Who Is Shylock?
The Merchant of Venice has inspired a certain ambivalence through much of its four-century history, and that ambivalence is sharply inscribed in the changing interpretations of the play. What is more surprising is that it has been one of Shakespeare’s two most popular plays (the second being Hamlet), as the English literary critic John Gross shows through careful documentation in his highly instructive new study, Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy.1 Why this should be so is something of a puzzle.
An account of the plan of John Gross’s book might make it sound like one of those tedious chronological surveys of the “reception history” of a familiar literary work. In fact, Gross handles his subject with such urbane intelligence and wit, such fine alertness to the telling detail and anecdote, such a nice balance of both aesthetic and moral judgment, that his survey becomes a deeply interesting case-study of the ambiguous relations between literature and historical reality.
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