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Herbert Basser





Shakespeare Plays on the Questionable Source of Jacob's Wealth





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Herbert Basser





Shakespeare Plays on the Questionable Source of Jacob's Wealth








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“Use, Ewes and Jews!”

Shakespeare Plays on the Questionable Source of Jacob's Wealth

The Torah offers two explanations for how Jacob obtained great wealth at his father-in-law’s expense. Quite surprisingly, Shakespeare picked up on this narrative tension and made use of it to create the (in)famous biblically based dialogue between Shylock and Antonio in The Merchant of Venice.


Shakespeare Plays on the Questionable Source of Jacob's Wealth

Illustration by Sir James Dromgole Linton (1840– 1916) London)

According to the Torah, Jacob’s father-in-law, Laban, exploited him for decades. Jacob first works seven years to marry Laban’s daughter, and gets the one he did not want (Leah). He then agrees to work another seven years for the daughter he did want (Rachel). After 14 years of this treatment, Jacob has had enough and wishes to leave. Laban convinces him to stay longer and agrees to pay Jacob wages. The two men finally strike a deal whereby certain markings on Laban’s flocks: dark colored sheep, speckled or spotted goats would be Jacob’s pay.[1]

At this point, a battle of wits begins.

Laban’s Plan

Laban removes all of the sheep and goats which have the characteristics agreed upon for Jacob’s future flocks. His idea seems to be that if none of the sheep in the flock have these characteristics, than few if any will be born with them, ensuring that Laban’s flocks remain large and Jacob’s non-existent.

ל:לה וַיָּסַ֣ר בַּיּוֹם֩ הַה֨וּא אֶת הַתְּיָשִׁ֜ים הָֽעֲקֻדִּ֣ים וְהַטְּלֻאִ֗ים וְאֵ֤ת כָּל הָֽעִזִּים֙ הַנְּקֻדּ֣וֹת וְהַטְּלֻאֹ֔ת כֹּ֤ל אֲשֶׁר לָבָן֙ בּ֔וֹ וְכָל ח֖וּם בַּכְּשָׂבִ֑ים וַיִּתֵּ֖ן בְּיַד בָּנָֽיו: ל:לו וַיָּ֗שֶׂם דֶּ֚רֶךְ שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֔ים בֵּינ֖וֹ וּבֵ֣ין יַעֲקֹ֑ב וְיַעֲקֹ֗ב רֹעֶ֛ה אֶת־צֹ֥אן לָבָ֖ן הַנּוֹתָרֹֽת:
30:35 That same day he (=Laban) removed the streaked and spotted he-goats and all the speckled and spotted she-goats—every one that had white on it—and all the dark-colored sheep, and left them in the charge of his sons.  30:36 And he put a distance of three days’ journey between himself and Jacob, while Jacob was pasturing the rest of Laban’s flock.

Jacob’s Plan

Jacob’s plan is to utilize a form of sympathetic suggestion based on ancient science to turn the next generation of his flock into dark, spotted and speckled animals by manipulating what they see during their mating.[2]

ל:לז וַיִּֽקַּֽח ל֣וֹ יַעֲקֹ֗ב מַקַּ֥ל לִבְנֶ֛ה לַ֖ח וְל֣וּז וְעַרְמ֑וֹן וַיְפַצֵּ֤ל בָּהֵן֙ פְּצָל֣וֹת לְבָנ֔וֹת מַחְשֹׂף֙ הַלָּבָ֔ן אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל הַמַּקְלֽוֹת: ל:לח וַיַּצֵּ֗ג אֶת הַמַּקְלוֹת֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר פִּצֵּ֔ל בָּרֳהָטִ֖ים בְּשִֽׁקֲת֣וֹת הַמָּ֑יִם אֲשֶׁר֩ תָּבֹ֨אןָ הַצֹּ֤אן לִשְׁתּוֹת֙ לְנֹ֣כַח הַצֹּ֔אן וַיֵּחַ֖מְנָה בְּבֹאָ֥ן לִשְׁתּֽוֹת:
30:37 Jacob then got fresh shoots of poplar, and of almond and plane, and peeled white stripes in them, laying bare the white of the shoots.  30:38 The rods that he had peeled he set up in front of the goats in the troughs, the water receptacles, that the goats came to drink from. Their mating occurred when they came to drink.

Jacob and Laban thus engage in a kind of battle of human wits, each trying to outfox the other, and Jacob comes out on top.

