Shylock Among the Hooligans

What is the worst play ever written? Literary critics and scholars may nominate a host of works unknown to the general reader. For a layperson, however, all the contenders for this distinction are by Shakespeare: Cymbeline, Love's Labour's Lost, All's Well That Ends Well, The Winter's Tale, Much Ado About Nothing, Two Gentlemen of Verona. These works are badly constructed, unfunny, dull, and disagreeable. Homer sometimes nods; certainly Hamlet does not belong in the same category as these comedies. It is natural for the poor works of a famous author to bask in the glow of the better works. Nevertheless, it is puzzling that the world respects and, even more surprising, reads these failures.

Shakespeare's comedies are morally obtuse - works in which evil behavior is presented as good. We can't be sure that Shakespeare thought teasing, insulting, and practical joking were beautiful, or even morally neutral, although he must have thought they were funny. Be that as it may, the teasers, ruse players and insulters are the heroes. Audiences like Petruchio and Puck.

The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare's best plays, subtle and complex. Shylock is the most interesting of Shakespeare's villains; we understand his motivation and see him develop in response to events in the play. As a comedy, the play fails. It is not especially funny. On the other hand, it succeeds as a tragedy. We see Shylock turn from a benevolent and noble character (willing to lend money to an abusive anti-Semite with only a symbolic collateral, a pound of flesh) into a vengeful monster when insult and prejudice have pursued him and when his own daughter has internalized the anti-Semitism of her society. Shylock is a tragic hero, a good man undone by a tragic flaw, his inability to control his rage against an overwhelmingly powerful society that will never recognize his generosity and never accept him. 1

Comedies are typically bound to their own time and place; tragedy is universal. I remember when I first saw Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, at the age of 15. The performance was in English, and I hadn't read the libretto. The surprises in the plot all worked for me. It was the funniest thing I had ever seen. I later was told that for political reasons, Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, had cut out all the really good lines, so I went to read the original play by Beaumarchais. I found the lines, but the play was not especially funny. The opera has survived but not the play (except in graduate school). Music, like tragedy, transcends time and place. Music can carry even comedy along with it. Shakespeare's music - his language - together with his fame, helped to carry his comedies into our own century.

Comedy is frequently based on cruelty and insult. Prince Hal regularly teases his friend Falstaff in the two Henry IV plays by calling him fat and cowardly. When Malvolio, in Twelfth Night, commits the sin of falling in love, he is sent to jail as part of a practical joke. 2

The comedy of The Comedy of Errors is the result of the servants getting beaten because of mistaken identity. All of this is supposed to be very funny. There is no place for patience or soft-heartedness here.

The few characters in Shakespeare who merit our sympathy are victims. We are moved by the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet who are destroyed by the callousness of their families. Juliet's mother, Lady Capulet, shows no emotion for her daughter until Juliet declines to marry the man her father has chosen. Then we see what the mother thinks of her daughter: "I would the fool were married to her grave" (Act 3, sc. 5). Juliet's father is even more hostile:

Wife, we scarce thought us blest
That God had lent us but this only child;
But now I see this one is too much,
And that we have a curse in having her
....................(Act 3, sc. 5)

The Nurse is Juliet's ally and friend. Yet when Juliet is desperate for news about Romeo, the Nurse teases her unmercifully by holding back the information: "Can you not stay awhile? Do you not see that I am out of breath?"

How art thou out of breath when thou hast breath
To say to me that thou art out of breath?
....................(Act 2, sc. 5)

replies Juliet, indignant that the Nurse is playing with her. But that is how characters act in Shakespeare.

There are two types of society where rudeness is the norm: the worlds of chivalry and of hooliganism. The fact that the plot of Romeo and Juliet was so successfully adapted as West Side Story is an illustration of the kinship of knighthood and gang membership. Both are reflections of the values of machismo: courage, toughness, and willingness to fight on the one hand; loyalty to family and community on the other. There is no place for outsiders. As for women, they may be protected or exploited or loved, but their loyalty is to their men and not directly to the community and its values.

It is normal for such a society to value rudeness, especially to outsiders. Hostility keeps alien elements away and provokes fights, enabling the knights and hooligans to test their courage. Let us consider an item in the New York Times of March 11, 1997: "Man Charged and Motive Cited in Bayonne School Stabbings." Under the headline, we read: "A 20-year-old man was arrested today and charged with fatally stabbing Bayonne High School student and wounding another last week after a chance hallway encounter led to an argument over 'the way people were looking at and talking to each other,' the authorities said." We are reminded of a dialogue in Act 1, Sc. 1 of Romeo and Juliet, where Abraham, a servant to Montague, and Sampson, a servant to Capulet, mimic the feuds of their bosses:

Abraham: Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

Sampson: I do bite my thumb, sir.

