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Enter Shylock: A Note on Language
By Stanley Kauffmann
Bohumil Dawison as ShylockFriedrich Mitterwurzer as Shylock

In John Gross’s Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy, a scintillating and thorough study, he has a chapter called “Three Thousand Ducats.” It begins:

Shylock reveals a great deal of himself with his opening words. “Three thousand ducats.” The phrase can be spoken dryly or slyly or thoughtfully; it can be savored or rasped out. But however it is delivered, it is identified from the outset with the spirit of calculation--and money.

All this is true, but I think that Shylock’s phrase reveals even more. Those words emphasize a particular aspect of Shakespeare’s genius.

The line opens the third scene of the play. To savor it fully, look again at the first two scenes, concentrating on the language. At the start, Antonio, a merchant in the import business, is chatting with friends about his inexplicable moodiness. One of the friends says:

Your mind is tossing on the ocean;
There, where your argosies with portly sail,
Like signiors and rich burghers on the flood,
Or, as it were, the pageants of the sea,
Do overpower the petty traffickers
That curtsy to them, do them reverence,
As they fly by them with their woven wings.

This gorgeous language, hardly rare in Shakespeare, continues to roll through the scene. Then enters Bassanio, Antonio’s closest friend, who wants to court a young woman whom he loves. He says:

In a Belmont is a lady richly left;
And she is fair, and, fairer than that word,
Of wondrous virtues....
And her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece;
Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchos’ strand
And many Jasons come in quest of her.

Bassanio needs money to present himself appropriately as this lady’s suitor. Antonio says he is short of cash, but he will take a loan to finance Bassanio’s wooing. He and Bassanio go forth to see what they can borrow in Antonio’s name.

Scene Two presents the center of the enterprise, Portia, attended by her maid-confidante, Nerissa, and in a scene written entirely in prose, they discuss the “many Jasons” who have come a-wooing. The conversation of the two women is in glittering dialogue that prides itself on verbal acrobatics, the style exalted in Thomas Lyly’s Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit. As Nerissa names the suitors who have already appeared, Portia blithely dismisses them.

Nerissa: How say you by the French lord, Monsieur Le Bon?
Portia: God made him, and therefore let him pass for a man.

On they go, deriding saucily, until Nerissa tells her that the present group of four suitors are leaving. Portia says, “I am glad this parcel of wooers are so reasonable; for there is not one among them but I dote on his very absence.” A servant announces that another suitor has arrived, and Portia says, “If I could bid the fifth welcome with so good a heart as I can bid the other four farewell, I should be glad of his approach.”

Then comes Scene Three. Enter Bassanio and Shylock. Their conversation has already begun. Bassanio is quiet, having already made his request. Shylock says: “Three thousand ducats; well.” He can say it with any of the colors that John Gross suggests: I add only that the last word of the line is very much a part of it. That word is the signet of internal simmer.

Consider, simply as a matter of diction, the effect of that line on a reader or audience, a line placed as carefully as four drum beats after scenes of golden verse and airy wit. Four plain words. As Bassanio restates conditions, Shylock’s rhythmic pattern continues.

Bassanio: Aye, sir, for three months.
Shylock: For three months; well.
Bassanio: For the which, as I told you, Antonio shall be bound.
Shylock: Antonio shall become bound; well.

Only after fifteen lines of the scene are spoken, after those repetitions of the word “well,” Shylock begins to expand, disclosing what those repetitions have signified within him. But it is his very first line that stuns the ear with spareness.

That taciturn line has several powers. First, most obviously, it fractures the mellifluous flow of sound that we have been hearing. Second, it broadens the texture of the play. What has been a romantic comedy with a gentle melancholy tinge now includes a strand of menacing drama. Third, those words announce, in their very economy, that the speaker is different in kind from the society that we have so far encountered. Throughout the play this sinewy difference is sustained in Shylock’s diction, but Shakespeare puts it in place with just four words.

Ludwig Devrient as ShylockHere arises a critical term that is always troublesome: modernism. Shylock’s first line sounds modern. About modernism, mountains of theory have accrued, and a chief question is the dating of the term. Modernism begins, we can read, when the so-called modern age begins, which might be specified as the period in the nineteenth century when the best writers began to differ with the societies in which they lived much more stringently than earlier writers had done. Moliere hated the hypocrisies and lies around him, but Moliere is not Ibsen. Part of that change in writers was the discarding of verbal upholstery. But aren’t there clear signs of the stripping off of old trappings long before the nineteenth century? Isn’t the very word “modern” imprecise? Shylock’s first line, unlike anything we have so far heard in the play, could have been written today.

The criterion is not that it doesn’t contain a “thou” or a “would’st,” but that it is pared, quintessential. It doesn’t glory in language--or, to put it properly, it glories in a different view of it. Hemingway could have written it. Beckett, if he had ever got that close to a plot, might have written it.

The point is not that Shakespeare determined here to try a kind of writing ahead of his time. The issue of modernity could not have troubled him. The fitting of the word to the action, which he talked about elsewhere, the concept of the character who utters the words and that character’s place in the world, might have brought him Shylock’s four bare words, heard by Shakespeare differently from the speech of his other people. In any case, after the richness of the music in the play’s first two scenes, those four drumbeats always thrill.


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