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Mercy or Monkeys? Minor Characters with Major Influence in Shakespeare

By Cheryl Hogue Smith


Often in Shakespeare’s plays, minor characters with little stage time radically alter the course of action onstage. Without these interesting and unexpected theatrical detours, the major events of the play would not occur as they do. One especially memorable example is Margaret in Much Ado about Nothing, without whom Claudio would never have “witnessed” the liaison in Hero’s window that temporarily derails Hero and Claudio’s wedding. Or imagine Othello devoid of Iago’s wife, Emilia, without whom Iago would never have gotten Desdemona’s kerchief in order to set Othello up for his tragic fall. The Merchant of Venice has such a minor character in Shylock’s friend and fellow Jew, Tubal. Without Tubal’s brief goading of Shylock in 3.1 (all references are from The Riverside Shakespeare), the play would not have veered towards its tragic-comic conclusion in which Antonio’s life and the marriage between Portia and Bassanio were put in serious jeopardy.

This crucial scene in the play begins with Solanio and Salario taunting Shylock about his daughter’s elopement and Antonio’s bond. The middle of this short scene ends with Shylock’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech (3.1.59), which attempts to show Solanio and Salario that Christians and Jews are, in essence, no different from one another. In fact, this speech is often cited as an argument against the charge that the play and its author are anti-Semitic. Dramatically and rhetorically, it is surely one of the most eloquent and persuasive moments of the play, commanding the sympathy of any audience and constituting even beyond the performance of this play one of the most powerful anti-racist speeches in the history of literature.

Because of this memorable eighteen-line speech, audiences may not really notice that what comes afterwards is actually a pivotal section that sets up the emotional outcome of the entire play. In fact, the short dialogue that follows between Shylock and Tubal pushes Shylock into his notoriously unmerciful state.
It’s important to set this scene in context in the play: Jessica has just run off with the gentile Lorenzo. Not only is Shylock wounded by his daughter’s escape, but he is enraged that she took so much of his wealth during her escape. Act 3, scene 1 begins with Solanio and Salario deriding Shylock, and just at the moment when Shakespeare allows audiences to feel sympathy for Shylock, Tubal then appears to ensure that audiences don’t feel sympathy for long. For the remainder of this short scene, Tubal manipulates the conversation so that it fluctuates between Jessica’s betrayal and Antonio’s indebtedness, and, by doing so, Tubal ensures that Shylock’s rage galvanizes him into plotting Antonio’s death.

The exchange begins on the subject of Jessica:

Shylock: How now, Tubal! what news from Genoa? Hast thou found my daughter?

Tubal: I often came where I did hear of her, but cannot find her.

Shylock: Why, there, there, there, there! A diamond gone cost me two thousand ducats in Frankfort! The curse never fell upon our nation till now; I never felt it till now. Two thousand ducats in that, and other precious, precious jewels. I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear! Would she were hearsed at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin. No news of them, why so? And I know not what’s spent in the search. Why thou loss upon loss! The thief gone with so much, and so much to find the thief, and no satisfaction, no revenge, nor no ill luck stirring but what lights o’ my shoulders, no sighs but o’ my breathing, no tears but o’ my shedding. (3.1.79-96).

During this dialog, as Shylock and Tubal discuss the actions of Shylock’s daughter, audiences can see that Shylock is clearly more incensed that his daughter stole from him than he is about her marrying a Christian. Sensing Shylock’s rage about his loss of wealth, Tubal brilliantly changes the subject to Shylock’s enemy, Antonio:

Tubal: Yes, other men have ill luck too. Antonio, as I heard in Genoa—

Shylock: What, what, what? Ill luck, ill luck?

Tubal: Hath an argosy cast away, coming from Tripolis.

Shylock: I thank God, I thank God! Is it true, is it true?

Tubal: I spoke with some of the sailors that escaped the wreck.

Shylock: I thank thee, good Tubal. Good news, good news! Ha, ha! Heard in Genoa? (3.1.97­107)

Tubal then brings up “Genoa” to move the discussion back to Jessica and her lavish waste of Shylock’s money:

Tubal: Your daughter spent in Genoa, as I heard, one night fourscore ducats.

Shylock: Thou stick’st a dagger in me. I shall never see my gold again. Fourscore ducats at a sitting, fourscore ducats! (3.1.108–112)

This exchange ends with another reference to Antonio’s fate and Jessica’s betrayal, ending with Jessica’s cavalier sale of her mother’s wedding ring:

Tubal: There came divers of Antonio’s creditors in my company to Venice that swear he cannot choose but break.

Shylock: I am very glad of it. I’ll plague him; I’ll torture him. I am glad of it.

Tubal: One of them showed me a ring that he had of your daughter for a monkey.

Shylock: Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal. It was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.
Tubal: But Antonio is certainly undone.

Shylock: Nay, that’s true, that’s very true. Go, Tubal, fee me an officer; bespeak him a fortnight before. I will have the heart of him if he forfeit, for were he out of Venice I can make what merchandise I will. Go, Tubal, and meet me at our synagogue; go, good Tubal, at our synagogue, Tubal. (3.1.113–130)

To look at this scene closely is to see that Tubal deftly stokes Shylock’s rage to make him more resentful about his lost money than his daughter’s elopement with a Christian. We will, of course, never really know what motivates Tubal to act as Shylock’s torturer or know whether Shylock could have been merciful had his emotions about Antonio not been tied to Jessica’s betrayal.

Shylock is a flawed character, and this fact heightens the drama of this play. But 3.1, from “Hath not a Jew eyes” to “I will have the heart of him,” shows audiences the depths of emotion Shylock is capable of feeling. Shylock is deeply wounded and acts out in the only way he can—through demanding the forfeiture of Antonio’s bond and the merchant’s immediate death.

Audience members often ask, “Why wasn’t Shylock merciful?” or “Why would Shylock care more about ‘a pound of flesh’ than the tenfold amount of money he could have collected?” The answers lie within this scene and bring us to perhaps a more constructive question: “Why does Tubal use Jessica to provoke and manipulate Shylock into making the choices he does?” This relatively “minor” character is responsible for an immense change in the direction of this play, yet he also helps audiences better understand Shylock’s fury: The quality of mercy may not be strained, but it’s easy to see why it was traded away for a wilderness of monkeys.


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