venice is driven by this question as it considers the circumstances when a creditor may or may not possess his debtor, and the social, political, and theological implications of this conundrum.

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