A loan has been made between two men. One is Christian, one is Jewish. The terms and conditions of the loan are simple, the Christian must pay the Jew back his money in full within three months. Ah, but the small print is important: If the Christian fails to pay the Jew back within the timeframe, the Christian must forfeit a pound of his own flesh to the Jew. In this speech, Shylock, the Jew, explains his rationale behind the grotesque conditions of his contract with Antonio, the Christian.
Shylock: 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.
‘Hindered me half a million’
Cost me a fortune
‘cooled my friends’
Turned my friends against me
Human shape and form (Think ‘The Vitruvian man’ by Da Vinci)
tolerance, patient obedience
to be a villain
‘I will better the instruction’
I will do better than instructed. (The student will become the master)
(In response to the question ‘what is a pound of flesh good for?)
For fish bait! If it won’t even feed the fish, it will feed my revenge. He has insulted me and cost me a fortune, he has laughed at my losses, mocked my successes, disparaged my race, ruined my deals, turned my friends against me and increased the hatred towards me from my enemies – and why? Because I am a Jew. Doesn’t a Jew have eyes? Doesn’t a Jew have hands, organs, human figure, human senses, feelings and passions? Aren’t we fed by the same food, hurt with the same weapons, vulnerable to the same illnesses, cured with the same medicine, warmed and cooled by the elements in the same way a Christian person is? If you prick us with a needle, don’t we bleed? If you tickle us, don’t we laugh? If you poison us, don’t we die? And if you do wrong to us, should we not take revenge? If we are the same as you in every other way, we will be the same as you in vengeance. If a jew wrongs a Christian, what does he do? Take revenge. And if a Christian wrongs a Jew, what should he do by Christian example? It’s clear: Revenge. The evils Christians teach me I will do too – It shall be difficult but I will do even better than I’ve been taught.
Venice is, both now and when the play is set, a port city. It is a centre for trade and commerce, drawing people from all over the world to its waters. Shakespeare was fascinated by Venice for this very reason. In very few other places in the world would you find such a high concentration of different cultures living side by side. It is a recipe for drama and conflict, which Shakespeare loved to explore. One of his Other plays set in Venice, Othello, explored themes of race and identity. The Merchant of Venice similarly explores many themes including race, in particular the dynamic between people of Christian and Jewish faith.
Antonio and Shylock have known each other for a long time. They have traded together and lived in the same city for many years. They despise each other. Shylock feels he has been discriminated by Antonio and other Christians, (and it is clear within the play that the Christian characters do have overt anti-Semitic views) and when he is asked for money by Antonio and Bassanio, he sees an opportunity to take revenge.
The question which prompts the speech comes from another Christian of Venice, Salarino, who asks, “Why, I am sure, if he forfeit, thou wilt not take his flesh: what’s that good for?” He is sceptical about Shylock’s sincerity about the threat, should Antonio fail to meet the terms of the loan. But Shylock is serious, and intends to see the conditions of the loan through in full.
This speech is a very famous one. It is empathetic in nature in a way only Shakespeare seemed to be able to muster in his time. Anti-Semitism was very present within British culture at the time, and though it cannot be said that The Merchant of Venice is not an Anti-Semitic play, (In fact I’d argue that it most certainly is) Shakespeare was a visionary in his ability to offer the perspectives of the oppressed to his audience, where other writers of his time were not able to.
In this speech we find a deeply oppressed man corrupted by the discrimination he has faced. All the injustice he has been subjected to has culminated in this climactic moment: he has been oppressed, his daughter has abandoned him and converted to Christianity and he is about to find out whether Antonio will be able to pay him back in full. Shylock challenges his Christian audience with this speech, asking if not all humans are created equal. He asks, if this is the case, then Jews, like the Christians, should have the capacity for vengeance. The pound of flesh is merely a symbol, he could simply use it as bait to catch fish. The symbol of a Jew taking a pound of flesh from a christian however is highly significant, and speaks to the amount which Shylock feels has been robbed from him.
Firstly, I believe it is important to flag the fact that this speech should be reserved for actors with Jewish heritage. In the same way the entertainment industry is prioritising equal opportunity and representation across all storytelling avenues, so should we in our approach to these classic roles. In the same way that a white actor should not play Othello, a non Jewish actor should not be playing Shylock. I’d strongly suggest you take this into account if you wish to prepare this speech for an audition or for practise. This does not mean that we cannot analyse the speech and explore it, but given the nature of the speech and the character it is spoken by, it would be ignorant for us to approach it without care. Others may disagree with me, (and I do feel that with careful justification or adaptation in performance the dynamic between Jews and Christians in The Merchant of Venice can be substituted for different races or to comment on another area of the mass of discrimination which exists in the world today) but a simple rule of thumb is that to respect this speech, it should be reserved for actors with a personal connection to it.
With that said, if you are personally connected to this speech, it is most certainly a powerful one. It is written in prose, (The opposite of verse, or poetic language) which affords the actor a lot of freedom in its delivery. My offering would be for you to let the connection you feel to the speech drive your performance of it, whilst allowing for light and shadow within it.
Shylock is choosing his words carefully whilst dealing with people he considers his enemy. Note the amount of questions Shylock asks- he is not lecturing these people with force, rather he is educating them subtly with rhetoric. Shylock does not need to justify his cause to himself, he already has his mind made up. In justifying himself to others he can be calm, rapid, angry, excited, even mournful. There is no one colouring which should be applied to this speech – but rather it should be full of variety and different tactics played by the actor.
One final note on delivery, beware of the list! Listing anything in a monologue can be a minefield for an actor, tempting them to repeat words or phrases with the same inflection, slowly but surely lulling the audience into a deep sleep. Find variety and specificity in this speech in all the things Shylock says. Eyes and ears are not the same thing, so don’t give them the same colour or weight in how you say those two words.
This speech is one of the great gifts of Shakespeare’s cannon. It gives a voice to the previously voiceless, and is written with an empathy which would have been rare in the time it was written. The play nor the character of Shylock is uncontroversial by today’s standards, but in them we can see the early stages of inclusiveness and equality in the collective consciousness of humanity. Approach this speech with the care it requires and it will be a powerful experience to perform!