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Shylock After the Trial by John Gilbert (late 19th century)

Shylock is a fictional character in Shakespeare's play, The Merchant of Venice. A Venetian Jewish moneylender, Shylock is the play's principal antagonist. His defeat and conversion to Christianity forms the climax of the story.

Typically played as a villain until the nineteenth century, Shylock has been increasingly portrayed as a semi-tragic figure whose vengeful acts arise from his victimisation.


  • Name 1
  • In the play 2
  • Historical background 3
  • Portrayal 4
    • Shylock on stage 4.1
  • Other representations 5
    • Notable portrayals 5.1
  • Shylock and modern antisemitism 6
    • Anti-semitic reading 6.1
    • Sympathetic reading 6.2
    • Influence on antisemitism 6.3
  • References 7
  • Bibliography 8
  • Further reading 9


"Shylock" is not a Jewish name, nor was it known before Shakespeare's play, however scholars believe it probably derives from the biblical name Shalah, which is 'Shelach' (שלח) in Hebrew. Shalah is the grandson of Shem and the father of Eber, biblical progenitor of Hebrew peoples. All the names of Jewish characters in the play derive from minor figures listed in genealogies in the Book of Genesis. It is probable that Shakespeare originally intended the name to be pronounced with a short "i", as rather than a long one. The modern pronunciation has changed because the standard spelling with a "y" signifies to readers a long i pronunciation.[1]

In the play

In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is a Jewish moneylender who lends money to his Christian rival, Antonio, setting the security at a pound of Antonio's flesh from next to his heart. When a bankrupt Antonio defaults on the loan, Shylock demands the pound of flesh, as revenge for Antonio having previously insulted and spat on him in the Rialto. Meanwhile, Shylock's daughter, Jessica, falls in love with Antonio's friend Lorenzo and converts to Christianity, which adds to Shylock's rage. Jessica says that her life with her father is like hell. In the end, Shylock is charged with attempted murder, and Antonio is freed without having his flesh cut; Shylock is then forced to give half of his properties to the country and the other half to Antonio.

Historical background

In Shakespeare's time, no Jews had been legally present in England for several hundred years (since the Edict of Expulsion in 1290). However, stereotypes of Jews as money lenders remained from the Middle Ages. Historically, money lending had been a fairly common occupation among Jews, in part because Christians were not permitted to practise usury, then considered to mean charging interest of any kind on loans, and Jews were excluded from other fields of work.[2] At the same time, most Christian kings forbade Jews to own land for farming or to serve in the government, and craft guilds usually refused to admit Jews as artisans,[3] Thus money lending was one of the few occupations still open to Jews.

the Devil (Shylock).


Shylock on stage

A photograph of Henry Irving as Shylock in a late-19th -century performance

Jacob Adler and others report that the tradition of playing Shylock sympathetically began in the first half of the 19th century with Edmund Kean.[4] Previously the role had been played "by a comedian as a repulsive clown or, alternatively, as a monster of unrelieved evil." Kean's Shylock established his reputation as an actor.[5]

Since Kean's time, many other actors who have played the role have chosen a sympathetic approach to the character. Edwin Booth was a notable exception, playing him as a simple villain, although his father Junius Brutus Booth had portrayed the character sympathetically. Henry Irving's portrayal of an aristocratic, proud Shylock (first seen at the Lyceum in 1879, with Portia played by Ellen Terry) has been called "the summit of his career".[6] Jacob Adler was the most notable of the early 20th century actors in this role, speaking in Yiddish in an otherwise English-language production.[7]

Kean and Irving presented a Shylock justified in wanting his chivalrous gentleman he is made to appear. He has insulted the Jew and spat on him, yet he comes with hypocritical politeness to borrow money of him." Shylock's fatal flaw is to depend on the law, but "would he not walk out of that courtroom head erect, the very apotheosis of defiant hatred and scorn?"[8]

