Why The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic

I have been fond of The Merchant of Venice since I first read it in a wonderful Shakespeare course taught by a Jewish professor named Berger that I took when I returned to college at age 27 at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and saw an outdoor stage production of it that same year on campus that enchanted me and remained in my memory ever afterward. I had always disagreed with and objected to the charge that the play is anti-Semitic. Whenever that debate came up, I avoided it as a distraction and a downer, just as I tend to do with any politically correct idea that achieves nothing but to degrade something that is positive. I had my own view. Anti-Semitism seemed to me a non-issue in the play, or at most a minor element. I did not see Shylock as an anti-Semitic caricature. I saw him as a monster who happens to be Jewish. He is bad because he is a monster, not because he is Jewish.

However, on reading the entire play again for the first time in many years and seeing the recent movie production of it with Al Pacino on DVD, I no longer consider my long-time view sustainable. Shylock is not merely a character who happens to be Jewish. He is the only real Jewish character in the play, since his daughter announces early on that she plans to marry a Christian man and convert to Christianity, and the other Jewish character, Tubal, is minor. Shylock is constantly addressed as “Jew,” more often than by his own name—it is “Jew” this, and “Jew” that. His Jew-ness—and thus his alien-ness and apartness from the community of Venice—is objectified. So, he is treated as representative Jew, and he is a monster, so monstrous that after everyone begs him to show mercy to Antonio, and he is offered many times what Antonio owes him, he still, like a demon out of hell, wants his pound of flesh. He is greedy, he is stubborn, he is legalistic, and he is filled with scorching undying hate against the Christians who have mistreated him, particularly Antonio. He is, finally, a man utterly lacking in charm, grace or humor; leaving aside “Hath not a Jew eyes,” there is something repulsive in his very diction, in the rhythms of his speech, a quality brought out by Al Pacino in the recent movie version. So not only is Shylock an enemy of society, he is a collection of every stereotypically unattractive Jewish trait exaggerated to the utmost, with his Jewish greed, his Jewish legalism, and his Jewish desire for vengeance against a well-born gentile combined into one unrelenting passion. This is the way Shakespeare treats the only major Jewish character in all his plays.

Further, when Portia disguised as a young lawyer turns the tables on Shylock making it impossible for him to take the pound of flesh without risk to his own life, the entire community—liberated at last from the legal situation in which Shylock had seemed to hold all the cards—turns against him with gusto. They not only seize all his wealth, they force him to become a Christian, depriving him of his very identity. While Shylock certainly deserves to be punished severely for his monstrous behavior, there is a “piling on” quality in this scene, with the whole community gleefully ganging up on him in his helplessness and humiliation, that is most disconcerting and doesn’t feel right.

To sum up, Shylock is the representative Jew, and he is portrayed as a hateful monster who deserves to be destroyed, and he is destroyed, by the entire community acting together. In reducing the evil Jew to nothing and forcibly converting him to Christianity, the community is restored to its own state of “grace,” as experienced in the beautiful (but now, as I see it, somewhat troubling) final act in Belmont where the three sets of lovers are blissfully and comically brought together in a transformed world. Their happiness, the happiness of the handsome, beautiful, graceful Christians, is built on the ruin and disempowerment of the evil Jew.

The Merchant of Venice, in conclusion, is a deeply anti-Semitic work. I get no pleasure from saying this,—indeed it makes me feel a tremendous sense of loss because I’ve been fond of the play for so long—but I am forced to this view by the play itself.

- end of initial entry -

Kevin O. writes from London:

Not having the time to reread “The Merchant of Venice,” and going entirely on your recent synopsis of it (August 4), I would suggest that, rather than being anti-Semitic Shakespeare’s intention was to be anti-Judaist. Shylock’s character seems to me to represent life lived rigidly according to the lex talionis, which comes to be humbled before the “quality of [Christian] mercy.” That Shakespeare is not being anti-Semitic is in my view shown by the fact that, unlike “The Jew of Malta,” Shylock is not killed but saved. I also believe that it is as reasonable to scrutinise Judaism as it is to scrutinise “moderate” Mohammedanism.

