An agreement has been made between two men—the loaning of a sum of money. One man, Antonio, is Christian. The other, a merchant named Shylock, is Jewish. The terms and conditions of the loan are simple: Antonio must repay his debt in full within three months. However, the small print is a real killer! If the debt is not repaid within the timeframe, he must forfeit a pound of his own flesh to the merchant. In this famous speech, Shylock explains his rationale behind the grotesque conditions of his contract with Antonio—arguing for his dignity and against Semitic discrimination.
Updated 12th August, 2021.
Venice is 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, as few other places on earth boasted so high a concentration of different cultures living side by side. In The Merchant Of Venice, he explores the relationships and tensions between peoples of Christian and Jewish faith; later in his career, he would return to this setting, and themes of race and identity, in Othello (its famous Act 5, Scene 2 speech is another iconic Shakespearean speech worth any actors’ time).
In The Merchant Of Venice, Antonio and Shylock have known each other for a long time. They have traded together and lived in the same city for many years, and yet they absolutely despise one another. Shylock feels he has been discriminated by Antonio and other Christians who display overt anti-Semitic views; when he is asked for money by Antonio and his associate Bassanio, he sees an opportunity to take revenge.
The question which prompts this particular 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—as the speech itself details.
This speech is a very famous one; it exhibits empathy and understanding of its antagonists’ motives in a way that only Shakespeare can muster. And while it is a far cry to argue The Merchant Of Venice is not an anti-Semitic play (as it plays happily into its then-audience’s own stereotypical perceptions of Jewish people), it remains a fine example of how Shakespeare lent perspectives of the oppressed to his audience: where other writers of his time were either unsuccessful or uncaring.
Shylock is 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 ostracised, 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.
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 villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
Before you begin to explore the layers of this speech, start by compiling a list of unfamiliar words or phrases to define. We’ve included some examples below, but don’t be afraid if your list includes additional entries. Half the battle with Shakespearean text is ensuring that you understand the material.
Hindered me half a million: Cost me a fortune.
Cooled my friends: Turned my friends against me.
Dimensions: Human shape and form (think ‘The Vitruvian Man’ by Leonardo Da Vinci).
Sufferance: Tolerance, patient obedience.
Villainy: To be a villain, to be perceived as a villain.
I will better the instruction: I will do better than instructed. Think of it as: “the student will become the teacher”.
In this section, we will separate Shylock’s speech into beats: the different sections driven by new thoughts and ideas as they come to the character.
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 villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
(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.
Notes On Performance
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. 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, (and I do feel that with careful justification or adaptation in performance, the dynamic between Jewish and Christian people in The Merchant of Venice can be substituted for different races or marginalised groups in society) 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; 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 these 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 that was rare in the time it was written. While the play and the character of Shylock are clearly problematic in a modern context, we can still see early examples of inclusivity and empathy being explored in artistic context: how the writer attempted to highlight the collective consciousness of humanity—our unified need to be respected and counted. Approach this speech with the care and respect it requires and it will be a powerful experience to perform!