These sermons condemning usury – the practice of lending money at interest – were written by the clergyman, Henry Smith (c. 1550–1591) who gained a reputation as ‘the silver-tongued preacher’ for his skills in persuasion. This is one of many pamphlets betraying widespread fear of usury in 16th-century England. It was part of a deep sense of moral uncertainty about profit-seeking enterprise in this transitional period of economic history.
The expansion of international trade in early modern Europe meant a shift towards a capitalistic culture, driven by profit not production. Usury supported business ventures based on risk and credit, but it seemed profoundly un-Christian. This tension emerges in The Merchant of Venice through the complex relationship between the Christian merchant Antonio and the Jewish moneylender Shylock. Henry Smith’s arguments, in the first of his sermons, illuminate many aspects of Shakespeare’s play.
Smith defines usury as a sort of ‘legall’ theft, insisting that it is ‘farre from God’ (p. 5) – a kind of ‘crueltie’ and ‘extortion’ which undermines Christian ideals of love and charity (pp. 5–6).
He then makes an uncomfortable link – common in this period – between usury and the Jews. Smith claims they defied God’s law to become ‘The first Usurers’ and are now well-known for the practice: ‘the malice of man hath turned mercie into crueltie’ (p. 7).
This connection arises partly because Jews, facing prejudice in Europe, were forbidden from doing many jobs and thus pushed into work such as moneylending, which others found distasteful. This reinforced the prejudiced view of Jews’ interest in money, locking them in a vicious circle. But there were no openly Jewish usurers in Shakespeare’s England, since their expulsion in 1290, and usury was widely practised by non-Christians. So by insisting on this connection, Smith seems to use Jews as scapegoats for the greed in his own culture.
Smith then admits that Biblical law permits some forms of lending money at interest. Deuteronomy 23 allows usury from a ‘stranger’ but not from your ‘brother’ (p. 7; p. 15). This contentious rule proves important when Shylock says he would rather have Antonio’s ‘love’ and give him a loan without taking ‘usance’ (1.3.138–42). It is Antonio who insists on Old Testament law saying, ‘If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not / As to thy friends … But lend it rather to thine enemy’ (1.3.132–33; 135).
Smith alludes to the sexual metaphor of money breeding money, explored in The Merchant of Venice (1.3.96). He rejects this on the basis that money ‘is a dead thing which hath no seede’, not fit for reproduction. While God commanded his creatures to ‘Increase and multiplie’, financial breeding produces a ‘monstrous birth’.
Smith concedes that usury is legal since ‘the Queenes statute’ of 1571 permitted loans charged at 10% interest, though more was condemned as excessive (p. 28). Indeed, Shakespeare’s father John was accused of charging over the odds. But Smith argues that God’s law should always take precedence over man’s law and ‘God hath utterly forbid it’ (p. 25).
Finally Smith embarks on a series of similes, comparing the usurer to a ‘moth’ which eats ‘a hole in silver’ (p. 31). More strikingly, he insists that usurers are ‘like Nonresidents’, so the blame is again shifted away from home towards strangers and outsiders.