Shylock, My Students, and Me

What I’ve learned from 30 years of teaching The Merchant of Venice

Launcelot, Shylock, and Jessica, in a 19th-century engraving by  Heinrich Hofmann (<em>Shakespeare Scenes and Characters: A Series of Illustrations</em>, 1876)
Launcelot, Shylock, and Jessica, in a 19th-century engraving by Heinrich Hofmann (Shakespeare Scenes and Characters: A Series of Illustrations, 1876)


I have been teaching literature for 30 years, and the longer I teach, the more I enjoy teaching Shakespeare. As I grow older and wearier, his plays seem to deliver greater matter and art in a more condensed and lively way than any other text I could choose. To be clichéd about it: Shakespeare offers more bang for the buck.

While Shakespeare now draws me more than ever before, one work in particular draws me most. This is The Merchant of Venice. For me, this extraordinary play grows increasingly subtle and supple with time. It continues to excite me with its language, its depth of character, and its philosophical, political, spiritual, and pedagogical implications. Looking back over my years of teaching the play, I see that the way it has been received by my students is an index to how our society has changed. I also see how much the play continues to push against established readings and to challenge even the most seemingly enlightened perspectives. The Merchant of Venice is both a mirror of our times and a means of transcending the bias of our times. It teaches how to teach.

My response to the play may be connected to the nature of my career in literature. I was exposed to highbrow literary criticism in the 1970s at elite undergraduate and graduate institutions. This was a time when multi­culturalism was making inroads in academia but when progressive thinking coexisted with an ingrained snobbism regarding how literature should be taught and who should teach it.

This climate of snobbish virtue that I associate with my education came into direct conflict with the hardscrabble atmosphere of my first and only major teaching job. Drexel University in Philadelphia, where I was fortunate to be hired in a shrinking job market, was primarily a commuter school with a student body of first-generation college students when I began teaching there in 1982. It had, only a few years before, been an institute of technology, and it still focused its resources on its engineering students, mostly Italian, Irish, and Polish Americans from the area’s parochial schools. (At the time, it was rumored that the university’s president would play golf with the local archbishop whenever he wanted to increase enrollment.)

Teaching English at Drexel in the 1980s was a far cry from teaching it as a graduate student at Columbia. But still there were some strict requirements built into the curriculum—the sort of thing, ironically enough, that had begun to go by the wayside at more elite institutions. One of these was that we teach a Shakespeare play in our freshman writing course each year. Initially, I chose one of the “big” plays: Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, or King Lear. But I soon realized that students had been exposed to these blockbusters, if only in cursory fashion, in high school, and thus brought preconceptions to their reading that were hard to shake. As a result, I started to choose plays that would be new to them: Henry IV, Part I and The Winter’s Tale were especially successful, for reasons that would require another essay to explore. But The Merchant of Venice yielded the most interesting results.

Teaching the play during these early years was daunting. I was faced with students who had had years of Catholic school training, for whom Shylock was a familiar stereotype. It did not help that I was almost invariably the only Jewish person in the classroom and, as an inexperienced teacher, uncomfortable with how much or how little I should expose about myself and my background.


But for all its challenges, teaching the play was exciting. My students were responding to it in the way that Shakespeare’s audience probably did: Shylock was the villain; Portia and Bassanio the romantic leads; Antonio (the merchant of the title) the noble, long-suffering friend. My students were quick to support the plea by Portia urging Shylock to embrace mercy over justice and give up his legal right to a pound of Antonio’s flesh. It made complete sense to them: Shylock’s malevolence was un-Christian; his stubborn refusal to be moved by Portia’s speech proof that he was incorrigible. In an effort to soften their feelings toward Shylock, I pointed them to the famous lines in Act III: “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?” They acknowledged the point: Shylock was, admittedly, a human being. And they were susceptible to the argument that followed:

. . . if you wrong us [Jews], 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.

But this passage, which helped them to a better understanding of Shylock’s behavior, made me uneasy. It suggested that Jews need to take their cue from “Christian example.” My students found that this conformed to the maxim of their religious education: “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (a principle, some of them explained, that Paul preaches in Galatians), while for me it was an argument that obliquely diminished the autonomous humanity of the Jewish character and thus fed latent anti-Semitism.

