Shylock Is Shakespeare

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Read preview. Synopsis Shylock, the Jewish moneylender in The Merchant of Venice who famously demands a pound of flesh as security for a loan to his antisemitic tormentors, is one of Shakespeare's most complex and idiosyncratic characters. With his unsettling eloquence and his varying voices of protest, play, rage, and refusal, Shylock remains a source of perennial fascination.

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Shakespeare's Shylock: Victim or scoundrel?

What explains the strange and enduring force of this character, so unlike that of any other in Shakespeare's plays? Kenneth Gross posits that the figure of Shylock is so powerful because he is the voice of Shakespeare himself. Marvelously speculative and articulate, Gross's book argues that Shylock is a breakthrough for Shakespeare the playwright, an early realization of the Bard's power to create dramatic voices that speak for hidden, unconscious, even inhuman impulses- characters larger than the plays that contain them and ready to escape the author's control.

Shylock is also a mask for Shakespeare's own need, rage, vulnerability, and generosity, giving form to Shakespeare's ambition as an author and his uncertain bond with the audience. Gross's vision of Shylock as Shakespeare's covert double leads to a probing analysis of the character's peculiar isolation, ambivalence, opacity, and dark humor.


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Addressing the broader resonance of Shylock, both historical and artistic, Gross examines the character's hold on later readers and writers, including Heinrich Heine and Philip Roth, suggesting that Shylock mirrors the ambiguous states of Jewishness in modernity. A bravura critical performance, Shylock Is Shakespeare will fascinate readers with its range of reference, its union of rigor and play, and its conjectural- even fictive- means of coming to terms with the question of Shylock, ultimately taking readers to the very heart of Shakespeare's humanizing genius.

The Merchant of Venice

Excerpt This book is an essay on Shylock's singularity. Waldman Algora, It is not, however, the last line of the scene. The play will have its action and Shylock will have his pound of flesh. Yes, Shylock is granted an illuminating moment of humanity — that, after all, is what Shakespeare does: every villain has his say — but thereafter, and by his own choosing, the Jew quickly returns to the engrossing Jewish occupation of requital.

That, however, is to say no more than that The Merchant of Venice is a play not a treatise, and that we would not expect Shylock to be sentimentalised.

Is the Jewish moneylender Shylock hero or a villain?

He does not become, by virtue of what we have learned, a man forgiven and explained. But nor, in my view of the play, is it possible to return unchanged to all we previously thought. Our sense of who he is should always have been evolving anyway, and we cannot escape our new knowledge of him as a man who had and lost a wife, and can now be said to have had and lost a daughter.

He has been cruelly burgled in a double sense, and the jeering criminals are all indulgent friends of Antonio. This nothing extenuates, but once we have heard Shylock recount his losses, ducats and all, we cannot forget them — unless we have our own reasons to. Two scenes after the wilderness of monkeys, Shylock has animals on his mind again. The wilful hardening of hearts — a character making himself impervious to reason or affection, and so less human than he actually is — interests Shakespeare. We see it in Coriolanus. We see it in Lady Macbeth. One man in his time plays many parts, and one of those parts will be his own idea of who he is or would like or has no choice but to be.

The Bard’s Dark Doppelganger

The story Shakespeare tells of Shylock is of a man who declines into the very obduracy of temper he is accused of by those who want him to be nothing else. It is a part that not every man could master, and Shylock finds the wherewithal within to play it right enough, but being the Jew who must have his pound of flesh is still as much a capitulation to an expected role as it is an expression of something immutable in his character. I simply recount the play.

When it was made public by my publishers that I had hot-headedly taken up the challenge to write a contemporary novel rooted in The Merchant of Venice , some cynics assumed I would be embarking on a clean-up job with a view to removing offending material from Shakespeare, much as those who disapprove of Cecil Rhodes would remove his statue from wherever it stands.

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But I am not, as a Jew or as anything else, offended by a word Shakespeare wrote. Because I am deeply touched by his passing reference to his wife, I imagine him in constant conversation with her. So much of what we make of Shylock is determined by the age of the actor who portrays him, the clothes he wears, the accent he is given, the ferocity of his stare and the curvature of his nose, most of the decisions as to these being unwarranted by anything in the text.

Shakespeare, "The Merchant of Venice", Act 3 Scene 1, Shylock: "To bait fish withal" - BBC

Last summer, while making a television programme about Shylock in the Venice ghetto, I saw a relatively young actor play him. The effect, in particular in the opening exchanges with Antonio and Basanio, was electrifying. The bristling aggression with which Shylock entertains the first mention from Basanio that Antonio is looking for a loan was not softened. And that I may be assured, I will bethink me Now he can remind, reproach, delay, offer and deny and offer again, while a blustering Antonio, standing on a principle he has forefeited, can do no better than threaten to spit on Shylock again.

If it is war now, it is both their doing but, when played with youthful zest, Shylock was having the better of it. These lines should never be delivered anything but flirtatiously. Only moments before, they had been speaking of spitting. It takes someone very quick on his feet to change the tone with such dexterity. Perhaps most actors, weighed down by their Jewish gabardine and the supposed mannerisms of a Jew made old by the antiquity of his faith, find it hard to put the requisite verve into this. Did Jews castrate themselves?

Did Jewish men bleed like women? But dark as well as comic forces are in play here, the darker, perhaps, for being comic, because what Shylock is making merry with is inchoate Christian terror.

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To play him as a consummate comedic provocateur, then, as I saw him played by a young and juiced-up actor in Venice, is not at all to rescue him from obloquy. But it is to give him the vitality that I believe Shakespeare intended for him. I am not convinced that Shakespeare was ever interested in such abstract, academic mapping.

But it is part of his greatness to allow unworked significance and unsorted old material to have their way without him in a play. DH Lawrence wrote astutely about what happens to a living work when the artist puts his finger in the pan, forcing its outcome.


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  8. It ceases to be a living work. It has always seemed wrong to me to talk of The Merchant of Venice as an anti- or a pro-semitic play. Were it either it would be less the play it is.