The Merchant of Venice has inspired a certain ambivalence through much of its four-century history, and that ambivalence is sharply inscribed in the changing interpretations of the play. What is more surprising is that it has been one of Shakespeare’s two most popular plays (the second being Hamlet), as the English literary critic John Gross shows through careful documentation in his highly instructive new study, Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy.1 Why this should be so is something of a puzzle.
An account of the plan of John Gross’s book might make it sound like one of those tedious chronological surveys of the “reception history” of a familiar literary work. In fact, Gross handles his subject with such urbane intelligence and wit, such fine alertness to the telling detail and anecdote, such a nice balance of both aesthetic and moral judgment, that his survey becomes a deeply interesting case-study of the ambiguous relations between literature and historical reality.
Shylock is divided into three roughly equal sections. The first deals with the play itself and its original contexts; the second mainly with stage productions from the 17th century to the present; and the third with the archetype of Shylock and critical, fictional, and dramaturgical interpretations of it. There is a certain Germanic thoroughness to all this—as supposed literary specialists within universities increasingly limit their reading to the same dozen or so texts of Continental theory, the crown of scholarship may well be passing to literary journalists like Gross—but it is carried out with an engaging English lightness of touch.
Thus, we learn all the pertinent facts about Shakespeare’s sources; the actual condition of Jews in England (what few there were) and in Venice in the 16th century; Shakespeare’s own possible involvement in lending money for interest and venture capitalism. The middle section patiently reconstructs from the available sources the principal English and American productions of the play and their critical reception, and some attention is also accorded to German and French stage interpretations. The final section casts its net wide enough to include various fictional extrapolations from Shakespeare’s story; a discussion of Jews in Proust; the psychoanalyst Theodore Reik’s free associations, triggered by the play, about his relationship with his daughter; and the British critic M.C. Bradbrook’s dumbfounding proposition that “The concentration camps of Nazi Germany bred many heroes and martyrs but also a few Shylocks.” Throughout, Gross has a gift for bringing out the absurd and the outrageous through tersely acerbic understatement, though there are a few points (as in his pillorying of Jonathan Miller’s 1970 National Theater production) where his sense of moral and aesthetic seemliness leads him to vigorously explicit judgments.
In Broad terms, one can speak of two underlying versions of Shylock between which stage productions have oscillated over the centuries. The first, which dominated productions throughout the 18th century, conceived the Jew demanding his pound of flesh as an embodiment of “savage fierceness, a deadly spirit of revenge,” in the words of Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 essay on Shakespeare. That conception was memorably realized in the middle of the century in the treatment of the role by the famous Irish actor Charles Macklin. “There was such an iron-visaged look,” a contemporary of Macklin’s observed, “such a relentless, savage cast of manners, that the audience seemed to shrink from the character.”
But in 1814, a hitherto unknown actor in his early twenties named Edmund Kean effected a revolution in the stage interpretation of Shylock by casting off the traditional red wig that had linked the Jew with the devil of the medieval mystery plays and endowing him (in Gross’s words) “with a large measure of dignity and humanity.” William Hazlitt, present at the performance as a reviewer, was thunderstruck with admiration. Another contemporary, Douglas Jerrold, said that Kean’s sympathetic interpretation of the Jew seemed to the audience “like a chapter of Genesis.”
Later in the century, the actor Henry Irving picked up a cue from Hazlitt in proclaiming, “I look upon Shylock as the type of a persecuted race; almost the only gentleman in the play, and the most ill-used.” Irving’s forceful playing of the role became the interpretation that dominated the latter part of the Victorian age. Gross associates this philo-Semitic Shylock with the growth of liberalism in 19th-century England, accompanied by a reflex of conscience about earlier ill-treatment of the Jews and an increasing acceptance of Jews in social and political life. One might add to these plausible reasons a certain imaginative sympathy on the part of the Romantics with the outsider, the figure of the cursed or hunted man, the image of suffering humanity entrammeled in the demonic.
