Monday, June 11, 2012

Profile: Shylock

Suggestions by Liza from Woodside, NY, and Tony from London. Also, a lot of suggestions to profile Al Pacino BECAUSE he played Shylock.


  1. Tsk, tsk, Guys. The English teacher in me has to protest here.

    First, originality is over-rated, and you should know that especially. As you freely admit, you get most of your own material from Googling. It's not what you say but how you execute it, and you guys execute at a consistent and high level. And Shakespeare executed at the highest level with pretty good consistency himself. So he stole from all sorts of source material (the Google of his time)? So what? Do you have any idea how many bad gangster movies there were before Coppola made The Godfather?

    (I do know you're being ironic, but it's irony that lacks your usual clarity.)

    Second, and more importantly, the key to Shakespeare's execution is that he never settled for easy black/white distinctions. Everyone is a little bit flawed and everyone is a little bit noble. He doesn't let you walk out of the theater (or, yes, put down your copy of the play that you've just read) without some discomfort.

    So, while Shylock is vengeful and cruel, he's also famously articulate about the condition of Jews in the early Renaissance. His "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech is a triumph, and it's part of why Pacino wanted to play the role. Like Michael Corleone, he's someone whom his society saw as evil but who, sensing some of his own cruelty, still rises in his own defense.

    The upshot is that I think there is much to kvell about in him. Awful as Shylock is, Shakespeare cast him as our champion, as someone who took the radical claim that Jews were human beings in a world that denied us that. Sure he loses the fight, but it was fixed against him (against us) from the start. Along the way, he lands some staggering blows, and he made (makes?) an audience insensitive to Jews pause a bit in its certainty. I can't see going 4 or 5 with a K score on him, but 0 and even 1 seems awfully low, too. Put me down for a 3, but I can see a 2.

    Third, I'd like to see a lower O score. Sure, Shylock represents the historically accurate claim that Jews were money lenders, but not all money lenders were cruel to the point of insanity. That's like saying all lawyers are like The Godfather's Tom Hagen, men with suits who represent men with guns. Not all Italian-Americans of the 1930s were gangsters, and not all such gangsters were psychopaths. Shylock wasn't typical of his community; he was not a Jew who represented other Jews in his work, but rather one who, harassed to the point of losing his daughter and potentially his fortune, finally cracks and turns arch-sadist.

    Anyway, I hope you'll forgive such a lengthy reaction. I remain a big fan, but I think you got parts of this one wrong.


  2. You had us when you compared us to Shakespeare in paragraph 2. :)

    We'll just have to agree to disagree here.

  3. Fair enough. That's why there are comedies and tragedies.

    Best of luck,

  4. And tragic comedies, in this case!

  5. It's worth mentioning that Shakespeare had probably never met an actual Jew in his life, so give the man a break. The Jews had been banished from England since the year 1290 and were not allowed to return until an Act of Parliament was passed in 1656.

    According to Harold Bloom (another Jew you have yet to profile), Shylock was a response to Marlowe's Barabas in "The Jew of Malta". Barabas is a Jewish merchant who has his wealth confiscated by the Governor of Malta in order to finance a war against the Turks; he seeks revenge by poisoning a few of his enemies and then by attempting to blow up the rest with gunpowder. Barabas is much more a cartoon villain than Shylock, as the former enjoys murdering people just for the fun of it: "As for myself, I walk abroad a-nights / And kill sick people groaning under walls; / Sometimes I go about and poison wells./ And now and then, to cherish Christian thieves,/ I am content to lose some of my crowns." (II.iii.177-81).

    And therein lies the difference between Marlowe and Shakespeare! Whereas Barabas is merely a caricature of a murderous Jew who hates Christians (something of a stock figure in medieval folklore), Shylock is something more. When he delivers his classic "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech, from Act III, scene i of "The Merchant of Venice", Shylock is no longer just any villainous Jewish moneylender, like Barabas; he suddenly becomes The Universal Jew who speaks for the sufferings of all the tribe. That is to say, Shylock becomes a plausible and recognizable human being and not just another anti-Semitic stereotype (although he is that too).

    Bloom takes issue with Shylock's consenting to convert to Christianity at the end of Act IV, as the critic believes that this peculiar development violates Shylock's consistency of character and thus Shakespeare demeans him unnecessarily. From all that we know about Shylock up to this point, he would sooner submit to execution that convert. However, the real lesson of "The Merchant of Venice" is not that "the quality of mercy is not strained..." (i.e., Portia's sanctimonious, self-serving Christian claptrap), but rather it is as Mel Brooks would say in "The History of the World, Part I": "It's better to lose your skullcap than your skull!"

  6. All valid points by both the original commenter and above. We're really just having some fun with Shakespeare...

    Shylock might be many things, and is clearly a complex character, but at the end, he is an antisemitic stereotype. And his name is now a synonym for greed. No matter what Shakespeare's intentions were... PASS.

  7. Ever read "The Jew Of Malta" by Christopher Marlowe? Now there is an anti-Jewish character! Very violent also!

  8. You guys are hilarious! I just love your website since finding it yesterday--particularly the Shylock profile! But I must take issue with your giving Shylock a 5 on your O Score. How many of the Jews profiled on your site "look" like Shylock? How many "act" like Shylock?
    I'll bet the answer is close to zero on both accounts.
    I regret to inform you that you may be perpetuating the myths if you don't correct this injustice.