Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice: A Play For All Time?
By Steve Frank
Every year brings new productions of Shakespeare’s controversial play
“The Merchant of Venice.” Is it time to rethink this problematic play?
Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” was one of the smash hits of the
1999 theatre season. Washington, D.C.’s production at its Shakespeare
Theatre, directed by Michael Kahn, with Hal Holbrook as Shylock, was the
highest grossing play in the theatre’s history. Trevor Nunn’s production
at the National Theatre in London earned him best directing honors by the
British theatre critics. Playwright John Mortimer called the National’s
production “the best thing it has done.” That year, the play also was
produced in such diverse locales as Moscow, St. Louis, and Detroit. It
proceeded into the new millennium with a full schedule, including an
opening in Malaysia.
The 1999 season was not unique. Last year, the play was revived at the
Charlotte Shakespeare Theatre and the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, and
at numerous universities, including Texas Christian University and Notre
Dame. This year, it will be revisited at the Stratford Shakespeare
Festival and the Brussels Shakespeare Society.
David Nathan, drama critic for the Jewish Chronicle (London), reviewing
his eighth “Merchant of Venice” in three years once wrote: “I have
had enough of this play. It is deeply offensive, no matter how it’s
done.” Mr. Nathan has a point. The “Merchant of Venice” is nominally
styled a “comedy,” but often is characterized as one of Shakespeare’s
“problem plays.” It’s a problem, all right.
First, there’s the problem that the “Merchant of Venice” is replete
with vile anti-Semitic slurs. That is not to say that Shakespeare was an
anti-Semite, or that the play is an anti-Semitic tract. Rather, as the
noted director Joseph Papp aptly observed, while the play is not
anti-Semitic, there clearly is “anti-Semitism within the play.” No
doubt about that.
Shylock,(interestingly enough, not the merchant of Venice), is undoubtedly
the villain of the play who loans money to Antonio (who is the merchant of
Venice), and then demands strict compliance with the terms of the loan (a
pound of Antonio’s flesh) when Antonio defaults on the loan. Of course,
today this is called “banking,”and occurs daily, but back in
Elizabethan England, such practices were frowned upon.
As a result of his actions, Shylock is repeatedly referred to as “a kind
of devil,” “the devil himself,” “the very devil
incarnate,”“the devil in the likeness of a Jew,” and a “cruel
devil.” That’s when his opponents are being kind. At other times, he is
cursed as a “damned, execrable dog,” and an “inhuman wretch.”
Throughout the play, Shylock is rarely referred to by name. Mostly, he is
referenced simply as “the Jew.” That appellation is often modified
with such colorful adjectives as “dog Jew” and “currish Jew.”
O.K., as Papp noted, there is anti-Semitism within the play. So what?
Isn’t Shakespeare merely reflecting the prejudices of his times? Well,
that is certainly true.
Even though the Jews of England had been expelled in 1290, some 300 years
before Shakespeare penned “Merchant,” – – and neither Shakespeare nor
his contemporaries had ever seen a Jew (except for a few who had accepted
forced conversion to Christianity as the price for remaining Englishmen) –
– still, the ancient slurs lived on in the teachings of the Church and
popular literature. Such Church-sponsored doctrines as “Deicide” (Jews
as Christ killers), the “blood libel” (the notion that Jews murdered
Christians to obtain their blood for ritualistic purposes), and the Jew as
“usurer” (whereby Jews generally were prohibited from engaging in
gainful employment other than money lending, but then were condemned for
engaging in the “unchristian” practice of loaning money with
interest), were the coin of the realm in Judenrein Elizabethan England.
Martin Luther’s warning to the Christian world that “next to the devil
thou has no more enemy more cruel, more venomous and violent than the
Jew,” was accepted as scripture by Shakespeare’s audience.
These centuries-old calumnies survived in popular culture, appearing in a
particularly vulgar form in Christopher Marlowe’s celebrated play, “The
Jew of Malta,” which opened on the London stage shortly before
Shakespeare’s “Merchant.” Compared to Marlowe’s “Jew” (who poisons
a whole nunnery, including his own daughter, who has taken refuge there
after he murders her suitors), Shakespeare’s Shylock is a saint. At the
same time, around 1594, Dr. Roderigo Lopez, a Portuguese Jewish physician,
was convicted of High Treason allegedly for attempting to poison Queen
Elizabeth, a crime for which he was dragged from his prison cell, hanged,
then cut down alive, and dismembered, disemboweled, beheaded, and
quartered, the quarters being set upon the gates of the city. Makes one
wonder just who was extracting a pound of flesh from whom? As for the much
vaunted Christian charity and mercy, well, needless to say it did not
extend to Jews such as Dr. Lopez.
