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Home >> The Theme of Human sacrifice....

THE THEME OF HUMAN SACRIFICE IN SHAKESPEARE’S MERCHANT OF VENICE AND RICHARD II.

by Gert Hans Wengel                       German version

Jewish usurer Shylock loaned Christian merchant Antonio 3000 ducats, on condition he could cut out a pound of his flesh if he did not repay the debt on time. When the sum is due, Antonio is unable to pay, and Shylock, who gets ready to cut out the pound of flesh with a knife and thus murder his odious rival, cries:

My deeds upon my head!                           (IV, i, 202)

This is an allusion to Matthew 27:25, when the crowds of Jews call for Christ to be crucified, shouting:

His blood be on us, and on our children!

This Bible passage is a hotly disputed topic, as it has since time immemorial been interpreted by Christians in an anti-Semitic spirit; They believe the Jewish people cursed themselves by demanding Christ’s crucifixion, thereby carrying the guilt and passing it on to their descendants. The Jews were thus considered murderers of Christ; the Matthew 27:25 Bible passage was used as justification for pogroms and other anti-Semitic crimes carried out to punish them, and created a highly complex problem for Christian theologians, particularly after 1945 and the Holocaust.
Shakespeare researchers find themselves in a similar predicament, because Shakespeare clearly presents the planned murder of the Christian, Antonio, by the bloodthirsty Jew, Shylock, as a re-enactment of Christ’s murder, i.e. as a Jewish crime. Shakespeare is thus accused of using anti-Semitic prejudices in his Merchant of Venice. Hatred of Jews was mainstream in Shakespeare’s era. Most audience members at the time believed that Jews kidnapped Christian children to torture them, crucify them, and use their blood for magic purposes (1); their idea of Jews thus corresponded to Shakespeare’s Shylock, who wanted to mutilate Antonio and was obviously also hell-bent on obtaining his blood, because Portia thwarts his plan by arguing that, according to the contract, he can take a pound of Antonio’s flesh, but not a drop of blood:

This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood,
The words expressly are “a pound of flesh”:
Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh,
But in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are by the laws of Venice confiscate
Unto the state of Venice                           (IV, I, 302 ff.)

Portia speaks expressly of Christian blood, thereby confirming the medieval prejudices still adopted by people in Elizabethan times.

We interpret Shylock’s call of “My deed upon my head!” as an expression of his subconscious desire to be sprinkled with the victim’s blood, and his intentions to mutilate and murder Antonio as a lapse into an archaic custom: that of blood sacrifice and human sacrifice. We can base these thoughts on Bible passages which imply that the blood of sacrificial animals and the blood that Christ, as a human sacrifice, spilt on the cross to redeem sinful humanity has an expiatory and blessing effect, following the tradition of ancient pre-Christian beliefs. An example of this can be seen in Exodus 24:8:

And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD, and rose up early in the morning, and builded an altar under the hill, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the children of Israel, which offered burnt offerings, and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen unto the LORD. And Moses took half of the blood, and put it in basons; and half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar. And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the LORD hath said will we do, and be obedient.
 And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD hath made with you concerning all these words.

Or Exodus 29:19 ff.:

And thou shalt take the other ram; and Aaron and his sons shall put their hands upon the head of the ram. Then shalt thou kill the ram, and take of his blood, and put it upon the tip of the right ear of Aaron, and upon the tip of the right ear of his sons, and upon the thumb of their right hand, and upon the great toe of their right foot, and sprinkle the blood upon the altar round about. And thou shalt take of the blood that is upon the altar, and of the anointing oil, and sprinkle it upon Aaron, and upon his garments, and upon his sons, and upon the garments of his sons with him: and he shall be hallowed, and his garments, and his sons, and his sons' garments with him.

This ritualistic atonement and blessing achieved by sprinkling the sacrificial blood also gives rise to the notion that the blood spilt by Christ during his crucifixion has a redemptive, cathartic power – see Letter to the Hebrews 9:13 ff.:

For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?

The preface to the First Epistle of Peter mentions this sprinkling of Jesus Christ’s blood as a privilege granted to those of the Christian faith:

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace unto you, and peace, be multiplied.

The blessing effect which, in ancient times, people believed was generated by sprinkling the blood of a sacrificial human or animal is also reflected in the etymology of “to bless”. According to COLLINS, it is derived from the Old English “blaedsian”, which is related to the word “blood”, and meant “to sprinkle with sacrificial blood”.

