Synopsis: Bassanio has fallen in love. He fully intends to woo the apple of his eye–Portia, a Venetian heiress–but has no means to get to Italy. Luckily for him, he has the best friend in the whole world, Antonio. Antonio, a Christian and the titular merchant, is low on funds at the moment, but is willing to take out a loan for Bassanio. In order to do this, he needs to go through Shylock, a Jewish man he’s always hated, and who has always hated him in return. The only way to make this deal work is by Antonio using himself as collateral: Antonio must relinquish a pound of flesh if the bond fails. So, what’s to happen when everybody makes it to Venice, but nobody can repay their debt?
Review: I picked up The Merchant of Venice mostly because I’d haphazardly bought Shakespeare and the Jews by James Shapiro without having read Merchant first. Before reading this play, I didn’t know much about it, save for the discourse surrounding the play’s anti-semitism.
Immediately, we’re introduced to Antonio, the titular merchant, who begins the play with this line: “In sooth I know now why I am so sad, / It wearies me, you say it wearies you; / But how I caught it, found it, or came by it, / What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born, / I am to learn” (I.i.1-5). How relatable. Of course, this is how I knew that I’d like the play.
The play itself was great. I loved the debating themes of love and worth, and the “strong friendship”/”romance” between Antonio and Bassanio kept me intrigued. The women in this play, Portia, the wife, Nerissa, Portia’s servant, and Jessica, Shylock’s doctor, were incredibly written, and I’d love to see how people act them.
And then, of course, we must talk about Shylock. And before we talk about Shylock, I just want to say that I’m not Jewish, and therefore when I discuss Shylock, my experiences as a non-Jewish person will reflect that.
Shylock is presented as a very malicious character. He and Antonio hate each other, on the basis that Antonio is Christian and Shylock is a Jew, as well as a monetary basis (Antonio is a merchant, and Shylock thinks that “[Antonio] lends out money gratis and brings down / The rate of usance here with us in Venice” (I.iii.42-43)). The word “Jew” is used perjoratively many more times than once, and Shylock becomes a character obsessed with money and his hatred for Antonio to the point where he is more than willing to maim Antonio. That certainly sounds like anti-semitic writing to me.
For Shakespeare, this play was written in a time where anti-semitism was very rampant, and his ideologies therefore reflect that. But, in defense of Shakspeare, this play holds the famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” and “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech, which to me seems like Shakespeare’s making an attempt to deconstruct anti-semitic beliefs. That being said, I think The Merchant of Venice isn’t inherently anti-semitic, but rather discusses anti-semitism as one of its main topics.
However, to continue with my Shylock train of thought…I really liked him as a character. If he were a real person, I don’t think I’d like him much, but I’ve always been fascinated by the victim-turned-villain trope. I mean, Shylock has reason to hate Antonio, but he’s also lost so much, and continues to lose so much more. If there was somebody out there who hated you, spat on you, kicked you, threw rocks at you, and then–then you had the chance to hurt them back, would you? Shylock would. In fact, I can imagine this interaction going down between Antonio and Shylock if this were a modern play:
Shylock: *is visibly frustrated about institutional and personal anti-semitism*
Antonio: Hey man, don’t fight hate with hate
Shylock: So you admit you hate me???
But that’s just me. So, all in all, for the play, I really liked it! It was interesting, I found myself wondering how they were going to get out of their predicaments, I wanted Jessica and Lorenzo to be happy together, and I found myself pleasantly amused with both Gobbos.
And now, time to discuss the edition. My copy is from The Royal Shakespeare Company, and I personally have been really enjoying their editions. Before each play is a little introduction, which introduces the themes of the play, the history, a little discourse, and what to look out for. After the play is a scene-by-scene analysis which is super helpful for someone like me, and they even go above and beyond and note the editorial changes they made with help from the folios and quartos. Even after that, the RSC goes more in-depth with their analysis, with help from directors and actors to highlight the decisions they made with pivotal scenes and characters.
In this section, they mention the history behind Merchant, and how the play itself has become a little taboo after the Holocaust. The play was shown often in Nazi Germany, and now whenever there’s a new production of the play, the directors and actors must think on how to not tokenize and stereotype Shylock–which is difficult, given that Shylock is actually a little bit of a detestable character. To highlight this fine line, Bate and Rasmussen state that “Shylock’s statement of common ‘humanity’ is delivered with the express purpose of pleading his right to revenge, by very inhumane means” (125), and that “Racism is as much part of our world as it was [Shakespeare’s]. The goal is not to sanitise or rehabilitate Shylock, but to see him as part of a society whose workings lead to cruel and outrageous acts” (128).
Well. This was a little bit of an essay, wasn’t it? As you can all see, I found this play and this edition very engaging, and I myself feel a little bit wistful about my time doing Shakespeare Studies at college–maybe I’ll write a paper on this play just to bring back those old memories.
Okay, one final quote: “Nevertheless, Shylock was ‘not a tragic hero: he is proof that racism breeds revenge'” (131).
And also one more final thought: I just reread the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, and wow wow wow. I can’t speak for anywhere else in the world, but maybe if more bigots in the United States read Shakespeare they’d understand just how traumatizing their actions are to oppressed groups. “If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that” (III.i.64-5).