An excerpt from
Shylock Is Shakespeare
If after the trial of Antonio I found myself walking with Shylock through some narrow street or calle in Venice (I say walking because I cannot imagine Shylock in a gondola), I would ask him the question that always hits me after reading or watching the trial scene: What could you have been thinking? Given what you know of Venetian society, polity, and law, and of the Venetians’ very particular malice toward you, what made you suppose that you would be allowed to take the life of a Christian merchant in open court? How could you think that you would be allowed to execute your mad bond, cut into Antonio’s flesh, and not only that, but in the process put so nakedly on display the Venetian law’s impotence to save its own—indeed, its exquisitely adjusted power to abet you in your revenge? Recall how Shylock in this scene seems able to creep inside and become himself the vengeful spirit of his enemies’ laws, reanimating Venetian law for the purpose of murder rather than justice, profit, or order, stealing for himself the law’s necessary, often concealed violence. How did he imagine he could survive the exposure of his own rage and contempt, which includes his contempt for the contempt that others have so regularly heaped upon him? He gives and hazards all the rage he has. He is the very spirit of hazard, even as he masters the scene. He makes himself an open wound onstage. He may surprise even himself in forcing into the open what is hidden, making out of his claim on the bond the fresh vehicle of an old anger, even if the sources and objects of that anger remain difficult to fix. I suppose you might say Shylock is confident that he will win his case, knowing how devoted the Venetians are to the laws that guard their economic power. But it is still a wild gamble, the wildest gamble in this play about fortune. In this scene Shylock puts the law to use but also shames the law and its upholders, those whom the law itself upholds. He strips the laws bare as he strips himself bare. The trial of Antonio—which quickly turns into the trial of Shylock—is for him what Wallace Stevens calls “the accomplishment of an extremist at an exercise.” It is as if King Lear, raging in the storm, were actually allowed to stage the demented trial of his cruel daughters, allowed to anatomize them before a court of madmen and fools, to cut open Regan’s chest to see if there is “any cause in nature that make these hard hearts.” In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock anatomizes his own heart as well as seeking Antonio’s. We do not know for sure what he wants to get back, or what he wants the pursuit of his bond’s forfeit to yield him. Shylock’s is a self-destructive project; it strips him of his living, if not his life. Yet it is a project that gains for him the impression of an interior life, a thinking, more unfathomable and harrowing than that of any other character in the play. It lends him an eloquence that is unaccountable both in its power and in its ordinariness. We start to see what William Hazlitt called the “hard, impenetrable, dark groundwork of the character of Shylock.”
The Merchant of Venice is a hyperstructured play, as Angus Fletcher once characterized it, preoccupied by wills, boxes, bonds, and rituals of choice and law, not to mention the larger generic structures of the comic fiction. Shylock is at once the exploiter and the victim of such structures. He slips past them even as he makes us feel both their weight and their arbitrariness. This comes through in the way he both feeds and shatters the balance of the comedy. It comes through in how he makes a legal bond such a radical mark of his identity, a vehicle for his rage, even as it drives any more normative notion of legal bonding into the wilderness. These are aspects of what I have come to think of as Shylock’s singularity, his particularity or power of idiosyncrasy. The Merchant of Venice is Shylock’s play, he gives it its point, even as he is larger than the world which tries to contain him. Do the other characters even know what they hate in Shylock? At times one gets the sense that Shylock is invisible to them, that they are accusing a specter, even as he represents something at the core of things as they are. Shylock can seem like a king in exile or disguise. (It is paradoxes such as these that distinguish the originality of Shylock from that of another, perhaps earlier example of Shakespeare’s emerging powers of dramatic individuation, the bastard Faulconbridge in King John, who for all his improvisatory verve, even a kind of royal spirit, does not shift the axis of the play around himself so sharply, or show anything like Shylock’s power to wound.)
