A Most Lamentable Comedy
The Merchant of Venice is not nearly the bottomless supply of complex character and controversial actions that many claim it to be. At best it is a cruel satire that dramatizes stereotypes and mocks society’s obsession with money and reputation to the extreme. Blatant hypocrisy and corruption of faith connects these extremes through hatred toward Shylock. It is from this wellspring that further fault becomes clear. The stark juxtaposition between Shylock and the “good Christians” of Venice emphasizes the transformation of Merchant from being performed as a comedy to being performed as a tragedy. Shylock’s evocative speeches and comparison of his characters against others’ appeals to audiences’ sympathies, humanizing him and allowing them to see him as a tragic figure.
As a Jew working and living in Christian Venice, Shylock is a conspicuous and unwanted presence. When given the opportunity to “catch [Antonio] once upon the
hip” (Shakespeare 1.3.43) for all the times Antonio “rated [him] / About [his] moneys and [his] usances” (Shakespeare 1.3.105), he does not hesitate to act. Shylock traps Antonio, the quintessential Venetian merchant with good reputation and the very pinnacle of success in the city of trade, in a bond that demands a forfeit of “an equal pound / Of [Antonio’s] fair flesh, to be cut off and taken / In what part of the body pleaseth” (Shakespeare 1.3.146-148) Shylock if Antonio fails to repay the borrowed sum. Shylock seeks to ruin Antonio and nothing more (as far as the audience knows based on text alone) until his daughter flees with Lorenzo, a Christian and friend to Antonio. Antonio thus becomes the object of Shylock’s wrath for the physical and emotional pain he must endure daily after her escape. Antonio represents all the ways Christendom has wronged Jews—particularly how they have wronged Shylock. The impassioned, vengeful Shylock is quite different from the controlled, sly businessman at the beginning of the play. Shylock becomes “enlarged beyond comedy […] into menace rather than pathos” (Bloom) as he undergoes this transformation. What pity may be felt for Shylock when his daughter flees and for unjust scorn vanishes when Shylock reiterates that he has done no wrong (Shakespeare 4.1.89) and “crave[s] the law / The penalty and forfeit of [his] bond” (Shakespeare 4.1.205-206). He feels justified claiming the forfeit of his righteous bond from a corrupt society. The vengeful nature that fuels Shylock’s obsession with policy ultimately undoes him. His stubbornness yields the proclamation that he would receive “nothing but the penalty” (Shakespeare 4.1.321), and instead of ruining Antonio, Shylock ruins himself.
What Shylock believes is righteous anger and justified action others see as vindictive and undeserved. Compared to Antonio, who “racked [his credit] even to the uttermost” (Shakespeare 1.1.181) to help Bassanio, Shylock appears unfeeling, irascible, and heartless; however, Shylock’s unusual terms of agreement involving a pound of flesh seem almost as cruel and absurd as Portia and Nerissa’s prank to cheat their husbands out of the rings they gave them on the condition that “when [they] part from, lose, or give away / [would] presage the ruin of [their] love / And be [their] vantage to exclaim” (Shakespeare 3.2.172-174). Having successfully procured the rings while still disguised as men, Portia and Nerissa torment their husbands when they return to Belmont. Nerissa scolds Gratiano, saying that “not for [her] yet for [his] vehement oaths, / [He] should have been respective and have kept it” (Shakespeare 5.1.155-156). Portia employs a different strategy, guilt-tripping Bassanio and shame-facing him by upholding him as an example of faithfulness, claiming that Bassanio “would not leave [the ring] / Nor pluck it from his finger, for the wealth / That the world masters” (Shakespeare 5.1.172-174). Naturally, Gratiano tells Portia that Bassanio, too, gave away his ring. Even when Portia gives Bassanio another ring and he recognizes it as the same he gave the doctor at Antonio’s trial (Shakespeare 5.1.257), Portia and Nerissa continue their charade. Just as Shylock will not be
appeased by money, Portia and Nerissa will not be appeased by apologies; they
demand more, something more precious. Shylock, as well as Portia and Nerissa, want
to use given circumstances to teach someone a lesson they will not easily forget. Gratiano and Bassanio learn this lesson, and are humbled by it, as Gratiano’s last line—and the last line of the play—demonstrates: “while I live I’ll fear no other thing / So sure as keeping safe [the] ring” (Shakespeare 5.1.307).
