As long as we’re on the subject, I want to take a look at a famous speech from Merchant of Venice, the speech where Shylock justifies, to two of his tormentors, his thirst for vengeance.
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.
With whom is Shylock arguing here? Salario and Salarino, who have been teasing him about his daughter’s flight? Who has been telling Shylock that a Jew must not seek revenge? Not they. To be honest, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to them that Shylock might seek revenge upon his enemies - but they certainly are not telling Shylock that he must not take Antonio’s flesh; rather, they are startled that he would consider doing so as there is no apparent profit in it.
Shylock is insulted, spat upon, mocked and otherwise cruelly treated through the play, by people who think he is less than they are, less than fully human, in a sense, because they think he lacks some basic human feeling. But Shylock is not arguing with someone who thinks he is less than human. He is arguing with someone who thinks - or expects him to be - more than human, to be some being who does not bleed when pricked, who, when murdered, does not die.
Who might that be?
Allow me to suggest that Shylock is arguing, here, with his Creator as he understands him. This is the moment that Shylock throws off what he sees as the burden of his Judaism, a set of special burdens and obligations that set him apart from other nations and give him the chance to be something better. I’m not saying that’s what Judaism is - I’m saying that’s what Shylock understands it to be, and that at this moment, the moment where he decides to take Antonio’s life per the terms of his bond, and to refuse all monetary settlement, Shylock is renouncing his faith as he understands it.
I think this is an essential point, because the great difficulty of the play is not the fact that Shylock is a Jewish villain (are there no Jewish villains in the world?) but the theological antisemitism underlying the trial scene. The fact of this theological antisemitism necessitates a search for counter-currents - for an understanding of Judaism that saves it from Shylock, and for an understanding of Shylock that sees him as having a relationship to Judaism rather than being an embodiment of it.
Imagine the actor who plays Shylock giving that speech to his Creator rather than to his tormentors. (Obviously he’d still be talking to them, but what’s he thinking is what I’m getting at.) Now imagine him going into the trial scene, and hearing Portia’s famous “quality of mercy” speech. This is usually a moment when Shylock melts, a little, and then stiffens, puts mercy aside, and demands the law. Well: what melts him? Is it that he has never heard this speech before, does not understand the quality of mercy? Or that he has heard this speech before, understands it perfectly well, and deliberately chose to set it aside? And what stiffens him - that this is an alien, Christian concept that he righteously rejects? Or that he won’t hear this message from her, from a Christian?
It makes a rather big difference, I think, in thinking about the play. I suspect it would in performance, as well.