I am watching a YouTube video of a panel discussion about Shylock, Shakespeare and the Jews. The gentleman that is speaking now says that Shakespeare (like Harry S. Truman who said the Jews were selfish) was a product of his times and should not be judged using the hindsight of our times. While I agree with the gentleman that Shakespeare was influenced by the times in which he lived, I believe Shakespeare often transcended those times and that the Merchant of Venice, particularly the character of Shylock, proves it.
That Shylock is a despicable human being does not end the inquiry. Only the morbidly naïve would suggest that there has never been a despicable Jew. And that Shakespeare chose to dramatize a story about a Jewish moneylender who seeks to exact a vicious revenge on a Christian borrower does not end the inquiry either. Jews were moneylenders in Shakespeare’s time because it was one of the few occupations open to them. The interest-earning Jew was more than a stereotype in Elizabethan England. It was a living, breathing reality; a product, not a cause, of anti-Semitism.
In 1999, English theater critic Carl Miller reviewed a rare production of Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and said that it is “pretty much nonsense” to conclude that because Shakespeare’s Jew, Shylock, shows more humanity than Marlowe’s Jew, Barabas, Shakespeare must have loved Jews (emphasis added):
Since Auschwitz, critical comment has used Marlowe’s play to defend Shakespeare against charges of anti-Semitism. Understandable anxiety that the Bard of Avon could have penned a play so much appreciated by the Nazis has led to many pages explaining exactly why Shakespeare could not have shared the prejudices of the society that he depicts. Shakespeare’s philo-Semitism is supposed to become clear when you compare Shylock with Barabas. Marlowe’s broad-brush portrait of a Jewish villain is said simply to reflect the crude prejudices of the rabble, while Shakespeare’s delicate artistry transcends conventional attitudes to create a complex Jewish individual.
Miller’s is a strawman argument. Nobody with an intact frontal cortex ever contended that Shakespeare loved Jews, which is what the word “philo-Semite” means. The assertion that Shakespeare transcended his time and that this transcendence is evidenced in part by the way he portrayed Shylock as compared to the way Marlowe portrayed Barabas is not remotely close to the assertion that Shakespeare loved Jews. What makes Shakespeare transcendent is not his love for Jews, but his recognition of their humanity. Unlike Marlowe, Shakespeare depicts his moneylender as a human being with legitimate grievances, not a cartoon character devoid of human qualities:
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.
Miller said that those of us who believe that Shakespeare transcended his times and that his treatment of Shylock is evidence of it are delusional and believe this only to comfort ourselves. Miller, apparently superior to the lay-masses because he is a theater critic, is above such self-deception:
[The contention that Shakespeare was not an anti-Semite] is pretty much nonsense, but comforting to those who prefer their enjoyment of The Merchant untainted by queasy feelings that a play in which a Jew ends up humiliated and forcibly converted is perhaps not the promised “Comical History.”
The assertion that Shakespeare transcended his times is neither nonsense nor comforting. It is not “nonsense” because even an amateur Shakespearean knows that Shakespeare’s works are relevant today while the works of his contemporaries are not. What other proof is needed of transcendence? It is not “comforting” because Shakespeare’s transcendence was accomplished not by making a Jew loveable, but merely by making him human, sympathetic, and not irrefutably in the wrong. That Shakespeare might have been the only gentile in Elizabethan England capable of rising above the anti-Semitism of his age is not only not comforting, it’s doubly disturbing. Doubly because Jew-hatred was so virulent in the 16th and early 17th centuries that all Shakespeare had to do to transcend his time was to give Shylock a few legitimate grievances and a colorable claim of revenge.