The Arizona State University West
Literary Magazine

May, 2001
Volume 9, Number 1




Belle Neuwirth

Honors student Belle Neuwirth also contributed a piece of fiction and a second essay to this year's issue of PaloVerde.

E-mail Belle


American Studies Prize: Research

The Problem of Shylock
by Belle Neuwirth


The Merchant of Venice is supposedly a romantic comedy; the plot emphasizes love and marriage in depicting the amorous entanglements of the couples Bassanio and Portia, Lorenzo and Jessica, and Gratiano and Nerissa. Like Much Ado About Nothing, it deals with couples whose road to bliss is temporarily blocked by a villain. But the villain Shylock cannot be as readily dismissed as Much Ado’s Don John, a rather one-dimensional figure who is easily dispatched with no remorse. Shylock is decidedly multi-dimensional and possibly, according to some Shakespearean critics, "more sinned against than sinning." Hundreds of scholars have conjectured about Shakespeare's motives in creating Shylock, and the debate will no doubt continue until Will comes back to share his thoughts.

As befits a romantic comedy, the play begins with a lover’s dilemma. Bassanio wants to woo the wealthy Portia of Belmont, but he has no money. His friend Antonio’s funds are tied up in his ships at sea, so their only recourse is to borrow money from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. Antonio has in the past condemned Shylock for taking interest, so Shylock suggests a "merry bond," according to which he will take a pound of Antonio’s flesh if Antonio does not repay Shylock within three months. Antonio’s enterprises fail and Shylock cannot be persuaded to forego the bond, because his daughter Jessica has eloped with Antonio’s friend Lorenzo and taken with her a large part of her father’s fortune. Embittered and grief-stricken, Shylock demands the penalty.

Portia and her maid Nerissa, disguised as a lawyer and his clerk, arrive at Court, where Portia gives her famous speech about the quality of mercy. Shylock, who has had no mercy shown to him, is not moved, and it appears that he will have his pound of flesh. At the last moment, however, Portia hoists him on his own petard, shall we say; she tells him that since he wants to stick so closely to the letter of the law, he must take the exact weight—not an ounce more or less—and he may not draw any blood. Realizing that he cannot obtain his pound of flesh under those guidelines, Shylock tries to accept the money that was previously offered to him, but Portia won’t allow that (very merciful!). In addition, she invokes a law against aliens who threaten the lives of Venetian citizens. Shylock is required to give half of his wealth to Antonio, to leave the other half to Lorenzo and Jessica upon his death, and to become a Christian.

Although this chain of events is tragic as far as Shylock is concerned, the play is a comedy and cannot end there; the action returns to the couples in Belmont, who are all reconciled. Portia gives Antonio a letter advising him that his ships have arrived safely, and he is rich again. Everything works out for everybody—except Shylock.

In an article in the Encyclopedia Judaica, Professor Harold Fisch of Bar Ilan University in Israel wrote, "Shylock and the bond story, originally intended as a comic subplot, has proved to be the actual focus of interest down to the present day." Unfortunately, he continues, "There is no doubt that Shylock is the type of the monstrous, bloodthirsty usurer of medieval legend; one of the characters remarks that the devil 'comes in the likeness of the Jew.'" Fisch recounts the theory, also mentioned by Durant (see note 8) that "the trial and execution in 1594 of Queen Elizabeth’s Jewish physician, Roderigo Lopez, suggested some features of the Shylock story. This episode provoked a good deal of anti-Semitic feeling in England at the time."

Since the plot involves the borrowing of money with interest, it seems to require that Shylock be a Jew; and the stereotype of the Jew as miserly and hard-hearted advances the action of the play. Like Othello the Moor, Shylock functions partly as an alien, or outsider, who can be counted on as a villain. But unlike Othello, who was clearly considered a noble man until his downfall, Shylock is addressed by the others in the play in decidedly contemptuous terms, and it is reasonable to ask why Shakespeare chose to create such an abysmal character.

In his essay "The Problem of Shylock," Bill Overton gives two reasons why the Shylock character is a problem:

One lies in the history of the Jews. Dispossessed from their homeland and scattered among other nations, victims of all forms of oppression to the dreadful extremes of pogrom and holocaust, their story should permanently warn against the appalling dangers of all racial prejudice. . . . If in any way the play encourages prejudice, those taking part in producing or discussing it carry heavy responsibility.

