Shylock: An Unlikely Jew Named Jacob

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Victor M. Erlich

          SHYLOCK “By Jacob’s staff I swear.”

          -The Merchant of Venice, II.v.36

Shylock, the name by which the Jew in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is called by the Venetians, is not of Hebrew origin, though scholars have occasionally tried to make it so in far-fetched ways, deriving it, for example, from Shiloh, a name that is used only once in the Bible for a messianic person. We also find Shiloh in the Bible as the name of the place where the Ark of the Covenant rested, a sanctified site that the monotheistic Hebrews would not want to associate with a man. Nor is it likely that Shakespeare wanted his audience to believe that Shylock is the actual name of this Jew, assuming for the moment that in the willing suspension of disbelief one can accept that a literary character possesses a name that is not the one assigned to him in the dramatis personae. Further, it is unlikely that Shakespeare meant this “Jew” as an actual Jew or even a plausible person in the real world.

Because of the popularity of Shakespeare’s play, Shylock has become an English word. A “Shylock” is a usurious person, particularly a Jew. But Shakespeare has much more in mind than Jewish usury. He moves us to wonder if this Jew might be a fabricated figure, made for a literary purpose, not an actual Jew at all, arranging matters so that the possibility arises that Shylock’s Hebrew name is Jacob. Let us set forth the evidence that Shylock is not the name of the Jew, that the Jew is not a Jew in the usual sense but a composite figure who is part historical Jew, part demon who could never be a Jew at any time or place, part the warped outcome of focused Venetian cruelty, and part the projection of Venetian psychology, and, perhaps, as well, an alter ego for the tormented playwright himself.

Just before we meet Shylock, Shakespeare signals to his audience to attend to the possibility that Shylock’s character has not the quality of an actual person. Rather, Shylock is presented as a bizarre composite of clashing features. Early on in the play we are introduced to the idea of composite characters. The seemingly inconsequent banter between Nerissa and Portia about Portia’s current suitors features the “young German, a double man: ‘Very vilely in the morning when he is sober and most vilely in the afternoon when he is drunk.’” “The young baron of England” is an odd conglomerate, too: “I think he bought his doublet in Italy, his round hose in France, his bonnet in Germany, his behavior everywhere.” The “Neapolitan Prince” is a centaur, composite of man and horse, making Portia fear “my lady his mother played false with a smith.” The “French lord” is “every man in no man.” And as Shylock enters for the next scene, a new suitor is announced, one whom Portia suspects will have “the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil.”

Previously unmentioned and unexpected, Shylock breaks into Portia’s wealthy dreamland wearing his contemptuous Jewish gabardine, a startling apparition with his sidelocks, beard, and predatory manners, a stock villain going on about “three thousand ducats.” But Shakespeare has already suggested that Shylock must be something more. Perhaps we are to think of him, too, as part saint and part devil, another composite. He is even now in the company of Portia’s essential suitor, Bassanio, a man who proves composite as well, a gracious courtier and a schemer after wealth. Bassanio needs money to impress Portia, and since his friend Antonio wants to loan him the necessary funds but is short of cash, Shylock the usurer must be consulted.

Bassanio calls the despicable figure before us “Shylock,” a derogatory appellation unrecognizable as a Hebrew name and probably understood by Elizabethans as a sneering reference to the Jew’s sidelocks. Shylock soon mentions “Tubal, a wealthy Hebrew of my tribe,” and the scene brings forth other Hebrew names, including Shylock’s deceased wife Leah, his daughter Jessica (drawn from the biblical name Yiskah), as well as the biblical characters Jacob and Daniel Shylock later mentions (II.v.43). Elizabethans would easily recognize all these Hebrew names, but nobody would recognize “Shylock,” be he Jew or gentile.

