Shylock: A First Vision

When we meet Shylock (talking to Bassanio in Act One, Scene Three of The Merchant of Venice), he is in pure money-lending mode–discussing the amount, the length, and surety of the loan (and pondering the risks). When Bassanio asks Shylock if he would like to have dinner with him and Antonio, Shylock responds,

Yes, to smell pork; to eat of the habitation which your prophet the Nazarite conjured the devil into. I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following, but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.

— I.iii.31-35

The opening of the speech, with its reference to pork, points to Shylock’s Jewishness. More important than the discussion of pork, however, is the insulting reference to Jesus Christ as merely “your prophet the Mazarite,” thus leading to Shylock’s statement that he will not “pray” with Antonio and Bassanio.

When Shylock sees Antonio, we get our first aside of the play–and a look inside Shylock’s rationale:

I hate him for he is a Christian,
He hates our sacred nation, and he rails,
Even there where merchants most do congregate,
On me, my bargains and my well-won thrift,
Which he calls interest. Cursed be my tribe,
If I forgive him!

— I.iii.38,45-49

Shylock hates Antonio based on religion, he says, prizing his own “sacred nation” over Antonio’s “rail(ings)” against Shylock and his ilk… an ilk that could be “cursed” if Shylock forgave Antonio’s (and by extension, all Christians’) actions.

All this points to a certain antisemitic slant to the play: the Jew SHOULD be cursed for his lack of “Christian” forgiveness. And this would tie into the seeming purpose of the composition and production of this play: the wave of English anti-Jew sentiment following the execution of Roderigo Lopez and the successful revival of Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta.

But Shakespeare being Shakespeare, and never one to keep a storyline or a character’s motivation as simple as in his source, there’s an additional–and more secular–reason for Shylock’s antipathy.

But more on that tomorrow…