I would like to take some time to commit to writing some of the things I have presented to my students over the years regarding the possible reading of Shylock not only as a sympathetic victim, but as a character infused with an awareness of Halacha and the Jewish identity which makes him idealistic, heroic and admirable. It is one of three readings that I work through as we read the play and I don’t present any one as the absolutely correct and exclusive reading, only that any of the three is equally (textually) plausible.
I am not going to focus on the mechanics of court room scene (as defenses on legal grounds have abounded) and am going to confine myself to a close (almost talmudical) reading of the text itself occasionally correlating Shakespearean lines with Jewish law or comparing Shakespeare’s character with others in the Bard’s canon. I am not, though, arguing that the play was written by anyone other than Shakespeare (especially not by a Jewish woman) or that William had some unexpected knowledge of Hebrew as evidenced by other plays. This is about Shylock and the text of Merchant.
1. If Shakespeare wanted Shylock to be the villain he knew how to do it. He gave us Iago, an unapologetic villain who never justifies his evil. Edmund is evil and Regan and Goneril are no prizes either. Richard III, Lady Macbeth? Does any of them get to give a speech which defends their behavior as proper? Yet Shylock has at least one full speech – he explains that Jews are just like non-Jews in ALL ways. If you tickle him, he will laugh. If you hurt him, he will be angry. And, like anyone else, if you act out against him he has the right to take revenge. He lists all sorts of crimes committed against him (being spit on, kicked and called names along with having his business ruined). He even states that he learned about revenge from the non-Jews! So his behavior is justified and even precedented. If Shakespeare wanted him to be a clear villain, why tell of times when he was the victim?
Why have others steal from Shylock (in their encouraging his daughter not only to flee but to take his jewels) which is what motivates him to be strict on the (heretofore joking) terms of the bond. Had they not pushed him, he wouldn’t have pushed back. And even then, he seeks justice, administrative redress, not personal revenge. That’s not villainy, just self-esteem and a sense of self-worth. Villains shouldn’t have that.
So why make Shylock human? Why make the Christians evil in their approach to their religion and to others? Why not have them “turn the other cheek” and let Shylock be the sole voice of evil? The simple fact is that Christians could have been presented as without fault (unlike the superficial Bassanio and the spiteful Antonio) so the contrast with an evil Jew would be stark. But that’s not how the play works.
After this speech (and reminiscent of what happens after the Prince of Morocco makes his statement about how under the skin we are all the same), no character refutes the logic. No one presents a counter argument or shows how the points made are wrong! If Shakespeare wanted to show a character as being wrong, he needed only give another character a speech which undercuts the claims. But he doesn't. The others ignore the speeches and do nothing to mitigate the power of the points.
2. A basic question has to be answered – what knowledge of Judaism did Shakespeare have? Jews had been expelled from England in 1290. While it was possible that some stayed as hidden Jews or that some business men travelled through, it is safe to assume that the average resident of England would have little or no discourse with a Jew. This would also mean that there would be little access to the tenets of Judaism other than the most obvious/textual ones and ones referred to through the lens of Christian teaching. To write a Jewish character would mean to impute all sorts of thinking onto that character without much basis in fact which should highlight the most damning stereotypes or mistaken impressions of Judaism. And yet, Shylock’s statements reveal a substantial amount of awareness of Judaism by Shakespeare, and even validation of Jewish law. It would have been easier to draw a villain in broad and ignorant strokes but all of this unexpected insight into Judaism actually serves to soften our impression of Shylock!
