The Merchant of Venice is a play about Shylock. Wrong. But that’s what people think.
Shylock is an evil Jew. Well, maybe. But that’s certainly what people IN the play say.
I had read the play before, a LOOOOOOONG time ago. And I had read some criticism on the play coming into this month, and I kept coming upon writers discussing Shylock’s response to learning that Jessica was left:
My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
Justice! the law! my ducats, and my daughter!
It’s a damning speech, one that allows THAT Jew to connect Jessica his daughter to his missing money, to equate them, and then to supplant Jessica’s importance with that of the ducats. Anyone who could do that would be a villain.
There’s only one problem.
Shylock doesn’t say it.
Our reporters Salarino and Solanio discuss what they’ve heard in the streets of anti-Semitic Venice and the latter gives this testimony. The former then tells his partner, and us, “Why, all the boys in Venice follow him, // Crying, his stones, his daughter, and his ducats” (II.viii.23-24). Here, Salarino mocks Shylock, and we become his accomplice.
Why do we not hear this from Shylock’s mouth himself? The scenes would be incredible to stage, then why don’t we have them?
It cannot be because he doesn’t say horrible things about his daughter. Later, when he learns that Tubal has heard of her whereabouts, he proclaims, “I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear! would she were hearsed at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin!” (III.i.81-83). The first proclamation is horrible, wishing his daughter dead, but having the jewels back (with her at his feet). But his immediate reconsideration shows that he doesn’t necessarily care about the money; it’s almost as if death will reunite them, and he doesn’t care if the ducats are buried with her, and of no use to him. As the scene progresses, he returns to torment over “never see(ing) (his) gold again” (III.i.100-101). The daughter is lost to him, and thus forgotten. All that he has left is his money, and even some of that he’ll never see again.
Interesting, though, is the conclusion of the scene. Tubal tells Shylock that Jessica had traded a ring of his for a monkey. But it was no ordinary ring, as he tells Tubal,
it was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor: I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.
Shylock tells of a ring his own wife gave to him, a ring he would have never given away.
We hear from others that he mis-prizes his family. And while he can (seemingly) easily abandon a family member who leaves him, he CAN love, and there is no reason to doubt his sincerity when he speaks of his love and devotion to his wife. It’s completely fitting then, when he hears Bassanio and Gratiano speak of their own valuing of Antonio over their wives, that he rebukes them with “These be the Christian husbands” (IV.i.293). Isn’t it interesting that both Portia and Nerissa are able to get from their husbands rings the husbands had vowed to never give away, when we have heard so eloquently Shylock’s denial of such actions on his part.
We hear he’s a beast, a devil. And he is within the context of the play’s obviously anti-Semitic Venice. But Shakespeare never seems satisfied with giving us an out-and-out villain, with no redeeming qualities (Titus‘ Aaron had the love for his infant son, Richard the Third his charm), and I’d posit that he doesn’t give us one in Shylock, either.
A “problem play,” indeed…