“S” is for “Shylock”
A New York theatre critic recently wrote: “A snoozy Broadway season has been bolted wide awake by the arrival of a play drenched in juicy timeless issues -- racism, revenge and romance for dollars.”
“Forget that the work is 400 years old. The cause for cheers is the stirring version of ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ starring Al Pacino, a supernova you already know, as the moneylender Shylock, and Lily Rabe, a rising star you should, as the heiress Portia.”
No matter what you think of Al Pacino playing Shakespeare, “Merchant” is a fascinating play. But what the play means is even more interesting.
After all, the plot is fairly well known. Shylock is a Jewish moneylender who lends dough to a Christian, Antonio, setting the security at a pound of Antonio’s flesh if the loan isn’t repaid on time.
Later Antonio, bankrupt, can’t pay back the loan so Shylock demands his pound of flesh. At the trial, the beautiful leading lady of the play, Portia, switches gender to play a “doctor of law” who tries to save Antonio’s life, arguing for mercy in a famous speech.
Portia: “The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
Shylock, however, “wins” the case and gets set to collect his pound of flesh. But Portia, at the last minute, points out that the contract only allows Shylock to remove the flesh, and not one drop of blood, so Antonio’s life is saved and the money-lender is defeated.
(By the way, the actual “merchant of Venice” is Antonio, not Shylock.)
As I suggested, what the play “The Merchant of Venice” has meant to audiences throughout the past few centuries is kind of fascinating. Is it an anti-Semitic play? Does it reflect not only the general anti-Semitism of the Elizabethan age but Will Shakespeare’s own anti-Semitism?
Or is it Shakespeare’s plea for tolerance?
The history of the play’s productions is of interest. In some versions Shylock has been presented as a cruel caricature: heartless, hateful, greedy. In others, he is a more sympathetic character.
The Nazis, by the way, loved the play. At the beginning of World War II, “Merchant” was playing in numerous German cities. They changed it a bit: Shylock’s daughter, who was of course Jewish, did not marry a Christian, as Shakespeare had written.
A question that has often been asked is, what did Will Shakespeare feel about the character he created named Shylock? Will lived in a society – 16th-century England – that was, from our twenty-first century standpoint, almost incredibly anti-Semitic. So his Shylock was seemingly greedy and heartless, as his audiences would have expected, but it’s worth noting that in the play the money-lender also had pride, energy, even a sense of humor. He could be seen as a person more sinned against than sinning: a loving family man, scarred by years of never-ending persecution and discrimination.
Shakespeare wrote some of his best-known lines for Shylock to deliver:
“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, senses, affections, passions? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”
An anti-Semitic play or a plea for tolerance? What’s your opinion?
1 year ago