Some modern productions explore the justification of Shylock's thirst for vengeance. For instance, in the 2004 film adaptation directed by Michael Radford and starring Al Pacino as Shylock, the film begins with text and a montage of how the Jewish community is abused by the Christian population of the city. One of the last shots of the film also highlights that, as a convert, Shylock would have been cast out of the Jewish community in Venice, no longer allowed to live in the ghetto. But he would likely not have been fully accepted by the Christians, as they would remember his Jewish birth. Another interpretation of Shylock and a vision of how "must he be acted" appears at the conclusion of the autobiography of Alexander Granach, a noted Jewish stage and film actor in Weimar Germany (and later in Hollywood and on Broadway).[9]

Other representations

Elmore Leonard's book Get Shorty was later made into the movie Get Shorty starring John Travolta, wherein Travolta's character Ernest "Chilli" Palmer is a shylock, or loan shark. Throughout the movie Travolta pitches an idea for a movie about an actual shylock.

Arnold Wesker's play The Merchant (1977) dramatizes the same plot from Shylock's point of view. In this retelling, Shylock and Antonio are friends bound by a mutual love of books and culture and a disdain for the anti-Semitism of the Christian community's laws. They make the bond in defiant mockery of the Christian establishment, never anticipating that the bond might become forfeit. When it does, the play argues, Shylock must carry through on the letter of the law or jeopardize the scant legal security of the entire Jewish community. He is, therefore, quite as grateful as Antonio when Portia, as in Shakespeare's play, shows the legal way out. The play received its American premiere on November 16, 1977 at New York's Plymouth Theatre with Joseph Leon as Shylock, Marian Seldes as Shylock's sister Rivka and Roberta Maxwell as Portia. This production had a challenging history in previews on the road. The Broadway star Zero Mostel, who was initially cast as Shylock, died after the play's opening night in Philadelphia. The play's author, Arnold Wesker, wrote a book chronicling the out-of-town tribulations that beset the play and Mostel's death called The Birth of Shylock and the Death of Zero Mostel.

The award-winning monologue Shylock (1996) by Canadian playwright Mark Leiren-Young, focuses on a Jewish actor named Jon Davies, who is featured as Shylock in a production of The Merchant of Venice.[10] Jon addresses his audience at a “talk back” session, after the play is closed abruptly due to controversy over the play’s alleged antisemitism. Davies is portrayed both in and out of character, presenting and stripping down the layers between character and actor. Composed in one 80-minute act, it premiered at Bard on the Beach on August 5, 1996, where it was directed by John Juliani and starred popular Canadian radio host, David Berner. Its American debut was in 1998 at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre where it was directed by Deborah Block, starred William Leach and was “Barrymore Recommended.” It has since been produced at theatres, Shakespeare Festivals and Fringes throughout Canada and the US (including the San Diego Repertory Theatre where it was staged opposite a controversial production of The Merchant of Venice), was translated for a production in Denmark and has been staged twice by the original actor, Berner, in Venice.

Notable portrayals

1911 Italian-French film.

Notable actors who have portrayed Shylock include John Gielgud in 1937. Under Nazi rule in 1943, the Vienna Burgtheater presented a notoriously extreme production of The Merchant of Venice with Werner Krauss as an evil Shylock.

After World War II, productions were sometimes featured on TV and in film as well as on stage. Laurence Olivier at the Royal National Theatre in 1972 and on TV in 1973, Patrick Stewart in 1965 at the Theatre Royal, Bristol and 1978. In addition, Stewart developed a one-man show Shylock: Shakespeare's Alien and produced it while acting in the role in 1987 and 2001. Al Pacino acted as Shylock in a 2004 feature film version as well as in Central Park in 2010. F. Murray Abraham played this character at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2006. In 2015, David Serero plays Shylock in New York at the Center for Jewish History.[11]

Shylock and modern antisemitism

Shylock and Jessica by Maurycy Gottlieb

The play has been frequently staged since the late 20th century. Modern audiences are troubled by its apparent antisemitism. Critics continue to argue over the play's stance on antisemitism.

