Shylock’s Nose and Clothes

Shylock’s Nose and Clothes

A most dogged vsurer …his visage (or vizard) like the artificiall Iewe of Maltaes nose… vpon which nose, two casements were built, through which his eyes had a little ken of vs.

William Rowley, A Search for Money, 12

Stigma is about the discrepancy between character and action, character as the supposedly sealed container of who the stigmatic is, and action as the always open field of what he or she actually does, the latter often disagreeing with and disrupting the former, as occurs in the case of “Shylock the Jew.” Identified and apprehended dialectically, as both individual and stereotype, Shylock the Jew is a complex blend of subject and object, of human particularity and cultural abstraction, of a person understood legally, as an autonomous being who has rights and obligations, and a persona, understood etymologically, as the lifeless wooden mask worn by an actor on stage. It is therefore not surprising that one cultural stereotype, which also happens to be a mask, has been routinely attached to Shylock: an obnoxiously large nose.

It is a complicated bit of costuming, the artificial nose, meant to represent a natural physical feature of the Jew’s body, yet so obviously artificial when affixed to the Gentile actor. The Jew’s nose is a part of the character’s body, but not the actor’s, just like the hump propped up on the shoulder of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Yet the possibility of Shylock’s prosthetic nose comes not from the text of The Merchant of Venice, nor from a Shakespearean theatrical tradition, but from a line about “the artificiall Iewe of Maltas nose,” as William Rowley’s A Search for Money remembers the costume of Edward Alleyn’s Barabas in Christopher Marlowe’s play. If the play influencing Shakespeare’s Shylock used an artificial nose to signal some Jewish villainy, so did at least two plays influenced by Shylock: George Chapman’s The Blinde Begger of Alexandria and John Marston’s Jack Drum’s Entertainment. As such, a historicist might reason an artificial nose onto an Elizabethan Shylock on the basis of early English theatrical and cultural conventions, but the strict textualist will reject this unsubstantiated suggestion because Shakespeare never mentions Shylock’s nose (as he easily could have done: “Hath not a Jew a nose?”), and the question of Shylock’s false nose is so tricky that most critics just throw up their hands in uncertainty. Yet we can use the indeterminacy of this historical question as an opportunity to discuss Shakespeare’s irony, his veiled attitude toward the characters and actions in his text, and the multiple permutations of that text.

For example, if Shylock wears an artificial nose, his moral character is absolute, coded in his body and his race: he could never not be Jewish. Thus Merchant is a moral comedy (in the tradition of the English morality plays) showing a Jewish vice conquered by Christian virtue. If, however, Shylock wears no Jewish nose, only Jewish clothes, then his character is variable, open to alteration: he can convert religions (which means moral regeneration) as he can change clothes. This Merchant is a comedy of errors (like the Roman comedies rediscovered in the Elizabethan age) correcting the religious foolishness of the Jew with a Christian education. Is Merchant a moral comedy, Judaism is conquered by Christianity, or a comedy of errors, Judaism corrected by Christianity? It is a question of comic tone and purpose that points toward larger questions of culture and history, questions that Shakespeare invokes in Merchant, but deliberately leaves unresolved, just as he refused either to require or to reject an artificial nose for Shylock. In the shape of a question mark, the artificial nose is the material, theatrical, and dramaturgical object that commemorates Shakespeare’s irony in The Merchant of Venice.


Jews on the Early English Stage
The Jew’s Nose and Clothes in Early English Literature
Jews in Shakespeare 


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