The second reason lies in the nature of his role. There is no doubt that this is based on anti-Semitic stereotypes, and for that a kind of limited liability is sometimes claimed. There were so few Jews in Elizabethan England that Shakespeare is unlikely to have known any; nor could he have known what would happen subsequently to Shylock’s race. But it is no good arguing that the play is a victim of history. In its own way it is implicated in that history if it fosters anti-Semitism."

Does the play foster anti-Semitism? Overton thinks it does. First, the play stresses that "Shylock hates Antonio, and says so unequivocally in a long aside" when they first meet [I.iii]. Second, he practices usury, which was considered evil. Third, "Shylock denies natural human feelings"; both his servant Lancelet and his daughter Jessica leave him, for what they consider good cause.    

When Jessica leaves with Lorenzo, she takes with her a part of her father’s fortune. Shylock’s grief at his daughter’s betrayal is understandable. Desdemona married Othello without her father Brabantio’s permission, and Brabantio considered that a betrayal, although there is no suggestion that she robbed him as well. Yet Shylock’s grief is devalued by having Salarino and Solario mock him, and by his cursing of Jessica—"I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin!" (III.i). He obviously said this in great anguish.

Overton writes that John Barton, who directed a version of the play,  denied any link between Shylock the villain and Shylock the Jew. Barton believes that "[Shakespeare] shows Shylock as a bad Jew and a bad human being, but that this in itself does not make the play anti-Semitic," and furthermore, "Shylock is presented by the play as an individual, not as a representative of his race."   The play does not bear out Barton's claim; too many scenes tie Shylock’s villainy to his being a Jew. The most inescapable example involves the loan to Antonio. As mentioned earlier, Antonio supposedly hated Shylock because he took interest, but he did not hesitate to borrow from Shylock when the need arose. In contrast, Antonio is depicted as generous with Bassanio, and presumably with hSir Samuel Luke Fildes, Jessicais other friends as well, yet there is no indication that Antonio’s friends were willing to lend him the money he needed.

It is troubling that Shakespeare has Shylock say in an aside, as soon as Bassanio introduces to Antonio (I.iii), "I hate him for he is a Christian." This is not a rational reason to hate anyone and is the first warning of trouble. Shylock does indeed have a problem with Antonio, not because he is a Christian, but rather, as Shylock explains: "He [Antonio] lends out money gratis and brings down/The rate of usance here with us in Venice." This was not simply a case of greed on Shylock’s part; the Jews of that time had no other way to earn money. They were not allowed to own land, and most occupations were closed to them. By lending money without interest, Antonio was depriving Shylock of his only source of income.   

An examination of Shylock’s interactions with other people prior to his discovery of Jessica’s betrayal reveals no unpleasantness except with regard to Antonio. But Shakespeare describes Antonio as sad and weary; if Antonio had a more sanguine personality, the relationship might have been different. There is no evidence of evil intent in Shylock’s attitude when he is discussing the requested loan with Bassanio:

Shylock: Three thousand ducats, well.
Bassanio: Ay, sir, for three months.
Shylock: For three months, well.
Bassanio: For the which, as I told you, Antonio shall be bound.
Shylock: Antonio shall become bound, well.
Bassanio: May you stead me? Will you pleasure me?
Shall I know your answer?
Shylock: Three thousand ducats for thee months,
and Antonio bound. . . .
Antonio is a good man (I.iii.1-12).

There is no suggestion of sarcasm in these words, although it certainly can be played that way. Shylock explains what he means: that Antonio is sufficient as a guarantor, even though his ships are at sea and their fate is uncertain. He concludes, "I think I may take his bond. I will be assured I may. . . . May I speak with Antonio?" Bassanio then asks Shylock to dine with them, and Shylock declines; he assures Bassanio that "I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, and so following" but because of his religious constraints, "I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you." To soften the harshness of his refusal, he returns immediately to a neutral social question—"what news on the Rialto?"—to indicate that he did not intend to be rude (I.ii.30-34).

When he meets Antonio, his first words to him are "Rest you fair, good signior! Your Worship was the last man in our mouths." (We were just talking about you.) Analyze away; anyone who sees evil or even unpleasantness in Shylock’s remark is looking for trouble.

