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Three Interpretations of Shylock

From Shakespeare's The merchant of Venice by Richard Jones and Franklin T. Baker. New York: D. Appleton and Company.


"Look Here, upon This Picture, and on This"

The cry of Hamlet to his mother in the closet-scene, "Look here, upon this picture, and on this," rises easily to the lips of one busied with the literature of comment on The Merchant of Venice. For interpreters of the play differ greatly in their attitude toward Shylock - and their attitude toward Shylock influences greatly, as a matter of course, their attitude toward the other characters of the play. Shylock is, indeed, according to the exposition of many learned judges, in reality the hero of the play - as he is, for example, to the editor of the great English Dictionary of National Biography, who has of late written, "For Shylock (not the merchant Antonio) is the hero of the play, and the main interest culminates in the Jew's trial and discomfiture." [1]

While, on the contrary, Gervinus, in his Shakespeare Commentaries, has entered a vigorous protest against the 'lowness' and 'madness' that have gone so far as "to make on the stage a martyr and hero out of this outcast of humanity." So also to the most honored of Shakespearean scholars, of whose worth the wide world is not ignorant, Shylock is (up to a certain point) "simply a cruel and vindictive creditor." And this incomparable Shakespeare scholar is clearly convinced that "this is not a 'tendenz-drama,' wherein is infused a subtle plea of toleration for the Jews." [2]

So opposite, then, are the points of view from which the characters of the play are at times presented, both in literary criticism and upon the stage, that the reader - before making for himself a final choice, before declaring precipitately,
"Deliver me the key:
Here do I choose, and thrive I as I may!" -
might well, quite in accord with the spirit of Portia's plea to Bassanio, lest he do choose wrong, suffer himself to be detained 'some month or two' in a survey of the field of criticism concerning this play, with an open mind looking meanwhile here upon this picture and on this, and looking ever, as a matter of course, upon the text as well from which these pictures are, more or less justifiably, drawn.

First Interpretation - Shylock a Wolfish, Bloody, Inexorable Dog

Of the various interpretations of the character of Shylock one makes him throughout a mere bloodthirsty villain; a stony adversary, an inhuman wretch; a misbeliever, cut-throat dog; a dog Jew; the most impenetrable cur that ever kept with men. In the downfall of this 'damn'd, inexorable dog,' whose desires are wolfish, bloody, starved, and ravenous, even though the downfall be brought about by means of a palpable legal quibble, they wholly rejoice, agreeing with Bassanio that to do this great right it is quite justifiable to do a little wrong, [3] if one may thereby curb this cruel devil of his will. And untroubled by any recognition of some right in wrong, of humanity in inhumanity, on the part of Shylock, they give their sympathies unreservedly to his antagonists in the play; they are content with the good Antonio's 'expectoratory method' of manifesting his distaste for this particular member of the Hebrew race; they take unalloyed delight in Jessica's marriage out of her race and religion, offering excuses for "the dry eyes - nay, laughing lips - with which she departs"; they even pass lightly over her robbery of her father's jewels and the exchange of her dead mother's betrothal ring for a monkey, and, protesting that she is daughter neither to his manners nor his blood, with Gratiano they exclaim admiringly, "by my hood, a Gentile and no Jew."

The readers who thus interpret the play pay little heed to the touches by which, to others, Shakespeare has humanized the character of Shylock and made his desire for revenge, if not admirable, yet, fierce as it is, comprehensible at least. And, far from being offended by what some of the less rigorous souls of a debile age have dispraised as the contemptuously brutal treatment accorded to Shylock and his race by the good Antonio and his friends, they are like with Antonio to spit on him again and spurn him too, and with Gratiano to exclaim, "O, be thou damn'd, inexorable dog!"

