The Reading Room
“One would have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to recognize that Shakespeare’s grand, equivocal comedy, The Merchant of Venice, is a profoundly anti-Semitic work.” This is the pronouncement with which Shakespeare scholar, Harold Bloom begins his account of the play. And Bloom is not alone.
More recently, parental concerns about anti-Semitic themes in the play led to the cancelation of a New York City school presentation of The Merchant of Venice. And not long ago, another production in Australia transformed The Merchant of Venice from an uncomfortable comedy to a tragedy, in order to make the play more palatable to our contemporary sensibilities. The production altered Shakespeare’s conclusion to incorporate a final scene with a weeping Jessica, suddenly repentant of her role in the humiliation of her father, Shylock, but who had recently absconded from her home and her Jewish faith with family jewels and money, to join her lover and Venetian society by converting to Christianity. This discomfort with The Merchant of Venice is not new. Many like to note the Nazi delight in the play’s performance as evidence of its antisemitism. And fashionable contemporary activists have declared their aim to “disrupt Shakespeare,” to dislodge him from his place of honor in the American school curriculum, because they believe his “plays harbor problematic depictions and characterizations.”
But is the Merchant of Venice simply a pro-Christian, anti-Jewish play? Is the portrayal of Shylock, the Jewish money lender in Shakespeare’s Venice, significantly less flattering than the depiction of Antonio, the eponymic Christian merchant in the play? My contention is that The Merchant of Venice is neither anti-Semitic, nor pro-Christian. To the contrary, Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock is painfully sympathetic, and his rendering of the relationship between Shylock and Antonio is a searing indictment of the Medieval Christian caricature of Judaism, which produces the injustice that provokes Shylock’s desire for vengeance.
It should be intriguing to us that Shakespeare situated two plays, Othello and The Merchant of Venice, written within no more than 10 years apart, in the republic of Venice. Why was Venice, an aristocratic, commercial republic, of such great interest to him? Certainly, the Venetian regime was of a very different shape than the hereditary monarchy that reigned in Shakespeare’s England. Shakespeare’s presentation of the British monarchy in his plays suggests his concern with the inherent instability of one-man rule. His interest in Venice may reflect his curiosity about the availability of an alternative regime form: an outwardly open society, governed not by men but by law, enforced impartially among citizens and non-citizens, who do business in Venice. Was the commercial republic truly able, as it claimed, to balance consistently the business interests of merchants and traders from near and far justly under the impartial rule of law?
Furthermore, if Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is a study of the Venetian commercial republic, as Allan Bloom argued, then, Venice itself would be the true focus of the play, and his presentation of the tension between the Christian merchant, Antonio, the play’s namesake, and his rival, the Jewish money lender, Shylock might be a vehicle for that investigation. Perhaps Shakespeare is further testing the hypothesis of the capacity of the commercial republic to adjudicate the serious differences of belief under the law without favoring one over the other? Is moral impartiality possible?
In a city known for its dedication to a kind of value neutral pursuit of wealth and the pleasures of feasting and parties, Antonio and Shylock are the most devout and perhaps the only fully serious and somber characters in Shakespeare’s play. Absent Antonio and Shylock, Paul Cantor argues that The Merchant of Venice, would be a standard romantic comedy. In a romantic comedy, the only impediment to the happy marriage of Lord Bassanio and Portia would be the challenge of the gold, silver, and lead caskets that her father’s will establishes to test the moral fiber of her suitors after his death. Instead, Shakespeare complicates the comedy and the romance by imposing still greater obstacles on the lovers’ path to happiness: first, Bassanio’s extravagance, which keeps him indebted to his wealthy, pious friend, Antonio; and second, the quarrel between Antonio and Shylock, from whom Antonio must briefly borrow money to fund Bassanio’s courtship of Portia, whose wealth, he believes, is the answer to the financial shortfall his prodigality has caused.
Antonio is renowned in Venice for his commercial success as a merchant and for his high Christian principles, chief among them, his disapproval of usury, which the Church forbids. He is generous to his friends and fellow citizens, but he treats Shylock with venomous disdain because his business, among the only means of commercial activity Venice allows him as a Jew to support his family and his private life, is to charge interest on the money he lends to Venetians. Antonio admits that he spits on Shylock and encourages others too to dismiss him as a “misbeliever, cutthroat dog” for his money lending business and his Judaism (1.3.108-109, 127-128). When Antonio finds it necessary to borrow money to assist Bassanio in his quest to win Portia, he finds that only Shylock can provide the 3,000 ducats he needs for 3 months. Antonio’s need is Shylock’s potential opportunity for what could amount to a terrible vengeance for Antonio’s incivility. The terms of his lending are related to their battle. Shylock refuses to take interest from Antonio. Instead, he will impose a physical price, “a pound of flesh,” if Antonio cannot repay him.
