Does a scholar’s theory render moot the debate about a play’s antisemitism?
Shylock is Shakespeare
By Kenneth Gross
University of Chicago Press, 184 pages, $22.50
Sometimes, when the traditional tools of the trade just don’t cut it, a scholar is forced to get creative. In the closing pages of “Freud’s Moses,” a 1991 study of Freud’s relationship with his Judaism, historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, fearful that traditional scholarly methods had not gotten him the answers he was after, brings back his subject from the dead and interrogates him face to face. Tell me, he says to his wordless interlocutor — “I promise I won’t reveal your answer to anyone” — did you ultimately believe psychoanalysis to be a Jewish science?
In a dazzling new book, literary critic Kenneth Gross does Yerushalmi one better. To drive home his central argument — that the key to understanding the character of Shylock from Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” is to view him as the voice of the playwright himself — he, too, revives his subject, but not as mere listener. Gross’s resurrected Shakespeare struts to the center of the stage and speaks.
“This character I have made, this Shylock,” he declares, “is myself.”
For Gross, Shylock, like his creator, is a showman, a stager of spectacles. He holds up a mirror to his audience. “He reminds us,” Gross writes, “of the power of the stage to assault its auditors and fetch up impulses otherwise unknown, unacknowledged, and neglected.” Shylock is also, again like the playwright, a figure of profound isolation whose successes come with grievous private costs. Even the men’s names are echoes of each other and can easily slide into one: Shylock, Shakespeare, Shakelock, Shyspear. But in drawing these parallels, Gross is at his most eloquent when speaking as the Bard:
Shylock, “like me,” Gross’s Shakespeare says, “is a creature of strange commerce, breeding money through what others think of as contaminated, unholy means, trading in a suspect currency that yet seems part of nature, not measurable goods, produce, land, labor, or services, but such odd stuff as words written on sheets of paper and spoken into the air.”
It bears emphasizing here that this book is not just some high-class ventriloquism act. Its fictive passages total just four or five pages, and, like Yerushalmi, Gross turns to more creative narrative modes not in lieu of scholarship, but only after the scholarly avenues have been explored — and exhausted.
One of the book’s great strengths is that, in forging so close a relationship between Shakespeare and Shylock, Gross essentially renders moot the hoary old debate over whether or not the play is antisemitic. Indeed, he argues that the play itself rejects “the kind of factionalism of thought that provokes such readings.” Gross’s Shylock is nothing if not ambiguous — “fragmented, refracted, distorted, or emptied out, a ghost of himself, yet still curiously potent.” It is for this reason, Gross writes, that it is hard to find any one truly canonical re-imagining of the character.
It is through this lens of ambiguity, of doubleness, that much of Gross’s book unfolds. Once he establishes the Shylock-Shakespeare dyad, Gross moves on to other pairs — pairs that both spring from and support his original two: Shylock as Abraham and Shylock as Jacob, Shylock the biblical figure and Shylock the modern, Shylock the greedy and Shylock the generous, Shylock the man and Shylock the beast. Shylock’s very speech is doubled. He is forever repeating himself, as in his famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech: “Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means.”
But perhaps the play’s greatest binary category is that of Christian and Jew, which, after his forced conversion at play’s end, is again a line that Shylock straddles. Part of the play’s lasting ambiguity, Gross argues, is that Shylock is sentenced in the play’s penultimate act and we never hear from him again. The audience is left only with unanswered questions: “What Christian name would he have taken? (Giacobbo? Guglielmo?)” Gross asks. “Can one envision him conducting business among other Christian merchants at the Rialto, now free of the legal restrictions that forced Jews into moneylending?” Or does Shylock perhaps become a secret Jew, a converso — modern Europe’s quintessential divided soul?
In his book’s closing chapters, Gross moves away from the Shakespearean text and turns his attention to 19th- and 20th-century re-imaginings of the Shylock story, particularly the fascination it has held for authors noted for their complicated relationships toward Judaism — authors like Heinrich Heine, the German Jewish poet who converted to Protestantism in 1825, and novelist and critic Ludwig Lewisohn, author of the 1931 novel “The Last Days of Shylock,” who came from German Jewish roots, was raised Methodist in South Carolina, and later in life embraced Judaism and became a founding member of the Brandeis University faculty.
To conclude, Gross turns to what, for him, is perhaps the most powerful of Shylock’s re-imaginings, Philip Roth’s 1993 novel “Operation Shylock.” Though the story of the novel has nothing to do with a Jewish moneylender — its focus is Israel at the time of the first intifada — Gross nevertheless locates in it the spirit that suffuses “The Merchant of Venice.” Doubles abound: At the book’s heart is a mysterious figure named “Philip Roth,” who grants interviews in which he argues for a mass Jewish exodus out of Israel and back to Eastern Europe. This Roth is different from the novel’s narrator, whose name is also Roth, and who, in typical Rothian fashion, is again different from Roth himself.
In the novel’s “wild and oblique mirrors,” Gross hears “the nature of Shylock’s voice, its disturbing inventiveness, its gleeful and self-wounding powers of rage… the very cadences of Shylock’s speeches.” The novel, for Gross, is the kind of work that Shakespeare might have written had he had the postmodern tools of the late 20th-century author. It explores, he says, “what it might mean for a writer to confront a dramatic incarnation of his own authorial ambitions and anxieties.”
Gross’s parting words belong to Shakespeare — or at least Gross’s Shakespeare. The critic envisions a letter, a sort of fan letter, from Shakespeare to Roth. “We need to talk. There’s something I want to tell you about Shylock,” the letter reads. “Let me know when we can meet.”
*Gabriel Sanders is the associate editor of the Forward. *