What is the meaning of Shylock's defense of his Jewish humanity in "The Merchant of Venice"? 

Expert Answers
robertwilliam eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Actually, Shylock's "defense of his Jewish humanity" is not humane at all. It justifies - wrongly justifies, most commentators would argue - his revenge.

Why does he want Antonio's flesh, he is asked. He responds 

To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge.

Shylock then lists several ways in which Antonio has wronged him, simply because he is Jewish: 

He hath disgraced me ... and what's his reason? I am a Jew.

Shylock then moves through the famous part of the passage. Jews have eyes, hands, passions, eat the same food as Christians do. This bit is all perfectly humane, and a reasonable anti-racism sentiment. But what follows it?  

If you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you teach me I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

So, following all this humane rhetoric is a justification of revenge - an argument that Shylock is right to cut a pound of flesh from Antonio's body. It does defend what Shylock perceives as his Jewish humanity: but it also viciously promotes his vengefulness.