The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.404 Wednesday, 30 November 2016
Date: November 29, 2016 at 4:56:02 PM EST
Subject: MV Dialog
Shylock as the Devil [cont.2]
References to Shylock as not a Jew:
Shakespeare has Shylock swear by Jacob’s staff.
Shylocke: ……………………..By Jacobs staffe I sweare
A Jacob’s staff is also called a cross-staff. It was an instrument used in surveying and navigation and had a single pole with an adjustable cross piece. John Dee introduced the Jacob’s staff in England in the 1550s.
Image for Jacob’s Staff:
In Act 2 Scene 5, Shylock, Jessica, and Launcelet were alone in Shylock’s house — which, as we learned from Jessica, is hell. Shylock swore by an object that is shaped like a cross, something a devout Jew would not be expected to do. (Of course, one would not expect the Devil to do so either.)
References to Shylock as the Devil
Some Preliminary Guidelines
These are some of the guidelines I try to follow:
As most of you may know, I am a retired attorney. Over the centuries the common law has developed a number of rules to guide courts and lawyers when they need to construe contracts. These rules apply even when the contract is decades old and even when the original parties who negotiated and signed the contract have died.
I have modified some of these rules in order to fit the construction of a play instead of a contract. Shakespeare is the primary negotiator/party and his audiences are the secondary parties.
My primary focus is on the words that Shakespeare used in the play. Pay careful attention to the words!
If Shakespeare wrote it that way, he intended it that way. We cannot rewrite the play to suit our ideas or to “correct” what we think Shakespeare “must have meant”.
The goal is to ascertain the intent of the playwright as well as to ascertain how late sixteenth century London audiences would have understood the play.
Always consider the play as a whole.
Give the words used in the play their plain, ordinary meaning circa 1596, unless it appears that Shakespeare had some specialized meaning in mind. This element can be a bit tricky given that Shakespeare often used particular words in multiple ways. For example, double entendres: a particular word can have an ordinary meaning and also have a sexual meaning. A word can have an ordinary meaning on one dimension of meaning, and have a different meaning on another dimension.
Make every effort to resolve ambiguities and apparent contradictions. Sometimes Shylock is a Jew. Sometimes he’s the Devil. We will discuss how Shakespeare resolved this apparent contradiction a little later.
Antonio refered to Shylock as the Devil.
Antonio: Marke you this Bassanio,
The divell can cite Scripture for his purpose,
An evill soule producing holy witnesse,
Is like a villaine with a smiling cheeke,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O what a goodly outside falsehood hath!
Shylock had just concluded his Jacob and Laban story from the Book of Genesis.
“Mark you this Bassanio” also means “Pay attention audience.” Shakespeare used several techniques to alert his audiences to pay particular attention to what was being said or what was about to be said. Mark you is a particularly obvious flag, which alerted his audiences to pay attention to what Antonio was about to say. And the words thereafter refer to: Shylock as the Devil citing Scripture; Shylock as an evil soule; and Shylock as a “villaine with a smiling cheeke”.
Shakespeare used several other techniques to achieve a similar result. I have already mentioned how he would use the same word or phrase several times within a short space of time.
Give these words their plain ordinary meaning. I realize that one can dodge the plain ordinary meaning by dismissing these words as mere hyperbole. However, there is no textual evidence to indicate that Shakespeare did not mean exactly what he had Antonio say.
Put this quotation aside for the moment until we consider the rest of the play. If this were the only instance in which Shakespeare referred to Shylock as the Devil, we might well dismiss it as mere hyperbole.
O what a goodly outside falsehood hath! is yet another instance of the theme of appearances being deceiving. Bassanio later said, So may the outward shows be least themselves.
Tony Burton called my attention to a chapter he wrote for Who Hears in Shakespeare? edited by Laury Magnus and Walter W. Cannon. Tony’s chapter is Asides and Multiple Audiences in The Merchant of Venice. A superb chapter and an excellent book. Tony was recently named the first Life Fellow at the Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies at U. Mass, Amherst.
Another helpful chapter is by James Hirsh, entitled Guarded, Unguarded, and Unguardable Speech in Late Renaissance Drama.
These chapters have caused me to wonder. To whom was Antonio speaking? Could Shylock hear him? Did Antonio believe what he had just said literally? The First Folio does not provide any stage directions that might answer these questions.
Antonio appeared to be speaking to Bassanio while Shylock gathered his thoughts. I believe that Antonio momentarily turned his back on Shylock to address both Bassanio and the audience. Antonio did not intend for Shylock to hear this comment, and Shylock’s next words make no reference to it.
I also believe that Antonio spoke more than he knew. He probably intended his reference to Shylock as “the divell” to be just an insult, which he did not want Shylock to overhear. As of this point, Antonio was still hoping that Shylock would loan him the money. He and Shylock had not yet begun their exchange of insults.
Had Antonio really believed Shylock to be the Devil, he certainly would not have gone through with the loan on such barbarous terms. He had not heard Shylock’s earlier aside (I say aside; the First Folio does not identify it as such):
Jew: I hate him for he is a Christian:
But more, for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis, and brings downe
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.
If I can catch him once upon the hip
I will feede fat the ancient grudge I beare him….
Hating Antonio because he was a Christian, not just because he lent out money gratis. Intending to feede fat the ancient grudge. These words did not make much of an impression when I first read them. But after I realized that Shakespeare had written Shylock as the Devil disguised as a Jew, these words took on new significance. I could now hear the Devil in Shylock speaking them.
This is an example of Shakespeare’s brilliant artistry. He was subtly preparing his audiences to understand Shylock as the Devil while at the same time using words at the outset that they (and The Powers That Be) could understand as coming from a Jewish moneylender. Plays that too obviously dealt with serious religious or political themes might not have been approved for performance.