Shylock and the Genius of Shakespeare
Okay, so it may not be breaking news that Shakespeare was a genius. But I was reminded of what a fabulous study his character Shylock in the Merchant of Venice is by watching Shakespeare Uncovered, a PBS TV series with F. Murray Abrahams discussing the role of Shylock.
I know I don’t need to but it’ll make me feel better if I remind you of the plot. Bassanio wants to marry the rich Portia but needs the money to woo her. He asks his friend Antonio (the Merchant of Venice) for it and although Antonio is willing, his money is tied up in some ships soon to dock. Antonio borrows from Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, even though they despise each other. Shylock agrees but if Antonio defaults, he demands to be allowed to recoup his losses by taking a pound of Antonio’s flesh. And things go downhill from there.
How did Shakespeare feel about Shylock?
There is a hot debate among scholars whether Shakespeare was anti-Semitic.
I think there is plenty to suggest he might have been. For one thing, Jews were forbidden to live in the England of Shakespeare’s time so he would have little direct experience but only the prevailing view across Europe which was profoundly anti-Semitic. Where the play is set, Venice, Jews were forced to live in a ghetto and were not allowed to practice most professions.
But the strongest evidence, to my mind, is that The Merchant of Venice is supposed to be a comedy and Shylock seems to be set up as the comic villain. We first see him as funny but defensive and full of hate. The pound of flesh idea is introduced early on, to add to our perception of Shylock as vindictive scoundrel. Antonio’s friends ridicule him (“my daughter, my ducats”). Worthy of contempt.
This is where the genius bit comes in
Shakespeare gives us the comic villain needed in a comedy but he also—and this is the genius bit—makes Shylock is a complete person. So much so that the five hundred years later, when attitudes have changed, he has morphed from a figure of ridicule for Elizabethans to a tragic one to a modern audience. For example, in Shylock’s most famous speech—If you prick us, do we not bleed—Elizabethans would probably have heard it as a justification for the violence Shylock hopes to wreak on Antonio. But modern audiences interpret the same passage as a plea for tolerance.
It’s not the words that have changed; we have. And Shylock is still a compelling character.
What can we learn from this?
Even if we can’t all be Shakespeares, we can try to emulate him in his ability to make fully human every character in our writing. The heroes are not all light but have dark shadows they must contend with to remain a worthwhile figure. The villains are nuanced—both evil and good, worthy of contempt and empathy. Human, in fact.
The closer we can get to this ideal, the more memorable our work will be. Although five hundred years may be a stretch.