Shylock’s singularity is bound up with a complex sort of typicality, a typicality that is both a burden and a curse. One aspect of Shylock’s exemplary force lies in what he tells us about theater, how he draws on theater’s primal energy of role playing, its way of holding up a mirror to those who watch and listen. He attracts attention to himself and manipulates it. He pushes to the limit theater’s powers of exposure and concealment, its abiding interest in forms of human shame and shamelessness; he reminds us of the power of the stage to assault its auditors and fetch up impulses otherwise unknown, unacknowledged, and neglected. Shylock’s rages speak to Shakespeare’s perennial challenge to his audience. Shylock is a man willing, in his own words, to “offend, himself being offended,” which means being willing to offend himself. His dramatic authority, his gift to later actors, indeed lies in his power to extend the realm of what is possible onstage, to turn even offense into a complex mystery. This is what makes Shylock so difficult and so enlivening a part to perform onstage. It’s clear that many of the great eighteenth- and nineteenth-century actors who humanized the role—men such as Charles Macklin, William Charles Macready, Edmund Kean, and Henry Irving—were drawn to it less out of sympathy for Jews than because it gave them an occasion for reinventing the scope of their own acting, calling up an energy of performance, a mode of animation, more challenging, true, and electric than what their audiences had become accustomed to. Thinking about what can be played in Shylock also helps us think about what may be unplayable in Shylock—for if this is a threshold play, it is partly because here Shakespeare places at the center of his dramatic script a point of stark resistance to performance.
The power of the character also lies in what he reveals in more general terms about the human enigma, its jointure of freedom and dependence, secrecy and histrionics, alienness and complicity, its capacity for terror, for aggression and resentment, for giving itself over to the inhuman. The play explores what it means to inhabit this enigma, this divisive jointure, to expand it from within and force it into new combinations. Whatever is shown in Shylock strikes us more strongly given his stark isolation, and not just from his family or the society of Venice. G. Wilson Knight observes forcefully that while Shylock in his solitary rages mirrors the riven consciousnesses of Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes, unlike theirs, his protests find no echo or matrix in a larger cosmos, in the anger of ghosts, the babble of madmen, the guilty murmurings of sleepwalkers, military and civic violence, or the chaos of the weather. Shylock is never visible, as Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, and others are, to the world of the dead or the world of dream. It is such surrounding forces that both sustain and expand the words and consciousness of these tragic figures, that give them their breadth of relation, their diffuse generality. These influences make each of the tragic characters “an inalienable part of the universal structure” framed in their plays, linking them further to a hidden, Dionysiac principle, or what Knight, quoting W. B. Yeats, calls “a fabulous, formless darkness.” Their part in a larger tragic matrix helps to save these characters from such humiliation as Shylock suffers. “The great tragedies are metaphysical explorations of that which lies behind, or within, the human enigma; Shylock is a study drawn more directly from that enigma, from life itself as we know it.” This is perhaps why, as Fletcher suggests, Shylock’s eloquence is of a different order; it is less an eloquence of consciousness than “an eloquence of being.”
Shylock’s isolation as character also mirrors Shakespeare’s isolation as author, his sense of what the audience cannot know about his fictions and what drives them. The importance of Shylock lies in what he reveals about the Shakespearean enigma as much as the human enigma. Shylock provides us a mirror of Shakespeare’s sense of himself as a human author, as a creator of artifacts for the stage, and of his violence against those creations. We can see in Shylock’s situation Shakespeare’s comment on the risks entailed by his making, his joining together of exposure and deep self-concealment, his wounded and wounding generosity, and the costs of that generosity. Shylock shows us the vexed conditions of the playwright’s success, in particular as he reflects something about Shakespeare’s uncertain bond with his audience, the world that eats his children by eye and ear, a world on which Shakespeare takes his own kind of revenge. Shylock’s rage is Shakespeare’s rage, which includes, most centrally, the rage of Shakespeare the dramatic artist. In this he provides as powerful a clue to Shakespeare’s artistic impulses as the characters of Hamlet, Falstaff, and Prospero. What The Merchant of Venice tells us about its author may be all the sharper given the play’s awkward, imperfect shape as a theatrical artifact. As R. P. Blackmur noted in regard to certain texts of Henry James (for example, The Sacred Fount), “It is often in his relative failures that the artist’s drive is most clearly defined; if only because in his purest successes there is the sense of the self-born, self-driven, and self-complete and these quantities escape definition.”
Something in the composition of Shylock has made it possible for him to survive, to possess a literary and theatrical afterlife of peculiar vividness and complexity. The grounds and quality of that survival—the question of how we remember Shylock—are also part of what I want to explore in this book. To some degree this survival depends his conflicted position in the play itself. For all the power with which he claims our attention, Shylock at the end of the play is radically incomplete, denied a part in any fully realized action. This is something reinforced by the very artful cruelty with which the trial scene ends, leaving Shylock so quickly undone, stripped of legal claims, voiceless, compelled to become a Christian under threat of death. The forced conversion is Shakespeare’s most conspicuous addition to the traditional pound-of-flesh legend. But the idea of assimilating him within a Christian community only makes his isolation more complex; Shylock at the end has no part in a clear political, social, or spiritual faction. He steps into a void and is almost forgotten by the play itself, which continues on for another act. This incompleteness is part of what keeps us guessing at this character; he stays alive because we can neither quite let him go nor decide what form to give him in our minds.
