Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Empathizing With Shylock, or Sarah Skwire on Shakespeare on Usury

Sarah Skwire is on a roll. Today she has an excellent piece on Shakespeare's attitude toward usury, critiquing a piece by Yaron Brook, “The Morality of Money-lending," or at least what he says about Shylock. I would go a bit further, though, and argue with Frederick Turner (in Shakespeare's 21st Century Economics) that Shakespeare is more generous toward Shylock than we typically imagine (forgetting, as we do, that our moral order is not the same as the one Shakespeare lived in -- and that he helped lay the foundations for our own). Given what Shakespeare knew and did not know, and given the prevailing attitude toward Jews and usury, Shakespeare's portrayal of Shylock is in many ways generous and complex. Take for example one of Shylock's most famous speeches:


To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else,
it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? 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 villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.

These harsh lines have Shylock proclaiming, "If I am this way, you made me it; and yet, I am human, like you." He insists on empathy, and to whatever extent Shakespeare could get you to empathize with Shylock, he had humanized him. Even if you want to see revenge on him, he has invited empathy -- by wanting revenge on him, you understand wanting revenge, and you thus understand how he feels. Thus, you empathize with him, and come in on his side, just a bit. In this Shakespeare has done the unimaginable (for the time): made a Jew a sympathetic character. And this matters in Shakespeare's attitude toward usury as well.