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From John Gilbert – Shylock After the Trial
John Bruce Leonard

Tribe and City: The Merchant of Venice and the Ethnic Question – Part 1

Series: Tribe and City: The Merchant of Venice and the Ethnic Question

Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is obscured by controversy. What does it have to teach us once the controversy has been dispelled?

Perhaps none of William Shakespeare’s plays is harder for us of today to decipher than The Merchant of Venice. This, not on account of its technical difficulty, its archaic or inventive turns of phrase, its elusiveness of meaning, or its complexity of characterization and motivation, but rather because it has been veiled in controversies which fundamentally do not concern it, and which impose on modern readers the obligation of peeling away layers entire before so much as the skin of the play itself may come into view. Yet for that reason precisely – precisely because it is so difficult for us to approach it, precisely because it seems to forbid our entry – this might be one of the Shakespearean works most needful for us to comprehend.

The controversies which enfold this play are indicated decisively by the judgement passed on this play by no lesser authority than the renowned critic Harold Bloom, who (despite his extremely high opinion of the work as such) thought fit to submit the following remarks: ‘One would have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to recognise that Shakespeare’s grand, equivocal comedy The Merchant of Venice is nevertheless a profoundly anti-semitic work’.1 Under the weight of this and like assessments, the debate over the quality, the intent and indeed the morality of this play has never ceased in literary criticism, with some rushing perennially to the Merchant’s defence and others ready from the first to castigate it, if not to cast it into the very flames. The Merchant of Venice, it would appear, stands before the present age as a defendant at trial, alongside it, maybe, the man who penned it, and perhaps even – who knows? – we ourselves. Alas, but there is reason enough to wonder whether its judges are capable any long of mercy, or even of fairness, when the ugly question of ‘intolerance’ raises it head – particularly given that we would evidently ‘have to be blind, deaf and dumb’ not to see perceive that same quality rife within it.

Precisely because it is so difficult for us to approach it, precisely because it seems to forbid our entry, The Merchant of Venice might be one of the Shakespearean works most needful for us to understand.

Yet at the risk of showing ourselves so poor in our senses, we would dispute what appears to us both an obstructionist and indeed an evasionist interpretation of a play whose real bounty is robbed, and whose true profundity concealed, by an all-too-facile use of these late neologisms.

In equal measure, however, we must also avoid another easy temptation presented by the current hermeneutics, one which often enough makes its appearance precisely here, before this very tribunal, in an attempt as it were to get the defendant off lightly. The work is sometimes shielded from the charge of anti-Semitism with a judgement which reduces more or less to the following logic: ‘Shakespeare, too, great man that he was, was child of his time; Shakespeare, too, was so far immersed in the biases of his day that he surely could not see far beyond them; his treatment of Jews and Jewishness in The Merchant of Venice was but a symptom of the times, and should be excused him’. Thus, one quite literally pleads insanity and has done with the matter.

Since we contemporaries, even the most dwarfish among us, are evidently so gifted with a historical insight that our vision compasses even that of Shakespeare, it must come as no surprise that the reading of literature and the study of our past should have fallen out of fashion; if there is nothing to be gleaned from reading books like this other than some comprehension of how far their writers were our inferiors, it really takes a special kind of mind to occupy itself with them. But any one who really goes digging in the depths of Shakespeare’s earth is certain sooner or later, volente o nolente, to come across jewels innumerable, whose integral beauty and hard crystalline lucidity are not liable to be consumed, nor even so much as scratched, by these maggots of time. Shakespeare lived in his epoch and wrote to his day; to that extent we are entitled – nay, obliged to take his ‘historical context’ into consideration. But there is nothing in this fact to demonstrate, and countless of the aforementioned gems to dispute, the claim that he himself blindly, deafly and dumbly believed as his time believed.

Indeed, to assume as much, far from proving Shakespeare’s prejudice, is to confirm our own.

A Note on the Term

We are forced to begin, then, by trying to get our hands around ‘anti-Semitism’, though it is eel-like and will doubtless slip our grip, no matter how tightly we attempt to hold it. In the first place, it could be noted that to label a man of the seventeenth century with a term which was invented from the wholecloth in the nineteenth, is somewhat anachronistic not to say unjust, and once again suggests that the thinkers who are truly bound and blinded by the special beliefs of their historical epoch are not the men of the past, but precisely we ultra-moderns. But alas, nullum crimen sine lege is a principle which we have seen transgressed on more than one celebrated occasion in the past hundred years, and so not even this observation can turn the trial to Shakespeare’s favour.