Shylock proceeds to tell Antonio about Jacob when he grazed his Uncle Laban's sheep. This is supposedly an attempt by Shylock to rationalize his taking of interest, and according to Antonio, "The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose." It's strange that Shakespeare would have Shylock use this story. A Jew would be unlikely to use it in an attempt to explain anything, since it has nothing to do with the taking of interest and is therefore a meaningless story in this context. Stranger still is that Antonio seems to have a better understanding of the incident than Shylock the Jew does:

This was a venture, sir, that Jacob served for,
A thing not in his power to bring to pass,
But swayed and fashioned by the hand of heaven.

In his next significant speech, Shylock recounts how Antonio has abused him in the past. In these lines Shylock sounds quite rational, even though he has reason to be angry and frustrated. He says, in effect, that Antonio has scolded him many times in the marketplace about his money and his interest, and he always bore it with a patient shrug;

You called me misbeliever, cutthroat dog,
And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help. . .
What should I say to you? Should I not say
'Hath a dog money? Is it possible
A cur can lend three thousand ducats?' Or
Shall I bend low, and in a bondman's key,
With bated breath and whisp'ring humbleness
Say this: 'Fair sir, you spet on me on Wednesday last;
You spurned me such a day; another time
You called me "dog"; and for these courtesies
I’ll lend you thus much moneys?' (I.iii.121-138)

And just in case the audience or reader thinks Shylock is exaggerating, Antonio answers: "I am as like to call thee so again/To spet on thee again, to spurn thee, too."

Even after Antonio’s admission, Shylock still claims, "I would be friends with you and have your love/Forget the shames that you have stained me with/Supply your present wants, and take no doit of usance for my moneys." In lieu of interest, he suggests that "in a merry sport" they will draw up a bond under which Antonio will be required to forfeit a pound of his flesh if the loan is not repaid.

What could Shylock mean by this strange arrangement? What did Shakespeare want us to think he means? Since we cannot guess motives, let us take it at face value: Shylock really meant it as a joke. As Shylock explains, what could he gain by exacting a pound of flesh? He is a businessman, and a pound of flesh is not worth anything! Antonio accepts the bond, calls Shylock a "gentle Jew," and says to Bassanio, "The Hebrew will turn Christian; he grows kind."

Antonio believes Shylock at this point, and the text permits us to speculate that without the tragedies that befell Shylock later, their agreement would have remained "a merry sport." Furthermore, since Antonio is getting the money he wants, without interest, Shylock is now, in his opinion, a gentle Jew; and since Shylock is being kind, it must be because he will "turn Christian," because a Jew cannot be kind.

The next incident that paints Shylock as a villain involves his servant Lancelet Gobbo’s desire to leave. Lancelet’s conscience says he shouldn’t leave, but he is tempted to do so. He says to himself, "Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation." Why? What, if anything, has Shylock done to Lancelet? Nothing in the text suggests that Shylock has been a bad master. In contrast, Lancelet deliberately tries to confuse his father, who is looking for him but is too blind to recognize him. Lancelet says, "I will try confusions with him," and proceeds to give him ridiculous directions to Shylock’s house, where Lancelet is supposed to be. Lancelet also teases his father by referring to himself as Master Lancelet and then saying that he (himself, Gobbo’s son) has gone to heaven. He finally stops tormenting his father and identifies himself. So much for the character of Lancelet, who has called Shylock a devil. Lancelet says he wants to leave because he doesn’t get enough to eat; he wants to be a servant to Bassanio, "who indeed gives rare new liveries." The irony in this remark is that Bassanio is providing "rare new liveries" with Shylock’s money; and furthermore, Shylock "the devil" has already spoken to Bassanio about Lancelet’s wish to serve him, and has given him a recommendation!

When Lancelet leaves—without, of course, thanking Shylock—he says to Jessica (II.iii): "Tears exhibit my tongue, most beautiful pagan, most sweet Jew. If a Christian do not play the knave and get thee, I am much deceived." He exits, and Jessica says:

Alack, what heinous sin is it in me
To be ashamed to be my father’s child?
But though I am a daughter to his blood,
I am not to his manners. O Lorenzo,
If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife,
Become a Christian and thy loving wife (II.iii.16-21).

It seems that Lancelet finds Jessica beautiful only because she is more pagan than Jew; if she is a "sweet Jew" it can only be temporary, until a Christian gets her. Her soliloquy directly ties her father’s Jewish blood to his bad manners, and the only way she can escape those manners is to become a Christian. It is difficult to avoid interpreting this as anti-Semitic.

