Risky Business

William Shakespeare, Der Kaufmann von Venedig. Uebersetzt von A. W. von Schlegel.

In Shakespeare’s Dramatische Werke, herausgegeben von Richard Gosche und Benno Tschischwitz. Erste illustrierte Ausgabe. Berlin, G. Grote’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1874.

William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is above all a play about two things: love and money. Centered on these themes, two stories unfold. The one goes like this: Young Venetian nobleman Bassanio wants to marry. First, however, he needs to borrow a sizeable sum of money from his friend Antonio to woo the beautiful Portia. After they’ve swapped identities and rings for a bit and everyone’s had a good laugh, three happy couples are married in the end – just like in a typical comedy. The second story goes like this: The Jewish moneylender Shylock loans a Christian a large sum of money, never gets it back, is publicly humiliated, forced to convert to Christianity, and loses his only daughter. You see why labeling it a comedy – as for instance in the First Folio, the first posthumously published edition of Shakespeare’s plays – is problematic. In the following, I want to sketch the tragic story of Shylock and encourage you to learn more about this fascinating play.

Court scene: In the guise of a law clerk, Portia points out an omission in the contract: „This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood.“

„A Pound of This Poor Merchant’s Flesh“

Let’s begin with retelling the plot in a little more detail. It all starts with the Venetian Bassanio who wants to woo the beautiful Portia. He needs money to impress her, well, with an impressive entourage, and intends to borrow this money from his good friend Antonio, the “merchant of Venice” from the play’s title. Antonio, however, is currently not solvent because his entire fortune is tied up in merchant ships which are still sailing the world’s seas with their precious cargo. Optimistic that they’ll return safely to the harbor of Venice eventually, Antonio and Bassanio ask the Jewish moneylender Shylock for a credit of 3,000 ducats. At the time that was an almost unimaginably large sum of money! Shylock agrees, but on one condition only: Should Bassanio not be able to repay the entire sum until the agreed-upon day, Antonio will stand surety for him. The bond? A pound of Antonio’s flesh, cut out from his living and breathing body.

It seems at first that the credit is a good-enough investment since Bassanio’s plan to wed Portia works out. There’s but one small problem. You can probably already guess what it is – of course Antonio’s ships do not return to Venice in time, he’s unable to pay, and the whole affair goes to court, where Shylock insists on his right. Poor Antonio has already stripped bare his chest, so scared he’s barely conscious, Shylock sharpens his knife, the audience are holding their breath, the pretty ladies are averting their eyes from the gruesome spectacle – when dea ex machina Portia makes an entrance.

In the guise of a clerk, she steps in to save Antonio in the very last minute by finding a gap in the contract Shylock and Antonio agreed on: Shylock does have the legal right to a pound of flesh, but not to a single drop of blood. He may only take Antonio’s flesh if he can do so without shedding a single drop of blood. Shylock is defeated. He can only remain in Venice on the condition that he converts to Christianity and bequeaths half of his fortune to his daughter Jessica who, at this point, has already run away and married a Christian.

This anti-Semitic propagandistic pamphlet uses Shylock to demonize Jews. Australia, 1917.

„My Daughter! O My Ducats!“: The ‚Evil Jew’ as Caricature

What Shylock does here may seem cruel at first. What kind of person even thinks of demanding such a macabre bond? Further, he insists on redeeming his bond even though he is offered twice the amount of money, 6,000 ducats. What a monster! By relentlessly insisting on his right, the Jew is turned into the enemy of the good Christian who acts upon the Christian doctrine “mercy before justice”.

The way we see Shylock, however, is very much influenced by how other characters in the play see him. Listen for instance to how Salanio, another nobleman from Bassanio’s entourage, describes Shylock’s reaction when he finds out that his daughter has run away with a Christian after helping herself generously from her father’s safe:

“I never heard a passion so confused,
So strange, outrageous, and so variable,
As the dog Jew did utter in the streets.
‘My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter’” (Act 2, Scene 8)

Here, as in many other scenes, Shylock is badmouthed and stigmatized as the exotic ‘Other’. The way Salanio lists the daughter and the ducats also suggests that to Shylock, his daughter is no more important than the bags of gold she’s taken with her. So it is less Shylock himself and rather his representation by others that is so despicable. Although the Shakespeare text does not easily support a one-sided characterization of the Jew as evil, the play has been (ab-)used time and again to fuel anti-Semitic sentiments. The German National Socialists, for instance, had more than twenty productions of The Merchant of Venice put on stage in 1933 alone for obvious propaganda purposes.

