Commentary Magazine

The Moneylender of Venice:
In Shylock, a Different Play Struggles to be Born

The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s poorer plays. It has three of his unique soliloquies, a lyrical love scene, a couple of vehement dramatic situations, and two strong characters in Shylock and Portiabut it never catches fire as a work of art. The reason is that Shakespeare, who certainly never saw a confessed Jew in England, and very probably never was in Italy in his life, gives us a Shylock in The Merchant of Venice who is so complex that he destroys the comic unity of the play.

Shakespeare’s comedies, it is true, are never simple; they abound in ambiguities and hard philosophic comments, generally in the ironic-pessimistic vein of Jaques in As You Like It (“All the world’s a stage . . .”). For the comic point, perhaps best communicated by the epigrammatic clown or fool, is the classic liberation of objectivity. It is as though the ludicrous motley gave the wearer license to stick a healthy finger through the interstices of the moral garb. The difference between the clowns in Shakespeare’s comedies and those in his tragedies is mainly one of intensity—their functions are the same: to reveal the human rigidity behind the rich social folds.

This unconventional detachment is present in Lear, where the “poor fool” cryptically relates his master’s senility to the lifelong constriction typical of a king’s experience. It is true of Touchstone, Jaques’ “motley fool,” who, lounging in the free Forest of Arden, ridicules the fashionable sterility of melancholy:

And so from hour to hour we ripe and
And then from hour to hour we rot and
And thereby hangs a tale
. . . .

But it is noteworthy that in The Merchant of Venice Launcelot Gobbo can mock his master, Shylock, only ineffectively, and then only on a class level. Shylock is vilified for being a hard master—but not to his face. Launcelot’s only resource is flight, and the rear attack of helping Shylock’s daughter to run off with a Christian.

For the comic element is in flight from Shylock, and the Merchant degenerates into a melodrama. Shylock cannot be faced on equal intellectual and moral terms. He can be hurt and subdued through force and chicanery, but not fundamentally converted, as Jaques and Lear were.

Nor is the failure of the play to be ascribed to Shylock’s seriousness, or even to the distraction offered by the presence of a tragic center rivaling the comic. Other Shakespearian plays, too, contain important characters who are more profound than the play as a whole. Both Falstaff and Malvolio play roles somewhat similar to Shylock’s. They, too, are butts; they, too, are rascals; they, too, win our sympathy by their falls from influence and authority, far disproportionate to their failings—but Falstaff and Malvolio help Henry IV and Twelfth Night to the realization of their comic intentions, as the pathetic elements in Charlie Chaplin and Sholom Aleichem join the humorous to produce a catharsis that may be termed comic. But Shylock prevents the fulfillment of The Merchant of Venice.



The reason for the failure of the play is more fundamental even than Shylock’s individual recalcitrance. It rests in the fact that Malvolio and Falstaff are natural types, the Fat Rascal and the Lean Hypocrite; they are sublimated extracts of identifiable humanity. But Shylock is no such unlimited natural figment; he is historically, temporally determined, and the imagination of the poet and the theater cannot compass him. Shakespeare could not and did not want to concentrate on the artistically difficult Jew. But his growing genius sometimes ran away with his intuitive sense of the limitations of art, and in this case he almost wrote another play—called, let us say, “The Moneylender of Venice”—instead of the play we know.

The problem Shakespeare faced was insurmountable. To fit Shylock into his play, Shakespeare had to dehistoricize him—that is, he had to universalize the pattern of the Jew current in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. On the surface this was not hard; he could, as he did, follow the simple expedient of employing two natural images that came easily to hand: Devil and Dog. These were abstractions so popular that even Shylock could use them in speaking of himself without seeming to do violence to his individuality. Like all of Shakespeare’s leitmotifs they are also deeply apt—but in this case they are not comprehensive enough. For they are static expressions, too simple to describe a non-categorizable historical force such as the Jew, whose intricacy Shakespeare was forced by his own subtlety to recognize—which recognition disturbed the harmony of his comic concept. For Shylock’s ultimate non-convertibility (one senses that he will turn marrano) is in direct contradiction to Shakespeare’s comic catharsis. The audience is moved from revulsion to pity, but the experience is not traumatic, is not shocking, for it takes place on one level. There is no final insight into the meaning of human change, because there is no growth in Shylock, no vision of “green fields.”



