Shylock. A thin, bent figure, with almost more venom and hatred and hurt in him than his old, frail, frame can take. He is a villain, rotten to the core, who tries in a most evil and unforgiving manner to take Antonio’s life and so revenge himself on the merchant: he hates Antonio, because he is a Christian and because he lends out money gratis and brings down the rate of usance in Venice.

Yet I cannot help a grudging sympathy for him.

He is a Jew, proud of his religion and his ‘tribe’, and therefore subject to the cruel anti-Semitism of medieval Europe.

He is a father betrayed most callously by his only daughter, who walks out on him without a backward glance, to marry Lorenzo, a Christian.

And ultimately he is completely destroyed by a law that some in today’s world would consider unduly harsh: though the Duke of Venice grants him his life, he decrees that half his wealth should go to Antonio, the other half to the state. Shylock, beaten, begs:

Nay, take my life and all; pardon not that:
You take my house when you do take the prop
That doth sustain my house; you take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live.

Antonio magnanimously quits the fine for one half of his goods, provided that Shylock will let him have the half to render it, upon his death, unto the gentleman, that lately stole his daughter, and that he do record a gift, here in the court, of all he dies possess’d, unto his son Lorenzo and his daughter.

Antonio is merciful, yes. And Shylock does not deserve such generosity from him.

But Antonio has one more demand - he declares that, for this favour, Shylock should presently become a Christian.

This breaks Shylock’s spirit, and makes me question this ‘mercy’ that Antonio shows the old man.

Shylock is a product of his own hatred as much as he is a product of the discrimination of the times. He refuses to show Antonio any mercy, and declares that he will have his flesh

To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? 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, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled 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, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

I look at the world today, and ask: how many Shylocks are we still creating, how many Antonios do we still have, and how many Courts of Justice still exist that are as ‘merciful’ as the court of the Duke of Venice?

I do not like the answers that I get.

william shakespeare


more by Shakespeare

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5 Responses to “Shylock”

  1. How many more years before ‘Merchant of Venice’ is no longer performed for being ‘politically incorrect’…or should it continued to be performed so as to make us see the points highlighted here and realise why it is politically incorrect….? Any thoughts..

  2. I wish it not performed because it is racist in nature. And stereotypically so.
    For me, the clue is the protagonist’s view. The villains may be racist or biased, not the hero. Please.
    Shylock deserved what he got, only because he was a cold-hearted moneylender. If the word ‘Jew’ can be removed from the play somehow, it’s fine with me.
    Those who want to experience a slice of feudal ages, let them read it somewhere.

  3. Whether a play like The Merchant of Venice should be performed or not, that is a question that has no straight answer, at least not at this point in history.

    The world is in a state of turmoil, and the causes of unrest really boil down to two - discrimination of one kind or another, and greed. And discrimination and greed, their causes and consequences, are exactly what The Merchant of Venice is about.

    It might be said – ‘Do not perform this play. It encourages racial/religious/communal discrimination.’ And by extension, then, it could be said - ‘Perform only those plays that talk of harmony – that way people may forget all about hatred and learn to love each other.’

    If only it were that easy to turn hatred into harmony.

    Humankind, despite its great achievements, has much to be ashamed of. We cannot yet afford to forget the atrocities of history – the wars, the Holocaust, men like Stalin and Ceausescu.

    We cannot afford to forget these horrors because they are not yet in the past – they live among us still, under different names: Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, Godhra, Nandigram…the list, I am afraid, is endless.

    The knowledge of history gives us knowledge of our mistakes and our wrongdoings.

    It is up to us: we can deny that knowledge and ban plays from being performed, books from being written, all in the hope of thereby creating the world we want, whatever be the parameters of that world (and once we begin banning books and plays and thoughts and free speech, the parameters of that world we want cease to matter very much).

    Or we can accept what history tells us and remember its lessons – that humankind is capable of doing great wrong, that it has done great wrong, and that, unless it breaks the pattern, it will continue to do great wrong. That pattern will never be broken through denial, or by banning the performance of plays.

    Incidentally, Shakespeare intended The Merchant of Venice to be a comedy. And it is. A very funny one, even now, more than four hundred years after it was written. I marvel at the genius of Shakespeare – but about that, in another post…

  4. Yes, the whole idea of censoring free speech is bound to backfire.

    A democracy means that one is allowed to pursue his own happiness and livelihood in the manner in which he sees fit, provided that he is within the law of the land, which is uniformly applied to all its citizens.

    But all this imposing business ensures an autocracy and hurts all those who are soft targets. This is fascism in its seminal form.

    A play like the Merchant of Venice should not be banned. Nor should it be culturally desensitized. (I hate all forms of bowdlerising!) But in case there is an objection raised by anyone about its lampooning a certain race or religious community, the producers, directors and actors could simply clarify that it is not their intention to offend anybody.

    If a certain thing has contents which could hurt the sentiments of someone, just write a warning and make it clear that the purpose is not to hurt the sentiments of any one community.

    I think that is fair enough.

    So, rather than go about banning anyone or anything, we behave like mature considerate individuals and tell people in advance what to expect and respect others’ right to make up their own minds on whether something is appropriate or otherwise.

    I would end by saying that banning something can never bring about the absence of hatred. Hatred stems from insecurity, xenophobia, lack of resources, lack of opportunities and intolerance. Excessive consumerism simply creates greater inequities of wealth and hence intensifies the struggle for limited resources. None of these problems can be solved by slapping a ban.

    Each of these problems is interconnected and needs to be resolved holistically and democratically. Banning something is like brushing the dirt under the carpet. You never get rid of rubbish that way - you merely fill your house with more and more dirt.

  5. “The remarkable thing is that we really love our neighbour as ourselves: we do unto others as we do unto ourselves. We hate others when we hate ourselves. We are tolerant toward others when we tolerate ourselves. We forgive others when we forgive ourselves. We are prone to sacrifice others when we are ready to sacrifice ourselves.”

    - Eric Hoffer

    Doesn’t that quote say a lot about us, as a society and as individuals?


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