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On Interpretive Conflict$
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John Frow

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780226613956

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: January 2020

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226614144.001.0001

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Contract, Custom, and the Multiple Historicities of The Merchant of Venice

Contract, Custom, and the Multiple Historicities of The Merchant of Venice

(p.85) 2 Contract, Custom, and the Multiple Historicities of The Merchant of Venice
On Interpretive Conflict

John Frow

University of Chicago Press

After the Holocaust, the figure of Shylock has increasingly come to look like an anti-Semitic caricature. This chapter makes sense of The Merchant of Venice's generic and structural anomalies (the fact that its three interwoven plots conclude, respectively, in Acts Three, Four, and Five) by showing how the semantic associations clustered around the themes of usury, mercantilism, and the gift are threaded through these three plots. Whereas most readings of the play oppose the worlds of Venice and Belmont as contrasted orders of contract and the gift, of law and grace, and of the Old and New Testaments, this chapter argues conversely that Shylock is the representative of an older, customary economy, and that Portia and the world of Belmont represent a new order of contractual relations. The chapter then takes the history of changing performances of the play as a metonym of changing interpretations over three centuries and as one of the ways in which the figures of Jewishness and usury have functioned as condensed and overdetermined moments of social tension. Our own reading of the play is necessarily a moment of that tension, and the interpretive institution of the theater has played a central role in shaping it.

Keywords:   Merchant of Venice, anti-Semitism, Shylock, theatrical interpretation

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