Of Shakespeare's displaced spirits, those enigmatic figures who sometimes seem to have wandered into the wrong play, Shylock clearly remains the most problematical. We need always to keep reminding ourselves that he is a comic villain, partly derived from the grandest of Marlovian scoundrels, Barabas, Jew of Malta. In some sense, that should place Shylock in the Machiavellian company of two villains of tragedy, Edmund and lago, yet none of us wishes to see Shylock there. Edmund and lago are apocalyptic humorists; self-purged of pathos, they frighten us because continually they invent themselves while manipulating others. Shylock's pathos is weirdly heroic; he was meant to frighten us, to be seen as a nightmare made into flesh and blood, while seeking the audience's flesh and blood. It seems clear to me that if Shakespeare himself were to be resurrected, in order to direct a production of The Merchant of Venice on a contemporary stage in New York City, there would be a riot, quite without the assistance of the Jewish Defense League. The play is both a superb romantic comedy, and a marvelously adequate version of a perfectly Christian, altogether murderous anti-Semitism, of a kind fused into Christianity by the Gospel of John in particular.
In that latter assertion, or parts of it, I follow after the formidable E. E. Stoll, who observed that Shylock's penalty was the heaviest to be discovered in all the pound-of-flesh stories. As Stoll said, in none of them "does the money-lender suffer like Shylock—impoverishment, sentence of death, and an outrage done to his faith from which Jews were guarded even by decrees of German Emperors and Roman pontiffs." Of all the enigmas presented by The Merchant of Venice, to me the most baffling is Shylock's broken acceptance of forced conversion. Is it persuasive? Surely not, since Shakespeare's Shylock, proud and fierce Jew, scarcely would have preferred Christianity to death. Consistency of character in Shylock admittedly might have cost Shakespeare the comedy of his comedy; a Shylock put to death might have shadowed the ecstasy of Belmont in Act V. But so does the forced conversion, for us, though clearly not for Shakespeare and his contemporary audience. The difficult but crucial question becomes: why did Shakespeare inflict the cruelty of the . . .