Dossier, Volume 14 #5: The Merchant of Venice

Shakespeare's Plea for Human Values

by Herbert Bronstein

This year's Stratford Festival production of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice reopened the debate about this controversial play and especially about the character of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. Herbert Bronstein, rabbi of North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Illinois, and a Stratford Festival devotee, served as a consultant to the production. In late July, Rabbi Bronstein spoke to a Stratford audience about the issues raised by The Merchant of Venice. The following is an excerpt from his address.
Shylock in the marketplace - 5.0 K

Of the many unforgettable characters who poured out of the vast breadth of Shakespeare's imagination, one of the most fascinating is Shylock, the Jew. Though he appears in only five out of twenty scenes in The Merchant of Venice, Shylock has attracted the major share of interest in the drama's long history on the stage and in critical literature. One's first association with The Merchant of Venice is invariably Shylock. "Shylock" has become a term of disapproval, a link in the history of anti-Jewish stereotype, just as Shylock's "pound of flesh" has become a metaphor for cruel and relentless greed.

The experience of this stereotype still makes many uncomfortable with The Merchant of Venice. As a result, the trend has developed of reversing the apparent tendency of the drama: Shylock is portrayed not as a hateful character, but as one who commands our sympathies. Many critics and scholars have devoted themselves earnestly and voluminously to proving that Shakespeare did not create a Jewish villain.

All who love the work of Shakespeare would wish that Shylock was not a villain, that Shakespeare had not drawn an anti-Jewish portrait. But if we are to read the play honestly, we must admit that he did. Not only does Shylock have many villainous qualities, but the average reader must also get the notion that Shylock is a typical Jew, and that this is what Jews are like. Shylock is referred to as "the Jew" over sixty times, and as a Jew he is repeatedly associated in one form or another with the devil. But having said this, we must immediately add that the very fact that there are so many interpretations of Shylock indicates that some ambiguity--perhaps deliberate, as is my contention--is written into the texture of the drama itself.

Shakespeare's portrait of the Jew could not possibly derive from first-hand contact with Jews or with Jewish life. There had been almost no Jews in England for over three hundred years and no Jewish community life even of the most rudimentary form. Shakespeare knew no Jews, but he knew well the stereotype of the Jew as a nefarious, bloodthirsty monster.

William the Conqueror, for his own benefit, brought the Jews to England. The wealth and power of the nobility was based on land, but in a rising money economy the nobility often needed ready cash. They forced numbers of Jews to lend to themselves as well as to the peasants so that these latter could pay their dues to the nobility. Since the nobility did not use the money for productive gain, ultimately they could not make good on their debts.

As long as the nobility were economically solvent, the Jewish position was excellent. But when they gravely overextended themselves, the position of the Jews began to deteriorate. Fearing the loss of their pawned lands, the nobility turned the wrath of the oppressed peasantry from themselves and against the Jews, often using as instrument the teachings and rulings of the church.

A reign of terror was generated against the Jews which led gradually to their humiliation and impoverishment, expropriation of their wealth, and their final expulsion in 1290 after brutal riots had been let loose against them. To justify the ferocity with which Jews were attacked, excuses just as ferocious had to be made. The image of the Satanic Jew flourished in literature, ballads and plays, and was used both as a justification of the terrible treatment of the Jews and as encouragement to the masses to attack them.

Thus arose the stereotype of the Jew that Shakespeare knew. But why the Jew, as the poet Pope put it, that Shakespeare drew? The image of the villain Jew was absolutely necessary to the central theme of The Merchant of Venice: the ideal of unconditional love.

Shakespeare lived in the midst of an economic revolution that was changing Europe from an agrarian to a commercial economy, from a feudal aristocracy to a commercial, democratic, middle-class society. He sometimes defended the old values against the new, particularly when he sensed tendencies in the new that he felt were destructive of human values. There is abundant evidence that Shakespeare feared the motive of material gain so important in the rapidly expanding development of commercial capitalism, lest it subvert the values of loyalty for its own sake, friendship and custom-forged and time-honoured allegiances, all based on the structure of medieval feudalism.

