By Garrett Pace
The pound of flesh which I demand of him
Is dearly bought, ‘tis mine, and I will have it.
If you deny me, fie upon your law!
There is no force in the decrees of Venice.
I stand for judgment. Answer: shall I have it?
So says Shylock, the villain and most interesting character in Shakespeare’s tragicomedy The Merchant of Venice. He says it in open court, and refers to a pound of flesh “nearest the heart” of Antonio, the reckless merchant who borrowed a capital sum to fund a dubious venture.
The venture is ultimately successful, but too late for Antonio, who cannot cover the bond and is forced into default. The condition of default is a pound of flesh, cut from Antonio’s body by the moneylender. Revenge for past wrongs drove Shylock to demand fulfillment, but he was nonetheless undone when the agreement is taken even more literally than he himself had taken it – after all, the agreement calls for flesh and not for blood.
In 1893 this writer’s great-great grandfather was a Mormon missionary in Norwich, England. There he had the opportunity to see a first-rate performance of The Merchant of Venice. Grandpa had read plenty, but as a provincial, cattle punching, rustler chasing pioneer settler in the high Arizona desert, he’d never been able to see anything like this. In his journal he wrote about the experience: “To the Lyceum and see Henry Irving & Ellen Terry play The Merchant of Venice. Irving in Shylock is just grand.”
Irving really was something – books have been written about him and his performances in the Lyceum Theater. He had a gift for humanizing the man Shylock, making him “Jewish patriarch of scripture more than the modern usurer. He portrays at once the grandeur and the failings of his race, but in such a way that the rank injustice which he suffers unwittingly wins for him not a little of the sympathies of his audience.”[i] Practically an Old Testament prophet! This was a considerable contrast to renderings from other time periods. To earlier audiences he had been a cackling, sinister animal, with no redeeming qualities and no merit of sympathy. To later ones he wore the sadness and futility of a century of genocidal suffering. To yet others he was deliciously evil; something like a Bond villain.
I don’t know what Shakespeare really thought about Jews. I do know that he gave Shylock the best lines, the best drama, and gave us all a villain so rich and nuanced that he’s compelled audiences for the past fifteen generations. Each time the same dialogues, given faithfully, strike a newer audience in a slightly different way than ever before.
Shylock prefers the well-ordered life of statutes and bonds – relationships defined by words, signatures and defined obligations, rather than to trust the flighty chambers of the human heart. And why wait for a change of heart in others when a document can give you ownership of their very heart? Most of us have felt the uncomfortable weight of debt, and the sting of some third party owning a portion of our labor, so long as we’re lucky enough to have any labor to perform. Shylock attains the apotheosis of this arrangement, barbarously laying claim to the flesh of another human being.
Even so, law is Shylock’s friend. He says he stands for judgment and justice.
…Should I go to church
And see the holy edifice of stone
And not bethink me straight of dangerous rocks,
Which touching but my gentle vessel’s side
Would scatter all her spices on the stream
Enrobe the roaring waters with my silks,
And in a word, but even now worth this,
And now worth nothing? Shall I have the thought
To think on this, and shall I lack the thought
That such a thing bechanced would make me sad?
But tell not me: I know Antonio
Is sad to think upon his merchandise.
Believe me, no. I thank my fortune for it
My ventures are not in one bottom trusted,
Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate
Upon the fortune of this present year.
Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad.
Antonio is the merchant that the title “The Merchant of Venice” refers to. Something makes him sad, setting him quite apart from his merchant mates, a jolly, haphazard and nervous bunch ever fretting about their value at risk, “even now worth this, and now worth nothing?” Antonio has nothing to say about the thrill, dash and euphoria of his next roll of the dice. His dice are all already cast and most any combination will make him a winner. To them he’s a bore, and Soliano takes the earliest opportunity to race off for further transactions.
These merchants are a grand bunch – they make a virtue of extravagance, and their money is bestowed on goods, investments and people haphazardly. Not so aware though – Antonio is not a self-aware individual. He does not see that his sadness comes out of boredom: his investments are so well hedged that he has no cause for care. So when a new thrill comes along, a great and expensive gamble on a dubious marriage suit intended by his worthless cousin Bassanio (who seeks the hand of the wealthy Portia), Antonio jumps at the opportunity.[ii] Borrowing to seek a thrill amplifies risk and amplifies the thrill, and Antonio’s depression is dispelled.
