Three Interpretations of Shylock
From Shakespeare's The merchant of Venice by Richard Jones and Franklin T. Baker. New York: D. Appleton and Company.
"Look Here, upon This Picture, and on This"
The cry of Hamlet to his mother in the closet-scene, "Look here, upon this picture, and on this," rises easily
to the lips of one busied with the literature of comment
on The Merchant of Venice. For interpreters of the play
differ greatly in their attitude toward Shylock - and their
attitude toward Shylock influences greatly, as a matter
of course, their attitude toward the other characters of
the play. Shylock is, indeed, according to the exposition
of many learned judges, in reality the hero of the play - as he is, for example, to the editor of the great English
Dictionary of National Biography, who has of late written, "For Shylock (not the merchant Antonio) is the
hero of the play, and the main interest culminates in the
Jew's trial and discomfiture." 
While, on the contrary,
Gervinus, in his Shakespeare Commentaries, has entered a
vigorous protest against the 'lowness' and 'madness' that have gone so far as "to make on the stage a martyr
and hero out of this outcast of humanity." So also to
the most honored of Shakespearean scholars, of whose
worth the wide world is not ignorant, Shylock is (up to a certain point) "simply a cruel and vindictive creditor."
And this incomparable Shakespeare scholar is clearly convinced that "this is not a 'tendenz-drama,' wherein is
infused a subtle plea of toleration for the Jews." 
So opposite, then, are the points of view from which
the characters of the play are at times presented, both in
literary criticism and upon the stage, that the reader -
before making for himself a final choice, before declaring
"Deliver me the key:
might well, quite in accord with the spirit of Portia's
plea to Bassanio, lest he do choose wrong, suffer himself to be detained 'some month or two' in a survey of
the field of criticism concerning this play, with an open
mind looking meanwhile here upon this picture and on
this, and looking ever, as a matter of course, upon the
text as well from which these pictures are, more or less
Here do I choose, and thrive I as I may!" -
First Interpretation - Shylock a Wolfish, Bloody,
Of the various interpretations of the character of Shylock one makes him throughout a mere bloodthirsty villain; a stony adversary, an inhuman wretch; a misbeliever, cut-throat dog; a dog Jew; the most impenetrable
cur that ever kept with men. In the downfall of this
'damn'd, inexorable dog,' whose desires are wolfish, bloody,
starved, and ravenous, even though the downfall be brought
about by means of a palpable legal quibble, they wholly
rejoice, agreeing with Bassanio that to do this great right it is quite justifiable to do a little wrong,  if one
may thereby curb this cruel devil of his will. And
untroubled by any recognition of some right in wrong, of
humanity in inhumanity, on the part of Shylock, they
give their sympathies unreservedly to his antagonists in
the play; they are content with the good Antonio's
'expectoratory method' of manifesting his distaste for
this particular member of the Hebrew race; they take
unalloyed delight in Jessica's marriage out of her race
and religion, offering excuses for "the dry eyes - nay,
laughing lips - with which she departs"; they even pass
lightly over her robbery of her father's jewels and the
exchange of her dead mother's betrothal ring for a monkey, and, protesting that she is daughter neither to his
manners nor his blood, with Gratiano they exclaim admiringly, "by my hood, a Gentile and no Jew."
The readers who thus interpret the play pay little heed to the touches by which, to others, Shakespeare has
humanized the character of Shylock and made his desire
for revenge, if not admirable, yet, fierce as it is, comprehensible at least. And, far from being offended by what
some of the less rigorous souls of a debile age have dispraised as the contemptuously brutal treatment accorded
to Shylock and his race by the good Antonio and his
friends, they are like with Antonio to spit on him again
and spurn him too, and with Gratiano to exclaim, "O, be thou damn'd, inexorable dog!"
