Caroline M

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Caroline M. Benzing
Shakespeare on Stage 378
August 7, 2002
Dr. Strickland
Shakespeare’s Shylock:
What to think of The Merchant of Venice in 2002
Shakespeare is unlike any other writer in that I don’t even have to mention his first
name for him to be unmistakably recognizable. While this is the first time I have done
research on Shakespeare, I find myself with a nagging voice in my head saying, “Can
anything new really be said?” Even saying that isn’t new. Putting all disclaimers aside, I
don’t think The Merchant of Venice can be discussed enough. Out of the many yet few plays
of Shakespeare I have read, I have found The Merchant of Venice to be worthy of its
controversy. This play is a definitive display of how much Shakespeare transcends man’s
attempt at understanding himself through art. Even in 2002, with very little connecting me to
Shakespeare’s world, much of what has brought me to a new appreciation for this play resides
in the potential Shakespeare has to continue to maintain worthy scholarship in academia. In
other words, scholars like James Shapiro and C. L. Barber have aided my own interpretations
and interests into something tangible and hopefully interesting.
The rich history the play touches upon reaches into many worlds—16th century
England and Venice, shared biblical law both Jews and Christians follow, and the question of
whether Shylock is really the Jew audiences are supposed to hate or a symbol of a people that
James Shapiro thinks is really no different at all?
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The issue of whether Shakespeare was anti-Semitic has been repeated over and over. I
find James Shapiro’s attitude toward this topic necessary and refreshing. Shapiro firmly states
that his own research is not based on understanding whether Shakespeare was an anti-Semite
or not. His ideas on race are admirable because they work to transcend the pervasive
arguments of how different Jews and Christians are. He works to understand that history and
time play a distinct role in how Elizabethan’s determined race and how someone, like myself,
determine what racism is today. Shapiro says, “While I frequently allude to race, I want to
make clear at the outset that ideas about race, much like those about nation, have no basis in
any kind of essential or biological reality, and are therefore often muddled or contradictory.
My interest in race is narrowly concerned with what led early modern English men and
women to think of themselves and of other people, and especially Jews, in terms of what they
imagined to be racial difference. [...] race may not be a reality, but racial thinking is, and, as
such, warrants closer examination” (11). The historical context that The Merchant of Venice
lies in provides a basis to begin exploring some of the more compelling issues.
I will explore some of the history surrounding the treatment of Jews and in Venice and
England. I will also take a look at issues such as usury in Elizabethan dramatic history, what
this play says about the relationship between Christians and Jews, and why Shylock continues
to hold so much at stake in terms of the progression in understanding Jewish culture in
Shakespearean drama. Much of what I will discuss is based on the haunting anti-Semitic
characteristics I find myself interested in.
My first reading of The Merchant of Venice began with little to now knowledge of
Venetian society, particularly in terms of Jewish life and little knowledge of Jewish culture in
England during the 16th century. In the 10th century when Venice began to accumulate a
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Jewish population, laws of intolerance existed. The forcing of the Jews to wear the yellow
badges for recognition, prohibiting Jews from becoming any kind of higher professional
(except doctors who were barely permitted to treat Christians), and finally the Jewish Ghetto
opening as the segregated community in 1516 are notable characteristics of the progression of
the anti-Semitism there. No serious violence was committed against the Jews; however, the
Venetian laws revealed a strong intolerance and desire for segregation1.
