The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.2601  Wednesday, 14 November 2001

From:           Bruce Young <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Tuesday, 13 Nov 2001 13:07:37 -0700
Subject: 12.2568 Re: Merchant
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.2568 Re: Merchant

I believe Don Bloom is right in thinking that some interpretations of
The Merchant of Venice have badly distorted the play (as he put it in a
private message to me--"destroying the comic value of comedies, making
romance into debauchery, and calling the result 'irony'").  But I don't
think the distortions have come from trying to imagine Shylock as a
complex and (at least partly) sympathetic character.

Don agrees that Shylock is not driven exclusively by money and adds, "In
fact, I would go further and say that money was relatively secondary to
him, at least where Antonio is concerned. He is driven by hate, malice,
spite, whatever you want to call it."

My response: Shylock, as I imagine him, is not driven exclusively either
by money or by "hate, malice, spite," though he is compulsively
concerned with money and, where Antonio is concerned, is pretty well
possessed by "hate, malice, spite."

What else might there be going on in him, and why do I care?  I care
because human beings are not flat, unidimensional beings, and I think
Shakespeare was particularly skilled at conveying that fact.  (As
Solzhenitsyn put it, "the line separating good and evil passes, not
through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties
either, but right through every human heart.")  The other reason I care
is that I think the text of the play demands a more complex reading of

So--what other motivations might Shylock have?  Bitterness, anger over
how he's been treated; a sense of religious and ethical superiority
(he's one of the "chosen" people, knows the true God and true
scriptures, and believes he follows them with greater integrity than the
Christians follow their own religion, which he must know partly overlaps
with his); a related feeling of scorn for the Christians and their
weaknesses and hypocrisies (which the play suggests he probably sees at
least in part accurately); an inadequate sense of his own radical
imperfection and ultimate helplessness and thus his need for mercy; an
exaggerated sense of humans' ability (or at least his own) to achieve
righteousness and success on their own; an impulse to control
(emphasized with the imagery of closing up his house and its windows);
an unrealistic belief that he (and his daughter) can remain totally
unpolluted by the frivolity, prodigality, and moral laxness of the
Christian world by shutting himself off from it (part of the problem is
that he only selectively shuts himself off from it); and perhaps an
emotional (spiritual, ethical?) emptiness and insensitivity, hinted at
by his failure to appreciate music and by his problematic relationship
with his daughter.

On this last trait, his status as (almost certainly) a widower may be
relevant.  Not having a wife--not having any close companion except for
a daughter who hates him--may reflect or even reinforce his emotional
emptiness.  I don't think it's a stretch to think that the memory of
Leah's ring opens the possibility that there was a time when Shylock was
different than he is now, at least to some degree--that he may have been
less focused on money and on his hatred for Christians, less bitter and
spiteful, maybe even more emotionally responsive than he is now.  I
would go so far as to say that I think Shakespeare intended the
reference to Leah's ring to suggest to us precisely such a possibility.
But of course it's done quickly and subtly, and we're left with little
more than the hint of a possibility, a window on his (imagined) soul and
possibly on his (imagined) past that opens and shuts quickly.

And I don't think being responsive to such suggestions from Shakespeare
(or "the text") ruins the play or prevents it from being a comedy, any
more than the subtleties and complications in other comedies ruin them.
Taking the very hard case of Measure for Measure, for instance, does
Angelo really have to be reduced to a cardboard villain for the play to
be a comedy?  I spend much class time helping students look at Angelo's
soliloquies--and Mariana's and Isabella's defenses--to help them see
that the text clearly intends a more complex and morally interesting and
instructive character than just a horrible, evil rapist--or as many
students quickly assume, a conscious and thorough-going hypocrite from
the very beginning--that we love to hate and are eager to destroy.

But I agree that recent interpretations have gone overboard in seeing
The Merchant of Venice primarily as a critique of the Christians and in
turning every romantic or idealistic element (the happy ending,
Bassanio's love and almost magical success in winning Portia, Portia's
virtue, wisdom, and good will, etc.) into a ruse on Shakespeare's part
or a mere facade for hypocrisy, corruption, and anti-Semitism.  I think
the funny parts of the play are, for the most part, intended to be
funny-- but these parts have their complexity too.  I think a case can
be made that Shakespeare does not endorse everything Gratiano says, for
instance.  And I think if Aragon and Morocco are turned merely into
buffoons, Bassanio's stature is reduced because he has no worthy

In short, I think we're right to see in many of Shakespeare's comedies
something other--and more interesting--than either the morally and
dramatically simple (even simplistic) plays some think are suited to
early modern audiences or plays so complex and ironic (and cynical) as
to have been unimaginable until the twentieth century.  Something other
and more interesting than either of these--and something that cannot be
reduced simply to the mentality of those reading or viewing the plays.
Our mentalities certainly have their effect, but the text keeps offering
us the possibility of something other than what we might manufacture on
our own, something (as Levinas puts it) that "comes from the exterior
and brings me more than I contain."

Bruce Young

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