This story takes place about six months after Merchant of Venice ends, is told from Shylock's point of view, and is set in Renaissance Italy. I've done my best to get historical facts correct, but there are probably mistakes. This is, however, dealing with a canon that's not always historically accurate. As it's fanfiction, if there's a contest between history and Shakespeare, Shakespeare takes precedence.
This story was beta'd by Anbessette. Many thanks!
This story is rated T because there is no explicit sex in it. However, there are offstage discussions of homosexuality, racism, religious hypocrisy, and rape. It deals with all four in a very serious way. So tread carefully (or happily, if you love angst).
Edited for minor errors and inconsistencies as of 12/9/15.
Chapter 1: Nemesis
It is Friday. I do not like Fridays.
Of course, to a man impartial it would appear that I do not like much of anything, these days. But even were that not so, none can argue that I have the saint's patience it would take to deal mildly with the carousers now drunkenly caroling outside my doors. Friday is the day they drink dry barrels of Venetian wine and lie with their whores. Tomorrow they'll be laid low with headaches and contrive explanations for their empty purses, and, come Sunday, they'll confess.
I will confess, also, on Sunday. Unlike most who attend church, I will never confess anything I have truly done. I create an imagined life for myself in confession. Father, forgive me, for I have sinned. I confess each week to a different priest, and each week I am a different kind of sinner. Sometimes I have robbed one man, sometimes lain with another's wife, coveted what I could not have, or worked on the Sabbath. And I always finish by saying that I have lied to a hypocrite. The priests do not need to know that they are the hypocrites I am speaking of.
If I had true belief, if I was assured their Christ was the Messiah and possessed everlasting mercy—unlike his followers, that's for certain—then I might confess some sins I truly am guilty of. Wrath, without a doubt. A general spite against the world. Lack of faith, for though my church attendance is mandatory since my conversion, my belief is a sham. Casting off my child, though she cast me off first.
Jessica left on a Friday.
Mistake me not—I always knew this world was a merciless place for a Jew. I somehow maintained the illusion, however, that I was untouchable as long as I obeyed the enacted laws of Venice. But I truly lasted as long as I did only because the Christians saw me as no threat. Perhaps I was a usurer, but my so-called sin was that kind from which they could benefit. The minute I sought revenge through paths they had themselves taken, and therefore could not dismiss as sinful, it became necessary to get rid of me.
The carousers are leaving now. I am only glad that Bassanio and Gratiano and Lorenzo are among them no more. They are off to Belmont, all three, where Bassanio will relax in the arms of his heiress. If I could pity a Christian, I might pity that lady. I doubt she has any idea what—or rather whom—her new husband enjoys in a city ready, men and women both, to lie with him for coin. My coin, I might add, borrowed time and time again before he found a certain merchant who gave him what he wanted at no cost. A moneylender knows everyone's secret vices, whether or not he wishes to.
I do not light candles on Friday anymore. I could if I so desired, for there's no one to spy on me. I dismissed my servants after my conversion, all but the one necessary to the maintenance of the house. Let them think it was Shylock's legendary thrift, but I truly cannot endure servants who, whether Jewish or Christian, will revile me. Besides, I require a distraction of some kind, now that my trade is forbidden to me, even if 'tis only to clean and cook. I use little enough of the house these days regardless. I never have guests—I cannot face my Jewish friends, not that I ever had many, and I'll be damned before I dine with a Christian. Though I expect that if the spirit as well as the letter of religious law is to be followed, according to either faith I am damned anyway. I might as well throw open my doors wide and welcome any man off the street into my house.
No, the real reason I do not light the candles anymore is because I refuse to worship a God who seems to have forgotten me entirely. All my life, I have attempted to live by the laws of the Torah, and it has earned me nothing but a wife who died long before her time, a daughter who forsook both her heritage and me, and enough persecutors to populate a small town. Now I am condemned to practice the religion of those persecutors if I wish to continue living. I doubt I'll find salvation or even comfort in simply lighting Shabbat candles.
There's a fearsome racket outside. I dearly hope the carousers are not back, for they give me a headache. (And if my sole servant, the lazy Ignazio, were here, he would no doubt point out that all things give me a headache). But this sound is more menacing than that which comes from those foolish noisemakers. Shouts and—I open my window and peer out to see nearly a score of men bearing torches under my window. One has a rope, I see, wound about his arm, and others carry broken paving-stones or daggers. All are dressed in the peacock finery of the disgustingly wealthy, but rich men are no better than poor ones when the murderous fever of the mob takes over, as I plainly see it has now. Are they here for me? I spent the first few months after the trial hiding in my house, for fear of gangs like this one, out for revenge on a pretentious newly-converted former Jew.
