- Scholarly Resources
- Current Postings
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 21.0163 Thursday, 8 April 2010
 From: Carol Barton <
 From: David Bishop <
I agree with John Drakakis, David Basch, and Bob Projansky that Shylock's "wilderness of monkeys" line is, unlike Iago's baseless implication of Emilia's adultery, an indication of one of the many aspects of his real and understandable (if not condonable) motives for revenge. It need not have been a wedding ring to be so fraught with meaning; nonetheless, it is the obviously cherished gift of the man's dead wife, and of his daughter's deceased mother, perhaps the only (or at least the most personal) memento he has of her, and the relative triviality of what Jessica has used it to purchase (living creature or not) is an expression of her contempt for both father *and* mother--that she could steal even that from him, and trade it away for a "toy." Perhaps one has to have been bereaved of a beloved to understand this, but a piece of jewelry worn or given by the deceased is somehow imbued with the spirit of the wearer/giver in a way that few other personal articles are--even clothing. The ring's value to Shylock is far greater than the value of the stone and metal. One may insure such a piece, and obtain monetary recompense if it is lost or stolen, but no one can ever "replace" it--not with a wilderness of monkeys, or a treasure chest full of replicas. No other ring in the world was Leah's; no other ring in the world could be given with Leah's love.
As many of you know, I have long been of the opinion that the Christians in this play exhibit little Christianity, and that part of Shakespeare's purpose in revealing Shylock's "good side" in this manner is to demonstrate that Antonio and company have made Shylock what he is, in both the local sense (by means of their insults, mockery, contempt, and humiliation, followed by the appropriation of daughter and ducats) and in the global sense (because of the vicious anti-Semitism that sanctions their abuse). Had Shakespeare portrayed Shylock as a sympathetic character, he'd have robbed Antonio and company of a motive for their cruelty; but he is not an Iago, a villain spontaneously self-created whose revenge is disproportionate to an imagined slight--he is a man at least as much sinned against as sinning whose only real "crime" is having knowingly allowed his oppressors to use him--and thereby making himself party to their hypocrisy by joining it. Suppose the situation were reversed, and the following lines were spoken by Antonio or Bassanio or Portia about Shylock: "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 [Christian]." The rest of the speech communicates the injustice of the Christians' supposed "justice" in a manner similar to Edmund's speech about his bastardy in _Lear_. And the following comment applies to the Antonios, Bassanios, and Portias of this play as much as or more than it does to Shylock:
Mark you this, Bassanio,
Best to all,
I was a little surprised to find two replies today to something I wrote a month ago, but I'm happy to respond.
I've already sent Bob and Joe my essay on the Merchant, which I'll send to anyone who's interested.
The Merchant is a play, as I would say, based on a pun. It's a pun on the word unChristian. Shakespeare is responding not to Jews or Venetians but to the unChristian behavior of English Christians. He sets up a Jew, the original, literal unChristian, as a villain, and then--surprise--it turns out that this villain points out that Christians, who profess to believe revenge is a sin, routinely engage in it. The theme of the play could be expressed as: the Jew is you. Shakespeare is showing the Christian audience their own unChristian image in the mirror of Shylock.
UnChristian behavior, in this play, comes in two main forms. One is that of a miserly, misanthropic usurer. There were plenty of Christian usurers and Shakespeare could have written about one. He could have called him Scrooge. But making Shylock Jewish has a point when it comes to the other main line of unChristian behavior: revenge.
In the trial scene, Shylock appears at first to have the law on his side. Therefore the only appeal to him is a Christian appeal. "How shalt thou hope for mercy, rendering none?" The catch is that Shylock is not a Christian, and does not believe revenge is wrong. "What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?" It's true that he has called revenge "villainy" but that is out of character, and slips by in context. Everything else suggests that he is bent on revenge and has no restraining Christian conscience that would tell him it was wrong. "Cursed be my tribe if I forgive him" is a pointedly unChristian prayer. The Christian God would reject Shylock's "oath in heaven" to have his bond. We, as the Christian audience, are supposed to know this. But Shylock points out the vengefulness of Christians, as well as their complacent slaveholding.
Does this mean that the Christian characters in the play must display unChristian behavior? No, and most don't. At the end, Gratiano is an example of a Christian who has not taken in the lessons of justice and mercy and is still out for revenge. He shows an all too human, but wrong, response, and like Shylock ties God to revenge: "A halter gratis--nothing else, for God's sake." The other main characters are pretty much entirely good. Antonio's apparently unChristian spitting and spurning is done, not for his own sake, but because of his anger at how Shylock treats the desperate people who come to him for help, and whom Antonio delivers from Shylock's cruel forfeitures.
The Merchant makes an interesting example of how prejudice can bend the interpretation of a play--even when the prejudice arises from good motives, i.e. anti-anti-Semitism. Jessica, for example, despite her forgivable spending spree, is a good character. That's one reason I take her trading Leah's ring as a sign that Shylock never told her it was her mother's. He knew she was "fledged" yet has made no provision for her marriage. But mainly my doubt about that line having the weight we tend to give it comes from all the other evidence of Shylock's character. He knows about the diamond that cost 2,000 ducats in Frankfort. Recognizing Leah's ring may be a sign that he knows all his dear jewels by name. He'd be happy to see his daughter dead if he could have his jewels and his ducats back.
To see Jessica as "vicious" not only contradicts all evidence of her character in the play, but undermines the element in the play that is, in its context, anti-anti-Semitic. Jessica demonstrates that being Jewish is not something carried in the blood: it is not racial. The main racial objection to Jessica's marriage is made by Lancelot, the clown. I don't know, but I suspect that in Nazi Germany productions cut Lorenzo and Jessica's marriage. It goes against the Nazi grain. From the other side, Shylock's objection to her marrying a Christian is, to the Christians, more evidence of his misanthropy. The Judaism in this play is not real but a false front, created by Shakespeare to make a point about Christians in his own vicinity. We side with Jessica as we side with Desdemona, or Juliet, or Hermia. She laments the "heinous sin" of being ashamed of her father to show she's not merely rebellious. When she says she's fleeing from hell we believe her.
DISCLAIMER: Although SHAKSPER is a moderated discussion list, the opinions expressed on it are the sole property of the poster, and the editor assumes no responsibility for them.