The segregation and laws determining what kinds of jobs Jews held in Venice
(moneylenders, bankers, pawn bankers) reveal that they were tolerated because of the
economic stability they gave the Venetians, and yet Jews in 16th century Venice remained
prosperous under the intolerant circumstances. The kind of rational that feeds this notion that
Jews are bankers and money lenders comes from the bible both Jews and Christians follow as
law. In the text The Jews of Modern Venice, Benjamin Ravid explains the origins of the law
that dictates how Christians cannot lend money but Jews could. Ravid explains how this law
determined the roles Christian and Jew would take in moneylending and how this determined
much of the behavior between both groups. He writes:
Jewish moneylending was clearly very important, indeed indispensable. In
theory, Christians followed the Jewish interpretation of the biblical laws of
Exodus 23:24, Leviticus 25:35-38, and Deuteronomy 23:20-21, which forbade
moneylending at interest to a brother, as referring not literally to a brother but
rather, more extensively, to all co-religionists. Therefore, Jewish
moneylending at interest to the Christian poor not only helped to alleviate the
socio-economic problems of an increasingly urbanization economy but also
rendered it unnecessary for Christians to violate this religious tradition. (8)
Facts taken from The Jewish Encyclopedia and Encyclopedia Judaica.
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For characters such as Antonio and Bassanio to have the way they do to Shylock becomes
extremely problematic in trying to figure out whether Shylock truly is the evil characters
audiences are supposed to hate or the suffering man who lives each day being ridiculed.
Shylock is there to lend money. As a Jew, his job, his profession, the major reason he is
allowed to live in Venice is because he can save the Christian soul. This also plays with the
idea of how the Christians in the play are hypocritical. Are they? Can they be justified as not
with this quote? This is possible but easy of an answer to accept. The hypocrisy dwells in the
fact that Antonio and Bassanio are often criticized as being anti-Semitic characters. Are they
anti-Semitic or just following Christian law? That in itself go beyond this examination yet still
remains to baffle critics of the play and leave audiences trying to figure out what Shylock
really deserves.
Between 1594 and 1596 it seems scholars agree The Merchant of Venice was written
and first introduced.2 Noted circumstances may have influenced the kind of negative attitude,
Shakespeare may have borrowed from to produce a play for a specific audience. The story of
Roderigo Lopez may have hit Shakespeare’s ears and lent a specific realization about the
intolerance of Jews prevalent in his society. John Palmer explains how in 1594:
[...] a Jew of Portuguese decent, physician to the Queen, wrongfully accused of
plotting to poison Her Majesty of reasons that have ceased to have any great interest
for posterity. Essex [politician Thomas Devereux, Earl of Essex], who manufactured
the evidence, also presided at the trial, an arrangement which greatly simplified the
procedure. The unfortunate Jew was hanged drawn and quartered at Tyburn in the
presence of an excited crowd [...]. (112)
John Palmer contests that Shakespeare began writing The Merchant of Venice in 1594. C. L. Barber believes
Shakespeare probably wrote the play in 1596. Both statements are in the essays cited.
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Palmer continues to speculate that Shakespeare and Lopez were mere acquaintances.
Considering Shakespeare’s notoriety with historical tragedies, the possibility of a plot idea of a
Jew living in a Christian society and the problems it could pose is probable.
Anti-Semitism was popular and Shakespeare played off that popularity for personal
prosperity. Palmer’s essay “Shylock” says that Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta used
this same popularity to prosper itself. He says, “Barabbas, the Jew of Malta, embodied in his
wicked person all the qualities which a persecuting majority commonly attributed to its
victims. For four years Marlowe’s Jew had held the stage and, during the excitement aroused
by the trial of Lopez, between May and December, 1594, his play was twenty times revived”
(113). With these notions in mind, an article written in 1916 by Arthur Biuins Stonex titled
“The Usurer in Elizabethan Drama” discusses some of the characteristics surrounding the
creation of The Merchant of Venice.
Stonex begins by quoting Jeremy Bartham, author of the book, Defense of Usury.
This part of Stonex’s essay struck at the heart of The Merchant of Venice and brings about
questions such as, Does Christian doctrine all for such intolerance or are the Christians really
hateful because of jealousy? and How are Jews supposed understand the intolerance when
their faith tells them prosperity is holy? Stonex quotes, “‘Those who have the resolution to
sacrifice the present to the future, are natural objects of envy to those who have sacrificed the
future to the present. The children who have eaten their cake, are the natural enemies of the
children who have theirs’” (17). This quote speaks volumes about the constant berating of
Shylock. In terms of Shylock as a usurer, he has the means and the option of lending or
denying Antonio the money. The quote supports the argument that by being a usurer with
more means than Antonio and Bassanio (at the moment of inquiry by Bassanio at the
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beginning of the play), Shylock’s religion and heritage can easily be qualified as a scapegoat.
