The Shakespeare Project: The Merchant of Venice

If it weren’t for the ending, I would like this play a lot better. As it is, it has its moments of brilliance, particularly Portia’s ridiculing of her past suitors and Shylock’s famous speech. The romantic subplot is side-lined, generating little tension. The idea that no one thought to pick the lead casket strains credulity. And maybe it’s just me, but the sidekicks — who usually generate much of Shakespear’s humor — seem subdued. But, all in all, this is a typical entry into the cannon — quotable, fun and a fast read.

Until, that is, Act IV.

Maybe it’s because I’m Jewish but the ending of this play infuriates me. Shylock is deprived of a perfectly reasonable debt by a legal theory that wouldn’t water in a kangaroo court administered by someone who, technically speaking, has no legal authority. The logic used to defeat Shylock — that he could not get a pound of flesh without spilling blood — easily destroys Portia’s argument that he tried to kill a Venetian. A more typical twist of this would be to have Portia’s argument used to threaten the hero, then to have him rescued by a wiser ruling. But, of course, the entire court scene is a farce, degenerating quickly into an excuse to impoverish, humiliate and convert Shylock, a character I find unsympathetic and deserving of a comeuppance, but not one as arbitrary and total as the one he gets.

That, of course, brings me to the big question about this play: is The Merchant of Venice anti-semitic? Well, there’s a good case to be made that it is. Jews and Judaism are denounced repeatedly. The hero of the play admits to abusing and spitting on Shylock. The happy ending has both Shylock and Jessica converting to Christianity and there is zero irony or ambivalence about it. To the extent that there is sympathy for Shylock — his famous speech — it still regards his religion as more of a tragic flaw. Othello the Moor’s religion was treated with more respect than this.

Historically, the role was played was little sympathy until modern times. The fact that the role can be made sympathetic has less to do with any subconscious sympathy in the writer and more to do a key factor of Shakespeare’s enduring brilliance: the ability of the plays to resonate in any context or performance. The Taming of the Shrew still appeals when converted into a teen comedy; Macbeth is still compelling even, as my Twitter friends discussed, he’s a vet with PTSD; and Shylock can be made into a sympathetic character. This happens because Shakespeare spoke to deep needs, fears and emotions. This happens because all of his characters and plots are multi-layered. This happens because he was Shakespeare.

(Defenders claim Shylock is vilified and humiliated more for his greed and usury than his religion. Apart from ignoring the plain text, this misses the context. Banking was synonymous with European Jews in the last millenium because Christians tought charging interest was sinful. Since Jews were going to hell anyway and were barred from most other professions, they naturally became bankers. And it wasn’t long before the caricature of the greedy Jew arose. So vilifying Shylock for usury and greed, in the Elizabethan Era, isn’t that far from vilifying him for his faith.)

In the comments on one play, I noted arguments I had in college over Chaucer’s “Prioress’ Tale”. The Prioress’s Tale is clearly anti-semitic but my professor and my class bent over backward to pretend that it was really mocking anti-semitism. I countered that their desperation to prove Chaucer was free of or wasn’t exploiting any anti-semitic feeling was a form of modern chauvinism. Chaucer didn’t invent anti-semitism. He was a man of his time, born into a country that had expelled Jews and regarded them as intrinsically evil. Anti-semitism would be as natural for a man of 14th century England as racism was or a man of the 19th. His writing is just as brilliant if he were anti-semitic than if he weren’t. In fact, the Prioress’s tale is quite well-told, for being a blood libel story.

Shakespeare didn’t invent anti-semitism and, to my knowledge, it doesn’t appear in any other works. And it’s likely that, like Chaucer, his use of a Jew as the villain more to do with is culture that any particular feeling of his. But the disdain for Jews and Judaism by the heroes of Merchant is unmistakable. Why should we refuse to accept that he might have accepted the same things about Jews that everyone else did?

Frankly, the beliefs of artists don’t really bother me. There are many modern artists who embraced the murderous soul-crushing evil of communism. There are many who have embraced racism, anti-semitism, anti-Islamism, sexism and any other form of bigotry you care to nominate. We shouldn’t ignore the brilliant things they make when they are not irreparably tainted. Shakespeare is the greatest writer in history. Merchant of Venice is a great play. That Shakespeare might have bought into the common and official belief that Jews were evil does not change that.

Next Up: As You Like It