The more or less neat swing from antipathy to sympathy between the 18th and 19th centuries disappears in our own century amid a welter of critical and stage interpretations. At least since the 1920’s, there has been no preponderant version of Shylock. Sundry variations on the old diabolic conception alternate indiscriminately with new efforts to render the long-suffering human dignity of the Jew, and there have even been occasional reversions to the oldest stage notion of Shylock as a grotesque figure of fun.
The curious thing about all this, as Gross has occasion to note at several points, is that critics and directors in our time have very often been entirely unaffected by what happened to the real Jews of Venice and Berlin and Warsaw in the terrible middle decades of the century. Shakespeare of course did not write his comedy with an eye to possible future catastrophes of European history, and the play as he framed it certainly has its own thematic and dramaturgical integrity. Gross cites a delicate case in point in the comments on the play, written in 1939, by the eminent American critic Mark Van Doren.
Shylock’s voice, Van Doren observed, however differently it might sound in another universe, must, in the world of the play, be “nothing but a snarl, an animal cry sounding outrageously among the flute and recorder voices of persons whose very names, unlike his own, are flowing musical phrases.” This is beautifully and precisely put (Shylock in fact expresses a petulant distaste for music; his speech-rhythms are abrupt, emphatic, and unmusical; Belmont in the play is a realm of enchanting song; and so forth). Nevertheless, Gross is troubled that Van Doren—an admirably humane critic and personally sympathetic toward Jews—could say all this in 1939 without the least gesture of regret for what the Christian habit of thinking of Jews in bestial terms had led to. Literature may be a realm apart, governed by its own subtle laws of imaginative coherence, and Gross grants the virtue of studying those laws in a spirit of detachment. But literature also issues from, and feeds back into, the realm of history and politics, and in view of this, Gross finds a moral flaw in Van Doren’s exquisitely disinterested account in 1939 of Shakespeare’s Jew.
If The Merchant of Venice is a play likely to elicit an uneasy conflict of perceptions about its moral center in critics, directors, actors, and audiences, this ambiguity has in no way diminished its perennial popularity. In 19th-century New York alone, there were more than 100 productions, or an average of at least one a year. In a smaller time frame, from 1918 to 1939, there were nine different productions of the play in Stratford-on-Avon, and ten each in the West End of London and at the Old Vic. It was a perennial favorite for English school performances; and in American high schools in the last two decades of the 19th century it was, together with Julius Caesar, the literary text most frequently studied.
Beyond the Anglo-American sphere, the play has also had an uncanny appeal for far-flung audiences. It was the first drama of Shakespeare’s to be performed in Armenian, the first to be performed in its entirety in Chinese, and the first in Japanese (by a kabuki troupe). In Belgium, up to 1950, there were more than twice as many Flemish-language productions of The Merchant as of any other Shakespeare play.
The extraordinary magnetism exerted by this play on audiences and directors is hard to explain in intrinsic literary terms. If one assumes that the work bracketed with Hamlet at the center of the Shakespeare canon would have to be a comedy (the histories and the late romances being perhaps too hybrid in form to win all-time popularity contests), more compelling candidates readily come to mind. The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing are livelier and more witty by far. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a more splendidly extravagant deployment of the fairy-tale elements in which The Merchant is supposed to excel, just as both Twelfth Night and As You Like It outstrip it in the rich celebration of a world of song, play, and love’s fulfillment. And for the sheer funniness of boisterous farce, The Merry Wives of Windsor makes The Merchant’s efforts at stage humor look stale and unprofitable.
There are, of course, magnificent moments in The Merchant of Venice: Shylock’s famous speeches, Portia’s courtroom address, and Lorenzo’s magical evocation of the harmony of the heavens near the end of the play (the speech beginning “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!”). But in between, much of the poetry is no more than serviceable, and the comic byplay is often labored and unfunny—dreadful, drearily repeated puns on words like “Moor” and “more,” mechanically insistent malapropisms, crude jeering like Gratiano’s taunt to Shylock that he will have to hang himself at the state’s expense because the court has not left him the value of a cord. Then the double plot of the creditor’s pound of flesh and the fair lady’s three caskets is a compounding of contrivance with contrivance. Either one must say, as many critics have done, that folk-tale fantasy makes good theater, or one has to conclude that the mixed marriage of genres here strains even the loose boundaries of comic plausibility.
