Shakespeare refuses reduction to any single explanation. If, for instance, one believes that Oedipal jealousy motivates Hamlet, then one presupposes that the playwright endowed this character with unqualified motivations. But, as Hamilton College English professor Nathaniel Strout has observed, with Shakespeare, there are always “on the other hands”; that is, the extraordinarily well-roundedness of the characters impedes pigeonholing them. Three such characters in particular, Hamlet, Falstaff and Shylock, embody this fluid versatility.
The most fascinating and controversial character in The Merchant of Venice is Shylock, the Jew. At first blush, Shylock may appear as a comic butt. Yet he is not wholly comic. For despite often appearing ridiculous, he poses too much of a threat to be dismissed lightly. Perhaps, then, Shylock, a shyster-usurer, deserves the forced conversion—maybe even the summary expulsion. His peers unquestionably think so. Early in the play, noting Shylock’s interest-free loan to Bassanio, Antonio remarks, “The Hebrew will soon turn Christian; he grows kind” (1.3.191). Surely the vociferous Graziano delights in Shylock’s vanquishment. Even Shylock’s servant, Lancelot, who proclaims “the Jew . . . the very devil incarnation” (2.2.26-27), eagerly leaves his service given the chance. And, of course, as one critic notes, neither the duke, who opens the court case “by declaring Shylock an ‘inhuman wretch’ (4.1.3), nor the disguised Portia, are impartial judges.”
To the audience, Shylock may also be a pariah, in both appearance and action. Against the play’s general felicity, says the same critic, stridency and materialism characterize his rhetoric, which burns with rancor. Further, fervently blind to everything other than the strictest terms of his bond—“I’ll have my bond. Speak not against my bond” he exclaims (3.3.5)—he refuses even to summon a doctor for the pound of Antonio’s flesh he’s impatient to hack off. In short, in seeking, in effect, to murder Antonio, Shylock is tremendously callous and monomaniacal; he, therefore, undercuts our empathy.
And yet reading Shylock as bloodthirsty falls short. Although the play’s antagonist, he is too ineffectual to be a villain the likes of Iago. Whereas Iago revels in his evil and knows himself to be such, Shylock sees himself as a scapegoat. Indeed, even in his villainy, Shylock is a victim, the grotesque product of ostracism. In the words of one critic, he is “a creation of circumstance,” that is, he harbors motivations for his malice, which however malevolent, at least make it intelligible. For instance, Antonio, the good Christian of the play, manifests his piety by berating and spitting at Shylock (1.3.135-138). And Antonio typifies all Christian Venice, which presumably has oppressed the Jews for centuries. As the play progresses, Shylock explicitly refers to this mercilessness. “If a Jew wrong a Christian, what should his sufferance be by example? Why, revenge” (3.1.68-70). Such context thus elucidates the Jew’s livid logic: “Thou call’dst me a dog before thou hadst a cause, / But since I am a dog, beware my fangs” (3.3.7-8).
Further, by the play’s end, Shylock has lost his servant, daughter, a treasured ring given to him by his dead wife, and now the court case. Exacerbating his moritification, Portia maintains that because Shylock, an alien, has threatened the life of a Venetian, he must forfeit his estate to his archenemy and to the state. Thus hemmed in not only by gentiles but also the law, Shylock cannot maintain his integrity and so he breaks. He may be legally right, but like Malvolio of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, being right matters not in a world suffused with anti–Semitism or revelry. Both characters are punished more for their differences than for any real offense.
Moreover, the Duke promises Shylock “[t]hat thou shalt see the difference of our spirit” (4.1.384), but offers the Jew the Christianly “merciful” poison pill between a pauper’s survival and a Christian’s existence. In converting, of course, Shylock “must abandon his religion for one that forbids him from practicing the trade by which he earns his livelihood.” My lasting impression, then, is compassion for Shylock. For even though, with the Jew at last removed, Shakespeare can bring us to Belmont for a comedy conclusion, he cannot exorcise Shylock’s spirit, which still hovers about in my mind, leaving me as curious as I am disturbed.
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According to the literary critic Harold Bloom, “We can sooner see Falstaff as a monk than Shylock as a Christian.” Sir John, indeed, is a coward, braggart, glutton and rogue. At the same time, he is also that new-found bosom buddy you’d put your arm around and walk with to the pub, whereupon you’d endearingly buy him drink after drink as he regaled you with yarn after yarn. Either way, Falstaff is Shakespeare’s most provocative, if not most popular, personage.
On one hand, pretending to be the king, Hal rebukes him as “[t]hat villainous, abominable misleader of youth . . . that old white-bearded Satan” (2.4.479-480). Yet while too ineffective to be a villain, doubtless embodies sin; he inhabits the hedonist’s world of eating and drinking. Ever-ready to cheat, lie and steal with reckless abandon, he thus excludes himself from the knight-hero’s world of robustness and chivalry.
For instance, Falstaff robs for the money and fun of it. On the battlefield, he fakes his death to avoid fighting. To Falstaff, the concept of honor is insidious. As he soliloquizes: “Can honor set-to a leg? No. . . . Or take away the grief of a wound? No. . . . What is honor? A word. What is in that word ‘honor’. . . . Air. A trim reckoning. . . . Honor is a mere scutcheon” (5.2.132–141). To wit, honor spurs men such as Blunt, ever-loyal to the king, to die for their country. But what good is honor six feet under? “Doth he feel it? No. Does he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible then” (5.2.137-139). In short, honor is not for the living, and, with pranks to be played here and now, it is not for the decadent Sir John.
