Why I love Shylock and You Should, Too

Clara Collier, Yale University

In Shakespeare’s day, it was customary for actors in Jewish roles (perhaps, more accurately, in the role of the Jew) to wear false noses and bright red wigs. We have no reason to believe that the original performance of The Merchant of Venice, featuring English literature’s most important anti-Semitic caricature, was any different. This particular sartorial convention wasn’t particularly egregious for a society that still believed Jews had cloven hooves and regularly engaged in ritual murder, but the image rankles nonetheless. There’s something unsettling, past the point of mere comic absurdity, in imagining Shylock prancing around the stage in what is, effectively, clown makeup.

Harold Bloom called Shylock “the wrong Jew in the right play”[1]. His complexity, his pathos, and his prose are all out of proportion for a comic villain – which he undeniably is. Our discomfort with that fact is a modern phenomenon. Until Edmund Kean’s pivotal 1814 performance, Shylock was almost always played as a monster or a clown. (One otherwise glowing review accused Kean of over-employing his art to invest Shylock, a character “proof against every sentiment of humanity,” with excessive depth).

Without Shylock, The Merchant of Venice would only be a slightly more sophisticated take on The Comedy of Errors or The Two Gentlemen of Verona – amusing, classically formulaic early comedies about rich, lovestruck Italian idiots. His anger is an animating constant in a shadowy, floating world. It is obsessive, cruel, irrational, and gloriously sincere. Bassanio wants to marry rich (we’re told Portia is also sublimely virtuous, but we’ll have to take his word for it), Antonio, to all appearances, wants Bassanio, and none of the other characters seem to want much of anything at all. Their predictable travails are enlivened by an anachronistic Jewish tragedy, at the cost of narrative coherence.  There is no sense of closure when the victorious lovers retire to Belmont, Shylock’s financial ruin and forced conversion left inexplicable and unresolved.

The traits that make Shylock so compelling – in Bloom’s words, “an overwhelming persuasion of a possible human being”  – are the same ones that make him so unlikable. (I’ll admit that his devotion to legal minutiae and hatred of music warm my shriveled Litvish heart.)  He is greedy, bitter, selfish, and vindictive, utterly devoid of kindness or even the capacity for joy. And shouldn’t he be? Shylock has been subject to decades of small humiliations, which he refuses to bear with even a modicum of grace or good humor. His rage is equal parts pure and petty, all the righteous fury brought on by 1500 years of ethno-religious marginalization directed at a small-minded merchant. His hatred of Antonio reads as a kind of cathartic, compulsive honesty. In a rare aside, he vents to the audience:

How like a fawning publican he looks!

I hate him for he is a Christian,

But more for 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!

Shylock is motivated by a bright, obsessive loathing, entirely free from proportionality or restraint.  He proudly carries the “ancient grudge” of the diaspora. As much as Shakespeare makes a symbol of him – the Jew – Shylock is eager to adopt the mantle. To be sure, his Judaism is as fixated on the bottom line as he is. He reads Antonio’s generosity as evidence of insufficient guile, a poorly executed plot to lower interest rates and thus presumably derail the international Jewish conspiracy. It is never entirely clear if he’s more offended by insults to the sacred nation or the profession of usury; or, indeed, if he can tell them apart:

You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,

And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,

And all for use of that which is mine own.

Does Antonio spit on him for his usury or his Judaism? Shylock intuits – correctly  – that he makes no distinction between money-lending and Christ-killing. To Christian Venice, his religion is indistinguishable from his supposed misdeeds. And Shylock is equally defensive of both. There’s a certain grandeur to Shylock’s selfishness. Rather than denying stereotypes, he wallows in them. He refuses to placate Antonio. Pity is as foreign to him as pork. He makes no attempt to earn respect through assimilation; instead, he demands it. His increasingly grisly refusals to tolerate injustice are an (entirely unintentional) assertion of the inherent humanity of the lowest of the low, the respect deserved by virtue of existence rather than merit. If Shakespeare had been less of an anti-Semite, he might have written a less sympathetic Jew.

Shylock (I don’t pretend to speak for Shakespeare) is much more aware in his unerring criticism of Christian hypocrisy. His behavior is meant to seem intransigent and irrational, much of the pathos of his character derives from the fact that he is usually right. This is most apparent in his defense of his bloody bond with Antonio. Venice, he points out, is a slave-owning society. Why not free them?

