Bassanio knew exactly where to go – a money-lender who, he thought, would, for a price, immediately produce the money. It would probably be more expensive than from any other source but it would all be done discreetly –no-one would have to know about it. It would be worth it because he was almost certain to be successful in his Belmont project and the money would be repaid without any fuss. He entered the dingy streets of the Jewish quarter and knocked on the door of the biggest house in the district. Shylock was at home and he came out to him. Bassanio came straight to the point.
‘Three thousand ducats,’ said Shylock. He nodded thoughtfully. ‘Well…’
‘Yes, sir, for three months.’
‘For three months.’ Shylock nodded again. ‘Well.’
‘Which, as I said, Antonio will guarantee.’
‘Antonio will guarantee it. Well…’
‘Will you do it? Will you help me? Will you tell me?’
Shylock stroked his beard. He spoke slowly, thoughtfully. ‘Three thousand ducats for three months and Antonio will guarantee it…’
‘Yes, yes,’ said Bassanio impatiently. ‘What’s your answer?’
‘Hm. Antonio is a good man.’
‘Have you heard any suggestion to the contrary?’
Shylock laughed. ‘Oh no, no, no, no, no! When I say he is a good man, you must understand that I mean he is financially sound. But his wealth is at risk. One of his ships is bound for Tripoli, another for the Indies. Moreover, I have heard on the Rialto that a third is in Mexico, a fourth sailing for England, and there are several others all over the place.’ He watched Bassanio’s impatient gestures for a moment then laughed again. ‘But ships are only timber, sailors only men. In the same way that there are water rats and land rats, there are land thieves and water thieves: in other words, pirates. And then there are the dangers of currents, gales and rocks. Putting that aside though, the man is sound. Three thousand ducats. I think I can accept his guarantee.’
‘You can be sure you can!’
‘I will make sure I can. And to be sure I’ll think it over. May I talk to Antonio himself?’
‘Of course! Come to dinner with us if you like.’
Shylock’s eyes narrowed. ‘Yes, to smell pork and eat the meat your prophet of Nazareth cast devils into! I will buy from you, sell to you, talk to you, walk with you, and so on, but I will not eat with you, drink with you nor pray with you.’ He was suddenly smiling again. ‘What’s the latest chatter on the Rialto? And who’s this coming here?’
Antonio had obviously had the same thoughts about where he might get the ready money because he was coming down the street. ‘It’s Signior Antonio!’ said Bassanio.
He went to meet his friend and Shylock watched them conferring closely together. Antonio looked like a fawning innkeeper. Shylock felt hatred for him because he was a Christian. But more seriously, because he generously lent out money without charging anything, which brought down the rate of interest in Venice. Shylock was excited because this could be his chance to catch him off-guard and very effectively pay back some old scores. Antonio hated Jews and was forever going on about Shylock in the business circles of Venice, denouncing his business methods and condemning his hard-earned profits as extortion. May his tribe be cursed if he forgave him!
He didn’t realise that his visitors were standing beside him and talking to him.
‘Shylock, are you listening?’ Bassanio was saying.
‘I’m calculating my assets,’ said Shylock. ‘At a rough guess I can’t raise the full sum of three thousand ducats immediately. It doesn’t matter, though. Tubal, a wealthy Hebrew of my tribe, will give it to me. But wait. How many months do you need?’ He bowed to Antonio. ‘Don’t look so worried, sir. ‘We’re trying to help you.’
Antonio drew himself up and looked at Shylock with dislike. ‘Shylock,’ he said, rather formally, ‘Although I never lend nor borrow for profit I’ll break that rule to help my friend in his need.’ He turned to Bassanio. ‘Does he know how much you want?’
‘Of course,’ said Shylock. ‘You just heard me. Three thousand ducats.’
‘And for three months,’ said Antonio.
‘I had forgotten. Yes, three months. You did tell me that. Well then, your guarantee. Let me see… But look here. I thought you said you never lend nor borrow for profit.’
Shylock gazed at him for a long moment, then: ‘When Jacob grazed his uncle Laban’s sheep – that’s the Jacob that was the third in line of inheritance from Abraham after his cunning mother had arranged it for him. The third in line …… yes, that’s right, he was the third.’
Antonio tutted impatiently. ‘What’s he got to do with it? Did he take interest?’
‘No he didn’t,’ said Shylock. ‘Not directly anyway. Listen to what Jacob did. When he and Laban had agreed that all the new-born lambs with stripes and patches should be Jacob’s to keep as his wages, the ewes became ready and turned to the rams. And when these woolly animals were in the act of mating the skilful shepherd got some sticks and stuck them in the ground in view of the lusty ewes. They conceived at that point, and when lambing time came they gave birth to lambs with mottled markings. They belonged to Jacob. It was a way of thriving and he was blessed. Profit is blessed as long as men don’t steal to get it.’
