Review: The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

478px-Merchant_of_Venice_1619
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Year of First Publication: 1605

Year of Publication for This Edition: 1994

Number of Pages: 28 (double columned)

Publisher: Barnes and Noble

Genre: Fiction

Sub-Genres: Drama, Comedy

Subjects: Italy, Jews, Anti-Semitism, Persecution


The Merchant of Venice tells the story of Antonio, a merchant whose friend asks to borrow a large sum of money so that he can travel to the home of Portia, a woman he hopes to woo and marry. Antonio is eager to help his friend, but with all of his money tied up in his business, he must borrow the cash from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender who despises Antonio, and Gentiles in general, believing them to be the sources of all his troubles. He gives Antonio the loan, but on the condition that if the money is not returned within a certain amount of time, Shylock may cut off a pound of Antonio’s flesh.

It seems almost silly to write about this play on a dinky blog like this and call it a “review.” It’s Shakespeare. Of course it’s brilliant. Of course the plot is intriguing, the themes are universal and timeless, and the characters are fascinating (one especially). The purpose of this review (most of my reviews, really) is not to gauge the merits of the work but to air my opinions on the work. And if any of Shakespeare’s plays inspires heated debate and strong opinion, it’s The Merchant of Venice.

The main problem most critics have with The Merchant is the character Shylock. To many, his actions and the other characters’ interactions with him make him nothing more than a caricature intended by Shakespeare to defame and smear the Jewish people. We have to admit that Shylock does seem to exhibit many of the stereotypes about Jews that were common at the time: he’s greedy, spiteful, untrustworthy, and bloodthirsty. His unusual brand of cruelty also makes him seem almost like a farcical character. But despite all this, Shylock is human (as human as a fictional character can be 😉 ). He is complicated. He feels deeply. He says himself that he is just as much a person as any other man:

He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? [Act III, Scene I]

I know what I think of Shylock: I think that he is a man who has been seriously wronged, but who, sadly, has tricked himself into thinking that revenge is the best way to right those wrongs. But what did Shakespeare think of Shylock? Did he really want his audience to regard Shylock as a half-hero half-villain? “Ah, therein lies the rub”!

~

The culture of the times makes it highly likely that Shakespeare saw Shylock as nothing but a villain. Anti-Semitism had been an establishment in England since the late Middle Ages when all English Jews were expelled from the country. By Shakespeare’s time, Jews were slowly making their way back into England, but they were few and often kept their heritage and faith a secret. Likely, Shakespeare never even met a Jew, or if he did, he probably didn’t know him to be such; hence everything he knew about the Jewish people was most likely gathered from his fellow Gentile countrymen, most of whom may have harbored anti-Semitic sentiments.

But nevertheless, there is a group of scholars, actors, and readers who believe that The Merchant is not an anti-Semitic play, but rather, is meant to denounce anti-Semitism. The passage quoted above is often pointed to as evidence for Shakespeare’s lack of prejudice. Personally, I don’t think one speech is enough to redeem the whole play: yes, it’s moving and beautiful and it affirms everything that we twenty-first century readers believe about human dignity, but if Shakespeare himself did not believe in the words he wrote, does that necessarily mean he could not have put them in a character’s mouth? What kind of writer would he be if he could not make all of his characters’ beliefs sound sincere?

Nevertheless, I am not going to write this play off as anti-Semitic propaganda just yet because, along with Shylock’s speech, I found other excerpts that seem to cast aspersions on the idea of institutionalized anti-Semitism. For instance, in Act III, Scene II, Bassanio (the penniless friend who started all this trouble) talks about why we shouldn’t trust appearances and says this:

In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt, but, being seasoned with a gracious voice, obscures the show of evil? In religion, what damned error, but some sober brow will bless it and approve it with a text, hiding the grossness with fair ornament? There is no vice so simple but assumes some mark of virtue on his outward parts . . . .

Both the law and the church of Shakespeare’s day were grossly unfair to the Jews, with some so-called churches even preaching that, because Jews were partly responsible for Christ’s death, their descendents ought to be punished hundreds of years later. Those lines could be a jibe at the anti-Jewish establishment . . . or they could simply be one of those meditations on life for which Shakespeare is famous. After all, Shakespeare, however much we love and admire him, was only human: even though he seems to argue against a prejudiced viewpoint, that doesn’t mean he would necessarily recognize the same prejudice in himself.

This play is turning out to be more complicated than Hamlet. On first hearing the story several years ago, I firmly believed that the play was unfair to Jews. Then, after hearing others’ perspectives on it, I began to question that opinion. As a staunch opponent of censorship, I dearly wanted to say, “HA! This book isn’t anti-Jew! It’s pro-Jew!” But I’m afraid I’m not convinced enough to say that, either. Ultimately, I believe The Merchant of Venice is an attempt to faithfully represent the society of Renaissance-era Venice, a time and a place where everyone had prejudices, everyone could be unfair, and no one was completely innocent. I’ve heard it said that Shakespeare knew every experience and emotion the human heart is capable of; in this play, he shows us one of the most basic truths about the heart: for every ounce of good it can do, it can do just as much evil.

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7 thoughts on “Review: The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

  1. I’ve started to think of Shylock as Shakespeare’s Tony Soprano. We hate Tony, but we can’t help but empathize with him if only because we know him so well. It seems the same way with Shylock. Why else would Shakespeare make him so complex? If he wanted a purely malevolent villain, he’d already done Richard III very well and knew how to do it. Why humanize Shylock the way he does? Why make him the most complex, interesting character in the play if he’s merely supposed to be treacherous and a foil to the other characters? Was it a dramatic flaw on Shakespeare’s part (God forbid!) or did Shakespeare have a reason for Shylock’s ambivalence?

    I also wonder if our perception of the play isn’t distorted by our belief in anti-Semitism being a blanket ideology of the time. In defense of the Church, Popes had been issues edicts calling for the protection of Jewish rights and autonomy of conscience for centuries by the time of Merchant, so there probably would have been at least a small amount of push-back in the audience from Shylock’s eventual torture and forced conversion.

    Perhaps there really was more ambiguity about the Jews which Shakespeare was trying to play on and critique? It’s certainly an anti-Semitic play–it doesn’t make any dramatic sense if it’s not. At the same time, why would Shylock be so complex if Shakespeare wanted a straight Gentile-vs.-Jew morality tale–which is probably the most dramatically appropriate route to take?

    I’ve really come to think of Merchant as a precursor to the “problem plays,” because I sure can’t figure it out!

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