By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ These are among the most famous lines from William Shakespeare’s comedy, The Merchant of Venice. One of the common misconceptions people who haven’t read or seen The Merchant of Venice fall prey to is the notion that the ‘merchant’ of the title is Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. It is, in fact, Antonio, who is the merchant of Venice, but The Merchant of Venice has become Shylock’s play, if it wasn’t always his.
And ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ is one of Shylock’s most important speeches in the play, found in Act 3 Scene 1. We have analysed the play here, but now let’s take a closer look at the speech in question, taking it section by section and offering a summary and analysis of Shylock’s meaning.
Let’s analyse the language of Shylock’s speech.
To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge.
Shylock’s opening sentence is in response to Salerio’s question concerning what Shylock would use Antonio’s ‘pound of flesh’ for, should he succeed in getting what he is owed. (The play, of course, revolves in part around the debt Antonio owes to Shylock; since Antonio has failed to pay up, Shylock argues that, in accordance with their agreement, he is entitled to a pound of the merchant’s flesh.)
He states, perhaps flippantly, that he’ll use it for fish bait. You can’t eat human flesh, but if it feeds nothing else, it’ll feed (and satisfy) his lust for revenge. Clearly Shylock’s problem with Antonio goes beyond the fact that the merchant owes him money.
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.
It’s not just that Antonio has cost Shylock a considerable sum of money (half a million ducats) in failing to repay his monetary debt. He’s insulted him, too. He’s laughed at the losses Shylock has incurred, made fun of how much he’s otherwise earned, sneered at Shylock for belonging to the Jewish race, thwarted his business deals, turned his friends against him, and angered his enemies. And why has Antonio done all of this? Because he, Shylock, is a Jew.
This is a famous moment in the play, not least because Shakespeare turns the focus away from Shylock the moneylender (who, elsewhere in the play, is marked by his financial greed) and onto Shylock the oppressed but dignified ethnic minority in Christian-dominated Venice. He has suffered on account of his Jewishness. At the time, the moneylending and the anti-Semitism were often linked: because it was forbidden for Christians to lend money, but not for Jews, Christians like Antonio who had to stoop to borrowing money from Jewish moneylenders came to resent them, for making money out of their financial need.
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?
Now we come to the most famous lines in Shylock’s speech. He points out, using rhetorical questions to persuade his listeners, that Jewish people, like everyone else, have eyes, hands, organs, dimensions, the five traditional senses, as well as emotions and passions. Jews eat the same food as their Christian neighbours, are capable of being harmed by the same weapons, are afflicted with the same diseases, healed by the same medicine, and are affected by the weather in the same way that a Christian is.
This part of Shylock’s impassioned speech (if we assume that it is impassioned and not just a masterly piece of grandstanding) asserts the common humanity between Jewish and Christian people. There is far more that they share in common than the things which divide them.
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.
And there we have it: the famous line which asks, ‘If you prick us [Jews, e.g., with a pin], do we not bleed, like everyone else? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?’
But this appeal to the sympathies of his audience soon takes a dark turn again, reminding us that revenge, too, is a common human motive and impulse: if you wrong a Jew, just as if you wrong a Christian, he will seek to avenge the wrong done to him. It’s just the same as if a Jew wrongs a Christian: the Christian would want 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.
Shylock concludes his speech by pointing out that, thus, it is the same for a Jewish person when they are wronged by a Christian: they are merely following the example set by Christians. So as a Jew, Shylock will practise the same villainous revenge which Christians have taught him to expect; indeed, the pupil has been taught so well that he will outdo his teachers.
This ‘Hath not a Jew eyes’ speech has divided critics. Although it’s world-famous as an example of an oppressed racial minority appealing to the common humanity shared between him and his oppressors, Harold Bloom, in his Shakespeare: The Invention Of The Human, dismisses its moral message as vacuous: it may have been a revelation back in the 1590s, but ‘it had better not be such for any audience now’. Only ‘wavering skinheads and similar sociopaths’ would find any new insight in its rather obvious superficial message.
For this reason, Bloom asserts that he finds little pathos in Shylock. Indeed, for Bloom there’s no denying it is an anti-Semitic play; second, for Bloom, Shylock should be played as a comic villain and not a sympathetic character for the play to have ‘coherence’ and make full sense; third, to play Shylock this way would no doubt exacerbate the play’s anti-Semitic properties.