If Shakespeare is the most revelatory of writers, it is because he has infinite means at his disposal, and can find the poetry of grief or disappointment where the circumstances are least poetical. Take that scene in The Merchant of Venice in which Shylock presses his co-religionist Tubal for news of his daughter Jessica’s elopement, counting the cost of her going in ducats. Tubal intersperses what he knows of Jessica with what he has heard of Antonio’s misfortunes. Carefully, he leaks out supposition and hearsay, measuring their effect. But eventually he must let Shylock know the worst. Jessica has been heard of in Genoa, going through the money she stole from her father, and exchanging a ring, also stolen from him, for a monkey.
“Thou torturest me, Tubal,” Shylock responds. And truly we don’t know whether Tubal intends torture or not. Does Shylock have to be given this agonising information at all? Is Tubal aware of the ring’s provenance? Whether he is or he isn’t, Shylock reveals it to him now, though it feels as much as though it’s to himself he’s talking. “It was my turquoise. I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.”
Whatever we have been thinking of Shylock so far, the ground seems to open beneath him here, not to swallow him but to grant us rare access into his history, his antecedent affections, the man he was before he became – and maybe why he became – the man he is now. Just the word bachelor is a shock, because although we have seen him with his daughter we have not so far put our minds to his married, let alone his widowed state.
A Jewish patriarch, yes, who makes his home a hell, as patriarchs are inclined to do, for his restless daughter. But a patriarch bringing up a child without a wife to help him – have we thought that one through? There is no word to say his wife is dead, but we hear it unmistakably in that deceptively plain sentence, “I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor.” A thing indivisible from Leah, that gift sounds, an expression of simple closeness that makes Portia’s and Bassanio’s ring banter later in the play look like shallow trumpery. We sense the loss to Shylock, anyway, without his rubbing the itch of it. Feeling is not, to him, that thing of elegantly weary display it is to Antonio and Portia.
For Jessica to have stolen the ring her mother gave her father – and she would surely have known its significance – is a most terrible betrayal. For her to have parted with it a more terrible betrayal still. But to have parted with it for a monkey! There have been times when it was fashionable for a grand lady to dandle a pet monkey on her lap or parade with it on a studded leash. Whether that was the case in Genoa the play doesn’t tell. Whatever her motivation, the grossness of the transaction is of a sort Jessica, the Jewish daughter of Jewish father, should have been alive to. “I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys,” Shylock says. “What a fine Hebraism is implied in this expression!” William Hazlitt noted. No doubt he heard the Old Testament in that word “wilderness” – for behind the Mosaic project to civilise and codify, the wilderness was always waiting to tempt and reclaim the natural man. To a people who conceived God as a philosophical idea, never to be named or seen, least of all to be confused with the animal gods worshipped elsewhere, nothing expresses the antithesis to civilisation more aptly than the unbridled appetite of an ape. A wilderness is a desolate place. A wilderness of monkeys is a figure for the desolation of the human heart when faithfulness and honour have fled it.
It is not, however, the last line of the scene. Tubal counters Shylock’s sorrow with better news. “But Antonio is certainly undone.” And it does the trick. “Nay, that’s true, that’s very true,” Shylock answers. “Go, Tubal, fee me an officer ...”
So it’s back to the cruel business of making Antonio pay. The play will have its action and Shylock will have his pound of flesh.
'The cast all abused me': the pain of playing Shylock
To someone determined to read The Merchant of Venice as a Jew-hating play, this scotches any argument that Shakespeare is of Shylock’s party. Yes, Shylock is granted an illuminating moment of humanity – that, after all, is what Shakespeare does: every villain has his say – but thereafter, and by his own choosing, the Jew quickly returns to the engrossing Jewish occupation of requital.
That, however, is to say no more than that The Merchant of Venice is a play not a treatise, and that we would not expect Shylock to be sentimentalised. He does not become, by virtue of what we have learned, a man forgiven and explained. But nor, in my view of the play, is it possible to return unchanged to all we previously thought. Our sense of who he is should always have been evolving anyway, and we cannot escape our new knowledge of him as a man who had and lost a wife, and can now be said to have had and lost a daughter. He has been cruelly burgled in a double sense, and the jeering criminals are all indulgent friends of Antonio. This nothing extenuates, but once we have heard Shylock recount his losses, ducats and all, we cannot forget them – unless we have our own reasons to.
