Christian and Jewish eudaimonism in The Merchant of Venice

The discourse of self-help in Shakespeare’s era was deeply immersed in questions of what it was possible to control and how to effect a reshaping of the self in accordance with objective ideals. Accordingly, self-cultivation, as it was outlined in many vernacular English Renaissance guides to health and happiness, was profoundly concerned with the exercise of moral agency. This chapter begins with a discussion of the philosophical context for early modern writings on emotion, one that stems from self-help texts’ own emphasis on lifelong self-cultivation that was understood in eudaimonistic terms, that is to say, concerned with moral flourishing. It then turns to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and the question of moral flourishing in that play. Typically, questions of moral thriving in Merchant have been tied to Christian allegory, but this chapter proposes a reading of the play that foregrounds the ethnographic identity of Shakespeare’s characters within a larger discussion of eudaimonistic flourishing and ‘way[s] to thrive,’ as Shylock refers to it. Shakespeare takes up that conversation about thrift, I argue, in complex ways by giving voice to two distinct models of moral flourishing in The Merchant of Venice: Christian and Jewish.

in The Renaissance of emotion