Introduction
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1 Introduction Lock up my doors, and when you hear the drum And the vile squealing of the wry-necked fife, Clamber not you up to the casements then Nor thrust your head into the public street To gaze on Christian fools with varnished faces; But stop my house’s ears—I mean my casements— Let not the sound of shallow foppery enter My sober house. —Shakespeare, Merchant ofVenice, 2.5.28–35 Upon leaving his home to dine with gentiles, Shylock gives his daughter instructions that reveal much about this notorious literary Jew.1 With his perception of music as a hateful cry emanating from a deformed (“wry-necked”) object or person, Shylock aggressively— and tragically—denigrates festivity and “merriment.”2 Instead of inhabiting “the world of comedy and love,”Shylock is all business.3 Figurative language proves too imprecise for the moneylender. When he clarifies that “ears”refer to his home’s “casements,” Shylock exhibits the same legalistic certainty and exacting literalness that prompt both his strict adherence to the terms of Antonio’s bond and his foiling by Portia.4 Shylock’s preference for pareddown and frugal speech over metaphoric excess speaks to his status as not only a capitalist but also a kind of Puritan.5 Disdaining the sensual extravagances of the Venetian Catholic majority, whom he denigrates as inebriated “fools with varnished faces,” Shylock is a “sober,” temperate, and bourgeois ascetic.6 But above all, this passage manifests Shylock’s deep and abiding identification with the built environment through which he enacts his anticomic and Puritanical sobriety: his home. Emphatically, the house is his: “my doors,” “my house’s ears,” “my casements,” “my sober house.” A possible rationale for Shylock’s possessive domesticity appears just before this passage,where he seems to analogize his home and Jessica. “Loath to go” 2 INTRODUCTION from his house and dine with the “prodigal Christian” Antonio, he tells her: “my girl, / Look to my house” (2.5.15–16). The repetition of “my” in Shylock ’s directive yokes the “girl” to the “house,” suggesting his concern over leaving her there. Yet the subsequent passage, with its use of the possessive only in relation to the house, suggests otherwise. Shylock seems less concerned with his daughter than with maintaining the integrity of the edifice in and of itself. It is not so much human but architectural violations he fears. Shylock worries not that his daughter will hear “the sound of shallow foppery ,” but rather that such merriment will cross the threshold of his “sober house.” Indeed, Jessica figures in the passage as not so much a chaste vessel needful of protection but a mobile and aggressive entity,a woman who might “clamber . . . up to the casements.”Shylock’s worry that Jessica will “thrust” her head out of the window “into the public street”implies her affinity with the problematic excesses enacted in Venetian thoroughfares. She prompts his fear over the violation of the house from within. Why is Shylock so attached to his domicile? Shylock’s identification with his home partly speaks to “the plight of many transnational migrants” who endeavored during the Early Modern period to create a zone of domestic stability in foreign locales.7 Yet at the same time that the financier’s domesticity might induce us to empathize with him as part of an alien minority, it also enhances Shylock’s negative characterization. As Roy Booth observes, Shylock’s “sober” house resonates with long-standing English libels about Jewish homes.8 According to those libels, inside the confines of their houses, Jews commit such anti-Christian acts as attack the Eucharistic host,desecrate crucifixes, defile statues of Mary, and ritually murder boys in mockery of the Crucifixion. Shakespeare most clearly engages such libels in act 4, when Nerissa implicitly risks her own ritual murder as she, playing the part of a boy, visits “old Shylock’s house” to have the banker sign the deed granting half his wealth to Jessica and Bassanio (4.2.11).9 However, Shylock’s earlier directive to Jessica construes his house not so much as a potential site of ritual murder, but as an embodiment of Jewishness itself. For centuries, Christians had characterized the Jews’ rejection of Christianity as an intentional locking up of the senses—in particular,a willful blindness—to a revealed “truth.”10 The currency of this idea in early modern England emerges in John Foxe’s claim, in a sermon Shakespeare knew and possibly cites in Merchant...



Subject Headings

  • Jews in literature.
  • Antisemitism in literature.
  • English literature -- Old English, ca. 450-1100 -- History and criticism.
  • English literature -- Middle English, 1100-1500 -- History and criticism.
  • English literature -- Early modern, 1500-1700 -- History and criticism.
  • Antisemitism -- England -- History.
  • Jews -- England -- History.
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