Monday, September 28, 2009

Why "The Merchant of Venice"?

Many have questioned staging "The Merchant of Venice" : it's anti-Semitic; Shylock is an insulting caricature; the play has been used by anti-Semites (including Hitler) to advance the perception of Jews as predatory usurers; it puts forth the perception of William Shakespeare as a bigot, etc.

As to the first objection: the play deals with bigotry, but is not bigoted. It portrays the Venetians locked into a school of thinking promulgated by religion and xenophobia, that placed the Jewish people into a sub-social order unequal to their Christian counterparts. In the play this prejudice and the hypocrisy it engenders hangs upon the Venetians like a dusty Sirocco and exposes them for the incomplete human beings they are. Their anti-Semitism is an illness that rots an otherwise sound community.

On to the second: Rather than being a caricature, Shylock is a strong, self-made man and the only character who is not a hypocrite: he says what he means and means what he says. He is cast as a villain by his Venetian counterparts, but has done nothing villainous and is a respected member of his community. He is not a thief or a cheat, but a businessman pursuing one of the very few professions open to him. As a money lender, he is deplored by the establishment and reviled for charging interest. But is it really ethics and morality that drive their condemnation of usury? Shylock offers credit and credit provides a path for upward mobility, something feared and certainly not encouraged by the upper class. He clearly loves his deceased wife and his daughter whom he wishes to protect, but is overbearing in his manner of doing so. This may be a fault, but not a crime, else many of we parents might be cast as villains. His tragedy is getting caught up in a thirst for revenge for the many inequities served him. It leads him to
the villainy of which he has been accused and down a path where he becomes vulnerable to the powerful forces of society that rule Venice. He is not crushed, however, but like the many before him and the many after forced into the diaspora, he stands up straight and moves on.

As to the question of serving anti-Semites as a polemic for their twisted views, the play has been used this way and will be again. If we ignore the human being created by Shakespeare and choose instead to create a character that is not flesh and blood, but a skewed creature of our own warped minds, that is not Shakespeare's play, not "The Merchant of Venice".

Was William Shakespeare a bigot? From today's perspective, the answer is yes - but so were all Christians at the time who held the Jews responsible for the death of Jesus. But, holding that opinion can cast one in anything from the role of chauvinist to a bloodthirsty hate monger and everything in between. Clearly, as a Christian, Shakespeare believed in the prevailing view of Jesus as the son of God, part of a holy trinity, and that the Jewish faith was wrong in rejecting this concept. But he did not use his faith to justify the mistreatment of an entire group of people. Rather, he drew a character whose humanity could not be ignored.

The Jewish nation has endured centuries of persecution, the worst of which is in our living memory. It has survived because its people have a strong faith in their belief and a sense of identity that is unshakable. Shylock is of this tribe; Shylock is a survivor.