Monday, March 26, 2012

Merchant of Venice Us and Then

  Us and Them
The Merchant of Venice

Beside me here I have a whole stack of books with analyses of The Merchant of Venice and unsurprisingly most of them deal with the questions: is it anti-Semitic? Is Shakespeare?

It's not a question that can be ignored and I'll get to it in a minute. But to get there I have to deal with the question of what the play is about.

Well, obviously it's about money. Everybody in the play loves it. Some more than others. The Christians profess to love people but generally it's money they're after. Bassanio, for example, is after Portia's money. When Antonio asks him to tell about the lady, Bassianio speaks first, for quite a long time, about his debts, and then the first thing he says about Portia herself is not to praise her virtue or her beauty. They come after “In Belmont is a lady richly left” (Act 1.1), and he's well aware that he is a rival to the other wooers he calls “Jasons”, who as we know sought the Golden Fleece. Graziano knows, too, which side his bread is buttered on and quickly attaches himself to rich Portia's gentlewoman Nerissa. Once married, Portia doesn't hesitate to flaunt her money, claiming that Bassanio's debt of three thousand ducats is “petty” - “What? No more?” (Act 3.2) and carelessly offers to double and triple and quadruple it and whatever. She has bought Bassanios' love, or at least his presence as her husband, and with the ring episode she reminds him who's in power. Antonio, in his turn, is a merchant whose whole point in sending out ships is to make a profit just like all the rest of the wannabe capitalists of his time. He is perhaps the only character in the whole play who truly loves (except for Shylock, who loves Jessica - doesn't he? - and loved his wife). He shows this by trying to buy Bassanio's love, and while Bassanio maybe loves him back, it all causes an awful lot of trouble and Antonio ends up alone, watching the three purchasers and purchasees – oops, I mean the three loving couples – scamper off to bed. Even the most romantic young couple, Jessica and Lorenzo, are as concerned with money as with love when they elope. Jessica steals money and jewels from her father and is reported to start her married life on an extravagant spending spree.

In this gang, Shylock doesn't seem to be in such sharp contrast as his reputation would imply. But more of that later.

The play is also about hatred and contempt. The Christian Venetians are a tight little group and woe betide anyone who is Other. And woe does indeed betide them, especially Shylock, but I'll get to him in a minute too.

First let's look at the Prince of Morocco. Not a bad guy. A bit pompous, a bit of a braggart maybe, but on the whole he's OK. But he knows from the start that he's an Other. His first lines are to Portia and he says, “Mislike me not for my complexion” (Act 2.1) but poor Morocco, she already does. Before she even sees him she declares: “If he have the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil” (meaning black, Act 1.3) she wouldn't want to marry him. When he for rather good reasons, then, chooses the wrong box, thereby losing his chance to wed Portia, she says, “A gentle riddance. Draw the curtain, go. Let all of his complexion choose one so” (Act 2.7). Katharine Eisaman Maus, in her introduction to the Norton edition, shows how the complex reasoning of both Morocco and Aragon give “plausible reasons for choosing any one of the three caskets” (p.1116) but that the whole casket trick is like “those 'objective' intelligence tests that in subtle, or not-so-subtle ways, reward the belief systems of dominant groups while stigmatizing outsiders” (p.1117). Of course it's Bassanio who chooses correctly. Of course he knows that according to aristocratic Christian values one must profess to value lead more than silver or gold. Bassanio knows the rules. Morocco and Aragon don't.

Nor does Shylock, the most Other of the play. He knows his rules. He knows the legal rules of Venice. But he doesn't know the Christian rules of mercy. Or if he does, he doesn't see the point of them. Or if he does, he hasn't ever seen a lot of concrete evidence of mercy from the Christians. On the contrary, Antonio's famous kindness, or mercy, in lending money to friends without interest undercuts Shylock's means of support, the practice of lending money for profit, a practice happily used by budding capitalists (and a practice soon to be taken over by the capitalists who then conveniently forget that the Christian bible forbids it). Reason enough for Shylock to resent Antonio but of course his deepest hatred is because Antonio, kind Antonio, has insulted him. Repeatedly:

Signor Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances.
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
For suff'rance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat, dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own (Act 1.3)

Far from denying it or even feeling embarrassed for his unkind behavior, Antonio retorts:

I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too (Act 1.3).

This exchange firmly establishes the relationship between the Jew Shylock and the Christian Antonio. The clarity here of Shylock's much better reason for hating Antonio than Antonio's for hating Shylock is, I find, a strong argument against those who see the play itself as anti-Semitic.