Dogs are commonly regarded as the cleverest of domestic animals. They perform useful functions as watchdogs and hunters, and frequently become very friendly. But, domesticated, they are under—the—table scavengers. Their instinctive nature carries them back to the cowardly, gregarious wolvesthey are not to be trusted.

To medieval man, the Jew was such a dog. He was smart, and quickly absorbed new habits and adopted new masters. He willingly served as financial and commercial watchdog and hunter, a function no respectable Christian allowed himself because of the Church’s taboo against the collection of interest. (In Moslem states the taboo was disregarded, just as the Mosaic and Talmudic taboo had fallen to disuse among the Jews.) Moneylending was a necessity for the Jew; his stay in Venice was dependent on his operation of public banks. The free banks, established at the instigation of the anti-Semitic Franciscans, proved failures.

But the Jew was, at bottom, not to be trusted. He was obdurately clannish—a lupine characteristic. There was a sterile masochistic contempt in his deliberate submissiveness. He could be owned, but not possessed. Some strange ancestral pride kept him aloof.

To the medieval mind, the Jew was a devil as well. He was devilishly shrewd, for one thing. There was no arguing with him; he could quote Scripture for his purpose, as Shylock does when he traces Jacob’s slyness to superior acquaintance with the laws of nature. It was a source of gratification to Christians to be able to throw the Jew’s own Daniel back in his face, for in official disputations the inevitable justification of Christianity was never the outcome of superior argument.

The Jew was often accused of aligning himself with the heretical Christian movements. During the 16th century, the blood accusations against the Jews initiated by the Catholic Church were a tactical attack, be—cause of Jewish implication in the Protestant Reformation.1 In a sense, the trial scene in the Merchant is a reflection both of the pattern of blood—accusation trials and of the real issues behind them. It is more than fortuitous, almost symbolical, that Portia’s conflict with Shylock should revolve around interpretations of the relationship of blood to flesh—i.e., the body of Jesus to the spirit of the Christ. Jews were denounced for inciting the conspiracy to take Christ out of Christianity. The Church was particularly sensitive about the large measure of idolatry and Manicheanism which it had absorbed, and which medieval Judaism self-righteously detested. The Jewish tradition of universal (lay) participation in religious ceremony, and, even worse, universal study of the body of the Torah, was viewed as a danger—and was. A medieval Church, founded on the delegation of religious authority and the solidarity of hierarchy, could not tolerate the disintegrating presence of a tradition of individual conscience.

An example of the perspicacity of the Church in this respect occurred during Shakespeare’s own lifetime. When Simon Budny, a Polish Arian, translated the Bible into Polish in 1573, he worked directly from the Hebrew text for the Jewish Testament, and, under the same influence, produced a very critical translation of the New Testament. The name of Budny’s Jewish teacher was known, as well as the influence of Italian Jewish rabbis upon Johannes Reuchlin, the German Reformation leader. The Church rightly feared and attacked the opening of access to the tradition behind Jesus. Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew” speech is Shakespeare’s appreciation of the Jew’s consciousness of the doctrine of individual conscience—a doctrine that radically challenged the foundations of ecclesiastical uniformity.



Socially as well as religiously, the Jew was anti-Christ in the most essential sense, because he was nearest to Jesus, and, by his very existence, was a protest against the assimilation of Jesus into Christ. And, paradoxically, the Church could not completely exterminate this troublesome body, though it did not hesitate to declare war to the death upon Arians, Manicheans, and other Christian heretics. For the Jews were a living example of an ideal religious body, one in which the scales of faith and works were balanced. The disciples of Pelagius and Augustine were at odds within the Church during the Middle Ages, and the existence of the Jews was a stabilizing reminder that only a Church practicing both faith and works could endure. “By our holy Sabbath!” swears Shylock. This is not an authentic Jewish oath—but it is an amazing perception of Judaism. The Jew takes his oath on his institutions—a remarkable amalgamation of beliefs and practice!

The Jew was a devil for still another reason. Mephisto—like, the Jew came to the new Faust-man of the Renaissance, weary of the monastic library, and made him the classic offer of power through knowledge. The Jews had always been concerned with the basic sciences—the knowledge of self, anatomy, philosophy, and medicine, in which departments they were masters. The Jew—devil was pressing Faustus to bum again the topless towers of Ilium—Rome, offering in return the science and art of antiquity, in which he had never given up his share. “Ich bin der Geist der stets verneint”—it was the true Church that the “constantly denying spirit” was urging Renaissance man to repudiate.

