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.
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
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, http://www.jewishmag.com/143mag/jewish_william_shakespeare/jewish_william_shakespeare.htm Here we see a very different Shakespeare—one educated in, appreciative of and influenced by Jewish religious texts.
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