The Merchant of VeniceThe Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching.

In my first review of this play I agonized over whether it was truly anti-Semitic or not. Now I am not unsure: this play is undoubtedly anti-Semitic. The plot is simply incoherent if Shylock is to be regarded as anything but a villain. Sympathetic as we may be to a man so mistreated, we cannot sympathize with someone so single-mindedly bent on material gain and bloody vengeance. No playgoer can conscientiously hope, in the trial scene, that Shylock is successful in fulfilling his bond. And Shakespeare does not allow us to suspect that Shylock is bluffing: he is prepared to cut out a man’s flesh and weigh it on a scale (a traditional anti-Semitic image) simply because “it is my humour.” If Shakespeare was trying to be slyly subversive, he did a very poor job.

What provokes audiences into sympathy with Shylock is the end of the trial, in which, aside from being denied his money, he is forcibly converted to Christianity, on pain of death. To us this seems such an obvious mockery of justice, such an undeniable outrage, that we assume Shakespeare must have felt the same way, and to have written the scene to undermine all the Christian talk of mercy. Yet I do not think Shylock’s fate would have provoked anything like this reaction in Shakespeare’s England, where anti-Semitism was taken for granted. To the contrary, that such a greedy and bloodthirsty Jew should be spared some of his fortune and accepted into Christianity might have been seen as wholly just, even merciful.

The final result of this—Shylock’s villainy and the play’s anti-Semitism—made the trial scene literally sickening for me. One man, mistreated and spiteful, is trying to legally kill another man for defaulting on a debt, and he is in turn stripped of his property, his identity, and his honor—humiliated, kicked, and spat upon. And all this is delivered as the denouement of a romantic farce, complete with cross-dressing ladies and a playful love story. I admit that I was in no mood to overlook or excuse the anti-Semitism, having recently stood in the Ghetto Vecchio in Venice, and seen the monuments to the deported Jews there. Even so, I think anyone must admit that the play’s dramatic coherence is seriously compromised, even destroyed, by the decline of anti-Semitism.

It speaks to the power of Shakespeare’s art that, even in such an obviously anti-Semitic play, which uses so shamelessly anti-Jewish stereotypes, and which so joyfully persecutes the play’s Jewish villain—even despite all this, we still read and stage this play. As often happens in life, charisma can deaden our moral senses; and Shylock is nothing if not charismatic. He is one of dozens of Shakespeare’s characters whose dialogue reveals a complete personality, a shifting mind whose depths we can only guess at, whose roving interior life extends into parts unknown. Somehow Shakespeare has conjured a character that embodies all of the negative Jewish stereotypes, yet who nevertheless is a believable and fully individual human. This is dramatically admirable and, in retrospect, morally reprehensible. For, as Harold Bloom said, Shylock’s very plausibility is why the play has been such a potent inspiration for anti-Semites.

I am not sure what conclusion to draw from all this. The play is without doubt one of Shakespeare’s stronger efforts. And yet, by the end, I felt little more then distress.

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