The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare's best known plays. It is the play most frequently taught in schools and the one most people read first. Even so the play is a difficult one for modern audiences because of the enigmatic nature of Shylock. Is he comic or tragic? Are we to take him seriously or laugh at him? Should modern liberal attitudes influence our response to Shylock, or should we continue to remember the stereotypes of earlier centuries and vaudevillian depictions of Jews? Characterization of Shylock has troubled thoughtful students of Shakespeare, and several theories have been brought forth to explain the inscrutable money lender.
One theory holds that The Merchant of Venice arose from a melancholy occasion. In l594 Queen Elizabeth's chief physician, Roderigo Lopez, who was descended from a Spanish Jewish family, was accused by Essex of participating in a Spanish plot against the queen's life, was found guilty, and sentenced to death.
After some weeks of delay in which Elizabeth seems to have considered mercy, the efforts of Essex prevailed, and in June the sentence was carried out in the spectacular manner of the time. The Rose Theatre capitalized on these events by reviving Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, wherein Barrabas tries to poison a whole city full of Christians and is finally plunged, to the delight of any contemporary audience, into a boiling cauldron. Apparently, so this theory goes, Shakespeare's company thought it necessary to offer a competing attraction, and Shakespeare was asked to provide a script. He looked around for a story on which he could impose a grotesque and dangerous Lopez, and, finding a fourteenth century plot which had the necessary elements, all ensued much as we have it in the play.
This theory has some difficulties, as pointed out in the Folger Shakespeare Edition of the play, which maintains there is little substantiation for the Lopez theory. (Lopez, for example, was a convert, and if he suffered from prejudice at his trial it is reflected in the normal Elizabethan prejudice against foreigners, particularly Latins, and was possibly not a result of his Jewish blood.) The Folger theory offers instead the idea that in Elizabethan England the Biblical Judas had evolved into a low-comedy part, with Judas inevitably dressed in a red wig, red beard, and huge nose. At the high point in the play, children might beat him off the pageant wagon and send him roaring through the streets, where he and his devils in the drama engaged in much comic buffoonery. With the English public conditioned to this representation of Judas, Marlowe, in wanting to portray a character of consummate evil, created Barrabas; and Shakespeare was influenced by Marlowe's concept.
Shakespeare, however, was an artist of extraordinary power, and he was not content to present Shylock merely as a symbol of evil. Under Shakespeare's pen the Jewish money lender (and we must remember that usury was forbidden to Christians by the church of the Middle Ages and was the only occupation the law allowed Jews), became a man who had suffered much, whose hatred is explained by the treatment he and his whole race had to endure, and who is needed in the play to provide a contrast to Portia.
On stage, it is Shylock who makes the play, and almost all great actors of English and continental stage have attempted the role. Interpretations have varied with the taste and judgement of the actors. On the early stage Shylock was played as a thoroughgoing villain. It is said that Macklin, in the eighteenth century, played Shylock “as so grotesque, sinister, and ferocious a villain that George II spent a sleepless night after attending a performance.” Through the nineteenth century Shylock's portrayal became increasingly dignified and approached tragic dimensions. Edmund Kean played Shylock with such pathos that spectators wept over his great “hath not a Jew eyes” speech. Sir Henry Irving is said to have played Shylock as “the aristocrat of an ancient race and religion, looking down with malevolent dignity on the occidental upstarts.”
Even in his folk characterizations Shakespeare was unable to prevent himself from seeing real human beings, and where his audiences expected only a comic villain they got Shylock, a human, although not an admirable character. Nowhere in literature has been found a more moving plea for the abolition of racial or religious discrimination than in Shylock's powerful speech. From the strong case Shakespeare makes for Shylock, it is evident that his sympathy is with him. In this and the knowledge Shakespeare displays of human nature and its melancholy prejudices, he was centuries ahead of his time, and the final lesson we carry away from the play is a realization of the complexity of human nature.