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Home :: Archive :: 2010 :: November ::
Shylock the unChristian
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 21.0416  Monday, 1 November 2010

From:         David Bishop <
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Date:         October 29, 2010 3:01:43 PM EDT
Subject:      Shylock the unChristian

The following is a letter I wrote to the New York Review of Books, in response to a 
piece by Stephen Greenblatt (9/30). With Hardy's permission, I would like to publish 
it here.

Over the past four centuries, The Merchant of Venice, with its villainous Shylock 
the Jew, has been enlisted on the side of anti-Semitism and, more surprisingly, 
against it. Shakespeare, though, may have had neither use in mind. If there had been 
an actual Jewish community in England, I doubt that he would have written this play. 
For him, real Jews were safely out of the line of fire.

I think Stephen Greenblatt, influenced by history and by the power of Shakespeare's 
characterization, takes Shylock to be more essentially Jewish than he is. Our 
unavoidable hindsight might be sharpened a little if we understand the play as based 
on a pun, on the word "unChristian." Shylock is not a real Jew so much as a 
symbolic, even sacrificial, unChristian. The figure of the Jew, the original, 
literal unChristian, was a ready-made villain who nicely served Shakespeare's 
purpose.
 
Elizabethan England was full of Christian usurers, whose bite was felt even by the 
young noblemen in whose circles Shakespeare's genius enabled him to move. But an 
exemption from usury laws, among other historical forces, had made the stereotypical 
usurer a Jew. The stereotypical usurer was also cruel, a cruelty supposedly parodied 
in the "merry bond" to forfeit a pound of flesh. Antonio spurns and spits on Shylock 
because of his cruel treatment of the desperate borrowers Antonio rescues from his 
clutches. (Spitting was not quite the disgusting act it seems to us, in a world 
where no one had ever heard of a germ. In The Comedy of Errors a wife says that if 
she were unfaithful, as her husband is, he would "spit at me, and spurn at me.") 
When Shylock agrees to lend him money without interest, Antonio sounds almost 
blissful: "Hie thee, gentle Jew. / The Hebrew will turn Christian, he grows kind." 
Despite the religious name-calling, Antonio's enmity is grounded in Shylock's 
cruelty and greed: his behavior. Jessica's friendly assimilation signifies that 
being Jewish is a choice, not a destiny.
 
Christianity, in this play, means kindness, loving and convivial membership in a 
community, and also the belief that God says revenge is wrong. Shakespeare could 
have made his usurer a Christian-maybe named Scrooge-but making him a Jew puts him, 
the play proposes, beyond the reach of a Christian appeal for mercy. However bad a 
Christian might be, he would, at least theoretically, have to respond to Portia's 
appeal. And the appeal goes deeper than mercy. Shylock's demand for law is, as we 
see, really a way of getting revenge, on the whole Christian community, as well as 
eliminating an impediment to his business. A Christian would know that God prohibits 
revenge, whether any so-called Christian obeys that prohibition or not. Shylock can 
take an oath in heaven, at the synagogue, to have his bond-to get his revenge-and 
believe that he is "doing no wrong." Lacking even ostensible Christian faith, he 
cannot be argued out of revenge. He shows the terrifying case of a man who feels 
free to take revenge with no divine inhibition. A real Jew, who was also a 
reasonable person, would know perfectly well that Shylock's attempted murder of 
Antonio is wrong. But Shylock is a "faithless Jew": the faith he lacks is 
Christianity.
 
Gratiano also exhibits the revenging impulse, which at the end is restrained by 
Portia and Antonio. After the great dramatic reclamation of the law for goodness, by 
giving Shylock the law he craves-as God might-their punishment of Shylock would 
hardly be punishment at all without the forced conversion. He keeps half his goods 
and the other half goes to Antonio, who, despite believing that he is penniless, 
promises to increase them with the purpose of bestowing them on Lorenzo and Jessica. 
The conversion is an odd punishment: forcing Shylock to join the community that is 
punishing him. It would be felt by the audience as required for salvation. An 
unconverted Shylock would also be in danger of Gratiano's lynch mob, on which the 
conversion throws a large bucket of water. And lynched or not, he would be left, for 
the audience, as a convenient object of hate. Instead, all they're left to hate is 
his behavior. As Shylock has told them, they themselves routinely take revenge, 
despite God's prohibition. The villain points out that the audience is as villainous 
as he-except that they are also hypocrites. This is how Shakespeare gets the 
audience on the hip: Come on in, folks, let's all hate the Jew. Whoops! The Jew is 
you.
 
Jessica and Lorenzo tease each other in a game of one-upmanship: who can compare 
them with the most doomed lovers? Most lovers would be more superstitious: they 
wouldn't joke about faithlessness, any more than most new wives would tease their 
poor husbands as Portia does: "Since you are dear bought, I will love you dear." 
This insouciant teasing shows an awesomely pure and carefree love. The tortured 
lovers of modern productions are, well, anachronistic. The material sign of the ring 
must be respected but also not fetishized-as are Shylock's jewels, dearer to him 
than his daughter's life. The transfer of the ring, first, in the emotional furnace 
of the courtroom, is understood by Portia, in its context: "Nothing is good, I see, 
without respect." Antonio, pledging his soul upon the forfeit, hands it back to 
Bassanio. There are some subdued shadows at the end; something is gained, but 
something still lost, in the natural passage from the single world of Venice to the 
married world of Belmont. But to respond in the spirit of the play we have to keep 
these shadows in perspective.
 
The Merchant of Venice can of course be used in many ways, and it is hardly possible 
to ask an audience to respond as Elizabethans. But I think the present consensus 
that Shakespeare was anti-Semitic, or against anti-Semitism, misses the import of 
the play in its time and place.


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