Shylock Is Shakespeare

Shylock Is Shakespeare

Shylock Is Shakespeare

Shylock Is Shakespeare

Synopsis

Shylock, the Jewish moneylender in The Merchant of Venice who famously demands a pound of flesh as security for a loan to his antisemitic tormentors, is one of Shakespeare's most complex and idiosyncratic characters. With his unsettling eloquence and his varying voices of protest, play, rage, and refusal, Shylock remains a source of perennial fascination. What explains the strange and enduring force of this character, so unlike that of any other in Shakespeare's plays? Kenneth Gross posits that the figure of Shylock is so powerful because he is the voice of Shakespeare himself.

Marvelously speculative and articulate, Gross's book argues that Shylock is a breakthrough for Shakespeare the playwright, an early realization of the Bard's power to create dramatic voices that speak for hidden, unconscious, even inhuman impulses- characters larger than the plays that contain them and ready to escape the author's control. Shylock is also a mask for Shakespeare's own need, rage, vulnerability, and generosity, giving form to Shakespeare's ambition as an author and his uncertain bond with the audience. Gross's vision of Shylock as Shakespeare's covert double leads to a probing analysis of the character's peculiar isolation, ambivalence, opacity, and dark humor. Addressing the broader resonance of Shylock, both historical and artistic, Gross examines the character's hold on later readers and writers, including Heinrich Heine and Philip Roth, suggesting that Shylock mirrors the ambiguous states of Jewishness in modernity.

A bravura critical performance, Shylock Is Shakespeare will fascinate readers with its range of reference, its union of rigor and play, and its conjectural- even fictive- means of coming to terms with the question of Shylock, ultimately taking readers to the very heart of Shakespeare's humanizing genius.

Excerpt

This book is an essay on Shylock's singularity. It returns to the perennial strangeness of his life and presence in The Merchant of Venice, his opacity as a dramatic character. It examines how he organizes around himself the energy of the play even as he throws it off balance, shattering its generic clarity. Shylock has an atomic quality, compact yet explosive. His power lies in an emerging isolation of purpose and person—what he will call his “bond”—and in his refusal to be answerable to the ordinary terms of law or reason, at the same time as he makes the law his own. It lies also in an idiosyncratic eloquence that at once exposes and occults Shylock's inner life, even as his words show the world a mirror of its hidden rage. This eloquence has its darkly comic as well as its tragic aspects. His character embodies what you might call a poetics of repugnancy. There is something in Shylock that resists absorption or clarification. He is like a Möbius strip, his inside and outside continually turning into one another.

Shylock's ferocious idiosyncrasy makes a strange place for The Merchant of Venice within the Shakespearean canon as a whole. In the play, a character intended as one piece of a larger dramatic machine so draws the poet's attention that he gains a life that threatens to dominate or deform the whole. If this begins as an accident, it leads to a genuine breakthrough, and after Shylock something in the plays is different. He looks forward to many aspects of the later plays—the wild interiority of the tragedies, for one thing, and . . .

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