Shylock further expresses his awareness of the Christians' lack of mercy just before the famous “Hath not a Jew” monolog: 

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 (Act 3.1)

The recipients of his speech, Salerio and Saliano, like Antonio, are far from repentant or embarrassed. They simply ignore him and turn to other matters. As Frank Kermode points out in Shakespeare's Language the only thing that could interest them would be if he says, “Is not a Jew a Christian?” and since he obviously can't say that, none of the rest “matters in the least” (p. 73).

It is, then, clearly established that Shylock has reason not to like Antonio and the others, even though he's willing enough to have financial dealings with them. The fact that instead of demanding “normal” interest in the form of money, he demands the pound of flesh for which the play is so infamous, is hard to interpret. He proposes it as a “merry sport” (Act 1.3). Is he joking when he says it? Antonio doesn't seem to take him seriously. In any case he quickly agrees, whether it's because he's so confident that he will be able to repay him as he says to Bassanio, or because he simply can't believe Shylock will claim his bond.

He does. Even if he was joking when he said it, Shylock has become further embittered by the loss of Jessica to one of Antonio's cohorts and the bond, for him, becomes the only thing that matters. And for him the bond represents law and justice while for the Christians it suddenly represents loathsome and incomprehensible cruelty.

The court scene is one of the most complex scenes in all of Shakespeare. It can be seen as the confrontation between the hardhearted money-lender and the puzzled, unhappy, debt-ridden gentleman. Which it is. It can be seen as the conflict between an old-fashioned rigid representative of the dying feudal economic system (Shylock), doomed to lose against the dynamic expansive proto-capitalist of the future (Antonio). Which it is. Sort of.

But what it also is, is the conflict between the compact dictatorship of Christianity over the individual Other. In dealing with the variety of conflicts in the play Alan Sinfield writes that “trying to move very far out of your place is severely punished, as Shylock finds. It is so obvious that this framework of ideology and coercion is operating to the advantage of the very rich over the poor, the established over the impotent, men over women, and insiders over outsiders” (p. 122). This quote raises perhaps more questions than it answers and in another essay I would take issue with it – Shylock is as rich as the merchants, he's well-established in his field, he is defeated by a woman (though everyone thinks she is a man) – but what is relevant and indisputable is that though Shylock is as much a Venetian as any of the others, he in an outsider and the insiders defeat him. And it is for that simple fact that Shylock is fated to lose. Even before the hearing starts, the judge in the person of the insider Duke clearly states whose side he's on. He calls Antonio by name and never refers to him as “the Christian” but he speaks of Shylock often as “the Jew”. He tells Antonio “I am sorry for thee” - n.b. not even the formal “you” - and with not a dram of impartiality he describes Antonio's opponent as:

A stony adversary, an inhuman wretch
Uncapable of pity; void and empty
From any dram of mercy (Act 4.1).

Shylock enters the courtroom into a compact wall of hostility, most of which is composed of individuals caring not a whit for the law or justice, expressing only hatred for this person who is not one of them.

The Duke and Portia try to reason with Shylock. They repeatedly concede that he's completely within his legal rights in demanding that his bond be fulfilled, but they repeatedly ask that he be merciful. Maus explains that the Christian religion is based on the tenet that while Christians expect salvation even though they don't deserve it, the Jewish religion i.e. the “ Mosaic code places a high value upon justice and emphasizes the importance of adhering to the letter of the law” (p. 1115). Shylock is very eloquent in expressing this. He is also eloquent in exposing the hypocrisy of the Christians by reminding them of their relationship to their slaves:

You have among you many a purchased slave,
Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules,
You use in abject and in slavish parts
Because you bought them. Shall I say to you
'Let them be free, marry them to your heirs.
Why sweat they under burdens? Let their beds
Be made as soft as yours, and let their palates
Be seasoned with such viands.' You will answer
'The slaves are ours.' (Act 4.1).

