As I examined in a previous blog post, Shakespeare’s comedies often feature a character who just isn’t in on the joke. Examining two of these characters (Malvolio and Shylock) together is illuminating.
Although we don’t know exactly how The Merchant of Venice would have been performed in Shakespeare’s time, I cringe to imagine Shylock portrayed as an outrageous, greedy, wicked anti-Semitic caricature, as Harold Bloom theorizes he would have been played. It is difficult, as modern readers, to accept this interpretation, and we gravitate toward more sympathetic portrayals of Shylock as a victim of prejudice or oppression (as in the post-colonial reading of Caliban), or as an anti-hero. Shylock as a villain threatens to justify the terrible abuse he suffers at the hands of the virulently anti-Semitic Graziano; following Shylock is told he must ignobly convert to Christianity, Graziano rages “Had I been judge thou shoudst have had ten more/To bring thee to the gallows, not the font” (IV.i. 395-396). The particular horror of these lines is that most of Venice would probably concur with Graziano’s hatred of “the Jew” (as he is continually referred). As he has tried to spill precious Christian blood. Regardless of how Shylock is portrayed, Act V always leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, especially the outrageously sentimental dialogue that it commences with, spoken in part by Shylock’s daughter Jessica, who apparently remains unmoved by her estranged father’s complete fall. Though Shylock’s superb “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech and his many cutting denouncements of Christian hypocrisy suggest Shakespeare sympathized with him, the fact that Portia and the rest go off to presumably happy lives of marriage and revelry with impunity (indeed, without a second thought about Shylock, let alone any retribution) suggest for me that Shylock was probably seen merely as a complex villain when the play was first staged.
And this is supposed to be a comedy! Granted, the definition of comedy in Shakespeare’s day was quite different, and Shakespeare commonly mixes genres disconcertingly (as in the Porter’s scene in Macbeth). It is impossible, it seems to me, for any modern reader to not feel at least some level of pity for Shylock. But what if we compare Shylock’s tribulations with Malvolio’s. Do we pity Malvolio?
It seems that we welcome, at least for a time, the retributions and humiliations that befall Malvolio because we find, as did Shakespeare’s audience, find obsessive puritans unbearable. People of Malvolio’s ilk tried to shut down the public theaters and, under Cromwell, eventually succeeded; it is no wonder that Shakespeare (both actor and bawdy playwright) would depict such a character antagonistically; but doesn’t the humiliation go too far? I think we must concede that Malvolio’s final explosion – “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!” – is a justified reaction to being confined and made to feel insane (V.i.365). The gratuitous nature of the humiliations eventually surpasses Malvolio’s level of guilt.
To what extent are Malvolio’s punishments the same as Shylock’s? While it is true that Malvolio is not a puritan in the sense that John Milton was a Puritan, his puritanical worldview certainly sets him apart from the jokers, revelers, and cross-dressers that people Twelfth Night. Malvolio is an Other, and he suffers accordingly. Yes is an insufferable ass, but his punishment does not fit the crime; and yet it is, in the end, great comedic material, and there are very few sympathetic readings of Malvolio that I know of. Which leads me to my final question: did Shakespearean audiences perceive the same comedy in Shylock’s plight that they (and we) derive from the fall of Malvolio? It is disquieting to think so, but the parallels make me wonder. While we may never have the sympathetic (or at least tragic) Malvolio, I am grateful we have sympathetic interpretations of Shylock.