Second Interpretation - Shylock the Depositary of the Vengeance of a Race
In striking contrast with this traditional interpretation is the more recent view of those who, passing lightly
by or at least accounting for  the pitilessness of Shylock's desire for revenge, cannot pass lightly by the injustice,
indeed what appears to them the inhumanity, of the
treatment of Shylock and his race by the Jew-hating but
otherwise noble-minded Antonio, who took every opportunity to void his rheum upon Shylock's beard, to spurn him and spit upon his Jewish gaberdine - as much for hate of Shylock's 'sacred nation' as for use of what was
his own. "Antonio," says Brandes,  for example, "has
insulted and baited Shylock in the most brutal fashion on account of his faith and his blood." And Brandes adds
further that with the treatment Shylock has suffered he could not but become what he is. "Is there any cause in
nature," asks Hales,  "that makes these hard hearts?" And his reply in substance is that the Christian who
looks frankly and faithfully at this work will not find
matter for exultation but only for shame and sadness.
Shylock has been made the hard, savage, relentless creature we see him by long and cruel oppression. He inherited a nature embittered by centuries of insult and outrage. 'Sufferance' had been and was the badge of all
The character and deeds of Shylock looked on thus
acquire to these interpreters new significance. He is no
longer to them a mere individual, possessed by a fierce
hate sprung from bargains thwarted or from individual
wrongs - friends cooled, enemies heated. Again and
again he is reviled as a dog Jew. He thus becomes the
representative of a race - of a shamefully wronged race,
as may perhaps appear to the interpreters under consideration.
"In the Shylock of Shakespeare," Professor Lounsbury of Yale has said,  "is concentrated the wrath of a race turning upon its oppressors - a race conscious of the importance of the part it has played in the past, with its
long line of law-givers and prophets to which all nations
turn, equally conscious of the misery it has endured and
is continuing to endure in the present. As it has been
great in suffering, so will it be great in vengeance. Entreaties are useless; threats are mere empty breath. Pity
will not soften the heart nor obloquy cause it to yield."
Professor Boas of Oxford has written of Shylock,
"The magnificent outburst in which he vindicates against
a brutal fanaticism the essential equality of human conditions in Jew and Christian is born of the blood and
tears of centuries of martyrdom: it is the exceeding bitter
cry, not so much of the solitary usurer as of the entire
Hebrew race turning on its bed of pain."
In the Jahrbuch of the Shakespeare Society of Germany, Herr Honigman has said, "Here it is that Shylock figures as the deputy and avenger of his whole shamefully maltreated race. In his tones we hear the protest, crying to heaven, of human rights trodden under
foot, against the love of humanity paraded by the hypocritical mouths of his oppressors; and if his towering
revenge mounts to fanaticism, it is verily of a different stamp to the fanaticism of usury and greed which the
critics are fain to find in his character."
And a Frenchman, Francois Victor Hugo, a son of the author of Les miserables, has written in like manner of
this scene, "This sublime imprecation is the most eloquent plea that the human voice has ever dared to utter
for a despised race. Whatsoever be the denouement, it is hereby justified. Let Shylock be as implacable as he
may, assuredly he will no more than equal his instruction. Even granting that he obtains it, a pound of Antonio's
flesh will never outweigh, in the scales of reprisal, the millions of corpses heaped in the Christian shambles by a
butchery  of thirteen centuries."
In a similar vein has expressed himself the celebrated
song-writer and critic, Heine, whose literary work, begun
in Germany, closed in France, and of whom we read in
the Encyclopedia Britannica, "No German writer since Goethe and Schiller has excited so much interest throughout Europe." In regard to Shylock, Heine, himself of Hebrew descent, has written,
"When thou comest to Venice and wanderest through
the Doge's palace, ... far more than of all such historical persons, thou thinkest in Venice of Shakespeare's
The interpretation put upon Shylock by the Jews of today is doubtless fairly stated by Rabbi Lewinthal, 
"This is the wail of the Jew uttered for the centuries.
This is the cry that went up from Egypt, from the Roman amphitheatre, from the dungeons of the Spanish
Inquisition. We hear its echo all through the Dark Ages;
and the genius of Shakespeare voiced it as it had never
been voiced before - or since. ... Shylock is a man more
sinned against than sinning, whom the inhumanity of the
whole world has made inhuman. Long brooding over the
shameful treatment of his people has marred his character and dried up the founts of tenderness in his bosom."