"Old man! You up at the window!"
Well, that answers one question. They do not know who I am, therefore they cannot be here for me.
"What is it? They can hear thee up at the palace, young fools!"
"Have you seen a man run by?"
"I've seen men run by from the duke's treasurer to the boy who empties the chamber pots," I snap. "Canst thou describe him no better?"
"Let me speak, dolt." Another man elbows the first out of the way. "His clothes were fine once, silk and velvet, but now they're all torn and muddy. And—"
"I've seen no such man." Even if I had, I would not tell them so. I relish the thought of these fools getting lost in their drunkenness, stumbling through Venice's dark streets. "Go to!" I slam the window shut.
The mob clears off swiftly enough; a small blessing, but a blessing nevertheless. I have no envy for their target if they catch him. From hard-bought experience I know well that it matters little if one's tormenters are spoiled rich brats or made of sterner stuff—if they outnumber one, one will shortly be in pain.
I stomp down to the door and peer out to see if any of them are still loitering around. No, they have gone. I am about to close the door again when I hear a groan from behind the corner of my house.
I resist the urge to swear loudly. My bad luck has returned to plague me, for that is probably one of the mob voiding a belly full of wine next to my house. "I said go to, drunkard! Thou wilt fall into a canal someday, and I only hope I am there to see it!" I am considering helping this drunkard on his way with a kick or two when he speaks.
I know that voice, and curse fate. Of all the men to land sick on my doorstep, it has to be the one I hate with more venom than any other. I am surprised, though, I must admit. He was never much of a drinker, and I did not see him in the crowd.
Antonio, the so-called merchant of Venice, buries his face in his hands. "Of all people, it had to be thee who sees me like this."
I squint into the darkness. What does he mean, like this? I cannot see his face, and his clothes are fine as always—but tattered, mud-covered, and this puzzles me greatly. The man always refused to be made part of the dirt and noise of the streets. He was always the one guiding Bassanio or Lorenzo out of some tavern. It was common for him to stand watching while his friends tormented me, and I could hear his thoughts at those times clear as glass: He had no desire to dirty his hands touching the Jew. Better to double-cross him, take his money, assist Lorenzo in the taking of his daughter, and stand high and untouched.
"Well, go on. What art thou waiting for?"
"What am I…?"
"Call them back," Antonio hisses at me. "Call them back so they can put that rope around my neck. I know how much thou wouldst like to see that."
There's nothing I'd love better than to see a noose drop over Antonio's head, but now I am curious. "'Tis you they're after? Why?"
Antonio spits on the ground. "Oh, thou wouldst like that, for me to gibber and confess my sins at thy feet? See me humiliated?"
I smirk. "Well, measure for measure, they say."
"Art thou not the fine Christian." Antonio starts to drag himself to his feet, but bends double and falls. I resist a base urge to kick him, but only just barely.
"Only when there's no help for it. Wherefore are you here? The last news I had speaks of your visiting Belmont, playing at lord with Bassanio."
Antonio laughs bitterly. "The lady Portia dislikes my way of playing lord, especially with Bassanio. And as she now holds Bassanio's purse strings, it makes very little difference what either of us wants."
"I feel for thee," I say sarcastically. "Losing thy whore."
Antonio lunges for me, but falls down coughing before he half-covers the distance between us. "Thou art not fit to lick Bassanio's shoes, and if thou darest—"
"Oh, he is not thy whore? I suppose that makes you his, then. Wilt thou raise thy rates, now that Bassanio has all the coin he could want?" I know perfectly well that not a ducat changed hands when Antonio and Bassanio took to bed, but I am enjoying tormenting my enemy.
Antonio sags and glares up at me. "Thou takest such pleasure in this, dost thou not?"
"I cannot deny that. So art thou playing the scorned lover now? I should say the torn clothes are rather excessive."
"Thou canst not earnestly believe—" Antonio shoots me an incredulous look. "Thou dost not honestly think this was my choice?"
"Well, what was it then, if not your choice?"