Since Shakespeare's time, the character's name has become a synonym for loan shark, and as a verb to shylock means to lend money at exorbitant rates. In addition, the phrase "pound of flesh" has also entered the lexicon as slang for a particularly onerous or unpleasant obligation.

Anti-semitic reading

English society in the Elizabethan era has been described as antisemitic.[12] English Jews had been expelled in 1290; Jews were not allowed to settle in the country until the rule of Oliver Cromwell. In the 16th and early 17th centuries, Jews were often presented on the Elizabethan stage in hideous caricature, with hooked noses and bright red wigs. They were usually depicted as avaricious usurers; an example is Christopher Marlowe's play The Jew of Malta, which features a comically wicked Jewish villain called Barabas. They were usually characterized as evil, deceptive, and greedy.

During the 1600s in Venice and in other places, Jews were required to wear a red hat at all times in public to ensure that they were easily identified. If they did not comply with this rule, they could face the death penalty. In Venice Jews had to live in a ghetto protected by Christians, probably for their own safety. The Jews were expected to pay their guards.[13]

Shakespeare's play reflected the anti-semitic tradition. The title page of the Quarto indicates that the play was sometimes known as The Jew of Venice in its day, which suggests that it was seen as similar to Marlowe's The Jew of Malta. One interpretation of the play's structure is that Shakespeare meant to contrast the mercy of the main Christian characters with the vengeful Shylock, who lacks the religious grace to comprehend mercy. Similarly, it is possible that Shakespeare meant Shylock's forced conversion to Christianity to be a "happy ending" for the character, as it 'redeems' Shylock both from his unbelief and his specific sin of wanting to kill Antonio. This reading of the play would certainly fit with the anti-semitic trends present in Elizabethan England.

Sympathetic reading

Shylock and Portia (1835) by Thomas Sully

Many modern readers and audiences have read the play as a plea for tolerance, with Shylock as a sympathetic character. According to Md. Ziaul Haque,

Is Shylock content truly?
Even after losing his religion eternally,
As someone bids farewell,
To a departing soul bound for heaven or hell!
It indeed is arguable,
Yet what my heart longs to tell,
Is that Shylock does deserve penalty,
But his religion certainly is not guilty!


Shylock's 'trial' at the end of the play is a mockery of justice, with Portia acting as a judge when she has no real right to do so. Shakespeare does not question Shylock's intentions, but that the very people who berated Shylock for being dishonest have resorted to trickery in order to win. Shakespeare gives Shylock one of his most eloquent speeches:

Hath not a Jew eyes? 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, heal'd by the same means,
warm'd and cool'd 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?
If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.
If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility?
Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his
sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge.
The villainy you teach me, I will execute,
and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

— Act III, scene I

Alexander Granach, who played Shylock in Germany in the 1920s, writes,

" does it happen that Shylock's defense becomes an accusation?...The answer must be a perfectly simple one. God and Shakespeare did not create beings of paper, they gave them flesh and blood! Even if the poet did not know Shylock and did not like him, the justice of his genius took the part of his black obstacle [Shylock, the obstacle to the plans of the young lovers] and, out of its prodigal and endless wealth, gave Shylock human greatness and spiritual strength and a great loneliness--things that turn Antonio's gay, singing, sponging, money-borrowing, girl-stealing, marriage-contriving circle into petty idlers and sneak thieves." [15]

Influence on antisemitism

Antisemites have used the play to support their views throughout its history. The 1619 edition has a subtitle of "With the Extreme Cruelty of Shylock the Jew…" The Nazis used Shylock for their propaganda. Shortly after Kristallnacht in 1938, German radio broadcast a production of The Merchant of Venice to reinforce stereotypes. Productions of the play followed in Lübeck (1938), Berlin (1940), and elsewhere within Nazi-occupied territory.[16]

The depiction of Jews in the literature of England and other English-speaking countries throughout the centuries was influenced by the character of Shylock from The Merchant of Venice and similar stereotypes. With slight variations much of English literature up until the 20th century depicts the Jew as "a monied, cruel, lecherous, avaricious outsider tolerated only because of his golden hoard".[17]