As mankind became more civilised, the barbaric custom of human sacrifice was toned down, e.g. by replacing humans with animals. This was in keeping with the biblical tale known as the Binding of Isaac, in which a ram is sacrificed instead of the son.
The custom was also toned down in ancient Sparta, where the altar of Artemis had to be splattered with blood from humans originally slaughtered for the goddess. The blood-sprinkling ritual was retained, but instead of people being killed for the blood, they were merely flogged. Pausanias recounts the following:

Whereat an oracle was delivered to them, that they should stain the altar with human blood. He used to be sacrificed upon whomsoever the lot fell, but Lycurgus changed the custom to a scourging of the lads, and so in this way the altar is stained with human blood. By them stands the priestess, holding the wooden image. Now it is small and light, but if ever the scourgers spare the lash because of a lad's beauty or high rank, then at once the priestess finds the image grow so heavy that she can hardly carry it. She lays the blame on the scourgers, and says that it is their fault that she is being weighed down. So the image ever since the sacrifices in the Tauric land keeps its fondness for human blood.(2)

For the Jewish crowds asking Pilate to crucify Christ in the Gospel of Matthew, His death is a human sacrifice aiming to appease God and create blessings. As participants in this sacrifice, the Jews want to be sprinkled with the sacrificial blood, in the same way that Shylock wants his “deeds”, namely Antonio’s split blood, upon his head, because Antonio is a human sacrifice which Shylock wants to offer up.

The idea of being blessed by being sprinkled with the blood of an eliminated rival is also apparent in Shakespeare’s historical play, Richard II. Bolingbroke the usurper overthrows King Richard, has him imprisoned, and eventually has him murdered. Once the enemy has been eliminated, he not only feels a sense of relief, but also guilt:

Lords, I protest, my soul is full of woe,
That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow

Deep within his soul, Bolingbroke has the archaic belief that the murder victim is a human sacrifice, whose spilt blood has been sprinkled on him and will thus help him flourish and prosper as a ruler. As with Antonio in the Merchant of Venice, there are also parallels between Bolingbroke’s victim, King Richard II, and the crucified Christ (3).

The murder of the overthrown king at the end of the play compares Bolingbroke to Cain, who slew his brother Abel. Cain’s murder crime is actually addressed by Bolingbroke in a pathos at the start of the play, when he accuses his adversary Mowbray of a murder which he likens to that committed against Abel:

And consequently, like a traitor coward,
Sluiced out his innocent soul through streams of blood:
Which blood, like sacrificing Abel’s cries,
Even from the tongueless caverns of the earth,
To me for justice and rough chastisement                     (I,i)

Abel’s murder can be interpreted as a human sacrifice offered up by Cain the crop farmer to the land he cultivates, and this interpretation is supported by a Bible passage which compares Abel’s death with that of Christ on the cross – the Letter to the Hebrews 12:24:

But ye are come …to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.

The blood of both murder victims is designed to speak to God as “blood of sprinkling”, i.e. influence Him positively, and propitiate Him.
But Abel’s blood, which Cain has spilt and which screams for revenge out of the earth, brings no blessings, instead arousing God’s wrath. Unlike the blood of Christ, which, having been spilt, appeases God’s fury over sinful humankind, and enables redemption. Abel and Christ both die as human sacrifices, but only the latter is welcomed by God. Cain’s act obviously enrages the Christian God because it was not intended as a sacrifice for Him, but rather to Mother Earth, who was one of the most important and powerful deities in pre-Christian religion, before being disempowered and cursed by patriarchal Christianity. Genesis (4:11) portrays the earth as a deity which awaited and accepted its offering:

And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother' blood from thy hand

The scene of the crime enables us to infer that this is a blood sacrifice to the earth: Cain goes into the fields with Abel and slays him there, because the sacrifice is intended for Cain’s farmland, to propitiate it, so that it can be fertile and provide Cain with good harvests. Shakespeare’s allusion to Cain’s sacrificing of Abel supports the interpretation that Bolingbroke subconsciously finds Richard’s elimination un-Christian and barbaric, and therefore sees it as a frowned-upon blood sacrifice to the earth to become fertile and allow him to grow – “to make me grow”. In order for this metaphor to be consistent, we need to imagine Bolingbroke as a plant rooted in English native soil. And this idea is actually made apparent when Shakespeare compares powerful English aristocrats, who are (or are supposed to be) the pillars of royal power, with trees, e.g. in the garden, in act III, scene 4 of Richard II, or in Macbeth, when King Duncan says to Macbeth:

Welcome hither:
I have begun to plant thee, and will labour
To make thee full of growing.                                    (I,iv,27ff.)