Second Interpretation - Shylock the Depositary of the Vengeance of a Race

In striking contrast with this traditional interpretation is the more recent view of those who, passing lightly by or at least accounting for [4] the pitilessness of Shylock's desire for revenge, cannot pass lightly by the injustice, indeed what appears to them the inhumanity, of the treatment of Shylock and his race by the Jew-hating but otherwise noble-minded Antonio, who took every opportunity to void his rheum upon Shylock's beard, to spurn him and spit upon his Jewish gaberdine - as much for hate of Shylock's 'sacred nation' as for use of what was his own. "Antonio," says Brandes, [5] for example, "has insulted and baited Shylock in the most brutal fashion on account of his faith and his blood." And Brandes adds further that with the treatment Shylock has suffered he could not but become what he is. "Is there any cause in nature," asks Hales, [6] "that makes these hard hearts?" And his reply in substance is that the Christian who looks frankly and faithfully at this work will not find matter for exultation but only for shame and sadness.

Shylock has been made the hard, savage, relentless creature we see him by long and cruel oppression. He inherited a nature embittered by centuries of insult and outrage. 'Sufferance' had been and was the badge of all his tribe.

The character and deeds of Shylock looked on thus acquire to these interpreters new significance. He is no longer to them a mere individual, possessed by a fierce hate sprung from bargains thwarted or from individual wrongs - friends cooled, enemies heated. Again and again he is reviled as a dog Jew. He thus becomes the representative of a race - of a shamefully wronged race, as may perhaps appear to the interpreters under consideration.

"In the Shylock of Shakespeare," Professor Lounsbury of Yale has said, [7] "is concentrated the wrath of a race turning upon its oppressors - a race conscious of the importance of the part it has played in the past, with its long line of law-givers and prophets to which all nations turn, equally conscious of the misery it has endured and is continuing to endure in the present. As it has been great in suffering, so will it be great in vengeance. Entreaties are useless; threats are mere empty breath. Pity will not soften the heart nor obloquy cause it to yield."

Professor Boas of Oxford has written of Shylock, "The magnificent outburst in which he vindicates against a brutal fanaticism the essential equality of human conditions in Jew and Christian is born of the blood and tears of centuries of martyrdom: it is the exceeding bitter cry, not so much of the solitary usurer as of the entire Hebrew race turning on its bed of pain."

In the Jahrbuch of the Shakespeare Society of Germany, Herr Honigman has said, "Here it is that Shylock figures as the deputy and avenger of his whole shamefully maltreated race. In his tones we hear the protest, crying to heaven, of human rights trodden under foot, against the love of humanity paraded by the hypocritical mouths of his oppressors; and if his towering revenge mounts to fanaticism, it is verily of a different stamp to the fanaticism of usury and greed which the critics are fain to find in his character."

And a Frenchman, Francois Victor Hugo, a son of the author of Les miserables, has written in like manner of this scene, "This sublime imprecation is the most eloquent plea that the human voice has ever dared to utter for a despised race. Whatsoever be the denouement, it is hereby justified. Let Shylock be as implacable as he may, assuredly he will no more than equal his instruction. Even granting that he obtains it, a pound of Antonio's flesh will never outweigh, in the scales of reprisal, the millions of corpses heaped in the Christian shambles by a butchery [8] of thirteen centuries."