Contradictory Text: God is Responsible

In the next part of the story, however, Jacob appears to contradict this version of events, when in a speech to his wives, he offers an entirely different explanation for how his flock became so large and Laban’s so small:

לא:ו וְאַתֵּ֖נָה יְדַעְתֶּ֑ן כִּ֚י בְּכָל־כֹּחִ֔י עָבַ֖דְתִּי אֶת אֲבִיכֶֽן: לא:ז וַאֲבִיכֶן֙ הֵ֣תֶל בִּ֔י וְהֶחֱלִ֥ף אֶת מַשְׂכֻּרְתִּ֖י עֲשֶׂ֣רֶת מֹנִ֑ים וְלֹֽא נְתָנ֣וֹ אֱלֹהִ֔ים לְהָרַ֖ע עִמָּדִֽי: לא:ח אִם כֹּ֣ה יֹאמַ֗ר נְקֻדִּים֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה שְׂכָרֶ֔ךָ וְיָלְד֥וּ כָל הַצֹּ֖אן נְקֻדִּ֑ים וְאִם כֹּ֣ה יֹאמַ֗ר עֲקֻדִּים֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה שְׂכָרֶ֔ךָ וְיָלְד֥וּ כָל הַצֹּ֖אן עֲקֻדִּֽים:
31:6 As you know, I have served your father with all my might; 31:7 but your father has cheated me, changing my wages time and again. God, however, would not let him do me harm. 31:8 If he said thus, ‘The speckled shall be your wages,’ then all the flocks would drop speckled young; and if he said thus, ‘The streaked shall be your wages,’ then all the flocks would drop streaked young.
לא:ט וַיַּצֵּ֧ל אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת מִקְנֵ֥ה אֲבִיכֶ֖ם וַיִּתֶּן לִֽי: לא:י וַיְהִ֗י בְּעֵת֙ יַחֵ֣ם הַצֹּ֔אן וָאֶשָּׂ֥א עֵינַ֛י וָאֵ֖רֶא בַּחֲל֑וֹם וְהִנֵּ֤ה הָֽעַתֻּדִים֙ הָעֹלִ֣ים עַל הַצֹּ֔אן עֲקֻדִּ֥ים נְקֻדִּ֖ים וּבְרֻדִּֽים: לא:יא וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֵלַ֜י מַלְאַ֧ךְ הָאֱלֹהִ֛ים בַּחֲל֖וֹם יַֽעֲקֹ֑ב וָאֹמַ֖ר הִנֵּֽנִי: לא:יב וַיֹּ֗אמֶר שָׂא נָ֨א עֵינֶ֤יךָ וּרְאֵה֙ כָּל הָֽעַתֻּדִים֙ הָעֹלִ֣ים עַל הַצֹּ֔אן עֲקֻדִּ֥ים נְקֻדִּ֖ים וּבְרֻדִּ֑ים כִּ֣י רָאִ֔יתִי אֵ֛ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֥ר לָבָ֖ן עֹ֥שֶׂה לָּֽךְ:
31:9 God has taken away your father’s livestock and given it to me. 31:10 “Once, at the mating time of the flocks, I had a dream in which I saw that the he-goats mating with the flock were streaked, speckled, and mottled. 31:11 And in the dream a messenger of God said to me, ‘Jacob!’ ‘Here,’ I answered. 31:12 And he said, ‘Note well that all the he-goats which are mating with the flock are streaked, speckled, and mottled; for I have noted all that Laban has been doing to you.

In this version, Laban had been trying to trick Jacob by switching the deal from speckled to streaked, etc. Jacob would have been stuck but God became involved and made sure to keep adjusting the color of the sheep such that Jacob always would come out ahead. God’s messenger even comes to tell Jacob of this, showing him in a vision that no matter what, the goats will all turn out the right color for Jacob, since God knows what Laban tried to do and he has ensured that Laban’s behavior would be to his detriment.

How are we to account for these two contradictory explanations for how Jacob became rich at Laban’s expense?

Literary Solutions (Synchronic Approach)

Over the many years the Torah has been interpreted, commentators have offered a number of approaches to make the two explanations work with each other.

