Shakespeare's Shylock and attitudes towards him in socio-historical context

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2008 25 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1. Introduction

2. Shylock
2.1 Characterisation and Attitudes towards him
2.2 The Conflict between Shylock and the Christians
2.3 Performance History and Reception

3. Socio-Historical Background
3.1 Religious Attitudes
3.2 Commercial Attitudes
3.3 Jews in Venice

4. Shakespeare’s Background
4.1 Shakespeare and Jews
4.2 Shakespeare’s Attitude towards his Shylock

5. Conclusion

List of Works Consulted:

1. Introduction

The precise date for the composition of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is unknown (Cerasano 97), but it must have been written “sometime between 1596 and 1598” (Gross 19). It was first printed in 1600 (Cerasano 2), with the title: “The most excellent History of the Merchant of Venice. With the extreame crueltie of Shylocke the Iewe towards the sayd Merchant, in cutting a iust pound of his fleshe: and the obtayning of Portia by the choyse of three chests. As it hath beene divers times acted by the Lord Chamberlaine his servants” (Alexander 8). This title might give the one or other reader food for thought. It implies that Shakespeare’s contemporaries must have seen the play, especially the character Shylock, “in dissimilar terms” from us nowadays (Cerasano 55).

The following work will shed some light on the changes in reception and interpretation of The Merchant of Venice, which have developed from the time of its creation until today, which is an absolutely natural process, as “texts change with time and audience” (Alexander 90). To get to the bottom of these changes, especially the character Shylock and the attitudes of the audiences of the different centuries towards him have to be brought into focus. This work will show in what ways these attitudes and thus the reception have changed and where these changes derive from.

In addition to that, a selection of suggestions made by twentieth-century critics for interpreting the play, as it might have been meant to be by Shakespeare, will be introduced. His underlying intention has been debated over very much, which has given rise to an abundance of divergent interpretations, especially about how Shylock has to be assessed and how Shakespeare himself saw him. To find answers, we have to enter “into Elizabethan attitudes and beliefs” and theatrical conventions which have influenced him, because “an author can only be properly understood in the context of his own times” (Gross 181) and “the more knowledge […] we bring to it the richer our reading is likely to be” (Moody 20).

2. Shylock

The character Shylock “dominates” the play, although he appears only in five scenes (Alexander 48). The following chapter will provide a brief characterisation of him, including the attitudes of the other characters towards him. Chapter 2.2 will shed some light on the conflict between Shylock and the Christians in the play. Chapter 2.3 will acquaint with the different ways Shylock was performed in the course of the performance history of the play as well as the underlying changes as well as differences in interpretation.

2.1 Characterisation and Attitudes towards him

Some of the character traits of Shylock shown to the audience are “hatred of Christians, pride in Jewish identity, caution, calculation, cunning, […], inflexible will” and money-centredness (Alexander 48). He is marked as different by peculiar speech habits which include the use of “special Jewish vocabulary” (Alexander 52), Old Testament expressions (Schabert (1972) 422) as well as simply unusual expressions (Gross 65) and idioms (Alexander 52). He also uses Hebrew names, like Jacob and Abraham, and speaks of “my tribe” (I, 3, 46) with which he refers to the Jews and pointedly sets himself apart from the others. Thus, “a sense of his different ethnic identity is created” (Alexander 52), namely “an Old Testament religious identity” (Alexander 53). Shakespeare also made Shylock “pointedly anti-Christian”, for example by having him mock at the New Testament (Alexander 53). It is made clear to the audience repeatedly that Shylock feels revulsion for the Christians. For instance, when he says that he wishes that “any of the stock of Barabbas’ had been Jessica’s husband rather than a Christian” (IV, 1, 92-3). Moreover, his listing of “what Jewish Law says he may and may not do: trade or talk with Gentiles, but not eat or pray with them” (Alexander 57) as well as his derogatory answer to the invitation for dinner show that he “is wilfully excluding himself” from the Venetian Christian society (Lyon 43). Ironically, he later agrees to dine with them (Alexander 57). “Shylock’s attitudes are very peculiar.” He is full of contradictions and inconsistencies and shows a somewhat strange behaviour (Halio 14).

After having been portrayed exclusively as a villain, in the further course of the play, his “human suffering” is revealed (Lyon 42). We then get to know that mistreatment has caused resentment in him (Lyon 43). “His emotion is intense, and his pain evokes pity” (Alexander 48) when “he replies by reminding them of the physical basis of their common humanity” (Alexander 52). But shortly after this, we are first shocked by his preference of his ducats to his daughter, which exposes him as greedy for money, and then by his behaviour at the trial which is “unbending” and “obsessive” as “he savours the prospect of revenge […] and dismisses with contempt all pleas for mercy and offers of money” (Alexander 48). His most “prominent vices” presented are “avarice and revenge” (Cerasano 72).

