Harold Bloom on Shylock

Among a series of articles on “the Jewish Question” in the NYTimes Sunday Book Review for this week, this review by Harold Bloom of Anthony Julius’ Trials of the Diaspora reaches back to medieval and early modern europe. Along the way, Bloom makes this point about The Merchant of Venice:

a ‘perplexed unhappiness’ is the sensitive response of Julius, but I would urge him to go further. Shakespeare, still competing with the ghost of Christopher Marlowe, implicitly contrasts Shylock with Barabas, the Jew of Malta in Marlowe’s tragic farce. I enjoy telling my students: let us contaminate the two plays with one another. Imagine Shylock declaiming: ‘Sometimes I go about and poison wells’ while Barabas intones: ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ It is Shakespeare’s continuing triumph over Marlowe that such an exchange will not work. Shylock is darker and deeper forever.
For Julius, The Merchant of Venice is both an anti-Semitic play and a representation of anti-Semitism. I dispute the latter: the humanizing of Shylock only increases his monstrosity. Who can doubt that he would have slaughtered Antonio if only he could?

This is interesting: the play is anti-Semitic, but one always wonders whether this moment on the street, just after finding out that his daughter Jessica has eloped with a Christian, lets us comprehend his murderous rage. I’ve always thought that this moment dovetails with a reading by (if I remember correctly?) Terry Eagleton, who wonders whether, at the point in the trial when Portia halts the impending extraction of the pound of flesh–“Tarry a little . . .”—Shylock should dart a knowing challenge at the audience that says “See? Christians will always find a way to persecute a Jew.” Shylock does want to murder, but his evil is at least matched by the Christians’.

Yet if I read Bloom’s point here correctly, his point here is that the moment signifies just the opposite. My reading becomes too sympathetic: Shylock remains more cunningly evil than Barabas–he would never be so blunt as to poison wells. He wants to tempt the Christian’s souls to evil by generating sympathy for his anger. His righteous fury becomes a rhetorical ploy: if “the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” Shylock parodies Christian concern only as a ploy to justify his impending suit against Antonio. This is more than an Invention of the Human–it is evil that is underworldly.

I’m doubtful, however: what, for instance, of Shylock’s asides during the trial, about his daughter, back to whom his mind always seems to revolve? Is Shylock using his daughter “to play upon” the audience, as Hamlet would say, as he was playing upon Salerio and Solanio on the street? Am I being too generous of Shakespeare, or is there no possibility of reading a Jew as anything other than a figure for the devil in Europe before the Holocaust (or, as Bloom points out, at times after as well)?

A similar question appears in the next review in this section, of Emanuel Faye’s Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy. Faye apparently argues that Heidegger is so thoroughly polluted by his Nazism that his books should simply be avoided. Yet, “if this judgment were to become generally accepted, it would have serious consequences for the reputation of Hannah Arendt, whose name is so intimately linked with Heidegger’s.” And do we read Shakespeare as Faye implies we should Arendt? The Nazi delusion, culminating in the apex of a millennium of anti-semitic pogroms, was made possible by thoroughly imagining Jews as anything but human, as all that opposes what western culture has imagined as Human since Christ if not Socrates. This is true. Is a corollary of this that anti-Semitism a hermeneutic maelstrom which no European non-Jewish writer can escape?

I have an argumentative, but very honest, question: was Shakespeare’s imagination similarly so utterly deluded? Was his only feat to body forth the repulsive ingenuity of demonic evil, rather than to envision it as something astonishingly, horrifyingly, the product this world, in which we learn that the last act’s dreams of sweet moonlight and music, and the happiness of Portia, Bassanio, and Antonio, are only made possible by Portia’s ruin of Shylock–for how else but by such an awful (and, surely, illegal) authentication of her disguise could she have recovered her ring? Bloom makes an excellent argument that yes, bardolatry does delude us, and it took the Holocaust to tell us so.


Author: Derrick Pitard

I teach medieval and early modern literature, the history of the language, introductions to literature, Latin, and writing at Slippery Rock University.

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