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.