My wife and I are sitting in our Conservative shul in Brooklyn on Yom Kippur, reading along as the hazzan sings his way through the repetition of theMusaf Amida.
“There it is again.”
“There’s what again?”
“‘Circumcise your heart.’ Over and over.”
She points to the phrase. “That’s not what it actually says in the Hebrew, is it?”
“‘U-mol et levavkha’—yes, that’s a literal translation. It’s from one of Moses’s speeches in Deuteronomy. Don’t think you can sin and then buy off God with sacrifices. God doesn’t want a payoff; he wants you to keep his commandments. Even better: Don’t just keep them; embody them. Bind them for a sign upon your hand; circumcise your heart with them.”
“‘Bind them for a sign upon your hand’—that’s where tefillin comes from. But we don’t literally circumcise our hearts.”
“No, that wouldn’t be wise.”
My wife laughs. “It sounds like something Shylock would do.”
This was a few years ago. Ever since then, whenever I hear that phrase, I cannot help but think of Shylock. I’ll be sitting in shul, and he’ll be sitting beside me. Of course, this is absurd, not only because Shylock is a fictional character, but because he isn’t a Jewish fiction.
But the most famous Jewish character in postbiblical literature is not leaving the stage. The mere fact that his name came to my wife’s mind when she heard a biblical phrase is proof enough that there’s life in him yet. So I turn and ask him, in spite of myself, “What were you thinking when you sealed your bond? When you went to trial? When you were broken, and when you were baptized? And what kind of teshuvah are you making now?”
Is it possible to read The Merchant of Venice midrashically, as a text in dialogue with the Hebrew Bible? It has to be if we are to read it Jewishly at all.
My wife is not the first to make the connection between Shylock’s bond and circumcision. There is a long critical tradition that reads the security Shylock asks for his loan—the pound of flesh—as a contest for religious and sexual supremacy played out on the body of Antonio. According to this interpretation, the play from the beginning is not merely about a usurer, an unscrupulous moneylender; it is a struggle to determine, as Portia puts it in the trial scene, “which is the merchant here? and which the Jew?”—and who is the real man—between Shylock and Antonio?
When he first proposes his “merry bond,” Shylock’s wording calls for a pound of flesh “to be cut off and taken / In what part of your body pleaseth me.” The word “pleaseth” brings sexual associations to mind, prompting us almost involuntarily to read the proposed forfeit as an allusion to circumcision. On a literal level—the peshat—the bond may be a snare for Antonio’s life (or, more plausibly, a means to extort him, should he forfeit, into ending his practice of lending without interest). But on a metaphoric level, it aims at his identity. This is not just a question for the English professor’s study; the scene can play with more electricity if Antonio, Bassanio, and Shylock all get the implicit phallic joke.
We do not move from outward circumcision to inward until the joke has redounded on Shylock’s head. By the middle of the play, he has been robbed of both his daughter and his ducats, a kind of unmanning that Solanio and Salarino, two-bit players in plotting and executing the theft, take pleasure in ridiculing him for. They mock the loss of his “stones” (then, as now, a pun on testicles) and his lament that his “own flesh” would rebel (a reference to his daughter that the Venetians interpret crudely as sexual arousal).
It is at this point that Shylock resolves upon revenge and declares just which pound of Antonio’s flesh will please him: “I will have the heart of him,” he tells his compatriot Tubal. By the time we reach the trial, the specification that the pound of flesh shall come from “nearest his heart” has mysteriously come to be specified in the bond itself.
By shifting from the foreskin to the heart, Shylock literalizes a phrase that the Hebrew Bible itself took as metaphorical. Moreover, Paul of Tarsus used that very phrase to reject physical observance, a life of mitzvot, as such. Paul says:
For he is not a Jew, which is one outward: neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew which is one within, and the circumcision is of the heart, in the spirit, not in the letter, whose praise is not of men, but of God. (Rom. 2:28–29)
Shylock’s final stab at revenge, then, can be read as an audacious attempt to Judaize Christianity itself, reversing Paul’s interpretive move by circumcising Antonio’s heart with his knife, making him a Jew according to a literal (implicitly Jewish) reading of the Christian scripture. When Portia turns the tables on Shylock once again, trapping him in the law, with his only escape being to convert to Christianity, this turnabout is not only fair play but a restoration and vindication of Christian exegesis of Hebrew scripture. The letter really does kill, but the spirit gives life.