Portia, in the guise of Balthasar, seems to be on the very brink of granting Shylock his legal justice when she coolly twists the law into a contortion that transforms it into Shylock's enemy instead of his friend. And she is right, no drop of blood, no ounce of flesh more or less than a pound, is allowed by the legal document signed by Shylock and Antonio. Shylock sees this immediately but now Portia forces him to accept his bond instead of withdrawing it, on penalty of death if he spills blood or fails to be completely accurate in taking his pound. Where is the Christian mercy now? The court could have proven it's own mercy by saying, “OK, we've made our point, now get out of here.” Instead he is threatened with the death penalty through another law that apparently only Portia knows about:

If it be proved against an alien
That by direct or indirect attempts
He seek the life of any citizen,
The party 'gainst the which he doth contrive
Shall seize one half his goods; the other half
Comes to the privy coffer of the state;
And the offender's life lies in the mercy
Of the duke only, 'gainst all other voice - (Act 4.1)

And there we have it. Alien. Alien? Shylock is a Venetian, just as much as they are? Of course not. Nobody questions the assumption that as a Jew he is an alien. Again, where is the Christian mercy now? The Duke grants him his life but immediately rules that it is only on the condition that he fulfills Antonio's – merciless – demand that Shylock covert to Christianity.

Shylock is, in every conceivable way, defeated, because he was playing by the wrong rules and because the law he “trusted because it seemed to provide a refuge from prejudice, turns out...” like the casket test. “ have prejudice inscribed within it from the start” (Maus, p. 1117).

So does it serve him right? Should he have gone against everything in his history and his principles and simply been merciful as they...we...normal people...well, that's the problem here. It comes down to Us and Them. How certain are we, the readers and audience, of who the “Us” are and who the “Them” are?

There is a lot more to this play than that but it is so pervasive that it's impossible to pretend it's not there. The enmity between Christians and Jews is emphasized throughout the play. The fact that the enmity is not absolutely inevitable is evidenced in Jessica's marriage to Lorenzo but of course that marriage does not prove to be an example of an equal marriage in which the peaceful co-existence of two religions is a possibility. Jessica must convert to Christianity and delete her own ethnic identity. It occurs to no one that Lorenzo might do the converting – this is a society in which Christianity is unquestioned and the unquestionable power.

In a way The Merchant of Venice is like any other Shakespearean play. The good guys (the Christians) are far too mean and hypocritical for us to like them while the villain Shylock is far too reasonable, truthful and just plain right at times for us to completely hate him.

So, is the play anti-Semitic? Harold Bloom declares categorically that it is (p.171). And then oddly enough proceeds in his analysis to prove himself wrong (without seeming to be aware of it). And he is wrong. The Christians in the play are anti-Semitic. The city-state of Venice is anti-Semitic. Readers and audiences throughout the centuries (including those in Shakespeare's time) have been anti-Semitic, and have made good use of Shylock to prove that Jews are really money-hungry nasty types. But the play itself is not. What Shakespeare has shown us is a view into a society in which the Christians are hypocritical and as merciless as the Jewish man they accuse of being merciless. Could it be that which has caused so much discomfort and unease in readers and audiences in modern times? And does, still?

Works cited:
  • The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition, 2008.
  • Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human. 1998.
  • Kermode, Frank. Shakespeare's Language. 2000.
  • Maus, Katharine Eisaman, in The Norton Shakespeare (see above).
  • Sinfield, Alan. “How to Read The Merchant of Venice Without Being Heterosexist” in Shakespeare, Feminism and Gender, ed. Kate Chedgzoy. 2001.    
Films seen:

