I first read Father Peter Milward’s conclusions about Shylock, the Jewish antagonist of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” in Claire Asquith’s “Shadowplay.” According to Father Milward, a staunch believer in the Catholic Shakespeare, Shylock was a thinly disguised Puritan rather than a Jew. In arguing this conclusion, Father Milward strengthened a belief I had already held about Shylock for quite some time.
Among my many consuming interests is a fascination with Jewish culture. As a result, I had already read scores of Modern and Medieval Jewish folktales, proverbs, and memoirs before reading “The Merchant of Venice”. When I finally did so, I was shocked to find Shylock’s whole range of expression completely foreign to me.
From his first appearance, Shylock comes across as a dull, humorless, and self-righteous boor. He recoils at the merriment of the Venetian Carnival, despite the fact that Orthodox Jews celebrate the High Holidays similarly — with copious amounts of drinking, singing, and dancing.
An Orthodox Jew would also have regularly quoted the parables of learned Rabbis and Sages. Scores of examples may be seen in the memoirs of Glueckel of Hameln and Rabbi Leone Modena, both of whom were almost Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Shylock, however, not only refers exclusively to the Old Testament, he also distorts its meaning through private interpretation. I was thus forced to conclude about Shylock, “This man is a Puritan!”
Father Milward’s statements, both as referenced in “Shadowplay” and in his book “The Catholicism in Shakespeare’s Plays”, added weight to what I already suspected. His documentation of Puritan control of high interest money-lending in Elizabethan England and their being referred to as “Christian Jews” seemed to put the last nail in the coffin of the Jewish Shylock.
As for the legends upon which Shakespeare drew, G.K. Chesterton once dubbed them “a Medieval satire against usury”. Despite my admiration for Chesterton, I must disagree.
There are numerous versions of the legend where “Shylock” is not a Jew and where interest is never mentioned. In an Irish Gaelic version collected from the Aran Islands by John Millington Synge, “Shylock” is a Leprechaun.
In a Scottish Gaelic version collected in the Hebrides, Shylock is implied to be a Viking and plans to flay Antonio alive if the debt is not paid. In both versions, Antonio and Bassanio are combined, the wife is the rescuer in roughly the same fashion, and interest is never spoken of.
The most unexpected account is a Jewish version from Morocco. In this story, Antonio-Bassanio is a Jew and Shylock, who is implied to be a Muslim moneylender, offers him an interest-free loan with a kilo of flesh as collateral. After the bond goes forfeit, a Muslim Princess falls in love with Antonio-Bassanio, dresses as a scholar of Islamic law, and defends him in a Muslim court. When she orders him to take his bond without shedding blood, “Shylock” responds in typical fashion for the Islamic World. He declares that he voluntarily renounces both the money and the flesh. After all, doing so is the only way for him to avoid losing face. Then, Antonio-Bassanio and the Princess marry and live happily ever after.