It is interesting to note that when Jessica gives this speech, there has not yet been any interaction between father and daughter. In Shylock’s interactions with Bassanio he has been pleasant; with regard to his interaction with Antonio, it is obvious that there is ill feeling between them, but it is as much Antonio’s fault as Shylock’s. Later, in Act 2, Scene 5, Shylock calls to Jessica; when she finally comes, he shows no sign of being upset (as many parents would justifiably be) that he had to call her three times. He tells her he has been invited to supper with Bassanio and says,

Jessica, my girl,

Look to my house.—I am right loath to go.
There is some ill a-brewing towards my rest,
For I did dream of moneybags tonight (II.v.16-19)


And then later in the same scene:


Well, Jessica, go in.
Perhaps I will return immediately.
Do as I bid you. Shut doors after you. . . (Ibid., 52-54).

These lines, and especially the phrase "Jessica, my girl," prove that there is nothing amiss in the relationship as far as Shylock is concerned. He repeats his request—it is certainly not a harsh demand—that she take care of his property by shutting the doors. The worst thing that can be said about Shylock is that he is concerned about his money being stolen, which, under the circumstances, was a reasonable worry. He obviously trusts Jessica with all that he has, and she violates that trust as soon as he has gone.

In Scene 6 Jessica says one line about her father’s entire fortune—"Here, catch this casket; it is worth the pains"—and the rest of her rather immature speech (excuse my bias) is about how ashamed she is to be dressed as a boy. She is not ashamed, however, to be stealing from her father; and in fact, the casket wasn’t enough, for she says to Lorenzo," I will make fast the doors and gild myself/ With some more ducats, and be with you straight."

She apparently has no compunctions about running off with someone not of her own faith, without her father’s knowledge or permission, with his gold and jewels, including a turquoise ring given to him by his wife, Leah, which Jessica later trades for a monkey. 10  Lorenzo the magnificent has no problem with the theft, either; he loves her heartily and thinks she is wise. Lorenzo calls Shylock a faithless Jew—when the Christians are the ones who are faithless.

Jessica later claims (III.ii) that her father’s desire for revenge against Antonio preceded her elopement:

When I was with him, I have heard him swear
To Tubal and to Chus, his countrymen
That he would rather have Antonio’s flesh
Than twenty times the value of the sum
That he did owe him.

But according to the text, this is impossible. Jessica and Lorenzo eloped in Act 2, Scene 6, immediately after Shylock left to meet with Bassanio and Antonio. Jessica had no way of knowing what transpired between her father and Antonio; she certainly could not have heard him swear about repayment of a loan that had not yet been arranged when she left.

The stage begins to be set for the horrifying trial scene. In Scene 8, Solanio and Salarino discuss the latest news: Shylock’s torment over his daughter’s leaving and the treasures that she took. They mock Shylock’s feelings in the most horrendous anti-Semitic terms:

I never heard a passion so confused,
So strange, outrageous, and so variable
As the dog Jew did utter in the streets.
"My daughter, O my ducats, O my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
Justice, the law, my ducats, and my daughter,
A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats,
Of double ducats, stolen from me by my daughter,
And jewels—two stones, two rich and precious stones. . . .

and Salarino adds,

Why, all the boys in Venice follow him,
Crying his stones, his daughter, and his ducats.

They then proceed to worry about Antonio: his ships may be lost and he will be in trouble if he doesn’t repay the loan. It does not seem important to them that Shylock will be in financial trouble if Antonio fails to repay him.

It is not until Act 3, Scene 1 that Shylock for the first time actually says that he will exact the pound of flesh, and this was in response to Salarino, who had been baiting him only moments before.

It is interesting that nobody sees anything wrong with Antonio’s profit-making ventures on the seas—which he said earlier would bring him "thricSully, "Portia and Shylock"e times three times" the value of the bond, or 27,000 ducats—and all are worried that he has lost his fortune. Why is it permissible for Antonio to make a profit and not so for Shylock? Shylock’s "cruelty" may be an understandable reaction to all the hurts he has been subjected  to up to that point. He has done nothing wrong, but the negative feelings against him—especially those of Jessica—magnify his image as a villain. It would be natural for competitors (as Antonio and Shylock were) to feel animosity—in fact we know that Antonio hates Shylock too, and just as unreasonably. But if his own daughter Jessica feels that way—oh my, he really must be a rogue! (In truth, she is the villain—a thief and a liar, according to the text.) Even the famous "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech in Act 3, Scene 1—often cited as an attempt to demonstrate Shylock’s humanity—is tainted, because it is tied to his wish for revenge.

