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[I]t is my humour (IV,1, 43)
am 26. Juni 2010
Thus answers Shylock, the Jewish money-lender, when pressed upon as to why he still insists on the pound of flesh being cut out of Antonio's body instead of accepting a payment of the merchant's debts from Antonio's friends. Many a member of the play's audience must think this hard to understand and will put Shylock's stubborn insistence down to mere spite, and it is little wonder that the figure of Shylock, along with that of Dickens's Fagin, has entered the pandemonium of anti-Semitic stock characters, and that Shakespeare's play "The Merchant of Venice" seems to be tainted as pandering to anti-Jewish prejudice in the eyes of modern audiences. But let us not under-estimate the Bard, please.
The play, which was written sometime between 1596 and 1598, consists of three separate stories that are linked with each other. There is the love story of young Bassanio, who sets out to woo fair Portia and who asks his friend Antonio for a loan to cover his expenses. Antonio, having no ready money but knowing that some of his ships will soon arrive at their respective destinations and harvest considerable profit, willingly grants his friend the money, asking Shylock for the loan and accepting his odd terms of allowing the Jew to cut a pound of flesh from Antonio's body in case payment cannot be made on the day the loan expires. As misfortune has it, Antonio's enterprises are thwarted and he is unable to pay off his debts in time. Intertwined with these two stories is the story of Lorenzo, another friend of Antonio's, who runs off with Shylock's daughter Jessica, and a considerable part of her father's property, when Shylock is attending a dinner at Antonio's house. Shylock feels deceived by Antonio and now wants to wreak his vengeance upon him by bringing the full force of the law on the merchant's head.
To Shakespeare's contemporaries the case must have been clear: On the one hand, there is Christian religion with its values of generosity, helpfulness and forgivenness, whereas on the other, the Jews still cling to the letter of their ancient law, unrelentingly exacting penalty according to the "an eye for an eye" principle. Theologians of the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Era took great pains to make this opposition clear, because they strongly felt the need to prove that God's favour had passed from Jewry to Christianity, since traditional Jews allegedly failed to substitute the principle of "sola fide" for that of "sola lege". Thus, Shylock's demand for his pound of flesh seems to be irrational and inhuman at the same time.
A superficial theological reading like that might well be grist to anti-Semitic mills and was predominant among Shakespeare's contemporaries, who - by the way - might never even have met any Jews themselves, as Jews had been expelled from England since 1290 and were not allowed to enter the country but in the days of Oliver Cromwell's reign. Yet a closer look might reveal Shylock's human tragedy and endow him with some relieving traits that make us feel sympathy with him.
Not only does the play give us a variety of hints as to Antonio's former contempt for Shylock and the humiliating, hostile treatment the Jew received at Antonio and his friends' hands - antecedents that may well account for Shylock's desire for finally having it out with Antonio -, but Shylock also comes over as a caring and loving father, whose only fault is his inability to express his feelings well to his daughter. When Jessica betrays her father, she even steals a ring that was a present from his deceased wife Lea and holds high emotional value for him. No pain is spared Shylock, and he finally has to learn that his thoughtless daughter, squandering all his money with her lover, has given away that ring for ... a monkey. Bearing in mind all this, we will undoubtedly come to see Shylock's desire for revenge as his way of dealing with his disappointment and his feeling of betrayal and (non-financial) loss. His being Jewish suddenly seems unimportant when it comes to accounting for his rage; and we might asks ourselves if we had really acted differently in his situation.
Apart from that, Shakespeare further shows the absurdity of anti-Semitic prejudice by having Shylock utter his famous monologue in Act III, Scene 1, containing the well-known words: "Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?", which points out that Jews and Gentiles are both human beings and feel the same when put in the same situation. Here, at the latest, we will probably start seeing things from Shylock's perspective and feel revolted with the cocksure and smug feeling of moral superiority with which Antonio and his lecherous friends treat Shylock, depriving him of his family, his possessions and - via an enforced conversion - his position among his fellow Jews, all the while presenting themselves as the victims of Jewish spite and rancour.
I enjoy imagining Shakespeare scoffing at contemporary audiences, who might have greeted Shylock with catcalls and vociferously and rudely expressed their satisfaction with his downfall, all the while displaying exactly the kind of relentless and unreflected pettiness with which it pleased them to endow their image of Shylock. What a lark!