In a similar vein has expressed himself the celebrated song-writer and critic, Heine, whose literary work, begun in Germany, closed in France, and of whom we read in the Encyclopedia Britannica, "No German writer since Goethe and Schiller has excited so much interest throughout Europe." In regard to Shylock, Heine, himself of Hebrew descent, has written,
"When thou comest to Venice and wanderest through the Doge's palace, ... far more than of all such historical persons, thou thinkest in Venice of Shakespeare's Shylock, ...
"At least I, wandering hunter after dreams that I am, I looked round everywhere on the Rialto to see if I could not find Shylock. I could have told him something that would have pleased him - namely, that his cousin, Herr von Shylock in Paris, had become the mightiest baron in Christendom, invested by her Catholic Majesty with that Order of Isabella which was founded to celebrate the expulsion of the Jews and Moors from Spain. But I found him nowhere on the Rialto, and I determined to seek my old acquaintance in the Synagogue. The Jews were just then celebrating their Day of Atonement, and they stood enveloped in their white talars, with uncanny motions of the head, looking almost like an assemblage of ghosts. There the poor Jews had stood, fasting and praying, from earliest morning; - since the evening before they had taken neither food nor drink, and had previously begged pardon of all their acquaintances for any wrong they might have done them in the course of the year, that God might thereby also forgive them their wrongs - a beautiful custom, which, curiously enough, is found among this people, strangers though they be to the teaching of Christ.
"Although I looked all around the Synagogue, I nowhere discovered the face of Shylock. And yet I felt he must be hidden under one of those white talars, praying more fervently than his fellow-believers, looking up with stormy, nay frantic wildness, to the throne of Jehovah, the hard God-King. I saw him not. But towards evening, when, according to the Jewish faith, the gates of Heaven are shut, and no prayer can then obtain admittance, I heard a voice, with a ripple of tears that were never wept by eyes. It was a sob that could only come from a breast that held in it all the martyrdom which, for eighteen centuries, had been borne by a whole tortured people. It was the death-rattle of a soul sinking down dead tired at heaven's gates. And I seemed to know the voice, and I felt that I had heard it long ago, when, in utter despair, it moaned out, then as now, 'Jessica, my girl!'"
The interpretation put upon Shylock by the Jews of today is doubtless fairly stated by Rabbi Lewinthal, [9] "This is the wail of the Jew uttered for the centuries. This is the cry that went up from Egypt, from the Roman amphitheatre, from the dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition. We hear its echo all through the Dark Ages; and the genius of Shakespeare voiced it as it had never been voiced before - or since. ... Shylock is a man more sinned against than sinning, whom the inhumanity of the whole world has made inhuman. Long brooding over the shameful treatment of his people has marred his character and dried up the founts of tenderness in his bosom."

Third Interpretation - Shylock Conceived of Essentially in the Anti-Jewish Spirit of Marlowe's Jew of Malta, but Humanized.

Occupying middle ground between these two extremes is the interpretation which regards Shylock as essentially the conventional avaricious, bloodthirsty Jew, a neighbour and near bred to Marlowe's monster, the Jew of Malta, but humanized by what Boas has called Shakespeare's 'almost superhuman, plastic power' - humanized sufficiently to win for him, in certain scenes especially, a measure - a large measure it may be - of the reader's sympathy, but not enough to justify the interpretation given above, which makes Shylock and not Antonio the hero of the play. This interpretation, as given in Ward's History of English Dramatic Literature, [10] is as follows,
"... that the two plays [The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of Malta] are, so far as their main subject is concerned, essentially written in the same spirit, I cannot hesitate in affirming. It is, I am convinced, only modern readers and modern actors who suppose that Shakespeare consciously intended to arouse the sympathy of his audience in behalf of the Jew. The sympathy which, notwithstanding, is aroused, is in truth merely the adventitious result of the unconscious tact with which the poet humanized the character. In both Shakespeare's and Marlowe's plays the view inculcated is, that on the part of a Jew fraud is the sign of his tribe, whereas on the part of Christians counter-fraud, though accompanied by violence, is worthy of commendation. This I cannot but regard as the primary effect of the whole of either play. ...
"The artistic difference between the plays needs no comment. The psychological distinction in the conception of the two principal characters lies, not in the nature of the elements out of which they are compounded - avarice, cruelty, revengefulness, with no softening element but that of paternal love, and this only till it is quenched in the sense of a daughter's desertion - but in the way in which these elements are combined. The art of Shakespeare is immeasurably superior to that of Marlowe in not allowing either avarice or lust of vengeance to attain to such a pitch in his Jew as to take the character out of the range of human nature. In contrast with the unrelieved blackness of Barabas, the character of Shylock remains both truly human and within the limits of dramatic probability."
[Note numbers have been altered.]

1. A Life of William Shakespeare, Sidney Lee, The Macmillan Company of New York, 1899, p. 68.

2. The [Variorum] Merchant of Venice, Horace Howard Furness, J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, p. 223.

3. "As long as Shylock was held to be a wolfish, bloody, inexorable dog, it made but little difference how he was defeated or his victim saved; a Jew had no rights which a Christian was bound to respect. Even charming, gentle Mrs. Inchbald believed that Shakespeare's purpose in writing the play was to 'hold up the Jew to detestation,' and such undoubtedly was the general impression created by the 'snarling malignity' of Macklin's Shylock [1741]." - Furness, p. 403. Mrs. Inchbald's opinions in regard to dramatic literature were evidently esteemed by her contemporaries, as she edited with biographical and critical remarks three collections of plays, aggregating forty-two volumes, in addition to writing nineteen dramas of her own, some of which were for a time, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 'very successful.'

