an essay on The Merchant of Venice

    June 2008            
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A Shake-Up of Shakespeare's Shylock

By Edmund Jonah

Not too long ago, television screened a documentary on "Shylock" that was interesting, not so much for showing Shakespeare's intention when he created the character but more for the range of different attitudes towards him. No one seemed to agree, not even on the way Shylock looked! Orson Welles saw him as rather scruffy, with the black garments of the European Hassid, scraggly beard and tangled hair topped with a funny black hat. When the actor Charles Macklin, himself violent, having killed another thespian in a duel, played him as a ferocious devil figure, Alexander Pope maintained Shylock was portrayed the way Shakespeare wrote him.

At the other extreme was Dr. Jonathan Miller's vision in the person of Laurence Olivier: a very well dressed, opulent, modern integrated Jew, very much the businessman and a far cry from the slimy character with the hooked nose and evil leer of anti-Semitic literature and posters. Miller tried to divest the character of the stereotype Jew devil, the dirty, filthy pig suckler and eater of pig excrement, the foul polluter of the holy Christian world, so he made him a gentleman no different from the Christians around him. However, he had a hard time with Shakespeare's text. He believed Shakespeare made him only momentarily human but then reverted to the stereotype. Miller felt the line: "I hate him because he is a Christian," too much perpetuated the caricature of the Jew, so he cut it out.

What exactly was Shakespeare's intent?

"The Merchant of Venice" is called Shakespeare's anti-Semitic play - and with good reason. It has a Jewish villain who gets his comeuppance at the hands of Christians, which gave Will's audiences something to cheer about. Most Jews hate the play and wish it were not in Shakespeare's body of work. Some even protest its presentation. Anyone who sits through a traditional performance has every reason to believe that Shakespeare must have been a bigot. But was he? Let us take a closer look at the play, to get some new insights into it and the man who wrote it.

He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated my enemies - and what's his reason? I am a Jew.

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, 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.

A strange speech to put into the mouth of a villain, one that suggests that vengeance and villainy are not part of a Jew's nature and must be learned from Christians, with great difficulty and effort. The play is supposed to be virulently anti-Semitic. Would an anti-Semite have written those lines? Why does Shakespeare give the Jew such words to mouth? Why does Shakespeare go out of his way to give the Jew grounds for hating Christians?

In Elizabethan times, when anti-Semitic plays were extremely popular in England, especially after the Jewish doctor Roderigo Lopez was convicted of trying to poison the queen, it was enough to say a character was a Jew to make him a despicable villain, one who would descend to any level of depravity. But Shakespeare gives Shylock very good reasons for hating the merchant. Why did he do that for an audience steeped in centuries of anti-Semitic tradition? Why did Shakespeare not let the Jew behave, well, like a Jew? And why did Shakespeare let the honest, Venetian gentleman merchant not conduct himself like a Christian? Let us review Shylock's words: "He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated my enemies - and what's his reason? I am a Jew."

Is this any way for a good Christian to behave? We had better take a more meticulous look at the heroes in this play.

Before we do, however, let us first establish Shakespeare's mastery of human psychology. His genius lay in his ability to comprehend all the moods of man. His plays are so well crafted they move from scene to scene with a logic no modern psychiatrist could fault. A. C. Bradley, Professor of Poetry in the University of Oxford and lecturer on Shakespearean Tragedy, drew attention to "the multitudinousness of Shakespeare's genius" and spoke of "his almost unlimited power of conceiving and expressing human experience of all kinds." Here are one or two examples.

In the second scene of King Lear, Shakespeare shows us the sorry sight of an old monarch hovering on the edge of senility; he shows us the self-sacrificing loyalty of the honourable Kent, he shows us the cruelty in the goodness of Lear's daughter, Cordelia and the villainy of deceit in her sisters. Within a single scene, each of his characters are so sharply drawn that he reveals the confidence of a man who knows what he is about. His plays hinge on the credibility of his characters and their behaviour. This realisation is extremely important, for the rise and fall of the fortunes of his characters were founded on their behaviour patterns. If he did not give them a solid basis for their motivation, then the grand design of his plays would crumble. They do not.

