A SHAKE-UP OF SHAKESPEARE'S SHYLOCK
Shakespeare has the regal Prince of Morocco say: "Mistake me not for my complexion, the dark clothing that protects me from the burnished sun under which I live, its closest neighbour. Bring me the fairest creature northward born, where the sun's fire scarcely thaws the icicles, and let us make incisions for your love to prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine."
Pretty Portia replies: "If my father had not hedged me to wive the man who chooses the right casket, you, my prince, would have stood as fair as any beau I have looked on yet for my affection."
But what does our lovely heroine say when the Prince fails the test? "Good riddance! Let all of his complexion choose me so."
She's not interested in the right character, only in the right complexion. Else why should she prefer a man like Bassanio of whom the late, great authority on the Bard, Harley Granville-Barker, reluctantly admitted in his Prefaces to Shakespeare: "Logic may land us anywhere. It can turn Bassanio into a heartless adventurer."
Portia's late father entrusted her not to reveal the secret of the caskets. When it comes to the choice of the handsome rake, she sings a song where every line of the first verse ends with a rhyme of lead and then goes on to say not to let the eye choose fancy. Bassanio correctly deduces he must choose lead, that which sounds like bred, head etc. So, the good Portia cannot even remain faithful to her father's dying wish.
During the trial, she makes a lofty speech about mercy. Does the lovely Portia show any mercy? She appears the most pitiless of women when it comes to punishing the Jew. She strips Shylock of everything, his self-respect and even his identity, insisting on his conversion to Christianity. She is, in a word, a hypocrite.
Let us take one last look at this heroine of heroines. Portia gives Bassanio a ring and makes him swear he will never part with it. Disguised as a male lawyer, she wins the case for her husband's friend and demands nothing but the ring as token payment. By means of this cheap trick, she forces Bassanio into a situation that leaves him no choice. Later she accuses him of having given it to a woman (which, of course, he did). He swears on his honour that he gave it to a Doctor of the Law who refused even 3000 ducats for saving the life of his friend. What does Portia say to this?
"Let not that doctor ever come near my house. Since he has the jewel that I loved, and which you swore to keep for me, I will become as liberal as you; I'll deny him nothing, no, not my body, nor my husband's bed. I shall surely sleep with him. Don't stay a single night away from home; watch me like Argus, the 100-eyed monster. If I am left alone, I swear on my honour, which I still have, I'll have that doctor for my bedfellow."
The audience cannot help but laugh, but she sounds less like a sweet, wholesome heroine and more like a jaded street whore. Shakespeare draws humour from real emotions and never lets us forget he was on intimate terms with his characters. They do not rule him; he rules them. He just as soon could have had Portia say: "Should I become as liberal as you? Should I deny him nothing I have - no, not my body, nor my husband's bed?" But he has her speak like the strumpet she is. And yet she continues to be, for those who will not see, the embodiment of pristine purity!
Shakespeare laughs at the idiocy and illogicality of racial prejudice. He gives us Christian heroes with villainous traits, and a villainous Jew who has heroic reasons to hate and for whom we feel great sympathy. We can only conjecture how the audience would have reacted had Edmund Kean appeared like the Christian heroes. For despite the time-honoured picture of Shylock bent over and black costumed with pointed beard and skullcap, he acted with such pathos that spectators wept.
All this is amazing because Shakespeare, most likely, never met a Jew. They had been banished from England and mstianity remained. Shakespeare had his eye on the box-office. Anti-Semitism pulled in the crowds and he would have been insane not to use it. But... this was Shakespeare, mankind's most precious literary gem, soaring above his fellow humans even today and one who was not prepared to let his audiences off easily.
That is not to say he does not pander to the prejudices of his audiences. Quite the reverse of Jonathan Miller's view however, whenever Shylock enters the stage, he is the epitome of the stereotypical Jew, evil for evil's own sake. But as each scene develops, a subtle change occurs that makes the audience uncomfortable. When they laugh, the laugh's on them. Shakespeare gives Shylock emotions and sensitivity of touching humanity. The Jew feels pain, as when he bemoans the loss of the turquoise ring his deceased wife gave him before they married, and that his daughter, Jessica exchanged for a monkey. "I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys," he cries in anguish. (contd.)