My wife and I saw a performance of The Merchant of Venice at the new Guthrie here in Minneapolis last weekend. The production has been the subject of some spirited commentary, in local newspaper editorials and letters to the editor, about the character of Shylock and the question of anti-Semitism. A rabbi stops short of calling Shakespeare, perhaps the iconic cultural icon, a bigot, but asks rhetorically what the purpose of staging the play could be. Another theatre-goer answers that the real villains of the play are the hypocritical Christians who, not content to deny the Jew his just suit, torture and humiliate him soon as they gain the upper hand.
The opinions are strong and diverse and I disagree with all of them. Or maybe it is that I agree with them all only in part. To claim that Shylock is a victim of the Christian hypocrites, not a vicious caricature of a greedy scheming Jew, requires an ability to close one's eyes and ears for long periods, only to open them again at convenient moments. Which is a way of allowing that there are such moments, the most famous being the lines in which Shylock asks whether a Jew does not bleed when pricked, laugh when tickled, die when poisoned. More to the point about the Christian hypocrites, Shylock in the trial scene asserts:
What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?
You have among you many a purchased slave,
Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules,
You use in abject and in slavish parts,
Because you bought them. Shall I say to you,
"Let them be free, marry them to your heirs!
Why sweat they under burdens? Let their beds
Be made as soft as yours, and let their palates
Be seasoned with such viands"? You will answer,
"The slaves are ours." So do I answer you.
Perhaps it is that the newspaper prints letters that are all on one side or the other and that Shakespeare is at all times on all sides--thus the phrases, invented by his best critics, such as "negative capability," "myriad-minded," "simultaneousness," all these nicely summarized by Arthur Eastman, in A Short HIstory of Shakespearean Criticism, as "the power to forego the gains derived from a particular vantage point in the interests of an inclusive view." Shakespeare is more elusive than the letter-writers.
Yet I cannot myself help trying to catch hold of Shakespeare the man. Little of his biography is known but we do know that, as a mature and prosperous man of the theatre, he more than once used the courts to compel payment of rather small debts. Stephen Greenblatt, in Will and the World, writes:
For whatever the reason, Shakespeare seems to have treated money--his money, at least--with considerable seriousness. No one refers to him as a skinflint, but he did not like to waste his substance, and he was clearly determined not to be an easy mark for anyone. In 1604 he was storing more malt in his barn in Stratford than he (or, more to the point, his wife) needed for domestic consumption. He sold twenty bushels of it to a neighboring apothecary, Philip Rogers, who had a sideline brewing ale. Rogers's debt, including another two shillings he borrowed from Shakespeare, amounted to a little over two pounds. When the debtor returned only six shillings, Shakespeare hired a lawyer and took his neighbor to court to recover the remaining thirty-five shillings tenpence and damages. Thirty-five shillings ten pence was not a trivial sum at the time, but neither was it a king's ransom. It took energy to pursue the matter, just as it took energy a few years later when Shakespeare once again went to court to recover the six pounds, plus damages, that he said was owed to him by John Addenbrooke.
If "nothing human was alien to him" it might follow that his villains, too, partook of aspects of his character.