Merchant of Venice: Shakespeare, Judaism, and Me

Leila Silberstein
May 18, 2013

Last summer, I saw The American Shakespeare Center’s production of the Merchant of Venice while at their summer camp. I saw this production three times, and the last time was particularly unique. There was a storm raging outside, and around act three, the power went out. After a brief period of confusion, the scene resumed with the lights, but not for very long. It was as if someone was playing a trick on the audience and actors: the lights went on and off and on again. The play did end up finishing, but it was followed by an urgent announcement warning people of the violent storm and ordering all campers to stay where they were. We spent the next hour or two in the theatre; eventually we were driven the two blocks back to our now dark, un-air-conditioned dorm. Despite this, I was still intrigued by the play. Its complex, powerful plot and interesting characters fascinated me. This is why I chose to explore it for my major project: The Merchant of Venice: Shakespeare, Judaism, and me.

Part One: Three Plots Weave Into One

Act one, scene one, of the play begins with the audience learning that the merchant of Venice, Antonio, has “invested all his wealth on trading expeditions.” Next, we meet Antonio’s friend Bassanio, who asks the merchant for money so Bassanio can go to Belmont to woo, and potentially marry, a beautiful, wealthy girl named Portia. Antonio tells Bassanio “to borrow…money on Antonio’s credit.” It is also in this scene that we meet Gratiano, Bassanio’s garish friend.
Shylock is the Jewish money-lender to whom Bassanio goes to to borrow 3,000 ducats (Venetian coins) under Antonio’s credit. Despite his contempt for Antonio, Shylock agrees to lend the money so long as Antonio agrees to a bond to give a pound of his own flesh if he cannot repay the money. Antonio agrees to sign the bond.

It is here that some of the anti-Semitic comments that are present throughout the play begin. Shylock is consistently referred to as a “dog” or “cur” simply because of his religion, and sometimes the word “Jew” itself is used as an insult.

Meanwhile, in Belmont, Portia is with her waiting-woman, Nerissa. Portia expresses frustration over her dead father’s will, which states that Portia can only marry the man who chooses the right treasure chest among three: one gold, one silver, and one lead. The two ladies then discuss Portia’s suitors, none of whom Portia likes.

The Prince of Morocco is Portia’s first suitor. After he agrees to the terms of Portia’s father’s will, which says that if the Prince chooses the wrong chest he cannot ever propose marriage again, he is presented with the chests. The prince incorrectly picks the gold chest, and leaves disappointed. Portia, however, is pleased. She did not like the Prince of Morocco because he was black. After he leaves, a messenger arrives with news of another suitor.

This suitor is Bassanio, who has come with Gratiano to Belmont. Bassanio is the only suitor Portia likes, so she is nervous when he is presented with the chests. Bassanio correctly picks the lead treasure chest and he and Portia prepare for their marriage. Gratiano and Nerissa announce that they too will marry.

Back in Venice, Jessica, Shylock’s daughter wants to marry Lorenzo, a Christian friend of Antonio. Two scenes are concerned with Jessica’s elopement with Lorenzo. First we see Jessica and Shylock in their only scene together. The audience then sees Lorenzo and his friends come for Jessica, who happily steals money and a ring from Shylock and then leaves her father’s home.

It is now that these three somewhat unrelated plots weave together. Antonio learns that all his expeditions have failed. Shylock is enraged by his daughter’s elopement and demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh if Antonio does not repay his debts. Jessica and Lorenzo bring this news to Belmont, where Portia offers to pay twelve times Antonio’s debt if necessary.

Portia then decides to take the matter into her own hands. She and her servant, Nerissa, leave Belmont for Venice where Portia becomes a lawyer in Antonio’s trial. She points out that although Shylock’s bond says that he may take a pound of flesh from Antonio, he is not allowed to take any blood. Portia then “finds Shylock guilty of plotting the death of a Venetian and subject to the penalty of forfeiting his estate and suffering execution.” But Antonio interferes and suggests that instead Shylock only give away half his estate and be allowed to live, but under the condition that he convert to Christianity. Shylock agrees.

It is amazing how few lines it takes for Shylock to convert. When Portia asks Shylock whether he will convert, she asks him “Art thou contented, Jew? What dost thou say?” Shylock responds, “I am content”. Gratiano then insults him, and Shylock exits. This last part of the trial scene is written simply, leaving much room for actor interpretation. Those three words, “I am content”, can determine the whole character of the scene.

The main plot of the play stops there. There is technically one more act, act five, but this act has little to do with the rest of the plot. After the trial scene, Shylock leaves and the audience does not see him again. The plot returns to Belmont and the married couples and ends on a happy note with all the Christian characters and Jessica, who has converted, living peacefully.