Shakespeare never wrote a careless word; he weighed each one scrupulously. Every speech either drove his story forward or revealed a facet of character necessary for understanding his play. Hamlet's indecision gives us Shakespeare's greatest tragedy. In "Julius Caesar," Brutus' naive nobility - his impractical thinking, which leads to disastrous errors of judgement - drags him to his doom. Macbeth's ambition, Anthony's obsession with the Queen of Egypt, Othello's jealousy, all are so well delineated that we have no trouble believing the motivation that drives these characters to behave as they do.

Let us return now to our Christians in "The Merchant of Venice." Antonio, a rich merchant has hazarded all his fortunes in ventures overseas. He is an unmarried man, inordinately fond of a handsome young rake, Bassanio who is already heavily in debt to him, having borrowed his money to enjoy a wild and reckless life. Once again Bassanio approaches the merchant who loves him so dearly, to lend him more money so he can woo a rich maiden and thus (as the law allowed him in those days) to become master of an estate that would pay off all his debts and still leave him rich.

Here is the reason Shakespeare gives his handsome hero for needing the money that Antonio the merchant does not possess in cash. The merchant not so much as questions his friend's integrity let alone suggests that this is another hair-brained scheme to indulge yet another caprice. So much does Antonio love Bassanio, he is prepared to borrow the money, to furnish his young friend to woo the wealthy lady. After all, Bassanio is doing this not for love – simply for profit. Their relationship will not be affected. On the contrary, Bassanio will be even more indebted to him.

If Shakespeare had wished, he could have found several noble causes for his hero to need money - patriotism perhaps, or philanthropy - but instead he subtly implies that Bassanio's homosexual paramour is prepared to give him any amount of his fortune for the basest of reasons.

Now let us take a look at our heroine Portia who, to blinkered readers over the centuries, has been the embodiment of goodness and purity. Mary Lamb who, with her brother Charles wrote "Tales From Shakespeare," quotes the hero, Bassanio, to describe Portia thus: "The rich heiress that Bassanio wished to marry lived near Venice, at a place called Belmont: her name was Portia, and in the graces of her person and her mind she was nothing inferior to that Portia, of whom we read, who was Cato's daughter, and the wife of Brutus." Let us bear in mind this is Bassanio, describing the woman he wants to wive, to his friend, the merchant Antonio, from whom he wishes to borrow the money to accomplish his base purpose. Nothing in that portrait could be further from the truth. Nothing could be more ironic, as it was Shakespeare who drew both women. Brutus' Portia has two major scenes in "Julius Caesar" where, with masterful strokes, Shakespeare shows us a steadfast, loyal woman of honour and love and truthfulness.

And what do we see of the Belmont Portia? Shakespeare introduces her through the fairy tale story of the three caskets of gold, silver and lead, to give a picture of an enchanted princess. However, in this castle, nothing is what it seems. Portia spends her opening scene ridiculing her suitors. The first to enter upon the stage is a black Moroccan prince, whose skin, from living under a burning sun, has evolved to prevent absorption of Phoebus' harmful rays. He and the Spanish prince of Aragon have come to win the fair lady's hand. It is significant that Shakespeare chooses to have a black prince woo Portia and to give him not one but two scenes. Why not an English royal or a French noble with the Spaniard? How can we doubt, knowing the Bard is cognisant of every physical and emotional move of his characters, he wishes to introduce the subject of racial prejudice? These are the amazing lines Shakespeare gave the regal Prince of Morocco: "Mislike me not for my complexion, the shadowed livery [the dark clothing, meaning skin] of the burnished sun to whom I am neighbour and near bred. Bring me the fairest creature northward born, where Phoebus' fire scarce thaws the icicles, and let us make incisions for your love to prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine."