In short, for my students at the time, Shylock was unsavory, brutal, and ultimately inhumane. They could comprehend him up to a point, but they continued to insist that he was the villain, and that to say otherwise would be to twist Shakespeare’s intention. I knew they were not entirely wrong—but also that their response was, in part, a cover for prejudice. I came away from teaching the play with a sense of incompleteness and unease. In the best instances, my students seemed to feel the same way, which meant that they were potentially open to seeing the world differently, if not then, at some point in the future.

That future came about 15 years later. The change was partially the result of changing demographics in my classroom. Drexel had hired a visionary new president, and the school had expanded its mission, recruiting “better” students—meaning students with higher SAT scores, which translated into students from more affluent socioeconomic backgrounds. As a corollary to this, the university extended its reach. We now began to enroll students from all over the country and even the world, and the result was more diversity: Indians, Chinese, and Russians, as well as people from other ethnicities, including a good share of African Americans and Jews. The university looked different, and the viewpoints in the classroom reflected this.

But if Drexel had changed, so had the society around it. The students who had attended parochial schools were now versed in multiculturalism. They’d celebrated Martin Luther King Day, gone to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and considered the plight of Native Americans on Columbus Day. The trials and tribulations of otherness had filtered down to them through movies, television, and music. They’d also become sensitized to otherness in themselves, whether in the form of a learning disability, a drug problem, or some more ineffable issue that made them feel different.

In this new, more diverse and introspective atmosphere, the discussion of The Merchant of Venice began to take an entirely different turn. Before, I had had to force myself to teach the play, knowing that it would involve struggling with my students’ prejudices. Now, my students began to make my job easy, saving me from apologizing for Shylock by immediately siding with him. They seemed to understand how Shylock felt. The passage that had been so central to my teaching of the play before—“Hath not a Jew eyes?”—hardly needed to be discussed. It seemed a truism.

These students were now put off rather than convinced by Portia’s speech calling for mercy. There was invariably a hoot of disbelief when she ended her plea with the conclusion: “Therefore, Jew, / Though justice be thy plea, consider this, / That, in the course of justice, none of us / Should see salvation.” They were outraged by the lack of respect expressed in her generic reference to “Jew” and her assumption that Shylock shared her belief system, her idea of “salvation.”

The lines that particularly inspired my students’ sympathy for Shylock now were those in Act I, when he is asked to lend money to the merchant Antonio. This is where he spells out his resentment for the treatment he has suffered in the past:

Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances.
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug;
For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish garberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help:
Go to, then, you come to me, and you say
“Shylock, we would have moneys.” You say so,
You, that did void your rheum upon my beard,
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold. Moneys is your suit.
What should I say to you? Should I not say
“Hath a dog money? Is it possible
A cur can lend three thousand ducats”? or
Shall I bend low, and in a bondman’s key,
With bated breath and whispering humbleness,
Say this:
“Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last;
You spurned me such a day; another time
You called me dog; and for these courtesies
I’ll lend you thus much moneys”?

It is difficult for me to relay the sort of response this speech now evoked from my students. They heard Shylock’s voice in these lines—and it was their own. I was shocked to see the number of students who claimed to have been treated like a “stranger cur”—-a dog. The well of resentment here, often going back to grade-school bullying, was deep and abiding for these 18- and 19-year-olds. I was initially mystified by their reaction. Why, as schools had become more adept at teaching cultural sensitivity, did students still manage not only to suffer ostracism but also to feel its effects so palpably? This might lead to the conclusion that teaching sensitivity is not useful, that it may, indeed, be harmful. My eventual view, however, was different. I concluded that in the past the pain of ostracism and alienation went unacknowledged; people pretended they didn’t feel hurt because they didn’t want to show weakness. Now, they had gained a voice and a vocabulary with which to express their feelings.

What was clear was that these students felt sympathy for Shylock—and more than that, they identified with him to the point that they supported his case. And here is where things began to get complicated. Because now the most powerful speech in the play, according to my students, was Shylock’s in Act IV, scene I, that deals first with the hypocrisy of his antagonists and then with the justice of his claim:

What judgement shall I dread, doing no wrong?
You have among you many a purchased slave,
Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules
You use in abject and in slavish parts,
Because you bought them. Shall I say to you,
Let them be free, marry them to your heirs?
Why sweat they under burthens? Let their beds
Be made as soft as yours, and let their palates
Be seasoned with such viands? You will answer
“The slaves are ours”: so do I answer you:
The pound of flesh, which I demand of him,
Is dearly bought. ’Tis mine and I will have it.
If you deny me, fie upon your law!