If Portia and Nerissa’s prank, which is just as mean-spirited as Shylock’s scheme, elicits no outcries of injustice or villainy, there is no logical reason why Shylocks’ should. The humor of both situations lies in the absurdity of the demands and the characters’ stubbornness to adhere to them. Shylock, Portia, and Nerissa fight for their personal rights when contacts, or bonds, are broken. Similar situations and attitude are not the only reasons audiences sympathize with Shylock and his plight. Shylock’s pointed speeches when confronted about his suit against Antonio and the cruelties he suffers demand audiences to see him not as a reviled Jew, but as a fellow human being. Shylock is not a toy for Antonio (or others) to abuse; he is a man with a family and a livelihood and emotions. As he tells Antonio’s friends, “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?” (Shakespeare 3.1.55-61). Eliminating the construct of identity based on religion first and foremost, and appealing to humanity as a whole demonstrates both the extent of Shylock’s pain that he would be willing to associate himself with Christians, and the truth behind the hypocritical social life in Venice. Shylock catches the Christians in this hypocrisy by executing the villainy they teach him (Shakespeare 3.1.68-69) with his insistence for the bond.
He uses this hypocrisy to his advantage during Antonio’s trial to justify his actions in claiming the bond. Using the controversial topic of slaves in a supposedly Christian society as an example, Shylock questions why his property and rights with regard to the bond should not be his. He calls out the Christians for the “many a purchased slave, / […] [they] use in abject and in slavish parts, / Because [they] bought them” (Shakespeare 5.1.90-93), explaining that if Shylock were to tell them what to do with the slaves they would reject his advice because he does not own the slaves (Shakespeare 5.1.93-98). Likewise, he tells the court, “The pound of flesh which [he] demands of [Antonio] / Is dearly bought, is [his], and [he] will have it” (Shakespeare 5.1.99-100). The citizens of Venice who try to persuade Shylock out of claiming the bond have no right to do so because they did not pay the price for it. This lack of justice in a court setting in a Christian community incites indignation because even though audiences do not necessarily want Shylock to be successful, they do not want to see him degraded and scorned yet again.
Circumstance within his family also invokes sympathy for Shylock. His torture is clear when the audience first sees him after his daughter, Jessica, runs away with Lorenzo. His rage at what happened and anger toward Lorenzo’s friends, which include Salerio, Solanio, and Antonio, provide the first glimpse of tender emotion within Shylock. This rage consumes him so that he damns his daughter (Shakespeare 3.1.30) and wishes that “she were hearsed dead at [his] foot, and the ducats in her coffin” (Shakespeare 3.1.84-85). The pain Shylock experiences at Jessica’s thievery and abandon outweighs the love he appears to have for her. Even when his wealth will benefit his daughter and her new husband as part of Shylock’s sentence after the trial, Shylock is not content, though he says otherwise in court in order to preserve his life (Shakespeare 5.1.390-393). When Jessica breaks the bond of her tribe, betraying it for a Christian husband and life, she demonstrates a distinct lack of concern that she transfers to her immediate relationship with her father, too, when she trades her mother’s ring for a monkey and heedlessly spends the money she stole (Shakespeare 3.1.104-105, 11-112). When Shylock tells Tubal that the ring was his turquoise and Jessica’s mother’s (Shakespeare 3.1.114), and that he “would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys” (Shakespeare 3.1.115-116), the audience understands its value and may even begin to dislike Jessica for her foolishness and disregard for her father’s emotions. Jessica’s story with Shylock underscores the emotional trauma of his character and provides fuel for the wild hatred he exhibits in the latter half of the play.
Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is a character that confuses many. In dramatizing stereotypes, such as obsession with money and reputation, and mocking the hypocrisy in the Venetian social life, Shakespeare creates a rainbow of characters that highlight each other’s cruelty and unexpected likenesses. Realizing the absurdity of situations in the play allows it to be read and performed as the comedy it is meant to be, while humanizing Shylock through his intense speeches and comparing him to other characters and their situations transforms the play into a tragedy.