The Merchant of Venice: Is It Time to Retire This Problematic Play?

Every year brings new productions of Shakespeare’s controversial play “The Merchant of Venice.” This year, two different versions visit Washington, D.C. Is it time to retire this problematic play?

Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” was one of the smash hits of the 1999 theatre season. Washington, D.C.’s production at its Shakespeare Theatre, directed by Michael Kahn, with Hal Holbrook as Shylock, was the highest grossing play in the theatre’s history. Trevor Nunn’s production at the National Theatre in London earned him best directing honors by the British theatre critics. Playwright John Mortimer called the National’s production “the best thing it has done.” More recently, the play has been produced in such diverse locales as Moscow, St. Louis, Detroit, Texas Christian University and Notre Dame. This year, the Merchant is being revived in the old Jewish ghetto in Venice, Lincoln Center, the Adirondack Shakespeare Company, and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, among other venues.

Two separate versions will visit Washington, D.C. this summer: “District Merchants,” at the Folger Library, and the Shakespeare Globe Theatre’s production, which will be presented at the Kennedy Center.

David Nathan, drama critic for the Jewish Chronicle (London), reviewing his eighth “Merchant of Venice” in three years once wrote: “I have had enough of this play. It is deeply offensive, no matter how it’s done.” Mr. Nathan has a point.The “Merchant of Venice” is nominally styled a “comedy,” but often is characterized as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” It’s a problem, all right.

First, there’s the problem that the “Merchant of Venice” is replete with vile anti-Semitic slurs. That is not to say that Shakespeare was an anti-Semite, or that the play is an anti-Semitic tract. Rather, as the noted director Joseph Papp aptly observed, while the play is not anti-Semitic, there clearly is “anti-Semitism within the play.” No doubt about that.

Shylock,(interestingly enough, not the merchant of Venice), is undoubtedly the villain of the play who loans money to Antonio (who is the merchant of Venice), and then demands strict compliance with the terms of the loan (a pound of Antonio’s flesh) when Antonio defaults on the loan. Of course, today this is called “banking,”and occurs daily, but back in Elizabethan England, such practices were frowned upon.

As a result of his actions, Shylock is repeatedly referred to as “a kind of devil,” “the devil himself,” “the very devil incarnate,”“the devil in the likeness of a Jew,” and a “cruel devil.” That’s when his opponents are being kind. At other times, he is cursed as a “damned, execrable dog,” and an “inhuman wretch.” Throughout the play, Shylock is rarely referred to by name. Mostly, he is referenced simply as “the Jew.” That appellation is often modified with such colorful adjectives as “dog Jew” and “currish Jew.” O.K., as Papp noted, there is anti-Semitism within the play. So what? Isn’t Shakespeare merely reflecting the prejudices of his times? Well, that is certainly true.

Even though the Jews of England had been expelled in 1290, some 300 years before Shakespeare penned “Merchant,” – – and neither Shakespeare nor his contemporaries had ever seen a Jew (except for a few who had accepted forced conversion to Christianity as the price for remaining Englishmen) – – still, the ancient slurs lived on in the teachings of the Church and popular literature. Such Church-sponsored doctrines as “Deicide” (Jews as Christ killers), the “blood libel” (the notion that Jews murdered Christians to obtain their blood for ritualistic purposes), and the Jew as “usurer” (whereby Jews generally were prohibited from engaging in gainful employment other than money lending, but then were condemned for engaging in the “unchristian” practice of loaning money with interest), were the coin of the realm in Judenrein Elizabethan England. Martin Luther’s warning to the Christian world that “next to the devil thou has no more enemy more cruel, more venomous and violent than the Jew,” was accepted as scripture by Shakespeare’s audience.

These centuries-old calumnies survived in popular culture, appearing in a particularly vulgar form in Christopher Marlowe’s celebrated play, “The Jew of Malta,” which opened on the London stage shortly before Shakespeare’s “Merchant.” Compared to Marlowe’s “Jew” (who poisons a whole nunnery, including his own daughter, who has taken refuge there after he murders her suitors), Shakespeare’s Shylock is a saint. At the same time, around 1594, Dr. Roderigo Lopez, a Portuguese Jewish physician, was convicted of High Treason allegedly for attempting to poison Queen Elizabeth, a crime for which he was dragged from his prison cell, hanged, then cut down alive, and dismembered, disemboweled, beheaded, and quartered, the quarters being set upon the gates of the city. Makes one wonder just who was extracting a pound of flesh from whom? As for the much vaunted Christian charity and mercy, well, needless to say it did not extend to Jews such as Dr. Lopez.

