The Merchant of Venice

The play and the Jews.

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The Merchant of Venice is a play by William Shakespeare believed to have been written between 1596 and 1598. The play is best known not for the "merchant" Antonio, but for his rival Shylock, the tormenting and tormented Jewish moneylender.

The Story

The drama of the play begins after Bassanio, in need of money to woo the heiress Portia, asks his friend Antonio for a loan. Antonio has bailed Bassanio out several times before, and is happy to do it again. But this time, because his ships are at sea and have not yet returned with their riches, Antonio has to ask Shylock for a loan.
Jewish Shylock in Merchant of Venice
Shylock hates Antonio because he is a Christian, and because, on one occasion, Antonio spat on Shylock for being a Jew. To take a measure of revenge, Shylock forgoes charging any interest on Antonio’s loan and instead sets the bond at one pound of Antonio’s flesh. When Antonio's ships are lost at sea and he is unable to pay, Shylock demands that pound of Antonio's flesh and brings him to court in order to be repaid.

The trial in the court of the Duke of Venice contains the great climax of the play. Unwilling to simply nullify a contract, the Duke calls upon Portia, disguised as a male lawyer, to argue on behalf of Antonio. When Shylock refuses to show mercy, she finds a flaw in the contract: Shylock’s agreement with Antonio mentioned flesh--but said nothing about blood. If, in the process of collecting Antonio’s flesh, Shylock were to be guilty of shedding Antonio’s blood, then Shylock’s property would have to be confiscated by the state of Venice. 

Portia even goes a step further, and points out that Shylock is a Jew (therefore an alien) who has attempted to take the life of a Venetian citizen, and this crime is punishable by death. While the Duke pardons Shylock's life, he forces him to convert to Christianity and leave his entire fortune to Jessica, Shylock's daughter, who had recently converted to Christianity.

Shylock's Characterization

Generosity appears to be the core difference between Christian and Jewish moneylenders in the play. On the one hand, Antonio thinks it is his Christian duty to lend money to friends interest-free: "For when did friendship take / A breed for barren metal of his friend?" (1.3.128-29) In other words, how can a person profit off his friend’s need? Shylock, on the other, is brazen enough to demand a pound of flesh as payment--and he does not relent when actual money cannot be handed over.

But Shylock is not so simple a character. On the surface, he is cruel, stubborn, and greedy--and he has a grotesque fixation on redeeming Antonio's flesh bond. But Shylock also has emotional weight, expressing his angst in one of Shakespeare's most eloquent speeches:

I am a Jew. 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? (3.1.49-61)

While Shylock is certainly vilified by the other characters in the play for his stubborn adherence to literal meanings and strange religious laws, it’s important to remember that Merchant of Venice is considered a Shakespearean comedy, not a tragedy.

Perhaps Shylock’s caricature is more comparable to the puritanical Malvolio of Twelfth Night rather than the callously malevolent Iago of Othello. Malvolio has no sense of humor and his religious rigidity is used for laughs; Iago manipulates those around him and revels in their suffering. Shylock falls much closer to the former--he might not be understood by the Christian world of the play, but, for Shakespeare, Shylock is still another human being whose opinions and quirks give the world (and the play) more drama. Shylock is not an embodiment of evil like Iago.

Shylock's final judgment has also disturbed scholars over time. Having Portia press on and force Shylock's conversion to Christianity seems particularly cruel. [While life is preserved, faith is not. A prescription for such long-term torture flies right in the face of the play's stance against the idea of revenge. Throughout the play, revenge is deemed un-Christian and entirely selfish. But Portia’s final sentencing of Shylock is anything but merciful, and perhaps a great deal closer to revenge.

Modern Issues/Controversies

Shylock’s portrayal as a moneylender is often interpreted as anti-Semitic. But money-lending was a common profession of Jews in the 16th century, so the very fact that Shylock is a moneylender is probably not anti-Semitic. However, Shylock’s greedy and vengeful character might be based on anti-Semitic stereotypes--and might also perpetuate them.

Also notable is the fact that it was highly unlikely Shakespeare ever actually met a Jew, since Jews were expelled from England in 1290. Without any first-hand contact, Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock would have had to be based entirely on folk knowledge and stereotypes.

So the play may simply be a product of its time, which means a certain amount of anti-Semitic sentiment is to be expected. Whether this measure of anti-Semitism should be tolerated is a different debate.

Hitler was a fan of The Merchant of Venice because he supported its anti-Jewish themes. Nazi propaganda often featured Shylock because he embodies so many stereotypes, and several productions of the play took place in Germany during World War II.

The aspects of the play that appealed to anti-Jewish propagandists are precisely what continue to bear controversy, both when the play is taught in schools and when it is performed. In one example of many, Suffern High School in Rockland County, NY, had the play removed from its curriculum from 1988 to 1995, after a substitute teacher wrote letters to area rabbis arguing that the recent portrayals were too damaging and that non-Jewish students might come to believe that negative stereotypes about Jews are true. Wanting to avoid backlash from the Jewish community, the superintendent decided to simply remove the play from the curriculum. The play only re-entered the curriculum when a new superintendent took over.

In 2004, The Merchant of Venice made it onto the big screen as a major motion picture, starring Al Pacino as the tormented Jew. Many reviewers considered his version of the character to be somewhat sanitized. The movie depicts several scenes of Jewish suffering in the Venetian ghetto, and a dramatization of Antonio actually spitting on Shylock. The message seems to be that because he and his people are oppressed, Shylock was somewhat justified in his actions.

Shylock’s significance as a symbol of anti-Semitism became evident in May 2009 when the ADL accused cartoonist Gary Trudeau of invoking anti-Semitic stereotypes in a “Doonesbury” comic strip.In his strip, Mr. Trudeau drew an exchange between two characters after a Sunday church sermon. Their discussion pointed out that the only time Jesus was ever angry was at the moneylenders. In their letter to Mr. Trudeau, the ADL wrote, “To speak of money-lenders harkens back the stereotype of Shylock, when Jews were forced by Christians to engage in usury.”While arguably a hypersensitive reaction, this episode points to the way that Shylock’s character has become rooted in our culture; even simple use of the word “moneylender” was enough for the ADL to cry, “anti-Semitism!”

These varied reactions to Shakespeare’s play all point to our culture’s continued sensitivity to anti-Semitism, regardless of how outdated the original statement is. The sentiments about Jews in The Merchant of Venice might make us uncomfortable, but the play is a product of its time. Perhaps our discomfort is actually based on the continued prevalence of prejudiced attitudes.

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Elana Roth

Elana Roth is a graduate of Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she earned degrees in English Literature and Bible. She currently works as a literary agent in New York City.