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On Shylock: a reassessment of Shakespeare's tragic Jew. (Arts and Letters).

The Merchant of Venice is not, and was not meant to be, a play about religious tolerance or religious liberty. It is a play that not only unequivocally upholds Christianity as the true religion but one that even suggests, and none too subtly, that Jews should become Christians.

To Elizabethans, nothing could have been more gratifying than this celebration, if not adulation, of their religion. To us, living four hundred years later and after a tradition of religious tolerance and liberty has been firmly established in the West, Shakespeare's insistence on the superiority of Christianity is something many of us, Christians and Jews, will find difficult to accept.

Shakespeare, to be sure, did not write a religious tract. He wrote a play and, in particular, he wrote what he and his audience regarded as a comedy. And from the Elizabethan point of view, the play is a comedy: Shylock is a comic figure, not only in the sense that he is outwitted by his Christian adversaries, but also in the supposedly more sublime sense that in the end he becomes an adherent of the "true" religion. Though The Merchant is not a religious tract, it has done more to promote Christianity and denigrate Judaism than any tract could have done.

That Shylock should be compelled to change his religion was to the Elizabethans not only unobjectionable, it was the stuff of comedy. To us, for whom religious tolerance and liberty are essential, whatever comedy there was in the character of Shylock has long since dissipated; nor can we regard him as merely a pathetic figure, for he is too large a figure to be merely pathetic. To us, he is a tragic figure with the dignity and stature such a figure has. His tragedy is that he is a Jew who does not have the right to be a Jew; that he is a Jew who, in order to survive, must renounce his religion. He is thus a tragic figure of a unique kind in Shakespeare: he is a figure Shakespeare intended to be comic but whom history--the history of the persecution of the Jews--compels us to regard as tragic.

Admittedly, no one has ever claimed that The Merchant is a play about religious tolerance or liberty and, we may be sure, no one ever will. What critics have claimed is that Shylock is a credible and sympathetic portrait of a Jew. As credible and sympathetic as actors have tried to make Shylock, they cannot hide the fact that throughout the play he is depicted as a threat to Christians and Christian society; he is depicted as evil, for it is the premise of the play that Jews are evil, that only Jews are evil while Christians aren't. Though Shylock may insist in the "Hath not a Jew" speech that he is as human as anyone else and no more evil than his Christian adversaries, the play as a whole says something quite different: it says that Shylock is not only evil but that the only way he can redeem his evil nature is by becoming a Christian.

Shakespeare goes to great lengths to demonstrate how evil Shylock is. The device he uses is the infamous bond, with its provision for a pound of flesh that Shylock demands as security for his loan of three thousand ducats to Antonio. That no English notary (i.e., lawyer) would have drawn up a bond with such a grotesque provision in it and no English court would have enforced it must have occurred to Shakespeare, but it clearly didn't deter him. After all, the play is set in Venice, and to a London audience, it was perhaps plausible that even if such bonds weren't allowed in England, they were in Venice. But what made the bond even more plausible to his audience was the fact that it is not a Christian who demands it, but a Jew! That a Jew would demand such a bond Shakespeare's audience would have had no difficulty believing, if only because of the long tradition of obloquy to which Jews had been subjected, a tradition centuries old and one The Merchant does its share to perpetuate.

But it is not the bond alone that Shakespeare uses to malign Shylock; he also uses Shylock's speeches. In Act I, Scene III, even before the subject of the bond is introduced, Shakespeare prepares us for it by having Shylock tell us what he thinks of Antonio.
 How like a fawning publican he looks!
 I hate him for he is a Christian;
 But more than that in low simplicity
 He lends out money gratis and brings down
 The rate of usance here with us in Venice.
 If I can catch him once upon the hip,
 I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.
 He hates our sacred nation, and he rails,
 Even there where merchants most do congregate,
 On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift,
 Which he calls interest. Cursed be my tribe
 If I forgive him!

When Antonio, in the same scene, makes his request for the loan, Shylock replies
 Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
 In the Rialto you have rated me
 About my moneys and my usances:
 Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
 For suff'rance is the badge of all our tribe.
 You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog,
 You spet upon my Jewish gaberdine,
 And all for use of that which is mine own.
 Well then, it now appears you need my help:
 Go to then, you come to me and you say,
 "Shylock, we would have moneys." You say so--
 You that did void your rheum upon my beard
 And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
 Over your threshold. Moneys is your suit.
 What should I say to you? Should I not say,
 "Hath a dog money? Is it possible
 A cur can lend three thousand ducats?" or
 Shall I bend low, and in a bondman's key,
 With bated breath and whisp'ring humbleness,
 Say this: "Fair sir, you spet on me Wednesday last;
 You spurned me such a day; another time
 You called me dog; and for these courtesies
 I'll lend you thus much moneys?"