Antonio sacrifices his future for Bassanio’s present. Shylock sacrifices the present for the
future, yet still, by all means—literally—his sacrifice is minimal. As a usurer, Shylock is
trapped. As a Jew he is supposed to be the moneylender who prevents Christians from sinning
while suffering at the hand of their humiliation. Shylock’s position as scapegoat remains
Barber discusses this idea nicely when he says:
[...] to have a rich friend who will set you up with one more loan so that you can marry
a woman both beautiful and rich, girlishly yielding and masterful; and on top of that to
get rid of the obligation of the loan because the old money bags from who you friend
got the money is proved to be so villainous that he does not deserve to be paid back!
If one adds humanitarian and democratic indignation at ant-Semitism, it is hard to see,
from a distance, what there can be to say for the play: Shylock seems to be made a
scapegoat in the crudest, most dishonest way.” (13)
Barber seems to be holding a conversation with John Palmer. The bible analysis Palmer
discusses supports Barber’s notion of Shylock as the scapegoat. The idea of scapegoat
complicates any argument that tries to justify the plays heavy influence of anti-Semitism.
Shylock almost quivers at the end of the trial scene; his entrapment reinforced and the greedy,
vengeful, and evil characteristics that follow him become even more so as the Christians revel
in goodness, forgiveness, loyalty, and morality.
Before I began to look more closely at The Merchant of Venice the idea of Shylock
being more than an individual character never crossed my mind. When I began to think about
this notion I disliked what it also said about the other characters in the play. I did not want the
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possibility for other characters to be seen as symbols of their “kind” either. For one,
Shylock’s symbolic qualities (if they do exist), could easily be the characteristics of another
group and so used to deny Shylock a name, a family, and a personality so distinct and
necessary and therefore render the notion unsubstantial. Two, it also makes the argument that
other groups in the play can be easily marginalized as such and renders their personalities of
less importance. In other words, if their behavior is just a symbol of a people they cannot
control, than, as individuals they are not responsible for their actions.
Shylock begs to be seen as an individual. Though we never meet Leah, we know at
some point she and Shylock were married. Shylock cries out in Act III, Scene I, “Out upon
her!—thou torturest me Tubal, —it was my turquoise, I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor:
I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys” (75). Shylock is not just a Jew—
Shakespeare could not have named him and audiences may question “Is it easier to hate a
group with a character as symbol?” He is not just a symbol and therefore allows for that type
of question to remain necessary in trying to understand how hate perpetuates.
As individual characters with names, Jessica and Shylock must remain individuals to
accentuate Jessica’s dissention and betrayal of her father. As an individual, Jessica needs to be
held responsible for her actions. If Shylock were that symbol of the Jew, how are audiences to
take Jessica’s behavior when she abandons and betrays her father? If the two were posed as a
group (which is not the case because Jessica converts and becomes a moral Christian woman),
the greedy, vengeful, and evil stereotypes could certainly stick. Jessica’s behavior as a Jew
was stealing, running away, and humiliating her father. As a newly converted Christian she is
a loyal wife and “good” person. Her conversion helps Shylock seem, as an individual, to live
up to the nasty criticism of the Christians. She is now a Christian, and no longer as a Jew,
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does she assert her self will and individual qualities that leave her father alone as the
denigrated man.
One of the interesting things I have found about this play is the character’s attempt at
pointing out the differences between the Christians and the Jews. Obviously the differences
exist, yet even Shylock contradicts himself on occasion. My initial reaction to Shylock as a
character is sympathy. The devices used to gain sympathy for him (forced to be converted,
constantly humiliated by people, particularly his daughter, and made to defend himself
throughout the play) for me, make the contradictions he commits all the more controversial.
Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech placed along side his reveling in taking a “pound of
flesh” cause me to look more closely at how the two groups try to disassemble their
similarities but get caught in the trap of inevitability—they are not that different. Shapiro sees
these differences as possibly not a reality but the reality lying in how people work to enforce
the differences. He says:
Antonio and Shylock, who fiercely insist on how different they are from each other, to
the last seek out ways of preserving that difference through symbolic acts that convert
their adversary into their own kind. Paradoxically, baptism that figuratively
uncircumciseses—would have the opposite effect, erasing, rather than preserving, the
literal or figurative boundaries that distinguish merchant from Jew. (130)
Shylock struggles to understand the Christian’s rational. The Christian’s claim to try and
understand the same thing about the Jews. In The Jewish Encyclopedia it was discussed how
the racism against Jews was not nearly the racism we know today against their culture. If a
Jew converted to Christianity he was all right. His heritage was denied, he was saved, and
another Christian walks the earth. He was accepted more than what the 20th century
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experience of anti-Semitism has left us with—the notion of biological inferiority. Shylock’s
famous speech works to show how the differences diminish in the reality of it all. He says:
[…] Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses,
affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to
the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter
and summer as a Christian is?—if you pick us do we not bleed? if you tickle us do we
not laugh? if you poison us do we not die? and if you wrong us shall we not revenge?
Even in his speech, can audiences feel the suffering and fear. His matter of being is at stake.
This 20th century idea of anti-Semitism is felt here and acknowledge as more entrapment for
Among all the scholarly work done on The Merchant of Venice it still remains potent
with debatable ideas. This could easily be said about much literature but not all literature
holds an audience for five centuries. Regardless of how read and reread Shakespeare is, I still
find his work profound in a way that holds necessity in academia. This necessity stands in
cultural studies, history, and literature. All interwoven yet distinct enough where new ideas
can still be generated about such pieces of work. What I have touched upon is just that, a
miniscule attempt at a hundreds of year old play. The Merchant of Venice begs to have the
option of being seen through a certain historical focus. I find this to be so relevant because of
the way it draws upon issues that our world still deals with today. Shakespeare can still found
to be relevant. Unfortunately the issues of today mirror those of yesterday, but history seeks
to help readers of such texts to understand the effects of one single play from one century to
the next. As ineffectual as the comparison between history and literature may sound here, I
have found my research on The Merchant of Venice enhanced because of what I have learned
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about 16th century Venice and England. Shylock is that historical character that will continue
to be important as long as we try to understand the people in our world. To study Christians
and Jews, if only for a brief moment, through such pieces of literature, helps to maintain the
notion that understanding one another is remains important in academia. To be able to try and
understand what racism is through a look at an individual character among a religious group
must be explored and demands historical context. It would be easy to make assumptions
about the plays message without looking beyond. It remains to be more difficult when the
history involved causes those assumptions to become blurry, and essential unworthy of such a
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Works Cited
Barber, C.L. “The Merchants and the Jew of Venice: Wealth’s Communion and an
Intruder.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Merchant of Venice.
Ed. Sylvan Banet. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970. 11-32.
Palmer, John. “Shylock.” Shylock. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House
Publishers, 1991. 112-136.
Ravid, Benjamin. “The Venetian Government and the Jews.” The Jews of Early
Modern Venice. Ed. Robert C. Davis and Benjamin Ravid. Baltimore:
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. 3-30.
Shapiro, James. Introduction. Shakespeare and the Jews. By Shapiro. New York:
Columbia University Press, 1996. 1-12.
Stonex, Arthur Biuins. “The Usurer in Elizabethan Drama.” PMLA 31 (1916): 17-23.
—. “‘The Pound of Flesh’.” Shakespeare and the Jews. New York:
Columbia University Press, 1996. 113-130.