Suddenly Antonio seems to shrink, crumpling nearly flat on the ground. "It has a certain irony, in truth. Portia—discovered Bassanio and me together. And she accused me of—of forcing him to my bed."
Easier for her to believe that, I suppose, than to acknowledge her husband is willing to betray her with another man. "And how did this exemplary heiress react when she learned the truth?"
"She does not know it still." Pain flickers across Antonio's face. "Bassanio would not vouch for me. He feared losing her love. They sent me from Belmont—"
"What? He lied and told his wife you forced him?"
"Dost thou require me to say it?" Antonio snaps. He coughs and then grabs his ribs as if they pain him. "Would I be here, like this, otherwise?"
My eyes widen. "But no one believes it." Anyone with eyes could see Antonio favored Bassanio's regard for him above even his own life. His bond with me had shown as much.
"What wouldst thou gamble on that? 'Tis known I favor men."
Disinterestedly I acknowledge what that statement means. The people best placed to know Antonio's preferences are his friends—Gratiano, Lorenzo, Solanio and Salarino. They would have sided with the supposed victim if it was the word of Bassanio and his wife against Antonio's. In all likelihood, they were the ones who roused up that mob, as I suspect the lady Portia would have preferred to deal with her husband's indiscretions privately. That's a betrayal to sting any man.
Antonio coughs again, and gasps, clutching his stomach. "If thou wilt not call them back, then let me alone, thou—" The words get lost between rough, heavy breaths.
I frown. It takes a great deal to stop Antonio before his insults are completed. I shove the door open farther, letting light flood the area directly outside. My enemy yelps and throws up his hands, but not before I see the black bruises covering his face. And if his wincing motions are any indication, there are more on his ribs and stomach.
Bruises are far from a mystery to me, mostly thanks to Antonio, his friends, and others like them, always ready to taunt the Jew with jeers and blows. I can tell that these bruises, at least the ones on his face, were not made by fists. I had come home with marks like that after a group had cornered me in an alley and started hurling stones. That had been one of the more dangerous, if not emotionally scarring, days of torment. If Antonio had experienced something similar, he was lucky not to have been killed.
It occurs to me, as I watch the man I despise most choke with pain in the gutter, that this is a far better opportunity for revenge than enacting the terms of my bond would have been. No one would miss the famed merchant of Venice now. Probably I could even incite the mob to put their own justice into practice if I called them back, and not need to soil myself with the deed at all.
But I do not, because I know from my money-lending days that those men are far from innocent of any crime Antonio is being penalized for now, and I take a perverse pleasure at the notion of outwitting them. Besides which, putting Antonio in my debt and getting the chance to watch him flounder in suffering is a positively delightful idea. "Get up."
"If I could, dost thou not think I should be running still? Away from thee?"
He has some gall to say that now, when his own friends have turned on him so. "I doubt it not for a moment. Thou always were a coward." Oh, I do love to insult him. "Also a rapist, apparently," I add for good measure, even though I know that is a lie.
"Thou art fit for naught but misery, thou churlish, weather-bitten old miser!"
"Tell me something I do not know, whore."
He's like a wounded animal, cringing away from me. And something twists inside my chest. An almost grinding pain, as one feels when a broken bone is set. Do I pity him? It seems only a kind of generic pity, the sort I feel when I see a dog get kicked in the street, but it shocks me still that I experience aught but glee at his pain. And I am glad to see him hurting, but now 'tis mixed with this pity and I do not know quite what to say. So I say nothing, and instead walk over and yank Antonio to his feet.
"Get thy filthy hands off me!"
I roll my eyes. "It hardly suits thy situation to be accusing me of filth, when thou hast been rolling in the gutter. If thou dost not cease insulting me, I'll call back that mob." They're probably far gone by now, but I judge him too scared to realize it. "Get inside."
He stills. "I understand thee not."
More pleasure wells up, along with more pity, damn it. "I have no wish to trip on a corpse when I leave the house tomorrow," I explain, with more patience than I think the situation warrants. "You might as well stay here tonight."
I cannot tell if Antonio is agreeing to this or simply stunned that I offered, but he lets me steer him inside and lock the door.
"Thou reekst like to a hog pen," I inform him. I intend to enjoy this. "Sleep on the floor." A Jewish floor—we shall see how he likes that. In truth, part of me is expecting him to march out directly, that his situation is not truly as bad as he's said, and now that the mob is gone, he'll return to his own house. Or at least put up some show of indignation. It shocks me when he does neither. Instead, he's turning red. Embarrassed. Now I am puzzled again, just when I believed I'd grasped the situation. "What is it?"