Did the Elizabethans know the word sidelocks? The word is not in the compendious and authoritative Oxford English Dictionary. It is not in Merriam-Webster nor the American Heritage Dictionary, nor the spellchecker in Microsoft Word. Yet Jews bore carefully-groomed sidelocks in Roman Jerusalem, and they continued to do so in Shakespeare’s time, along with their “gabardine” (I.iii.112). Their sidelocks must have been called something in English. They certainly weren’t called by the Hebrew payot, nor were they necessarily called earlocks, a word that is also absent from the OED. Let us for the moment take Shylock’s name as a slur taken from some slangy reference to sidelocks. It doesn’t really matter, though, because this is not his true name.

In fact, Shylock is most often called “the Jew,” or the “cut-throat dog,” as if he has no name. When he is in the company of Venetians he refers to himself by the name they have assigned him, as in his bidding farewell to his servant Launcelot (“Thy eyes shall be the judge, the difference of old Shylock and Bassanio”), but in the presence of the fellow-Jew Tubal (III.i), he is not called Shylock, nor anything else, despite his calling Tubal by name six times. Shakespeare must mean us to note Shylock’s iteration of “Tubal” and the discordant failure of Tubal to name Shylock.

By using no name at all, Tubal suggests that Shylock is no single being. Rather, he is an exaggerated “everyman in no man,” like Portia’s description of the French Lord. Let us count the many characters woven into Shylock. This will lead to the Hebrew name he would bear if represent an actual, un-demonized Jew.

1. Historical Jew. Jews had been expelled from England in the late thirteenth century under the usual Jew-hating libel. When, late in the play, Tubal joins Shylock on stage to report the flight of Jessica, Salerio, the mocking party-boy who is also present, captures both the isolation of the few remnant Jews in Elizabethan England and the indignities they were forced to endure: “Here comes another of the tribe. A third cannot be matched, unless the devil himself turn Jew.” The Elizabethan audience would recognize Salerio’s customary hounding of these two marooned Jews, but Shakespeare gives little support for Salerio’s mockery in this setting, as Shylock has just lost his daughter and, in his distress, has just uttered his famous protest of his humanity: “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?” This Shylock, both as a recognizable but rare Jew of Shakespeare’s London and as an Everyman bewildered by inhumanity, easily becomes unhinged. He is a man deprived of time and place, a wandering and disoriented man as much as a wandering Jew.

Shakespeare has bothered to learn and present the nature of a Jew. Shylock observes the dietary laws, keeps a sober house, uses Hebrew words. In court before the Duke he swears by “our holy Sabaoth” to collect his bond. This word actually refers to the Heavenly Hosts (Tzeva’ot), and that is what Shylock might mean, or perhaps Shakespeare meant to write Shabbatot, the Hebrew plural for Sabbath. In any case, Hebrew is probably meant here, and the later emendation of “Sabaoth” to “Sabbath” has no reliable authority. The historical, Hebrew-using Jew had to survive amidst hostile neighbors, so he was usually scrupulous about his treatment of others. Thus his servant Launcelot, lured away by Bassanio, has much new money (courtesy of Shylock) to lavish on an entourage, but is ambivalent about leaving his old master. He must dig up good reasons that were not previously apparent. Inconsistent with the notion that Shylock is the devil, “honest Launcelot” thinks that it is the devil who tempts him to run away from Shylock, and that it is his own honesty that warns him to remain. If Shakespeare meant us to think of Shylock as simply a diabolic villain, he would not have introduced Launcelot’s ambivalence. Shakespeare seems to understand that the historical Jew survived by doing everything to avoid being branded a devil.