In the agrarian economy of the Middle Ages when the lending of money was not for gain but only out of need, the church, in biblical tradition, enjoined: mutuum datum inde sperantes--give freely hoping for nothing (in return). By contrast, commercial values enjoined: never do anything or give anything unless you can take or get something in return. Antonio represents the old philosophy; Shylock, the new. Whereas Antonio and Bassanio give friends favours without even asking for reasons and expect nothing in return, certainly not more than they gave, Shylock always asks for a return with gain.

Did Shakespeare foresee that day when the urgent new commercial values would so suffuse human relationships that nothing would be done for love or friendship or the sake of giving alone, but only for the sake of gain; when a person would do something generous without any apparent motive of self-gain and people would ask, "What's his angle?"; when even the most important human relationships such as those between husband and wife, parent and child, would be judged in terms of commercial analogy--not "What am I giving to these relationships" but "What am I getting out of them"?

In the very first scene in which we meet Shylock, he uses the word "good"--He is a good man--not to mean virtuous, but "well-off," capable of paying back a debt. The criterion of virtue becomes not character but wealth. To Shakespeare's discerning soul, here lay tendencies destructive of all human values and humanity itself. Because they are at a premium in a society whose mainspring is struggle for profit, the getting and grasping motives are nurtured, whereas loving, giving motives remain uncultivated and atrophy. The motive of deeds for the sake of love alone disappears; only greed, selfishness, hostility and hate remain.

All of this negative tendency Shakespeare summed up in the word usury, that is, the lending of money for gain, giving not for love but for gain. Now, though there were no Jewish usurers in England in Shakespeare's time, the Jew symbolized usury, and Shakespeare could most forcefully express the evils he was attacking in the figure of a Jew.

But the point is that Shakespeare did not stop here. For his aim was not to attack Jews but to attack the greed and materialism of the Christians all about him. It was the "Jew" who could best be used to ring the contrast with "Christian" and to ask, "Which is which?" The word "Jew" was synonymous with evil. The word "Christian" meant good. The gold casket, on the inside of which was a skull and crossbones, symbolizes the choice of gold as the goal of life; this leads only to death. But there is another meaning to the casket. Just as one cannot judge what is inside a casket by its outer material, so all that glistens, like the name "Christian," is not gold.

When Shylock's daughter Jessica is in the very act of stealing her father's money, the so-called Christian, Gratiano, says admiringly that she is a Gentile and not a Jew. Even Lancelot Gobbo, the clown of the play, parodies this Christian concern for gain when he complains that too many Jewish converts to Christianity would raise the price of pork. Shakespeare makes the audience uncomfortable with its hypocritical stereotypes which allow it so easily to project its own guilt for greed onto the Jew.

Shakespeare goes even further, and this is the source of the deliberate ambiguity in the character of Shylock which makes a "tragic," sympathetic portrayal possible. His theme is unconditional love: love even when the object of love is not deserving, compassion just because human beings are frail. To communicate this message, Shylock must also have sympathetic, "good" qualities.

Shylock had to be a Jew and a villain to symbolize tendencies that Shakespeare deplored. He could be a comic figure because greed is sometimes ludicrous, but he could not be a monster. And so, though Shakespeare was an Elizabethan and of his time, he transcended his time and avoided the serotype of the Jew as a monster. Shylock says: I am a Jew. 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? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. (III.i)

Shylock is both villain and comic, but he is also sympathetic. For Shakespeare has one more point to make. Moral weakness is found not alone in "the Jew" but in all men. Since all men have foibles, are weak, commit sins, are sometimes greedy and hateful, as they are all sometimes noble, there cannot be any simple rule for justice. Justice is necessary that society be ordered and endure. But a love that does not depend on merit is a sine qua non of the moral man.

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