Pretty Portia prettily replies: "If my father had not scanted me and hedged me by his wit to yield myself his wife who wins me by that means I told you (choosing the right casket), yourself, renowned prince, then stood as fair as any comer I have looked on yet for my affection."

But what does our lovely heroine, Portia say when the Prince finally fails the test? "A gentle riddance! Draw the curtains, go. Let all of his complexion choose me so."

Good riddance says she. She's not interested in the right character, only in the right complexion. Else why should she prefer a man like Bassanio, our hero, of whom the late, great authority on the Bard, Harley Granville-Barker admitted, rather reluctantly, in his Prefaces to Shakespeare: "Logic may land us anywhere. It can turn Bassanio into a heartless adventurer."

Portia's late father entrusted her not to reveal the secret of the caskets. But when it comes to the choice of the handsome rake, Bassanio, she sings a song:

    Tell me, where is fancy bred,

    Or in the heart, or in the head?

    How begot, how nourish-ed?

    Reply, reply.

    It is engendered in the eyes,

    With gazing fed, and fancy dies

    In the cradle where it lies.

    Let us all ring fancy's knell.

    I'll begin it - Ding, dong, bell.

"And fancy dies in the cradle where it lies. Let us all ring fancy's knell." Bassanio correctly deduces not to select outward show and ornament but to choose lead, that which sounds like bred, head and nourish-ed. So, the good Portia cannot even remain faithful to her father's dying wish.

During the trial, she makes a lofty speech about mercy that every child who studies the play is forced to learn by rote.

    The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest -- it blesseth him that gives and him that takes. 'Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes the throned monarch better than his crown. His sceptre shows the hold of temporal power, the attribute of awe and majesty wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings; but mercy is above this sceptred sway. It is enthroned 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.

A pretty speech! But does the lovely Portia show any mercy. She presents one of the most pitiless women when it comes to punishing the Jew. She strips him of everything, his self-respect and even his identity when she insists on his conversion to Christianity. She is, in a word, a hypocrite.

"Nothing inferior to Brutus' Portia," gushes Mary Lamb.

"Love comes out supreme in the person of Portia," puffs the Preface to the Folger Library edition, "one of the most attractive of Shakespeare's heroines… Shakespeare may have intended her to stand for the abstraction of Love."

Let us take one last look at this heroine of heroines. Portia gives Bassanio a ring and makes him swear he will never part with it. When she comes disguised as a male lawyer and wins the case for her husband's friend, she demands nothing but the ring as token payment. By means of this cheap trick, she forces him into a situation that leaves him no choice but to part with it. Later she accuses him (in loving jest, of course) of having given it to a woman (which, of course, he did). He swears on his honour that he gave it to a Doctor of the Law who refused even 3000 ducats for saving the life of his friend. What does Portia say to this? "Let not that doctor e'er come near my house. Since he has got the jewel that I loved, and that which you did swear to keep for me, I will become as liberal as you; I'll not deny him anything I have, no, not my body, nor my husband's bed. Know him I shall, I am well sure of it. (Know him in the biblical sense, to have intercourse!) Lie not a night from home; watch me like Argus (the 100-eyed monster). If you do not, if I be left alone, now by mine honour, which is yet mine own, I'll have that doctor for my bedfellow."

Can you imagine Brutus' Portia ever telling her husband what Bassanio's Portia tells hers? It is undeniably funny and the audience cannot help but laugh, but does she sound like a sweet, wholesome heroine or more like a jaded street whore?

All of the last scene of the play is charged with emotional tension, from the word game Jessica and Lorenzo play at the opening to the very last line when Gratiano says: "Well, while I live, I'll fear no other thing so sore as keeping safe Nerissa's ring," for he too was given a ring by his wife to keep until death. The scene is meant to be amusing - and it is - but Shakespeare draws his humour from real emotions and never lets us forget he was on intimate terms with his characters. They do not rule him; he rules them. He just as soon could have had Portia say: "Should I become as liberal as you? Should I deny him nothing that I have? No, not my body, nor my husband's bed?" But he did not. He has her speak like the strumpet she is. And yet she remains, for those who refuse to dig deeper than the surface of the text, the embodiment of pristine purity! Shakespeare is telling us, as the curtain falls, these people are certainly not going to live happily ever after.

