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The Problem of Shylock

Shylock, the Roman by Robert Schneider

Dateline: 10th September, 2000

The Merchant of Venice is a difficult play. To the modern sensibility, the perceived anti-Semitism is, to say the least, obnoxious and the usual argument advanced, that we must, in the suspension of disbelief that any fiction, play or otherwise, requires, simply accept that this was the norm of Shakespeare's time or totally ignore the play, is not, to me at any rate, particularly convincing.

In fact, there are times in the play when we feel a great deal of sympathy for Shylock. When he asks, "If you cut us, do we not bleed?" we cannot but respond sympathetically. He certainly does not appear to be one hundred per cent totally evil.

But neither are Bassanio, Antonio, Portia et al. totally good, not by a long chalk. There is more than a whiff of hypocrisy about Portia's "quality of mercy" speech. She sounds wonderful, a model of Christian virtue, but neither she nor her husband nor their friends appear so to us.

Personally, I have always found Merchant a deeply unsatisfying play. I could just about accept the blatant racism of the main characters as being part of the Elizabethan world-view, but the desperate attempts to wriggle out of an agreement freely entered into, the casual dismissal of obligations to creditors - in short, the sheer selfishness of the so-called Christians - all of this leaves me (and, I suspect, a lot of readers/audience members) feeling confused and somewhat tarnished.

As a result, I have tended to steer clear of the play, thinking that, if Homer sometimes nods (as the old saying has it), then here at any rate, Shakespeare was deeply asleep!

Shylock, the Roman

It was with little expectation, therefore, that I began reading Robert Schneider's book. I could not see how he could do anything to make this play acceptable to me. It is, I thought, a deeply flawed play and this book could only be yet another apologia, an attempt to explain away the play's contradictions.

Not so. What Schneider does is alter the perspective, look at the play from a totally different angle. He rejects the Jewish/Christian dichotomy, the idea that the play deals with the conflict between Christian forgiveness and Jewish adherence to law, between the New and the Old Testaments, and substitutes a classical, Roman interpretation.

He looks at two classical ideas - the iconoclastic approach of the Roman Old Comedy which, as in the feast of the Saturnalia, turns society on its head, and the Roman idea of virtue, that emphasises the necessity of keeping one's word, no matter what the cost - and applies them to the play.

It is a remarkably liberating experience! Suddenly the play begins to make sense. Schneider sees Shylock as embodying the Roman ideal (hence, of course, the title), and feels that the play mirrors the Saturnalian aspects of the Old Comedy in which those who would normally be regarded as the bottom rung of society's ladder, the slaves, prove to be more trustworthy and noble in their relationships than the "pillars" of society.

It is a closely argued piece of work and does not rely upon Merchant alone. Not only does he refer to other Shakespearean plays in support of his thesis, but he also looks at the education which the people of the Elizabethan age received, with its basis firmly in the classics, and shows that the Roman ideal of behaviour is one which Shakespeare's contemporaries shared.

It does, I have to admit, require a conscious effort to get away from the Jewish/Christian antithesis which has been the basis for the interpretation of Merchant for 400 years, and I confess to a certain uneasiness in making this change - after all, 400 years of criticism, comment and productions are difficult to ignore! However it is an effort well worth the making, for from being a problem, the play suddenly starts making real sense.

Shylock, the Roman is published by Pulpless.com, Inc. of 775 East Blithedale Avenue, Suite 508, Mill Valley, CA 94941, USA (ISBN 1-58445-066-5) and it can also be downloaded for a small charge (or free, if you're prepared to put up with some ads) from www.pulpless.com

Useful Links

  • You'll find lots of useful links to the Old Comedy and to Roman theatre in general in our History Links Library.
  • N. S. Gill, the About Ancient History Guide, has a piece on the Saturnalia on her site.
  • You can find the whole trial scene from Merchant on the About Shakespeare site.
  • There is an interesting discussion about anti-Semitism in Merchant here.
  • And you will find Robert Schneider's own site here.

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©Peter Lathan 2001