Shylock Deserved His Fate
Excerpts from an article B. R. Schneider
Our approach to The Merchant of Venice has been so conditioned by our attitude toward victims of all sorts that we cannot see that there are two sides to the question of Shylock's humiliation. Because he is a Jew, and subject to ethnic slurs as well, we cannot abide the notion that he might deserve his fate. Our view of the play is ethnocentric in the extreme, as extreme as the view of the Presbyterian missionaries who clothed the honest nakedness of Polynesian women in Mother Hubbards. Something similar has happened to the honest Christians in The Merchant of Venice.
For a start, let's set aside the custom of calling Shylock's opponents "Christians." That term is loaded with irony these days, and may even be accompanied by a sneer. Let's label them "Belmontese," after Belmont, the heroine's country estate, which is their true home. Of many sneerers, W. H. Auden, in The Dyer's Hand (1962), has most eloquently stated the critics' disapproval of these Belmontese: he says that Bassanio, who seeks the hand of the heiress Portia in marriage, is "a spendthrift"; he and his friends Gratiano and Lorenzo, are "frivolous members of a leisure class, whose carefree life is parasitic," and Shylock's daughter Jessica, the one who runs away with Lorenzo and spends fourscore ducats in an evening, exhibits "the sin of conspicuous waste." The merchant Antonio who lends Bassanio the money to court Portia, he concludes, differs from Shylock only because he deals in "luxury goods."
Is this the way to recompense a man who was introduced to Portia as "one in whom/The ancient Roman honor more appears/Than [in] any that draws breath in Italy," "the kindest man, / The best-condition'd and unwearied spirit / In doing courtesies," and who was just now about to lay down his life for his friend? It is typical of missionaries in their rush to judgment to overlook contradictory facts, no matter how prominent.
In fact "Roman honor" motivates not just Antonio, but the whole Belmontese contingent. All practice impeccable Stoic morality. Indeed, the very purpose of the play seems to be to show off Stoicism. But the missionary spirit sweeps all before it, and, after centuries of intense Merchant of Venice criticism, Roman honor still lies neglected
in the ditch.
The Merchant of
The plot has a fearful symmetry. The play begins with Shylock's "merry bond" which turns out to be solemn, and it ends with Portia's solemn bond which turns out to be merry. At every point Shakespeare invites us to compare Shylock with the Belmontese. One finds that they are polar opposites, perfect moral antitheses of each other, perfect projections of the differences resulting from their alternate motives of greed, in the case of Shylock, and trust in the case of Antonio. Consider the parallel borrowing scenes in the first act:
First we see Bassanio borrowing money from Antonio: After listening with some impatience to Bassanio's elaborate grant proposal, Antonio cuts him short:
You know me well and herein spend but time
To wind about my love with circumstance;
And out of doubt you do me now more wrong
In making question of my uttermost
Than if you had made waste of all I have.
Then do but say to me what I should do
That in your knowledge may by me be done
And I am prest unto it. Therefore speak.
Some hostile critics think this passage shows Antonio's ill temper, but it may be argued that he is only trying to relieve his friend of the embarrassment of begging. So generous is Antonio that does not even need to know the amount Bassanion requires but instead offers a blanket authorization:
I pray you, good Bassanio, let me know [how much you need],
And if it stand, as you yourself still do,
Within the eye of honor, be assur'd
My purse, my person, my extremest means,
Lie all unlock'd to your occasions.
Now compare this with the way that Shylock lends money a few
scenes later. Bassanio
is still the borrower, but this time he represents Antonio, who is temporarily
out of pocket, but has good credit on the
Shylock. Three thousand ducats--well.
Bassanio. Ay, sir, for three months.
Shylock. For three months--well.
Bassanio. For the which, as I told you, Antonio shall be bound.
Shylock. Antonio shall be bound--well.
Bassanio. May you stead me? Will you pleasure me? Shall I know your answer?
Shylock. Three thousand ducats for three months, and Antonio bound.
Bassanio. Your answer to that.
Shylock. Antonio is a good man.
Bassanio. Have you heard any imputation to the contrary?
Now Shylock lists all of Antonio's investments and finds them "squand'red abroad." And not until he's waffled for 140 more lines is Shylock ready to lend the money, as soon as Antonio produces a properly drawn-up bond with his signature on it. Antonio is a generous and giving friend whilst Shylock is cold and calculating miser which is why he eventually deserves his fate.
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