2. Jew as mythical demon. Shakespeare, of course, had ample opportunity to note widespread belief in the myth of the diabolic Jew. Before his eyes was the irrational hatred of the larger-than-life, mythical Jew. Shakespeare seems to understand the Jew was both a meek and undefended soul, and an imagined monster. Shylock, a conveniently undefended Jew, is this bogeyman. “Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation,” asserts Launcelot of his master. When Shylock is the devil, he is no longer the historical Jew. As a demon, he is made to boast, moments after we meet him, and seconds after he sees the courtly Antonio, of his diabolic intentions: “I hate him for he is a Christian. . . If I can catch him once upon the hip, I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.” Even as he tells us movingly of his humanity, Shylock shifts modes into the maniacal instrument of mindless revenge. Why does he want Antonio’s pound of flesh as payment of the bond Antonio has become unable to honor? At the time of asking for the bond, he notes in jest that enforcing this “merry bond,” should Antonio default, would be of no value to him. But, as he shifts from historical Shylock to demoniac Shylock, he raves, ”If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge.” He is now Satan.

A sensible man could not remain in this Jew’s house, not even the clown Launcelot. When Jessica justifies her flight by telling Launcelot that “our house is hell,” she says, “I am a daughter to his blood, I am not to his manners.” Of course she should run from that devil, denounce his manners, and become a Christian. Demons must be shunned. But Shylock as demon is of course only one aspect of this “Jew,” only one part of Shakespeare’s focus on the universal trials of being a complex human being, Jew or gentile. That Shylock is made to enact the terror of being complexly human takes his “character” outside the realm of small-minded antisemitism. Besides, Shakespeare makes it clear that in a crucial sense, Shylock is not a plausible Jew.

3. Not a plausible Jew. The Shylock who demands his pound of flesh cannot be a Jew, unless he is insane, which is not the case. Jews know well that the Noahide laws forbid a pound of flesh because they themselves formulated them as a standard of righteousness that non-Jews can and do formulate for themselves, for these laws were given primordially to Noah and to all mankind. Derived from Genesis 9, these laws forbid blasphemy, murder, robbery, idolatry, and sexual promiscuity, and they include one dietary law, a prohibition against eating flesh from a living animal (the law is called ever min ha-hai, “[Do not rip] the limb from the living”). Taken symbolically, this is a prohibition against cruelty and self-coarsening. To eat of a living animal is self-brutalizing. These six laws, on some interpretations, were to be enforced by a seventh, a commandment to form a judicial system to enforce the first six.

The Talmud forbids Jews from living where these seven Noahide laws are not in effect, where men eat from a living animal. A fortiori, taking a pound of living human flesh is more heinous, and no sane Jew could contemplate it. Nor would any Jew expect a court to enforce the very thing a proper court is created to forbid. Further, this act, so wished for by Shylock-the-Impossible, would kill Antonio (as Portia gratuitously points out in turning tables on the Jew), and to ask a court to enforce murder, yet another violation of Noahide laws, could not be in the worldview of an actual Jew. With a little poetic license, one can say that in court Shylock violates all the Noahide laws. The lust for flesh is a sexual perversion, especially in this play with its homoerotic suggestions in the friendship between Bassanio and Antonio, and even in the crazed antipathies between Shylock and Antonio. If Shylock calls on the Heavenly Hosts to aid him, he is committing blasphemy, for he means to rob Antonio of dignity first, then of life itself. The worship of his bond is idolatry. Any educated Jew would know this.

4. Jew with a psyche damaged by cruelty. If Shakespeare did not mean Shylock as a plausible Jew, perhaps he did mean him as warped by his cruel and greedy society. Since Shylock is always coherent, however unapproachable by reason, he cannot be called insane. But there is something to the claim that he would not be what he is if he were not spat upon and called a dog. Perhaps he would be a more proper man and a more proper Jew if Antonio and his friends did not make life miserable for him. Antonio “hath disgrac’d me, and hind’red me half a million, laugh’d at my losses, mock’d at my gains, scorn’d my nation, thwarted my bargains, cool’d my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew.” It is indeed likely that the Venetians damage Shylock both in his business and his psyche. Shakespeare’s plays repeatedly feature characters who suffer psychologically, becoming brutes in their lusts and rages (see Aaron in Titus Andronicus, Goneril in King Lear, and Angelo in Measure for Measure). So insofar as Shylock is a warped character because he is a persecuted Jew, he is also warped because he is a persecuted man, as any man might be, a point built into his assertion of his common humanity. We see a shared, human vulnerability as both Shylock and Antonio have their lives threatened in the same court of justice. Antonio as the merchant of Venice is curiously indistinguishable from Shylock, the usurer of Venice, to the point that Portia, surprisingly and mysteriously (for Antonio does not wear gabardine or bear sidelocks) has to ask as she enters the Duke’s court, “Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?” Shylock and Antonio have in common their humanity and their vulnerability under adversity, and they share this with all men.

