May 12, 2021
On June 21st, 2017, in Venice, Italy, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg sat on a panel of five judges convened to hear an unusual appeal. A Jewish moneylender had lent a large sum to a Christian merchant who had subsequently lost a number of ships carrying precious goods, rendering him unable to pay the debt in the three months allotted. The moneylender refused to settle the dispute outside of court, and, at trial, refused sums of money far greater than that originally owed him. Instead, he single-mindedly focused on the pound of flesh which the penalty provision of the bond allotted him. The original judge, who was in fact a noblewoman in disguise, granted him the pound of flesh — but at the last moment, when the Jewish man’s knife was inches from the breast of the unfortunate merchant, she cautioned him that his bond did not entitle him to a single drop of blood. Subsequently, the moneylender — a non-citizen by virtue of his religion — was punished for plotting against the life of a citizen of Venice: he had half his property confiscated, was forced to leave the other half to the Christian who had married his daughter, and was made to convert to Christianity upon penalty of death.
This, of course, is Shylock’s case, which was rehashed in a mock appeal as part of a celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Venice ghetto. After more than an hour of arguments by three prestigious lawyers on behalf of the Jewish moneylender Shylock, the Christian merchant Antonio, and the legal mastermind and disguised noblewoman Portia – frequently punctuated by hard-hitting questions from the judges and gales of laughter from the audience – Justice Ginsburg, an ornate red and yellow collar enlivening her black robes, delivered the verdict: Shylock would receive neither the pound of flesh he sought nor interest on the three thousand ducats he had lent. He would, however, be repaid by Antonio and released from the forfeiture of property and forced conversion unexpectedly visited upon him at the end of the trial.
This mock trial, which can be viewed in full courtesy of the Library of Congress, is one of the more unusual manifestations of an impulse apparently shared by many Jewish readers of the Merchant of Venice: to redeem Shylock, despite the fact that everything from his profession to his sense of humor echo ancient antisemitic tropes. Justice Ginsburg is merely the latest in an illustrious lineage of Jewish writers, actors, and thinkers who have gone to great lengths to liberate Shylock from the harsh sentence and condemnation of character that the court of Venice inflicted upon him.
Yosef Bovshover, an anarchist poet who incongruously produced a remarkably faithful Yiddish translation of the Merchant of Venice (the greatest liberty he took with the text was retitling it “Shaylok”), begins his introduction to the 1899 edition by admitting, “Many Jewish readers have found reason to object to Shylock, thinking that in the character of Shylock, the so-called antisemite Shakespeare presented the Jew as the antisemite sees him: mean, money-loving, wheeling-and-dealing, separated from society, a usurer and flatterer by nature.” 1 1 William Shakespeare, Shaylok: oder, der koyfman fun venedig, trans. Josef Bovshover (New York: Hebrew Publishing Co, 1899), 4. Courtesy of the Yiddish Book Center. Bovshover then spends the rest of his introduction energetically countering this extremely understandable perspective. Though deducing Shakespeare’s own attitudes from this text seems a dubious endeavor, it’s clear that Shylock has been the butt of the joke for most audiences of the Merchant of Venice, particularly before the 20th century. He was often played as a caricature by actors wearing red fright-wigs and large prosthetic noses. 2 2 In 1664, the actor Thomas Jordan, in a verse summary of the Merchant of Venice, described Shylock as follows “His beard was red; his face was made / not much unlike a witches. / His habit was a Jewish gown, / That would defend all weather; / His chin turned up, his nose hung down, / And both ends met together.” (Reprinted in the New Variorum Merchant of Venice, edited by Henry Howard Furness, 1888.) Shylock seems to love his money far more than he loves his own daughter, Jessica. When Jessica elopes with her Christian suitor Lorenzo and a chest of gold and jewels, Shylock exclaims to Tubal, a fellow Jew: “I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear! would she were hearsed at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin!” Shylock’s greed is matched only by his legal-minded vengefulness. After Antonio defaults on his debt, Shylock’s speech is taken over by phrases like “I crave the law!,” “I will have my bond!,” and “I stand here for justice.” As the trial progresses, Jewish legalism is defeated by Christian mercy — or, depending on one’s perspective, vengefulness masquerading as mercy.
