Guest blogger, David Schajer, writes…
my conscience is but a kind of hard conscience, to offer to counsel me to stay with the Jew. The fiend gives the more friendly counsel: I will run, fiend; my heels are at your command; I will run.
The Merchant of Venice, II ii
My favourite Shakespeare experience was when I was re-reading The Merchant of Venice, specifically the speech by Shylock’s servant Launcelot where he debates whether or not to leave his master.
Launcelot speaks of the “fiend” who tells him to leave Shylock, and his “conscience” which tells him not to leave. Finally the fiend wins out. Launcelot decides to run away.
I wondered why Shakespeare wrote such a long speech for such a minor character. Who cares if he leaves Shylock? Was there some deeper meaning?
Then it hit me. The role of Launcelot would have been first performed, on the stage of the Theatre in Shoreditch perhaps, by the famous Elizabethan actor Will Kemp, known for comedic roles.
What I realized is that there is no deeper meaning — the speech is a comedy routine. Kemp is taking the temperature of his audience, to see how they feel about Shylock. He wants the crowd to make noise, and speak their minds aloud.
At first I thought that the entire audience would be unsympathetic to Shylock, and would yell at Launcelot to leave him. Shylock has long been portrayed as a villain, sometimes an inhuman villain and more recently as a human being, a good man undone by his anger. So, I imagined that Shakespeare’s audience would hate Shylock, the villain.
Then it dawned on me that Shakespeare would not have written the speech if the entire audience hated Shylock. The speech invites debate and disagreement from the audience. The fact that the question is asked at all is an indication that there would be some sympathy for Shylock, the Jew, even in Elizabethan London.
Why would be there any sympathy for Shylock? Because Shylock is not the villain but in fact the hero of the play.
At the time, I did not know how or why he is the hero, but it was this this speech that was the key to unlocking the play and proving that this, arguably Shakespeare’s most problematic “problem play” is not a tragicomedy where Shylock is the villain, but in fact a very bawdy farce where the only character with any character is Shylock.