Cynics assumed my book would be a clean-up job. But I am not, as a Jew or as anything else, offended by Shakespeare
Two scenes after the wilderness of monkeys, Shylock has animals on his mind again. “Thou calledst me dog before thou had a cause,” he reminds Antonio, “But since I am a dog, beware my fangs.” So, yes, though all that’s feral disheartens and demoralises him, he will put on a feral disposition in an act that is a sort of obstinacy against himself as well as Antonio. The wilful hardening of hearts – a character making himself impervious to reason or affection, and so less human than he actually is – interests Shakespeare. We see it in Coriolanus. We see it in Lady Macbeth. We even see it, though it’s clouded by clowning, in Hamlet. One man in his time plays many parts, and one of those parts will be his own idea of who he is or would like or has no choice but to be. The story Shakespeare tells of Shylock is of a man who declines into the very obduracy of temper he is accused of by those who want him to be nothing else. It is a part that not every man could master, and Shylock finds the wherewithal within to play it right enough, but being the Jew who must have his pound of flesh is still as much a capitulation to an expected role as it is an expression of something immutable in his character.
I don’t say this, as a fellow Jew, to save Shylock from his Jewishness. I simply recount the play. When it was made public by my publishers that I had hot-headedly taken up the challenge to write a contemporary novel rooted in The Merchant of Venice, some cynics assumed I would be embarking on a clean-up job with a view to removing offending material from Shakespeare, much as those who disapprove of Cecil Rhodes would remove his statue from wherever it stands. But I am not, as a Jew or as anything else, offended by a word Shakespeare wrote.
My Shylock, if I may put it like that – and he is the Shylock I see when I read Shakespeare’s play – is not intended as a post-Holocaust improvement on the original. Because I am deeply touched by his passing reference to his wife, I imagine him in constant conversation with her. The dead have much to say, just as the living have much they want to hear, and Shylock won’t be the first person to have continued the conversation. “Surprised by joy – impatient as the Wind/ I turned to share the transport – Oh! with whom/ But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb.” If this is a liberty and does the play a radical disservice I apologise for it. (Though Wordsworth did say it was Shakespeare who “unlocked his heart”.) What I certainly don’t apologise for, however, is following the script when it comes to Shylock’s spiritedness and wit.
So much of what we make of Shylock is determined by the age of the actor who portrays him, the clothes he wears, the accent he is given, the ferocity of his stare and the curvature of his nose, most of the decisions as to these being unwarranted by anything in the text. Last summer, while making a television programme about Shylock in the Venice ghetto, I saw a relatively young actor play him. The effect, in particular in the opening exchanges with Antonio and Basanio, was electrifying.
The bristling aggression with which Shylock entertains the first mention from Basanio that Antonio is looking for a loan was not softened.
“Three thousand ducats,” Shylock muses in that half public, half private way of his. “I think I may take his bond.” To which Basanio, who is never other than literal, replies “Be assured you may.” Shylock keeps up the “maying” and puns on the idea of assurance. “I will be assured I may. And that I may be assured, I will bethink me ...” If he already looks too verbally quick for Basanio on the page, his enjoyment of an encounter in which he is the master looked cruel, actor to actor. Is the method of his assurance – the pound of Antonio’s flesh – already forming in his mind as he jests?
With Antonio’s arrival, which he notes with a satirist’s contempt – “How like a fawning publican he looks!” – Shylock’s spirits rise even further. Now he can remind, reproach, delay, offer and deny and offer again, while a blustering Antonio, standing on a principle he has forefeited, can do no better than threaten to spit on Shylock again. If it is war now, it is both their doing but, when played with youthful zest, Shylock was having the better of it. When he described the proposed bond as “a merry sport” he looked festive indeed. “Let the forfeit/ Be nominated for an equal pound/ Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken/ In what part of your body it pleaseth me.”
These lines should never be delivered anything but flirtatiously. “Your fair flesh” is an intimacy that Antonio, had he been smarter, or less desperate to secure the loan, or less arrogant about his ability to repay it, or less accustomed to flattery, might have recoiled from. Only moments before, they had been speaking of spitting. It takes someone very quick on his feet to change the tone with such dexterity. Perhaps most actors, weighed down by their Jewish gabardine and the supposed mannerisms of a Jew made old by the antiquity of his faith, find it hard to put the requisite verve into this. But the young Venetian Shylock I saw didn’t shy from it. For the duration of their transaction Antonio’s flesh was fair as fair to Shylock, and whatever of that was sarcasm it was up to the devil himself to find out. As for where Shylock, should Antonio fail to redeem his bond, merrily proposed to make his cut – “in what part of your body it pleaseth me” – why that selfsame devil might have blushed to hear it.
To my ear, the allusion is sexual or it’s nothing. Buried deep in the anti‑Jewish legends that reached Shakespeare was a fear of Jews as castrators, and all that medieval Christianity never understood about circumcision. Did Jews castrate themselves? Did Jewish men bleed like women? Was that why they needed the blood of Christian children, to replace the blood they’d lost? I don’t say Shakespeare was consciously invoking all this at the moment that Shylock proposes the bond. But dark as well as comic forces are in play here, the darker, perhaps, for being comic, because what Shylock is making merry with is inchoate Christian terror. To play him as a consummate comedic provocateur, then, as I saw him played by a young and juiced-up actor in Venice, is not at all to rescue him from obloquy. But it is to give him the vitality that I believe Shakespeare intended for him. And it is to suggest that the journey from Antonio’s privy parts, which might just have been the site selected by Shylock for sacrifice, to Antonio’s heart, is not of Shylock’s choosing only.