5. Jew as a projection from the Christian unconscious. Men who fail to find meaning often seek gold as a compensation for emptiness. As they exchange the search for love, meaning, and salvation for the pursuit of gold, they loathe themselves, for they know that “money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). A person in this situation might best blame other people for greed. Antonio seeks wealth successfully, but he opens the play with his mysterious plaint, “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.” Perhaps he would best foist his disappointment onto the money-grubbing Shylock. The intelligent Shylock, otherwise known as the “cutthroat dog,” even understands the Christian’s psychological plight: “O father Abram, what these Christian are,/ Whose own hard dealings teaches them suspect/ The thoughts of others” (I.iii.157-159).

Portia, too, is sad, though she be steeped in riches. “By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is a-weary of this great world” (I.ii.1-2). She too might seek, and does seek with alacrity, to make the scapegoat bear her problem, which persists even after she has bonded to her true love and has rescued Antonio from his maniacal bond. She is unable to extend to Shylock her own paean to mercy. And even the suitors fail to realize that the winning choice in the lottery for Portia’s hand is not gold, not silver, but lead. Bassanio, too, would have made the wrong choice if Portia had not clandestinely steered him away from the pursuit of gold and silver. They all scorn Shylock for pursuing profit, hate him for his lack of Christian civility, which includes loaning money at no interest. Shylock, of course, cannot afford this charity because he is forbidden any work beyond usury. Venetian merchants enjoy undermining Shylock’s business as they issue interest-free loans while profiting from ventures forbidden to Jews.

6. Jew as tormented poet. Shakespeare has assigned Shylock a verbal tic. Though he is thought a literalist, clinging to the exact words of his bond, he understands metaphor. He speaks poetically, but since he is a poet in an a strange land, he isn’t quite sure whether he is making himself clear. When lending Antonio three thousand ducats he muses that “Antonio is a good man.” Bassanio understands this in a moral sense. Of course Antonio is a decent man. Shylock has to correct him: “My meaning in saying he is a good man is to have you understand me that he is sufficient.” By this he means fiscally sound. Critics often cite this line as evidence of Shylock’s materialism versus Bassanio’s moral sensibility. But Shylock knows the range of meaning of the word “good,” initially and mistakenly assuming that Bassanio will take from context the right meaning. It is Bassanio who has the leaden ear. So Shylock has to translate his metaphoric speech. Of the risks to Antonio’s wealth at sea, Shylock says, “Ships are but boards, sailors but men; there be land-rats and water-rats, water-thieves and land-thieves, I mean pirates.” He can’t be sure that Bassanio understands what water-rats are. He often pauses to explain himself, as he does again in commanding Jessica on the eve of her flight to keep the house closed up: “By stop my house’s ears, I mean my casements” (II.v.34).

What is Shakespeare’s purpose in showing us a man who feels the need to interpret his own language? Just this. There is great poetry in the man, and this poetry is frustrated by circumstance, to the point that he knows he cannot be understood. As the climactic Act IV ends with the unmerciful ruination of Shylock, the play slips into Act V with poetry, music, and innocent humor. This light-hearted fare, drawn from Ovid, contrasts with the darkened spirit of Shylock, which lingers in the background. But the stories from Ovid are dark, too, despite their chiming notes. It is a lovely moonlit evening as the lovers Jessica and Lorenzo make their way back to Belmont, but all is not well. Lorenzo, insouciant of Shylock’s sorrow, croons, “In such a night/ Did Jessica steal from the wealthy Jew,/ And with an unthrift love did run from Venice.” In return, Jessica jests, “In such a night/ Did young Lorenzo swear he lov’d her well,/ Stealing her soul with many vows of faith,/ And ne’er a true one.”

