"Which is the Merchant Here? And Which the Jew?"
Fiction, Economics, History
The title of this talk comes from a question that Portia asks in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (first published in 1600). The question is usually attributed to Shakespeare’s artistry, assuming that the distinction between Jews and Christians was self-evident in the sixteenth century. But this talk shows that the playwright glimpsed an important historical shift then underway. It illustrates how waves of forced conversion to Catholicism following the creation of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions blurred distinctions between Christians and Jews, and how the regimes of toleration that permitted the settlement of Iberian Jews in select ports of Western Europe (Venice included) leveled the playing field for Jewish merchants. The talk argues that the participation of segments of the Jewish diaspora in the early modern European commercial society sheds new light on the development of capitalism and explores the legal and allegorical sources of the rise of impersonal markets, which was central to capitalist expansion.
About the Speaker
Francesca Trivellato is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Early Modern European History at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, and the author, most recently, of The Promise and Peril of Credit: What a Forgotten Legend about Jews and Finance Tells us about the Making of European Commercial Society (Princeton University Press, 2019), which won the 2020 Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History. She is a co-founder and co-editor of Capitalism: A Journal of History and Economics.