Throughout high school English I invariably chose all the “fun” prompts that involved creative writing. However, there were times when I actually had to write a serious essay, and this was one of them. It’s one of my better compositions, perhaps because I actually had strong opinions on the prompt: “Antonio is the title character in the play, but which character do you believe is the most important? Write an opinion paper explaining which character you believe to be central to the play and why.”
First, I have a confession: though I may be a prospective English major, and even though I’d read adaptions of The Merchant of Venice, I still always assumed that the merchant referred to in the title was Shylock, that notorious example of anti-Semitism in Elizabethan England. But, as William Shakespeare reveals in the play’s subtitle, Antonio (or as I refer to him “that stupid guy,”) is the actual merchant. However, I always found Antonio something of a dull, if poetic, character, who floats about Venice being mournful or spiteful as the case may be, and is generally of less influence and interest than his nemesis, the Jew.
In fact, it would take much to convince me that Antonio deserves the title piece. That honor ought to have gone to the one who is most wronged through the play: Shylock. After all, without him The Merchant of Venice might be a totally different play. Without Shylock, it would be but the story of some merchant (Antonio), who lends money to his friend (Bassanio), so that that friend can court a lady (Portia). In this circumstance, the main drama might have revolved around the trials Bassanio must endure to win Portia. I suppose a play could be made of that, but it would probably be a light, frothy one, indeed, more of a comedy than the actual play is.
But would Venice then take its place on the shelf of “great” Shakespearean classics? Maybe so, maybe not: there is no knowing how Shakespeare would have worded that simple tale. Instead, however, he chose to embellish the sparse story by including the man that Antonio in turn borrows money from. That creditor is Shylock, who demands a pound of Antonio’s “fair flesh,” should he fail to reimburse the moneylender. Though Bassanio (in what now becomes something of a side plot) manages to win the lady, Antonio is unable to repay Shylock. The rest of the play is mainly taken up with Shylock’s seemingly vindictive quest to make Antonio fulfill his vow.
In creating this extra character and plot, Shakespeare fashioned perhaps the ugliest modern controversy concerning his work: Shylock, the villain, is a Jew. Unfortunately, there is no getting around the fact that The Merchant of Venice is an anti-semitic play. The Jew is the bloodthirsty bad guy, the perpetrator of Old Testament law, opposed to the gentle mercy of the Christian characters. As the play closes, the Jew is bested, and he and his daughter convert to Christianity. In Shakespeare’s day, and for a many of centuries after, Shylock was played as a caricature of a Jew: scheming, devilish, and vicious.
But fortunately for those devotees of the Bard, this play is not quite as disgusting as it first appears. Shakespeare does give some justification to Shylock’s vendetta against Antonio: “He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew.” At least there is reason to the madness, but the author still ends with the admission that the wronged is a Jew. In Shakespeare’s day, and for hundreds of years later, that was a perfectly rational reason for hatred.
Yet Shakespeare goes even further. Shylock laments: “Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.” What is this? Is a Christian finding empathy with a Jew?
That is the majesty of Shakespeare. He is not content to say: “Shylock is a Jew. That’s that.” Whatever prejudices of the times Shakespeare subscribed to, he still cannot keep himself from exploring the psyche of “the other side.” As a result, intentionally or no, he gives one of the most stirring defenses against racism, in the midst of the very play that is criticized for it.
Ultimately, Shylock has even more importance than merely superficial influence over the plot of the play. Through Shylock, Shakespeare reveals that he is no bit playwright, conveniently writing stereotypes for the amusement of the crowd (whatever the unjust title may imply). Shakespeare is willing, however subtly, to let a Jew take center stage.