  1. ^ Jay L. Halio, The Merchant of Venice, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1994, p.23/
  2. ^ Ferguson 2009, p. 36.
  3. ^ Baron, Salo, Kahan, Arcadius; et al., Economic History of the Jews, Nachum Gross (Ed.), Schocken Books, 1975, p. 257
  4. ^ Adler erroneously dates this from 1847 (at which time Kean was already dead); the Cambridge Student Guide to The Merchant of Venice dates Kean's performance to a more likely 1814.
  5. ^ Adler 1999, 341.
  6. ^ Wells and Dobson, p. 290.
  7. ^ Adler 1999, 342–44.
  8. ^ Adler 1999, 344–350
  9. ^ Granach 1945; 2010, 275-279.
  10. ^ Charlesbois, Gaetan. “Shylock”. Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia. 18 June 2010. Retrieved January 19, 2013
  11. ^ BWW News Desk. "David Serero to Star in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE at the Center for Jewish History This June". 
  12. ^ Philipe Burrin, Nazi Anti-Semitism: From Prejudice to Holocaust. The New Press, 2005, ISBN 1-56584-969-8, p. 17.
    It was not until the twelfth century that in northern Europe (England, Germany, and France), a region until then peripheral but at this point expanding fast, a form of Judeophobia developed that was considerably more violent because of a new dimension of imagined behaviors, including accusations that Jews engaged in ritual murder, profanation of the host, and the poisoning of wells. With the prejudices of the day against Jews, atheists and non-Christians in general, Jews found it hard to fit in with society. Some say that these attitudes provided the foundations of anti-semitism in the 20th century."
  13. ^ "Venice, Italy Jewish History Tour - Jewish Virtual Library". 
  14. ^ Ziaul Haque, Md. & Das, Snigdha. "The Evil Bond in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice: The Source of Irrationality", International Journal on Studies in English Language and Literature, vol. 2, no. 9; 2014, p. 88. Retrieved on April 01, 2015.
  15. ^ Granach 1945, 2010: 276-77
  16. ^ Lecture by James Shapiro: "Shakespeare and the Jews"
  17. ^ David Mirsky, "The Fictive Jew in the Literature of England 1890-1920, in the Samuel K. Mirsky Memorial Volume.


  • Adler, Jacob, A Life on the Stage: A Memoir, translated and with commentary by Lulla Rosenfeld, Knopf, New York, 1999, ISBN 0-679-41351-0.
  • Ferguson, Niall (2009). The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World. New York: Penguin Books.  
  • Granach, Alexander, "There Goes an Actor," tr. Willard Trask, Doubleday, Doran, Garden City, NY, 1945. Also Granach, Alexander, "From the Shtetl to the Stage: The Odyssey of a Wandering Actor," with new Introduction by Herbert S., Lewis, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, NJ, 2010, ISBN 978-1-4128-1347-1.
  • Smith, Rob: Cambridge Student Guide to The Merchant of Venice. ISBN 0-521-00816-6.

Further reading

  • James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews. Columbia University Press: 1997. ISBN 0-231-10345-X.
  • S.L. Lee, "The Original of Shylock," The Gentleman's Magazine, Vol. CCXLVI, January/June 1880.
  • Pooja Rohra, Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy. Touchstone: 1994. ISBN 0-671-88386-0.
  • Alisha Patel, Shylock Is Shakespeare. University of Chicago Press: 2006. ISBN 0-226-30977-0.
  • Joseph Shatzmiller, Shylock Reconsidered: Jews, Moneylending, and Medieval Society. University of California Press: 1990. ISBN 0-520-06635-9.
  • Martin Yaffe, Shylock and the Jewish Question. Johns Hopkins University Press: 1997. ISBN 0-8018-5648-5.
  • M.G. Vassanji, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. Doubleday Canada: 2003. ISBN 0-385-65990-3.
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