Is this theological gladiator “the Jew that Shakespeare drew,” as Alexander Pope put it (referring to Charles Macklin’s 18th-century performance of the role, the one that for the first time made Shylock a villain of epic stature)? Shakespeare’s Shylock is far from the stock villain of popular imagination or of Shakespeare’s own sources; he is fully human, with human motivations. While we never see him tickled to laughter, we do not hesitate to believe that if you prick him, he will bleed. But he is a villain—and the depth of his villainy is inescapably connected to the role that the theological drama Shakespeare inherited assigns him.
Shylock never escapes this role. On the contrary, by the time of the trial scene, he has fully and freely embraced it. The man who could have been merely the comic villain of a romantic comedy through the first three acts (the counterpart of Malvolio in Twelfth Night or Don John in Much Ado about Nothing) grows to mythological proportions in act 4.
The myth has been a world-historically awful one for real live Jews. But for the actor and director, it also presents a seemingly insoluble psychological, even theological, problem. Why does Shylock decide to play out a theological scenario invented by someone else, and invented precisely to trap him as he is trapped in the trial scene? What is his (conscious or unconscious) motivation for such a self-negating act?
That’s the challenge of most attempts to kasher the play by making Shylock more sympathetic, more human—the opposite of what Macklin did. Beginning in the 19th century, a great many actors—non-Jewish as well as Jewish—have set out to redeem Shylock as a tragic hero, a man so repeatedly wronged that he is understandably driven to revenge. It’s not an unreasonable interpretation; it has support in the text, and it certainly softens the play, making it more palatable to Jewish sensibilities, at least for a while. But it founders in the trial scene, when the theological framework that Shakespeare inherited comes to the fore. That’s when we remember the seed that was planted in act 1 and see it blossom into its full rankness.
To cut out that weed, we must circumcise the play at its heart.
If my wife is not the first to think about Shylock when encountering the phrase “circumcise your heart,” I am not the first to imagine seeing Shylock at Yom Kippur services. The German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, traveling in Venice, searched for Shylock on the Rialto and, failing to fetch him there, sought him at a synagogue, which he imagined attending on Yom Kippur:
Though I looked all around in the synagogue of Venice, on every side, I could nowhere see the face of Shylock. And yet it seemed to me he must be there, hidden under one of those white talars [a piece of Lutheran ecclesiastical garb, a pun on tallis], praying more fervently than any of his fellow-believers, with stormy, wild passion, yes, with madness, to the throne of Jehovah, the severe, divine monarch. I saw him not. But toward evening when, according to the belief of the Jews, the gates of heaven are closed, and no further prayer can enter, I heard a voice in which tears flowed as they were never wept from eyes. There was a sobbing which might have moved a stone to pity; there were utterances of agony such as could only come from a breast which held shut within itself all the martyrdom which an utterly tormented race had endured for 18 centuries. It was the death-rattle of a soul which, weary to death, sinks to the ground before the gates of heaven. And this voice seemed to be well known to me as if I had heard it long long ago, when it wailed just as despairingly, “Jessica, my child!”
Heine goes looking for a worshipper of severity and judgment, the Jew that Shakespeare drew. But he finds a lachrymose Shylock at Neilah, thinking not of his own transgressions but of his most precious loss: his daughter, his legacy, his last remembrance of his late wife, Leah. Act 4 has already come and gone, but this is the Shylock of act 3, a Jew who has not only eyes but a voice that weeps as eyes never have, and who feels the fruitlessness of revenge as his final, insufferable loss. He is so past his last strength that even al ta’azveini (do not forsake me) is more than he can pray for.