Thus, economically, spiritually, socially, intellectually, in the medieval ideology which Shakespeare accepts in the Merchant, the Jew was a negatively polarized figure that threatened the positive pole of monolithic Christian feudalism, but without whom that same society would have been demagnetized. For the Jews were an element looking both ways—back to antiquity and forward to capitalism—whose ambiguous presence quickened medieval life.

In the evolving Renaissance, Cecil Roth writes, the Jews were to encounter, besides “widespread scepticism and cultural eclecticism, an undercurrent of sincere and sometimes fanatical religiosity.” They would remain devil and dog, to this very day.

Our modem mythology has changed the images, but our attitude remains pretty much the same. The modem euphemism for dog is parasite, for devil, scapegoat. There is common recognition that these symbols are insulting, but not that they are inaccurate. Philo-Semitism is based on a need to defend the Jewish middle-class position in society by playing it down, through “objective” surveys, interfaith comings-together, attempts at finding syncretizations on the ideological levelall those activities that Maurice Spector calls “the taming of the Gentile.” (No need is felt to defend the middle-class status of non-Jews.)

On the other hand, Jewish nationalism repudiates Jewish supra-nationalism, and the unhealthy middle position of the Jew in Galut, in favor of a return to a new idealistic secularism. However they may differ in analyzing the Jewish fate, philo-Semites and nationalists agree on one point: the classic Jewish role of dog and devil, social middleman and intellectual midwife, is played out.



But “The Moneylender of Venice,” that unwritten play whose fragments lie in The Merchant of Venice, is concerned not with solving but with probing into the problematic relationship of the Jew to society. Shakespeare does more than vilify Shylock, and more than ennoble him (either would have been a bland categorization); he gives the gabardined Jew in this early play a fourth dimension such as only his later great tragic characters possess—and with a difference. It is the dimension of self-awareness, which, perhaps as much as ambiguous “sufferance,” is “the badge of all our tribe.”

It is not only the surface knowledge of election, the assumption of relative suffering for the sake of absolute salvation—it is the hourly, momentary recognition that, while humiliation is unavoidable, if necessary, the certain Messiah is not to be pressed, “though he delay.”2 It is the ability to abstract a new dimension, which Einstein has not been the only Jew to possess. In earliest Jewish history, Moses abstracted Jahveh from the desert of Sinai, and the Prophets abstracted him from the Jewish nation. And in modern times, Freud abstracted theunconscious from the psyche, Heine cosmopolitanism from the French Revolution, Kafka the Castle from K., Chagall the flying goat from the village, Rabbi Nahman Bratzlaver the saint from man, Trotsky the Revolution from Russia, Proust memory from existence.

For the theme of the unwritten “Moneylender of Venice” is not the same as the theme of The Merchant of Venice. It is not the victory of emotion over intelligence, New Testament mercy over Old Testament justice, the woman Portia over castrated Shylock. It is, rather, a theme that is hinted at in the recurrent philosophic image, as distinguished from the moralistic harangue, that runs through both plays—the image of contradictions. On the simplest level, it is the three caskets, whose gold, silver, and lead exteriors mask their contents. On another level it is:

So may the outward shows be least themselves:
The world is still deceived with ornament. . . .
There is no vice so simple, but assumes
Some mark of virtue on his outward parts.

And on the third, the inner level, it is the confusion between pity and revulsion at the much reviled, sometimes pitied, never comprehended Jew. We are closest to Jessica, who runs off with her father’s ducats and, for a monkey, gives away her father’s turquoise, which (strange tenderness!) “I had of Leah when I was a bachelor.” While we deplore her confusion, we can see her life at home, sober and self-castigating in the innermost circle of hell for youth, the tedious coldness. And we are most conscious of our modern identification with the weak child when she expresses her self-insight:

Alack, what heinous sin is it in me
To be ashamed to be my father’s child
But though I am a daughter to his blood,
I am not to his manners
. . . .

The “manners” that Jessica is revolting against consist in the absence of manner, the sole concentration on matter, which is the world outlook of the fundamentalist whom Shakespeare so persistently lambasts in his plays. It is the new manner of the introspective individual, the self-concerned family, the destiny—conscious tribe, of the nascent middle class, that same middle class which title—seeking Shakespeare abhorred in the person of the Puritan, and which was to supply the seed for the new economicpsychological anti-Semitism.