When invited to dinner, Shylock explains (I, iii, 28) that he will not “eat with you, drink with you nor pray with you.” It is nice that he has a list of three items (though the list of things he agrees to do has 4 items) but why does he separate eating and drinking? He had been asked to “dine” which would, one might assume, include eating and drinking. Sure, Shylock wants to distinguish himself and his behavior so he refuses to pray also but why list drink separately (And as a third item on the list, Shylock appends "pray with you" which would reflect a particularly Jewish understanding that ones says a grace AFTER the meal)? Maybe it is because he is aware of a separate set of laws which limit drinking with non-Jews even when the drink, itself is not “not-kosher”. His reasoning for refusal is textually based in the eating of pork (though he doesn’t cite the laws of Kashrut, simply that Gospel account of Jesus driving demons into pigs, making them undesirable to eat) but he resists even drinking because he is aware of additional rules of non-Jews touching uncooked wine. The laws of yayin nesech (wine used for idolatry) are arcane and not as well-known as the biblically listed rules of unfit animal consumption but Shakespeare sees fit to allude to them by explicitly separating eating from drinking. But even if one says that this comment isn’t a reference to those particular laws, there is still an invocation of Jewish law.
[A note significantly after the writing of this -- the fact that the non-Jewish world knew about yayin nesech or other laws making touching of wine problematic and resented Jews for it can be found on page 178 of Haym Soloveitchik's article "Can Halakhic Texts Talk History" from the 1978, Vol 3 issue of AJS (Association for Jewish Studies)]
Even wine that is not used for idolatry poses a problem because the commentators and law codifiers in Judaism forbid extensive social interaction with non-Jews (stam yeynam). Why? To avoid the situation where this interaction might lead to intermarriage. So Shylock resists the meal because he is abiding by a subtler law, one designed to safeguard the religion of his daughter. He agrees to go out to one social event, and what happens? His daughter intermarries! It seems that the caution taught in Judaic law is being validated. Shylock is victimized because he does not follow Jewish law strictly enough; the legalistic tradition could have protected his religion and only when he compromises and goes out does Jessica leave. Why would the “villain” be shown to be not Jewish enough, being punished for compromising his initial, idealistic stance?
[As a side note to the underlying knowledge Shakespeare presents, take a look at what Lancelet Gobbo says when he indicates a wish to leave Shylock's employ which he can't do simply by running away, the way a regular employee might -- (II, ii, 112) "I am a Jew if I serve the Jew any longer." Is this what normally happens when slaves stay with their masters? Do they turn into that master? Is Gobbo concerned that he will turn into Shylock, a money lender or that he will start to observe the mitzvot? No! The fact is, the laws of owning a slave indicate that one who stays with a Jewish master, upon being freed, becomes a Jew. If Lancelet waits until he is freed, he IS a Jew; he doesn't say "I will turn the Jew" or "become" but "I am a Jew." How would Shakespeare have written with this kind of accuracy about a subtlety unique to the Jewish conception of servitude? Shylock, to ensure that Lancelet never becomes a Jew (and knowing that the slave is not fully Jewish until he is freed), does not free him, but resells him to Bassanio so that Lancelet never has to face becoming a Jew!
Another wrinkle is in Lancelet's attack on Jessica -- he claims she is damned because of her father's religion. He suggests the "bastard hope" that Shylock is not Jessica's father but she points out that she would inherit her Jewish identity from her mother! Matrilineal descent as a distinct Jewish practice.]
3. Why call your villain “Shylock”? Shylock is a non-biblical name and definitely one that the audiences would not immediately connect with Judaism. It has no clear Jewish/Hebrew etymology – some connect it to the biblical person Shelah who was Judah’s third son by the daughter of a non-Jew (Gen 38). Others see it as close to the Hebrew word “sheyeilech”, ‘who will go.’ But the bottom line is that if Shakespeare wanted a character who would be tied to Jews, he could have taken a biblical name which alluded to someone memorable and Jewish. From Ariel to Davy to Michael, Shylock knew biblical names and could have chosen any that represented “Jews” but he chose a non-name! Even IN this play he references Jacob and Abram -- he could have made the lead "Jew" who cheats people have a name connected to Jacob who might be the deceiver, but he doesn't.