"At least I, wandering hunter after dreams that I am,
I looked round everywhere on the Rialto to see if I could
not find Shylock. I could have told him something that
would have pleased him - namely, that his cousin, Herr
von Shylock in Paris, had become the mightiest baron in
Christendom, invested by her Catholic Majesty with that
Order of Isabella which was founded to celebrate the
expulsion of the Jews and Moors from Spain. But I
found him nowhere on the Rialto, and I determined to
seek my old acquaintance in the Synagogue. The Jews
were just then celebrating their Day of Atonement, and
they stood enveloped in their white talars, with uncanny
motions of the head, looking almost like an assemblage
of ghosts. There the poor Jews had stood, fasting and
praying, from earliest morning; - since the evening before they had taken neither food nor drink, and had
previously begged pardon of all their acquaintances for
any wrong they might have done them in the course of
the year, that God might thereby also forgive them their
wrongs - a beautiful custom, which, curiously enough, is found among this people, strangers though they be to
the teaching of Christ.
"Although I looked all around the Synagogue, I nowhere discovered the face of Shylock. And yet I felt he
must be hidden under one of those white talars, praying
more fervently than his fellow-believers, looking up with
stormy, nay frantic wildness, to the throne of Jehovah,
the hard God-King. I saw him not. But towards evening, when, according to the Jewish faith, the gates of
Heaven are shut, and no prayer can then obtain admittance, I heard a voice, with a ripple of tears that were
never wept by eyes. It was a sob that could only come
from a breast that held in it all the martyrdom which,
for eighteen centuries, had been borne by a whole tortured people. It was the death-rattle of a soul sinking
down dead tired at heaven's gates. And I seemed to know the voice, and I felt that I had heard it long ago,
when, in utter despair, it moaned out, then as now, 'Jessica, my girl!'"
Third Interpretation - Shylock Conceived of Essentially in the Anti-Jewish Spirit of Marlowe's Jew of Malta, but Humanized.
Occupying middle ground between these two extremes
is the interpretation which regards Shylock as essentially
the conventional avaricious, bloodthirsty Jew, a neighbour and near bred to Marlowe's monster, the Jew of
Malta, but humanized by what Boas has called Shakespeare's 'almost superhuman, plastic power' - humanized
sufficiently to win for him, in certain scenes especially, a
measure - a large measure it may be - of the reader's sympathy, but not enough to justify the interpretation given
above, which makes Shylock and not Antonio the hero of the play.
This interpretation, as given in Ward's History of
English Dramatic Literature,  is as follows,
"... that the two plays [The Merchant of Venice and
The Jew of Malta] are, so far as their main subject is
concerned, essentially written in the same spirit, I cannot
hesitate in affirming. It is, I am convinced, only modern
readers and modern actors who suppose that Shakespeare
consciously intended to arouse the sympathy of his audience in behalf of the Jew. The sympathy which, notwithstanding, is aroused, is in truth merely the adventitious result of the unconscious tact with which the poet
humanized the character. In both Shakespeare's and Marlowe's plays the view inculcated is, that on the part of a
Jew fraud is the sign of his tribe, whereas on the part of Christians counter-fraud, though accompanied by violence,
is worthy of commendation. This I cannot but regard as the primary effect of the whole of either play. ...
"The artistic difference between the plays needs no
comment. The psychological distinction in the conception of the two principal characters lies, not in the nature
of the elements out of which they are compounded - avarice, cruelty, revengefulness, with no softening element but that of paternal love, and this only till it is quenched in the sense of a daughter's desertion - but in
the way in which these elements are combined. The art of Shakespeare is immeasurably superior to that of Marlowe
in not allowing either avarice or lust of vengeance to attain to such a pitch in his Jew as to take the character
out of the range of human nature. In contrast with the unrelieved blackness of Barabas, the character of Shylock
remains both truly human and within the limits of dramatic probability."
[Note numbers have been altered.]
1. A Life of William Shakespeare, Sidney Lee, The Macmillan Company of New York, 1899, p. 68.
2. The [Variorum] Merchant of Venice, Horace Howard Furness,
J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, p. 223.
3. "As long as Shylock was held to be a wolfish, bloody, inexorable dog, it made but little difference how he was defeated or his victim saved; a Jew had no rights which a Christian was bound to respect. Even charming, gentle Mrs. Inchbald believed that Shakespeare's purpose in writing the play was to 'hold up the Jew to detestation,' and such undoubtedly was the general impression created by the 'snarling malignity' of Macklin's Shylock ." - Furness, p. 403.