Characters in Shakespeare plays may do good because of love, loyalty, family, friendship, etc. But there is no common decency in Shakespeare. When one character encounters another with whom there is no special bond of interest or loyalty, the only behavior we find is teasing, either in the form of vicious practical jokes or abuse by means of puns. In other words, there is hooliganism - the code of chivalry and the street gang, the world where insensitivity and violence define masculinity - the world that has been reincarnated as fascism and ultranationalism.

Those who grow up in a world committed to hostility are doomed to failure. Success - whether artistic, economic, or personal - is based on communication and cooperation. Jews are unlikely to be hooligans; consequently, they recognize the fact the the world is real and that facts matter. They have been successful wherever they have lived, by whatever standards the surrounding culture has defined. Shylock too was successful. But there was one thing he could not do. He could not overcome his outcast status.

Hamlet, on the other hand, could not tell the truth. He was unable to overcome his hooliganism and its rejection of reality. He was born a prince, yet he was a born loser. How could this happen?

"That is the question," said Hamlet. He was talking about a different question, suicide. But the question he should have asked himself is why he was so horribly rude, especially to Ophelia. When Hamlet was able to act decisively, it was as a hooligan, quick on the draw, who killed the wrong man by accident.

People communicate by talking. If they can't believe each other, they can't test their own internal reality against that of the outside world. In other words, they are crazy. Hamlet, a character who cannot tell the truth, cannot expect it in return, nor can he recognize it. Instead of conversations he has games of wit. Few Shakespeare characters ever use the truth as a weapon. Instead, they devise ridiculous schemes to uncover falsehood (the play's the thing). A world that has dismissed the idea of honest investigation, that thinks that words can only deceive and never inform, is a crazy world. Worse than that, it is a world that has rejected science--human curiosity, the moral imperative to learn.

In Othello, Iago is crazy. His hatred of Othello is unmotivated. Iago persuades Othello to kill his wife, Desdemona, by using Desdemona's handkerchief as evidence against her. Othello might as well be crazy. He never tries to have a conversation with Desdemona in which he lets her talk; he doesn't (and probably couldn't) understand the need to show the evidence to the accused. If only Othello weren't a Shakespearean character, he would know how to ask questions and how to believe people. Both he and Desdemona could have lived happily ever after. If only Iago weren't a Shakespearean character, he would have a motive for his villainy. We would enjoy analyzing his reasons and talking about them.

Hamlet pretends to be crazy; he will "put an antic disposition on" (Act 1, Sc. 5). The audience can never learn to what extent he really is insane, since the society itself has rejected honest communication. Hamlet's Denmark is itself mad, committed to chivalry and machismo.

Without the ghost, neither Hamlet nor anyone else (with the exception of Claudius, if he is indeed guilty) suspects murder. There seems to have been no reason to do so. Can it be that Hamlet is clinically psychotic and is just hearing voices planted in speakers in his teeth by the CIA? We don't know enough about pre-antic-disposition Hamlet to come to a conclusion. Is his conversation with the ghost - in private - evidence of his insanity? The guards also have seen the ghost, but they too are living in an insane era. The play might have been better without a ghost. Introducing the supernatural into an otherwise natural work always cheapens it.

Hamlet, a prince and therefore raised to be a hooligan, doesn't feel guilty about accidentally killing a bystander, even when it turns out to be his girlfriend's father. Hamlet can't for the life of him understand why Laertes is peeved about the death of Polonius, although you'd think he would know from experience that there are those who get annoyed when their fathers are murdered. Hamlet does not feel for others because sensitivity, like morality, cannot exist without communication. "O thou vile king," says Laertes to Claudius, "Give me my father!" (Act 4, Sc. 5) That should have been Hamlet's line.

Loyalty is the glue that holds feudal societies and street gangs together. Loyalty to whom? To the legitimate ruler. For Shakespeare, legitimate monarchies ruled by strong kings can control evil but never eliminate it. The only human institution that Shakespeare respects is legitimacy, which depends upon the rules of succession. The moral of the Henry IV tetralogy seems to be that it is wrong to usurp the throne, but the son of a usurper is a legitimate heir. On the other hand, the Henry VI tetralogy, written earlier but describing a later time in history, shows how the weak grandson of a usurper is overthrown because his grandfather's crime is used against him. The Wars of the Roses, both as historical occurrences and as the subject of Shakespeare's plays, show how monarchy is an inherently unstable form of government. Kings enforce order among their subjects, but are not themselves bound by law. Shakespeare could understand neither law nor society. He is a monarchist because monarchy is the least political form of politics.

Shakespeare couldn't have known that only in a democracy is there the possibility of a ruler being subject to law. Nor could he have known that democracy is inherently stable, despite his preoccupation with the legitimate order. But he knew enough about democracy to attack it in Julius Caesar by showing how the mob could be manipulated. It is interesting that in the Roman plays, there is little lying. Shakespeare recognized that ancient Rome was a pre-chivalry society, where honest communication was possible.

