On April 27, 2012, Florida Governor Charlie Crist signed a bill that ordered the excision of the word “shylock” from state statutes restricting usurious lending practices. The move was meant to eliminate the use of a term commonly understood as anti-Semitic.
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Shylock, of course, is the name of the Jewish moneylender in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” who proposes that a borrower who defaults on his obligations be punished by having a “pound of flesh” removed from his body. When his debtor Antonio inevitably fails to pay back his loan, Shylock insists on his right to collect the collateral, even though it would clearly kill Antonio.
Oddly, the presence of “shylock” and “shylocking” in Florida law isn’t a throwback to a long-gone century; the words were only introduced into the state’s statutes in 1969, according to press accounts from 2012.
Apparently, it was a lawyer in Atlanta who took notice of the word in Florida’s anti-usury regulations. Finding it offensive, he brought it to the attention of a colleague in Fort Lauderdale, Ivan J. Reich, a Florida bankruptcy lawyer.
He too found the use of the term inappropriate, and was in touch with two state legislators, State Sen. Eleanor Sobel and State Rep. Elaine Schwartz. They introduced Senate Bill 318 and House Bill 151, respectively, and when the bills passed, they were sent to the governor to be signed into law.
“Shylock is dead, but Shakespeare isn’t really dead. We’ll still be reading Shakespeare,” Sobel told the Broward County Sun-Sentinel at the time. She added: “This state did the right thing by eliminating ‘shylock’ from state statutes, which really is pejorative and demeaning to all Jewish people.”
To be clear, no one in Florida was proposing a ban on performances of “The Merchant of Venice” or its study in schools. And undoubtedly, there will continue to be disagreement over just what Shakespeare wanted us to think of his Jew.
Over the centuries, Shylock has been portrayed both as a comically hateful figure whose downfall is a joyful event. At the play’s end, after he has been outwitted by Portia, he is forced to give up all his wealth and convert to Christianity.
But he has also been depicted as tragic and worthy of pity. After all, Shylock was forced into his profession, as that is what was open to him as a Jew, and he must watch as his daughter converts and marries a non-Jew. He is not only defeated, he is humiliated.
Only a hard-hearted reader could fail to be moved by Shylock’s speech in which he argues that a Jew is no less human than a gentile: “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? [H]urt 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?”
According to British slang lexicographer Jonathon Green, writing in the magazine Engage in 2007, the use of “shylock” as a synonym for loan shark only began in the late 19th century. It came to mean a usurer, though not necessarily a Jewish one.
In fact, during the 1920s, it was not uncommon for people to refer to the United States as “Uncle Shylock” in place of “Uncle Sam” because of the loans left over from World War I that it insisted its European debtors repay.
The expression is still with us. As recently as two years ago, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden had to apologize after he used the term in a speech lamenting how U.S. military personnel overseas were being subjected to usurious loan practices.
Speaking at a conference of the Legal Services Corporation, Biden described how his son Beau (who died in 2015), during a tour of duty in Iraq as a military lawyer, had encountered servicemen and women who had suffered foreclosure on “bad loans that were being ... I mean these Shylocks who took advantage of, um, these women and men while overseas.”