LA replies:

But if Shakespeare merely meant to scrutinize Judaism as a belief system, why would he have gone so over the top in portraying Shylock—his only real Jewish character—as a devilish monster?

Antony E. writes from England:

When I was studying literature at university, I attended a production by Steven Berkoff called “Shakespeare’s Villains.” Berkoff’s take on the portrayal of Shylock was that it couldn’t properly be classed as anti-Semitic because it wasn’t intended as a realistic characterisation of the Jewish people. His rationale was as follows: At the time Shakespeare was writing there were no Jews in England (having been expelled by Edward I in 1290); as a consequence, the Jew had become a mythical figure of sorts, and it is in this light that Shylock is to be regarded—not as a fully rounded human being but rather as a pasteboard villain.

Of course, there is still a contemporary anti-Semitism underlying the type of the Jew. Why did the Jew have to be portrayed as a monster? But at least this point about the mythical status of Jews in Elizabethean England somewat ameliorates the charge of anti-Semitism as specifically regards this play and its author. If there had been a Jewish community in London, for example, would a writer as compassionate as Shakespeare have been so unsympathetic in his portrayal of a Jewish character? I think it unlikely. It’s reasonable to conclude, as Berkoff does, that it was only the lack of contact with any real, flesh and blood Jews, and the concomitant mythic status that Jews had acquired, that made it possible for Shakespeare to create such a repulsive figure as Shylock.

LA replies:

That’s an interesting theory. The only flaw in it from my point of view is that I believe the real Shakespeare (i.e., not William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon) spent a substantial amount of time in Italy. However, even if that were true, Antony’s theory regarding the intended effect of the play on the London audience would still hold.

LA writes:

Also, here’s a discussion of Merchant and the anti-Semitism issue at wikipedia. It throws in a bunch of different points of view, but leaves them unresolved.

Jan G. writes from the Netherlands:

Your take on The Merchant of Venice reminds me of an interesting parallel. Here in Europe you have now many dramas and soaps all populated with “gracious” liberals and with the odd religious man or woman in the part of Shylock—mocked, maligned, and kicked out of society. Of course the mad moralistic Christian is mocked. There are not many Jews anymore and PC cowardice leaves Muslims out.

Joseph C. writes:

I just came across your recent post about The Merchant of Venice and its anti-Semitic undertones. It brought back some very fond memories for me, since I too regarded it as one of my favorite plays.

My perspective dates back somewhat farther. I came across the play as a freshman at an all boys’ Catholic prep school in 1978. My teacher was Catholic and a graduate student, so not only was I quite a bit younger than you when I read it, but was taught the play by someone younger than you were when you studied it at Colorado.

Our teacher (Mr. P) raised with us the specter of anti-Semitism, how that was a major accusation against Shakespeare, and the subsequent debate among scholars. Mr. P attempted to debunk this myth via an interesting point. That is, at the time of the play’s writing, Jews were the only group allowed to charge interest for the use of money. So, in order to typecast a villain properly, Shakespeare had no choice but to make Shylock a Jew. This argument is what one would today call a “straw man.”

That said, while Shakespeare’s decision to make Shylock a Jew certainly was not anti-Semitic, his treatment of him certainly was. I did not fully understand this at 14, but even then my fellow students and I knew and sensed these overtones. The physical description, the stereotypical money grubbing, the “Jew this,” “Jew that” throughout the play. We laughed at the time, but we all knew who was being mocked. It was years later when I realized just how some could see this as invidious bigotry, even though it seemed innocent at the time.

I have not seen the movie you refer to, and would not base the charge of anti-Semitism on it anyway, since it is a director’s perspective and thus one step removed from the author. But rereading the play again a few years back, there is enough in print to sustain the charge. Like you, I get no pleasure from saying this. I remember the play fondly, and read it at a very memorable and joyous time in my life. But even the great authors have their prejudices, which inevitably find their way into their writing.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 05, 2006 01:57 AM | Send

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