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Shakespeare & Shylock

As seek to soften that—than which what’s harder?—
His Jewish heart.

Entirely untouched by what the duke calls “human gentleness and love,” Shylock seems to embody the limitless, unreasonable, inexplicable hatred that for Christians marked the essential affiliation of the Jews with the father of evil.

But in fact the long courtroom scene in The Merchant of Venice does not end with the revelation that Shylock is the offspring of Satan. It ends rather with the startling disclosure that Shylock’s hatred has its limits. To be sure, he does not succumb to Portia’s eloquent plea for mercy. “My deeds upon my head!” he insists, but then he adds, “I crave the law.” This craving for the law, here the desire to take Antonio’s life in a civil suit, marks the boundary beyond which Shylock dares not go. He has the opportunity to act—a sharp knife in his hand, the naked breast of his loathed enemy exposed and vulnerable, the chance to strike. He is merely waiting for the judge’s express permission. And when Portia discloses the legal wrinkle in the contract—“This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood./The words expressly are ‘A pound of flesh’” (4.1.301–302)—Shylock could still act. Portia makes this option clear in spelling out the consequences:

Therefore prepare thee to cut off the flesh.
Shed thou no blood, nor cut thou less nor more
But just a pound of flesh. If thou tak’st more
Or less than a just pound, be it but so much
As makes it light or heavy in the substance
Or the division of the twentieth part
Of one poor scruple—nay, if the scale do turn
But in the estimation of a hair,
Thou diest, and all thy goods are confiscate.

The confiscation of his goods is beside the point; Shylock’s only heir, his daughter Jessica, has already stolen what she could find in his house and run off with a Christian. It is simply his own life that he will have to sacrifice to take his revenge upon Antonio.

Hates any man the thing he would not kill?” Shylock had asked (4.1.66). Portia now has devised a test to see how much Shylock hates Antonio, and the answer is: not enough. Not enough to go ahead and plunge the knife into his enemy’s heart, which he can do at this very moment, in the sight of all those who have mocked and despised him, provided he is willing to die for it. Faced with the demand of such absolute hatred, Shylock flinches: “Give me my principal, and let me go” (4.1.331).

This is the play’s climactic revelation about the Jew, the reason Shakespeare calls what he has written a comedy, and the source perhaps of its contemporary relevance: Shylock refuses to be a suicide bomber. Instead of pursuing hatred to its ultimate end—the longed-for annihilation of his enemy at the simple cost of self-slaughter—Shakespeare’s Jew makes a different choice: he opts for his money (“Give me my principal”) and his life (“Let me go”).

At the decisive moment of his life, the Christian Antonio, ripe for martyrdom, had asked that all attempts at further negotiation with Shylock be dropped—“I do beseech you,/Make no more offers” (4.1.79–80)—and had expressed his complete willingness to die. At his comparably decisive moment, the Jew Shylock seems to hear the words of Deuteronomy: “Therefore choose life” (30.19). But it is not so simple, as Portia quickly reveals.

Shylock wanted to stay within the embrace of the law, and the embrace now closes in upon him. Since the Jew has in effect sought to take the life of a Venetian citizen, the case has shifted from a civil to a criminal matter, and the plaintiff has become the defendant. Antonio arranges the terms that enable Shylock to escape execution: the immediate surrender of half his goods, his entire estate to go to his daughter and her husband, and his conversion to Christianity, that is, the loss of difference. And with this loss of difference, the Jew simply disappears. The play still has an entire act before it reaches its end. All that is left is comedy, tinged with melancholy and bitterness, but still officially comedy.


Some years after Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice he returned to the subject of hatred and tried to imagine what it would be like if the hater did not accept any limits, if he were willing to go as far as he had to go to destroy his enemy. The enemy in question, Othello, is once again an outsider in Venice, but one who has become the trusted, stalwart arm of Venetian might against the menacing Turks. Of course, as a “Moor”—the name by which Othello is repeatedly called throughout the play—he might naturally be assumed to be a Muslim: “And wheras I speak of Moores,” to quote a late sixteenth-century text, “I meane Mahomets sect.” But sometime in the course of what he calls his “story”—

Of moving accidents by flood and field,
Of hairbreadth scapes i’th’ imminent deadly breach,
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery; of my redemption thence

—Othello has evidently converted. Though he may bear the ineradicable mark of circumcision, he is now conspicuously, insistently, decisively a Christian. Yet he is by no means fully accepted, not by Brabantio, who speaks of his “sooty bosom” and warns that “Bondslaves and pagans shall our statesmen be,” not by Roderigo, who calls him “thick-lips” and speaks of the “gross clasps of a lascivious Moor,” and above all not by the play’s great hater, Iago.

Iago is not interested in justice; he does not crave the law; he desires only Othello’s utter ruin, and he will stop at nothing to bring it about. It does not matter that he is dependent on Othello, first as ensign and then as lieutenant, the position he coveted; it does not matter that his wife Emilia is the lady’s maid of Othello’s wife Desdemona. One of the ironies of Iago’s celebrated advice, “Put money in thy purse,” is that he himself is entirely uninterested in his own well-being. Hatred as intense and single-minded as his is finally indifferent to his very survival.

Near the play’s end, when Othello finally understands what he has been gulled into doing, he stares at Iago in astonishment: “Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil,” he asks, “Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?” To a comparable question in The Merchant of Venice Shylock replies that he can give no reason other than “a lodged hate and a certain loathing” that he bears Antonio. In Othello Iago refuses even the minimal satisfaction that such a stripped-down declaration of motive could provide:

Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.
From this time forth I never will speak word.

There is no comic potential that lies on the other side of this moment, no escape to the moonlit garden in the country house. In the face of a limitless, absolute, wordless hatred lodged in an ordinary human being, the bystanders are reduced to incoherence. One of them talks about torturing Iago to open his lips and make him speak—but what is the point? The audience has heard everything Iago has to say and knows that nothing he could reveal under torture will help. Shakespeare’s comedy offered the audience a re- assuring, if uneasy, fantasy of conversion: Shylock would become one of us, and in doing so he would disappear. But there is no comparable reassurance in Othello: honest Iago’s hatred has no limits, and he is already one of us.


Shylock in Red? October 14, 2010

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