It is from this milieu that Shakespeare’s “Merchant” emerges and it is not immune from the base defamations of its time, but well reflects them. This is a problem, especially for a post-Holocaust audience (or as the London Independent so indelicately put it in reference to London’s National Theatre production: “the biggest piece of baggage an audience brings to a performance of the “Merchant of Venice” is a fancy little item known as Post-Holocaust Sensibility”). The most palatable solution for today’s theatre-goers is to suggest that Shakespeare is “outing”the Christian protagonists as hypocrites who refuse to practice the tenets of Christian charity and mercy they so vociferously preach. In a mock trail presided over by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the United States Supreme Court Building on May 20, 1999, a jury voted 7-5 that it would not be an act of anti- Semitic harassment for a student drama group to present Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.” Covering the trial, the Washington Post noted that scholarly witnesses testified that Shakespeare merely reflected, but didn’t foment anti-Jewish attitudes in portraying Shylock. The pro-Shakespeare forces argued at the trial that by showing that Shylock actually has feelings, the author creates sympathy for Shylock. They presented Professor Martin Yaffe, author of “Shylock and the Jewish Question,” who stated that Shakespeare was “outing”anti-Semitism in order for the English people of the period to re-examine old attitudes of hatred for Jews and all ‘outsiders.’”

Michael Kahn’s 1999 production at the Shakespeare Theatre followed this revisionist mode. Kahn’s “Merchant” valiantly attempted to redeem the play’s vulgar portrayal of Shylock by underscoring the hypocrisy of the effete Christian coterie that condemned him. After all, this crowd viciously mocked Shylock’s obsession with financial obligations, and yet, their singular focus was their own financial well-being. This whole sorry group couldn’t seem to make a buck on their own, but they condemned Shylock’s business acumen. It was only when Shylock offers Antonio an interest-free loan, that Antonio approvingly says: “The Hebrew will turn Christian; he grows kind.”

It is reminiscent of the 1980 production of “The Merchant of Venice” at the Dallas Shakespeare Festival, where, when it was decreed that Shylock would lose half his property and have to become a Christian, the born-again Christian audience cheered and applauded, believing that making Shylock a Christian was an act of mercy, according to Robert Glenn, founder of the Shakespeare Festival, who remembered those performances well – because the reaction of the audience shocked him so.

Aaron Posner’s “District Merchants,” which opened at the famed Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. to rave reviews, plies the often travelled road of setting the play in a different epoch (it has been set in the roaring ‘20s and Las Vegas, among other places). In Posner’s version, the setting is post Civil War Washington, D.C. It doesn’t help. As if the characterization of Shylock as a money-grubbing money lender created by Shakespeare wasn’t bad enough, in Posner’s world, Shylock is also an abusive slave-owner. Oy vey…

In most modern productions, much significance is placed upon Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew” speech (“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions * * * as a Christian * * * If you prick us, do we not bleed?”), which liberal philo-Shakespearean apologists desperately cling to as the Holy Grail of Shakespeare’s humanism. As if these mere seventeen lines could redeem the vicious portrait of “Shylock the Jew” that engulf them. And, of course, post-holocaust, do we really need to be reminded that Jews too bleed?

Does any of this matter? After all, when all is said and done, “The Merchant” is just a play. And yet the daily revival of ancient racial slurs that encouraged decent Christians to become Hitler’s “willing executioners,” just seventy years ago is deeply disturbing. (According to available statistics, there were about fifty German productions of “The Merchant” in the early Nazi era between 1933 and 1939). In an age when young people have largely forgotten the ancient slights and racial stereotypes, is it a good idea to inculcate them with notions of the vile treachery of “the Jew?” If society, through education and notions of decency, has largely purged the Jewish stereotypes of the Dark Ages from present-day life, is it a good idea that one can still witness these vituperative portraits of “the Jew” at distinguished theaters throughout the world? One can only wonder if the theatre world would welcome plays which, although they accurately reflect their times, as does “The Merchant,” are, nevertheless, deeply offensive. I certainly don’t see a performance of “Amos & Andy” on Broadway anytime soon. And, of course, a play that suggested that all Muslims were “radical Islamic terrorists,” would never see the light of day. Why then is it acceptable to present a play where Jews are characterized as “devils” and “dogs” year after year?

We should keep in mind that in the first century and a half of its history, “The Merchant of Venice” was hardly ever produced and it virtually disappeared from the stage. Recent productions, and other apologetic productions of the last century, suggest that another 150 year respite might well be in order.

About the Author
Steve Frank is an attorney, retired after a thirty-year career as an appellate lawyer with the United States Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. His writings on Israel, the law and architecture have appeared in numerous publications including the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Jerusalem Post, and Moment Magazine.