Bolingbroke’s self-incrimination for having thrived like a fertilised plant thanks to the spilt blood of his king is rooted in the pre-Christian sacred grove, a prominent feature in Celtic and Germanic cult practice. They were in holy awe of the forest, and believed that trees were divine beings which required human or animal sacrifices. Through these offerings, they would appease an archaic feeling of guilt which had arisen because humans had alienated themselves from nature (which included trees), exploited it, and indeed depleted it, e.g. by clearing entire forests. And so it was that pagan Swedes would hang the animals and people they sacrificed to the trees on branches in a sacred grove near Uppsala. Adam of Bremen reported on this in his chronicles:

Sacrificium itaque tale est. Ex omni animante, quod masculinum est, novem capita offeruntur, quorum sanguine deos placari mos est. Corpora autem suspenduntur in lucum, qui proximus est templo. Is enim lucus tam sacer est gentilibus, ut singulae arbores eius ex morte vel tabo immolatorum divinae credantur. Ibi etiam canes et equi pendent cum hominibus, quorum corpora mixtim suspensa narravit mihi aliquis christianorum 72 vidisse.

The sacrifice is of this nature: of every living thing that is male, they offer nine heads, with the blood of which it is customary to placate of this sort. The bodies they hang in the sacred grove that adjoins the temple. Now this grove is so sacred in the eyes of the heathen that each and every tree in it is believed divine because of the death or putrefaction of the victims. Even dogs and horses hang there with men. A Christian seventy-two years old told me that he had seen their bodies suspended promiscuously.                        (4)

The Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens (The Concise Dictionary of German Superstitions) explains this passage using the ancient idea of fertilising nature through sacrifice: “For if the trees in the sacred grove used for the Uppsala human sacrifices were considered holy because they grew in soil fertilised by death and putrefaction (ex morte vel tabo immolatorum), it is clear that the real reason is no longer properly understood. Human sacrifice has an incredible effect on fertility“.
We agree with this interpretation – the article’s author has correctly understood the meaning of tabum = putrid gore. Anyone who fertilised a holy tree with an animal or human sacrifice was also helping to atone for the original human sin of abusing untouched nature, e.g. clearing a forest. This sacrifice was beneficial to the tree receiving it, and to the person offering it up: The tree would be fertilised, and the person temporarily relieved of their nagging archaic feeling of guilt and the resulting fear of punishment. The following examples may help demonstrate this better:
One apocryphal lore states that Adam died and was buried. A branch of the tree where he sinned in the Garden of Eden by eating the forbidden fruit is planted on his grave and grows into a magnificent tree (5). This can be interpreted as meaning that Adam has to die so that he can be surrendered to the tree of his sins and atone for these as a fertiliser.
A superstitious custom passed down by Jacob Grimm can undoubtedly also be traced back to the ancient sacred grove and the cult practice of human or animal sacrifice:

If a farmer has several times had a foal or calf die, he buries it in the garden, planting a young willow in its mouth. When the tree grows up, it is never polled or lopped, but grows its own way, and guards the farm from similar cases in future.                    (6)

Deep within his soul, the farmer has the archaic belief that the tree, which is deemed sacred because it has received an animal as a sacrifice, and is not touched to ensure it does not harm the farm, represents the forest which needs to be appeased through sacrifice because it has been cleared to make way for pasture land.

The idea that the earth inherits rotting bodies as human sacrifices is also apparent in Aeschylus’ tragedy, The Persians. The Persian army, with which King Xerxes the Great wanted to conquer Greece, was defeated in the Battle of Plataea, and the following was written about the fallen enemy soldiers:

They are waiting where the Asopos waters the plains with his streams, to fatten pleasingly the Boeotian land.          (805f.)        (7)

A few verses later (816 f.), Aeschylus describes their bodies as bloody sacrifices (pelanos haimatosphages) which lay on Plataean soil after being offered up “by Doric spears” (i.e. by the spears of the Spartans fighting in this battle).
The idea that fallen soldiers fertilise the earth is also found in Shakespeare’s Richard II. The Bishop of Carlisle warns of a civil war for the throne, in which many English soldiers could be killed:

And if you crown him, let me prophesy:
The blood of English shall manure the ground                            (IV, i)

The notion that the blood potentially spilt in the imminent fratricidal war dews or soaks the English soil, i.e. makes it fertile, is similarly expressed in these two passages:

If not, I’ll use the advantage of my power
And lay the summer’s dust with showers of blood
Rain’d from the wounds of slaughter’d Englishmen:
The which, how far off from the mind of Bolingbroke
It is, such crimson tempest should bedrench
The fresh green lap of fair King Richard’s land                            (III, iii)

But ere the crown he looks for live in peace
Ten thousand bloody crowns of mother’s sons
Shall ill become the flower of England’s face,
Change the complexion of her maid-pale peace
To scarlet indignation and bedew
Her pastures’ grass with faithful English blood                       (III, iii)

