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Shakespeare & Beyond

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

London's Triumph by Stephen Alford
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.


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.

Bob Meyers — December 5, 2017