If it is Shylock’s incompleteness that keeps him vivid, he also survives through time by virtue of being too complete. His very isolation within the system of the play reinforces this. Cut off from a larger world of relation, Shylock stays around not just as a scarily open question—a wound drawing in fresh care and violence—but as a closed, blank cliché. He survives the way a stereotype survives, a falsely simple, self-defining truth, despite his own attempts in the play to shatter this, or at least to put it to shattering uses. The diffused image of Shylock as “the figure of the hated man,” as the actor Abraham Morevski called him—a version of the cruel, cunning, divisive, abject, legalistic, and treacherous Jew—points to his more troubling gift to history. It is through Shylock’s becoming part of history, part of the language of European antisemitism, part of what both Jews and Christians know and do not know about Jews, that he feels unlike any other Shakespearean character. Shylock’s face, his words, in some cases his bare name, live a compulsive, shadowy life in our history and its conversations, always ready to emerge from the background, continuously woven into other forms of monstrous rumor or cunning lie, sustaining them, helping to enlarge their scope. Shylock is a form of knowledge as well as a lie, not just shorthand for moneylender or Jew, but a name for a way of being, a certain relation to the past.
Marcel Proust shows us one form of Shylock’s ambiguous presence in a scene from Time Regained (1927), the last volume of In Search of Lost Time. Here the narrator comes across his school friend Albert Bloch at a grand party given by the Princesse de Guermantes. It is the occasion when Marcel grasps the possibility of dedicating himself to the great novel he has always deferred writing, the moment when he starts to see the shaping power of time itself, the strange gulfs time opens up and the eerie filiations it lays bare. At the party, Bloch, always a decidedly secular Jew, appears transformed. He is now elegant, charming, distinguished, and much sought after; he has shed his old vulgarity and self-consciousness, not to mention his mask of genial antisemitism, which the young Marcel had witnessed at Balbec. He has taken a new name, Jacques de Rozier. His very body has undergone a metamorphosis, his once curly hair is “suppressed,” his moustache gone, and the Jewish curve of his nose now “scarcely more visible than is the deformity of a hunchbacked woman who skillfully arranges her appearance.” Yet at this party where the narrator sees so many ghosts, Bloch too is haunted. At one moment, when Bloch comes “bounding into the room like a hyena,” Marcel sees a man closer to death, still desperate about his place in the world, closer to his anxious, beloved father than he could bear to know:
What did this profit him? At close quarters, in the translucency of a face in which, at a greater distance or in a bad light, I saw only youthful gaiety (whether because it survived there or because I with my recollections evoked it), I could detect another face, almost frightening, racked with anxiety, the face of an old Shylock, waiting in the wings, with his make-up prepared, for the moment when he would make his entry on to the stage and already reciting his first line under his breath.
Elsewhere in his novel Proust speaks about the troubled place of Jews in French society, evoking their powers of survival—at once social and historical—their sense of persecution and deep capacity for loyalty. Among assimilated Jews he acknowledges a fearful secrecy and solitude, a power to know each other by mysterious affiliation combined with a need to shun each other’s company, even to seek out for friends those who most hate them, all of which mark their hidden ties with the other “cursed race” of homosexuals. The name of Shylock is invoked in the above passage to fix the narrator’s perception of some hidden truth about his friend, a truth that makes itself visible despite the self-conscious disguise. Yet one cannot quite tell if it is some essential Jewishness that is marked by recourse to the old label or an acknowledgement that this form of Jewishness is after all itself a disguise, another mask that knows itself to be a mask, waiting in the wings to supplant another performance. (Is it an unconscious acknowledgement of his lineage that Bloch’s assumed name evokes the principal street of the old Jewish quarter of Paris, the rue des Rosiers?)
