Was Shakespeare antisemitic? New book examines Shylock

A new take: The play “opens the door for questioning” entrenched antisemitism.

 DEPICTION OF Shylock, 1700s. (photo credit: PICRYL)
DEPICTION OF Shylock, 1700s.
(photo credit: PICRYL)

In what has become one of the most controversial scenes in all of Shakespeare’s plays, Act IV, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice opens in a courtroom, where Antonio, a merchant, is being tried for failing to pay his debt to Shylock. “Go one and call the Jew into the Court,” the Duke declares.

The presiding judge has been unable to find a lawful way to free Antonio from his bond, or from the agreed upon penalty, the removal of a pound of his flesh from his body.

Asked for a reason for wanting to punish Antonio in this way, Shylock replies, “So can I give no reason, nor will I not. / More than a lodged hate and a certain loathing.”

When Bassanio offers to pay the loan, Shylock declares he would not take the money, even if the sum was six times greater.

After several twists and turns and legal hairsplitting, the scene ends with Shylock, whose life hangs in the balance, agreeing to convert to Christianity and give his half of his estate to Lorenzo, who Shylock believes has convinced Jessica, his daughter, to elope with him, steal her mother’s wedding ring and abandon her Jewish faith.

 “One would have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to recognize that Shakespeare’s great, equivocal comedy, The Merchant of Venice, is nevertheless a profoundly antisemitic work,” reflecting the virulent prejudices of Elizabethan England, Harold Bloom, the distinguished literary critic, declared in 1998. 

This view, however, is far from unanimous. Since the 18th century Shylock has often been portrayed sympathetically, with emphasis on his now iconic plea “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?... And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”

In Vindicating Shakespeare, Stephen Byk, a retired actor, director and educator who has resided in Israel since 1965, draws on the tools of theater professionals to “exonerate” Shakespeare from accusations of antisemitism.

Vindicating Shakespeare is at its best when Byk offers directorial interventions designed to clarify meanings implicit in the text. When he enters the court, Byk suggests, Shylock, who expects to exact his revenge, “should be clothed and groomed to ceremonial perfection,” perhaps to excess, to cover “the thin veneer superimposed on his inner rage.”

Because Bassanio and Gratiano notice that Shylock is sharpening his knife on the sole of his shoe, Byk recommends (to avoid distracting the audience and demonstrate that he is distraught) that Shylock withdraw behind the table on which he has put his scales while they are speaking, search for a tool he thought he brought with him, and then take off one shoe, spit on it, and strop his blade.

THAT SAID, despite his book’s provocative title, Byk’s interpretation of The Merchant of Venice actually echoes the assessments of many contemporary literary critics, who affirm that Shakespeare presents Shylock at least as much a victim as a victimizer. But Byk also struggles to explain why the Shylock of Act III’s “Hath not a Jew eyes” gives way in Act IV to a Shylock who conforms to Elizabethan stereotypes.

Many of Byk’s claims, moreover, are speculative. Had Antonio (rather than the Duke or Bassanio) publicly asked Shylock to reduce the penalty or offered to pay him more money, Byk guesses, “Shylock would most likely have been appeased, and a compromise would have been reached.” Many Elizabethans “would have applauded” the requirement that Shylock renounce his religion, Byk writes, only to posit that despite the audience’s “fundamental affinity” with this decision, Shylock’s “abject humiliation” would have, “at least partly, pierced the wall of their prejudice.” Gratiano’s observation at the very end of the play that “dawn – that traditional symbol of renewal – is two hours away,” and the absence of celebratory dancing, Byk claims, are a signal that the characters “and all Elizabethan society” remain “puzzled and uncomfortable with what they have experienced,” thus further reinforcing s “his non-comedic perception of their prejudices.”

Byk also interprets the lack of recorded comments about the play in the late 16th and early 17th centuries as evidence that “the audience fully recognized Shakespeare’s true intention, and it was that recognition that prompted their reserve.” And he proposes that “the play’s seeming antisemitism” was “an ingenious smokescreen” that permitted Shakespeare “to criticize, if only obliquely,” the religious, social, and political conflict ushered in by King Henry VIII’s rejection of Papal power and his creation of an Anglican Church.

Byk’s directorial insights are likely to enhance contemporary theatergoers’ understanding and enjoyment of The Merchant of Venice. Vindicating Shakespeare is also a useful corrective to the ex cathedra judgments of Bloom and other critics; a reminder of the unchristian behavior of the play’s Christian characters, and of Shylock’s humanity.

In the end, it seems to me, Susannah Heschel, a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College, has it about right.

“If Shakespeare wanted to write something sympathetic to Jews,” she points out, “he would have done it more explicitly.”

Nonetheless, she adds, the play “opens the door for questioning” entrenched antisemitism. And as opposed to those who don’t want anyone to study it, Heschel deems Merchant “one of the most important pieces of literature from Western civilization,” a work that should – and can – be read “in a more complex way.” 

The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. 

 VINDICATING SHAKESPEARE: A THEATER DIRECTOR’S STUDY OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S THE MERCHANT OF VENICEBy Stephen Byk (credit: PICRYL) VINDICATING SHAKESPEARE: A THEATER DIRECTOR’S STUDY OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S THE MERCHANT OF VENICEBy Stephen Byk (credit: PICRYL)

Vindicating Shakespeare: A Theater Director’s Study of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of VeniceBy Stephen BykNew Book Authors Publishing 228 pages; $16.95