In modern productions, it is more common to see Jessica returning in some fashion to her heritage after seeing her father’s humiliation. The text gives negligible grounds for such a coda, but audiences badly want a reason to be reconciled to her, and there is only one way back after hearing how she traded her dead mother’s memento for a monkey. In one production I saw some years ago, after the other lovers had left the stage, Jessica was left alone in a spotlight, chanting the last lines fromAvinu Malkeinu, metaphorically placing her at her own personalNeilah, repenting after the gates had closed.
Had Heine come to the previous evening’s services, he might have met Shylock at Kol Nidrei, a particularly appropriate service for a forced convert, where he might find reassurance that his oath, made under threat of death, was nullified. But that nullification is a double-edged sword for Shylock. If he had made a full inventory of his soul at that moment, he might realize that the same formula that voided his coerced baptism also undermined the strongest defense he made of his behavior at trial:
Portia: Shylock, there’s thrice thy money offer’d thee.
Shylock: An oath, an oath, I have an oath in heaven:
Shall I lay perjury upon my soul?
No, not for Venice.
This is not the first point where Shylock has claimed he cannot change his mind because he has sworn to have his bond. When Antonio begs him in the street while being taken to jail, Shylock rejects him by citing his oath, and, in his first response to the duke at the trial, he similarly protests an inability to bend: “[B]y our holy Sabbath have I sworn / To have the due and forfeit of my bond.” And now, a third time, he disclaims any ability to be merciful.
Shylock could not rightly blame heaven for his determination to seek Antonio’s life, though; his bond did not bind him. Indeed, it could not. Shylock pointedly refuses to give his reasons for wanting to pursue Antonio’s life; indeed, he implies that there need be no reason—as with God’s commands, the fact of his will is sufficient. But then he disclaims any ability to alter that will, as if he were subject to divine command rather than its author and is compelled to follow it to its end.
I choose the word “compelled” advisedly. This is the word Shylock throws at Portia when she says he “must” be merciful: “On what compulsion must I? tell me that.” What follows is Portia’s famous “quality of mercy” speech, proclaiming that mercy is not compelled, and that’s what makes it such a distinctive characteristic of majesty and sovereignty.
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
’Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ’gainst the merchant there.
Portia’s speech has an aura of paradox to it: Is Shylock compelled to be merciful or isn’t he? If he is faithful to his own God, then he must imitate him in being merciful, and yet God’s own mercy, much like the Venetian court’s, may be extended or withdrawn at God’s own will. It is this paradox of mercy and compulsion that draws me to another Yom Kippur moment, the one that, for me, resonates most deeply with Shylock. The Shylock I seek is not at Kol Nidrei, nor at Neilah. He’s at Mincha, and we are listening together to the story of another Jew among Gentiles, bitter at being compelled to show mercy.
The Book of Jonah is, among other things, a paradigmatic site of Christian-Jewish hermeneutic competition. Jesus of Nazareth himself identified it as a crucial Christian prooftext, describing Jonah’s three days in the whale’s belly as a prefiguration of his forthcoming death and resurrection:
Then answered certain of the Scribes and of the Pharisees, saying, Master, we would see a sign of thee. But he answered and said to them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh a sign, but no sign shall be given unto it, save that sign of the Prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly: so shall the son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonah: and behold, a greater than Jonah is here. (Matt. 12:38–41, Geneva Bible)
The history of Christian interpretation of Jonah begins with this allegorical reading, which largely erased the story of the book itself for many centuries, at least among Christians. The Protestant return to the biblical text during the Reformation made possible two divergent readings, which were more directly engaged with Jonah as a figure in his own right: as a story of supersession and a story of repentance. Both are relevant to our discussion of The Merchant of Venice.
According to the supersessionist Lutheran reading, Jonah flees from God’s command because he does not believe the Gentiles of Nineveh deserve God’s message. So Jonah becomes the avatar of Jewish particularism, and the book’s purpose is to show that God rejected this perspective long before the coming of Jesus, making Jewish persistence in that particularity distinctly perverse. Meanwhile, according to the Calvinist reading, Jonah typifies the perversity and stubbornness of humanity in general, which refuses God’s commands simply because they are commands. His ordeal is representative of the tortures, physical and spiritual, that are visited upon a proud spirit that will not submit to the divine will.