For a Jewish audience or readership to identify with Shylock as Shakespeare wrote him is not easy. Although Shylock has moments of soaring humanity – “if you prick us, do we not bleed?” being the best known example – he quickly returns to two-dimensional vileness. I have seen The Merchant of Venice several times in stage and film adaptations, and each time have found it to be a profoundly unsettling experience, marked by a confusing mixture of sympathy, disgust, outrage, and fascination. So why, I found myself wondering, would anyone have bothered to translate this work into Yiddish? If, as a 1903 New York Times review of Jacob Adler’s portrayal of Shylock put it, “to make Shylock fully sympathetic to a Jewish audience is virtually impossible,” how could the Merchant of Venice have been performed by Yiddish-speaking actors, in Yiddish theaters, to the delight of a Yiddish-speaking audience?
Maurice Schwartz (1890-1960), one of the brightest stars of the Yiddish stage, produced, adapted, and starred in a Yiddish-language version of the Merchant of Venice that debuted at New York’s Yiddish Art Theater in 1947. The script was several steps removed from Shakespeare’s original: Schwartz based it on a 1943 Hebrew language novel by Ari Ibn Zahav, Shailok, ha-Yehudi mi-Venetsyah. Schwartz’s version, entitled Shaylok un Zayn Tokhter, made Shakespeare’s antisemitic parable into a compelling and relatable father-daughter drama, in which Jessica’s marriage to Lorenzo and conversion to Christianity are the primary plot thread. To make the injustice done Shylock even more heinous, Antonio uses the loan of three thousand ducats specifically to fund Lorenzo’s courtship of Jessica. Bassiano, Portia’s suitor and Antonio’s dear friend, is cut out altogether: Antonio and Portia become an older Christian couple who welcome Jessica and Lorenzo after they elope. Jessica herself, who has only a handful of lines in the Merchant of Venice, becomes a complex character whose desire to earn “a little less suffering, less pining, less loneliness” by leaving the ghetto may well have resonated with American Jewish immigrants of the 20th century. By the end of the play, the repentant Jessica, unable to undo her ill-advised baptism, drowns herself. Schwartz played Shylock as a sympathetic martyr, wronged by his daughter and his city alike.
Schwartz’s most radical revision, however, came at the climax of the trial scene, as Shylock prepared to carve his pound of flesh from Antonio’s breast. In an oral history interview with the Yiddish Book Center, the literary critic Harold Bloom, who first encountered Shakespeare in Yiddish translation, recalls witnessing this decisive moment at the Second Avenue Theater as an eight-year-old:
Schwartz was an enormous man. He has a gigantic black beard and a booming voice...so there he is, waving an enormous scalpel, and he is approaching Antonio, the trembling sheygetz, who was stripped to the waist. And suddenly, with a histrionic shudder that you could feel all through the Second Av Theater, Maurice Schwartz drops the scalpel and screams out, “Ikh bin dokh a Yid!” Which is of course untranslatable...it’s like “well after all, I am Jewish and we don’t do this sort of thing.”
This is the essential change, genius in its simplicity: Shylock drops the knife. What is particularly marvelous about this “improvement” (as Schwartz liked to describe his alterations to the text) is that it reverses the ancient equation of Jewishness with severity and Christian forbearance with mercy, rooting Shylock’s mercy squarely in a deeply Yiddish notion of mentshlekhkayt. 3 3 The formula “ibergezetst un farbesert” (“translated and improved”) introduced many adaptations of Shakespeare for the Yiddish stage. For more on this, see: Alyssa Quint, “Translated and Improved,” The Edward Blank YIVO Vilna Online Collections, 2017. Shylock’s redemption is not the forced baptism with which Shakespeare’s text ends, but a powerful reclaiming of Jewish identity, after which, Bloom recalls, the play actually had to stop to allow time for the thunderous applause.
Jacob Adler, Schwartz’ predecessor in the role, never went so far as to actually drop the knife in the trial scene, but his portrayal was informed by his conviction that, given the opportunity, Shylock would have relented. In his memoir, A Life on the Stage, Adler writes:
Shylock was from the first governed by pride rather revenge. He wishes to humble and terrify Antonio for the insult and humiliation he has suffered at his hands. That is why he goes so far as to bring his knife and scales into the court. For Shylock, however, the desired climax was to refuse the pound of flesh with a gesture of divine compassion. When the verdict goes against him, he is crushed because he has been robbed of this opportunity, not because he lusts for Antonio’s death. This was my interpretation. This is the Shylock I have tried to show. 4 4 Jacob Adler, A Life on the Stage, trans. Lula Rosenberg (New York: Knopf, 1999).
