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the merchant of venice

15 september 2015

The Merchant of Venice is fabulous poetry, highly-charged drama, and often quite objectionable; as editor Jay Halio points out in his Oxford edition, there's really no way of getting around the fact that it's all of those things at once. For many an ambitious director or star actor, Merchant has provided a vehicle for working through some of the most problematic issues one can bring onstage.

At the heart of the play is what Halio calls "its alleged anti-Semitism" (1) – well, the play unequivocally represents anti-Semitism, so the allegations are about the degree to which Shakespeare agrees with his characters, or expects his audience to. It is futile to adjudicate what Shakespeare meant, but imperative to gauge one's own reactions to such a play.

When you read this great but exasperatingly evil text every few years during your adult life, there's probably a path from reading to successive re-readings that many have followed before. First there's a visceral reaction to the hatred the play pours on Shylock – though possibly that reaction is softened in advance by foreknowledge of Shylock's "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" speech. Then there's a reading that takes advantage of the various ways in which Shakespeare makes Shylock into a tragic, sympathetic character – aided and abetted by the thought that Shakespeare probably didn't know any real Jews, and that his prejudices, if he had any, were "of his time" and mild for it. (At one extreme here is the view I was taught in graduate school, that the play's anti-Semitism is highly abstract: "the Jew" standing for the old law, legalism, cupidity, and associated sins, but not for flesh-and-blood Jewish people.)

Then you hate it again, and then you fall in love with its astonishing flights of language (including the entire fifth act, after Shylock has cleared off the stage for good). And then you are appalled once again by the virulence of the play's attitudes: not just those of minor assholes like Solanio and Salarino, but those of the title character Antonio, whose pound of flesh is forfeit, and his pal Bassanio, and especially Shylock's Jew-hating Jewish daughter Jessica. Heck, even Shylock doesn't seem to like himself much.

Halio notes that the greedy Jew was a comic stereotype, though that doesn't help a whole lot, and anyway Shakespeare greatly complicates the grasping buffoonery of Shylock, making him edgy, even scary in his appetites for money and revenge. Shylock is akin to Malvolio, the other great villain who doesn't get to hang out at happy-ending time in a Shakespeare comedy.

Because The Merchant of Venice is a comedy, its whole last act being devoted to the dropping of disguises and moonlight and romance. After it's made its central character destitute and forced him to convert from his ancestral religion, it kicks him offstage and gives its young lovers some space to grow rapturous. Here's Portia:

How many things by season seasoned are
To their right praise and true perfection!
Peace, ho! The moon sleeps with Endymion
And would not be awaked. (Act 5, Scene 1)
If Shylock isn't there, we're meant to infer that he has no music in his soul, as his heartily-hated new son-in-law Lorenzo indirectly argues:
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted. (Act 5, Scene 1)
Shylock, after all, is a really mean character and an anti-Semitic stereotype. He conveys the terrible impression that he knows exactly what people assume about him and can't help living up to their assumptions anyway.

And his opponents in the play are loving, merciful Christians and casual anti-Semites. "The quality of mercy is not strained," Portia tells Shylock in the play's most famous speech. And then midway through her sublime invocation of human goodness, a goodness bordering and modeled on the divine, she can't even say the guy's name:

Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this (Act 4, Scene 1)
And at that point, you can't blame Shylock for not listening to her, because she isn't taking the trouble to speak to him.

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. 1600. Edited by Jay L. Halio. 1993. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.