Neither of these interpretations is entirely at variance with at least some Jewish readings of the book. Midrash on Jonah goes in a variety of wild directions, from Jonah and his fish jointly routing Leviathan to Jonah being tossed from a male fish to a female fish pregnant with 365,000 fingerlings to increase the physical pressure on the prophet to repent. But the most mainstream Jewish reading of the book—and the reason it is read on Yom Kippur—is not far from the Calvinist reading. It is a story about a man’s stubborn refusal to do what God commands and his journey to repentance and obedience.
Inasmuch as the book of Jonah is about human nature and the possibility of repentance, its message is universal. But the intercommunal element of the story—the fact that Jonah is an Israelite urging Nineveh to repent—cannot be ignored in the biblical book any more than it can in Shakespeare’s play. What, though, is the significance of that intercommunal element? And why, specifically, does Jonah resist his prophetic commission? Jonah is not merely a reluctant prophet, like Moses or Jeremiah, who feels himself unworthy of his task and fears the people will not listen to him. On the contrary: After Nineveh has repented and been spared, Jonah himself declares that the reason he resisted in the first place is that he knew he would succeed. He knew the people of Nineveh would repent and that God would be merciful. But why regret that?
A midrash suggests that Jonah did not want to get a reputation as a false prophet for predicting destruction that was then averted, but that sounds exceedingly petty. The Lutheran reading, according to which Jonah thinks God cares only about Israelites, makes him, if anything, even pettier. To my mind, the most substantial answer is rooted in the choice of Nineveh as the object of divine concern. Nineveh is not a neutral location. It was the capital of Assyria, the nation responsible for the destruction of the kingdom of Israel and the siege of Jerusalem. Figuratively, it is not merely a foreign nation but a primal enemy, a locus of evil.
Rashi identifies the anonymous king of Nineveh who appears in Jonah as Sennacherib, the ruler at the time of the conquest of the northern kingdom. Jonah is supposed to have lived during the time of Jeroboam II, one of the more successful northern kings; Sennacherib would not be born until several years after the Israelite king’s death. His book, however, was written centuries later, in the postexilic period. The first readers of the book, then, would know what Nineveh, under Sennacherib, would do to Israel but would also know that it did not happen in Jonah’s lifetime.
The prophet Jonah, on this reading, is in a position somewhat akin to those much-hypothesized time travelers who are given a chance to kill Hitler in the womb. If Nineveh did not repent, then Nineveh would be destroyed. If Nineveh were destroyed, then perhaps the kingdom of Israel would be spared destruction in turn. And yet God’s command is to go to Nineveh and prophesy destruction, which the prophet knows will bring repentance. Who would not flee all the way to Tarshish to escape such a commission? And who would not be deeply grieved when, forced to fulfill that commission, repentance comes just as he anticipated?
As the literary critic and biblical scholar Yvonne Sherwood brilliantly argues:
Jonah is called to help [God] to spare the Assyrians, who will then go on to bring destruction, humiliation, on his own people. That is, he is called to participate in a plot designed to defeat himself. . . . Christian interpretation has always acknowledged the strange twist that makes the protagonist the victim of the plot, but has banalized and politicized this curious phenomenon as the story of the-Jew-who-gets-egg-on-his-face. But reading Nineveh not as the exemplary “gentiles” (so precariously close to repentance that the slightest whiff of an oracle will tip them over), but as “the Assyrians” (so precariously close to destroying the northern kingdom of Israel) entirely alters the distribution of the text and brings the implied masochism of the plot into stark relief.
But what interests me is how the story reads to Shylock. Because Jonah’s bind should be all too familiar to him, and The Merchant of Venice is also conventionally read as a Jew-who-gets-egg-on-his-face story.