Then let us attempt to clarify the use of this term. Is it anti-Semitic of Shakespeare to introduce a Jewish character into his works? Or to introduce one who does not flatter the Jews? Or is it anti-Semitic, perchance, to put into the mouths of so many other characters ‘anti-Semitic language’ which is certain to have been commonplace among men in those times and those places? Or is it rather – as seems a more justifiable basis for these accusations – that Shylock’s peculiar vices appear to be attached to certain ideas, commonplace in Shakespeare’s day, regarding the nature of the Jewish community as a whole?

Until we have understood Shakespeare’s intent with the play, we cannot assess the question of Shakespeare’s view of the Jews.

Yet what then? If an artist portrays a Jew who happens to bear traits which have traditionally, whether rightly or wrongly, been associated with Jewishness, is that in and of itself anti-Semitic? Are we to suppose that there has never been a Jew who cared inordinately for gold? Or that there have been such, but that to present them dramatically is beyond the pale? Then we must hold it against Shakespeare, surely, not only that he made the evident vices of an invented character coincide with the supposed vices of a people entire, but that he did so with such power. For Shylock, whatever else one might think of him, is surely a powerful character, perhaps the most powerful of the entire play aside from Portia. Evidently, an artist – even, or perhaps especially, one of the rank of Shakespeare – is simply not permitted to step upon certain stretches of the wide domain of artistic creativity. Why, and where lie the precise borders of this terra prohibita?

No one would call Shakespeare anti-Italian for his Iago, or anti-Scottish or mysogynist for his Lady Macbeth. The question of anti-Semitism here is connected necessarily to the question of that people against whom it is supposed to be directed. Now, in Shakespeare’s time, the Jews had long since been expelled from England, and those few that remained were forced to live to all visible and outward signs like Englishmen. The Jews acquired in their absence, and by the inevitable rumours brought back to England by sailors and travellers, an almost fantastical reputation, fact which was exploited by many poets and writers to great popular effect. Yet Shakespeare – as opposed to, for instance, Marlowe with his Jew of Malta or even Chaucer with his Prioress’s Tale – did not advantage himself of this situation so as to plant a monster or a devil in the place of a man. Shylock is wholly human, if an incomplete or lopsided human. He is so wholly human indeed that one must inquire as to what it is that causes his incompletion or his lopsidedness.

We refrain from sparing ourselves the hard labour of this inquiry by swallowing that little soporific which has ‘anti-Semitism’ scrawled upon it. Then let us turn to the surface. The play, as we have noted, is rife with denunciatory speeches against the Jews. The hatred which several characters of Shakespeare’s play so clearly bear towards Shylock for his being a Jew thus furnishes the prime evidence for Shakespeare’s own anti-Semitism. Yet Shakespeare speaks nowhere in his play; only his characters speak. Are we to identify Shakespeare with his characters? Very well: but his characters contradict one another, and one of them is Shylock himself. Then which is to be regarded as the spokesman (spokeswoman?) of the author, and on what grounds?

There is no term analogous to ‘anti-Semitism’ to indicate the feeling of Shylock for the Christians surrounding him;2 on the face of it, there is no outward indication of what Shakespeare thought of Shylock’s harsh judgement of the Christians, or of what he thought of the Christians’ harsh judgement of Shylock. This mutual hatred of the characters is the focal point of the play; it is the tense centre around which the whirlpool revolves; but nowhere are we furnished the author’s assessment of its antipodes. True, things end ill for Shylock; but does that indicate necessarily that justice has been done? On what grounds can we claim as much? Because the characters of the play believe it has? But here again we are thrown back on the same problem: for certainly, Shylock, who more than once calls upon justice and the law to sustain him, does not believe that justice has been done. Until we know what Shakespeare thought of Shylock, we cannot know what Shakespeare thought of the judgement passed on Shylock. Until we have understood the play and Shakespeare’s intent with the play, we cannot assess the question of Shakespeare’s view of the Jews. ‘Anti-Semitism’ cannot be the starting point of our investigation, but at the very most its ending point.