The Merchant of Venice, then, has its artistic as well as its moral problems. Nevertheless, there must be something about its plot and its central figure that has a powerful hold on the imagination and that accounts for its perdurable popularity. When I refer to the play’s central figure I mean Shylock, even though it is Antonio who is the merchant of the title and Bassanio who is the romantic lead, and even though the Jew is only intermittently on stage, entirely excluded by the fifth act. But Gross’s history—which provides a starting point for the reflections that follow—offers ample evidence that it was Shylock who was the constant lodestar for actors and audiences: all the great male performers wanted to play him; most critical accounts are, above all, responses to this compelling figure.
The one explanation which I think can be dismissed out of hand is that the play’s appeal derives from its exploitation of anti-Semitic fantasy, here tapped into by the greatest dramatic poet in the language. This will not wash because, as Gross shows, many of the most spectacular successes of the play from 1814 onward were passionately philo-Semitic productions. Nor, surely, can anti-Semitism account for the popularity of the play in cultures quite unfamiliar with Jews, or in adaptations that have effaced the Jewish identity of the villain.
With regard to the surprising exportability of The Merchant of Venice to exotic regions, Gross suggests that the fairy-tale elements of the story may explain its universal appeal. (I shall have more to say below about the intertwining of different generic strands in the play.) Still, if the play works its magic for some of the same reasons in kabuki as at the Old Vic, it must also in other respects have a distinctive freight of meaning for the Christian West. Among the frequent reminders Gross provides of that fact, perhaps the most sobering is his report of the spate of productions in Nazi Germany—though with some directorial squirming at the miscegenation allowed by the nonracist anti-Semitism of the plot.
The ultimate power of The Merchant resides in Shylock; and Shylock, as the history of the play’s interpretation indicates, is an explosively unstable figure, both as comic villain and as Jew. Let me propose that there is at once a poor fit and a synergy between Shylock’s dramatically archetypal role as ill-spirited obstacle in the comic plot—the old man, senex, of Roman comedy who tries to withhold his fair daughter as well as his wealth from her destined lover—and his ethnically archetypal role as bloodsucking Jewish moneylender. There is, I suspect, something about the transgression of boundaries in the ambiguous dynamic between those two roles that gives the play its peculiar fascination.
The catalogue of negative attributes exhibited by Shakespeare’s Jew is, alas, what could be expected almost anywhere in Christendom from the First Crusade to the Enlightenment. Shylock is, from his first appearance, the sullenly obdurate outsider (“I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following; but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you”). So far, so good, at least in regard to the historical record: resentment against the Jew as stubborn alien belongs to what the historian Gavin Langmuir has called “anti-Judaic” feeling, in contradistinction to anti-Semitic animus which instead of reacting to the real condition of Jews projects lurid fantasies on to them.
Such fantasies, however, soon abound in the play. The Jew is demonic—“the very devil incarnation,” his servant Launcelot Gobbo announces, with considerable corroboration from the plot; his house is represented as a kind of hell, the antipodes of the aristocratic paradiso of Portia’s Belmont. He is also repeatedly referred to in bestial terms, as a cur or wolf (Van Doren’s “snarl” is quite to the point). In the algebra of archetypes, the combination of beast of prey and devil yields vampire, an identity Shylock is prepared to claim for himself in his first speech to Jessica—“I’ll go in hate, to feed upon/ The prodigal Christian.”