"What do you expect of me?"
"I said, sleep on the floor. Dost thou listen to nothing besides the sound of thy own voice?"
"I did not mean that." Now he's really flushed. 'Tis an interesting sight, but mostly I am vexed. I spend ten minutes trying to shame the man, and now he's embarrassed and I cannot even tell what I did to make it happen. "I mean…in return."
I am most assuredly missing something here. "Thou art speaking foolishness. Not that I expected thee to speak aught else, but—"
"You must know I can give you no money!" Antonio's nearing hysterical and I would be amused if I merely knew why. "There's but one way I can pay you, but one reason for which you would have taken me in, and though it shames me, I must agree to it! You can do whatever you like, but tell no one I am here. I'll be your whore, as you call me, just do not bring them back!" He grabs the door frame, shaking.
Realization—and revulsion—hit me so hard I feel dizzy. He expects me to demand retribution, sexual retribution, for my hospitality, such as it is. Part of me is laughing maniacally at the notion that I would want that, but white-hot anger is invading all my other thoughts. This is worse than taunting me for being a Jew or a moneylender, because this time 'tis not just my religion or my profession he's insulting, 'tis my honor. Only the lowest of the low would demand that an injured guest pay for a night in bed by lying with his host. Who does he think I am, some strumpet from off the street?
I am ready to strike the man when I took another look at his twisted posture and ashamed face and something in my mind flips. It isn't me he's calling a whore, 'tis himself. The offer he's making me is that of a man desperate for any security, even be it only a floor to sleep on for the night. What could possibly have brought this proud merchant so low? What has been done to him that he's yet concealing? He'd begged the way I had always wanted to beg when I'd been hit and kicked for so long I could barely tell the sky from the ground. And I made it worse, no doubt, by jeering at him. That does not seem so entertaining, all of a sudden.
"I have no plans to call them back, fool," I snap, covering my shock with the familiar train of insults. "And the idea that I would want thee to whore for me is ridiculous beyond belief. And it would still be ridiculous even if I did not hate thee!" I whirl around and storm up the stairs, not bothering to wait for a reaction.
Another group of revelers is skittering around my house, but honestly I am too confused and angry to go chase them away. Confused by my own actions, as I am unable to categorize them as just the desire to watch Antonio suffer. The pity involved is undeniable. I even came close to comparing his experiences with my own. And that, I do not want. I have no interest in seeing Antonio as human. He certainly does not, and will never, see me as such. And I am angry. Angry at my strange houseguest, for all he has done to me, all the cold-eyed stares and the disgrace before the court and my conversion, and now, despite all that, for somehow forcing me to feel responsible for him.
Why does he have to be in such a pitiful state? One would almost think he is a dog, one who deserves to be kicked…horror slams into me as I realize what I just thought, what I just did. Had not I been kicked and called dog a thousand times? Had not I cursed my tormentors every day since? Always consoled myself by saying they were the real monsters, that I was innocent in God's eyes at least? And now here I am, imitating the monsters, calling my enemy a whore and a dog for the sheer pleasure of hurting him, to make myself feel self-righteous and in control. God forgive me.
Why did I think it? What God would listen to me? Not that of the Christians, for certain. Not my own God, or at least, He who was my God, before I converted. I sit down on one of my money-chests, resting my head in my hands. First my daughter gone, then my faith denied me, and now this strange twist. Why is it that I can never predict what life has in store for me?
There's only one thing I know for certain now. For the first time since I converted—and therefore for the first time in my life—I have something I want to confess.
In pre-modern English, people could choose to use 'thee' 'thou' and 'thy' or 'you' 'ye' and 'your,' depending on the situation. By Shakespeare's time, however, the distinctions had begun to blur, and so Shakespeare's choice of pronouns sometimes matters and sometimes doesn't. I follow standard rules. A person uses "thou," or a variant of it, to address a social inferior like a servant or a child, an intimate like a very close friend or spouse, or if they want to insult somebody. A person uses "you," or a variant of it, to address an equal in a more formal situation. So you'll see the characters switching between pronouns depending on whether they want to flatter or be rude, whether they are talking to a social inferior or superior, etc.