Bard's desires reflected by dark doppelganger

December 1, 2006

Shylock is more than a character, Kenneth Gross says, he is Shakespeare himself

Shakespeare's Shylock thinks like a dramatic artist. He is the playwright's double, in fact. Shylock is Shakespeare, a dark piece of self-revelation and dissimulation. He's a way for the playwright to explore the ambitions and risks of his art.

We often remember Shylock in The Merchant of Venice as a figure set upon by a pack of dogs, as overcome by vengeful rage, as a puppet of hatred, as driven to seek a pound of flesh from a hapless Christian merchant. But he is also a self-conscious master of speech and masks, and a great maker of scenes.

Like Shakespeare, Shylock can take up and turn around other people's words, play with their desires and fantasies. In the trial scene, where he pursues the forfeit of his bond, he's able to transfix an entire audience with fear at their own lack of control, showing them his power to wield the laws they believed were theirs alone. Indeed, at moments you can feel him turning the Venetians' anti-Semitic slanders into dramatic weapons: with conscious art, he makes himself exactly the cruel, heartless, irrational and opaque Jewish monster they expect him to be.

Shylock also shares Shakespeare's love for dark clowning at his own and others' expense. Like a clown, he turns his powerlessness and humiliation to his dramatic advantage. And Shylock has a blunt, arresting eloquence that can both flatter his audience and put it in its place.

Shakespeare wasn't particularly interested in Jews when he set out to write this character. He wanted to get certain theatrical effects that he could achieve by using the inherited figure of the usurious, conniving, manipulative Jew, partly following the example of Christopher Marlowe in The Jew of Malta . The character grew under his hands, energising and yet throwing off balance the structure of his comedy. If some growing sympathy for a victim of abuse played a part, even more important was his sense of the character's dramatic potential. The poet must have been drawn by Shylock's reactive rage and sense of play, his way of provoking and laying bare the hatred of others. This caught him in particular because it let him externalise - and set at a distance - something about his work for the stage. He even found a name that echoed his own.

Shylock and Shakespeare are both professional gamblers, as a critic once said. They play with loaded dice and carry out their contracts to the letter. They are pitiless, even in their generosity. They both deal in strange promises, "merry" bonds with hidden stings; they are profiteers of loss, of human wanting. Shakespeare breeds binding words as mysteriously as Shylock says he breeds gold and silver. And both create terrible scenes that hold up to their listeners mirrors of their needs and fears, even as they expose and conceal their own needs, fears and sense of loss.

Staging Shylock helps Shakespeare to imagine the hazards of his game, the profits but also the potential costs of being the kind of dramatist he is or aspires to be - he does something similar, if less extreme, with doubles such as Prospero and Hamlet. In particular, the figure of Shylock allows Shakespeare to express his veiled antagonism with that audience to which he is inescapably bound, especially his contempt for its strange joining of passivity and power, love and treachery. In the end, both Shylock and Shakespeare want more than money for their plays. They want their hearers' hearts out. They want their blood. The attempt almost costs Shylock his life.

Our wrestling match with a figure such as Shylock is endless. He has entered into our common speech and cultural memory. Actors continue to test themselves in the role. Indeed, Shakespeare's imaginary Jew has become part of the modern history of the Jews, and part of the history anti-Semitism - his words of protest and his words of malice echo through later literature, sometimes in unacknowledged ways. (There's a book by John Gross, S hylock: A Legend and Its Legacy , that explores this finely.) So the debates about whether the play is anti-Semitic or sympathetic to Jews won't soon resolve themselves.

But we need to reflect on why the playwright invested so much dramatic energy in this character. To consider that his power, and thus his survival, depends on Shakespeare's identification with Shylock may help us see differently what we're arguing about. This intuition makes the character's afterlife even stranger, because whatever we think of as Shylock's Jewishness - whether we take this as sympathetic or slandered in the play - remains so bound up with the hidden pressure of Shakespearean histrionics and ambition.

Seeing this link might let readers approach this troubling play with more wonder and less fear. How this thought would change what actors do with Shylock I can only imagine.

Kenneth Gross is professor of English at the University of Rochester, New York. His book, Shylock is Shakespeare , is published by the University of Chicago Press, £12.00.

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