4. [In Shylock] "we see the remains of a great and noble nature, out of which all the genial sap of humanity has been pressed by accumulated injuries." - Shakespeare: His Life, Art, and Characters, H. N. Hudson, Ginn and Company, Boston, p. 291. "Chronologically, the earliest voice, as far as I know, which was raised in defence of Shylock and in denunciation of the illegality of his defeat is that of an Anonymous Contributor to a volume Essays by a Society of Gentlemen at Exeter, printed in 1792. The Essay is called 'An Apology for the Character and Conduct of Shylock,' and is signed 'T. O.' The Essayist's plea for Shylock is, that if his character is cruel it was made so by ill-treatment; that the derision with which his daughter's flight was treated was calculated to embitter the sweetest nature, let alone that of an outcast of society: that his Mosaic law authorized him to exact 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth'; that money-making was the sole occupation that the laws suffered him to follow," etc. - Furness, p. 403.

Professor Lounsbury refers in his Shakespeare as a Dramatic Artist, p. 214, to the contention, in 1777, of "a member of the University of Oxford" that The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure are really tragedies. It would appear, then, that, as early as 1777, to this member of the University of Oxford the treatment of Shylock in the trial-scene was not altogether satisfactory.

5.. William Shakespeare, George Brandes, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1899.

6. J. W. Hales, The Athenmum, 15 December, 1877.

7. Shakespeare as a Dramatic Artist, Thomas R. Lounsbury, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1901, p. 338.

The reader will not, as a matter of course, assume that the whole point of view of any commentator is given in a single quotation.

Professor Lounsbury's chief care here is not to justify Shylock, but to come fairly off in his purpose of illustrating the 'art' with which Shakespeare makes us reconciled to the conclusion of the trial scene - the greater the difficulty, the greater the art. In this case the task set before the poet was one of peculiar difficulty' ... "For in spite of the evil repute in which the Jewish race had been held for centuries, Shakespeare could not but have felt that in following the story out to its conclusion - a conclusion which was probably as well known to the audience as to himself - he could hardly fail to outrage to a certain extent our latent natural sense of justice by a result which purports to be in strictest accordance with justice. Whatever may have been the guilt and bloodthirstiness of Shylock, one cannot get entirely over the impression that he is a hardly used man." The more noteworthy then is the art of the poet, who - though he shows us Shylock 'exalted by wrath,' 'the wrath of a race turning upon its oppressors,' and by "that sublimity of hate which awes us by its intensity, and gives to malignity a character almost of grandeur" - yet "reconciles us [and O the wonder of it, the art of it - it was a task of 'peculiar difficulty,' requiring 'extraordinary skill' - yet the poet shows us that 'which alone' reconciles us] to the result of the trial, which in one sense is an utter travesty of justice."

8. "It was not very long since Jews had been forced to choose between kissing the crucifix and mounting the faggots; and in Strasburg, in 1439, nine hundred of them had in one day chosen the latter alternative. It is strange to reflect, too, that just at the time when, on the English stage, one Mediterranean Jew was poisoning his daughter, and another whetting his knife to cut his debtor's flesh, thousands of heroic and enthusiastic Hebrews in Spain and Portugal, who, after the expulsion of the three hundred thousand at the beginning of the century, had secretly remained faithful to Judaism, were suffering themselves to be tortured, flayed, burnt alive by the Inquisition, rather than forswear the religion of their race." - Brandes, p. 165.

9. Isidore Lewinthal, Rabbi Congregation Ohavai Sholom, Nashville, Tenn.

10. The Macmillan Company, New York.

How to cite this article:
Jones, Richard and Franklin T. Baker. Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1903. Shakespeare Online. 20 Feb. 2011. (date when you accessed the information) < >.

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Shylock, Bassanio and Antonio. From Shakespeare's comedy of the Merchant of Venice. Illus. Sir James D. Linton.