This way of reading is almost Talmudic in its ingenuity. Despite being profoundly counterintuitive, it is impossible to actually disprove based on Shakespeare’s text. Yes, Shylock brings a balance scale to the trial, and sharpens a knife on the sole of his shoe throughout the proceedings. Yes, he repeatedly refuses any restitution of his lost money, insisting instead on the pound of flesh he is owed. Yes, he makes his “lodged hate” of Antonio and desire to punish him for his abuses abundantly clear. But, Adler suggests, this is all theater, an elaborate artifice by means of which Shylock gains the moral upper hand.
Adler is not the only one to give Shylock the benefit of the doubt in this way. In the original text, the Duke of Venice himself begins the trial with precisely this reading of Shylock’s behavior:
Shylock, the world thinks, and I think so too,
That thou but lead’st this fashion of thy malice
To the last hour of the act; and then ’tis thought
Thou’lt show thy mercy and remorse more strange
Michael Kloontz, Shylock’s “counsel” in the 2017 mock trial, made exactly the same claim on behalf of his “client,” saying, “If Portia had granted him that right… of specific performance, he might have dropped the knife and asked for the money instead.” Antonio’s lawyer dismissed this, declaring that “never until this appeal have we heard such an argument” – apparently, he was unfamiliar with Adler’s memoirs.
The redemptive moment in Adler’s staging of the trial scene was not, as in Schwartz’s, Shylock’s last-minute change of heart, but rather his silent exit. Stella Adler, Jacob’s daughter, recalled the scene as follows:
Adler’s Merchant, above all, was a man of power. When he was called before the Judge to give his testimony, one clearly saw the two powers living then in one community. Only as the trial proceeded, as Shylock began to understand that he had no legal rights in this court, no rights of any kind, did this sense of himself change. He lost power! When the verdict was pronounced, taking from him everything, taking even his religion, his strength left him. He crumbled and broke. The Venetians, exulting at his defeat, now laid hands on him, brutally forcing him down to the earth. Chattering with fear, bent, stooped, he was an image of defenseless terror.
The scene was one of revolting oppression. But the injustice done to Shylock was not the center of Adler’s idea. What he wanted to show was his grandeur. He threw off his fear. As the Venetians fell back, silent, he slowly rose again–and to those watching, all Judaism rose with him. Erect, with a backward glance of burning scorn for this court and its justice, in the full pride of his race, he slowly left the hall. 6 6 Jacob Adler, A Life on the Stage, trans. Lula Rosenberg (New York: Knopf, 1999), xiii-xiv.
How different this depiction is from even recent productions of this play! In the 2007 film version starring Al Pacino, for example, Shylock grovels and moans after beings told he must convert. He leaves the trial haggard and bent; his hat is snatched off and he is spat upon as he goes. In a 2011 performance at Playhouse 22, Shylock spends several minutes collapsed upon the floor during the trial, and, with a groan, removes his skullcap before stumbling off. In the 1980 BBC Shakespeare production, in which John Rhys-Davies plays Shylock, he not only grovels, sobs, and loses his yarmulke, but is made to kiss a large golden crucifix, which one of Antonio’s cruder friends hangs around his neck. Indeed, it is during this spectacle of total humiliation, where Shylock must beg even for the right to depart, that my own disgust with this play and suspicion of its motives is most intense. A version where Shylock recovers his dignity and leaves the trial scene with power and pride: that would be something worth seeing.
The script for the production in which Jacob Adler starred was Bovshover’s translation, Shaylok, oder, der Koyfman fun Venedig. Bovshover, a committed anarchist and labor activist, embraced Shylock in a markedly different way than either Adler or Schwartz. Instead of focusing on Shylock as a character — considering his motives, principles, and intentions — Bovshover saw Shylock as a political hero, a powerful spokesman for oppressed peoples everywhere. In his impassioned foreword, he argues that the miserly moneylender of Venice actually expresses Shakespeare’s own frustrations with the ruling class who patronized his theater. Bovshover writes:
Paging through several of Shakespeare’s works one can easily see… what kind of attitude he had towards oppression, from what point of view he looked upon the “mighty”, the rulers, the kings, princes, and lords among whom he lived, and how, in the depths of his heart, he did not agree with their corruption and unchecked, cannibalistic greed. Could this Shakespeare have represented Shylock as he did, and condemned him and his race because he would not always permit himself to be constantly trampled upon, his beard constantly spat upon, constantly mocked, and constantly insulted for his trade? Is it not easy to understand that Shylock, like Hamlet, like King Lear and Othello...is a child of his [Shakespeare’s] imagination, of his soul, his own flesh and blood, is a part of him? Is it not easy to understand that through Shylock’s lips speaks Shakespeare himself, Shakespeare who suffered for a long time before he earned himself a name; who suffered many debasements and humiliations from great and common people alike; Shakespeare who held the reins of horses for the rich lords and gentle-folk who came to the theater; and then stood on the stage as a mute player, and only after that began to win himself a name through his writing – that same Shakespeare who made himself a clown to lords...who suffered as an actor, as the husband of a woman who didn’t understand him, as a tender, loving man, as a great thinker and a free-spirited man? 7 7 William Shakespeare, Shaylok: oder, der koyfman fun venedig, trans. Josef Bovshover (New York: Hebrew Publishing Co, 1899), 5. Courtesy of the Yiddish Book Center.