  • BBC, 1980. Director: Jack Gold. Cast: Shylock – Warren Mitchell; Portia – Gemma Jones; Antonio – John-Franklyn Robbins; Bassanio – John Nettles; Nerissa – Susan Jameson; Jessica – Leslee Udwin; Lorenzo – Richard Morant; Gratiano – Kenneth Cranham; Prince of Morocco – Marc Zuber. The first time we saw this I was disturbed by Mitchell's portrayal of a jolly Tevye-like Shylock but this time I saw it differently. In the face of such discrimination as Shylock's is forced to deal with, humor is a way to survive and Mitchel plays that roll with power and subtlety which make the hatred, fury and grief that he expresses now and then all the more gripping. The entire cast is good. Gemma Jones, who plays Portia, is Madame Pomfrey, the nurse, in the Harry Potter movies. John Nettles is the cop in “Murder in Midsommar”.
  • The ultimate version, 2004. Director: Michael Radford. Cast: Shylock – Al Pacino; Portia – Lynn Collins; Antonio – Jeremy Irons; Bassanio – Joseph Fiennes; Nerissa – Heather Goldenhersch; Jessica – Zuleikha Robinson; Lorenzo – Charlie Cox; Gratiano – Kris Marshall; Prince of Morocco – David Harewood. Once you've seen this version it's hard not to see it as exactly the way the play should be done. Al Pacino is absolutely perfect. The whole cast is. However, having now seen it several times, in this viewing I felt that it was just a bit too lush, a bit too beautiful. And there was a bit of unnecessary overkill in giving the historical background of antisemitism in the 16th century. As if the play itself wasn't clear enough. But that's just me being picky.
  • On-stage-filmed, 2001. Director – Trevor Nunn. Cast: Shylock – Henry Goodman; Portia – Derbhle Crotty; Antonio – David Bamber; Bassanio – Alexander Hanson; Nerissa – Alex Kelly; Jessica – Gabrielle Jourdon; Lorenzo – Jack James; Gratiano – Richard Henders; Prince of Morocco – Chu Omambala. One expects a lot of Trevor Nunn, and rightly so. He has done some brilliant productions. That's why I was a bit disappointed by this one, and I don't quite know why. I liked the minimalist stage settings (totally different from the Pacino version). I liked the concept of setting it in some kind of 1930's Germany. I liked the choice of making it nowhere near a comedy and the final scene in which Jessica sings a tragic song in Hebrew while the others, standing motionless on an empty stage staring off into nothingness, will not fade in my memory for a long time. The cast was good, Henry Goodman was a convincing Shylock, and yet. Something didn't mesh. It could simply be the fact that the sound was very poorly recorded, so that either it was impossible to hear what they said, or we had to scramble for the remote control to turn down the blast. Clearly they didn't have their microphones well placed and it was extremely distracting.
Seen on stage: Yes, in 2004 or 2005 at The Swedish Royal Theater, Dramaten in Stockholm. This was before my Shakespeare days but what I remember is the power of the scene where Shylock (played brilliantly by Malin Ek, daughter of the internationally known choreographer Birgit Cullberg) is forced to convert to Christianity. A stark cruel scene that remains clear in my mind.


  1. What Shakespeare has shown us is a view into a society in which the Christians are hypocritical and as merciless as the Jewish man they accuse of being merciless. Could it be that which has caused so much discomfort and unease in readers and audiences in modern times? And does, still

    Perceptive! Very perceptive indeed! Refreshingly different anti-Christian attitude, often neglected because people are just blinded by the supposed anti-Semitism of the play. Like Gore Vidal's in "Creation", except that the opposite point of view there is paganism.

    I consider "The Merchant" every bit as anti-Semitic as "Othello" is racist or "Macbeth" is misogynistic. In other words, not at all.

    The tricky, if a bit pointless, question is what Shakespeare wanted to achieve with this play. Did he simply want to give his audience a fine drama/comedy without bothering at all about anything else? Did he share the pro-Christian and anti-Jewish attitude of his audience? Did he want to teach his audience a lesson in humanity and humility (that went completely above their heads)? Did he want the first but did the third in spite of himself? I really don't know.

    My main problem with the play is that Shylock is much too compelling a character. Again, whether Shakespeare intended this, or the Jew got the better of him in the process of writing, I can only guess at. But after the scenes with Shylock and Antonio I find it very difficult to bother myself with the flirtations of Bassanio and Portia, not to mention Lorenzo and Jessica. Much effort has been expended on integrating the subplots, yet to me they seem to belong to separate plays.

    But I may well be missing something... Difficult play. Ambiguous.

    On the question of money, in his introduction to the play in the current Penguin Shakespeare Peter Holland provides some telling statistics. Shakespeare uses "ducat" and its plural 59 times in ten plays; 33 of these are in the "The Merchant" alone. Pretty impressive! Disturbingly strong reminder how much of our lives is ruled by money.

    By the way, something similar, albeit much subtler, is one of the chief themes in Anthony Shaffer's "Sleuth". The difference in wealth between Andrew and Milo is constantly emphasised, usually to a great dramatic effect:

    MILO: So she's used to luxury. Whose fault is that?
    ANDREW: It's not a fault if you can afford it. But can you?

    (This was transferred more or less verbatim into the 1972 movie. Note the slight pause before and the deceptively casual tone of Larry's "But can you?")

    It is not a little sad that the creator of the great detective St. John Lord Merrydew finally manages to convince the younger man to take part in his burglary games largely on pecuniary basis: smartly playing on his humble origins and selling him the nonsense (or is it nonsense really?) that he can't afford to keep the woman he's in love with if he doesn't provide her with the lavish lifestyle she is accustomed to. But that's too much off-topic!

  2. Interesting connection to Sleuth! And thanks for your thoughtful discussion of M of V and “Us and Them”.

  3. I might just correct myself. The Vidal's novel mentioned should really be "Julian", of course.