Disowning Knowledge of Jessica, or Shylock's Skepticism
Sherman, Anita Gilman, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
What motivates Shylock? If the answer were as simple as Shylock himself would have us believe--hatred and ducats--he would not loom over the collective imagination of those who have encountered him. If he were merely a figure from a morality play, a Vice or a villain, whose sole object is revenge, he would not haunt us. Neither is it enough to admit that the play's possible anti-Semitism unnerves us, nor that we feel twinges of guilt at colluding in his perpetuation as a cultural icon. Attempting to explain the power and presence of Shakespeare's Jew, Harold Bloom argues that Shylock has the "ontological weight" of "a 'real' person entrapped in a play, surrounded by speaking shadows." (1) Bloom counters the recent tendency to regard Shylock as a kind of lightning rod for early modern English discourses of racial difference, national identity, economy, or religion. Ironically, such critical explorations of Shylock's Otherness may have contributed to his erasure. This essay aims to recuperate Shylock's subjectivity, or what Bloom calls his "deep psyche," (2) by applying Stanley Cavell's notion of the skeptical trajectory to Shylock's evolution as a character. To account for Shylock's power, I believe it is necessary to understand him as a skeptic who cannot bear to acknowledge the failures of his knowledge.
In The Claim of Reason, Cavell includes three pages on The Merchant of Venice in which he examines Shylock's famous "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech. Cavell views the speech as a skeptical recital in which Shylock attempts to wrest acknowledgment of his full humanity from Antonio. According to Cavell, Shylock is saying: "There is no proof for you that I am a man, that I am flesh, until you know that you are flesh. For you to learn this will be my better instruction." (3) The speech expresses the argument from analogy usually used to counter skepticism about the existence of other minds. But the speech goes beyond that. According to Cavell, Shylock "perfects" the argument from analogy by his demand for Antonio's pound of flesh. Shylock's vindictiveness is thus explained as a mad desire to literalize his identification with Antonio. In Cavell's words, because Shylock "perceives Antonio's refusal of acknowledgment as mutilation," he feels compelled to make Antonio into his "semblable." (4) Although Cavell grapples with Shylock's rage over his invisibility to others, he does not explore Shylock's own blind spots and failures of acknowledgment. By focusing on Shylock as the passive, albeit maddened, object of skepticism, Cavell bypasses the extent to which Shylock's words and actions can be interpreted as the manifestations of an active skepticism. (5) To view Shylock as a skeptical subject not only restores his rightful stature as a protagonist with agency, but it also allows us to use Cavell's account of the skeptical trajectory as a way of gaining insight into Shylock's susceptibilities.
According to Cavell, the skeptic faces a world vitiated of meaning. Unsure how to proceed, the skeptic torments himself with the question of "how to live at all in a groundless world." (6) He experiences skepticism, on the one hand, as a condition of global doubt and, on the other, as a sense of crisis during which the world precipitously recedes from him. The skeptical trajectory moves from doubt to crisis to madness, as in the tragedies of King Lear and Othello, or it moves not to madness but to the fanatic's quest for certainty, as in the case of Leontes in The Winter's Tale. Theodore B. Leinwand has suggested that the turn to fanaticism (rather than madness) may be more in keeping with the nature of comedy. (7) Insofar as the exigencies of comedy impinge on Shylock, his skepticism moves from a stance of disillusioned inquiry about the material world to a crisis about the existence of other minds precipitated by Jessica's departure through to a fanatical faith in the law. If Jessica's theft is regarded not merely as a matter of ducats and jewels or even of stones in the generative sense but as a theft of Shylock's understanding of the world, then we come closer to the wellspring of his power as a character. …