Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

That The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic should be beyond dispute. It read that way to me in my teens when I first read it, and it has seemed that way ever since. That it is also very much of its time is also pretty clear. With that out of the way, what are we to make of it? And why do we perform it today despite its flaws?

These are some of the questions posed by this play, and ones that performers have been asking for, well, at least the last 200 years - and even more so after the Holocaust. Theatricum Botanicum is a theater run by the Geer family. (Think Will Geer, from The Waltons.) Will Geer was blacklisted for refusing to testify before the “House Commitee on Unamerican Activities” - and ended up running an artists’ colony on the property which now houses Theatricum. I mention this in part to note that the Geer family remains toward the left politically - and toward civil rights specifically (which shouldn’t be a left/right thing, but has become so in the last few years.) This to say that for Theatricum to present a play like this, it is certainly not because they have any sympathy whatsoever toward anti-Semitism or the racism and xenophobia that also appears in the play. In fact, the program specifically mentioned that they chose to do the play in light of the recent rise in open racism, hate crimes, and, yes, anti-Semitism.

One key question that does arise is whether Shakespeare himself was truly anti-Semitic, and many, including Harold Bloom (whose book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human has been one of my resources on Shakespeare for the last couple of years) have decided that he wasn’t except in the sense that he didn’t actively fight the spirit of his times. This is certainly an interesting theory in light of the fact that the Jews had been expelled from England several centuries earlier (probably 100 or fewer remained, and those did not openly practice Judaism). The “Jew” was a comic villain, complete with fake nose and red hair and an evil cackle - but nobody actually knew a Jew any more than any of us know any genuine zombies. So seeing the comic villain get his comeuppance would inspire no more sense of guilt than we experience seeing zombies pulverized on screen.

On the other hand, of course, we have the benefit of hindsight, knowing that European anti-Semitism would eventually result in mass genocide and a world cataclysm. So it does not, shall we say, seem as cute or innocuous as all that. Bloom also notes that whatever Shakespeare’s personal beliefs, it is hard not to conclude that the Jewish people wouldn’t have been better off had The Merchant of Venice never been written, because it convincingly embedded the stereotype in Western culture.

It is also important to see this play in its historical context. Why did Shakespeare write it? Well, that one is pretty well answered. Marlowe had a huge hit in his own Jewish play, The Jew of Malta, which has the true caricature of the villainous Jew who brags about poisoning wells and killing children and so on. Shakespeare decided to one-up Marlowe, and write an even better play. In it, the Jew, Shylock, goes far beyond the comic villain role, and becomes something more complex, more human, which is why the play is so disconcerting.

For modern audiences, we cannot just laugh at Shylock - it would be (arguably) morally unthinkable to try to duplicate the way he would have been played. And few if any would laugh now. It just isn’t funny. And yet, Shylock cannot be considered the hero of the play either. He is horrid through and through, and morally indefensible himself.

Theatricum took an approach that I found interesting. (It has some parallel’s with Bloom’s, which makes me wonder if he was an influence.) The first part of this approach was to draw obvious parallels between Antonio and Shylock. They are enemies for personal as well as religious/ethnic reasons, and their hate makes them more like to each other than different. The only real difference is that Shylock fails in his goal of destroying Antonio, while Antonio - because he has the law and social opinion on his side - is able to destroy Shylock. But he, the “good Christian” of the play, is no better than Shylock. His hatred runs every bit as deep, and he takes the opportunity not just to impoverish Shylock, but to force him to convert - an act that also rendered Shylock unable to practice his profession. (See below for more.)

The second bit of interpretive spin in this version was regarding the character of Portia. This one was decidedly uncomfortable, but I believe that it matches Shakespeare’s intent. Portia is often portrayed as a noble and heroic character, plain and simple. And she has her moments. (If the play had merely focused on her response to her father’s ludicrous plan for her marriage, it could have been a rolicking comedy, rather than a “problem play.” And really, the initial part of her bit as the learned “doctor” (meaning lawyer in Shakespeare’s day) is fun. She uses a technicality to save Antonio’s life. Okay, fine, that’s excellent, and Shylock deserved it. Then she finds one to take all of his goods - and that law is a deliberately xenophobic law, punishing “aliens” more harshly than “real” Americans Venetians. This is already going a bit far. True justice would have stopped with preventing harm to Antonio, and letting Shylock have his principal back. Maybe with a deduction for attorneys fees and costs. But okay, threaten Shylock with death for trying to kill Antonio, be merciful and let him go. But no, Shylock has to be bankrupted.

But then it gets even worse. Antonio (not Portia) insists that Shylock convert. This has two problems to modern audiences. First, a gunpoint conversion is unlikely to be real (as later inquisitions would find out.) Second, because only Jews could lend money at interest, his conversion ended his professional life. This was, to be honest, a complete termination of Shylock as a person.

For Portia, she doesn’t just go beyond justice to Shylock, she also repeatedly uses “Jew” as an epithet, something Willow Geer in that role brought out quite effectively. As much as I have in the past found Portia to be at least likable if flawed, it was hard after this one. Amd not least because Geer also emphasized those lines wherein Portia flaunts her wealth and denigrates those below her. Which she does - I hadn’t really noticed that as well last time. Shakespeare chooses to make her more complex than he could have. I guess it was a bit sad to have to like her less than I did, but the play seems deeper with the more complex character.