Overton notes that the scene in which Shylock harries the Jailer [III.iii] "seems to have little function other than to emphasize his vengefulness." Overton adds, "Most of all, it seems impossible to get around the sheer, stark horror of what he proposes ... He whets the knife on his shoe, and shows no compunction at the danger of Antonio bleeding to death. . ." (Overton, 25).

It is important to realize, as Overton does, that the slurs against Shylock "declare respectively the twin stereotypes of anti-Semitism, miserly greed and evil malice. " There is a cumulative effect of the word "Jew" repeated so often in the play, always disparagingly; and furthermore, as John Gross writes:

A name is a precious possession. Like other possessions, it can be taken away. Shylock is "Shylock" to his face, but behind his back he is almost always referred to as "the Jew"; and as the final confrontation approaches, even such minimal signs of respect as he has been shown are dropped. . . . In the trial scene, the other characters, beginning with the Duke, repeatedly address him as "Jew," or speak of him as "the Jew" in his presence. They are not only closing ranks against him; they are also letting him know that his personal identity is of no account. (64)

Overton cites critic Alan Dessen's proposition that Shylock’s Jewishness is used "as a moral type in order to catch Christian consciences." In this argument, "Shylock, like Barabas (in Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, probably the basis for The Merchant of Venice), is both villain and Jewish stereotype, but his chief dramatic function is not anti-Semitic. Instead what he says and does as stage Jew rebukes the attitudes and behavior of false Christians" (27)

This interpretation may be meant favorably, but it scarcely improves the situation. It remains true that Shylock and Barabas are Jews, and are depicted as vile and as examples to Christians of how they should not behave.

To be fair, Overton finds some evidence that Shakespeare thought of Shylock both in generic terms and as an individual, much as he refers to Lancelet Gobbo as both Lancelet and as the Clown. Overton writes, "We should beware of attributing to Shakespeare and his audiences the cruelty of our own century." Shakespeare had the ability to present characters as more than just stereotypes, and this was the case with Shylock. For example, it is possible that Shylock’s admonition to Bassanio that "I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you" was dramatized as an aside rather than a direct speech, since it is unlikely that a Jew would reveal this openly. Also, in a theatrical staging that reflects the context of that speech, Bassanio could be seen as a hypocrite for "offering social pleasantries to one whom he consults only because he needs money" (Overton, 29).

Overton gives further examples of how staging could change a supposedly villainous character to a sympathetic one and, conversely, portray Antonio as an example of a bad Christian. The speech in which Shylock remembers Antonio’s hypocrisy and injustice can be played as "an object lesson in irony," and Antonio’sG. Greatbach, Shylock after the Trial angry response would betray his lack of understanding of his own misbehavior. Shylock’s remarks in the last scene can follow this pattern of showing him in a sympathetic and even humorous light—for example, his indictment of Venetian hypocrisy for owning slaves but not allowing him his legal property. His actions can be depicted as the only weapon he has against the humiliations that have been heaped upon him. Indeed, there is no way to prove that he intended to go through with the actual deed of obtaining his pound of flesh. His behavior understandably changed markedly after Jessica ran away; he had been a relatively patient character at the beginning of the play. All Shylock really wants from the Court is sympathy and justice, which of course he will not get. Instead, he takes whatever ironic enjoyment he can out of a situation that he knows is hopeless. He sharpens his knife, pretends to scan the bond for a reference to a surgeon, and so on; and yet, he may still not intend to carry out his threat.

Aside from these possibilities, however, the scene seems to be set up not to humanize Shylock but rather to allow Portia and Nerissa to dress up and have their day in court. Hey, it’s funny! The audiences probably loved it! But the cost of this "comedy" was just too great. The scenes depicting Shylock’s mad grief would be all too accurate in real life under those circumstances; and at the conclusion of the Court scene Shylock is humiliated—to a great extent by Portia, the character who had pontificated about the quality of mercy—and it is decidedly not funny.

It could have been otherwise: the scenes in which the money is borrowed and the bond made; in which Antonio learns he cannot pay the bond, and sends for Bassanio; the beginning of the court scene, with Shylock pretending to sharpen his knife; Portia and Nerissa pretending to be a lawyer and his clerk: all these scenes and others provide a multitude of comedic possibilities. The brilliant Shakespeare could surely have found a way to end the court scene on an up-beat note, and it could have been hilarious. Was there a message that he felt he could not pass on any other way? It’s impossible to know for certain, which, to all practical purposes, means there is no such message.