Mrs. Inchbald's opinions in regard to dramatic literature were evidently esteemed by her contemporaries, as she edited with biographical and critical remarks three collections of plays, aggregating forty-two volumes, in addition to writing nineteen dramas of her
own, some of which were for a time, according to the Encyclopaedia
Britannica, 'very successful.'
4. [In Shylock] "we see the remains of a great and noble nature,
out of which all the genial sap of humanity has been pressed by
accumulated injuries." - Shakespeare: His Life, Art, and Characters, H. N. Hudson, Ginn and Company, Boston, p. 291.
"Chronologically, the earliest voice, as far as I know, which was
raised in defence of Shylock and in denunciation of the illegality of
his defeat is that of an Anonymous Contributor to a volume Essays
by a Society of Gentlemen at Exeter, printed in 1792. The Essay is
called 'An Apology for the Character and Conduct of Shylock,' and is signed 'T. O.' The Essayist's plea for Shylock is, that if his character is cruel it was made so by ill-treatment; that the derision with
which his daughter's flight was treated was calculated to embitter
the sweetest nature, let alone that of an outcast of society: that his
Mosaic law authorized him to exact 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a
tooth'; that money-making was the sole occupation that the laws
suffered him to follow," etc. - Furness, p. 403.
Professor Lounsbury refers in his Shakespeare as a Dramatic
Artist, p. 214, to the contention, in 1777, of "a member of the University of Oxford" that The Merchant of Venice and Measure for
Measure are really tragedies. It would appear, then, that, as early
as 1777, to this member of the University of Oxford the treatment of
Shylock in the trial-scene was not altogether satisfactory.
5.. William Shakespeare, George Brandes, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1899.
6. J. W. Hales, The Athenmum, 15 December, 1877.
7. Shakespeare as a Dramatic Artist, Thomas R. Lounsbury,
Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1901, p. 338.
The reader will not, as a matter of course, assume that the whole
point of view of any commentator is given in a single quotation.
Professor Lounsbury's chief care here is not to justify Shylock,
but to come fairly off in his purpose of illustrating the 'art' with
which Shakespeare makes us reconciled to the conclusion of the trial scene - the greater the difficulty, the greater the art. In this case
the task set before the poet was one of peculiar difficulty' ... "For
in spite of the evil repute in which the Jewish race had been held for
centuries, Shakespeare could not but have felt that in following the
story out to its conclusion - a conclusion which was probably as well
known to the audience as to himself - he could hardly fail to outrage
to a certain extent our latent natural sense of justice by a result
which purports to be in strictest accordance with justice. Whatever
may have been the guilt and bloodthirstiness of Shylock, one cannot
get entirely over the impression that he is a hardly used man." The
more noteworthy then is the art of the poet, who - though he shows
us Shylock 'exalted by wrath,' 'the wrath of a race turning upon its
oppressors,' and by "that sublimity of hate which awes us by its
intensity, and gives to malignity a character almost of grandeur" - yet "reconciles us [and O the wonder of it, the art of it - it was a
task of 'peculiar difficulty,' requiring 'extraordinary skill' - yet the
poet shows us that 'which alone' reconciles us] to the result of the
trial, which in one sense is an utter travesty of justice."
8. "It was not very long since Jews had been forced to choose between kissing the crucifix and mounting the faggots; and in Strasburg, in 1439, nine hundred of them had in one day chosen the latter alternative. It is strange to reflect, too, that just at the time when, on
the English stage, one Mediterranean Jew was poisoning his daughter, and another whetting his knife to cut his debtor's flesh, thousands
of heroic and enthusiastic Hebrews in Spain and Portugal, who, after the expulsion of the three hundred thousand at the beginning of the
century, had secretly remained faithful to Judaism, were suffering themselves to be tortured, flayed, burnt alive by the Inquisition,
rather than forswear the religion of their race." - Brandes, p. 165.
9. Isidore Lewinthal, Rabbi Congregation Ohavai Sholom, Nashville, Tenn.
10. The Macmillan Company, New York.
How to cite this article:
Jones, Richard and Franklin T. Baker. Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1903. Shakespeare Online. 20 Feb. 2011. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/merchant/merchantshylock.html >.
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