It is from this milieu that Shakespeare’s “Merchant” emerges and it is
not immune from the base defamations of its time, but well reflects them.
This is a problem, especially for a post-Holocaust audience (or as the
London Independent so indelicately put it in reference to London’s
National Theatre production: “the biggest piece of baggage an audience
brings to a performance of the “Merchant of Venice” is a fancy little
item known as Post-Holocaust Sensibility”). The most palatable solution
for today’s theatre-goers is to suggest that Shakespeare is
“outing”the Christian protagonists as hypocrites who refuse to
practice the tenets of Christian charity and mercy they so vociferously
preach. In a mock trail presided over by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in
the United States Supreme Court Building on May 20, 1999, a jury voted 7-5
that it would not be an act of anti- Semitic harassment for a student
drama group to present Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.” Covering
the trial, the Washington Post noted that scholarly witnesses testified
that Shakespeare merely reflected, but didn’t foment anti-Jewish attitudes
in portraying Shylock. The pro-Shakespeare forces argued at the trial that
by showing that Shylock actually has feelings, the author creates sympathy
for Shylock. They presented Professor Martin Yaffe, author of “Shylock
and the Jewish Question,” who stated that Shakespeare was
“outing” anti-Semitism in order for the English people of the period to
re-examine old attitudes of hatred for Jews and all ‘outsiders.’”
Michael Kahn’s 1999 production at the Shakespeare Theatre followed this
revisionist mode. Kahn’s “Merchant” valiantly attempted to redeem the
play’s vulgar portrayal of Shylock by underscoring the hypocrisy of the
effete Christian coterie that condemned him. After all, this crowd
viciously mocked Shylock’s obsession with financial obligations, and yet,
their singular focus was their own financial well-being. This whole sorry
group couldn’t seem to make a buck on their own, but they condemned
Shylock’s business acumen. It was only when Shylock offers Antonio an
interest-free loan, that Antonio approvingly says: “The Hebrew will turn
Christian; he grows kind.”
It is reminiscent of the 1980 production of “The Merchant of Venice”
at the Dallas Shakespeare Festival, where, when it was decreed that
Shylock would lose half his property and have to become a Christian, the
born-again Christian audience cheered and applauded, believing that making
Shylock a Christian was an act of mercy, according to Robert Glenn,
founder of the Shakespeare Festival, who remembered those performances
well – because the reaction of the audience shocked him so.
In most modern productions, much significance is placed upon Shylock’s
“Hath not a Jew” speech (“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands,
organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions * * * as a Christian * *
* If you prick us, do we not bleed?”), which liberal philo-Shakespearean
apologists desperately cling to as the Holy Grail of Shakespeare’s
humanism. As if these mere seventeen lines could redeem the vicious
portrait of “Shylock the Jew” that engulf them. And, of course,
post-Holocaust, do we really need to be reminded that Jews too bleed?
Does any of this matter? After all, when all is said and done, “The
Merchant” is just a play. And yet the daily revival of ancient racial
slurs that encouraged decent Christians to become Hitler’s “willing
executioners,” just seventy years ago is deeply disturbing. (According
to available statistics, there were about fifty German productions of
“The Merchant” in the early Nazi era between 1933 and 1939). In an age
when young people have largely forgotten the ancient slights and racial
stereotypes, is it a good idea to inculcate them with notions of the vile
treachery of “the Jew?” If society, through education and notions of
decency, has largely purged the Jewish stereotypes of the Dark Ages from
present-day life, is it a good idea that one can still witness these
vituperative portraits of “the Jew” at distinguished theaters
throughout the world? One can only wonder if the theatre world would
welcome plays which, although they accurately reflect their times, as does
“The Merchant,” are, nevertheless, deeply offensive. I certainly
don’t see a performance of “Amos & Andy” on Broadway anytime soon. I
don’t consider that to be a case of political correctness or censorship.
Rather, it’s just good judgment.
We should keep in mind that in the first century and a half of its
history, “The Merchant of Venice” was hardly ever produced and it
virtually disappeared from the stage. Recent productions, and other
apologetic productions of the last century, suggest that another 150 year
respite might well be in order.
Steve Frank is a Washington, D.C. attorney and writer.