Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is a deeply disturbing play and its greatest disturbance is a Jew. Shylock is the play’s money-lending villain who insists in open court that he’s entitled to a pound of Christian flesh. He even packs a knife to help himself to it. His very name is synonymous with ‘loan shark,’ ‘extortionist,’ or, says the Oxford English Dictionary, is an offensive term for ‘Jew.’
I’ve never been called ‘Shylock’ as far as I know, but I almost wouldn’t mind. Some people find him unredeemable, repulsive. I’m not one of them. I am disappointed when audiences—any audiences, but particularly Jews—attack the play, claiming it perpetuates stereotypes and should not be read or staged. But I think a play that exposes the hypocrisy of a world obsessed with cash and credit, that links love to merchandise, that confuses virtuous talk with virtuous action is a play that deserves some attention. It reveals how misguided are our own priorities, and signals the danger of intolerance.
Shylock is more than a villain rejecting talk of mercy. He is more than his knife. His over-the-top excesses echo the kinds of racist propaganda to which Jews and others have been subjected. In Shakespeare’s time, members of “the Jewish race” were believed to have murderous impulses. Bogus tales of Jews scheming against the lives of Christians abound in the period. Throughout England’s history similar slanders were used to justify anti-Semitic violence—violence that came in handy to avoid paying debts to Jewish creditors.
The England into which Shakespeare was born had barred Jews for centuries. It’s unlikely Shakespeare would have known one. Still, he has his Jew do something remarkable: Shylock tells the truth. “The villainy you teach me I will execute,” he says. In this moment, Shylock does not just announce his vengeance toward Antonio and other Christians. He sets himself up as a mirror for their foul behavior. Shylock shows us how direct is the course from victim to victimizer. Our potential for malice is staggering if all avengers aim, as Shylock does, to raise the stakes on hatred: “it shall go hard,” he says, “but I will better the instruction.”
Shylock’s statement is a threat and a promise. His cruelty in seeking a pound of flesh from nearest his enemy’s heart exceeds Antonio’s offenses. The threat announces a kind of lesson, as if Shylock needs to see the man’s heart—to hold it in his hand, even—in order to confirm he’s got one. The choice signals “the heartlessness of Venice” literally and figuratively. The fact that Shakespeare enlists a Jew—described as having “a heart of flint”—to signal this depravity suggests that the play’s Christian hearts are that much harder, that much more impenetrable.
Depraved behavior trails each character in The Merchant of Venice and Shylock alerts us to this. His caution that “it shall go hard” has implications beyond the stage. The play, though a comedy, can make us uncomfortable in its poking fun at stereotypes—not only of Jews, but also of blacks, foreigners, poorer folk. Shylock insists on the value of that discomfort, unraveling our perceptions of those we think we know better, and those we should.