Tuesday, November 23, 2010


“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?


R. Burnett Baker said...

Excellent, thoughtful post. From Shakespeare's lines you quote to summarize this essay, one could reasonably argue that the play is a plea for tolerance, that the actions of Shylock are steeped in the historicity of the Jewish people and their sufferings.

I'd suggest that that is based on accepted views of that historicity, particularly borne from WW2 and post-WW2 realities. Given the evils of the Nazi movement, it's no surprise they would have loved this play: It unwittingly provided a perfect propaganda tool that could be tweaked to suit whatever evil intent the Nazis' desired.

But back to Shakespeare. I wonder if his intent was one of sympathy, yet cloaked in language that would have been acceptable to the overall anti-Semitic audiences of his time?

We probably will never know.


Berowne said...

Rick: "But back to Shakespeare. I wonder if his intent was one of sympathy..."
Thanks for a fine, thoughtful comment. When it comes to trying to figure out what Will Shakespeare, on a personal level, thought about this play, or ANY of his plays, I think your comment "We will probably never know" is correct.

Jedediah said...

I've always thought it was a plea for tolerance. Of course in can be turned into an anti-Semitic piece and I'm not at all surprised that this was done during the 3rd Reich, but I don't think that this was the original intention at all. I've always loved the lines you quoted.

mrsnesbitt said...

So much to ponder upon! Good food for thought - as we have grown to expect from you - never disappointed.
Thank you so much for your time, effort and thought.
ABC Team

Roger Owen Green said...

There was an piece in the Wall Street Journal on this you might want to check out too. The article, I'm remembering, suggested that Shakespeare WAS anti-Semitic, but he was of his time. Which I took to mean that he was no more so than the average white Southerner in 1947; it was just the way it was.

Now, I also think that the play was used by others to justify their anti-Semitic ways, the way the Gospel of John - who killed Jesus? the JEWS! - was, whether or not that was the intention of the writer.

Do you know this Michelle Shocked song? I love it.

ROG, ABC Wednesday team.

Berowne said...

Jedediah: "I've always thought it was a plea for tolerance."
Certainly a very good case can be made for that position.

Berowne said...

Denise: "Good food for thought - as we have grown to expect from you - never disappointed."
As I am never disappointed by your comments, mrsn.

Tumblewords: said...

Provocative piece. Timely, too. As always, two sides, each supported by believers. Nice post!

photowannabe said...

Coming to your post is always a growing, thought provoking experience. Please keep doing that. My brain needs excercise and I love the way you weave your thoughts for us.

Sylvia K said...

I always enjoy your posts for the day because they always do indeed include, as Denise wrote, "Good food for thought." The Merchant of Venice is one of my favorites and I would really enjoy seeing the current version with Al Pacino. Like Jedediah, I too, have felt it was a plea for tolerance. It's easy for intolerant people to read a different message into most anything from plays, to books, to movies and they do. But that doesn't automatically mean that it was the original intention of the author. I think Shakespeare was a man of his time in many ways, but I would also like to feel that because of the depth of his writing, that he thought past the intolerance to see something better. But then, of course, perhaps I'm just a dreamer. Hope your week is going well and Happy Thanksgiving!


EG Wow said...

Shakespeare was a thoughtful man so I'd like to think he was not bound by the anti-Semitic times in which he lived.

Leslie: said...

I always enjoy popping by to see which Shakespearean play you'll discuss. I'm getting back into them as I'm tutoring students who are currently studying MacBeth and The Tempest. I think I'm getting more out of these plays now than I did at a younger age. I have not read The Merchant of Venice so really don't feel qualified to make any observation re your question, but I would hope that the play would be tolerance. Unfortunately, I agree with others that Shakespeare is probably reflecting the feelings of the majority in his lifetime. As Roger comments, "It was just the way it was."

Elizabeth said...

Although it's too huge a subject to go into thoroughly, I left a brief remark on this subject in the comment box here - http://stanforth-sharpe.co.uk/?p=840 - which may help to give an historical overview to anybody interested.
I had the extreme privilege of playing Portia in my very fist professional engagement (many moons ago!) and she still remains one of my most favourite of Will's girls. x

Berowne said...

Always an excellent comment from Elizabeth...

Elizabeth said...

'That only to stand high in your account,
I might in virtues, beauties, livings, friends,
Exceed account.'

Maple Leaf Mommy said...

Excellent, thoughtful writeup and I love the pics!

Berowne said...

Elizabeth: "That only to stand high in your account..."
You stood high in my account already -- sincerely.

chiccoreal said...

As the first Shakespearean play in Grade 9 "The Merchant of Venice" dramatically and directly appeals to the social conscience of the day. Portia's famous "Mercy" speech gives credence to the fact that Shakespeare was questioning the masses perceptions and discrimination methods. In other words, Shakespeare was rattling the cage of complacency and complicitity. For this he is, and will remain, "The Immortal Bard". Genius, similar to Dickens who would rather artfully render stark realism and to do it in such a way as to not allow a beheading. Shakespeare in this way shook the glutonous underbelly of society which seethed with much ignorance. Shakespeare did not play the racist card in the "Merchant of Venice" but rather, allowed a mirror to be shone into those dim and unexamined areas of the majority who were morally depraved if not wholly corrupt.

Berowne said...

A fine comment, chiccoreal. Thanks.

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