This essay reads Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice as a manifestation of early modern England’s anxiety over the soul. As something both essential and unrepresentable, the soul existed in the popular imagination as potentially monstrous or divine, distanced from both the body and clear meaning. Invoking metempsychosis, or the transmigration of the soul, indexed this insecurity. The essay first considers the implications of the mention of metempsychosis in Merchant, and then surveys literary and theological texts that elaborate the ambivalence it implies. The essay concludes with a reading of the play as an externalization of the internal spacing by which the soul is kept at bay. Shylock, by refusing to engage in acts of signification or translation — in direct opposition to his Christian antagonists — provides a figuration of the soul, and his expulsion allows the play to retreat from exposing the necessarily distant nonhumanness that constructs the illusion of the cohesive human.
Donovan Sherman; Governing the Wolf: Soul and Space in The Merchant of Venice. Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 1 January 2013; 43 (1): 99–120. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10829636-1902558
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