To the extent that Shakespeare defines himself as a political writer, he has little to say that shows respect for the dignity of the individual and the species. Shakespeare, to be sure, never told us exactly what he thought, since he was speaking through his characters and his plots. Did he really think that lying and ruses were good. We can't exclude beyond a doubt the possibility that he was merely saying that this is the way people behave. But he never presents an alternative.

For Shakespeare, Christianity was legitimate, and Judaism therefore was not. He accepted the dichotomy of mercy, Christian and good, opposed to justice, Jewish and bad, as if justice and mercy were somehow mutually exclusive. "The quality of mercy is not strained," is perhaps the most famous line in The Merchant of Venice. Yet in all of Shakespeare's dramas, is there - anywhere - a character who shows mercy to another? Yes there is. It is Shylock himself who lends money with no collateral for the sake of simple human kindness. It is Shylock who is sentimental and grieves over the loss of a ring he received from his wife, which he wouldn't have given up for a "wilderness of monkeys," i.e., for all the money in the world--a monkey was slang for 500 pounds (Act 3, sc. 1). Bassanio, in contrast, does indeed part with the ring his wife gave him (Act 4, sc. 1).

Shylock, like Caliban and Malvolio, belongs to an illegitimate category. Legitimate characters in Shakespeare's plays abuse and insult these outcasts as a matter of course. Shylock is unique not because of his callousness - who is more hard-hearted than Hamlet is to Ophelia? - but because his villainy, natural as it may be to a Shakespearean Jew, is well motivated. Even if we hate Shylock, we understand his hostility as we can never really understand the anger of Iago, or even of Beatrice and Benedick. The Merchant of Venice is a popular play because Shylock is the most psychologically plausible of Shakespeare's villains.

A Jew could not legally be a member of the nobility and thus could not belong to the world of chivalry. Shylock, a money lender, was unlikely to be a simple hooligan. Whenever Shakespeare created characters outside the realms of chivalry and hooliganism, they could tell the truth. Shylock is perhaps Shakespeare's most honest character. Honesty is itself a form of nobility. Shylock the outcast, to Shakespeare's eternal credit, is as upright and noble a figure as Shakespeare's Romans.

Tragedy is not inherently pessimistic. Sophocles' plays show that there are conflicting rights and conflicting values (Antigone), and that we may do harm by trying to do good (Oedipus). These ideas are the basis for free thought, separation of powers, and rule of law. The past is another country, and so is Greece. Yet Sophocles, unlike Shakespeare, is our contemporary and our fellow American.

Should art improve the world? Certainly. By being great art. Shakespeare gave us great art in his poetry. He did the same when he created an interesting character, like Shylock, who will always inspire discussion and disagreement; or an interesting situation, like Julius Caesar; or portrayed suffering human beings, like Desdemona or Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet. I do not agree with Leo Tolstoy, the world's most famous Shakespeare hater, when he says, "There is no possibility of any explanation of Hamlet's actions and speeches, and therefore no possibility of attributing any character to him." 3 Nor do I believe share Tolstoy's view that Shakepeare is famous because his plays "responded to the irreligious and immoral attitude of the upper classes of our world." 4 Nevertheless, I believe Tolstoy would have understood my own problem with Shakespeare: too many of his characters are too bad to be true. Shakespeare fails when his characters are too stupid and too unfeeling for us to identify with them. Wherever his plays are morally obtuse and therefore boring, Shakespeare fails as an artist. His failures outnumber his successes.


1. The issue of the complexity of Shylock's character has been raised by other contributors to Midstream. In "Shakespeare and the Marrano World" (December 1993), Niel Hirschson writes, "To begin with, it is worth noting that the merciless villainy attributed to Shylock (helping, by the way, to promote anti-Jewish attitudes) is contrary not only to Shakespeare's style but to what the play actually says or even implies" (p. 8). More recently, Seymour Lainoff, reviewing James Shapiro's Shakespeare and the Jews, says that Shylock "does not appear to be a mere ogre; hence the sympathetic performances of Shylock from Henry Irving to recent times" (October 1996, p. 45).

2. A different similarity between Shylock and Malvolio is suggested by Melvin Seiden ("Shakespeare's Dissonant Jew," May 1996): neither likes music; both are puritanical. Acording to Seiden, "If Malvolio is a crypto Jew, Shylock is a Puritan in gaberdine" (p. 7).

3. Leo Tolstoy. "Shakespeare and the Drama," 1906. In Recollections and Essays by Leo Tolstoy, translated with and introduction by Aylmer Maude. London: Oxford University Press, 1937, p. 351.

4. Ibid., p. 377.

This essay appeared in Midstream, Vol. XXXXV, No. 5, July/August 1999.