The Merchant of Venice: Staging Gentile, Staging Jew

The Merchant of Venice:
Staging Gentile, Staging Jew
The Merchant of Venice (written 15941596) as “Oppositional Play”
The Merchant of Venice has evoked
perhaps more radically opposed
interpretations than any other of
Shakespeare’s plays.
– Most of the disagreements have
centered on character.
• the epitome of the romantic heroine,
virtually a saint? (see Thomas Sully, Portia
and Shylock and Henry Woods, Portia,
Exhibited 1888)? or a "spoiled darling"
who thinks money can buy anything?
• a brilliant and just lawyer? or a conniving
and "callous barrister” with a trump card
up her sleeve?
• an ideal portrait of a Christian convert? or
a "dishonest and disloyal father-hating
• a model of Christian gentleness? or an
underground Shylock?
• a romanticized lover? or a heartless
• savage monster? or martyred gentleman?
Some quotes from critics about Shylock:
• He manifests “malevolence . . . diabolically
• Shakespeare “clearly detested” him
• He is a “scapegoat,” an instinctively
generous man who reminds his tormentors
of the wickedness which they possess in
greater measure than he.
What is YOUR attitude to Shylock?
Real hero of the play
More sinned against than sinning
More sinning than sinned against
Unredeemable villain of the play
What do you think was the attitude to
Shylock in Shakespeare’s time?
a) Diabolical monster, malevolent villain,
and murderous dog-Jew
b) Noble, dignified Jew, the tragic hero not
the tragic villain of the play
c) Comic witty character, funny through his
ironic commentary upon the Christians
d) Comic type character (Jew = Miser =
• One Conventional Reading (A): Shylock as
diabolical monster, malevolent villain, and
murderous dog-Jew. See title-page to 1600
Quarto: “the extreme cruelty of Shylock the
– Shakespeare capitalizing on the trial and
execution of Dr. Roderigo Lopez, a
physician of Portuguese Jewish descent
executed in 1594 on charges of spying and
plotting to poison the queen.
– Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta,
probably written in 1589-90, was performed
twice within ten days of Lopez's execution,
in June, 1594.
Charles Macklin's Shylock (mid-18th c)
• Played Shylock as a terrifying villain with no
redeeming features.
• Macklin's "badge of all our tribe" was:
– a red beard, conventional for stage Jews
– a "Jewish gaberdine“
– unfashionably wide black trousers
– a red skullcap
• Claimed (incorrectly) historical accuracy:
Alexander Pope:
“This is the Jew / That Shakespeare drew”
Charles Macklin's Shylock (mid-18th c)
Some Images of Macklin as the diabolically
murderous Jew:
• Johan Zoffany (1733-1810), Covent
Garden, 1767/68. Somerset Maugham
Collection of Theatrical Paintings.
• Charles Macklin as Shylock, 1741. Hiram
Stead Collection of the New York Public
Library. Here with his trademark attire as
well as his trademark tools: knife and
• Charles Macklin as Shylock
Another Conventional Reading (B):
Shylock is the noble, dignified Jew, the
tragic hero not the tragic villain of the play
• Shakespeare is condemning Christians who
indulge in racial prejudice and persecution.
• see Morris Carnovsky's 1957 Merchant of
Venice (American Shakespeare Festival in
Stratford, CT).
– Shylock proposed the bond truly as a “merry
sport” to try and be friends with the Christians
– Only when robbed of his daughter and his goods
does he turn into, in Carnovsky’s words, “the
sad, sick, lonely wolf”
Patrick Stewart on what he describes
as the typically three different stagings
of Shylock, which he performs in an
Actor taping of Shylock’s speech, pp.
18-19; 1,3,103-126.
• Stewart acts out, in order, versions of
Shylock as “B” (dignified, noble Jew), as
“A” (monstrous, dog-Jew), and—Stewart’s
preference—as “C” (diabolical but “funny,”
in being ironic, Jew)
One More Reading (D): Shylock as the
Comic Type Character
• Again, we must turn to Shakespeare's comic
tradition, in particular: New Comedy and Festival
• Considered in this tradition, Shakespeare's Shylock
cannot be an "authentic" Jew.
• He is a stock figure, derived from the continent and
from native holiday celebrations.
Shylock is a stock or type figure from
comedy in three ways
1) Shylock is a type for the restraining
father that we've seen in New Comedy
p. 30; 2.4.1-9
p. 34; 2.5.28-38
2) Shylock is also the stock killjoy figure
who typically stands in the way of festive
holiday celebrations and must be
• see Malvolio, in Twelfth Night
• links to Puritanism (see Macklin's Shylock)
• links to miserliness
• Jews = Misers
• see Shylock's reaction to news that there
might be masquing afoot (p. 34; 2.5.2838)
3) Shylock is also a stock or type
character for the usurer opposed to
festive spending
• Jews = misers = usurers
• This last “type” or stock feature of Shylock
makes him a character in Shakespeare’s
day who would have been both funny (as
a stock character) and evil
Why is usury evil?
• In the New Testament, Christ drives the
money-changers from the Temple.
• In Aristotle's The Politics (Book I), he
opposes the idea of money breeding (as
– See Shylock's reference to the story of
Laban and Jacob to justify interest (p.
17; 1.3.75-87)
• Legally, usury is a crime in England
(though it is also acknowledged as
necessary for capitalism to work; interest
beyond 10% specifically cited as criminal)
The Problem:
• Inherent in both the Renaissance laws and
Aristotelian position on usury is a
– usury is illegal and ungodly but interest up
to 10 percent is (sort of) okay
– usury is unnatural but it is necessary to
(and thus natural to?) advanced
commerce, where credit and interest go
• In typing the Jew as usurer, just such
contradiction in Gentile thinking is repressed.
• Shylock the monstrous villain and Shylock
the dignified, persecuted minority need to
have added to them not only Patrick
Stewart's Shylock the ironist ("Hath a dog
money? Is it possible / A cur can lend
three thousand ducats?") but also Shylock
the comic stock type (Jew/miser/usurer).
• All these versions of Shylock come
together in Shakespeare's imaging of the
playworld's "civilization" and its

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