In this play, which he rightly calls a comedy, Shakespeare laughs at the idiocy and illogicality of racial prejudice. He gives us Christian heroes with villainous traits, and a villainous Jew who makes us uncomfortable because he has heroic reasons to hate and for whom we feel great sympathy. We can only conjecture how the audience would have reacted had Edmund Kean played Shylock not traditionally costumed in the black garb with pointed beard and black skullcap, not bent over and not so very different from our Christian heroes. For despite this time-honoured and woefully wrong picture of Shylock, he acted with such pathos that spectators wept.

All this is amazing because Shakespeare, most likely, never met a Jew. They had been banished from England and very few, mainly converts to Christianity, remained in the country. In the Middle Ages, Jew baiting was popular. It was enough to say a character was a Jew to accept him as the embodiment of evil. To this day, the word 'Jew' upon the stage has great emotional impact. Used to such great effect in the play "Cabaret," that those who have seen it performed will never forget how much of an impact it had.

In Shakespeare's days, literally thousands of these virulent anti-Jew plays were written, so lacking in worth that virtually only two survived: Marlowe's "The Jew of Malta," and "The Merchant of Venice," acknowledged as being by far the superior. Shakespeare had his eye on the box-office and knew a good thing when he saw it. Anti-Semitism pulled in the crowds and he would have been insane not to have used it. But... this was Shakespeare, a man who could not write a worthless play - lacking art, lacking depth. We are discussing mankind's most precious literary gem, one who soars above his fellow humans even today and one who was not prepared to let his audience off easily.

That is not to say Shakespeare did not pander to the prejudices of his audiences. However, quite the reverse of Jonathan Miller's view, whenever Shylock enters the stage he is the epitome of the stereotyped Jew, evil for evil's own sake. This was merely to satisfy the demands of his audience, particularly the groundlings, who revelled in hissing and cat-calling the actor. Until the 19th century - reflecting the low comedy part of Judas in Biblical drama - Shylock was portrayed in a red wig, red beard and huge bulbous nose. The English public became conditioned to this clownish figure of towering wickedness.

But, that, clearly, was not Shakespeare's intention for, as each of Shylock's scenes develops, a subtle change occurs that makes the audience uncomfortable. When they laugh, the laugh's on them. Shakespeare was a playwright of extraordinary skills. He was not content to let his Jew remain a one-dimensional symbol of evil. For the very first time, a writer gives the Jew a motive for his hate. To quote Harry Golden from "Only in America:" – "Shakespeare was the first writer in seven hundred years who gave the Jew a 'motive.' Why did he need to give the Jew a motive? Certainly, his audience did not expect it. For centuries they had been brought up on the stereotype, 'this is evil because it's evil' and here Shakespeare comes along and goes to so much 'unnecessary' trouble giving Shylock a motive. At last! A motive!" Not only that. Shakespeare gives Shylock emotions and sensitivity of touching humanity. The Jew could feel pain and anguish, as when he bemoans the loss of the ring his deceased wife gave him even before they were married. The audience is busy laughing at the jackass Shylock's daughter, Jessica has made of her father by robbing him, and at the Jew's hysterical outburst at losing so much at the hands of his own flesh and blood, when Tubal says: "One of them showed me a ring that he had of your daughter for a monkey."

Shylock, in tears, in rage, in primordial pain, cries out.... "Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal. It was my turquoise. I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys."

While the audience thinks Shylock has been hit hardest because his daughter robbed him of money and jewels, he shows us a Jew most pained over a turquoise ring, a semi-precious stone that held little more than sentimental value.