And indeed, a more commonplace defence of Shakespeare runs thus: though Shakespeare certainly was playing to certain ‘stereotypes’ of his time3 with an eye as ever toward the rabble that formed the larger part of his audience, nonetheless he also presented Shylock in such a way that careful viewers or readers cannot help but sympathize with the man’s plight. Did he not put into Shylock’s mouth that most famous plea against bigotry ever written (‘Am I not a man?’), which to this day is used (sometimes thoughtlessly) in condemnation of the grosser kinds of racism? Did he not indicate that Shylock had been the victim of injustices, insofar as Antonio had been abusing and defaming him about the city, costing him money; insofar as his own daughter had abandoned him against his paternal will for a gentile, and withal robbed him of a goodly portion of his wealth; insofar, finally, as by the supposed justice of the city itself, to which he sought such emphatic recourse, he was dispossessed and denatured, forced to choose between his being and his well-being, and at last made even to betray his faith?

We hear and duly weigh this defence, but we make the following note upon it: the fact that one is forced to defend Shakespeare in such terms before this modern tribunal, or even to accuse him in such terms before the same, has already put one into wholly artificial relation with his work. One already approaches Shakespeare as an advocate of one kind or another, displaying in its full false glory that quality which is dreaded by contemporary man more perhaps than any other malady of the mind: namely, prejudice. If ever we are to grasp Shakespeare, or any pre-modern thinker, with any clarity at all, we must cure ourselves of this moral paralysis, this moralysis, from the start, turn away from the arbitrary laws that ring us in, and shed off a few of our modern prejudices.

We return. We make the attempt to look at Shakespeare from fresh eyes, no longer judging him, neither the one way nor the other, until we have likely reason to do so. We ask the simplest and most obligatory question, putting ourselves into a standing with this author such as should be nothing more than our natural position vis-à-vis the great men of our history: what does Shakespeare have to tell us regarding the situation and character of the Jew of Venice?

Note on the Title

Let us begin again from the beginning.

The title of this work is The Merchant of Venice. The word ‘merchant’ throughout the play is used almost exclusively in reference to Antonio, a wealthy and powerful nobleman of some standing in the city, who is engaged in trade across the globe and has ships bearing his merchandise in every corner of the world (I.i 42–44; III.ii 268–269). His combining the merchant and the nobleman in one figure is significant for Shakespeare’s time, if not for our own; for in Shakespeare’s England there was a blurring but still neat distinction between the noble class and the mercantile class – as has held, incidentally, in most noble times and climes. The person of Antonio, then, reminds us of Venice’s special position as a port city, a city which gained its greatness on the back of its trade. By a term which is at once newer and older than Shakespeare’s day, we might say that Venice was a thalassocratic city. It was normal, then, that that which brought the city’s glory and power should be localized in her ruling classes.

The central concern of The Merchant of Venice is the ethnic question.

But this makes for a problem. To be a merchant means to care decisively about the increase of one’s wealth, while to be a nobleman imposes an instinct toward the virtue of liberality, viz. the free and generous use, not to say squandering, of one’s wealth. Bassanio, whose virtue is proved through the plot itself, is introduced to us in the play as a young man who has far ‘disabled [his] estate’ (I.i 123), thus propelling the story. Antonio’s response to his friend’s plight is to ‘unlock’ his ‘purse … person … [and] extremest means’ (I.i 138–139); i.e. he proves his liberality, his munificence. The word ‘unlock’ which he uses here is of great interest, not only because it obviously points to the trope of the three locked chests by which Portia’s marriage is secured by Bassanio (the man who discards greed and appearances), as well as the locked chest which Jessica steals from her father, but also because it rings so clearly against the very name of the play’s other central protagonist, Shylock himself – he who is shy about his locks – that is, who altogether lacks the virtue of liberality or of munificence.

Shylock, it might be said, is neither a free merchant (for the city of Venice put certain strictures on the business in which Jews were allowed to participate) nor certainly a nobleman (from which rank his heritage prohibited him). He is first and foremost a lender of money. Antonio too is a lender of money, but this very parallel indicates as well a difference, which is originally a difference in the customs of the two men: Antonio does not lend with interest. On the other hand Shylock is the only other character of the play indicated to be a merchant: Salanio greets him once with the cry, ‘How now, Shylock! what news among the merchants?’ (III.i 24), and Shylock, when speaking to Tubal of Antonio, says, ‘were/he out of Venice, I can make what merchandise I/will’ (III.i 128) employing the word ‘merchandise’, which is used but three times in the play, once here and twice in Antonio’s mouth; but he is a merchant primarily, it would seem, on other people’s wares, making his money by financing them at a rate. Nonetheless, the reflection between these two characters remains, and even Portia, in the guise of the judge, most pointedly asks of the court: ‘Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?’ meaning primarily that these two are to be singled out to her from the crowd, but perchance indicating as well another sense: namely, that Shylock has been a merchant, and Antonio for his part has atimes played the Jew.