On the other hand, although we may loathe his sins, we don’t loathe the sinner; just as Falstaff grows on his peers, he grows on us. For instance, according to the hostess, who with Pistol, Bardolph and Nim mourns Falstaff’s demise, Falstaff dies because “[t]he King has killed his heart” (2.1.86). Indeed, Falstaff retains our affection because of his appetite for life. He is jocular amid the gravitas of history and politics, which he scorns in favor of carpe diem.
Specifically, we enjoy his uniquely brilliant and quick wit, which, as he says, he also engenders in others. For instance, with his fancy for self-aggrandizement, he boasts to Hal how he fought off a dozen robbers. When the Prince confronts Falstaff with the truth—that only two men attacked Falstaff and his friends, and those two were, in fact, the Prince and Poins in disguise—Falstaff promptly reverses his story. In fact, he says, I knew the truth all along, and only fled lest I injure the heir to the throne. Falstaff’s oyster is limited by only his wit.
In the end, whether we laugh with Falstaff or at him, whether his convivial exuberance is something most of us privately crave and admire him for getting away with—whether he is fat or, as he prefers, “portly” (2.4.435)—depends on what preconceived beliefs we bring to the play. Hence, Falstaff’s famous lines begging Harry to banish the other scoundrels: “[B]ut for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff . . . banish not him. . . . Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world” (2.5.492-498).
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Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is another indelible character. He is as ambivalent and divided as one can be while remaining coherent. Of his many paradoxes, the greatest is this: does he feign madness, does he slip into madness at certain times, or does he actually become mad? On one hand, as early as his first confrontation with his dead father’s ghost—whom he neither fears nor doubts—Hamlet shows signs that he is losing his sanity. Further, although he announces his temporary insanity, even for a philosopher as brilliant as Hamlet, slipping into that role is surely burdensome and harrowing.
As the play progresses, Hamlet treads this fine line between sanity and insanity, reality and fantasy. But if sane, why does he ruminate incessantly about murder, and then kill Polonius impulsively? Why does he persist in such self-destructive behavior toward Ophelia, which, as one critic observes, crosses all rational bounds? And why does he proclaim that life is so miserable, no one would willingly bear it (3.1.58)? Indeed, this sentiment parallels the thoughts of Friedrich Nietzsche, who eventually collapsed and suffered a nervous breakdown. Moreover, when Hamlet declares, “I am but mad north-north west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw” (2.2.402-03), perhaps he is simply expressing denial, just as the economist John Nash initially refused to question his fantastical world of spying. We may even discern in Hamlet the OJ Simpson syndrome, whereby one can so convince oneself of something that one comes to believe it; Hamlet plays a madman for so long that he becomes mad.
And yet, we might argue that in becoming insane, instead of gradually degenerating, Hamlet’s transformation is expedient. In this way, Hamlet fulfills his pretense to deceive his family—maybe even the audience—while remaining true to himself. We might also note 3.2, in which Hamlet appropriately oscillates between erratic behavior, as when he asks Horatio to monitor Claudius during the play within the play, and focus, as when Claudius and Gertrude enter. And should we not take Hamlet at his word when he says, “I am but mad north-north west” (2.2.402)?
Moreover, rather than crazy, Hamlet might simply be distraught, fraught with emotions. After all, his father recently died—Hamlet suspects murder—his mother has just incestuously remarried Hamlet’s uncle, and a ghost is enjoining him to murder the king of his country. Thus trapped and vulnerable before the play begins, Hamlet’s later actions only exacerbate his depression, not his sanity. Ultimately, I believe that Hamlet knowingly makes himself insane; but the enormity of the consequences increasingly overwhelms his intense, fragile mind. We cannot, however, ascertain at what point Hamlet—and, by extension, man—stops pretending. Indeed, via Hamlet, Shakespeare induces us to question the standards by which we know ourselves to be sane.
In Hamlet’s “What piece of work is a man” speech, he begins by extolling man with Renaissance virtues—“[H]ow noble in reason, how infinite in faculties” (2.2.327-328)—and concludes with the biblical allusion that man is but a “quintessence of dust” (2.2.332). In this way, we cannot commit the prince wholly to any attitude, because every observation must admit its opposite. Yet Hamlet is no exception, for what makes Shakespeare’s characters Shakespeare’s characters are their passionate paradoxes, which it seems the Bard viewed as fundamentally shaping human nature. As Emerson observed, “[C]onsistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. . . . With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.”
 William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Westine (New Folger: New York, 1992). All subsequent citations regarding Shylock refer to this text, unless otherwise indicated.
 Ross Douthat, SparkNote on The Merchant of Venice, April 12, 2003.
 Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead, 1998) p. 191.
 William Shakespeare, The History of Henry 4, Part 1. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Westine (New Folger: New York, 1994). All subsequent citations regarding Falstaff refer to this text, unless otherwise indicated.
 William Shakespeare, The History of Henry V. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Westine (New Folger: New York, 1995).
 Brian Phillips, SparkNote on Hamlet, April 8, 2003.