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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: February ::
Noble Shylock
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.0359  Tuesday, 22 February 2005

From:           David Basch <
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Date:           Monday, 21 Feb 2005 13:25:30 -0500
Subject: 16.0344 Noble Shylock
Comment:        Re: SHK 16.0344 Noble Shylock

I have seen three of four dramatizations of the Merchant of Venice and
each fills in the director's view of what happens between when Shylock
says, "Most learned judge! A sentence! Come, prepare!" and Portia's
statement, "Tarry a little; there is something else." In one version,
Shylock is shown willfully and disrespectfully shoving a crucifix on
Antonio's neck aside, a real fanciful event since Shylock is a lone man
among mighty Christians. In other versions, Shylock raises his knife
menacingly on high for dramatic affect.

If, as I think is really evident from the character of Shylock depicted
in the text, Shylock is only trying to throw a scare into Antonio to get
him to beg mercy from the Jew he despises, then Portia has interrupted
that ploy, leaving Shylock completely exposed. I would note also the
vituperations of Antonio who hurls infuriating insult after insult on
Shylock's head and is in effect begging Shylock to strike. It takes a
noble Shylock to forebear against such provocation and hardly shows a
conciliatory Antonio with any touch of the merciful.

Remember also, that Shylock had given Antonio a free loan and had tried
to win his love. This appears suspicious to readers as it does to
Bassanio, but not to Antonio since, as I have noted before, Antonio is a
former Jew and, in accordance with Jewish Talmudic law, he too is
entitled to receive a free loan. The only thing that seems odd is the
penalty for default that is to be taken "from his fair flesh." But even
this is a Jewish in-joke since the phrase "from his flesh" is a Talmudic
formula for half payment to be given to the owner of the ox that was
gored, taken "from [the sale of] the flesh" of the ox that gored.

What astounds me is how so many readers of Shakespeare think that this
penalty is proof of Shylock's diabolical plan to get Antonio "on the
hip," only believable since the worst is believed of even the most
cultivated Jew, as Shylock is, who is nothing more than today's
respectable banker.  So when the hidden meaning behind the relation of
Shylock and Antonio is brought out, it can hardly be believed, even when
it would have required Shylock to command the stormy seas to bring about
the loss of Antonio's argosies and have his young daughter run away with
a man of another faith to give him the motive that makes him want to
exercise the default penalty that was crafted as a jest under far
different circumstances. It seems altogether evident that Shylock could
not have had such a plan from the first since his actions are a response
to later events, unforeseen. But that seems hard for many to accept
since they are wedded to their interpretation of a diabolical Jewish
bank president chasing after Christian flesh.

It is to be noted also that Shylock makes a plea for the good treatment
of slaves, holding up to slave owners the fact that none would give up
their beds for a slave. Incidentally, Talmudic law requires a slave
owner to give his slave the slave owner's bed if there is only one bed
in the house and this Talmudic law observes that he who purchases
himself a slave has purchased himself a master since, by law, the slave
was entitled to humane and dignified treatment.

As long as scholars and readers will not confront the details of
Shakespeare's text and see in it the signs that Shylock is addressing
and referring to Antonio as a former Jew, then the true meaning of the
lines and action cannot be apprehended. When you realize that Antonio is
a former Jew, Shylock's words, "I hate him for he is a Christian," comes
into true focus.  Shylock hates Antonio for being a Jew that became a
Christian, but, then, apparently recognizing the Talmudic law that even
such a converted Jew is entitled to a free loan from a brother Jew,
Shylock he tries to win his love and give him the free loan to which he
is entitled.

When these aspects of the text and the meaning behind it are confronted
we have a play with a different meaning than the old-time morality play
expected, a modern play which explores the merciless hypocrisy of the
powers that be toward the powerless alien in their midst, themselves
strutting about in their belief of their own justice and compassion even
while they rape Shylock of all his wealth for the "crime" of his
unwisdom in daring to confront a Christian in a court that was hardly
neutral since Judge Portia was an involved person in the case.

That there is a noble Shylock in the play is why you have occasional
scholars like Harold Goddard who long ago saw in Shylock "a grain of
spiritual gold."

To give Shakespeare his due and likewise his character Shylock, a more
careful and nuanced reading of the play is required rather than that of
the Gratiano character that voices naked, anti-Jewish sentiments in the
play. It is then that the nobility of Shylock emerges, a man who, though
flawed in his judgment about what to expect from a hostile Venetian
court, feels deeply about family and his duties toward fellow men.

David Basch

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