You will answer

‘The slaves are ours:’ so do I answer you:

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.

The speech is not anti-slavery. It demonstrates a universalist amorality, a lack of empathy which somehow extends the basic recognition of humanity much farther than compassion could. Shylock cannot claim, nor is he interested in, the moral high ground. He cares about selective law enforcement because he must. Venice’s complex economy depends on an objective legal system; trust in the courts is necessary to guarantee large financial transactions. It is especially essential for moneylenders. “You take my life,” Shylock will later tell us, “when you do take the means by which I live.” Shylock relies on the legal system to provide his means of living as much as he does actual capital – without lawsuits, what’s a usurer to do? Fairness is an issue of survival. Shylock’s invectives are as vulgar and nihilistic as they are accurate; he hates self-satisfaction more than he loves integrity. He refuses to let his Christian neighbors believe they are not every bit as selfish, cruel, and pitiless as he is.

The dichotomy between Jew and Christian in the play is set up as a question of inherent virtue. When Shylock seems to show compassion he is a “gentle Jew,” that is, a gentile Jew. “The Hebrew will turn Christian; he grows kind,” or not, as the case may be. After all, “You may as well do anything most hard / As seek to soften that–than which what’s harder? / His Jewish heart.”  The overriding virtue is, of course, mercy; also the quality in which Shylock is most seriously deficient. As Portia eloquently pleads:

Mercy is above this sceptred sway;

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That, in the course of justice, none of us

Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy

Her mercy is an attribute of royalty. In fact it is set above royalty, the supreme act of Imitatio Dei. To put it another way, mercy requires power. It is a strictly negative trait, the absence of potential cruelty. To pray for mercy is to acknowledge one’s own powerlessness before God; consequently, to grant it is to validate one’s power over one’s fellow man. Less cynically, mercy is a demonstration of trust: it proves that we are all, equally, in each other’s power.

And Portia’s mercy only extends to her social equals. When Shylock loses his case, he is forced to forfeit not only his initial stake, but summarily sentenced to death. Antonio’s “pity” merely deprives him of half his wealth, his source of income, his community, and his character. Mercy, it seems, is contingent on Christianity. When confronted with an outsider, the play’s Christians have very little of it. It’s not surprising that Shylock prefers justice.

In an exchange, the Duke asks Shylock “how shalt thou hope for mercy, rendering none?” To which he responds: “what judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?” His faith in the legal system is unusual for a hardened cynic. Shylock does not trust the court’s mercy – accurately enough – because it requires partiality. Shakespeare was no comparative theologian, but he does get one thing right: For Shylock, there is no morality outside the law. Goodness is a result of following a prescribed set of rules, not deviating from them. He is, after all, a Jew. And it is in this context that his most famous soliloquy must be interpreted:

To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half 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, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. 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.

This is no stirring defense of Jewish humanity. Portia asks men to be like God. Shylock reminds us that we are not and never will be. Corporeality is the only human universal. Jewish vulgarity is a common, if non-central, accusation of the anti-Semite; and Shylock is no counter-example.  Even his desire for justice is reduced to the level of butchery. He does not argue that we have access to transcendent spiritual, aesthetic, or moral experiences. Being more concerned with interest rates than salvation, he denies that they exist at all. By the time he is led off to the baptismal font, it’s hard not to believe him.

It will go without saying that Shylock is a terrible role model. He is small-minded, embittered; his obsession for revenge is a hollow perversion of a healthy desire for justice. But his monomania bears unintentional traces of Judaism’s radical unromanticism. Our scriptures do not promise us radical moral transformation or teach us to focus on an eternal reward. Human perfectibility is a matter of theological speculation; the details of shechitah are a subject of intense debate. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that our sages are more concerned with the scatological than the eschatological.  The law concerns human behavior, not moralistic abstraction.  Amar Shylock: Don’t treat virtue is an ontological trait. Don’t trust rhetoric when it conflicts with reality. Don’t ignore obvious injustice. The world is a dirty place, and there is no substitute for the slow, unending work of living in it.


[1] Harold Bloom, Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human