In giving this rather imaginative account of Shakespeare’s biography, which focuses on his working-class origins and alleged disdain for the rich and powerful, Bovshover suggests that Shylock could not have been an antisemitic character primarily because Shakespeare himself could not have been an antisemite: he must, by virtue of his own marginalization, have profoundly understood and sympathized with Shylock’s plight. As Bovshover sees it, Shylock and Shakespeare share his own revolutionary spirit and refusal to submit to the degradations of rank. I find it surprising and refreshing that Bovshover, a Jewish immigrant, ‘sweatshop poet,’ and labor activist, felt a sense of deep kinship with the figure at the very center of the Western canon, who has been wholeheartedly embraced by the European elite for centuries as the epitome of cultured intellect.
Bovshover offers several examples of “Shakespeare speaking through Shylock’s lips,” pieces of dialogue intended to demonstrate Shylock’s nobility of spirit and refusal of subservience. Some of these examples are more convincing than others, such as the scene in which Shylock asks why he should lend money to the man who constantly insults him. Curiously enough, the famous “if you prick us, do we not bleed?” soliloquy does not appear. Instead, Bovshover offers several excerpts of dialogue from the culminating trial. Shylock offers no heartstring-tugging appeals to shared humanity in those citations: his obsession with his bond has become all-consuming, and he is utterly ruthless in his pursuit of it, readily admitting to his hatred of Antonio and murderous longing for vengeance. Although they are unlikely to elicit either pity or admiration, I can understand why Bovshover offers these lines as exemplars of the spirit that resists oppression. Shylock’s impassioned declaration I’ll not be made a soft and dull eyed fool / To shake the head, relent, and sight, and yield / To Christian intercessors” is particularly resonant with Bovshover’s reading of Shylock as a courageous and defiant hero of the downtrodden. His lawsuit, therefore, becomes something loftier and less personal than revenge; it becomes resistance.
Following these citations, Bovshover resumes his case for embracing Shylock as a hero of the proletariat:
Does each oppressed, derided, hated person not speak this way at some point in their lives, either in these or in other words? Does not the worker speak this way to the foreman, the beggar to the wealthy person? Did Brutus not speak this way to Caesar as he plunged the dagger into his heart? Did America not speak this way to England when she freed herself from British tyranny?
When I first read Bovshover’s introduction, my eyebrows travelled further up my forehead with each new example of resistance to tyranny Bovshover suggests. Shylock the wealthy moneylender hardly shares the plight of the underpaid worker or beggar. Furthermore, as he himself admits, his suit for the pound of flesh is motivated by hatred and revenge, and hinges on the brutal punishment of Antonio as an individual — a far cry from the systemic political upheaval sought by Brutus or the newborn United States.
Nevertheless, I find Bovshover’s analogies compelling. How could Shylock’s project not be political? He is, after all, a Jew demanding that the courts of Venice award him the right to kill a Gentile merchant, enraged by chronic antisemitic abuse and the conversion of his only daughter. Shylock’s own description of the forthcoming trial as a “losing suit” implies that it is a performance more than anything else, an attempt to test the principle of justice and the integrity of the court. His refusal to offer any justification for his murderous desire besides “a lodged hate and a certain loathing” or to engage in debate with his “Christian intercessors” can be seen as a particularly bloody-minded form of political resistance.
Even as I am excited by this redemptive rereading of the Merchant of Venice, it’s important to distinguish between what the text allows and what its author might plausibly have intended. I see little historical or literary evidence to support Bovshover’s conviction that Shakespeare could not have “condemned [Shylock] and his race,” that some combination of Shakespeare’s own biography and innate sensitivity would have rendered him far more sympathetic to the plight of a Jewish moneylender than the average 16th century Christian in England. It bears remembering that Shakespeare almost definitely never met a single Jew, since the Edict of Expulsion in 1290 had forced them out of Great Britain. The play as written lends itself at least as readily to antisemitic propaganda and caricature as it does to sympathy for Shylock’s cause, and a distinctly small percentage of its readers and audiences have been sympathetically inclined. The Merchant of Venice, lest we forget, was far more popular in Nazi Germany than on the Yiddish stage. 8 8 For more on this fascinating and unsettling history, see: John Gross, “Shylock and Nazi Propaganda,” The New York Times, April 4, 1993, https://www.nytimes.com/1993/04/04/theater/theater-shylock-and-nazi-propaganda.html.