The Shylock problem cannot be confined to what Shakespeare meant, since that remains conjecture; what must be considered is the impact his character has had and continues to have. Overton observed, "Under the Nazi regime, within the last fifty years, The Merchant of Venice was produced to incite racial hatred." 11 

It may be that Shakespeare meant to provide his audience with food for thought, but those who look for anti-Semitic material will find it and be blind to anything else. Should Shakespeare be held responsible for such negative interpretations of Shylock? At least one Shakespearean scholar thought he should not, and apparently went to great lengths toward that end.

James Shapiro writes that the first Jewish professor of English literature in England, Israel Gollancz, was a celebrated Shakespearean in the 1890s whose work "demonstrates the complex bind he experienced as a figure responsible for celebrating the dual heritage of Shakespeare and Anglo-Jewry." Gollanz published A Book of Homage to Shakespeare, in which he positions Shakespeare as a universal genius. He spoke about Shylock to the Jewish Historical Society in 1916 and published an edition of The Merchant of Venice the following year. He "strains to find in Shakespeare a plea for religious and national toleration," and wrote that the lines

Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it (V.i.71-72)

suggest that "Shylock, too, has an immortal soul; the muddy vesture of decay is made more muddy by the scorn and contempt of the Antonios of the time. There, too, is the music—if it could only be heard aright." 12

Gollanz's inclination to view Shylock in a positive light is, as indicated above, not inconsistent with the text. For example, Marchette Chute calls into question Shylock’s greed, as represented by his insistence on charging interest:

Even more unrealistic [than Shakespeare’s Verona] is the way the characters discuss usury, which was not only a commonplace in Venice but equally a commonplace in Shakespeare’s London. A government decree at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign stated firmly that usury was a sin but also went on to state that ten percent was a legal rate of interest. Half the members of Shakespeare’s audience had either lent or borrowed money at high rates of interest. . . . As one contemporary remarked, "He is accounted but for a fool that doth lend his money for nothing," and although in theory the average Englishman still held to the medieval conception of usury as a wicked occupation fit only for Jews, in practice every Londoner made it a part of normal business procedure. (Chute, 176).

If Chute is correct, it follows that Antonio hates Shylock not because he lends money at interest, but because he is a Jew. However, Shakespeare's description of Shylock the Jew could not have been realistic; Chute contends, as did Overton and others, that Shakespeare had no opportunity to see any real Jews, since they had all been exiled from England in the Middle Ages and the law of exile was still in force. Chute cites as proof an incident involving one Joachim Gaunz, a mining expert working in Bristol. It was discovered that he was a Jew, and he was arrested and deported. Chute writes,

The crime of Joachim Gaunz was not his race but his religion, and if he had been baptized into the Christian faith he would have been welcome in England. . . . The point is illustrated in The Merchant of Venice by Shylock’s daughter, who is perfectly respectable from the audience’s point of view because "I shall be saved by my husband; he hath made me a Christian."

Chute further writes that the only models available to Shakespeare were Chaucer’s "cursed Jew" or Marlowe’s Barabas, who tries to poison a city full of Christians and is finally plunged into a boiling cauldron (Chute, 177). The fact that Shakespeare was able to break from this tradition makes Shylock a remarkable creation; although he retains the stereotypical quality of miserliness, he is more than just a comic villain. Shakespeare invested him with a degree of humanity that made it possible for actors to interpret him in many ways. According to Fisch, "Edmund Kean's portrail in 1814 was notable for its tragic intensity, while Sir Henry Irving in 1879 acted the part in a radically idealized form, muting the evil qualities of Shylock" (1272). Much later, in post-World War II Germany, The Merchant of Venice "was tactfully rehabilitated by directors—many of whom had suffered under the Third Reich—who offered a Shylock of tragic dignity"; and not surprisingly, in Israel, "heroic portrayals of Shylock have served as touchstones in the forging of a national Jewish Identity. The one attempt by an Israeli director to portray Shylock as a medievalized Jew, shrewd, grasping, and currish (Tel Aviv, 1972) was roundly attacked by the nationalistic press as a throwback to the vicious stereotype that had made Shylock a household word." 13 

Shylock continues to be the focus of attention for readers, audiences, and critics, and yet he remains an enigma. Depending on the wishes of directors and the actors who portray him, he can be an unmitigated villain, a victim "more sinned against than sinning," or anything in between. Shakespeare’s intentions must likewise remain a mystery.


