I’ve posted about this before, pondering how to react to the play’s anti-Semitism. I’ve just re-read it again this week, and enjoyed a week of classes discussing it with a class of smart students who’ve been asking some very good questions that have helped to sharpen this.
When I wrote that earlier post, I was on the fence. I could still watch the play and wonder. I have to admit, though, having revisited the play several times since, that its repulsiveness has only increased. The problem is not that it doesn’t contain moments of beauty, or well-constructed drama, or subtlety. It is one of the plays in Shakespeare that contains no characters to like, but that’s not the problem either–this is also largely true of, for instance, Coriolanus, one of my favorites in the canon. The reason for my revulsion, I think, is that Shakespeare doesn’t just depict anti-Semitism or its results: he asks me to collude with him in it.
Shylock is cruel: “Who can doubt,” Harold Bloom asks, “that he would have slaughtered Antonio if only he could?” The famous passage in 3.1 when Shylock argues for his fundamental humanity against Antonio’s prejudice—”and what is his reason?—I am a Jew. Hath not at Jew eyes? . . . If you prick us, do we not bleed?”—provides a glimpse of his pain that might lead to sympathy. But Shakespeare brackets this with his ugliness: Shylock’s speech starts and ends with his desire for nothing but revenge, to cause pain, to “bait fish” with flesh. “The humanizing of Shylock,” as Bloom says, “only increases his monstrosity.” Shylock is using empathy, not embodying it. The nuances of Shylock’s vengeful fury that play out in the courtroom after a lifetime of abuse and the grief of losing his daughter are much more subtle than the demonic, miracle-play caricatures after whom early modern Jews were modeled, but the arc of his character remains thoroughly demonic: early in the play he gains an Old Testament legal power over the Christian’s life that he loses when he rejects an explicitly New Testamentary plea for mercy. Shakespeare’s Shylock is a demon, this argues, not just in the eyes of the Christians, but in the arc of the plot, of the world, itself.
And what of the Christians? They are cruel to Shylock because they are solipsistic racists who manipulate sacred institutions and values to satisfy their desires for money and sex. Really, what else are they? Terry Eagleton showed long ago that Portia farcically overturns Venice’s laws to satisfy her husband’s love for his friend–and, I’d add, her attraction to her new husband. And what court in the world would allow an imposter as a judge? When Bassanio learns of this, the fact only seems to inflame his lust: “Sweet doctor, you shall be my bedfellow.” After the agony this farce has caused, is this comedy? Only if Shylock is not human, and therefore only if Shakespeare considered his brief fantasy of Jew-as-human in 3.1 to be mere fantasy.
What’s more, Act 5—with its flirtations in the lovely green world of Belmont, where “soft stillness and the night / Become the touches of sweet harmony”—pretty clearly shows that tragedy wasn’t where Shakespeare was going. I see that at the start of Act 5 Lorenzo and Jessica tease each other with allusions to tragic lovers, but that’s over quickly, and would be a thin thread upon which to hang an argument that Shakespeare intends the outcome of their elopement to be anything but good. They are flirting, and any prospective tragedy has been exiled to their allusions. Jessica is as disobedient an early-modern daughter as Juliet, but unlike Capulet, Shylock can, apparently, lay no valid claim to fatherly respect.
Perhaps the only avenue we might use to appreciate the play’s hatred of self and other is to argue that hate breeds hate, and that the ugly crime of prejudice evacuates the world of all beauty. I’m not sure this works (if Shylock is a devil, any measures must be warranted, and still—what of the 5th act?), but even if it’s accepted, it’s as bleak a sentiment as one might express, since it simultaneously evacuates the world of hope, and nothing like it appears in the rest of the canon, not even in Lear.
It’s not just that the play becomes, as my students say of bigots and bigoted remarks, “ignorant,” but that Shakespeare asks me to walk out of the theater happy for the lovers and a world set right after witnessing their agonizing cruelty. Who could do this today, unless seduced by the fiction of “timeless” Shakespeare?