‘That was a gamble Jacob made, sir,’ said Antonio. ‘It wasn’t in his power to make it work. Heaven made the decision. Did you tell me that to justify charging interest? Or are you suggesting that your gold and silver are ewes and rams?’
‘I don’t know. But I make them breed as fast! But listen to me, signior…’
‘Notice, Bassanio,’ said Antonio. ‘The devil can quote the Scriptures for his purpose. An evil man who quotes from the Bible is like a villain with a smiling face, a rosy apple with a rotten core. Oh what a lovely outside falsehood has!’
Shylock was muttering. ‘Three thousand ducats. It’s a good round figure.’ He removed a book of tables from his pocket. ‘Let me see. Three months from twelve…’
‘Well Shylock?’ Antonio was impatient. ‘Are you going to oblige us?’
Shylock slipped the book back into his pocket. He looked at Antonio for a long time then shook his head.
‘Signior Antonio,’ he said. ‘So many times on the Rialto, you have berated me about money and my money-lending. I’ve always responded with a patient shrug because enduring such things is the badge of all our race. You call me an unbeliever, a cut-throat dog, and spit on my Jewish gabardine. And all for using what belongs to me. Well then, it now seems that you need my help. Alright then: you come to me and you say, “Shylock, we want some money.” That’s what you say. You, who spat on my beard and kicked me as you would kick a stray dog from your house. Now you want money. What am I supposed to say to you? Shouldn’t I say, “Has a dog got money? Could a mongrel possibly lend three thousand ducats?” Or shall I bend low and in the fawning tone of a servant, softly, in a small humble voice, say this: ‘Good sir, you spat on me last Wednesday: you kicked me on such and such a day: another time you called me ‘dog’. And for these courtesies I’ll lend you so much money” ?’
‘I’m just as likely to call you that again, and spit on you again and kick you too!’ said Antonio. He glared at Shylock with hatred in his eyes. ‘If you lend this money don’t lend it as you would to your friends, because since when did a friend make money from lending worthless bits of metal to his friend? Rather lend it to your enemy who, if he fails to repay you, you can exact the penalty in good conscience.’
Shylock’s face crinkled in a warm smile. ‘Why, look at the way you’re raging! I want to be friends with you and have your high regard: forget the indignities you’ve stained me with, and lend you the money you need. And take not a penny of interest. And you won’t hear me. This is kindness I’m offering.’
Bassanio burst into laughter. ‘This is kindness!’ he exclaimed.
‘I’ll prove it’s kindness,’ said Shylock. ‘Come with me to an attorney. Sign your guarantee and – just for fun – if you don’t repay me on such and such a day, in such and such a place, such sum or sums as are mentioned in the contract, let the forfeit be stated as a full pound of your good flesh, to be cut off and taken from whatever part of your body I choose.’
‘Agreed,’ said Antonio ‘I’ll sign such a contract and say the Jew is full of kindness.’
Bassanio gripped his arm and took him aside. ‘You mustn’t sign such a contract for me. I’d rather manage without.’
‘Oh don’t worry, man,’ said Antonio. ‘I won’t forfeit it. Within the next two months – that’s a month before the contract expires – I’m expecting a return of nine times the value of this loan.’
Shylock threw his hands up. ‘Oh, Father Abraham!’ he exclaimed. ‘These Christians, whose own tough dealings make them suspicious of everyone! Please tell me,’ he said, appealing to Bassanio, ‘If he should fail to repay me by this date, what would I gain by insisting on this penalty? A pound of flesh taken from a man is not as valuable, or profitable, as the flesh of sheep, cattle or goats. What I’m saying is that I’m offering this friendship to gain his goodwill. If he’ll take it, fine: if not, goodbye. But in any event, don’t run me down.’
Antonio ignored Bassanio’s attempts to catch his eye. ‘Yes Shylock,’ he said. ‘I’ll sign this contract.’
‘Then meet me at the attorney’s immediately,’ said Shylock. ‘Give him instructions for this playful contract, and I’ll go and get the money, and see to my house, which I’ve left in the unreliable hands of a wasteful wretch: and I’ll be with you as soon as I can.’
As he turned to go back into his house Antonio’s lip curled in a scornful grimace. ‘Goodbye, to you, gentle Jew,’ he said. They began walking back up the street. ‘The Hebrew would like to turn Christian,’ he said. ‘He’s getting kind.’
‘I don’t like such fair terms from such a crook,’ said Bassanio.
‘Come on,’ said Antonio, taking his friend’s arm. ‘There’s no cause for concern. My ships are due home a month before the deadline.’