  • Inspired to act by the vision (R. Bahya [Behai] ben Asher ben Halawa) – “Because of this dream Jacob came to perform the deed, acting in accord with knowledge of natural science by manipulating the sticks – not to deceive Laban but to protect himself from Laban’s deceitful practices” (gloss on Gen 30:38).[3]
  • Divine Providence all along (R. Avraham ibn Ezra) – Jacob thought his plan was working, but later God showed him that it was really divine providence (gloss on Gen 31:9).[4]
  • God needed to combat Laban’s trickery (Jan Fokkelman) – Originally, Jacob’s plan was working, but since Laban kept changing the deal, God needed to get involved.[5]
  • The stick ritual was never meant to replace God (Beno Jacob) – Jacob’s reliance on the sticks was just a ritual of superstition that any shepherd would do “just in case;” he didn’t really think it could combat Laban’s trickery. Thus, God was always necessary (gloss on Gen 30:37-42b).[6]
  • There was no revelation (Arnold Ehrlich) – Jacob was lying about the angel’s revelation because he couldn’t trust his wives with the truth, i.e., that he did, in fact, trick their father (Mikra Ke-Peshutto, Gen 31:5).[7]

Critical Solutions (Diachronic Approach)

The literary solutions interpret the final form of the text and implicitly assume that the entire account should work together as a unified whole. Over the past two centuries, critical Bible scholarship has challenged this assumption and offered models of textual development which allow for contradiction in the biblical text.

  • Source Critical (Documentary Hypothesis) – Many scholars assume that the accounts in chapter 30 and chapter 31 derive from different sources. Chapter 30, which describes Jacob as becoming rich through his use of the peeled sticks, comes from the J source. The account of God appearing to Jacob in a dream, explaining to him that he has been watching over him and protecting him from Laban, comes from the E source, where God elsewhere is revealed through dreams.[8]
  • Redaction Critical (Supplementary Hypothesis) – Another possibility is that the account of the dream was never a separate independent source, but was added into the story by a later editor, who may have been uncomfortable with the image of Jacob as a cheat, and hoped to mitigate this image by invoking God’s providence as the power behind Jacob’s accumulation of wealth.[9]

Shakespeare as a Parshan

William Shakespeare was certainly not a critical Bible scholar, but the biblical references peppered throughout his plays reveals his mastery of biblical texts.[10] Shakespeare uses the biblical text we have been examining in the dialogue between Shylock and Antonio in Act 1 scene 3 in The Merchant of Venice. As Harvard University Professor (Comparative Literature) Marc Shell pointed out,[11] Shakespeare is not merely quoting or alluding to Bible, but he is interpreting it. Furthermore, as noted by Yale University Professor Leslie Brisman, Shakespeare seems to be working off of the very narrative tension described above, and, in his own fashion, offering his own reading of the text.[12]

Below I will delineate the dialogue as I now understand it, based on a composite of the readings of the various literary scholars I surveyed.

Note on Shakespeare’s Bible

Like any great writer, Shakespeare loved word plays and assonance, but in order to pick up on his humor, we must remember that he and his audience read the Bible in English. (The King James Bible was penned during Shakespeare’s lifetime.) Thus, some wordplays may seem farfetched to us either because we are used to the Bible in Hebrew or because the English idioms of Shakespeare’s day are not ours. Shakespeare honed texts, as was his custom in citing poems or ballads of his day, and he seems to have done so for biblical paraphrases too.

Shylock’s Debate with Antionio about Jacob’s Craftiness

Background on Shylock and Antonio

I begin with a brief sketch of the two characters in this dialogue within the overall context ofThe Merchant of Venice:

Antonio – The protagonist is a pious Christian named Antonio. He is a successful businessman who lends money to friends without interest, as commanded by his faith. At one point a friend of his, Bassanio, has need of money, and all of Antonio’s liquid capital is tied up in his ships. He therefore agrees to act as a guarantor or bond for his friend with the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, whom Antonio despises and has even spit at in the past.

Shylock – Shylock is a Jewish money lender who lends at high interest. He has been insulted by Antonio and is stunned that he would turn to him for money, even if it is only on behalf of a friend. Shylock wishes to take advantage of the situation, not for profit but for revenge, and famously declares that the bond will be a pound of Antonio’s flesh, if neither he nor Bassanio pay back the loan in three months.

The Number Three

We enter the dialogue where Antonio declares that he usually does not deal with moneylending for profit, but must make an exception in this case to help a friend.

Antonio: Shylock, although I neither lend nor borrow
By taking nor by giving of excess,
Yet, to supply the ripe wants of my friend,
I’ll break a custom. Is he yet possess’d
How much ye would?
Shylock: Ay, ay three thousand ducats.
Antonio: And for three months.
Shylock: I had forgot three months— you told me so.

