Shylock is a central character in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice who famously demanded a pound of flesh from the title character. Because he is Jewish, the play has been charged with being anti-Semitic.
Elements of the character
There are elements of humanity in the character, most notably in his legendary "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech, in which he argues his right to dignity and to revenge himself on the Christians who wrong him. This passage is also often thought to be a breakdown of the division between Jews
and Christians, as both will seek revenge. In modern performances of The Merchant of Venice
, Shylock is often treated as a tragic figure, while Antonio
is cast as more of a villain.
Not mentioned in the play (but well known to his first audiences) is that during Shakespeare's day, money lending was one of the few careers open to Jews, since Jews were forbidden to charge interest to their brethren (fellow Jews), and Christians also followed Old Testament laws condemning usury charged to their brethren (fellow Gentiles). There was therefore a brisk business in banking between Jews and Christians. (There is provision in the Torah for Jews to profit by lending money without "interest".) In the 16th century, Christians regarded usury as a sin, though the practice undoubtedly occurred. However, Shylock's profession as a moneylender is still frequently used by critics to support claims of anti-Semitism in the play.
Some readers have come to Shakespeare's further defense on these charges of anti-Semitism leveled at his portrayal of Shylock. Reasons for this vary, and include the breakdown of any division between the Christians and the Jews, verbalized by Shylock's "Hath not a Jew eyes..." speech, in which he asserts that he is no different than a Christian and deserves revenge as much as they would have it. Also, the lack of mercy shown by the Christians at the end of the play points to hypocrisy on their part. Some scholars also suggest that Shylock is repeatedly shown to have human qualities and that he becomes a sympathetic character, particularly when he is told about Jessica's betrayal and the loss of his deceased wife's ring. Some have also claimed that the forced conversion is an attempt by Shakespeare to create a "happy ending"; Shylock's soul is saved and in turn the Christians have served God.
Of particular note is that Jews were almost universally detested by Christian nations in the 16th Century, and England had expelled all Jews some 300 years prior to Shakespeare's time. Much of what remained of them were tales fraught with anti-Semitic sentiments ranging from exaggeration to outright lies, which depicted them as vile and despicable. Despite Shakespeare's upbringing in such an environment, he still managed to portray Shylock as a human being, something impossible to say about Barabas, the title character in Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, written only a few years before The Merchant of Venice. Taking into account the political climate of the age, Shakespeare appears to have been very much ahead of his time.
Notable actors who have portrayed Shylock include Richard Burbage
in the 16th century, Charles Macklin
in 1741, Edmund Kean
in 1814, William Charles Macready
in 1840, Edwin Booth
in 1861, Henry Irving
in 1880, George Arliss
in 1928, John Gielgud
in 1937, Laurence Olivier
in a 1973 TV production, Al Pacino
in a 2004 feature film
version, and F. Murray Abraham
at the Royal Shakespeare Company
The character's name has entered the language as a synonym
for loan shark
, and as a verb
: to shylock
is to lend money
at exorbitant rates
. The main character in the films Get Shorty
and Be Cool
, Chili Palmer (played by John Travolta
), is repeatedly referred to as a shylock. What's more, in Get Shorty
, Danny DeVito's character, "Martin", references the distinction by saying, "I'm doing Shylock instead of a shylock," when he was asked to act as Chili Palmer. "Pound of flesh" has also entered the lexicon
for particularly brutal revenge or an unpleasant obligation. In the movie American History X
, Edward Norton
uses the term Shylock to deride a Jewish man whom he suspects of sleeping with his mother, exclaiming, "I will fucking cut your Shylock nose off and stick it up your ass before I let that happen!" Several characters in The Sopranos
use the terms "shy" and "shylock" to describe their loan shark business throughout the series.
It is of interest that William Shakespeare in all probability had never actually met a Jew in his lifetime - at least, not a Jew who admitted to his or her own Judaism. The Jews of England were expelled
on July 18, 1290, at the decree of Edward I
and were only officially re-admitted by Oliver Cromwell
in the year 1656, forty years after Shakespeare's death. Although a small number of Jews did remain, they were forced to keep their Judaism secret
. However, the rings of the play are frequently cited by scholars as a reference to then-current events surrounding the Queen and her doctor Rodrigo Lopez
, a Jew executed for alleged treason.
- John Gross, Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy. Touchstone: 1994. ISBN 0-671-88386-0.
- Kenneth Gross, Shylock Is Shakespeare. University of Chicago Press: 2006. ISBN 0-226-30977-0.
- James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews. Columbia University Press: 1997. ISBN 0-231-10345-X.
- Joseph Shatzmiller, Shylock Reconsidered: Jews, Moneylending, and Medieval Society. University of California Press: 1990. ISBN 0-520-06635-9.
- Martin Yaffe, Shylock and the Jewish Question. Johns Hopkins University Press: 1997. ISBN 0-8018-5648-5.
- M.G. Vassanji, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. Doubleday Canada: 2003. ISBN 0-385-65990-3.