In the first Stationer’s Register to list this play, the entry notes it as ‘a book of the Merchant of Venice, otherwise called the Jew of Venice’; it would appear Shakespeare was undecided on the title up to the last moment. This fact is taken to suggest that Shakespeare was uncertain as to which of the two protagonists to make central to a first glance or to the vulgar view, and that he settled finally on Antonio over Shylock. We rather suggest that he settled on the ambiguous title over the clear and evident one.

It is no accident that this play is not named clearly for any of its protagonists, as are many of plays commonly considered to be Shakespearean tragedies: and yet, at the same time, it is neither named for some obvious thematic element of the play, as for instance The Taming of the Shrews or Much Ado About Nothing, as are most of the Shakespearean comedies, amongst which Merchant has traditionally been located. It is one of four Shakespearean plays that contains in its title the name of a city; only one of these (Timon of Athens, one of the histories) includes as well a proper name. The two remaining, apart from The Merchant of Venice, indicate two individuals and the city to which they belong: Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Merry Wives of Windsor. The Merchant of Venice thus appears to stand alone, insofar as it seems to indicate but a single individual and a single city; yet in the ambiguity we have just outlined, the title is shown in fact to indicate two men. These three plays then form a natural group within the Shakespearean oeuvre. Their titles might be said to indicate some problem within the context of the city, i.e., within the context of social life. What problem does the present play then address?

The ‘merchant’, we have said, might be Antonio and might be Shylock; yet the other half of the title seems to resolve the question. Antonio is indeed the merchant of Venice; he is Venetian by birth, he belongs to the city, as is emphatically proven by the denouement of the play. Shylock is not of Venice; he is a Jew living in the original ghetto; he is divided from the city. The similarities between the work of the two that we have outlined above are heightened by their differences, which are owed to the communities from which these two men arise. The ambiguity of the title points us to this difference in their birth, in their heritage. Indeed, more yet can be said; while Antonio is respected and even loved by his kinsmen the Venetians, Shylock’s relations to the city seem to be relations of mistrust not to say open hostility. Yet the play ends with a forced reconciliation between the Jew Shylock and the city of Venice through his conversion to Christianity; he becomes himself a Venetian, a ‘merchant of Venice’, in a fuller way – though naturally this can never address his private opinion with regard to the city, and in point of fact cannot even address his customs themselves. The tension between the city and a man born to a people not of the city remains.

The central concern of The Merchant of Venice, as indicated by the title, is the relation between the city and the laws of the city on the one hand, and the customs of individual citizens and noncitizens on the other. The question, we might say, employing a current terminology, is the ethnic question.

‘The Jew of Venice’

Shylock is a Jew. To be a Jew at any time following the fall of the Temple and before the founding of the modern state of Israel (and in many cases even before the fall and after the founding) betokens that one dwells in a foreign land amidst foreign men and foreign customs. One is the member of a tribe without a nation; one belongs, strictly speaking, to a homeless people. Wherever one goes on the wide face of this globe, one remains a stranger.

Shylock, in the very scene which introduces him, states this matter in great simplicity, while speaking to the Venetian Bassanio: ‘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 36-38). His relations with the men surrounding him – those who do not belong to ‘his tribe’, as he calls it – are restrained to the merely quotidian, businesslike and economic: he cannot break bread with them (how does one sit brotherly at table with those who gorge on forbidden foods?), cannot revel with them (how make merry with those who do not reverence what one reverences, who are liable to offend or make light of what one holds sacred?), nor sit by them in prayer (how join a man in reverence, who worships an idol or demon, or an imposter deity?).

The justice of his judgement on the Venetians, on first glance so parochial, is demonstrated by the fact that he himself goes to dine with the Christians on one occasion in this play, and it proves the trap which costs him his very daughter, not to say a sizeable portion of his wealth. The course of the play itself shows that he is right to approach the citizens of Venice in the light of what they can give to him or take from him exclusively, and not in the manner of friends or brothers.

Shylock’s relation to Venice is pressed upon him by birth. His situation as an indigenous foreigner casts him into the maws of a contradiction, and his need to defend what is his and what others seek constantly to endanger or take from him, goads him to acrimony and enmity. Shakespeare presents him, according to the inevitable popular estimation, as a cold-hearted and cruel man who would squeeze any human being for a ducat; yet this is shown to be but the measure of his relations with the Venetians, and not with those of his kind: certainly, he does not appear in this ill light when he speaks to Tubal, nor even to Jessica (when she is still in his home). What is the bearing then of his infamous avarice?