Although these speeches seem to present a credible and sympathetic portrait of Shylock as a Jew who has long suffered Antonio's malice and contempt, they have another purpose: to prepare us for the pound of flesh Shylock is about to demand as security for his loan. Outrageous though the bond is, Antonio, confident that he won't default on the loan, accepts it. In the meantime, Shylock's daughter, Jessica, runs off with her Christian lover, Lorenzo. She not only intends to become a Christian but has taken much of Shylock's wealth with her, in effect robbing her own father and thus further inciting his fury against Christians. When news reaches Venice that Antonio's ships have apparently been lost at sea and that he is now bankrupt and won't be able to repay his loan, the stage is set for the "Hath not a Jew" speech in Act III, Scene I.

Shylock begins the speech by repeating that Antonio has always treated him with contempt.
 He hath disgraced me, and hind'red me halt' a million; laughed
 at my losses, mocked at my gains; scorned my nation, thwarted
 my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies--and
 what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not
 a Jew hands, organs, dimensions....

He then proceeds to justify his demand for the pound of flesh by arguing that he is as human as Christians are and therefore has as much right to revenge as they do.
 If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge.
 If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be
 by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach
 me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better
 the instruction.

When Shylock meets Antonio in Act III, Scene III, he refuses to listen to his plea for mercy and is adamant in his demand for justice.
 ANT. Hear me yet, good Shylock.
 SHY. I'll have my bond! Speak not against my bond!
 I have sworn an oath that I will have my bond.
 Thou call'dst me dog before thou hadst a cause,
 But, since I am a dog, beware my fangs.
 The Duke shall grant me justice....
 ANT. I pray thee hear me speak.
 SHY. I'll have my bond. I will not hear thee speak.
 I'll have my bond, and therefore speak no more.
 I'll not be made a soft and dull-eyed fool,
 To shake the head, relent, and sigh, and yield
 To Christian intercessors. Follow not.
 I'll have no speaking; I will have my bond.

Shylock's intransigence is most apparent--and, as Shakespeare intended, shockingly so--in the trial scene, Act IV, Scene I. The Duke begins the proceedings by urging Shylock to show mercy but Shylock replies that the law gives him the right to the pound of flesh and that he need give no other reason for demanding it. And he gives no other reason except to repeat that he hates Antonio.
 You'll ask me why I rather choose to have
 A weight of carrion flesh than to receive
 Three thousand ducats. I'll not answer that!
 But say it is my humor, is it answered?
 What if my house be troubles with a rat,
 And I be pleased to give ten thousand ducats
 To have it baned? What, are you answered yet?
 Some men there are love not a gaping pig,
 Some that are mad when they behold a cat
 And others, when the bagpipe sings i' th' nose,
 Cannot contain their urine....

And he continues
 As there is no firm reason to be rend'red
 Why he cannot abide a gaping pig,
 Why he a harmless necessary cat
 Why he a woolen bagpipe....
 So can I give no reason, nor I will not,
 More than a lodged hate and a certain loathing
 I bear Antonio....

When the Duke asks
 How shalt thou hope for mercy, rend'ring none?

he answers that, having done no wrong, he needs no mercy. He then declares that the pound of flesh is his property no less than slaves, asses, dogs, and mules are the property of their owners.
 The pound of flesh which I demand of him
 Is dearly bought, `tis mine, and I will have it.
 If you deny me, fie upon your law!
 There is no force in the decrees of Venice.
 I stand for judgment. Answer. Shall I have it?

At this point Portia arrives and takes over the conduct of the case. She questions Antonio then tells Shylock that he must relent.
 POR. You stand within his danger, do you not?
 ANT. Ay, so he says.
 POR. Do you confess the bond?
 ANT. I do.
 POR. Then must the Jew be merciful.
 SHY. On what compulsion must I? Tell me that.

Shylock questions whether he can be legally compelled to be merciful. Portia evades his question (probably because she knows that he can't) and proceeds instead with "The quality of mercy" speech in which she tells him that mercy is an attribute of God himself and that he would therefore do well to be merciful. This doesn't sway him, and he continues to insist on his bond. Portia concedes that she has no choice but to grant him his demand but again urges him to be merciful. "Take thrice thy money; bid me tear the bond," she pleads with him. "when it is paid," he replies, adding
 Proceed to judgment. By my soul I swear
 There is no power in the tongue of man
 To alter me. I stay here on my bond.