For the other Jew, he chose “Tubal”? This is not, on its own, even a name, but a prefix for a name, as in Tuval-Kayin, the child of Tzillah and brother of Na’amah (again, a pre-forefathers, pre-Mosaic name). The only interesting thing about Tuval-Kayin is that he took the craft of creating and turned it into “creating weapons for murderers.” AHA you say – perfect description. Except in the text it isn’t – Tubal has no connection to any killing, and Shakespeare could only invoke this idea if he knew the commentators and medrash surrounding the text, which would indicate an abnormal level of Judaic knowledge, one that would not be shared by his audience. So he chose either inconsequential names from well before Judaism developed, or took things that weren’t even really names! (and "Chus," the other Jew? If the U is pronounced as in "but" the word has no value in Hebrew, and if the U is a longer vowel, as in "book" then it is a Hebrew word meaning "Pity" which is a strange thing to name a Jew if the point is that Jews do not display pity.) For Shylock’s daughter he opted for “Jessica”. This is also not a biblical name let alone one connected to Judaism. There was a name in the Hebrew, Yiscah, and she was (by extra-textual commentators) connected to Sarah but the leap from Yiscah to Jessica, even if it could import some sort of meaning by which audiences could judge Judaism, is strained.
5. The other characters mock Shylock for his reaction to the loss of his daughter because he wanders around bemoaning the loss of both his child and his money. Had Shakespeare wanted to make him greedy and villainous, he would have had Shylock make NO mention of Jessica, instead speaking only of the money. Mentioning his daughter reminds us of his status as a grieving father. But as presented, it seems that Shylock is not confused about which item he misses more, but about the combination of the losses – that his daughter was complicit in the loss of the money. This is compounded when she spends the money in ridiculous ways and loses items of significant sentimental value (a ring which was a gift between her parents). His shock is not that she, herself, leaves or that the money, itself, is lost, but that his daughter participates in the theft and squandering of the money. He expects that she would still practice honoring her father and mother but instead, she affiliates with Christianity (ignoring biblical law) and shows disdain for her parents not as Jews, but as human beings! As she switches her identity to one as Christian, she becomes villainous. Her rite of passage into the non-Jewish identity is the victimizing of Shylock, a role which she embraces, and then the making of stupid financial decisions (which puts her in league with the profligate Bassanio).
What is her criticism of her father’s house? That it is tedious. She likes mischief and then says she is not like her father’s “manners.” And what manners have we seen? His adherence to Jewish law but not in any way which is negative. She is rebelling against her religious obligation. Had Shakespeare given the reader any impression that Shylock was criminal or that his religious adherence was somehow flawed, or even that life in his house was destructive and not simply lacking of excitement, then he would be less defensible. But what we have seen of Shylock does not contribute to that.
And as a side note, Shylock then says "would that she were dead at my feet" which most people see to be a statement in which he WISHES that his daughter was dead. But a father whose child has intermarried, according to Jewish law, sits shiva, grieves, and treats the child as if the child IS dead! As such, his wish is not that he wishes her death but that he acknowledges her death and only wishes that, as she is dead, his money would not have been lost ALSO. If she has to be dead, he figures, then let her be dead in front of him and let him have his money. The sadness is at the double loss, not at the loss of the money alone.
6. Ignoring, as I said, the specifics of the court room scene, there is still one larger idea which must be addressed. The entire question of the law is ultimately decided by someone who is in no position to adjudicate. Portia is a woman and a non-lawyer/judge. She is impersonating a law clerk but has no legal standing! Other important officials, when reviewing the case, could not find a way to avoid holding Antonio responsible, so they have to bring in another “expert” to resolve this in their favor. It is unconscionable to consider that a Jew may be on the side of the correct application of the legal system. Shylock, under the law, seems to be in the right. It takes someone who is ignorant of the law to find a way to twist the system to limit his quest for justice. If Shakespeare had wanted Shylock to be the villain, he might have portrayed him as twisting the law or misrepresenting it, or as pursuing something which runs counter the law on its face and which the entire legal system could easily refute and condemn. Instead, Shylock’s legal position is given credence by the local authorities and is only refuted when someone who is in no position to make a judgment does so, victimizing Shylock by misapplying law and bastardizing the system.
Again, this is not all to say that Shylock is a great guy or that Shakespeare intended for us to read him as a sympathetic hero. My only point is that a close reading of the text can be used to reduce the blame and stigma associated with the Jew character and mitigate the vitriol and label of anti-Semitism many associate with the play.