He calls Antonio a ‘good man’, and much is made of the fact that he does not indicate Antonio’s virtue with this sentence, but rather only his financial solvency; yet in what measure is he supposed to judge those who do not belong to the Hebrew faith and kind? He cannot expect of them that they will deport themselves as Jews, by the standards of his people or his faith. It would be worse than useless to rail against them as wicked men because they do not follow the Jewish custom; to speak of no other difficulties here, this would mean castigating and denouncing the whole of the nation within which he lives, which would be futile if not foolhardy. But he must nonetheless believe them wicked or misled.

Shylock can count on the bounty of heaven and his own cleverness to fill his purses; can he count on the city to protect them?

Yet if the men around him are perforce wicked, and if he is forced nonetheless to live side by side with them and to treat with them on a daily basis so as to derive his merest living, then he can have no dealings with them but those which pay; and the measure of their ‘goodness’ necessarily becomes the economic – a state of relations which is not so very different, incidentally, from that imposed upon us by our ‘multicultural societies’, or even our ‘open society’ itself. It is no mere irony when Shylock states that, by attempting to offer Antonio reasonable terms on the loan he is to give him, he is extending an offer of ‘friendship’; this does not represent the shallowness of Shylock, but only the necessary falsity of the relationship standing between any two sincere, faithful, and devout men, divided by birth. Friendship, between men of different kind, can mean nothing more than this, save in circumstances too special to consider here.4

In the very passage in which Shylock offers this kind of ‘friendship’, suggestion of our interpretation is most distinctly given in a Shakespearean play on words:

I would be friends with you, and have your love,
Forget the shames that you have stain’d me with,
Supply your present wants, and take no doit
Of Usance for my moneys, and you’ll not hear me.
This is kind I offer. (I.iii 138-142)

Bassanio immediately misinterprets this, and responds, perhaps even enthusiastically, ‘This were kindness’. But Shylock was not presuming to offer kindness, which indeed would be impossible between two such men. He was suggesting that he would treat with Antonio, on the economic level, as he would with one of his own tribe, his own kind. High concepts, like friendship and goodness, are necessarily reduced to these material terms in his dealings with the Venetians. He can at best strike a bond of that most limited and artificial sort of friendship, in order to set matters right between him and the ‘good’ Antonio in the one ground they share in common: the mercantile.

Antonio himself, toward the closure of the same scene, states: ‘The Hebrew will turn Christian, he grows kind’ (I.iii 178) – this because Shylock has not demanded a usurer’s rate, but has instead rather stipulated the forfeiture of the pound of flesh, which Antonio (and thus Shylock as well) must be almost certain he shall not have to pay. That is to say, he has dealt with Antonio as a Christian would. And this line comes from the man, of whom it is said by Salerio, ‘A kinder gentleman treads not the earth’ (II.viii 35, emphasis mine).

Yet while friendship is necessarily limited to these workaday interactions, hatred is not; there is nothing to stop two men of diverse kind from loathing one another to the bone. ‘I hate him for he is a Christian’, says Shylock of Antonio (I.iii 42). For a man who is loyal to his people, who must live among other men loyal to their own, no greater justification for hate is wanted. As he says in the trial itself: ‘Shall I lay perjury upon my soul?/No, not for Venice’ (IV.i 228-229); he is not Venetian, for he owes his loyalty to his tribe before his city.

The importance of this hate is not to be underrated, as is clearly shown in an exchange between Bassanio and Shylock:

Bass. Do all men kill the things they love?
Shy. Hates any man the thing he would not kill?
Bass. Every offense is not a hate at first.
Shy. What, wouldst thou have a serpent sting thee twice? (IV.i 66–69)

This hatred, as has been indicated, is largely requited by several of the characters in the play. Shylock himself seems to attribute Antonio’s hostility to it: ‘You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, / and spet upon my Jewish gaberdine’ (I.iii.111–112). More explicitly, in the introduction to what is perhaps, together with Portia’s soliloquy on mercy, the most famous speech of the play (placed, most pointedly, in the mouth of the Jew): ‘[Antonio] hath disgrac’d me, and hind’red me half a million, laugh’d at my losses, mock’d at my gains, scorn’d my nation, thwarted my bargains, cool’d my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew’ (III.i 54–58).

