Coming to Shakespeare at this point in my life, I find myself particularly drawn to several of his distinct characters. Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is one. For centuries, his name has represented a “crooked” Jew trying to cheat an “honest” Christian. But when I read the play recently, the character of Shylock suddenly took on a completely different meaning for me.
Wait a minute! Wasn’t Shylock only seeking to be repaid what was honestly owed him? Antonio asks for a loan with no collateral. What guarantee does Shylock have that he will be repaid? Coming from his weak position in society, he uses the strongest guarantee available to him – a pound of flesh – and Antonio agrees to the deal.
Did Antonio even intend to repay it? Maybe not, but what choices did Shylock have? Even Shylock’s daughter defects, leaving him feeling not only vulnerable but abandoned.
In fact, he had generously given a loan to someone with little prospect of repayment, yet he is treated as a villain. And, in the end, not only does he not get his honest due; he is vilified and forced to convert. All this not because he was wrong, but because he was an alien in his society; he had no recourse.
Since Shakespeare and his father both dabbled in money lending he knew first-hand how difficult it could be to collect his due. How much more for a Jew?
In his representation of Shylock, I believe Shakespeare presents this dilemma to his audience brilliantly, with empathy for his situation and for the man.
“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organ dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”
As usual, Shakespeare was able to see and present the multi-faceted sides of human nature.