Harry Golden, “Shylock and William Shakespeare”
let us get started on William Shakespeare and The
Merchant of Venice.
Mr. Shakespeare was first and foremost Mr. Theatre. He was a
craftsman interested in filling his theater; earning dividends for
his colleagues and partner-producers and providing a livelihood for
his fellow actors. He also wrote a “Jew play” [as Christopher Marlowe had done with The Jew of Malta] . . . Shakespeare
gave his audience a play in which they could confirm their prejudices
– but he did much more. Shakespeare was the first writer in seven
hundred years who gave the Jew a “motive.” Why did he need to
give the Jew a motive? Certainly his audience did not expect it. For
centuries they had been brought up on the stereotype, “this is evil
because it’s evil,” and here Shakespeare comes along and goes to
so much “unnecessary” trouble giving Shylock a motive. At last –
sir, you spit on me Wednesday last;
spurned me such a day; another time
called me dog.
words. Many a Southerner of ante-bellum days did not bother about
getting a “pound of flesh.” He finished his traducer on the spot.
But Shakespeare gives us no rest. He is actually writing a satire on
the Gentile middle class and the pseudo-Christians, and he wastes no
time. What does Antonio, this paragon of Christian virtue, say to
this charge of Shylock’s? Does he turn the other cheek? Does he
follow the teaching of Jesus to “love thine enemies?” Not by a
long shot. This “noble” man replies to Shylock’s charge:
am as like to call thee so again,
spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.
Shakespeare has hardly begun . . . why does this noble Antonio, the
Christian merchant, want the three thousand ducats to begin with? Why
did Shakespeare go out of his way to show that Antonio’s request
for a loan was based on cheapness and chicanery? He did not have to
do that. Certainly not for an anti-Semitic audience of 1598. He could
have contrived a million more noble causes. Patriotism. Antonio
needed the money for widows and orphans. Or to defend Venice against
an Invader. How the audience would have eaten that up. But
Shakespeare refuses to make it that simple. Let us discuss the play
from the viewpoint of the audience, like when your children go to the
movies. The “good guys” and the “bad guys.” Antonio and his
friends are the “good guys”; Shylock, the Jew, is the “bad
guy”. Now what do we have here? Antonio’s friend, Bassanio, one
of the “good guys,” is in debt to Antonio. He wants to pay back
and he has a scheme. Portia just inherited a wad of money. If he can
get Portia and her dough all his troubles would be over. But Bassanio
says the project needs some front money. You need money to woo a rich
girl like Portia. So he says to Antonio, lend me just a little. He
says that when he was a youth and when he lost one arrow, he shot
another in the same direction and often retrieved both. So now, lend
me some dough so I can make love to a rich lady who has just
inherited a vast fortune, and with good luck I’ll not only pay you
back what you advanced me but I’ll give you all back debts I owe
is the deal the two “noble” guys in Shakespeare’s play made.
Antonio says, “It’s a deal, only all my ready cash is tied up in
my ships, and I’ll not be able to lay my hands on ready cash for
ninety days or so.” And so they go to Shylock to borrow the money.
could we help but sense that Shakespeare was writing an indictment of
the hypocrites who vitiated every precept taught them by
Christianity? Shylock is a widower. He has only one daughter,
Jessica, who falls in love with Lorenzo, a Gentile. The “good”
guys induce her not only to desert her widowed father but to rob him,
and dressed in boy’s clothing (a third crime in Jewish law).
Jessica steals away in the night to elope with Lorenzo.
will make fast the doors, and gild myself
some more ducats, and be with you straight.
on Western law Jessica has committed the crime of theft. She has also
committed the moral crime of stealing out of her father’s house
during the night and deserting him, and as the young thief comes away
with her father’s money, what do the “good” guys say? Gratiano
by my hood, a Gentile and no Jew!
you imagine how the audience howled with glee as Jessica was leaving
Shylock’s house with his caskets of money? Shakespeare probably
figured that during this howling the audience would miss the
follow-up line. You have deserted your father, stolen out of his
house during the night dressed in boy’s clothing, and robbed him of
his money, and now you are a Gentile, and, by my hood, no Jew.
The playwright set his 1598 audience to howling. The poet-philosopher
wrote for all future generations.
. . Shakespeare leads us up to the clincher. The audience and the
players are now waiting for the big moment before the court where
Shylock is bringing his suit against Antonio, the merchant, for his
pound of flesh. Portia enters disguised as a lawyer and what does she
say? What are her first words at this final showdown between the
“good” guys and the “bad” guys? Portia asks a most natural
is the Merchant here, and which the Jew?
the Plaintiff and the Defendant are standing before the court. Portia
has never seen either one of them before, but as an educated
gentlewoman she has behind her the culture of many centuries of the
stereotype Jew. If not actually with horns, you certainly can
recognize the “devil” a mile away. And there he is ten feet away
– she has a fifty fifty chance at making a guess between the “good”
guy and the “bad” guy but she won’t risk it.
is the Merchant here, and which the Jew?
when it all goes against Shylock, Shakespeare seems to go out of his
way to give us a frightening picture of the “victors.” He has
them standing together pouring out a stream of vengeance. We’re not
through with you yet Jew, and the money we have left you after you
have paid all these fines, you must leave that to Jessica and your
son-in-law who robbed you. Shakespeare keeps them hissing their hate.
Tarry yet a while, Jew, we’re still not through with you. You must
also become a Christian. The final irony. The gift of love offered in
an atmosphere which is blue with hatred. And as all of this is going
on, Shakespeare leaves only Shylock with a shred of dignity!
pray you, give me leave to go from hence.