Tueday 13rd August 2013 - by Kyl Chhatwal
Despite the fact that William Shakespeare never set foot in Italy, he certainly liked to write about it. His characters and stories are of such enduring vividness and popular appeal that many Italian cities will continue to be associated with them for a very long time. (Think Verona and Romeo & Juliet. While R&J’s story predates Shakespeare, the way they survive in the popular imagination owes everything to Shakespeare.)
One of Shakespeare’s favourite Italian settings was Venice. Here he set one of his greatest tragedies, Othello, as well as one of his best early comedies, The Merchant of Venice.
The title character of Merchant is a Venetian named Antonio. But really, the play belongs to the character, Shylock. Ostensibly, Shylock is the villain of the play, attested to by the play’s quarto title page, published in 1600, which reads: “The most excellent History of the Merchant of Venice. With the extreme cruelty of Shylock the Jew towards the Merchant…”
Also, the play’s plot hinges on the “extreme cruelty” of Shylock, in which he lends Antonio money in exchange for a truly bizarre form of security, “a pound of [Antonio’s] flesh.”
When Antonio defaults on the loan, Shylock mercilessly insists on the payment of the grisly bond.
“By my soul I swear/There is no power in the tongue of man/To alter me,” he vows in the culminating scene of the play.
But as always in Shakespeare, people’s true natures are never as simple as they seem. Antonio, the “merciful Christian,” is not the lily-white victim he is initially portrayed to be. In the past, he has spit on Shylock in public for his Jewishness, and slandered him relentlessly. In modern parlance, then, Antonio’s an unapologetic antisemite. Throughout the play he and his friends heap racist vitriol on Shylock, comparing him repeatedly to a dog, a devil.
Hence the reason the play can sound so antisemitic to modern audiences. But over the centuries there has been fierce debate over Shakespeare’s true intentions with regards to Shylock. Was he merely pandering to the racist attitudes of his times by giving us this “cruel” image of Jewishness? Or was he doing something more subtle, writing his first tragic anti-hero—a man pushed to extremes by the systematic, unremitting hatred of the society in which he lives?
In Shakespeare’s day Shylock was universally portrayed by actors as a stock villain—cruel, inhuman and monstrous.
But beginning in the early 19th century actors began plumming the complexities of Shylock as they existed in the text. Shylock slowly evolved into a sympathetic, tragic figure—noble, proud, yet weak. Audiences were shown a man not necessarily cruel by nature, but hardened by a society that regarded him and his “tribe” as nothing but pounds of flesh themselves.
The crux of Shylock’s sympathetic portrayal is his stirring and beautifully-rendered speech—the most touching of the play—in which he famously begs his Christian counterparts to finally recognize his humanity. “Hath not a Jew eyes?” he asks them:
“Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? – fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases…? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”
Despite the ambiguity of Shylock’s motivations—or perhaps because of it—Merchant remains a popular play today. In 2004, a film version expanded on the material Shakespeare leaves us on the conditions of Jews in 16th century Europe, helping modern audiences understand the extent to which Jews were ostracized, living under the weight of so much hatred.
Here, in a clip from the film, Al Pacino as Shylock delivers the great “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech, which over the centuries has made the careers of so many of history’s finest stage actors: