“What Keats called Shakespeare’s “negative capability,” his unmatched capacity for making audiences (and readers) see things from multiple angles, here makes for a somewhat disturbing experience.”

The Merchant of Venice

An Introduction

By Dennis Abrams


If you look at it one way, The Merchant of Venice is straight-up anti-Semitic propaganda:  a Christian merchant becomes indebted to a stereotypically greedy Jewish moneylender, Shylock, who takes advantage of the merchant’s bankruptcy to demand repayment in the grisly form of a pound of the debtor’s flesh.  Yet…if you look at it another way, the play’s most tragic character is Shylock himself:  a man abused by the Christian majority of Venice, robbed and deserted by his own daughter, and at the last humiliated by being forced to abandon Judaism and convert to Christianity.

The problem for 21st century audience members and readers, who have the unarguable fact of the Holocaust in their minds, is that both sides of the story are there in this brilliant, yet troubling play.  And it’s easy, I think, to feel that they are irreconcilable:  what Keats called Shakespeare’s “negative capability,” his unmatched capacity for making audiences (and readers) see things from multiple angles, here makes for a somewhat disturbing experience.  Shylock might be the descendant of all the devilish Jewish villains that were a staple of Christian storytelling, but Shakespeare, perhaps even beyond his own intentions, makes it impossible for us to view him as simply evil:  the Christians in the play, for all their apparent civility, are racist, obsessed by money, and in the end, brutally vicious.  Yet, in another ironic twist, The Merchant, which contains so much hatred, is also, at its heart, a romantic comedy, and it’s in this – in the collision between the two folk stories that were Shakespeare’s sources – that the play throws up its most searching questions, in particular the involvement of the wealthy heroine Portia in the dirty little battle for money and life that is at the center of the plot.  It is impossible to sit on the fence when watching (or reading) The Merchant, and the issues it raises are as pressing now they have ever been.


A couple of introductory pieces.  The first from Harold Bloom:

“One would have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to recognize that Shakespeare’s grand, equivocal comedy The Merchant of Venice is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work.  Yet every time I have taught the play, many of my most sensitive and intelligent students become very unhappy when I begin with that observation.  Nor do they accept my statements that Shylock is a comic villain and that Portia would cease to be sympathetic if Shylock were allowed to be a figure of overwhelming pathos.  That Shakespeare himself was personally anti-Semitic we reasonably can doubt, but Shylock is one of those Shakespearean figures who seem to break clean away from their plays’ confines.  There is an extraordinary energy in Shylock’s prose and poetry, a force both cognitive and passional, which palpably is in excess of the play’s comic requirements.  More even than Marlowe’s Barabas, Jew of Malta, Shylock is a villain both farcical and scary, though time has worn away both qualities.  Shakespeare’s England did not exactly have a Jewish ‘problem’ or ‘question’ in our later modern terms; only about a hundred or two hundred Jews, presumably most of them converts to Christianity, lived in London.  The Jews had been more or less expelled from England in 1290, three centuries before, and were not to be more or less readmitted until Cromwell made his revolution.  The unfortunate Dr. Lopez, Queen Elizabeth’s physician, was hanged, drawn, and quartered (possibly with Shakespeare among the mob looking on), having been more or less framed by the Earl of Essex and so perhaps falsely accused of a plot to poison the Queen.  A Portuguese converse, whom Shakespeare may have known, poor Lopez lives on as a shadow provocation to the highly successful revival of Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta in 1593-94, and presumably to Shakespeare’s eventual overcoming of Marlowe in The Merchant of Venice, perhaps in 1596-97.

Shakespeare’s comedy is Portia’s play, and not Shylock’s, though some audiences now find it difficult to reach that conclusion.  Antonio, the title’s merchant, is the good Christian of the play, who manifests his piety by cursing and spitting at Shylock.  For many among us now, that is at least an irony, but clearly it was no irony for Shakespeare’s audiences.  I have never seen The Merchant of Venice staged with Shylock as comic villain, but that is certainly how the play should be performed.  Shylock would be very bad news indeed if he were not funny, since he doesn’t provoke us to laughter, we play him for pathos, as he has been played since the early nineteenth century, except in Germany and Austria under the Nazis, and in Japan.  I am afraid we tend to make The Merchant of Venice incoherent by portraying Shylock as being largely sympathetic.  Yet I myself am puzzled as to what it would cost (and not only ethically) to recover the play’s coherence.  Probably it would cost us Shakespeare’s actual Shylock, who cannot have been quite what Shakespeare intended, if indeed we can recover such an intention.  If I were a director, I would instruct my Shylock to act like a hallucinatory bogeyman, a walking nightmare flamboyant with a big false nose and a bright red wig, that is to say, to look like Marlowe’s Barabas.  We can imagine the surrealistic effect of such a figure when he begins to speak with the nervous intensity, the realistic energy of Shylock, who is so much of a personality as to at least rival his handful of lively precursors in Shakespeare:  Faulconbridge the Bastard in King John, Mercutio and the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, and Bottom the Weaver in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  But these characters all fit their roles, even if we can conceive of them as personalities outside of their plays. Shylock simply does not fill his role, he is the wrong Jew in the right play.”


And an opposing view from Tony Tanner:

“Shylock speaks in – unforgettable – prose, and this marks something of a crucial departure for Shakespeare.  Hitherto, he had effectively reserved prose for exclusively comic (usually ‘low’) characters.  With Shylock, this all changes (with Falstaff too, who emerges shortly after Shylock – though arguably he is, at inception, still something of a comic character.)  For Shylock is not a comic character.  He has a power, a pain, a passion, a dignity – and yes, a savagery, and a suffering – which, whatever they are, are not comic.  And here I would like, if possible, to discredit and disqualify two damagingly irrelevant attitudes to the play.  The first is the one which accuses it of anti-Semitism.  This really is, with the best will in the world, completely beside the point.  There were Jews in Renaissance European cities; they were often the main money-lenders; no doubt some of them were extortionate.  Christians who borrowed from them no doubt did develop strong antagonistic, resentful feelings towards them (as people invariably do towards those to whom they are in any way ‘indebted’ – ‘Why do you have me so much; what have I done for you recently?’ is, here, a pertinent Jewish joke).  And, equally assumable, some Jews came to harbor very understandable feelings of anger and revenge against the people who, at once, used and reviled them.  So much is history; so much – I risk, is fact.  And Shakespeare knew his facts.  Interested in every aspect of human behavior, for him an archaically vengeful Jew was as plausible a figure as an evil monarch, a betraying friend, a cowardly soldier, an ungrateful daughter.

A more insidious view is that which maintains that Shylock is intended to be ‘a purely repellent or comic figure’ because ‘conventionality’ would have it so.  These are the words of E.E. Stoll, from a regrettably influential essay written in 1911.  Like it or not, he said, that is how Jews were regarded by the Elizabethans, and Shakespeare, ‘more than any other poet, reflected the settled prejudices of his race.’  ‘How can we, he concluded, ‘for a moment sympathize with Shylock unless at the same time we indignantly turn, not only against Gratiano, but against Portia, the Duke, and all Venice as well?’  The baneful insensitivity and crass unintelligence of these remarks merit no response, and I would not have resurrected them were it not for the fact that, in our understandably squeamish post-Holocaust time, reasons (justifications, excuses, for even performing the play sometimes run along those lines.  As I have said before, if something hurts or worries us, you may be very sure that it hurt and worried Shakespeare, and the idea of happily laughing the broken Shylock off stage is simply unthinkable.  Now.  And then.  And some of that ‘indignant turning’ on Venice, which Stoll found so inconceivable, may well not be out of place.  We have here, certainly a ‘comedy’ as conventionally constituted – group solidarity reconfirmed, a threat disarmed and extruded; but there is something sour, sad, even sick in the air – at the end as at the beginning.  As we regard the contented figures at Belmont, we may well agree with Ruth Nevo that ‘we do not feel that they are wiser than they were.  Only that they have what they wanted.’  In pursuit of his vengeance, Shylock becomes a monstrous figure, as does anyone who takes resentment, hatred, and revenge, to extremes.  But the play is not a melodrama or morality play, and that is certainly not all there is to him.”


Two very different takes on the play.  It will be interesting to see what side you fall on (or perhaps another side altogether!) when we finish our reading.



 A book that I suggest to supplement your reading of The Merchant is John Gross’ Shylock:  A Legend and its Legacy which examines the origins of the character, and how he has been seen through the centuries


Our next reading:  The Merchant of Venice, Act One

My next post:  With the 4th coming up, I’ll post some background etc. on Act One Sunday evening/Monday morning, and continue with Act One on Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning.

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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1 Response to “What Keats called Shakespeare’s “negative capability,” his unmatched capacity for making audiences (and readers) see things from multiple angles, here makes for a somewhat disturbing experience.”

  1. Beth Kephart says:

    This stuff you do, Dennis, amazes me. And I always wanted to take a course in negative capability. I feel as if I’d finally crack that code if I were given an whole semester to reflect upon it.

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