Shylock and Jessica, 1867. This painting by Polish-Jewish artist Maurycy Moses Gottlieb depicts Shylock as a loving father, a stark contrast to the overwhelmingly anti-Semitic caricatures up until that point.

In Defense of Shylock

Let’s look at the reasons that excuse Shylock’s behavior, more than that, that turn him into a character deserving of our sympathy. Like every other literary text, The Merchant of Venice does not exist in a vacuum but is embedded in a real historical context. In this case the context is the long tradition of anti-Semitism in Europe. The play’s location, Venice, is closely tied to the history of Jewish settlement in the Early Modern Period. The word “ghetto” for instance receives its name from a district in Venice, a segregated area in the city in which the Jewish population was compelled to live between the 16th and 18th century.

It’s true that the Jews of Venice were protected from pogroms and enjoyed a relatively high level of legal security compared to elsewhere in Europe; on the other hand, they lived in segregation from the Christian population, often behind walls, and had to mark themselves visibly as Jews by pinning signs to their clothes. This is not what equality looks like. You also have to ask yourself if the protective measures in Venice were really meant to protect the Jewish population or rather the capital they managed and on which the Christian merchants of the city depended. Even more drastically, anti-Semitism showed in the hate speeches of fanatic itinerant preachers, in the burning of Talmud prints, and in the many times Jews were spat at or beaten – also at the time in which the play is set.

There is clear evidence that Shylock too suffered verbal and physical abuse by the hands of Christians. So when he’s in court, he defends his insistence on his right to the bloody bond with a long personal history of anti-Semitic discrimination:

“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.“ (Act 3, Scene 1)

The accusations that Shylock raises against Antonio here are not petty: insults, business losses, setting people against him. If you look more closely at the rest of the play, several instances show that Antonio is in fact pretty insolent. As a Christian merchant who loans people money without interest, he is actually the one who damages Shylock’s business model. And still he is arrogant enough that, even in the scene in which he wants to borrow the 3,000 ducats from Shylock, he goes on to insult him again for taking interest – in line with Christian doctrine Antonio condemns this as usury. Also, the oh-so-merciful behavior of the good Christians in the end of the play is an utter travesty if you look at it from the other side: The court’s ruling which forces Shylock to convert to Christianity is a humiliation which, in combination with taking half his fortune, ruins his business and livelihood – because as a Christian he would not be able to loan money with interest as he used to.

And so the play’s ending is sweet for some and very bitter for one: While the Christian characters happily celebrate their weddings and enjoy life’s pleasures (with the help of Shylock’s money), Shylock is left behind all alone: He has lost his daughter, he has lost a large part of his fortune, he was publicly humiliated and forced to give up his religion.

Shakespeare, the “Third German Classic”

The play’s German translation can be found at the MoneyMuseum in a multivolume edition of Shakespeare’s plays from 1874. The plays were translated by August von Schlegel, probably the most famous German Shakespeare translator of all. That Schlegel translated all of 17 plays shows just how popular the English poet was at the time. After he had been largely neglected for around 200 years, one can positively speak of a Shakespeare-Renaissance in the 19th century. Romantics such as Schlegel admired Shakespeare for his contempt of classical forms and for breaking the rules of established drama time and again. He fit perfectly in a time that glorified the idea of a “genius” poet – and was even jokingly referred to as the “third German classic” next to Goethe and Schiller.

Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

You can read the complete text in the German translation by Schlegel here.

You can find the complete play in English on this website.

If you’re interested in the play’s historical background of moneylending, this article tells you why people thought you’d go to hell for lending money in the Christian Middle Ages.

Shakespeare not only wrote about money, he was himself a successful business man. Learn more in this CoinsWeekly article.

The First Folio, an early edition of the collected works of Shakespeare, has recently established a new record for the most expensive literary work every sold.

One of the play’s most brilliant scenes is Shylock’s monologue in which he defends his humanity and stands up against the countless humiliations he’s suffered at the hands of Christians in Venice. Watch the monologue with Al Pacino as Shylock here.