The Mechant of Venice is a hard play for modern America - which accepts and welcomes Jews. Shakespeare makes pound-of-flesh Shylock extremely unappealing. So, can you still love him - I mean Shakespeare?
The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, December 18, 2010. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.
Is Shakespeare Anti-Semitic?
The great Al Pacino is playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice on Broadway. Shylock is the Jewish money-lender who insists on having his pound of flesh.
The merchant in the title is not Shylock. He is Antonio, and Portia - lover of Antonio's friend - saves his flesh.
Here's the play: Antonio is a good guy. Happens to be anti-Semitic (he spit on Shylock earlier on). Lends money - unlike Shylock - at no interest. Antonio guarantees a friend's loan so that friend can woo Portia.
Antonio's ships fail to come home, leaving him insolvent, and Shylock insists on his pound of flesh. He is in part embittered because his daughter has run off with a goy and converted to Christianity - the ultimate betrayal for a Jew. But Shylock incessantly expresses this betrayal in terms of the ducats his daughter has taken from him and is spending. And her basically positive - if contentious - relationship with her husband and rejection of her father is one fascinating sub-plot in the play.
Meanwhile, Antonio's friend has wed Portia (picking the correct of three boxes - the lead one - to win her hand). Portia provides him with money to repay the loan. Although he offers Shylock twice the loan amount, Shylock refuses.
Meanwhile, a stranger shows up to plead Antonio's case (Portia - one of Shakespeare's remarkable women - in drag, unbeknownst to her husband). She asks for forgiveness of the bond from Shylock, who refuses. She then argues that the bond only allows Shylock to remove flesh from Antonio - no blood. So, if Shylock sheds any of Antonio's blood, he must forfeit his own fortune.
Feeling cheated, but trying to salvage the situation, Shylock now moves to accept the payment as originally offered. But Portia argues that he has already refused it. Moreover, as an alien (Jew) who has attempted to take a Venetian's life, Shylock must die - and sacrifice his whole fortune.
The Duke of Venice, who is hearing the arguments, spares Shylock's life, and Antonio gives him back half of his fortune (thus showing the kind of mercy Shylock refused to grant), but insists that Shylock convert to Christianity.
Meanwhile, the friend of Antonio and Portia go off to deal with their own mishegas (jealousy issues) - the note on which the play ends. When classifying the play, it is difficult to make out if it is a comedy - since all ends well for the lovers, or a tragedy - because of the indignities Shylock suffers.
So, let's summarize - Antonio, Portia, and the Duke are good, Christian people. Shylock suffers indignity after indignity - being spat on, losing his daughter, being cheated out of his satisfaction, and - his fortune halved - being forced to convert.
Wow! Heavy! In modern times (including by Pacino) Shylock is portrayed sympathetically. In the Elizabethan theater, however, Shylock didn't get a break - he was caricatured as grasping vermin - the Nazis loved the play (see picture).
How to turn Shylock into a sympathetic character, despite his insisting on a pound of flesh? By focusing on the unconscious cruelty of the others, and the obvious pain he is suffering with the loss of his daughter and his treatment by the others.
Here are the top three, mind-expanding lessons from the play:
Understand people in their context - this means both Shakespeare, and Shylock.
Society determines what is good and what is bad - Jews were ostracized in Elizabethan England, his cruel treatment resulted in Shylock's acting out.
Everyone is human (this means - in modern times - you can't hate Portia and Antonio; in Elizabethan times, this would have meant empathizing with Shylock's emotional plight).
But, to take these lessons, you have to suspend judgment - and accept Shakespeare's greatness despite his justifying Shylock's forced conversion, his approval of Antonio and Portia, and the very unattractive person - with human touches ("If you prick us, do we not bleed?") - he makes of Shylock.
Can you do that? If you can, you can be a great writer or actor, a great therapist, a good Christian - but you will have trouble getting elected to political office or hosting a cable commentary program. People like to see villains and people they feel are prejudiced (remember, by far most Americans want the "Ground-Zero" Islamic Center moved, and don't want a Mosque in their neighbrohood) reviled and punished.
As Shakespeare puts it (in Shylock's words):
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.