1911 Italian-French film
1911 Italian-French film (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shylock is a Jewish money-lender in William Shakespeare‘s play The Merchant of Venice.

Shylock ruthlessly insists on receiving a previously agreed on “pound of flesh” from the character Antonio, whose expected fortunes have vanished. This forced Antonio to default on the loan he received from Shylock.

Some critics suggest that Shakespeare paints a dangerous, anti-Semitic picture. Others defend Shakespeare, citing Shylock’s cutting speech as evidence that he presents not a one-dimensional but, rather, a complex human character:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?..If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die?

Later, Shylock is outwitted by Portia disguised as a lawyer. After unsuccessfully appealing to Shylock’s humanity, Portia insists that he be allowed to remove Antonio’s flesh on the condition that not one drop of blood is carved from his body. “This bond doth give thee here not a jot of blood” (Act 4 Scene 1).

Realizing he has been outsmarted, Shylock lightens up and the potentially grisly tale ends happily.

Portia and Shylock
Portia and Shylock (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The fact that Portia is a woman points to Shakespeare’s progressiveness in refuting sex-role stereotypes. But again, many do not see Shakespeare as a progressive when it comes to the Jewish situation in Elizabethan England.

Shakespeare’s play reflected the anti-semitic tradition. The title page of the Quarto indicates that the play was sometimes known as The Jew of Venice in its day, which suggests that it was seen as similar to Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. One interpretation of the play’s structure is that Shakespeare meant to contrast the mercy of the main Christian characters with the vengeful Shylock, who lacks the religious grace to comprehend mercy. Similarly, it is possible that Shakespeare meant Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity to be a “happy ending” for the character, as it ‘redeems’ Shylock both from his unbelief and his specific sin of wanting to kill Antonio. This reading of the play would certainly fit with the anti-semitic trends present in Elizabethan England.¹

Polski: Kopia zaginionego obrazu Maurycego Got...
Polski: Kopia zaginionego obrazu Maurycego Gottlieba “Shylock i Jessica” z 1887 roku. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Instead of branding Shakespeare as antisemitic, one could argue that, had he portrayed Jews as we see them today, the play would have failed and no positive message whatsoever would have gotten out (because nobody would have gone to see it).

This point brings to mind the whole idea of activism in context, as opposed to idealist activism. Activism in context is a bit by bit, progressive stance. It nudges things forward only as far as the activist believes the audience will be receptive to and, hopefully, act upon.

On the other hand, idealist activism would be more in line with the life of Jesus Christ—and we know what happened to him. Basically, Christ was killed for trying to help people get into heaven. However, idealist activism does have its place. It is necessary to point out long range goals. But contextual activism is also necessary, I would argue. Otherwise, not too much would change for the better.

At any rate, contemporary revisionists who harshly judge those who lived in past centuries seem oblivious to the debate between contextual and idealist activism. They take a hard line. Shakespeare is antisemitic. End of story (for them). Myself, I’m not convinced a true genius like Shakespeare was all that simple.²


² See, for instance, Here we see a very different Shakespeare—one educated in, appreciative of and influenced by Jewish religious texts.

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One comment

  1. Shakespear had a unique way of looking at hypocrosy. The Catholic law of ursury ( lending money with interest) forbid any Catholic to do so. It was a hightly punishable crime. a Catholic person would be excommunicated or worse. However the Catholic Kings and noble people still needed to build ships castles and they needed to buy weapons for the many wars that were waged in Europe. I believe King Henry lightened this up when he became the head of church and state. However, money lending was not an option for non Jews. It was indeed the only option for jews. They were not accepted into “Guilds” as the precursers to academia, because they would have to become Christian to do so. Most of Europe treated Jews this way. They were also chased out of many Cathollic countries. Urserers also could not leave their money to their children. All money obtained this way would go to the king upon death.

    When you read this story this way, you understand that the story is about the constant disempowerment of Shylock. He really will never “own” a pound of flesh. Not his own, not his daughters, not Antonnios and he is left no options without entering into Christianity. I believe Shakespear is showing us the hypocracy of this situation. The Christians will always have their hands clean, regardless of the blood they shed. Thew Jews will always be blamed for shedding the blood of Christl. It is a no win for Shylock. Most of Europe remained this way for a very long time. I have recently acquired a very gentle book looking at Jewish history and European anthropology. The man that wrote it died in the early 1900’s. This same man was a member of the Victorian Folklorists Society. He captured stories that might have been lost forever had he not advocated for the rights of non-British inclusions. This happened mostly around 1870. Joseph Jacobs was a Jewish man, born in Australia, he moved to England and studied there. I have been tracking down as much of his work as I can find. He was a man before his time. I am surprised so little is known about him. He captured the words of the Irish, Highland Scotts and words and stories from India. He understood the importance of story and fought for the identities of nations to which he did not belong. He empowered some of the “Antonnios” of the world. He understood what a secular society could look like at its best. He encouraged the Celtic races to find and keep their stories. Stories are precious and the meaning will change with each reflection life offers you. Shakespear had a way of finding the best “capsules” for his transfromation imagry.

    I am glad his work survives. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall of a Catholic church at the time. They couldn’t condem him for making his point. He was even bright enough to write a lawyer into the prepurposed defense.

    As I was raised Catholic I can get away with letting everyone know the ursury laws forbidding Catholics from making interest on loans is no longer a factor. In fact the Pope owns a bit of the company that makes Viagra. Oh I would love to rewrite the story of Pinnochio. I guess he really doesn’t need any strings.


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