In the play merchants and moneylenders have some things in common – neither group ever really does anything; their fortunes are won by the efforts of others. But in all else Antonio is the opposite of Shylock. Where Shylock loves money and abhors risk, Antonio cares for the getting, and not the having.
With such a contrast it’s no surprise at the bitter friction that has built up between the merchants and moneylenders, bringing heat in the denouement of the play. The fortunes of Antonio, Bassanio and several others all hinge on Bassanio’s choice in a “casket test” – choosing which of three boxes (made of gold, silver and lead respectively) contains the picture of his sweetheart. Choose right and he wins the fair lady. The challenge was designed as something of a test of character, but that’s not an area where young Bassanio would likely excel. Instead it becomes a gamble on whether the young lady likes Bassanio enough to assist his choice. Help him to victory she does, and with her money and her wisdom they fly back to court in Venice just in time to rescue Antonio – not from the clutches of the Jew, no, but from the unsound laws of the city.
The court scene is among the best ever written by anyone. Shylock storms about calling for justice, while the merchants wheedle and bargain, threaten and bribe, all to no avail. This drama is balanced by the absurd, where the beautiful Portia, cross dressing utterly unconvincingly, offers herself as a learned doctor of the law to adjudicate the matter. Unfortunately, even she is forced to recognize the justice of Shylock’s claim:
…There is no power in Venice
Can alter a decree established.
‘Twill be recorded for a precedent,
And many an error by the same example
Will rush into the state: it cannot be.
So serious, yet this is the play at its most absurd. Should the pattern and precedent for proper behavior in Venice be set by a signed agreement between a gambling layabout and a vituperative moneylender? Antonio bears responsibility for his part in this, too. Though he wagered his own very self on a lark, not every man takes on debt so cheerfully. Allowing a banker to claim the flesh of another man is madness of the first degree. Shylock’s refrain is repetitive – “I stand for judgment”, “I stand here for law”. What should we think of the law that allows such an arrangement?
As I mentioned earlier, Shylock is undone by a literal reading of the agreement – more literal than he had thought possible. But in the final judgment, Shylock wins a partial victory. Debt is treated as sacred, the claims of the moneylender supersede all others, and the bond is unbreakable by law, by custom, and even by kindness of the Christian or Jewish variety. Only when Shylock finally realizes what revenge will cost him does he demur, abandoning his faith in a bargain that preserves his life and fortune.
Shylock’s treatment after his defeat is shocking to us – it belongs to an era whose gods would accept coerced veneration. But while we cannot accept his forced conversion, we must recognize that we look at bankers in a way that people of Shakespeare’s time did not. In the play none of the other Jews of Venice were subjected to such treatment; Shylock was made a special case, for the embarrassment of demonstrating to Venice whose side the law was really on. Shylock felt at liberty to own not just the labor of another man, but his very life, and in this the law was his abettor, not his preventer. The laws and customs of their time did not allow Shakespeare’s audience literal justice, justice in the rightest sense, so the play gave them justice poetically instead.
Not much has changed since then. Four hundred years later banks still write agreements that get treated with the sanctity of scripture, and we accept it as the way things are. Individuals work like animals to turn their labor into capital to extinguish debt. Communities languish with homes that are better abandoned than occupied by deadbeats. Whole nations like Greece destroy their economy, impoverish their children and set aside a myriad of “secondary” obligations just so creditors can be repaid.
[i] The Life of Henry Irving, Vol 2, by Austin Brereton, p. 238-9
[ii] Some believe that Antonio’s melancholy comes from an unrequited romantic passion for Bassanio and not at all from the boredom of security. Arguing about it is silly though, for Antonio’s sadness really stems from both reasons, or neither, or either one, as it suits the actors who intend to portray the role. Shakespeare’s characters are written with a marvelous looseness that allows for considerable personalization. I do say that if it had been only romantic fancy, Antonio would have taken much more care to reduce his exposure than he ultimately did.