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Understanding Shylock’s Hatred In ‘The Merchant of Venice’

Oftentimes, whenever the story breaks of another (straight) woman lamenting her discovery that her husband is gay, I hear gay men say things like: “Well, that’s what you deserve, for being part of a society that has refused to let us live.”

Recently re-watching the 2004 movie adaptation of The Merchant of Venice made me realize how understandable this kind of scorn is.

A friend said something awhile ago about how revisiting a piece of television you’d watched before as a kid could give you brand new insight on what it is saying, which you are only able to now see as an adult. He was talking about The Prince of Egypt.

That moment happened for me with The Merchant of Venice.

This play was one of the literary works I, as a student, read in my Literature in English class back when I was in secondary school, and I also saw the film when it came out in 2004. In case you’ve forgotten the storyline, here it is:

Shylock is a Jewish moneylender, who loans money to a Venetian (Christian) merchant, Antonio. Antonio has all of his ships out doing business, and so, does not have the money to give his bosom friend, Bassanio, hence the decision to borrow from Shylock. Bassanio needs the money to go pursue Portia, a wealthy heiress who has captured his heart. However, contrary to the way the Jewish moneylenders do business, which is to give you a loan and get it back with interest, Shylock has no interest in getting back interest from Antonio. He instead asks for collateral from Antonio: if Antonio is unable to pay back the loan at an agreed time, Shylock will get a pound of flesh from Antonio.

Antonio agrees to this bond, confident that he will get the money back when his ships return. Unfortunately, his fortunes are lost at sea, and Shylock, who has been embittered by his mistreatment at the hands of Venetia’s Christians, particularly Antonio, sticks to his determination to exact revenge by getting his pound of flesh. (I believe it is this play that the expression “a pound of flesh” originated from, which means a debt or punishment, especially a cruel and unreasonable one, that is harshly insisted upon.)

Shylock is so blinded by his need for revenge, foregoing double the money which Bassanio had brought back to rescue Antonio from the collateral. But he is outwitted by Portia (who is posing as a lawyer, Balthazar), an ending to the case that costs him one-half of his wealth and an agreement for him to convert to Christianity.

Throughout my past familiarity with this play, the lesson I learned was simple: Shylock is a vicious, wicked man who deserved what he got.

Then I watched the movie yesterday, and because of my awareness of all the injustices going on in the world and all the imbalances that plague our humanity, I could now see Shylock in a new light. I could see his rage and how it could be justified. This is a man who was mistreated by other people like him simply for being a Jew. In the movie, Antonio (played by Jeremy Irons) spits on him and scorns him.

Why?

He isn’t a criminal. He didn’t break any laws.

He is simply a Jew.

Years of being treated at best like a secondhand citizen and at worst a wretched animal can do a number on one’s psyche. Years of unjust hate can foster hate. And when you grow up in that environment where society’s only use for you is how they can use you to further their own situations (in Shylock’s case, his money-lending business), then resentment hardens into revenge. Al Pacino gave a fantastic performance as Shylock, when he pointed out the wickedness of prejudice against other people over their humanity.

“Hath not a Jew eyes?” he screamed at the Venetians who wanted him to reconsider his collateral of Antonio’s pound of flesh. “Hath not a Jew hands? Organs, dimensions? Senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food? Hurt with the same weapons? Subject to the same diseases? Healed by the same means? Warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”

Discrimination against another human being over such things as race, gender and sexuality is STUPID! Striving to reduce the humanity of another person over the same characteristics you possess albeit differently is WICKED!

And sometimes, the product of all that hate is hate. Sometimes, not everyone will rise above when they are unjustly brought low. Sometimes, the people you constantly spit on will NOT turn the other cheek. They will spit right back on you.

“The villainy you teach me, I will execute,” Shylock says.

‘Two wrongs cannot make a right’ is the sermon only those who have known no real injustice can preach. Simply expecting someone who has been unfairly and repeatedly dehumanized to give back love is a gross underestimation of the way human beings work.

Oftentimes, whenever the story breaks of yet another (straight) woman lamenting her discovery that her husband is gay, I hear gay men say things like: “Well, that’s what you deserve, for being part of a society that has refused to let us live.”

It is an unfair thing to say, but as with Shylock’s blind need for revenge, an understandable human reaction to injustice.

I am @walteruude on Twitter and Instagram

About shakespeareanwalter

Walt Shakes(@Walt_Shakes) is an award-winning Nigerian writer, poet and veteran blogger. He is a lover of the written word. the faint whiff of nature, the flashing vista of movies, the warmth of companionship and the happy sound of laughter.

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