I don’t think it’s terribly arguable that this is Shakespeare’s most anti-Semitic play: it centers around Shylock, a Jewish moneylender who agrees to make a loan with “a pound of flesh” as the collateral. He then insists on taking his pound of flesh, even when the principal is offered back to him by the borrower’s friends. A court case ensues in which he is defeated and forced to surrender his wealth and convert to Christianity. This, it is implied, is a just ending. The other side of the plot involves a courtship that ends in (classic Shakespeare) a double wedding and a happily-ever-after for two playful couples. Oh, and a third couple: Shylock’s daughter elopes & converts herself to marry a Christian. Oh happy day.
It is a very fine play, with perfectly pitched wit and humor as well as a few memorable dramatic scenes, perhaps most famously Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. And it was beautifully performed, of course, by the Globe’s professional team. And yet… it’s hard to watch the nastiness that is inherent to the play itself. (There is some casual racism, in addition to the anti-Semitism, when the heiress expresses dismay at a suitor’s dark skin, and hopes for no more “of his complexion.”) As is so often the case with Shakespeare–himself a shadowy historical character, if you’ll excuse the pun–we wonder now what exactly he meant: arguments have been made that this play actually intends to draw attention to anti-Semitism so as to work against it. I think of The Taming of the Shrew, a play I read as sneakily feminist rather than the opposite. But The Merchant of Venice feels pretty hateful to me.
As my parents and I recognized, this production highlighted the religious conflict, especially through the physical performance of Shylock’s daughter Jessica, who speaks volumes with her facial expressions; and especially-especially in the final scene. Shakespeare’s text finishes with the lovers’ lighthearted, celebratory lines. But this stage production followed those lines with a painful scene in which Shylock is baptized while his daughter wails and mourns. It made me physically uncomfortable. Finishing on this note, rather than kissy-kissy, drives home the play’s more sober points.
So was Shakespeare merely using the material he knew, speaking in the slurs of his time? Was he a Jew-hater with an ax to grind? Or was he slyly hoping to point out the hypocrisies of anti-Semitism? Shylock is indeed an abused underdog: he lists the crimes committed against him, says he wishes only for fair treatment, points out that charging interest on loans is how he makes a living, and isn’t it his right? In these points he is sympathetic (in the sense that the reader/viewer naturally sympathizes with him). When Antonio defaults on the loan, his insistence on the pound of flesh is increasingly vindictive and unreasonable, especially when the principal loaned is offered to him again, then doubled. I remain unclear on how exactly the default occurs: were they just late getting the money back to him? Anyway. Shylock is less and less a likeable character as he rages on, demanding blood–although he does have a point about what the legal system owes him, and likewise, that he is only handing out the kind of treatment he’s received in the past.
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.
Still. Nobody likes him when he waves his knife around.
But then, upon legal defeat, the forced conversion really rankles with me. I was left unsettled by the whole business. The romance is nice, and the comic disguise-and-other-capers business between the lovers is as great as Shakespeare always is when it comes to that stuff. But I can’t sit right with the treatment of the Shylock character. How are we supposed to work with this kind of material today?
I don’t have the answer to that. I give this performance a good rating: it is a good play, well-produced. But it didn’t leave me sighing with pleasure.