Usury itself, the play suggests (in historical bad faith, for it was widespread among Christians by the late 16th century), is a kind of vampirism, and Shylock’s implacable demand for his pound of flesh is a horrific literal translation of that metaphor. In turn, Gross plausibly suggests that Shylock’s murderous bond is a proposal “to commit ritual murder at one remove.” Portia’s courtroom denial to Shylock of any drop of blood thus goes to the very core of the anti-Semitic nightmare image. The fantasy of the Jew battening on Christian blood is interfused in the tale of the pound of flesh with the hostile stereotype of the Jew as usurer—as it would continue to be in a wide variety of texts, from Marx’s notorious essay on the Jews to Nazi and Communist propaganda.
Beyond this cluster of repellent traits that are drawn from age-old anti-Semitic imaginings, Shylock exhibits one salient characteristic more closely associated with comic villains than with Jews: he is a dour hater of the revels that are at the heart of the comic world. He is mistrustful of the masked carnival figures surging through the Venetian streets; he despises music (“the vile squealing of the wry neck’d fife”) and is suspicious of metaphor, with an odd little tic of literally “translating” the ones he uses himself; and he sternly disapproves of all forms of risk-taking, whether in business or in games of chance. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, he is a man with a rigidly fixed identity who abhors disguises and exchanged identities. Hence his hostility to the Venetian masks, and hence the poetic justice of his being foiled in justice by a woman got up as a man. The ultimate pain of his forced conversion at the end of Act IV may be the violation not of his creed but rather of his hard-set sense of self. Shylock is the man who insists on being one thing alone in a comic world that celebrates multifariousness and a playful conjuring with appearances.
Now, to all this it is essential to add the dimension of Shylock that has been so abundantly noted by critics since Hazlitt and by actors since Kean—that Shakespeare, with his unrivaled gift for endowing his characters with life, bestowed more touching humanity on Shylock than the prejudices of his culture might have allowed. The most frequently cited prooftext is of course the great “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech, and though that ends in justifying vengeance, Shylock also observes that he has learned the code of vengeance from the Christians—by no means a historically implausible claim in the 16th century.
A more succinct, almost startling, instance in which Shylock’s humanity suddenly shines through is when he is told that Jessica, after eloping with much of the family treasure, has traded a particular turquoise ring for a monkey: “It was my turquoise,” he cries out in distinctly uncomic anguish. “I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.” This is no villain who speaks here but a man who truly loved, and was loved by, a wife he still mourns in his long condition as widower, who left him this only daughter, now become his heartless betrayer.
We will remember the ring given Shylock as a pledge of love later on, when Portia and her companion Nerissa give rings to their betrothed lovers, making them solemnly vow that nothing will lead them to part with the rings; the two women then cunningly extract these very tokens of love when they appear in men’s disguise in the trial scene. At the very end, with amorous rebukes and teasing sexual puns, the women restore the rings to their bridegrooms and forgive their trespass—but in comparison with Shylock’s naked pain over the loss of his dead wife’s token of love, there remains a lingering sense of gratuitous monkey business in Belmont. This is a detail in no way required by the comic plot or the larger thematic design, but which Shakespeare’s humane genius drew him into imagining.
The character of Shylock, then, bursts through the conventional limits of the comic senex in two opposite directions—in the representation of the suffering of a much-wronged outsider (the “tragic” Shylock, as some critics would have it) and in the demonization of what in other comedies would be the figure of fun (the mythic Shylock). It is hard to think of another comedy that pushes so powerfully against the boundaries of genre in these two opposite ways. Before the fact, one might imagine that such a contradictory conception of character could not work; but in the incandescence of Shakespeare’s imagination, the alternating tragic and mythic Shylock comes vividly to life, and perhaps the contradiction at the core of the character explains the power of this strange figure.
But I have been speaking of the play as though the genres and archetypes of literature evolved in a vacuum, without any relation to history. My account so far may say something about the fascination with The Merchant experienced by audiences in Tokyo and Beijing, but for theatergoers in mid-18th-century London or in New York after the Civil War, not to mention Berlin of the 1930’s, there were obviously other potent considerations involved. Jews, too, would come to be fascinated with The Merchant of Venice—John Gross offers some piquant anecdotes, for example, about Yiddish productions—but the history of the reception of the play is above all a history of responses by a culturally and often creedally Christian audience.