As Proust’s text makes clear, it is not just that there are different versions of Shylock in our memory, it is that there are different kinds remembrance at work, different ways of remembering the character. We could divide them crudely into two species. One form of memory is more individuated, attached to the particulars of the play itself and its performances, holding on to Shylock in his theatrical context, however ambiguously he is perceived. Here we know him as a dramatic character. The other form of memory is more schematic and diffused, yet no less tenacious, and more fully bound up with a forgetting of the play, a forgetting to which the play itself contributes. In the latter case the mere name Shylock takes on a life of its own, cut off from any necessary knowledge of its origin (as happens also with the phrase “a pound of flesh”). These different species of memory, in all their varying incarnations and degrees, play against each other in the text’s afterlife. They shadow each other, so that the character of Shylock appears always variously fragmented, refracted, distorted, or emptied out, a ghost of himself, yet still curiously potent—a movement that, as Richard Halpern has shown, is at work in modernist images of the Jew more generally. In texts like the one I’ve quoted from Proust, it is hard to measure just which sort of memory is most powerful.
It is this ambiguity in how we remember Shylock, as much as the play’s taint of antisemitism, that accounts for something in Shylock’s afterlife that I otherwise find mysterious. This is the fact that it is hard find in modern poetry, fiction, or drama a truly canonical reimagining of Shakespeare’s Shylock, one that stays true to the force of the original character even as it seeks to create something new. There is nothing to compare, say, to the way that Luigi Pirandello reinvents the figure of Hamlet, the pretend madman, in his great play Henry IV or to the way that Samuel Beckett’s Hamm, the haunted son and abusive father of Endgame, gives us a stark revision of Hamlet and King Lear at once. There is no poetic retelling of The Merchant of Venice to compare with W. H. Auden’s Sea and the Mirror, a book that finds voices for characters in The Tempest that open them up to fresh moral and poetic recognitions. Shylock continues to haunt modern authors, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and the play itself has never ceased being performed and studied, inflected and reinflected. But when it comes to the invention of a new literary character, the face of Shylock, unless it reappears as a grotesque relic or revenant—as in the early poetry of T. S. Eliot—is something that must either be exorcised or go more deeply in disguise, as in the case of James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom.
I doubt that Shakespeare, theatrical pragmatist that he was, had much interest in Jews when he started writing, apart from what he could make of them in a dramatic text. In designing The Merchant of Venice, he drew on some of the same elements of antisemitic fantasy that fed Christopher Marlowe’s Jew of Malta; he increased their virulence as well as their ambiguity by making Shylock so much less a puppet than Marlowe’s Machiavellian Barabas. Yet how we are to characterize the poet’s strategy remains a question. There is much in the text that leads one to call it antisemitic, yet by itself that is too simple. Nor is it useful to say that the play is, as someone suggested to me, prosemitic, though from an aesthetic point of view you might say that it is pro-Shylock. The play refuses—more, it anatomizes—the kind of factionalism of thought that provokes such readings; this is part of its moral and aesthetic power. What continues to compel us in Shylock depends on things that cannot be made sense of strictly in terms of his Jewish identity. Attempts to make Shylock into an emblem of Jewish victimage or Jewish heroism, a creature around which a sense of cultural fate can rally, moving as they are, often fail to see how much the play outrages such an identity. Under the spell of such readings Shylock threatens to become a kind of golem, the artificial man of Kabbalistic tradition and Jewish folklore, a being whose life, for all that it is intended to be redemptive, inevitably causes damage to those who have created him. The fact is that Shylock has to be saved from sectarian readings, whether Jewish or Christian. Or perhaps the idea of saving Shylock has to be given up entirely. (The idea of helping him is a disease that can only be cured by taking to one’s bed, as Franz Kafka’s Hunter Gracchus says of himself.) Shylock’s complexity is such that every approach to making sense of him is itself a trial, a test of our moral and literary tact.
Shakespeare’s startling achievement is that whatever we call Shylock’s humanity emerges exactly through rather than simply in spite of the shapes of antisemitic abuse that frame his character onstage. It has to do with how Shylock inhabits and makes use of that abuse, how the forms of hatred feed our response to his words, including the face of his inner life. How do we understand the inner life of a slander? How can that life be repossessed by the one slandered? What does Shakespeare thus tell us about the logic of antisemitism? How is the mechanism of hatred also a mechanism of poetry? The Merchant of Venice is a play that explores the dramaturgy of repugnancy, the aesthetics of things repugnant—taking the word both in its more commonplace meaning, where it relates to a feeling of disgust or hatred aroused in us by a person or thing, and in its older, philosophical usage, referring to something contradictory or inconsistent, unresponsive to logical reasoning. Is there a specifically Shakespearean repugnancy? And what would that tell us about a specifically Shakespearean humanity?