Part Two: History of the Play

Shakespeare probably never met a Jew. Officially, the Jews were expelled from England about 300 years before Shakespeare’s time, but in Elizabethan England there probably lived about 200 illegal Jews. But the lack of Jews did not eliminate the anti-Semitic feelings in England and throughout Europe. Jews were persecuted throughout the Middle Ages. The accusation of blood libel, which said that the Jewish people used the blood of Christian children in matzo, may have begun as early as the 1100s. The Prioress’ Tale, by Geoffrey Chaucer, includes a group of Jews killing a young Christian boy for singing.

The climate in which Shakespeare wrote the Merchant of Venice may have been particularly anti-Semitic because of the execution of Rodrigo Lopez, Queen Elizabeth’s physician. Lopez, a Portuguese Jew, was accused of treason by the Earl of Essex, and executed in 1594. It is now clear that these accusations were certainly false and Essex’s attacks were due to his desire to enhance his political power. This was only six years before the Merchant of Venice was published.

The Merchant of Venice was first published in 1600 and then again in 1619 and 1623. As far as I know, there are no reports of reception to the play in Shakespeare’s lifetime or in the years immediately following. The first major production of the actual play (for butchered versions had been produced earlier) was in 1741. The actor playing Shylock was Charles Macklin. According to Shylock on the Stage, by Toby Lelyveld, Macklin presented Shylock as “something of monster”. This portrayal differed greatly from earlier depictions of Shylock as a sort of “comic villain”.

The first depiction of Shylock as an actual human, and not as a monster, was by Edmund Kean on the 26th of January, 1814. His was the first sympathetic portrayal of the Jewish character. Kean would then go on to become one of the major actors of his day. Later, Henry Irving took over the role alongside Ellen Terry, who played Portia. Their performances are noteworthy, but neither actor brought anything new to the play.

It was near the end of Irving’s time that the play began to grow more controversial. The first censorship of the Merchant of Venice was in a school in Connecticut in 1911. The play was considered anti-Semitic and inappropriate for students. This was just the beginning of a long history of censorship of the play that spanned across the country and throughout the rest of the 20th century.

It is here that I will intervene to give my thoughts on censorship of the play. Censorship is not inherently bad. I do believe that some inappropriate texts should be censored for younger children. I believe that curse words should be “bleeped” out on television. I also believe that horribly obscene and offensive texts should be censored from grade schools as well. Merchant of Venice does not fall under any of these categories of should-be censored texts. It deals with anti-Semitism, but not in a way that is obviously offensive. Instead of banning it, schools should take the opportunity to talk about the play and how it either condones or condemns anti-Semitism. Avoiding the play will not solve any problems, nor will attempting to shield the students (who in this case are mostly high school and college students). Rather, schools should embrace the Merchant of Venice, in all its ugliness and beauty. Having students talk about the text is the best way to begin dealing with complex problems such as anti-Semitism.

I will pick up with my historic tour a little after where I left off: World War Two. Unsurprisingly, this war saw very few United States productions of the Merchant of Venice, due to the sensitivity of the issues dealt with in the play. The time after the Second World War did not give way to many performances of the play either. The horrors of the Holocaust had left the world in shock, and no one was ready yet to discuss this controversial play. When the Merchant of Venice was eventually produced, attitudes towards Shylock, and the play in general, had changed. In a 1947 review of the play at the Century Theater, the critic wrote “in the twentieth century perhaps we know better than Shakespeare did how painful a tragedy… [The Merchant of Venice] is.”

But in 1974, Sir Laurence Olivier decided to challenge the idea that Shylock was solely a tragic character. In a spectacular television version of the play, Olivier portrayed Shylock as neither purely evil nor purely good. His Shylock is not black and white, but rather a complex figure. In other words, his Shylock is human. Predictably, Olivier’s portrayal of the famous moneylender was highly controversial. One Jewish group immediately included the production “in a list purporting to indicate a resurgence of anti-Semitism.”

Despite mixed reviews, Lord Olivier’s performance gave way to a new, more modern breed of Shylock. Shylocks now tend to be neither the comic villain nor the tragic hero of the past. It is one of these more “human” Shylocks that I saw the first time I went to the Merchant of Venice at the Pace Theater. F. Murray Abraham starred in a production of the play alongside Kate MacCluggage as Portia. I can barely remember Abraham’s Shylock now, but I remember being spellbound by the production. I had seen some Shakespeare plays before Merchant, but nothing with the same sort of power that I encountered at this performance. Two years later, I saw Merchant again at the American Shakespeare Center. Until this project, that is where my history of the play ends.

Part Three: A Jewish and Feminist Perspective of the Merchant of Venice, and How This Play Relates to Me

I do not believe that the Merchant of Venice is an anti-Semitic play. I believe that Shakespeare was showing anti-Semitism, but he was not condoning it. I say this for two reasons. The first is that the lines that Shakespeare gives Shylock do not make him seem like a monster or a caricature. One line, in particular, that shows that this whole play is not anti-Semitic is in the first scene in which we meet Shylock. He says to Antonio: “Signior Antonio, many a time and oft in the Rialto you have rated me…Still have I borne it with a patient shrug, for sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.” The last part of this line shows Shakespeare’s acknowledgement of the endurance of Jews throughout time and particularly in his day. This line would not have been included if the play was condoning anti-Semitism.