In this regard, I would argue that there is a deep if somewhat murky correlation between the transgression of the limits of comedy in the play and its intermittent transgression of the boundaries between self and reviled other, insider and outsider. Those contradictory excesses in the characterization of Shylock remind us that comedy’s world, where all tigers turn paper, and all obstacles to sweet fulfillment are in the end gracefully overleaped, is only make-believe. In the real world that comedy displaces, there are nightmarish terrors that cannot be dispelled, and pleasure is all too often bought at the price of someone else’s pain. Shakespeare in this fashion plays a kind of dangerous game with the genre in which he is working while he nevertheless affirms its logic, rounding out the play with the moonlit postlude of the fifth act in which the figure of Shylock has been entirely exorcised and love sounds its bantering lute song on the threshold of consummation.
Something roughly equivalent occurs in the play’s treatment of the cultural conventions of anti-Semitism. It was clearly not part of Shakespeare’s conscious design to question the received wisdom of Christian hostility toward the Jews. Living in a country from which they had been banished for four centuries, he had little or no opportunity for firsthand acquaintance with them, and so what he “knew” about Jews was what his culture knew—that they were rapacious, greedy, cunning, and inhumanly cruel. All this is Shylock. There is nothing new about the hostile stereotypes, but, as Gross soberly observes, Shy-lock the Jewish villain, imbued with the force of Shakespeare’s intrinsic poetic power and subsequent prestige, “helped to spread [the stereotypes] and to keep them vigorously alive. He belongs, inescapably, to the history of anti-Semitism.”
If this bleak truth were the whole truth, one might sympathize with the protesters who have emerged from some modern Jewish communities in response to productions of The Merchant of Venice. But Gross is quick to remind us of Shakespeare’s inclination, as a playwright who disliked one-sided conflicts, to “build up” Shy-lock. He could not resist trying to imagine what it might be like to be a Jew, and “dramatic imagination, when it is pitched at the Shakespearean level, becomes a moral quality, a form of humanism.” The disparity between the antipathetic and the empathetic representation of Shylock leaves, in Gross’s view, a lingering hint of nastiness in the play. Portia, Antonio, Bassanio, Lorenzo embody the comic virtues of grace, playfulness, intelligence, and loving friendship, but they are also utterly cold, callous, and exasperatingly blithe in seeing the Jew as no more than a vile cur to be driven off with cudgels. It is hardly a prejudice that can have a claim to historical innocence.
Yet it could well be that this peculiar dissonance between the anti-Semitic conception of Shylock and the moments of incipient or genuine empathy is precisely what has excited the imagination of audiences over the centuries. One must remember that it was the Jew who was constantly the archetypal alien in the mind of Christian Europe. There were, to be sure, other candidates: the Muslims, who were actual imperial adversaries; the Orientals, of inscrutable repute; and still more exotic, purportedly savage, types, like black Africans and American Indians. But all these stood on the other side of a distant cultural horizon.
The Jew alone was in the midst of Christendom, speaking Christian languages, conducting trade with Christians, often looking and acting far more “Christian” than the stereotypes of prejudice were willing to admit. And it was thus the Jew, stubborn in his particularism, despised by Christians, who raised disturbing questions about the boundaries of Christian collective identity. Hence a certain persistent edginess about the Jewish other, which could generate anything from a simple perception of difference, or similarity in difference, to genteel discrimination, active persecution, forced conversion, even mass murder.
What happens in The Merchant of Venice is that the accepted definition of self by way of contradistinction to the excluded other is buoyantly sustained, as one might expect in a comedy, while the two-sided representation of Shylock flashes an intermittent, stroboscopic light on a radically antithetical possibility of identity. Perhaps there might be hidden affinities between self and other; perhaps the very otherness of the other is largely a cultural construct.