Now since racism is the renunciation of logic Shakespeare uses it to play with his Christian audiences. He knew his patrons fed upon anti-Semitism so he makes them renounce all logic and teases them with insults they do not feel. Shylock knows what no one could possibly know, that not one of the merchant's ships due in 30 days, will come through from different parts of the world, so he gives Antonio 90 days credit with impunity. Then the merchant himself, descending to duplicity and deceit and throwing good money after bad, knows Bassanio will be successful, and lends his friend more money on top of what he is owed, to woo a rich heiress. The audience must accept as good, a man who, on approaching the Jew for the 3000 ducats, treats a fellow human thus:

    Shy: Signor Antonio - many a time and oft, in the Rialto, you have rated me about my moneys and my usances. Still have I borne it with a patient shrug, for sufferance is the badge of all our tribe. You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog, and spit upon my Jewish gaberdine - and all for use of that which is my own. Well then... it now appears you need my help. Go to, then! You come to me and say: 'Shylock, we would have moneys.' YOU say so - YOU, that did void your rheum (spittle) upon my beard and foot me as you spurn a stranger cur over your threshold. Money is your suit? What should I say to you? Should I not say: 'Has a dog money? Is it possible a cur can lend three thousand ducats?' Or shall I bend low and in a bondman's key, with bated breath and whispering humbleness, say this: 'Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last; you spurned me such a day; another time you called me dog; and for these courtesies I'll lend you thus much moneys.'?

    Ant: I will as likely call thee so again, and spit on thee again, and spurn thee too. If you will lend this money, lend it not as to your friends, for when did friendship take a breed for barren metal of his friend? But lend it rather to your enemy who, if he break, you may then with better face exact the penalty.

Shakespeare's subtlety covers another glaring injustice? "When did friendship take a breed for barren metal (i.e. interest) of his friend?" Of course, Antonio can say this with impunity. He has no need to earn his living by usury; he could turn a penny any way he pleased, even lend money without interest, which he did to rob Shylock of his living. The Jews of Europe, as most of us know (and as Shakespeare most certainly did), were forbidden to trade in any way. Money-lending was their sole means of income. Ironically, Christian moneylenders of the time were notoriously much more usurious than the Jews. It is certainly not Christian charity that urges Antonio to give the Jew some business. He knew he would pay less interest on his 'barren metal' - as he derisively calls it.

How did our charming hero Bassanio get into the merchant's debt if not by taking barren metal from his friend? Why does Antonio wish to borrow 3000 ducats now if not to bestow this barren metal upon his friend - as a stake to woo a rich milch cow? Does the good Antonio feel the least bit unchristian or uncharitable for abusing Shylock and his nation for being what they are and living only as they can? Not at all! "I will as likely call thee so again, to spit on thee again, to spurn thee too."

Now - the good Christians induce Shylock's only child, his daughter Jessica, to desert her widowed father, rob him of his money and jewels, and dressed in man's clothing (a crime in Jewish law) to steal away in the dark of night and elope with her gentile lover, Lorenzo. Audiences, hysterical with laughter at this violation of the Jew by his own daughter, miss the irony of Gratiano's remark when Jessica says:

"I will make fast the doors, and gild myself with some more ducats and be with you straight."

Gratiano: "Now by my hood, a gentile and no Jew!"

At the trial, this villain, this embodiment of evil, this polluter, this devil, this Shylock, is unrecognised by the erudite woman of quality, Portia. He stands but a few feet away alongside the pure Christian, Antonio, but she does not even hazard a guess. Should she not be able to know the devil incarnate, the hooked nose excrement eater, the defiler of Christians? She does not and so must ask: "Which is the merchant here and which the Jew?" Let us also recall here what the noble Antonio tells Bassanio when they first meet Shylock in the play: "Oh, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!" Hence it is ludicrous to portray Shylock as an old Jew bent double, dressed in a dirty black gown with a dirty black skullcap. Jonathan Miller's view of him was more correct. He is about 50 years old, unbent, vigorous and dressed as richly as any Italian merchant.