Another speech that shows that the play is not, in fact, anti-Semitic is the famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. Shylock gives this speech after Jessica runs away with Lorenzo. Two of Antonio’s friends make fun of Shylock and he questions them. “Hath not a Jew eyes?” he asks. “Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions…affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means…as a Christian is?” Shylock’s inquiries seem to question the whole notion of anti-Semitism. Both Jews and Christians are human, so why should they be treated any differently?

The second part of the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech is Shylock’s justification for revenge against Antonio. “If you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that…The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction,” he says. Many people have pointed to this part of the speech as evidence for the idea that Shakespeare condones anti-Semitism. After all, Shylock is trying to reason taking a pound of Antonio’s flesh. However, Shylock is also pointing out that he is only doing what any of his Christian counterparts would do. In other words, he is no better or worse than any other man.

This is one of the main points that the play makes. Shylock may seem evil, but none of the other characters in the play come off particularly well. In an interview about the play, F. Murray Abraham points out that “various characters are…racist, ageist, sexist, and money-lusting.” One example of this is after the Prince of Morocco leaves Belmont, Portia says: “A gentle riddance…Let all of his complexion choose me so.” In other words, she doesn’t want to marry the Prince solely because he is black.

This brings me to a better look at the character of Portia. On the one hand she is racist, anti-Semitic and a liar. One the other hand, she is a very smart, powerful woman who is able to do what the men in the play are not able to do. As a feminist, I must respect Portia for this. When she decides to leave Belmont, take matters into her own hands and become a lawyer at Antonio’s trial, she is not doing what women of her time (and in the play) were expected to do. Portia gives eloquent speeches, manipulates the law, and tricks her husband, all while the men in the play think her simple and pretty.

More so than any of Shakespeare’s other women that I know of, Portia gracefully mixes a romantic side and a powerful side. It is she who commands the love scenes, not Bassanio. And it is she who speaks at the trial, not Bassanio. Yet, despite this girl-power, Portia is cold-hearted, anti-Semitic, and racist. Her famous speech, “The quality of mercy is not strained,” is ridiculous; Portia discusses mercy yet she shows none to Shylock. She even suggests that Shylock should be executed. This is why, in my eyes, Portia remains one of the most fascinating characters Shakespeare has ever crafted. She has a mix of personality that is both enviable and repulsive.

But how does this all relate to me? Besides my love of Shakespeare, why does this play relate to my life right now? I am a Jewish girl. And as I become a bat mitzvah I work on finding my identity. Who am I? What makes a person who they are?

Identity is also one of the major themes of the Merchant of Venice. Shylock’s identity as a Jew affects his life greatly. He is spit upon, insulted, kicked, and ultimately he is forced to lose this Jewish identity. It has shaped his life, but it is taken from him in about two lines. His daughter Jessica too, loses her identity as a Jew, but by choice. But when she marries Lorenzo and converts, she finds herself unhappy, a misfit in the world to which she longs to belong. Portia’s identity as a girl changes only briefly when she disguises, but the audience can see how much more power she has when she is thought to be male.

As I look at the Merchant of Venice, I can see the effect of changing identity on the characters. Then, I think about my own life and my identity as a Jew. When I was little, I described my religion as “half Jewish/half Christian.” I said this because my father’s side of the family is Jewish and my mother’s side of the family is Unitarian. I did not yet understand what these religions were. As far as I was concerned, being Christian meant you got presents on Christmas and eggs on Easter, and being Jewish meant you got presents during Hanukah and hid an Afikoman during Passover. Since I did all of these things, I thought I was both Christian and Jewish. By the time I got to middle school, I began to describe myself as an atheist. I did not celebrate the holidays any differently, but I now understood that I was neither a practicing Christian nor a practicing Jew.

Yet slowly, I began to feel connected with my Jewish heritage. I felt more connected with Jewish values. Over time, I began to identify as a Jew. But I still wondered, what made me Jewish? Why is my identity as a Jew important? Reading and watching the Merchant of Venice, I can see Shakespeare’s thoughts on the matter. More than any other play, I can feel a connection with The Merchant of Venice. When I first saw the play, it was this connection that I felt. Judaism may just be a religion, and one’s religion can change, but Judaism is also a culture, a culture I can feel proud to embrace.

Yet Shakespeare teaches us that we cannot let this pride turn into feelings of hate. He shows us the brightest and darkest sides of humanity in this play, with a golden rule morality engrained throughout. Embrace your identity and who you are, but remember that humans are all humans. As Shylock said, we all are “fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, [and] healed by the same means.”