The intimations of such a possibility in Shakespeare’s treatment of Shylock are quite unsentimental. If there are moments when he provides insight into Shylock’s very human anguish as an outsider, this invitation to identify with the Jewish villain may also suggest that the predatory aspects of the character, his unbending cruelty, are not to be so patly identified as the exclusive property of the hated alien, but may comfortably nest as well in the Christian heart. If in Shylock the diabolic is made human, perhaps what the culture assumes definitionally to be human may have its own dark part in the diabolic. It is not mere coincidence that the first sympathetic portrayals of Shylock in criticism and on the stage came at the very moment that the blighted Byronic hero was dominating the English literary imagination.
The plot of the comedy, of course, keeps Christian community and Jewish outsider perfectly distinct. In Belmont, far above the mire of Venetian trade with its shady Jewish practitioners, the circle of melodiously named heroes and heroines is happily drawn tight. No Jewish foot is allowed to profane these precincts, except for that of the lovely Jessica, cleansed by baptismal waters. But down in the savage give-and-take of the commercial world of Venice, the barriers between insider and outsider are not always impermeable, and there are fleeting hints that the savagery exists on both sides.
Thus, in Act III, Scene III, Shylock visits Antonio in jail to warn him that on the morrow he will have his pound of flesh. Antonio, ever the perfect gentleman, addresses his Jewish adversary courteously as “good Shylock,” hoping he will persuade the moneylender to show compassion. The Jew, in an ecstasy of triumphant vengefulness, scarcely lets him get a word in edgewise, repeatedly insisting, “I will have my bond.” Antonio quickly abandons the attempt to address Shylock, and with a kind of shrug, explains to his friend Solanio that the Jew hates him because he, Antonio, has given loans without interest.
In all these respects, the scene is entirely an anti-Semitic set-up: Christian nobility, reasonableness, and charity over against “Old Testament” vengeance; pre-capitalist Christian lending as a kind of philanthropy over against Jewish usury. But even when he is playing with loaded dice, Shakespeare cannot refrain from giving Shylock one quick fair throw. “Thou call’dst me dog before thou hadst a cause,/ But since I am a dog, beware my fangs.” It is a very small gesture in a scene designed to expose Shylock’s inhumanity, but it is nonetheless astonishing. For the fact of the matter is that every Christian in the play, given half a chance, is happy to call Shylock dog, and would clearly do so even without the excuse of his insistence on his terrible bond.
The plot revolving around the pound of flesh preserves the simple and pernicious cultural opposition between bestial Jew and human Christian, or, in theological terms, between the old dispensation of implacable law and the new dispensation governed by the quality of mercy which is not strained. Mercy, however, as exercised by the Christian characters, is conspicuous for not dropping as the gentle rain from heaven on any Jewish head. Shylock, treated like a beast of prey as a matter of Christian cultural practice, defiantly tells Antonio that this, then, is what he will become.
The Merchant of Venice, not through Shakespeare’s intention but through his uncanny dramatic intuition, invites Christian audiences to a kind of out-of-self experience. If the looming, sinister other embodies all the hateful qualities that Christian culture would like to think are alien to it, there are also brief but powerful intimations that the other may be the moral and psychological consequence of treatment by the self; that the self may harbor the fearsome attributes it habitually projects on the other; and that both participate profoundly in a vulnerable human condition which the self is usually predisposed to see as its own private property.
Actual productions of The Merchant of Venice have generally opted either for the humane, suffering Shylock or for the diabolic one. But it seems plausible that the magnetism of the work is generated by the interplay between the two perspectives, with all the freight of historical and psychological ambiguities that I have tried to describe. This is by no means Shakespeare’s most satisfying play, but the ultimate source of its strange appeal, so finely traced by John Gross, may perhaps be found in the very tensions and disjunctions of its underlying conception.
1 Simon & Schuster, 386 pp., $25.00.