The most important reasons why Shylock is hated and isolated are firstly, that he is a Jew and secondly, that he lends money for gain. His being a Jew “is an offense in itself” (Gross 351) in the eyes of the Christians. He is considered as faithless and as a villain. The remark “The Hebrew will turn Christian, he grows kind.” (II, 1, 174) implicates that only Christians are considered as kind, Jews not. In the eyes of the Christians, Shylock is a highly “threatening figure” who “seeks to possess and devour” (Gross 29). They don’t even consider him as a human being, but “systematically refus[e] to accept him as a human being equal with themselves” (Moody 29). He is called and referred to as dog several times and also treated like one by them. The Christians “spurn him with their feet, spit on him. To them he is a cur, a wolf, […] subhuman” (Alexander 52). They regard him as “A stony adversary, an inhuman wretch” (IV,1, 4), an “inexecrable dog” (IV, 1, 128) whose “currish spirit/ Govern’d a wolf” (IV, 1, 133-4) and whose “desires/ Are wolfish, bloody, starv’d, and ravenous” (IV, 1, 137-8). In general, the Christians identify themselves “with the good” and Shylock “with the bad” (Moody 39). He is even connected with the devil (“the very devil/ incarnation” (II, 2, 25-6), “the/ devil himself” (II, 2, 24-5)). Furthermore, he is portrayed as cruel and murderous (“I’ll plague him, I’ll torture/ him” (III, 1, 106-7), “I/ will have the heart of him” (III, 1, 115-6)). Even his own daughter explicitly distances herself from her father and wants to become a Christian. She is ashamed of being his daughter, can’t identify with his behaviour and leaves him because she regards his house as hell. His servant has no respect for him either and makes fun of him (“my young master doth expect/ your reproach” (Act II, 5, 19-20)). Antonio admits calling him “a misbeliever and a cut-throat dog and spitting on him; he [even] says he would do so again” (Alexander 46). In addition to that, all characters, except Jessica, refer to him as “the Jew” instead of his name, often combined with derogatory adjectives (“villain Jew” (II, 8, 4), “currish Jew” (IV, 1, 288)). “The Jew” has highly negative implications. By this, the Christians set him apart from themselves and are “letting him know that his personal identity is of no account” (Gross 64). When the characters in the play talk about him they name exclusively negative characteristics and all of them stick together against him. He is “the complete outsider” (Gross 101). They even taunt him when he looses his daughter. “Since they do not recognise his humanity the Venetians have neither inhibitions nor a sense of guilt in depriving him of his daughter and his ducats, and then mocking his grief” (Moody 29). In the trial scene, Shylock is isolated with everyone’s voice “raised against him” (Gross 87).

What is striking is, that the characters in the play judge “Shylock by his profession rather than by his immediate actions” as he does not practise usury in the course of the play, for example (Lyon 26). And the fact that “at no point does anyone suggest that there might be a distinction to be drawn between his being a Jew and his being an obnoxious individual” (Gross 351) reveals that their attitudes towards him are based on prejudices towards Jews in general.

2.2 The Conflict between Shylock and the Christians

The clash between Shylock and the other characters, especially between Shylock and Antonio, is religiously and culturally as well as economically based (Gross 97).

The first thing is that their different religions and therefore world views are not compatible. For the Christians, he is a misbeliever, whereas Antonio represents Christian virtues (Gross 93). Apart from the religious conflict, there is also commercial antagonism between them, since they are two different kinds of merchants, supporting different “versions of capitalism” (Gross 53). They are business enemies. “Shylock is a usurer, whereas Antonio is a merchant venturer” which was “a new and glamorous occupation in Elizabethan England” (Alexander 84). He is “the perfect, incorruptible, deliberately non-profit-making merchant” (Gross 287) who lends money because of friendship, as a favour, without any self-interest, whereas Shylock only lends money for gain. Antonio’s practice is regarded as generous giving and venturing, whereas Shylock’s business as petty greed and calculation (Schabert (1972) 421-2). However, like that of any merchant, Antonio’s “aim has to be to show a profit.” It is a “fantasy that you can enjoy the benefits of economic enterprise […] without being competitive and self-assertive” (Gross 54). Detailed information about the controversy over usury will be provided in chapter 3.2.

Shylock hates Antonio because he has delivered “out of his hands debtors” who owed him money and could not pay it back. Thus, Antonio has “hindered” him huge sums (Halio 119).

He also hates Antonio “for he is a Christian” (I, 3, 37) but still more “for that in low simplicity/ He lends out money gratis, and brings down/ The rate of usance” in Venice (I, 3, 38-40); and he hates Antonio because he hates his “sacred nation” (I, 3, 43) and has reviled him personally very often (“You call me […] cut-throat dog,/ And spat upon my Jewish gabardine” (I, 3, 106-7)). Actually, it does not become clear whether Shylocks hate for Antonio is more based on difference in religion or financial dealings, or if it relates specifically to Antonio’s mistreatment of him personally (Lyon 44). It is most probably a combination of all these reasons.