We are thus returned to the primary question with which we began, but which we can now begin to address in a saner manner: what is the cause of hostility toward the Jews on the part of the Venetians? Part of the hatred of the Jews is owed to the practice of usury – practice which Shylock justifies by way of Scripture, in the tale of Jacob and the ewes and rams (I.iii 71–90). The passage is of interest, because it indicates that the Jewish view of usury, according to Shylock, was not the taking advantage of loaners or the establishment of unfair rates, as the Christians of the play would have it, but rather the favour of heaven itself; the wealth of a man shows the blessing of God. ‘This was a way to thrive, and he was blest;/And thrift is a blessing, if men steal it not’. Whereas the Christian or Venetian interpretation (shared by the classical philosophers) is that usury is identical to theft. Shylock makes reference to a book which ought to be common between him and his interlocutors, being as it is a holy book to both the Jews and the Christian Venetians; he refers to the only possible point of transcendent or theological agreement they might have. This employment of their point of community, and its clear and evident failure as an argument in the context of Venice, emphasizes once again the abyss standing between them.

The dramatic representation of that abyss is Shylock’s greed. Shylock’s greed is palpable, indicated by any number of instances within the play which it would be tedious to recount here, so well recalled are they; indeed, the only passion which is shown to have its better in his soul is his lust for revenge. The fact that this man, in some ways representing the tribe of the Hebrews to the theatre of Shakespeare’s day, should be so portrayed is often taken as a sign of the prejudices of the writer against the Jews. But does Shakespeare not indicate the greed of the common Venetian (let us recall again that Venice was a port city, a mercantile city par excellence) most vividly in the very speeches which open the play itself, between Salerio and Solanio, among other places? The difference appears to be rather this: the greed of the Venetians is incidental to them, and stands in some ways chastised by their faith and their customs (consider again the scene of Portia’s three chests, or the tension indicated above between mercantility and nobility), while the greed of the Jew is seen to be somehow essential to him, insofar as it stems directly from his tribe. What account can be given for this?

In what are almost the last words of Shylock in this play, almost his parting words to us, Shylock makes a strong statement regarding his wealth, which he is on the brink of losing to its last coin: ‘You take my house when you do take the prop / that doth sustain my house; you take my life / When you do take the means by which I live’ (IV.i 375–377). In another man, this might have been hyperbolic; but in the case of Shylock? Who will aid this man, once he has fallen? He has no social standing, no place in society; he is friendless and kinless in Venice qua Venice; he is an outsider to the city, a stranger to its citizens, and without his wealth as a porcupine without its spines. The only help he can count on then will come from those of his kind, other Jews, some Tubal of his tribe, who themselves are hemmed in by the law even in terms of that portion of the city within which they are permitted to live and to deal. We are speaking of a man who is surrounded by foes and envy, and must defend himself as he may. The wealth that he can make, that he can in his way even draw out of nothing, is the only security he can have in such a place, amidst such men; it is his one and only means of self-reliant sustainment.

The city exists by and for the sake of justice. Justice means giving to each man what is his due. But the city is not the city of every man under the sun; it is the city of its citizens. The justice of the city means giving to each citizen what is his due – nor not even what is really their due, but rather what is their due according to the special customs beneath which they dwell. Shylock can count on the bounty of heaven and his own cleverness to fill his purses; can he count on the city to protect them? What recourse has he then when his cleverness or that bounty fail? Or when a man speaks slander, as he insists that Antonio has done? Or when his daughter flees his house with his jewels in her purse? In such cases, what is this nationless man to do, and to what standard of justice can he possibly have recourse? If he stands beyond the justice of the city on account of his very tribe and creed, does he not stand opposed to the city — and is it not then inevitable that he and the city shall sooner or later come to strife?

References

1Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books. 1998, p. 171. Lest we forget that in a day like ours a mere handful of syllables like ‘anti-Semitism’ can bend or mar the fate of works of literature, not to mention of human beings, it is worth recalling that this play has been as good as bowdlerized in many so-called ‘educational institutions’ of the United States and Canada, which, beginning back as far as the second decade of the past century and continuing in some cases up to the present, have banned it from their libraries.

2One might reply that this is because the Jews have always been an endangered minority, and thus are more in need of such armour than are the Christians; but as of this moment, Christians are the most persecuted people in all the world, and despite this, of course, no like term in their case has arisen.

3One would, however, have to explain precisely what a stereotype is – no mean feat.

4Consider the friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby-Dick, and most especially consider the conditions under which it is shown to be possible by Melville.

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