restricted access Shylock and the Use of Stage Doors
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Shylock and the Use of Stage Doors

Given the source material, there was no possibility that Shylock could have functioned in The Merchant of Venice other than as the villain.1 Although the impression of villainy is mainly the result of his actions, it is reinforced by the language of the play, both that used by him and that used about him. More than this, however, I want to argue here that the theatrical space in which the play was first performed made its own contribution, even if subliminally, to the audience’s negative response to him. In particular, I hope to show that his status as villain is reinforced not just by the play’s imagery but by the way that some of that imagery is made visible and given a greater intensity through the actual structure of the Elizabethan stage. The stage doors, I shall argue, have a significance in this play greater than their essential function of enabling characters to enter and exit.

There is no clear derivation for the name Shylock. M. M. Mahood notes that the nearest biblical approximation is Shiloh (Genesis, 49.10), which incongruously means “Messiah” (71n). Jay L. Halio, on the other hand, thinks that the name Shylock probably derives from Shelah (Genesis, 10.24, 11.12-15), who is Shem’s grandson and the father of Eber (i.e., Hebrew) (22-23). These suggestions are perhaps somewhat strained. Stephen Orgel has recently approached the matter from a different angle, by claiming that Shylock is an old English, Saxon name, meaning “white-haired” (151). This suggestion is then used as part of a broader argument that Shylock himself is effectively not only Venetian but also English:

Shylock can be seen as a kind of Puritan. Shakespeare is not at all sympathetic to the Puritan cause, but his distaste for it is not a distaste for foreigners. Shylock is very deeply part of Venetian society; he expresses a good deal of its [End Page 126] deepest nature.… This helps to explain the strange ambivalence Shakespeare exhibits about this villain; and it also helps to explain why he is unwilling to destroy or expel him after the trial scene, but wants to incorporate him into the Christian world, to force him to convert. He is an essential part of Venice, which is to say, of England. Hence the most striking point about him, his English name: there is Shakespeare’s ambivalence epitomised. (154)

Paradoxical as it seems, this proposal about Shylock being as much English as Venetian is helpful as far as it goes. But it does not go far enough. In particular, Orgel’s brief recognition of the essential Englishness of Shylock’s name invites further investigation. My starting point is to note that, at a cursory glance, its origin seems to lie in two English words: “shy” and “lock”.2

Although its first recorded use is much earlier, the meaning of “shy” in Shakespeare’s time includes “suspicious”, “distrustful”, and “cautiously reserved” (Oxford English Dictionary, senses 2 and 4 for “shy” a.), all of which clearly correspond to certain aspects of Shylock’s nature. The first examples cited in The Oxford English Dictionary of these senses of “shy” come a few years after The Merchant of Venice (1596-97): Richard Hakluyt’s The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffics and Discoveries of the English Nation, volume III (1600) and Shakespeare’s later play Measure for Measure (1603-04).3 However, these meanings could well have been available to Shakespeare when writing the earlier work. Perhaps surprisingly, very few contemporary dramatists use the word at all, in whatever meaning.4 Shakespeare uses it only twice in all his plays, both examples occurring in Measure for Measure, though to markedly different dramatic effect. The first has the greater relevance here: “a shie fellow was the Duke, and I beleeue I know the cause of his withdrawing” (F1 [1623], TLN 1618-20; 3.2.130-32).5 These words are spoken by Lucio in his habitual role of slanderer, and “shy” clearly has some of the word’s negative connotations listed above. Lucio’s use of it is the opposite of Isabella’s tribute...