Shylock explicitly sets out to “catch [Antonio] once upon the hip” (gain decisive financial leverage over him by means of his bond); allegorically, he aims to triumph over Christianity by Judaizing it (circumcising Antonio by means of his bond). Instead, he is trapped by his quest for vengeance into converting to Christianity to save his own life. But this story is inverted if we see Shylock’s quest as being as masochistic as Jonah’s. Perhaps Shylock’s determination to go to trial and seek the forfeit of his bond is an attempted suicide as elaborate and contrived as Antonio’s agreement to the bond in the first place, or Jonah’s flight to Tarshish.
When Jonah gets his commission, he sees no way to remain a Jew except by disobeying God’s command, which of course also negates his status as a faithful Jew and a prophet. By the time Shylock gets to trial, he sees no way to remain a Jew except by fulfilling the most horrible conceptions his enemies have of him, which of course also negates his attempt to vindicate either himself or Judaism.
I’ve said little so far of the other characters in The Merchant of Venice, in part because Shylock’s story is oddly peripheral to the main action of the play: the romance of Bassanio and Portia. If I were to put forth a truly mad reading of the play as midrash, with Shylock playing Jonah, all sorts of bizarre allegories begin to loom. Is Belmont, a city of fairy gold, really Nineveh, the city it takes three days to cross on foot? Is Jessica, the daughter who absconds with her father’s wealth, the northern kingdom, carried off and lost? But I do not think I am mad to think that there is one character whose voice cries out for such a reading: Portia.
Initially, Portia is a prize in a fairy-tale contest, but one who shows considerable cleverness in steering her favored suitor toward the right choice. Freud saw the caskets Bassanio must choose between as feminine figures of death (one of the wrong choices is, indeed, inhabited by a death’s head, and the metals that they are covered with are dug from the earth, from the world of Hades or Sheol). But from a Jewish perspective, something else of transcendent value is contained within a cask (or ark). At trial, Portia more directly assumes ownership of “the law,” in the guise of Balthazar, a doctor of the laws, and gets called (by Shylock and then by Gratiano) a “second Daniel” (perhaps playing off her assumed name, a version of Belteshazzar, Daniel’s Babylonian name). But Portia’s behavior conforms to the classical function of Satan, the prosecutor at God’s heavenly court. She quite clearly knows from the start the snares the law has set for Shylock and gives him every opportunity to abandon his malicious course and be merciful.
It is not until the end of the play, though, that she reveals the full extent of her powers. She has just set and sprung a trap for her new husband, getting him to give Balthazar (herself in disguise) the ring she had made him promise never to lose. After revealing to Bassanio that she was Balthazar, she miraculously restores Antonio to his full fortunes, as easily as God restores Job after his travails (or returns Jonah from the belly of the whale to dry land). This powerful, shape-shifting woman begins to look like a multifaceted portrait of the divine itself.
This transformation is very much Shakespeare’s choice. In the tale from Il Pecorone by Giovanni Fiorentino, which likely was Shakespeare’s main source, Antonio and Shylock are far flatter figures, but they play essentially the same roles they play in Shakespeare’s comedy. Portia’s antecedent, though, is radically different from Shakespeare’s heroine; she is a siren who lures men only to despoil them, and her motives for trapping the Jewish usurer are similarly venal: She wants to save her money. Shakespeare’s art elevated everyone in the story, but his Portia is another one of his “director characters,” manipulating the action with knowledge and power beyond the merely human. It is a peculiar choice to make for a female romantic lead, and I believe he made it for a reason.
When Portia speaks her famous and paradoxical speech on mercy, we can easily read it as an echo of God’s message to Jonah. Indeed, doing so resolves the central paradox of the speech: that even if “the quality of mercy is not strain’d,” she is constraining Shylock to show mercy, and she shows no mercy to him when she has him in her power. God, after all, is the only author of truly sovereign freedom, merciful to those he will be merciful to, compassionate to those he will be compassionate to. It also resolves the oddness of the fact that, while the surface message is about mercy, the most explicit, and almost certainly deliberate, echo is of a passage in Deuteronomy about justice and obedience:
Hearken, ye heavens, and I will speak: and let the earth hear the words of my mouth.