Shylock picks up on the number “three,” which he sees as “biblically” significant. The number 3 resonates within this play, in which 3’s are prominent. Later in the play we will encounter 3 rings and 3 caskets, but here what is already mulling in Shylock’s head, as we will see in a moment, is the three patriarchs, specifically, Jacob who is the third.

“Use” and “Ewes”

Shylock [cont.]: Well then your bond. And let me see—but hear you: Methoughts you said you neither lend nor borrow. Upon advantage.
Antonio: I do never use it.

Shylock is surprised Antonio will go back on his ideals and borrow for interest for the sake of his friend Bassanio and asks him about this directly. Antonio, responding that he doesn’t “use” brings the third patriarch, Jacob, to Shylock’s mind again, this time in connection with Jacob’s “ewes.”

Shylock’s Reading of the Jacob: Taking of Forced Interest

Shylock’s musings on his situation and the assonance of “use” and “ewes,” brings him to discuss Jacob’s trick with the flocks.

Shylock: When Jacob grazed his Uncle Laban’s sheep, this Jacob from our holy Abram was, as his wise mother wrought in his behalf, the third possessor; ay, he was the third.

Antonio, puzzled by Shylock’s invoking of the patriarch, and doubtless missing the play on Abram and “ram,” questions Shylock about his reference.

Antonio: And what of him? Did he take interest?

: No, not take interest, not, as you would say,
Directly interest
: mark what Jacob did.
When Laban and himself were compromised
That all the eanlings which were streak’d and pied
Should fall as Jacob’s hire, the ewes,[13] being rank,
In the end of autumn turned to the rams,
And, when the work of generation was
Between these woolly breeders in the act,
The skilful shepherd peel’d me certain wands,
And, in the doing of the deed of kind,
He stuck them up before the fulsome ewes,
Who then conceiving did in eaning time
Fall parti-colour’d lambs, and those were Jacob’s.
This was a way to thrive, and he was blest:
And thrift is blessing, if men steal it not.

Shylock’s interpretation of Jacob’s stunt was that he was taking Laban’s ewes in usury, which he seems to interpret as legal payment plus post-payment interest: the original number of spotted etc. animals plus the increase. The principal was construed to be all of the present and natural off-spring of the sheep and goats which had the agreed upon characteristics. But then Laban removed these animals, leaving Jacob with not even the principal. So Jacob engineered it that the single colored sheep produced an over-abundance of speckled (etc.). animals which Shylock sees as return of principal plus interest.

Now here is another wrinkle where Antonio and Shylock differ. Normally Antonio would lend or borrow on friendship and not on a contract. Shylock needs to charge interest (thrive, thrift) if he is not to steal. If he didn’t do it, since Jews were allowed virtually no other profitable business, he would have to steal, thus he does society a favor by lending money at interest. But Antonio, wealthy on account of his shipping business, can afford to be magnanimous and hurl contempt at Shylock for the greedy sin of lending with usury.

There was no avenue to him as a Jew to make a living otherwise. In fact, the other reason Shylock hates Antonio is because by lending money freely, Antonio hurts Shylock’s business. Shylock says as much to the audience upon Antonio’s entry into the scene:

Shylock: How like a fawning publican he looks!
I hate him for he is a Christian,
But more for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice
If I can catch him once upon the hip,
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.
He hates our sacred nation, and he rails,
Even there where merchants most do congregate,
On me, my bargains and my well-won thrift,
Which he calls interest
. Cursed be my tribe,
If I forgive him!

Shylock’s hatred of Antonio is a mix of umbrage at personal humiliation (Antonio spit at him), pride in his nation in response to Antonio’s antisemitism, and resentment of behavior that is ruining his business. Shylock believes that what he does should be called thrift—he is cheating no one, they all understand how moneylending works.

Shylock invokes the patriarch Jacob, and his reclamation of Laban owed him through the peeled staffs, thriftiness, as he calls his own behavior. But he recognizes that, whatever one calls it, since a Patriarch would never steal, Jacob is taking “interest” for the years of unpaid work. He calls it “indirect” interest as it came from natural increase and not added coin.