There were, naturally, some lines which are so good as to be truly immortal. The first is the best known:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt 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? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And 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 villainy you teach me I will execute—and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

Bloom points out that this should be news to no one except for flag carrying Nazis. (Hey, we have those now - not sure Bloom saw that coming 20 years ago…) But I am not nearly so sure. It isn’t just those who fly the Nazi flag that have difficulty with empathy - with granting full humanity to others. As I have written regarding Black Lives Matter, this dehumanization is ongoing, with the members of societal majorities, blessed with privilege and dominance, refuse to grant that others’ experiences are equally valid or worth listening to. And it isn’t just for BLM. It is the same way for immigration, where many in my experience refuse to grant ordinary human motives to those outside their race and class and nationality.

It is in this that this play has so much relevance today. In every epithet directed against Shylock and his tribe based on religion or ethnicity or outsider status, you can find a modern equivalent. Shylock’s experience isn’t as exaggerated for artistic purposes as we would like to believe.

There is another speech by Shylock (who does indeed get the best lines of the play) that reverberates in my head even now.

What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?
You have among you many a purchased slave,
Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules,
You use in abject and in slavish parts,
Because you bought them: shall I say to you,
Let them be free, marry them to your heirs?
Why sweat they under burthens? let their beds
Be made as soft as yours and let their palates
Be season'd with such viands? You will answer
'The slaves are ours:' so do I answer you:
The pound of flesh, which I demand of him,
Is dearly bought; 'tis mine and I will have it.
If you deny me, fie upon your law!
There is no force in the decrees of Venice.
I stand for judgment: answer; shall I have it?

The Venetian society of Shakespeare’s day, as our own American society, was built on the backs of the enslaved. Shylock points out the hypocrisy of this - but Shylock clearly does not sympathize with the slaves. Rather, he sees his right to Antonio’s pound of flesh as every bit as unquestioned as the rights of Venetian enslavers to the bodies of their slaves. Both are meat, purchased legitimately. As recently as, say, 150 years ago, much of American society would have agreed with Shylock on that question. Except that, like Antonio’s flesh, valued because of his race and religion, Americans in the age of slavery would have asserted that white bodies had human value. (I highly recommend The Price For Their Pound of Flesh by Daina Ramey Berry for the dehumanizing of enslaved humans.)

But the real power of this speech isn’t in the exposure of hypocrisy. It is in the ironic meaning of Shylock’s mocking. In the 150 years since the end of the Civil War, we are still fighting over what should be the end result of emancipation. For many - perhaps most - whites in this nation, the answer has been and still is that freed slaves most certainly should not be entitled to equality. To marry their heirs (as recently as 1990, two-thirds of whites opposed interracial marriage with blacks), to no longer sweat under their burdens (service jobs are still filled, not by white males, but predominantly by women and non-whites). And the rhetoric still is that “if only minorities would stop having sex and babies and focus on working harder” then things would be better. Bloom (writing in the 1990s) notes that the Clinton/Gingrich welfare legislation was more of a Contract with White America to preserve their privilege. And I am more inclined these days to agree, having the benefit of seeing the rise of Trump and Nazis chanting “we will not be replaced.”

The Merchant of Venice is laced with irony throughout, where what people say is not really what they mean. And, on another level, what they think they mean isn’t the meaning that results. Never, perhaps, is this more apparent than in Portia’s lecture to Shylock.

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes
The thron├Ęd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings,
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthron├Ęd in the hearts of kings.
It is an attribute to God himself.
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this—
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

This speech is a pretty decent summary of one of Christ’s teachings. Except that whatever Portia thinks she means, she doesn’t really intend to follow her own advice. She will, in the end, show no mercy herself. Crucially, neither she, nor hateful Antonio will believe they are in need of mercy. There will be no gratefulness, and there will be no kindness.

In the list of reasons why I left Evangelicalism, this one is high. I do not see mercy or kindness. I see, instead, a social Darwinist approach to those outside the tribe. The belief is actually the exact opposite to Portia’s statement. When it comes to, say, the poor, it is believed that mercy, generosity corrupts both the giver and the recipient. We are “feeding the squirrels,” and both would be better off and more healthy if nature could just take its course.

Portia portends her own hypocrisy in her first lines in the play, however. When her servant Nerissa chides her for whining despite being immensely wealthy and fortunately, she notes that:

If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces. It is a good divine that follows his own instructions: I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching.

And this proves to be the case. She can teach Shylock, but she cannot learn from her own advice.

One possible approach to this play, then, is to paint Shylock as the sympathetic hero. But he clearly is not. He is mean and nasty and vicious just like Antonio, and his own sophistry is no better than Portia’s. For the most part, he very much deserves his punishment. To walk away from an exorbitant payment just to be able to exact a violent revenge is unjustifiable, from either a business or a moral perspective. The best spin one can put on it is what the actor who played Shylock in this production said, which is that after his daughter abandons him, Shylock has no remaining link to happiness. Thus, he at best can seek the little satisfaction he can in revenge.