Before the idea of deliberate doubling – Shylock making a Jew of Antonio in advance of Antonio’s making a Christian of him – I pull up short. I am not convinced that Shakespeare was ever interested in such abstract, academic mapping. But it is part of his greatness to allow unworked significance and unsorted old material to have their way without him in a play. DH Lawrence wrote astutely about what happens to a living work when the artist puts his finger in the pan, forcing its outcome. It ceases to be a living work. And Shakespeare was a writer in Lawrence’s sense, ideology free, allowing characters to find their true selves in interaction with one another, and letting language do its own remembering.
Much of what we make of Shylock is determined by the age of the actor, the clothes he wears and the curve of his nose
It has always seemed wrong to me to talk of The Merchant of Venice as an anti- or a pro-semitic play. Were it either it would be less the play it is. Those who are distressed by what they see as the play’s anti-Jewishness find themselves, ironically it seems to me, on the side of those who glory in any anti-Jewishness they find. In both cases, Shylock appals them. The former are appalled into embarrassment – “Is that us?” – the latter into confirmation of what they’ve always thought - “Yes, that is you”. But for me Shylock lives, with all his human imperfections on show. We know him by his speech, his repetitions – as though no thing said only once can possibly be trusted – those strange stutterings in which he addresses himself in a sort of surprise, his sudden absences when he is with others that causes them to wonder whether he is taking note of them at all, his unexpected reversions to lyricism, his exasperated bursts of thought, no matter that no one will accept a word of what he says, that make him a kind of second cousin to Hamlet. No, there is never any thinking of him as other than a Jew: the Venetians playboys who spit on him one minute and ask for money from him the next will not allow the Jew in him to be forgotten and, whether as a consequence or by preference, he will not allow the Jew in him to be forgotten either.
It’s hard work. Would he have made life easier for himself had he relented? Maybe. It’s said that finally, as he readies himself to take out Antonio’s heart, he is the Jew of pitiless legality, the moral opposite of love as represented by Christians. Were Shakespeare interested in pressing this opposition to the detriment of the Jews he wouldn’t have allowed the Christians to show as quite so squalid. They speak of love and think of money. They speak of mercy and show none. They are only not more dangerous because they are indolent and forget to be.
Howard Jacobson: All my books are apocalyptic. I have never met an intelligent optimist
In my novel I move Portia’s world from Belmont to Cheshire’s Golden Triangle, home to footballers, heiresses and Manchester’s most wealthy. I intend no ill to Cheshire by doing that. But I feel Portia’s moral universe of childish choices and pettish ruses, where protestations of fine feeling cannot hide materialism and malice, licenses me to satire. Shylock and Portia – now Plurabelle – meet again up there. Once more she isn’t sure who the Jew is and who the merchant. I never saw it as my function to give Shylock a second chance. Where things ended for him, they end forever. But he does have one thing he would like to say to Portia/Plurabelle. And I allow him to say it.
- Shylock is My Name by Howard Jacobson (Vintage, £16.99). To order a copy for £12.99, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.
Shylock as a Victim of Villain Essay
2293 Words10 Pages
Shylock as a Victim of Villain Throughout the play ‘The Merchant of Venice’ there are constant references to various characters and the way they relate to one another, however there is no character so diverse and so complex as Shylock’s character. Shakespeare tries to portray Shylock in a number of ways however I believe his main focus in the play, is on his villainous side. This may be portraying the time of Shakespeare where ethnic minorities like Jews were hated and condemned for their religion. Jews like Shylock weren’t awarded equal rights during Shakespeare’s times and there was definitely a lot of prejudice against them. They were forced to earn a living in ways not…show more content…
There may be examples where Shylock is portrayed as a victim in this scene, but there are also numerous cases where Shylock is described as a villain. Although Antonio may have been abusing Shylock there are also numerous occurrences where Shylock is abusing Antonio. “ I hate him for he is a Christian.” Here we can see how Shylock has some racial issues with Antonio, and therefore it can argued that he has a villainous streak. One of the most disturbing and conclusive pieces of evidence that prove he is a villain is the point at which he demands Antonio’s flesh; “ Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken in what part of your body pleaseth me.” This truly shows his villainous side, as he is demanding flesh as a forfeit in his bargain with Antonio. Not just simply some money or some of his possessions but instead he is demanding flesh. In my opinion this clearly shows how Shylock is a villain.
I believe this grudge between him and Antonio runs deeper that first may meet the eye. I believe that his villainous side stems from the fight between Christians and Jews. “ I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.” This quote shows how Shylock will make this old grudge between Jews and Christians grow and how