These sobering realities aside, what particularly appeals to me about Bovshover’s approach is that, unlike Schwartz and Adler, he offers no apologetics on Shylock’s behalf. While Schwartz completely rewrote Shylock’s story to make him its sympathetic hero, and Adler relied upon a speculative and unjustified conviction that Shylock would have acted contrary to the intentions he declares at every opportunity, Bovshover finds a way — albeit an improbable one — to embrace Shylock and his narrative as written. His translation, in keeping with this approach, is unflinchingly faithful even in Shylock’s darkest moments. There is something quite subversive about this: Bovshover does not need to make Shylock conform to Portia’s demand that “the Jew be merciful.” Instead, he celebrates his avowed vengefulness as a form of courageous and dignified resistance.
I find myself torn in this matter. There is, I admit, a part of me that wants to agree with Bovshover, to wholeheartedly cheer Shylock on in his unbridled scorn and vengefulness, and to adopt him as an early hero of the Jewish resistance. But it’s not only my understanding of Shakespeare’s (and his audience’s) attitude towards the Jews that makes me skeptical. It’s the text itself. Although there are moments when Shylock rises to the noble rebelliousness that Bovshover sees in him, in many others his desire for self-preservation outstrips his dignity. Once the court proceedings have turned against him, for example, Antonio offers Shylock the “mercy” of retaining half his property — on the condition that he become a Christian, and leave his entire estate to Lorenzo, the Gentile who married his daughter. Shylock, whose clever eloquence seems to desert him entirely after Portia denies him the pound of flesh, answers merely “I am content.” In Bovshover’s Yiddish this is somehow even harsher, “Ikh bin tzufridn” — a word which, though it can mean merely “content,” often also has the connotation of “glad, pleased.” Given how utterly and abruptly Shylock’s adversaries strip his determination from him and subdue his rebellious spirit enough that he must beg even leave to depart the court, I can’t let myself embrace the Merchant of Venice as eagerly as Bovshover does.
I cannot be utterly cynical about it either, however. The uneasy compromise I’ve come to is as follows: I am resigned to the fact that Shakespeare probably wrote most of Shylock’s lines intending his audience to laugh at them and to relish the just punishment of a Jew who takes the letter of the law too far. I acknowledge that the Merchant of Venice is at least partially an allegory in which Christian “mercy” triumphs, morally, financially, and erotically, over Jewish legalistic vengefulness. Shylock’s insistence on his “bond” is a parody of Jewish adherence to the letter of Biblical law, and his unrelenting insistence on justice undoes him, restoring the “rightful” order.
However, I believe it’s possible to maintain an attitude of skepticism towards the motives and principles of the Merchant of Venice as an English text at the same time as I marvel at and celebrate the Jewish translators and actors who embraced it. In their translations, adaptations, performances, portrayals, and even in Justice Ginsburg’s mock appeal, the miserly Jew of Venice is liberated from a text in which he can only ever be halfway human and halfway a laughingstock. As any good translation should, these versions give Shylock new life. I can think of few greater cultural triumphs than this: speaking (in Yiddish!) through Shylock’s lips, Jewish poets, actors, novelists, and thinkers have eloquently articulated their own dignity, humanity, and resilience. This is Shylock’s redemption.
In addition to the sources cited above, this piece draws on the following sources:
Gross, Kenneth. Shylock is Shakespeare. London: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Berkowitz, Joel. Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002.
Wrestling with Shylock: Jewish Responses to the Merchant of Venice. Edited by Edna Nahshon and Michael Shapiro. Cambridge University Press, 2017.
Sandrow, Nahma. “Shylock’s Jewish Way of Speaking.” In Geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies, 2020.
Lehman, Farrah. “Nisht kayn Desdemona, nisht kayn Dzulieta: Yiddish Adaptations of the Merchant of Venice and the Early Modern Father-Daughter Bond.” Borrowers and Lenders: the Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation, vol. IV, no. 2 (2009).
Ibn Zahav, Ari. Shailok: ha-Yehudi mi Venestyah. Tel Aviv: Yavneh, 1943.