My doctrine shall drop as the rain, and my speech shall still as the dew, as the shower upon the herbs, and as the great rain upon the grass.
For I will publish the Name of the Lord: give ye glory unto our God.
Perfect is the work of the mighty God: for all
his ways are judgment. God is true, and without wickedness: just and righteous is he. (Deut. 32:1–4, Geneva Bible)
Jonah’s entire position is one of constraint to be merciful, to be an instrument of God’s sovereign choice to be merciful even when his deepest feelings cry out against the choice. God’s message to Jonah is not “You should be more generous to the people of Nineveh” but “I am the one who gets to choose, not you.” The kikayon plant that shades Jonah grows overnight without his effort; it is God’s creation and serves God’s purposes, not Jonah’s. So, too, Nineveh. As the late medieval commentator Don Isaac Abravanel argued: It was God’s will that the city grew to such a mighty height, and if God wanted to preserve it to serve as his instrument for chastising Israel before judging that city in turn, then it is no different in that regard from the kikayon. Jonah’s feelings don’t enter into it.
No more than Shylock’s can.
For the past several years, I’ve been walking around with a production of The Merchant of Venice in my head, an attempt to achieve the modern revaluation of Shylock without fatally unbalancing the text. In my mind, Shylock is attired in a parody of anti-Semitic tropes from Elizabethan days onward. He wears a bright red circus wig (an allusion to the red-haired Judas Iscariot), a false nose (a characteristic of racialized Shylocks), and so forth—all to make Shylock appear an obvious clown.
He wears this ludicrous outfit the entire play, but he plays his part aware that he is wearing it, that it is a costume, that he has been made to play a clown. He may resist it—standing on his dignity in oversized clown shoes—but the effect will probably be only more comic and more infuriating to him. I want, in other words, to give the audience a visceral feeling for Shylock’s essential dilemma, which is that he is stuck precisely being a comic villain when he wants to be recognized as a tragic hero.
That, I believe, is the reason why he goes to trial, why he plays out the scenario laid out for him by his enemies. As he sees it, he must fully embrace the part they have given him in order to achieve something like tragedy.
I think there is a kinship with Jonah here as well. He too is trapped in a comic story, a story where he is condemned to be a parody of a real prophet. As the literary scholar Arnold Band argued, the book deliberately spoofs traditional prophetic narrative. While ordinary sailors experience God’s presence and pray for deliverance, the prophet sleeps through the theophany in the storm at sea. Rather than defeating the sea monster (which echoes the biblical Leviathan), Jonah is devoured by it. And then there is the parodic feel of Jonah’s language: His prophetic words are utterly lacking in poetry, as terse and straightforward as any language can be, and his yearning for death once the kikayon’s shade is removed is ludicrously exaggerated. But from his initial flight through to this final complaint, what we glean is that Jonah wants to be in a different story, one that grants him the tragic dignity that this story will not. He wants to be a character in a tale that is commensurate with what he is being asked to do: help save his greatest enemy so that the enemy may destroy his people.
Seeing this narrative kinship between Jonah and Shylock, I step back and see that Shylock’s vengeance isn’t really aimed at Antonio, any more than Jonah’s complaint is with the people of Nineveh. While on one level it is Antonio’s fault, and his society’s, that Shylock is seen as a clown and a villain, on a deeper level it is the author of the play, the creator of the story within which he is embedded, who is responsible. And inasmuch as we see Shylock as fully human, as fully real, we shift from thinking of Shakespeare as the author to thinking of him as the one responsible for the reality of Venice and of Shylock’s life in exile. If Shylock cannot hear that author’s words and confuses his own oath for God’s command, it is because those words come out of the mouth of a Christian, his adversary and persecutor.
I take that kinship back with me to Mincha.
Why do we read Jonah on this day? Not because it is a simple story about
repentance and forgiveness—we are not the people of Nineveh, putting sackcloth
on our cattle. Rather because it is a hard
story about heeding God’s voice when it tells us to work for our own chastisement, but it is also an empathetic story, which knows that doing so will make us feel like clowns.
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