The realization by my students that this was a slave-owning society opened the play to another level of dismay. They now began to look upon the so-called heroes—Bassanio, Portia, and Antonio—as world-class hypocrites. How dare these characters accuse Shylock of inhumanity when they owned slaves? Even as they expressed outrage at this, they also embraced the other aspect of Shylock’s argument here: his right to his pound of flesh. In short, they argued for his right to kill Antonio as a matter of simple justice.

It became clear to me that my current students were hardening into positions in reverse of what my former students had felt, and that, in some ways, their views were equally limited—and maybe even scarier. For all their sensitivity, these students missed what the earlier students, despite their ingrained prejudices, had grasped: that justice according to the law is a human construction and thus subject to human manipulation. One need not be Christian or even a believer to see this. The play demonstrates that justice is manipulable when Portia uses the very law that Shylock has invoked on his own behalf to strip him of his wealth and his religion. Trusting to legal justice, the play teaches, can only take one so far, and may very well result in flagrant injustice.

Moreover, the tendency of my current students to reverse the judgment of earlier readers and viewers of the play struck me as disturbing. Now, Shylock became the heroic central figure, and the other characters became villains: Bassanio weak and opportunistic; Antonio passive and creepy; Portia mean.

The initial notion that my job had become easy, since I no longer had to defend Shylock, began to change as I realized that the all-encompassing, reflexive sympathy my students felt for him was perhaps even more insidiously wrong than the earlier prejudice toward him. In an odd reversal, I, the Jewish teacher, now be­came the only person in the classroom to argue that Shylock was still a villain, despite the abuse he had suffered, and that his stubborn call for a pound of flesh was the emblem of his villainy.


Teaching the play in recent years, I also began concentrating discussion on Portia and Antonio. Was Portia’s subjection to her dead father’s will and her need to dress as a man in order to argue the case connected to her “meanness”—her stripping Shylock of his money and forcing him to convert? As for Antonio, what was to be construed from his confused feelings at the beginning of the play?

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself.

My students generally deduced that Antonio was “in love” with Bassanio. But what to make of the fact that he was no more able to acknowledge his homosexuality as a character than Shakespeare could spell out his problem in writing the play? What kind of alienation and loneliness, what kind of morbid depression, might ensue from this sort of profound silencing? Like my earlier students, who drew a line regarding their sympathy for Shylock, my students now did the same with regard to these characters. They could see my argument only up to a point. They refused to equate the difficulties facing people of wealth and position with the hardships facing a social pariah like Shylock. But wasn’t the silencing of Portia and Antonio as likely to result in their “acting out” and behaving cruelly to people who existed more explicitly on the margins than themselves? (These characters resembled, it occurred to me, my students from years before, who had shown no sympathy for Shylock in part because they were not prepared—or allowed—to acknowledge their own weakness or alienation.) As I saw it, Portia had diagnosed her own condition in Act I: “It is a good divine that follows his own instructions: I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than to be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching.” But my students found this statement lame and disingenuous. They couldn’t excuse her intolerance, and believed they would never be so blind—even as their intolerance toward her belied this.

Nonetheless, the question of how those who have been abused can become abusers themselves sparked animated discussion. Students were able to discern the repetition of destructive behavior in families, and some students also proceeded to draw parallels between Shylock and the government of Israel—the children of persecution becoming persecutors in their own right. The latter comparison—that struck me as both upsetting and insightful—never occurred to my students 25 years ago, both because their view of Shylock was too uninflected to permit it and because the political situation in the Middle East had not developed (or been explored) to a point where that reading was possible.

In the end, I found myself urging students to consider the play’s concluding structure. Bassanio and Portia are united happily; Shylock has been purged; Antonio, spared death, remains on the margins. Are we to ig­nore this ending and replace it with our own psychologically enlightened viewpoint? Is it valid to read beyond the text and project, for example, an unhappy marriage for Bassanio and Portia, a suicide for Antonio, and a new plot for revenge from the even more wronged Shylock—a terrorist in the making, if there ever was one?

Some students were adamant in saying that such speculation is encouraged in the text. Others, that the ending simply reflects Shakespeare’s need to pander to his audience and their prejudices. My own position is that, if we want a happy ending, at some point we must draw a line and close our eyes to the injustices that it entails. We must accept accommodation to oppression and, in some cases, to evil itself. A happy ending is only an approximate good, pointing beyond itself to a time when happy endings will be happy for all the deserving, and evil will be fully recognized and purged. My students in the old days would have called this The Last Judgment. My students today are likely to call it wishful thinking.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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