I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
There are perhaps fewer disturbing lines in all of Shakespeare than Shylock’s promise to Solanio and Salarino in Act III, scene i, that he will outdo the evil that has been done to him. Shylock begins by eloquently reminding the Venetians that all people, even those who are not part of the majority culture, are human. A Jew, he reasons, is equipped with the same faculties as a Christian, and is therefore subject to feeling the same pains and comforts and emotions. The speech, however, is not a celebration of shared experience or even an invitation for the Venetians to acknowledge their enemy’s humanity. Instead of using reason to elevate himself above his Venetian tormenters, Shylock delivers a monologue that allows him to sink to their level: he will, he vows, behave as villainously as they have. The speech is remarkable in that it summons a range of emotional responses to Shylock. At first, we doubtlessly sympathize with the Jew, whose right to fair and decent treatment has been so neglected by the Venetians that he must remind them that he has “hands, organs, dimensions, senses” similar to theirs (III.i.50). But Shylock’s pledge to behave as badly as they, and, moreover, to “better the instruction,” casts him in a less sympathetic light (III.i.61). While we understand his motivation, we cannot excuse the endless perpetuation of such villainy.