The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 21.0429 Friday, 10 November 2010
From: David Basch <
Date: November 5, 2010 1:45:29 PM EDT
Subject: 21.0416 Shylock the unChristian
Comment: Re: SHK 21.0416 Shylock the unChristian
David Bishop's article on the Merchant of Venice gives a view of this play through
the lens of his own thoughts that often have nothing to do with Shakespeare's play.
Take for example bishop's statement that "Shylock is not a real Jew," which I take
to be his opinion that the Shylock character is merely what Shakespeare imagined
Jews to be and is not as they are. But as a Jew I would disagree with this judgment.
In many aspects it is astounding how authentically Shakespeare drawn this Jewish
portrait. Shylock speaks glibly and with the rationality that one associates with
cultivated Jews. The authentic Jews shows up in even small details of the play.
For example, when Bassanio asks Shylock, who is lost in thought, as to whether he
will give Antonio a loan, Shylock answers, "I am debating my store." Notice the word
"debating." While Gentiles think, calculate, ratiocinate, etc', Shakespeare's Jew
"debates," reflecting in that one word a characteristic Jew steeped in the debates
of the Talmud.
Also notable are details like Shylock swearing on the "holy Sabbath." In fact, in
Jewish homiletic thinking, the Sabbath is regarded as the "witness," the witness
that God created heaven and earth. This suggests a Shakespeare familiar with aspects
of particularistic Jewish culture, adding further semblances of authenticity. I
would also note the hypothetical suggestion that Shylock gives to the Venetians that
they give their own beds to their slaves. In fact, Talmudic law calls for a Jewish
slave owner to give his slave his bed when there is only one bed in the house. This
again shows a Shakespeare with uncommon knowledge of particularistic Jewish culture.
To be sure, where Shakespeare would seem to fail is when Shylock is turned into an
unfeeling, maniacal creditor, ready to cut off flesh owed him by a creditor. No Jew
regards this as authentically Jewish. They think that such behavior could only come
from a madman, someone that is beyond the pale of normal human interaction and, of
course, beyond Jewishness. In Jewish eyes and I think in the eyes of other
thoughtful persons, it would reflect a playwright that has failed miserably in
shaping Shylock. For, after all, if Shylock is insane, he can hardly be an exemplar
of Judaic ways and serve as a fit protagonist to be countered by the moral high
mindedness of the non-Jewish world. There is no contest here.
Can it be that the pious, thrifty, straight-laced, Jewish banker that Shakespeare
convincingly portrayed would then mean to publicly murder Antonio for revenge? To
begin with, murder is against Jewish law and a vow to murder is considered a non
vow, with no force. (I would also note that on the Yom Kippur all vows to be made in
the coming year are retroactively annulled, a protection needed for vows made to
evade inquisitors.) In other words, a sane Shylock would not find his vow binding.
In any case, how many know of someone who was mugged by a banker? The only reason
such a preposterous idea is countenanced by audiences is because it is thought that
this is the way Elizabethans, including Shakespeare, thought of Jews were capable
of. I think Bishop recognizes this when he mentions that he thinks Shylock is not a
real person, let alone a Jew.
I would also challenge Bishop's assumptions about the cruelty of Shylock the usurer
who is merciless to those who default on loans. What we have here is none other than
the behavior of the lender, so recognizable today. Sure, exercising penalties for
defaulted loans is experienced by the defaulter as cruel and inhuman but it is part
of the agreed arrangement to a lender who is not a relative. Being a lender is
hardly the inhuman occupation that Bishop alleges.
In the play, Antonio has interceded in Shylock's business transactions and prevented
Shylock from getting the due he bargained for, hardly any more cruel and inhuman
than the loan officers of Bank of America. In fact, if you look for cruel and
hateful in the play, it is Antonio that is characterized as such and is an anti-
Semite, reviling Shylock for the use of his own money in lending to clients that
presumably find value in the transaction. But, then, this is another demonstration
that Shylock is not some warped person. When you come to think of it, he is
recognizable as today's banker and Antonio's anger and hatred is recognizable as
Also, consider that Shakespeare puts into Shylock's mouth the most moving speeches
in the play, lines such, "hath a Jew not eyes?" or not trading his wife's ring for
"a wilderness of monkeys," and "no i[ll] luck stirring but what lights on my
shoulders; no sighs but of my breathing; no tears but of my shedding." This is not
the way of an unfeeling killer.
What is more, Shylock shows astonishment that Bassanio and Gratiano display a
willingness to trade away the lives of their wives to allay what they think is
Shylock's murderous intent. If the play is to be taken seriously, such aspects too
must be recognized and weighed in evaluating Shylock's behavior in court.
Although Bishop claims that "Christianity, in this play, means kindness . . ." in
contradistinction to an alleged Jewish way that is, by contrast, unmerciful, the
point of the early biographic details of Shylock reveals quite another underlying
message in the play than the besting of a bestial Jew, who as earlier revealed is
not at all a beast.
To prove this point, after Portia's world famous pitch for mercy from the Jew, when
she subsequently vanquishes Shylock, he, the Jew, is given none of that touted
mercy. Although Bishop seems to think otherwise since he alleges that Shylock
mercifully receives "half his goods," Bishop is in error on this as the text shows.
Shylock is in fact impoverished of all his wealth. Let us see this in the text.
Thus, in the court scene, Portia spells out the terms of Shylock's punishment:
The party [Antonio] 'gainst the which he [Shylock] doth contrive
Shall seize one half his goods; the other half
Comes to the privy coffer of the state;
While the Duke offers to reduce this punishment to a fine, Portia rules this out for
Antonio and accepts this only for the half belonging to the Venetian state. The Duke
then calls on Antonio to suggest what mercy is to be rendered to Shylock with that
remaining half of Shylock's goods.
So please my lord the duke and all the court
To quit the fine for one half of his goods,
I am content; so he will let me have
The other half in use, to render it,
Upon his death, unto the gentleman
That lately stole his daughter:
As I read these lines, Antonio tells that he is content that the fine be "quit" for
one half of his goods. In other words, Shylock would be fined to the extent of one
half of these goods, the part belonging to the state. As to the other half, Antonio
would take it "in use" With this we account for 100% of Shylock's goods, which is
hardly the touted mercy that Portia spoke of. And I don't even mention the barbarity
of forcing such a man to convert to another religion. Shakespeare is making a point
here about hypocrisy in a play that is altogether different from the one that Bishop
How to make sense of a good Shylock in the earlier scenes and the monster that shows
up? This assumes that Shylock has not gone insane and is no longer a worthy
adversary in a theological debate.
I would offer an alternative interpretation of the play raised many decades ago by
actor-director Abraham Morevski. He sees in the dialogue and action of the play a
Shylock who is involved in a charade of ferocity, not real ferocity. An attitude
taken in order to humble Antonio and get him to apologize in public for his un-
kindnesses to the Jew. The problem for Shylock in the play is that his charade is
suddenly interrupted before he can fully enact it and show to the Venetian court his
own brand of mercy, the mercy of a Jew.
The approach of director Morevski enables a synthesis between the two
characterizations of Shylock and reveals Shakespeare centuries far ahead of his
society in the treatment of the "stranger" and not at all grossly deficient as a
playwright in the writing of this play that must otherwise be assumed.
The issue is complex and needs a far more detailed exposition to make sense and
harmony between all of the parts of the play. I don't think that Bishop's approach
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