Why Antonio agrees to these terms seems related to a certain Christian otherworldliness that suffuses his demeanor. He begins the play with an observable but inexplicable sadness, born of what he attributes to a lack of self-knowledge. But his willingness to risk his life to borrow money for even a beloved friend supports our impression of his weariness with this world, including the business realm in which he operates. In fact, he admits early on to Gratiano that he “hold[s] the world but as the world . . . A stage, where every man must play a part,/ And mine a sad one” (I.1.77-79). Nevertheless, that Antonio must borrow from Shylock, contrary to his own principles, is evidence of the need a commercial republic like Venice has for impersonal (non-familial) sources of revenue to conduct its business. By highlighting this financial need, Shakespeare points to a certain hypocrisy or purposeful blindness at the heart of Venice that encourages commercial activity and privileges Christianity but relies on the banking of “alien” residents like Shylock it refuses to grant full membership to its society.
In the end, however, Shakespeare indicates that neither Shylock, nor Antonio can truly prevail in Venice. In Shakespeare’s careful look at the commercial republic, the moral seriousness of Shylock and Antonio, which paradoxically makes them both outsiders to the merrymaking ethos in Venice, drives their demand for purity and eventually vengeance. Shakespeare shows us that although Shylock prefers to remain separate from other Venetians (1.3.31-36), he also seeks acknowledgement of his equal dignity, which he expresses in his demand that Venetian law “feed his vengeance,” because Antonio “hath disgraced” him, hindered his gain, laughed at his losses, mocked his gains, scorned his “nation,” cooled his friends and heated his enemies, and, Shylock asks: “what’s his reason?” Because Shylock “is a Jew.” What follows is Shylock’s appeal for recognition of his humanity:
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? (3.1.63).
He is driven to vengeance by the injustice and disrespect he endures from his Christian rival and the hatred for Shylock Antonio inspires among his friends. But, as we noted above, Shakespeare also suggests that Antonio does not quite belong in Venice. He is the merchant of Venice, but he is uncomfortable with his worldly pursuits. And he seeks to punish Shylock for his unwillingness to accept these Christian principles. We focus on the drama of Shylock’s quest for vengeance because it demands what appears to be an inescapable mortal penalty when Antonio’s ships and wealth all seem to be lost at sea, and gives rise to the dramatic trial scene, which requires external intervention to resolve. As Antonio explains when Solanio insists that the Duke will not allow Shylock to have his pound of flesh to pay the bond of 3,000 ducats Antonio owes him:
The Duke cannot deny the course of law;For the commodity that strangers have
With us in Venice, if it be denied,
Will much impeach the justice of the state,
Since that the trade and profit of the city Consisteth of all nations (3.3.26-31).
Yet, if we read carefully, it is Antonio’s vengeance Shakespeare advantages at the conclusion of the play, but it is Venice, not Shakespeare, which privileges Christianity over Judaism. The participants in the trial, Bassanio in particular, are relieved by Portia’s final Solomon-like interpretation of the Venetian law that averts Antonio’s death, by allowing Shylock his pound of flesh but not a drop of Christian blood on pain of death, an impossible undertaking from which Shylock finally retreats. The result is, however, that because Shylock would not accept mercy or money to satisfy his thirst for revenge, Shakespeare gives Antonio the chance to impose his own penalty in reprisal for Shylock’s desire for vengeance. And yet Antonio too forsakes mercy when he imposes the final act of cruelty on Shylock. Not satisfied with the preservation of his own life, perhaps even disappointed by it, Antonio requires the transfer of Shylock’s wealth to his daughter upon his death and compels Shylock’s conversion to Christianity. The Merchant of Venice concludes as a comedy only by averting Antonio’s death and allowing the happy young couples to marry in Belmont, beyond Venetian law. To accomplish this comedic conclusion and avoid tragedy, Shakespeare demonstrates that the commercial republic must put its head in the moral sand, an outcome it will not avoid with Othello, another Venetian outsider. Shylock sadly abets his own defeat through his implacable desire for vengeance, but the blame for his terrible subjection is multi-faceted. Shakespeare’s story reveals that the commercial republic has not ascertained how to tolerate or navigate serious moral difference under the neutral rule of law.
So, before we ban Shylock and The Merchant of Venice, we should consider the important lessons Shakespeare’s play hold for a commercial republic governed by the rule of law. We may desire to privilege one set of principles over another, but will we be comfortable or satisfied with the resulting circumstances that impose compliance in the realm of thought and belief?