Was Shakespeare anti-Semitic? New book examines Shylock

In what has become one of the most controversial scenes in all of Shakespeare’s works, Act IV, Scene 1 of The merchant of Venice It opens in a courtroom, where Antonio, a merchant, is on trial for failing to pay his debt to Shylock. “Go one and call the Jew to court,” declares the duke.

The presiding judge has not been able to find a lawful way to free Antonio from his bond, or from the agreed penalty, the removal of a pound of his flesh from his body.

When asked for a reason for wanting to punish Antonio in this way, Shylock replies, “So, I can’t give any reason, and I won’t. / More than a lodged hatred and a certain contempt “.

When Bassanio offers to repay the loan, Shylock declares that he would not accept the money, even if the sum was six times higher.

After several twists and turns and legal haircuts, the scene ends with Shylock, whose life is hanging by a thread, agreeing to convert to Christianity and hand over his half of his estate to Lorenzo, who Shylock believes has convinced Jessica, his daughter. , to elope with. him, steal his mother’s wedding ring and abandon his Jewish faith.

“One would have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to recognize that Shakespeare’s great and equivocal comedy, The Merchant of Venice, is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic play”, reflecting the virulent prejudices of Elizabethan England, Harold Bloom, the distinguished literary critic, declared in 1998.

However, this opinion is far from unanimous. Since the 18th century, Shylock has often been portrayed sympathetically, with emphasis on his now-iconic plea: “Doesn’t he have Jewish eyes? Does not a Jew have hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, fed with the same food, wounded with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, cured by the same means, heated and cooled by the same winter and summer? What is a Christian? If you prick us, don’t we bleed? … And if you hurt us, won’t we get revenge?

On Vindicating ShakespeareStephen Byk, a retired actor, director, and educator living in Israel since 1965, uses the tools of theater professionals to “exonerate” Shakespeare from accusations of anti-Semitism.

Vindicating Shakespeare is at its best when Byk offers directing interventions designed to clarify the meanings implicit in the text. As he enters court, Byk suggests, Shylock, who hopes to exact his revenge, “must dress and groom himself to ceremonial perfection”, perhaps excessively, to cover “the thin layer overlying his inner rage.”

Because Bassanio and Gratiano notice that Shylock is sharpening his knife on the sole of his shoe, Byk recommends (so as not to distract the audience and show that he is distressed) that Shylock retreat behind the table where he has placed the scale while they speak. , find a tool you thought you brought with you, and then take off a shoe, spit on it, and sharpen your sword.

THAT’S SAID, despite the provocative title of his book, Byk’s interpretation of The merchant of Venice it actually echoes the assessments of many contemporary literary critics, who assert that Shakespeare presents Shylock at least as much as a victim as well as a victimizer. But Byk also struggles to explain why the Shylock from Act III “He has no eyes of a Jew” gives way in Act IV to a Shylock who conforms to Elizabethan stereotypes.

Furthermore, many of Byk’s claims are speculative. If Antonio (instead of the Duke or Bassanio) had publicly asked Shylock to reduce the fine or offered to pay him more money, Byk guesses, “most likely Shylock would have mollified and a compromise would have been reached.” . Many Elizabethans “would have applauded” the requirement that Shylock renounce his religion, Byk writes, only to posit that despite the audience’s “fundamental affinity” with this decision, Shylock’s “abject humiliation” would have “at least in part, pierced the wall of his prejudice. ” Gratiano’s observation at the end of the play that “dawn, that traditional symbol of renewal, is two hours away,” and the absence of celebration dances, Byk claims, are a sign that the characters “and all Elizabethan society “remain” baffled. ” and uncomfortable with what they have experienced ”, which further reinforces“ their non-comic perception of their prejudices ”.

Byk also interprets the lack of recorded commentary on the play in the late 16th and early 17th centuries as evidence that “the audience fully recognized Shakespeare’s true intent, and it was that recognition that prompted their reservation.” And he proposes that “the apparent anti-Semitism of the play” was “an ingenious smokescreen” that allowed Shakespeare to “criticize, if only indirectly,” the religious, social and political conflict initiated by the rejection of papal power by of King Henry VIII and his creation of an Anglican Church.

Byk’s perceptions as a director are likely to enhance contemporary viewers’ understanding and enjoyment of The merchant of Venice. Vindicating Shakespeare it is also a useful corrective to the ex-chair judgments of Bloom and other critics; a reminder of the non-Christian behavior of the Christian characters in the play and of Shylock’s humanity.

In the end, it seems to me that Susannah Heschel, professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College, is right.

“If Shakespeare wanted to write something that was sympathetic to Jews,” he notes, “he would have done it more explicitly.”

However, he adds, the work “opens the door to questioning” entrenched anti-Semitism. And unlike those who don’t want anyone to study it, Heschel regards Merchant as “one of the most important literary pieces of Western civilization,” a work that should, and can, be read “in a more complex way.” 

The author is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.


Vindicating Shakespeare:
A Theater Director’s Study on The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
By Stephen Byk
Publication of new book authors
228 pages; $ 16.95


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