So much for the heaviest themes. There was one more thing that I missed previously that bears mentioning. The nature of Antonio and Bassanio’s relationship kind of went over my head when I was younger. Let’s just say that it isn’t one of merchant colleagues. Or good buddies. This is the sort of relationship that meant Bassanio could assume the right to take whatever funds he needed - and where Antonio takes it for granted that he would die for Bassanio. And also one where Portia is clearly jealous of Antonio, and takes steps (see the ring issue) to assert for both their benefit that she now possesses Bassanio. And thus is Antonio left as desolate as Shylock in the end.

This is a comedy, so I should mention some of the funny moments. The opening scene with Portia and Nerissa is fantastic. The ludicrous riddle for suitors to solve is explained, and Portia is asked to give her opinion of the various contestants for her hand. Her ruthless skewering of their defects is quite funny - they do not seem like a particularly worthy lot - and they get their desserts. Likewise, another scene later, when the Moroccan prince gives it a try (portrayed in delightfully silly fashion by (I believe - the subs were announced before the play) Rav Val Denegro, was rather hilarious. I suspect Shakespeare took the opportunity to make fun of various countries - including England.

Likewise, just about every scene with Shylock’s servant Lancelot was a gas. He was portrayed by the ever-delightful Melora Marshall, whose regular appearances in bit parts over the years have been a highlight of our Theatricum experience.

I will mention a few more of the casting choices made. I have already mentioned Willow Geer as Portia - she generally gets the lead female parts, and with good reason. I also appreciated that Gratiano and Nerissa (who end up married) were portrayed by older actors. (Tim Halligan and Susan Angelo, respectively.) Franc Ross was convincing as Antonio - the mutual hatred was palpable. I thought this really made the play. Between Ross and Alan Blumenfeld (Shylock) there was unmistakeable reciprocal malevolence. The choice of Blumenfeld was also appropriate and intriguing. Blumenfeld owned the stage when he was on it, and his speaking of the lines was fantastic just for the musical quality of the his speech, to say nothing of the emotion he brought to the part. Theatricum added two brief framing scenes to the play. In the opening, Antonio spits on Shylock. At the end, Shylock sings a Jewish prayer and is then violently seized. Blumenfeld was, perhaps, not just acting while singing at the end.

Both Blumenfeld and Geer stayed briefly afterward to answer questions, and I definitely enjoyed their commentary. I would have loved to have listened to Blumenfeld in particular for much longer, but the necessity of preparing for the evening play cut the session short. 


Note on Jewish moneylending: Throughout the Middle Ages, there was a church proscription on charging interest. This was based on an interpretation of an Old Testament prohibition on “usury” which seems to ignore, for example, certain parables in the New Testament. In any case, this rigid, theonomic rule led to a loophole, because, well, it is hard for society to function without loans, and without interest, who would lend money except on compulsion or to gain favor with a superior?

Enter the Jew. They were allowed to lend money, but were disdained and excluded from mainstream society. I suspect the status as bankers didn’t help combat prejudice, but likely fed it. In the end, the stereotype of the Jew as greedy and ruthless took hold, and remains, sadly, to today. You can see it in pretty much every conspiracy theory - particularly those on the racist right.

This is just one of a few historical examples where a literalist interpretation of scripture led to horrible and damaging results. Rather than wrestle with the true ethical questions posed by debt, banking, and modern economic systems, the solution ended up being theonomy, loopholes, and prejudice. Perhaps there might be some sort of lesson there when reality threatens our pet interpretations.


  1. Nice review, Tim. Sadly, this is one of the many Shakespeare works that I haven't read or seen performed. Stephen Greenblatt published a thoroughly engrossing essay on the play in The New Yorker a couple of months ago. Here's the link if you are interested:

    I believe you said you were going to view the eclipse this summer. I look forward to reading your post.

    1. Fear not, a post on the eclipse is coming. I wrote it up for our local bar association magazine, so I am waiting for that to be published first.

  2. One crucial thing to note about The Jew of Malta: I've actually read it, and, while Marlowe plays the Villainous Jew stereotype for all it's worth, things are actually more complicated than that, partially because Barabas explains his villainy as someone who's reached the breaking point from centuries of Anti-semitism after his fortune was confiscated by the governor of Malta drove him to become the biggest villain he can possibly be, and partly because (and this is the key difference between Marlowe and Shakespeare) VIRTUALLY EVERY OTHER CHARACTER IN THE PLAY IS EVEN WORSE THAN HIM. Really, a more apt comparison between Jew of Malta and another Shakespeare lay might lie in Richard III, specifically a version where everyone else was even worse than King Richard.

    Perhaps this actually makes it a less anti-Semitic play than Merchant of Venice. Then again, not many people get the chance to know for blindingly obvious reasons.

    1. That's an excellent point about The Jew of Malta. Sadly, Marlowe is neglected these days, and not just that play. Interesting comparison of Richard III with the Villainous Jew. I do think that Richard is perhaps the most unambiguously bad villain in Shakespeare - definitely the cackling villain sort, rather than the complex and nuanced ones he often writes. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.