Let me end these opening remarks by touching on a telling, if minor, moment in Shylock’s afterlife, one that occurs in a story by Jorge Luis Borges, “Deutsches Requieum,” from his 1949 collection The Aleph. This story is narrated by a former commandant of a German concentration camp. Writing on the eve of his execution by the Allies, he offers a studied apologia for his life. In particular, he describes the august purity and heroic sacrifice of self, even of the insidious emotion of compassion, required of him by his commitment to Nazism. It is an act of will of a sort that has helped, even in the defeat of Nazism, to ensure the triumph of violence in the world. He goes on to admit that such purity of faith was once, but only once, challenged: by his inescapable, humiliating love and compassion for a Jewish poet named David Jerusalem who was interned in his camp. This love threatened his passion for that ideal around which he had formed his life. In feeling such an attachment, the commandant tells us, he began to see Jerusalem, at first his angel—a poet of “meticulous and painstaking love” for ordinary things—as something of a devil. It is a transformation whose pathological shape even the narrator himself seems to recognize: “Everything in the world can be the seed of a possible hell; a face, a word, a compass, an advertisement for cigarettes—anything can drive a person insane if that person cannot manage to put it out of his mind. . . . In my eyes [Jerusalem] was not a man, not even a Jew; he had become a symbol of a detested region of my soul.” To have found the will to drive this poet to commit suicide was thus, he says, a triumph over that hell of love in himself.
What most interests me in this account of the origins and spiritual costs of antisemitism is a small detail. The narrator tells us that among David Jerusalem’s works is a poem entitled “Rosenkranz Talks with an Angel.” It is a versified soliloquy “in which a sixteenth-century London moneylender tries in vain, as he is dying, to exculpate himself, never suspecting that the secret justification for his life is that he has inspired one of his clients (who has seen him only once, and has no memory even of that) to create the character Shylock.” We hear nothing more about the poem in Borges’s story. Yet this brief moment offers a mirror in which to view the enigma of Shylock and his creation. Borges’s imaginary text, first of all, speaks to the fragile origins of a dramatic character. It hints at the contingencies of experience that start such a character in mind of the poet; it suggests that a mereness or scarcity of acquaintance is for this author preferable to fuller knowledge. (“The historian, essentially, wants more documents than he can really use; the dramatist wants more liberties than he can really take,” writes Henry James.) Borges also touches on the unpredictable acts of will that transmute such accidents of experience, acts that may not even be fully recognized by the artist himself. Shylock begins as a person encountered only for a moment. He has the fragile concreteness of someone met in passing on a crowded street. (Shylock is indeed a creature of the streets, gathering news there, undertaking deals, becoming himself the object of news and mocking.) The moneylender Rosenkranz almost as rapidly disappears into oblivion and yet is transfigured in the very act of being forgotten, a forgetting itself enshrined by the later poet. We are reminded at once of the uncertain grounds of Shylock’s gestural life and of its survival in time—in Jerusalem’s fantasy the actual person of the moneylender drops from the poet’s memory, his afterimage passing to one dramatic character and his mere name to another. Borges’s story also joins the elusive origins of a literary character, even of the blessing he provides for the dying man, to the inaccessible origins of human hatred. The story speaks to the ways we create hells within our minds, and of the literal violence by which we may try to banish those hells. David Jerusalem is a mirror of Shylock and Shakespeare both, a mirror of Borges, too, the alchemist of literary memory, a mirror of their vulnerability, their joining of oblivion and survival. Jerusalem, or Jerusalem’s Rosenkranz, also gives us a mirror of the story’s chilling narrator, a man who himself “tries in vain, as he is dying, to exculpate himself,” to find a secret justification for his life in his purity of hatred, as if that hatred were itself a blessing. The whole fiction reminds us of why Shylock, as he survives, is a little dangerous to handle. He is like a piece of fissionable material whose energy is not entirely consumed by the play he fuels. The gamble, the desperate wish of Borges’s fiction, is that the work of the artist in creating such a character may become a source of blessing for himself and others, though admittedly a fragile one, all but unknown, and certainly no defense against fanatic violence. If Shylock is a blessing, he is a blessing to struggle with. He is like that wounding creature—no angel, just “some man”—with whom Jacob wrestles at the ford of the Jabbok before returning to his homeland.