Let us examine the legal points by which Portia won the suit and see again the renunciation of all logic:

    "Tarry a little. There is something else. This bond does give you here no jot of blood. The words expressly are 'a pound of flesh.' Take then your bond. Take thou, thy pound of flesh. But in the cutting it, if you should shed one drop of Christian blood, your lands and goods are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate unto the state of Venice.... As for urging justice, be assured you shall have justice more than you desire. Therefore, prepare now to cut off the flesh. Shed you no blood, nor cut you less nor more, but just a pound of flesh. If you take more or less than a just pound - be it but so much as makes it light or heavy in the substance or the division of the twentieth part of one poor scruple - nay, if the scales do turn but in the estimation of a hair, you shall die, and all your goods are confiscate."

With Shylock's demand for a pound of flesh, he makes his audience take a huge leap into absurdity. Shylock, as a practicing Jew, would never - nay, could never - make such a demand. Even Harley Granville-Barker admitted: "There is no more reality in Shylock's bond than in Jack and the Beanstalk." But let us suppose we all can take that leap, then the law must remain on the side of the Jew.

(A) The implied condition upon payment of a pound of flesh is that one gets the sinews, the veins and the blood that must necessarily flow. If one goes to buy a pen, one does not ask if the nib comes with it, or a shirt without buttons. Doesn't meat come untrimmed of fat?

(B) She is quite right in her demand that he take no more than the pound of flesh, but why not less? It is his right to accept less payment. Any court of law, then and now, would have dismissed her silly arguments but Shakespeare makes the court and his audience accept it unquestioningly. For these hundreds of years, people have swallowed this line of thinking in the play, but would reject it out of hand in practice.

When the villain is finally brought to heel, the Christians breathe out nothing but venom and hate. Harry Golden says: "Shakespeare seems to go out of his way to give us a frightening picture of the 'victors.' He has them standing together pouring out a stream of vengeance. We're not through with you yet, Jew. The money we have left you after you have paid all these fines, you must leave to Jessica and your (Christian) son-in-law who robbed you. Shakespeare keeps them hissing their hate." The judge appears lenient next to Portia who wants him stripped of everything. The final irony is that he must perforce become a Christian, a most precious gift smashed upon his head with hatred. The only one with a shred of dignity at this stage is the villain, Shylock, who exits on the lines: "I pray you, give me leave to go from hence. I am not well. Send the deed after me and I will sign it."

The extent of the contempt Shakespeare held for Christian mores of his time is summed up with biting irony when Launcelot Gobbo tells Jessica: "This making of Christians will raise the price of hogs. If we grow all to be pork-eaters, we shall not shortly have a rasher on the coals for money."

Most Christians (and Jews who condemn the play) refuse to take the leap that Shakespeare's text reveals, choose not to recognize the genius of a master satirist at work. When Shylock is first introduced, Shakespeare gives him the line: "I hate him for he is a Christian." Absurd, isn't it? Viscous and cruel! Jonathan Miller was afraid to use it. The archetypal Jew in the minds of the audience! But that is precisely what anti-Semites say of Jews. Shakespeare is saying: "You are as absurd as this caricature of a Jew you want to see." For, following on the heels of that remark, we have Shylock's Rialto speech wherein he shows us what kind of a Christian we are dealing with and the legitimate reasons for Shylock's hate?

As long as blindness for Shakespeare's intention remains, so long will his Christians in the play remain good and his Jew a figure of extortion and evil, to laugh at when bested. A great pity for here was Bill at his satiric best, brilliantly concealing a shockingly anti-Christian text in the garb of an anti-Semitic play.

The author was born in Calcutta, India, moved to London at the age of 22; then 10 years later to Israel with his wife and daughter; added two 'Sabra' sons and spent the last 4 decades in Israel.

He was one of the founding members of English Theatre in Israel and directed a number of plays, two of which won accolades at International festivals in Dundalk, Eire. He also helped start the Shakespeare Reading Circle in Tel Aviv.


from the June 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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