And yet this vice of Shylock’s, this godawful and literally goddamned straitness, has other, obverse faces. They are not to be masked by all the merriment of Venetian festivals that he denied himself and that could abduct an ashamed child. And they are not to be wiped away by the pretty wit of a woman, twisting law against him in the fashion of that Talmud whose study was forbidden him; no, not by the massive state itself, which was liberal enough to fine him his religion in the spirit of Christian charity.

One of Shylock’s unmasked faces is the face of a compassion that his daughter and her lover never dream of when they talk sentimentally of “Dido with a willow in her hand upon the wild sea banks. . . .”

Another is the face of an agony that weighs down every other character, making what Antonio declaims slander and Portia’s “merciful rain” Sunday School patter.

The last is the face of humiliated love crying, “Jessica, Jessica!” And the slow reply of the superior man to his humiliators: “I am content.”



Early in the Passover Haggadah we encounter a comment on the nature of the Jews’ status in Pharaonic Egypt: they came as gerim, to “sojourn” and not to settle.

It does not matter whether this interpretation is historically correct, or whether it is one of many glosses inserted to counteract possible antagonism in illiberal Alexandria of the 2nd century against what might easily have been construed as an anti-Egyptian feast. We are not primarily interested in ritual murder accusations. (We have already alluded to the oblique reference in Shylock’s trial to a typical Jewish blood accusation case during the Middle Ages.)

What is significant for us now is how the Jews have regarded themselves and been regarded by their neighbors, and why a great poetic genius could glimpse but not enclose them in his art. Perhaps the classical concept of the ger, or sojourner, will help.

The ger belonged to “a class of men who were personally free but had no political rights . . the protected strangers.”3 Although there are frequent references to gerim in the Jewish Testament, it was only after the destruction of the Temple that the Jews saw themselves in that very status. They wished to keep a semi-independent position in respect to religion and society (the two went together); that is, the post-Exilic Jews aimed at keeping their Palestinian citizenship, so to speak, or, more accurately, their citizenship in a religion and society whose cult centered in Palestine, but which might be practiced, though incompletely, outside of the Land. They felt themselves to be really citizens of Judaism from birth, not citizens of Babylonia or Rome or Spain—and were regarded as such.

It is at this point that our tangent touches “The Moneylender of Venice.” Why did Shylock’s complexity trouble Shakespeare? Not because he is too deep, but because he is too many things at once; not that he is an impossible character—but that there are too many elements in him, and they do not cohere.

The proof lies in Othello, where we find Shylock’s characteristics divided between two characters, each of whom is satisfactory as a unit. Othello himself is very like Shylock in many ways: the alien, the stranger, the victim of xenophobia, the powerful passionate nature ruined because of his differentness—no motive but personal uneasiness toward Othello can account for Iago’s actions.

Iago is the devilish, the shrewd, the revengeful, the unpardonable part of Shylock. Yet, where The Merchant of Venice fails, Othello is a success—the alien is real, the devil is real—and the tragedy is real.

For in Othello the alien and the devil are separate. The alien is strange, indeed, but he is no Jewish bogey—man—Othello is too strange for that; he is always an overwhelming curiosity, and somehow defenseless at the same time, his real home being elsewhere.

But Shylock is a resident alien, in Venice but not of it—a walking memorial of Jerusalem and the Holy Sabbath.

Iago is a tolerable devil, genuine but native—born, the worst of Italy’s citizens. His speech is at home in the play and in the poet’s mind, quick and supple and cynical, vital and amusing: “To suckle fools and chronicle small beer.”

Iago is malicious and whole. There is none of the Jewish defensiveness about him; he will not even seem to be converted. He will have no part of the world he detests. Perhaps it is because he was incorrigible that it was obvious to Shakespeare that Iago had to succeed, while Shylock, whose deviltry was only circumstantial (he possessed no natural cloven foot, like Iago), could be overcome. As a result, Iago is expressed and Shylock repressed—and that makes all the difference in the art. “No man is poor save in wit,” says the Haggadah. The poet described Shylock’s wealth of self-consciousness, but he could not circumscribe the Jew as a whole.

For Shylock does not categorize easily. The moneylender of Venice refused to conform even to the roomy confines of Shakespeare’s drama. Shylock is on our shelves, but he overflows them.




1 See Jacob Shatzky, in Yivo Blätter, Winter 1946.

2 Maimonides, in his Credo.

3 Robertson Smith, Lectures on the Religion of the Semites.

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