Shylock also subtly invokes other patriarchs and matriarchs. He speaks of Abram his progenitor, playing with the word ram. This may be an allusion to Abraham’s own sneaky behavior with Pharaoh and Abimelech (Gen 12:16, 20:14), that made him rich in flocks. He also notes that Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, was shrewd in helping him usurp Esau’s birthright. For Shylock this constitute wisdom. It would seem that Shakespeare means to paint Shylock—and probably Jews in general—as the type of people who muddy the lines between smart business and deceitful practices, as Jacob does in the J account.

Antonio’s Reading of Jacob: The Hand of Providence

Antonio cannot understand what Shylock is saying since his interpretation of the Jacob and Laban’s flocks-story is quite different.

Antonio: This was a venture, sir, that Jacob served for,
A thing not in his power to bring to pass,
But swayed and fashioned by the hand of heaven.
Was this inserted to make interest good?
Or is your gold and silver ewes and rams?

Antonio will have none of it; Jacob did not engineer anything. God had it all planned and Jacob did nothing, as Jacob himself states in the E (or supplementary) account. There is nothing to learn about usury here. Animals have natural increase; gold and silver do not. It is unnatural to charge interest on metals. Shylock’s interpretation of the passage as a warrant to charge interest defies common-sense.

Shylock’s response is to poke fun:

Shylock: I cannot tell; I make it breed as fast:

“Tell” here means “calculate”: coin and animals increase for him at the same speed. He says his coins breed like animals and he cannot tell the difference between the results of their manner of increase, both being so rapid. Antonio then denounces Shylock’s biblical interpretation, justifying interest, to his friend Bassanio.

Antonio: Mark you this, Bassanio,
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart:
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!

Shylock, Antonio believes, uses scripture to justify his malicious practices, since Jacob could not possibly have been involved in usury. Jews, he tells Bassanio, are devils and devils misuse scripture, looking outwardly pious but harboring nefarious schemes. The charge of Jewish hypocrisy was and is often encountered in Christian teachings. Shakespeare himself allows their positions to speak for themselves. He knows the views of the interpreters are based on the cultural values of the debaters. Consequently, he leaves the scriptural conundrum without resolution and allows the characters to reconcile their fierce antagonisms throughout the rest of the play.[14]

Shakespeare’s Reading Mirrors the Tension in the Text

The very debate Shylock and Antonio are having virtually reflects the dissonance between the two versions of the story of how Jacob became wealthy, passages that both Jews and Christians accept as historically true and morally instructive.

Shylock, following one version of the story (which many scholars now identify as J), views this account from the prism of a medieval Jewish moneylender. He sees Jacob’s act as good business, forcing Laban to pay interest for what he owed him (either because Jacob was underpaid for 14 years—seven years were dedicated to acquiring Leah whom he did not want—or because of Laban’s removal of the colored, spotted and speckled animals). Shylock claims he has a biblical warrant to charge non-Jews interest.

Antonio, on the other hand, follows Jacob’s explanation of the miraculous reality that although Laban kept switching the deal, the proper animals kept being born anyway. Jacob explains that he received a vision from an angel that all along, God has been watching over him and making sure that no matter what Laban did, Jacob would come out on top. This is the passage upon which Antonio bases himself when he says that Jacob did nothing and it was all providence, as per the other version of the story (which many scholars identify as E). The rejoinder effectively counters Shylock’s proof.

Shakespeare Channels his Inner Biblical Critic

Certainly, Shakespeare had no conception of source or redaction criticism and was not attempting to claim that the two versions came from different authors. Nevertheless, as a careful reader of scripture, Shakespeare picked up on the tension inherent in the account, and chooses to express this tension, this inner biblical dialogue, in the form of a debate between the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, and the Christian merchant, Antonio. On this note of conflict between two biblical passages, two biblical interpreters, two biblical cultures, the plot of this play is framed.


November 16, 2015


Last Updated

March 22, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Rabbi Herbert Basser is Professor (Emeritus) of Religion and Jewish Studies at Queen’s University. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Toronto and his B.A. from Yeshiva University. Basser served as Hillel Rabbi in the University of Florida and the University of Manitoba. He is the author/editor of 11 Books, among which are The Gospel of Matthew and Judaic Traditions: A Relevance-Based Commentary (with Marsha B. Cohen), Studies in Exegesis: Christian Critiques of Jewish Law and Rabbinic Responses 70-300 C.E., and The Mystical Study of Ruth: Midrash HaNe’elam of the Zohar to the Book of Ruth (with Lawrence Englander)