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Quotes / The Merchant of Venice

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"The slight action of the Merchant of Venice, with its fairy-tale motifs, is almost too heavily burdened by the weight and problematic implications of [Shylock's] character, and many actors who have undertaken the part have tried to concentrate the entire interest of the play upon him and to make him a Tragic Hero. His character is a temptation to tragic overemphasis: his hatred has the deepest and most human motivation, is much more deeply based than the wickedness of Richard III; it becomes significant through its power and tenacity. In addition, Shylock formulates it in phrases which echo great humanitarian ideas, especially those which most deeply moved and influenced later centuries...At this and many other moments there is something about him of somber and at the same time truly human greatness. And in general he does not lack...impressiveness of character, power and passion, and strength of expression. And yet in the end Shakespeare drops these tragic elements with heedless Olympian serenity. In earlier scenes he had already put a strong emphasis on ludicrous and grotesque traits in Shylock's character, notably his miserliness and his somewhat senile fear; and in the scene with Tubal (End of 3.1), where he alternately laments the loss of the valuables which Jessica has taken with her and rejoices over Antonio's ruin, Shylock is frankly a figure from farce. In the end Shakespeare dismisses him, without greatness, as a circumvented fiend, just as he found him in his sources, and after his departure he adds a whole act of poetical fairy-tale sport and amorous dalliance, while Shylock is forgotten and abandoned. There is no doubt, then, that the actors are wrong who have tried to make Shylock a tragic hero. Such a conception is at odds with the economy of the play as a whole. Shylock has less greatness by far than Marlowe's gruesome Jew of Malta and that despite the fact that Shakespeare saw and stated the human problem of his Jew much more deeply. For him Shylock, both in terms of class and aesthetically, is a low figure, unworthy of tragic treatment, whose tragic involvement is conjured up for a moment, but is only an added spice in the triumph of a higher, nobler, freer, and also more aristocratic humanity."
Erich Auerbach: Mimesis : "Chapter 13: The Weary Prince" (translated by Willard R. Trask).

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