Suddenly, poetry and love are diminished, likened to lies, “ne’er a true one.” The full range of human experience, as suggested by the multiple Shylocks, provides material for the poet but overwhelms the man, undermining all song. This, says Shakespeare, is the tragedy of being human, even in this supposed comedy. Human beings need the Noahide Laws as a minimal defense against their own nature, which both engenders and endangers poetry. Without care, Shylock and Venice suffer the same fate, as they sink into the same denial of their own cupidity and foolishly seek to project it elsewhere. They live a fatal lie, “And never a true one.”

Did Elizabethans know the Noahide laws? John Selden did. An English jurist and Judaic scholar born in 1584, he summarized in Ebraeorum (1640) the past scholarship on these and other precepts of natural law, including Aquinas’ famous treatise on the subject. Hugo Grotius (b. 1583), the Dutch scholar, provided a similar and contemporaneous discussion in De Jure Belli ac Pacis, describing the Noahide laws as “flowing from natural reason to all mankind.”

In The Merchant of Venice, did Shakespeare really want to remind his Elizabethan audience of Noah and the Noahide laws? Likely he did, and this would explain why he included Old Gobbo’s oddball gift of a “dish of doves,” carried for emphasis onto the stage as a prop. Old Gobbo means to give these doves to Shylock, so that the old Jew will be gentle with his son. Launcelot, however, wants to flee Shylock and serve Bassanio, so he diverts his father’s doves away from Shylock, to the good Christian. Doves, of course, carry a common association with Noah, especially in English, as in this fresco from the catacomb of an early, third century, English church:

But the Bible and the story of Noah and his dove went everywhere, for Noah was a type of Christ, a Savior of mankind, as in this mosaic from twelfth century Venice:

Noah and his dove are likely in The Merchant of Venice to invoke the Noahide Laws as they pertain to Shylock-The-Impossible, a man who tried to live without the benefit of having these laws in force. In the Duke’s court Shylock loses the last remnant of his manhood and his fatherhood. He is no longer even a Jew, but a “likeness of a Jew,” as Solanio calls him in III.i. He is a nothing, a “no man.”

Now, if Shylock did live in a society that honored the Noahide Laws, what might be the imaginary man’s Hebrew name?  Does not Shakespeare make us wonder that it be “Jacob”? Shylock’s servant Launcelot Gobbo reminds us of the Bible’s role-playing Jacob, the man who fooled his blind father into giving him the elder son’s blessing by disguising himself in his brother’s hairy guise. Shylock likens himself to Jacob, mentioning his name six times in a speech (I.iii.73-87) that recounts the patriarch’s hoodwinking of his father-in-law Laban. Laban is cheating Jacob, so Jacob seeks revenge, like Shylock. He gets Laban to let him keep as salary the rare striped and colored lambs, and then he uses craft to multiply these. Shylock himself explains: “Mark what Jacob did: . . . The skillful shepherd pill’d me certain wands,/And in the doing of the deed of kind,/ He stuck them up before the fulsome ewes,/ Who then conceiving did in lambing time/ Fall parti-color’d lambs, and those were Jacob’s.” The idiomatic “pill’d me,” is a way of saying peeled for himself, but Shylock hints that Jacob peeled for Shylock, as if Jacob were Shylock.

And indeed he probably is, in a literary way. In a series of vaudeville acts played before Shylock’s house (II.ii), Shakespeare stages stunts that are inexplicable if he didn’t want us to fuse Shylock with Jacob. Launcelot and his blind father, Old Gobbo, enact a version of Jacob fooling his blind father, Isaac, into believing Jacob is Esau. “Do you know me, father?” asks Launcelot, using the generic term of respect for an elderly man, masking the fact that the man is indeed his father. The father answers, “Alack sir, I am sand-blind, I know you not.” “It is a wise father that knows his own child,” teases Launcelot. “Well, old man, I will tell you news of your son. Give me your blessing.”