2.3 Performance History and Reception

The Merchant of Venice is “a cultural document and a theatrical phenomenon whose subsequent life reveals profound changes in Western cultural attitudes between 1600 and 2000” (Alexander 7). The character of Shylock “has come to dominate the theatrical history of the play” (Alexander 6), therefore its stage history is mainly the history of changes in the conception of Shylock (Schabert (1972) 423). And the issue of Shylock’s character has been “far from settled” during its performance history and “the sense of the play” has differed “quite radically” from one production to the other, “depending upon the manner in which Shylock [was] characterised” (Cerasano 102).

Among the Elizabethans, critics assume, Shylock was played “in a spirit of grotesque farce” (qtd. in Gross 167), “for ugly caricature” (qtd. in Halio 170), very likely “as a comic villain” (Halio 166). But there is “no evidence” of the way he was originally played. However, “this is how Shylock was performed at the end of the seventeenth” and in the early 18th century (Halio 166). From then on, there have been “diverging theatrical interpretations” (Lyon xvii). “Virtually every performance from the eighteenth century on is remembered primarily […] for the way in which the role of Shylock has been construed” (Cerasano 99). Since 1741, he was performed as a terrifying villain (Schabert (1972) 423), “a malignant, almost diabolical creature wholly […] driven by revenge and justice” (Cerasano 100), as “wolfish, […], eaten up with hatred; and nobody doubted that this was the correct reading of the part” (Gross 121). In later productions, “a more complicated character” was seen (Halio 170). In the 19th century he was seen by some as “a faithful representation of Jewish sentiments and manners”, by others as “the depositary of the vengeance of his race” (qtd. in Cerasano 57). In 1814, there was a turning point. For the first time, an actor managed to gain the sympathy of the audience for Shylock (Schabert (1972) 423). There was a more sympathetic portrayal of Shylock as a Jew more “sinned against than sinning”, “more human” (qtd. in Cerasano 100), “as a persecuted martyr” (Halio 166). Various different versions then “held the stage” (Alexander 87). Many nineteenth-century productions even cut and changed the text in ways which supported their personal view of Shylock (Halio 166). In 1879, Shylock was portrayed as the victim of a racism which was denounced by Shakespeare (Schabert (2000) 416), “a victim, even in his villainy” (Gross 146-7), “both sympathetic and tragic” (Cerasano 100). For that, various “small touches” were added in the text in order to garner the sympathy of the audience. Therefore, by the end of the play, “the audience saw Shylock as a heroic saint” (Cerasano 101). He was portrayed as “a man who had been wronged”, and “who suffered” (Gross 154). At the end of the 19th century, it was tried to return his role “to its imagined original” (Cerasano 101). In the early 20th century, he was again the devilish villain (Schabert (1972) 423), portrayed as an old man, “ugly with mental deformity, grinning with deadly malice, and the venom of his heart congealed in the expression of his countenance, […], brooding over one idea, that of his hatred, and fixed on one unalterable purpose, that of his revenge” (Cerasano 75). After 1933 , the number of productions in Germany declined, as directors “shied away from performing the play” because, as a consequence of the “instability within the play […] there was always the chance that the audience would sympathise with Shylock, ‘which would have been suicidal’” (qtd. in Cerasano 106). When it was performed, the text was altered, and the manner of performance was adapted to fit the political purpose. So, “directors either performed the play as a pure comedy suppressing […] all tragic and contemporary references, or they openly declared their Nazi convictions by pointedly racist renderings” (Cerasano 106). “The advent of Hitler inevitably made the whole subject far more sensitive” (Gross 273). In German productions of the 1930s and 40s, the anti-Semitic conception of a disgust-arousing, grotesque-comic Shylock was taken up (Schabert (1972) 423) in order to use the play “as anti-Jewish propaganda” (Alexander 88).

After World War II, no one dared to perform the play for quite a while (Schabert (2000) 416) as the portrayal of Shylock, in particular, and the play as a whole had become “increasingly complex politically” (Cerasano 102). “There was an understandable reluctance to portray Shylock unfavourably” (Gross 333). Theatre directors reacted by again altering the play, for example by portraying Shylock more as a usurer than as a Jew, or they maximised the humanity of Shylock and portrayed anti-Semitism as evil (Alexander 90) and thus portrayed him as a victim. However, he became a humanly-tragic character (Schabert (2000) 417). Later, in the 1950s and 60s, there were mainly “noble Shylocks” who were “driven to extremes by inhuman suffering at the hand of callous Christians” (qtd. in Cerasano 107). Thereafter, “perhaps owing to the commercially conscious time in which we live” (Cerasano 102), “directors favoured an interpretation of the play in which economic concerns came […] to the foreground” (Cerasano 107). In 1993, Shylock was portrayed as a “modern Jew whose religion was almost a secondary concern for him, as religion often is for many in this secular age” (Halio 169).



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Shakespeare Shylock Literaturwissenschaftliches Kolloquium



Title: Shakespeare's Shylock and attitudes towards him in socio-historical context