Thursday, September 18, 2014

"Shylock"

ANTONIO : Well, Shylock, shall we be beholding to you?

SHYLOCK: Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances:
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help:
Go to, then; you come to me, and you say
“Shylock, we would have moneys:” you say so;
You, that did void your rheum upon my beard
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold: moneys is your suit
What should I say to you? Should I not say
“Hath a dog money? is it possible
A cur can lend three thousand ducats?” Or
Shall I bend low and in a bondman’s key,
With bated breath and whispering humbleness,
Say this:
“Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last;
You spurn’d me such a day; another time
You call’d me dog; and for these courtesies
I’ll lend you thus much moneys”?

ANTONIO: I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.
If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not
As to thy friends; for when did friendship take
A breed for barren metal of his friend?
But lend it rather to thine enemy,
Who, if he break, thou mayst with better face
Exact the penalty.

[William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice]

We see in the above a truly iconic pair of characters, each an archetype of his times: Antonio, a Christian noble much given to reviling Jews; and Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, sick of the abuse he and other Jews have received from Christians and determined that he should have either redress or revenge.

Most persons dimly aware of the play think of Shylock as an unmitigated villain. This, to put it gently, is not the case, as Shakespeare makes plain throughout the play (which few have ever read in its entirety):

SHYLOCK: There I have another bad match: a bankrupt,
a prodigal, who dare scarce show his head on the
Rialto; a beggar, that was used to come so smug upon
the mart; let him look to his bond: he was wont to call
me usurer; let him look to his bond: he was wont to
lend money for a Christian courtesy; let him look
to his bond.

SALARINO: Why, I am sure, if he forfeit, thou wilt not
take his flesh: what’s that good for?

SHYLOCK: To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else,
it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and
what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath
not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections,
passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same
weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the
same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter
and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we
not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you
poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we
not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what
is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew,
what should his sufferance be by Christian example?
Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute,
and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

Have a gander at a brilliant execution of Shylock's soliloquy:

Shylock has clearly had enough from the arrogant nobles of his time and place, and has determined that if he must suffer loss from their cupidity and dissipation, he will have revenge. Perhaps after that, he might well reason, spendthrift Christian nobles will think twice about abusing a Jewish moneylender to whom they might later need to apply for aid when in financial distress.

I find Shylock a sympathetic character, much more so than bigoted Antonio or his spendthrift friend Bassanio. But a little historical perspective is required for a full explanation:

  • Yes, the Jews of Europe were generally reviled and abused by the Christian majority, as usual for no good reason whatsoever.
  • The great majority of occupations were barred to European Jews, as the guilds that controlled those occupations would not admit them.
  • Goldsmithing, the trade that led directly to banking, was one of the few that was open to Jews, which is why so many Jewish families went into goldsmithing and later banking.
  • Christian nobles of the period were notorious for:
    • Abusing and humiliating Jews;
    • Lending political support -- including force of arms -- to measures that kept Europe's Jews in subjection;
    • Forcing Jewish moneylenders to lend to them;
    • Defaulting on the loans;
    • Often refusing, even when they were able, to repay what they had borrowed.

Wherefore, then, should "Shylock" be considered an anti-Semitic slander? When it's used to refer to supposedly unscrupulous bankers without any mention of race, creed, or origin? Simply because Shylock, enraged by yet another failure to repay funds he had loaned to a Christian, had decided at long last to exact a penalty for it, hopefully not only for his satisfaction but to the improvement of Christian attitudes toward his badly oppressed people?


Conservatives have long decried "political correctness" and the victimist mentality. In particular, we've condemned the treatment of ordinary words and phrases as racist, sexist, or otherwise bigotry-indicative "code words," when they're used by conservatives. But sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. He who is impaled on a politically-correct lance is the true victim regardless of his political affiliation. A liberal in such straits deserves to be defended quite as much as any conservative.

Consider how many commentators have taken acerbic note of the way liberals refuse to criticize one another for the very things they pile on conservatives' heads, most especially verbal "misdeeds." Consider how often we have called for even-handedness in this realm and many others. Why should we be granted what we will not grant to others?

If conservatives turn censorious toward a Joe Biden merely because he's not a conservative, we are committing the very sin for which we so frequently castigate the Left: elevating partisanry over justice.

Some wag whose name escapes me at the moment observed that you cannot claim to be a defender of rights if you're not willing to defend the rights of sons of bitches. How, then, stand we?

Enough censorious horseshit, brethren of the Right. Look to your own souls instead. Few among us can claim our souls need no attention.

I have spoken.

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