This is Jacob stealing Esau’s blessing in Genesis 27: “And Rebekah . . . put the skins of the kids of the goats upon his hands and upon the smooth of his neck . . . And Isaac said unto Jacob, Come near, I pray thee, that I may feel thee, my son, whether thou be my very son Esau or not . . . that my soul may bless thee.” And in case we miss the allusion, Shakespeare gives it again: Says Launcelot to his blind father, “Pray you, lets have no more fooling about it, but give me your blessing.” And then the father feels for the hair on the son, just as Isaac did as Jacob mimes the hairy Esau. And Old Gobbo-as-Isaac says, “Lord woshipp’d might he be, what a beard thou has got!”

Shylock’s deceased wife was Leah, the very name of the wife whom Laban tricked Jacob into marrying. Shylock even swears by “Jacobs’s staff” (II.v.36). What could all this mean? If Shylock were a well-integrated man and not a composite literary device, if he were not brutalized, if his energy and sobriety were valued, if his Christian neighbors allowed him other business besides usury, if he were shown a drop of Portia’s “mercy,” if his flair for poetry were given the free flight of a dove, he would be like the biblical Jacob, who began as a mere trickster but grew into the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. We are told that the biblical Jacob had two names, Jacob the ambitious, and later Israel, the “uplifted by God,” to signify his maturation. Jacob became tam, “complete.”

By alluding to the story of Jacob and Laban, Shakespeare suggests that Shylock had a second name, too. That name would be Jacob, the etymology of which stems from the Hebrew Yaacov, “the heel grabber,” an appropriate moniker for the second twin who pulled himself forward in the birth canal by grabbing Esau’s heel. But Shylock, reduced to usury, is never complete, never able to pull himself forward. Had he been unleashed, he might have earned Antony’s eulogy of Brutus:

          His life was gentle, and the elements

          So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up

          And say to all the world, “This was a man.”

But the unrealized Jacob remains as useless as Portia’s poorly-amalgamated suitors. In the world of literary criticism looking for Shakespeare’s biography in his work is usually considered gauche, but there’s much to be said about why Shakespeare the poet chose to add Act V to Merchant.  This coda is about the limits of poetry, while the play is about the powers and failures of Shylock, the usurious Jew, whose fate is already sealed at the end of Act IV.  Shakespeare is the one who wants to associate problematic poetry with the problematic Jew.

And it is Shakespeare the poet who gave to Oberon in Midsummer’s Night Dream and to Prospero in The Tempest the magical powers to impose imagination on reality and master it. 

This is exactly what the best of poets hope to accomplish with their powers.  So Shakespeare may have chosen the name Shylock, not because his audience would recognize it as an actual, if unusual,  Elizabethan name, certainly not because Shylock is an Italian or Hebrew name, but because it mimics his own name, just as Robert Greene in the 1590’s, in A Groat’s Worth of Wit, used the name “Shake-scene” to mock the upstart Shakespeare.

Shylock enters our culture as a malignant literalist, a miscreant clutching his knife, hoisting his ridiculous bond, as in this detail from J. M. W. Turner’s The Grand Canal Scene. Malicious Shylock lurks in the lower right-hand corner of the painting, despised by the madding crowd in magnificent Venice. And might not Turner in his portrait of Shylock have deliberately made Shylock resemble the famous portrait of Shakespeare, as seen in the Folio of 1623? Might Turner, too, have seen more in the multifaceted Shylock than meets the eye?

Victor M. Erlich, the author of Hamlet’s Absent Father and Ancient Zionism, holds a PhD from UC Berkeley, and an MD from Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He was a Professor of English Literature at Queens College in NYC for 10 years and has practiced Neurology in Seattle for 30 years.