In Aeschylus’s work, the blood of the fallen soldiers is beneficial to the Greek soil, i.e. a sacrifice which propitiates it, something positive. This is not the case for Shakespeare, however: Such a sacrifice on English soil would be “scarlet indignation”. This difference arises because the blood described by Shakespeare comes from subjects, and is inherited by the native soil. For Aeschylus, on the other hand, the blood comes from enemy invaders who have defiled the land by destroying sacred sites. Aeschylus is also influenced by pre-Christian religious beliefs, while Shakespeare is shaped by Christianity, which rejects the idea of using human sacrifices to fertilise the pagan Mother Earth as barbaric. Shakespeare also exposes his native English soil to the Christian dislike of human sacrifice, which is manifested as “scarlet indignation”. The Old Testament’s tale of Cain and Abel, on the other hand, sees the human sacrifice condemned by the male “Father God”, but welcomed by the suppressed and cursed Mother Earth, because she “hath opened her mouth” to ingest Abel’s blood, having previously yearned for this sacrifice.

Back to the Merchant of Venice!
Shylock’s cry of “My deeds upon my head!” is also his response to Portia’s plea for his “mercy”. She asks him to show “mercy” and spare Antonio:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest,
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes                          (IV, 1, 180 ff.)

She compares the mercy she is hoping for with “gentle rain from heaven”, which “blesseth”, whatever it falls on. This comparison is based on the ancient idea of rain falling onto the earth and rendering it fertile so that plants can grow and thrive; rain was once considered a beneficial gift from the heavenly Father. This notion of a liquid which blesses and brings prosperity to whatever it lands on is referenced by Shylock in his response, although he only promises blessings from one liquid – not the “gentle rain” of mercy, but rather Antonio’s blood, which he is cruelly preparing to spill.


1) This is blood libel. People like Raphael Holinshed (1529-1580) believed in Jewish ritual murder. In his chronicles, he wrote about the young boy William of Norwich, who was found murdered in 1144, although nothing was known about the murderer(s):
“This yeare was an heinous act committed by the Jewes at Norwich, where they put a child to death, in crucifieing him vpon a crosse to the reproach of Christian religion.”

Heinrich Heine wrote about blood libel in his unfinished novel The Rabbi of Bacharach (chapter 1), for which he conducted extensive source studies:
“There was another accusation which in earlier times and all through the Middle Ages, even to the beginning of the last century, cost much blood and suffering. This was the ridiculousstory, recurring with disgusting frequency in chronicle and legend, that the Jews stole the consecrated wafer, and pierced it with knives till blood ran from it; and to this it was added that at the feast of the Passover the Jews slew Christian children to use their blood in the
night sacrifice.”

2) Pausanias: Description of Greece III, 16, 10-11

3) See, e.g., J. A. Bryant: Hippolyta’s View. Some Christian Aspects of Shakespeare’s Plays, 1961, Kapitel 2: Richard II., S. 23:
“The most obvious manifestation of it is the identification of Richard with Christ, which happens to be a historical one. Shakespeare makes explicit use of it first in Act III, when he makes Richard refer to Bushy, Bagot, and Green as “Three Judases, each one thrice worse than Judas!” (III.ii.132). In Act IV, of course, there is considerably more of this sort of thing. There the Bishop of Carlisle warns that if Bolingbroke ascends the throne, England shall be called “The field of Golgotha and dead men’s skulls” (IV.i.144). And Richard observes of Bolingbroke’s supporters:
   … I well remember
The favours of these men. Were they not mine?
Did they not not sometime cry, “All hail!” to me?
So Judas did to Christ; but He, in twelve,
Found truth in all but one; I, in twelve thousand, none.          (IV.i.167-171)

A bit farther on he calls his enemies by another name:

… some of you with Pilate wash your hands
Showing an outward pity; yet you Pilates
Have here deliver’d me to my sour cross,
And water cannot wash away your sin.”                               (IV.i.239-242)

4) Adam of Bremen: History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen. Book Four: A Description of the Islands of the North. Chapter 27. Translated by Francis J. Tschan

5) Jacobus de Voragine: Golden Legend – Chapter LXVIII

6) Jacob Grimm: Teutonic Mythology IV – Appendix Superstitions 838

7) Translation: Edith Hall. For an interpretation of this passage, cf. Aeschylus: Persians. Edited with an Introduction, Translation and Commentary by Edith Hall, p. 163:
to fatten pleasingly: piasma (from piaino, make fat) would naturally seem to be in apposition to the river Asopos. But this may be a case of rich Aeschylean ambiguity, for a more sinister interpretation puts it in apposition to the subject of mimnusi, and sees the bodies of the Persians as waiting to enrich, as corpses, the soil of Plataea: in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes Amphiaraus predicts that he will die and fatten (piano) the Theban earth (587).”
























   
 
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