1. Will and Ariel Durant, The Story of Civilization, VII: The Age of Reason Begins, p. 92; quoting Walter Raleigh, Shakespeare, 150. (Return to text)

2. James Shapiro writes in Shakespeare and the Jews that requiring Shylock to become a Christian "produces a fantasy ending in which the circumcising Jew [who wanted to cut a pound of flesh near Antonio’s heart] is metamorphosed through conversion into a gentle Christian.... Antonio’s sardonic remark upon agreeing to Shylock’s bond—the Hebrew will turn Christian—proves to be unusually prophetic" (pp. 130-131).  text

3. Harold Fisch, Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 14, p. 1262. Bulman also mentions Roderigo Lopez in this connection. text

4. Bill Overton, The Merchant of Venice, p. 24. "The play celebrates Antonio’s generosity to his friends without acknowledging. . . that Jews also took no interest from each other. . ." (p. 26). Overton is no doubt referring to the Bible’s prohibition against interest: "When you lend money to My people, to the poor person who is with you, do not act toward him as a creditor; do not lay interest upon him" (Exodus 22:24). This verse does not confine itself to Jews, but includes "the poor person who is with you"—for example, a visiting traveler. text

5. Overton quotes John Russell Brown that "nowhere in the play does Shylock show any tenderness towards his daughter." But Shylock speaks pleasantly to Jessica even when he is anxious about leaving his house to meet with Bassanio (II.v). text

6. Overton, p. 26, quoting from Playing Shakespeare,  p. 169. Barton’s comment is as meaningless as suggesting that Shakespeare depicts Othello as a murdering Moor, but that doesn’t make the play racist. text

7. Queen Elizabeth’s Jewish physician, Roderigo Lopez, was a rare exception to the general rule, until he was accused of accepting a bribe to poison the queen. According to Durant, "The evidence was inconclusive, and Elizabeth long hesitated to sign the death warrant; but the London populace took his guilt for granted. . . . Possibly Shakespeare was moved or commissioned to tap this mood by writing The Merchant of Venice (1596?). He shared in some measure the feelings of his audience; he allowed Shylock to be represented as a comic character in slovenly dress and with a vast artificial nose. . . ." (Durant p. 91-92) text

8. Jacob said to Laban, "You know how I served you [for fourteen years] and what your livestock were with me. For the little that you had before I came has expanded substantially as God has blessed you with my coming; and now, when will I also do something for my own house?" (Genesis 30:29-30) text

9. Critics have used this incident to brand Shylock a hypocrite. It is indeed puzzling that Shylock accepted Bassanio’s invitation to dine after turning down the earlier invitation. I did not find an answer to this; perhaps it was prudent to maintain a pleasant relationship with his "client." text

10. John Gross observes that Shylock’s single sentence, upon hearing this news, was "It was my turquoise, I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor." A single sentence, but one of those Shakespearean sentences that go a mile deep. Gross adds that the turquoise was believed to have magical properties, "and if the ring was dear to Shylock while Leah was alive, it must have been doubly precious now she was dead. . . ." (p. 68). text

11. One can imagine Othello being produced for the same purpose—to incite racial hatred—since there is sufficient "evidence" in the play to show Othello as a superstitious murderer rather than as a noble man "who loved not wisely but well." text

12. Shapiro, p. 79, as quoted in John Gross, Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy, pp. 269-70. Gross obesrves that "Gollancz was forced back on a kind of conjuring trick" in interpreting these lines. text

13. James Bulman, The Merchant of Venice, p. 145; quoting from Avraham Oz, "Transformations of Authenticity: The Merchant of Venice in Israel, 1936-1980," pp. 166-67. Bulman includes an index with significant twentieth-century productions of The Merchant of Venice as well as major actors and staff of many productions discussed in his book. Laurence Olivier and Brian Bedford were two of the many actors who assayed the Shylock role. text

Works Cited

Bulman, James C. The Merchant of Venice: Shakespeare in Performance. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1991.

Chute, Marchette. Shakespeare of London. New York: E. P. Dutton Co., Inc., 1949.

Durant, Will and Ariel. The Story of Civilization, VII: The Age of Reason Begins. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961.

Gross, John. Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Overton, Bill. The Merchant of Venice: Text and performance. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, Inc., 1987.

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice: The New Folger Library Shakespeare. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.

Shapiro, James. Shakespeare and the Jews. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.


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