Portia then tells Antonio to prepare for the inevitable but makes one last request of Shylock.
 POR. Have by some surgeon, Shylock, on your charge,
 To stop his wounds, lest he do bleed to death.
 SHY. Is it so nominated in the bond?
 POR. It is not so expressed, but what of that?
 `Twere good you do so much for charity.
 SHY. I cannot find it; `tis not in the bond.

Shylock knows that Antonio faces death, but he is convinced that the law is on his side. Much to his dismay, he is about to learn that it isn't. This is the turning point in the scene and in the play. It is at this point that Shylock experiences what to the Greek tragedians would have been a tragic reversal but that Shakespeare and his audience saw as a comic reversal. Not only does the court not giant his demand, it deprives him of half his property (which Antonio will hold in trust for Shylock's Christian daughter and son-in-law), and, most important, it deprives him of his religion, which Shylock must renounce if he is to save his life. If Shylock's tragic flaw is that he cannot be merciful because he and Jews generally have long been victims of Christian persecution, he nonetheless pays for that flaw by having to renounce his religion. This, seen from Shylock's point of view, is, I submit, the stuff of tragedy, not comedy.

But Shakespeare didn't intend Shylock to be a tragic figure. His audience would have found it incomprehensible, if not scandalous, that someone who just became a Christian could be regarded as tragic. That Shylock is a Jew who is incapable of mercy was not only required by Shakespeare's plot, it was required by his audience for whom nothing could have been more gratifying than the spectacle of such a Jew outwitted and compelled to renounce his religion. To achieve his comic vision, the vision that would confirm not only his audience's beliefs but its prejudices, Shakespeare had to depict Shylock as an evil Jew so that he could be redeemed in the end as a saved Christian. In the process, he depicts Christian society--Antonio and the Duke in particular--as more merciful in sparing Shylock's life than Shylock himself was, something that would have further confirmed and gratified his audience's prejudices.

Shylock is the only major character in Shakespeare who is a Jew. He differs from Hamlet and Lear precisely because he is a Jew, and because he is a Jew, he has acquired a significance that goes beyond his role in the play. No matter how sympathetically Shylock is acted, he is still the Jew who demands his pound of flesh, the Jew who is ready to sacrifice a Christian to obtain his revenge, the Jew who engages in usurious moneylending to Christian debtors, the Jew who, if he is to survive, must renounce his religion, as in the end he does. The fact that he is a Jew affects or engages an audience very differently from the way comic or tragic characters in Shakespeare generally do. The fact that he is a Jew affects or engages an audience not only aesthetically and dramatically but morally and socially as well; it affects or engages an audience's perceptions and attitudes--and, in particular, those perceptions and attitudes that bear on Jews. Shylock can, in other words, influence racial and religious attitudes in a way that Hamlet and Lear cannot. And the way Shylock has influenced racial and religious attitudes has invariably been to the detriment of Jews, for Shylock is depicted as so evil that, as the play has it, he can be redeemed only by becoming a Christian.

No one nowadays questions Shakespeare's integrity, or his genius, or the power of his genius to depict the truth, and we rightly consider him to be one of the very greatest poets and playwrights in literature. But in the case of Shylock, questions are in order and should be asked, if only because The Merchant has had a profound effect, not only on the way Jews have been perceived by Christians, but on the way they have perceived themselves. Regardless of whether Shakespeare intended to depict Jews as evil, or whether he was actually sympathetic to them because of the long history of Christian persecution they suffered, the fact is that by compelling Shylock to become a Christian, he was, in effect, saying that Jews needed another religion, a "better" religion, that they needed to become Christians. That a play that expresses such a point of view can foster antisemitism, regardless of its author's intentions, can hardly be doubted and must necessarily trouble all those who regard religious tolerance and liberty as essential to a civilized society.

As a result of the virulent antisemitism witnessed in the 20th century, an antisemitism that culminated in the Nazi Holocaust, Christian theologians such as James w. Parkes and Rosemary Ruether undertook a reassessment of the New Testament and the writings of the Church Fathers in an effort to uncover the Christian roots of antisemitism. The Merchant of Venice, which has had its own deleterious effects on Jews, is in need of a similar reassessment.

ALLEN A. LANG holds an M.A. degree (1971) in English literature from Columbia University, He studied English literature before that at McGill University and at Sir George Williams College (now Concordia University) in Montreal, Canada.
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Author:Lang, Allen A.
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 1, 2003
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