The Merchant of Venice and the New Ruling Class
Karin Roffman

Shylock, the Jewish moneylender who seeks to exact his revenge against the Christian merchants of Venice, may be the least sympathetic, and most famous, Jewish character in any canonical piece of literature. Contemporary productions of The Merchant of Venice have wrestled with how to portray him. Is Shylock a greedy, bloodthirsty beast justly hated by all -- including his daughter? Or, is he a martyred soul attempting to use the only, narrow recourse he has—Venetian law—to spar with his Christian counterparts? Is he a minor character, a foil -- or should he be the center of attention? Is he an unmerciful brute who rightly gets what he deserves in the end? Or, is he a pawn for Christianity and Venetian law, resisting their hegemony through the spectacle of his undoing?

Moreover, because of the ambiguity of the Shakespearean text itself, such questions implicate more than just the traits of a character; they say something about Shakespeare himself. Is the play itself antisemitic? Is it a daring piece of subversion, undermining the assumptions of antisemitism by humanizing its demons? Or is it, as Harold Bloom has suggested, a typically Shakespearean complication, simultaneously making use of antisemitic imagery and ironizing it, humanizing Shylock and -- precisely because of his humanity -- rendering him all the more terrifying? In Bloom's reading, Marlowe's Barabbas is a caricature, a comic-book villain; Shylock is like Hannibal Lecter. Not monster, but a demon.

All these questions implicate what we think about Shakespeare, and what we are thinking about when we go to see Shakespeare. Is he a reliable narrator? Ought we expect him to understand antisemitism and depict its cruelty? Or are we to see Shakespeare as himself antisemitic, in some way, viewing the play itself as an artifact of injustice? Can the play be "saved"? Should it be?

Michael Radford’s new adaptation starring Al Pacino as Shylock and Jeremy Irons as Antonio raises some new questions about the play in the process of addressing these older ones. The production begins on a pedantic note, with exposition on the historical treatment of Jews in Venice in the sixteenth century. Radford then chooses to begin the action of the play with a scene found later in the original text: Shylock's being spat upon by his adversaries. Given this choice, the historical exposition seems unnecessary. Nor is it particularly artistically (or subtly) executed.

Shylock's motivations in the Merchant text are fairly clear. He is a Jew, and wants to remain one, and he alternately loathes and resents his Christian interlocutors. In the Radford film, the motives seem different. Shylock’s environment is crowded, religious, chaotic; and it is clear from the way Pacino portrays him that he desires inclusion in Antonio’s languorous, handsome, sophisticated world. (Indeed, in light of the assimilationist Judaism that underlies so much of Hollywood's foundational imagery, as Michael Medved demonstrated in An Empire of Their Own, one might read Shylock's yearning is simply to be an assimilated, tidy, bourgeois Reform Jew rather than the parochial, messy, ghetto-dwelling yid.) So, when Antonio spits on him, Shylock sees the other side of the world that he had idealized and feels the rejection not only as a personal slight, but as a shattering of a belief, a dream. Where Shakespeare's Shylock hates the goyim, Pacino's wants to be like them. Where Shakespeare's Shylock wants revenge, Pacino's Shylock wants acceptance.

Recasting the opening of the play to show examples of both historical and personal antisemitism seems designed to render Shylock as sympathetic a character as possible from the start, in terms comprehensible to a contemporary bourgeois audience. (After all, who doesn't want to fit in, be respectable, and make lots of money in a Christian country like America/Venice?) Radford offers us a contextualized and oddly recontextualized Shylock—a man who is lonely, isolated, and treated badly by Christians for no other reason than that he is Jewish. And but for their ill-treatment, he would be happy to get along just fine. Thus, when toward the end of the play the Duke describes Shylock to the courtroom as “A Stony adversary,/an inhuman wretch/Uncapable of pity, void, and empty/From any dram of mercy” there is certainly a sense that even if the characterization is right—and, it isn’t, completely—it is the fault of those in the court. Shylock here is pure victim. Venetian law has segregated Jews and encouraged poor treatment of them; if those in power have made Shylock what he is, how can they judge him for it?

European antisemitism has been tied up with capital since well before Shakespeare, and money figures prominently in the Merchant, often compared and contrasted with love. Antonio, the play's mercantile title character, is an anxious man from the beginning of the play, but his anxiety that his fortune is tied up in ships at sea does not stop him from willingly lending his money and life for continued friendship with Bassanio. One might say he is all about love, to his financial ruin. Shylock, in contrast, is all about money, to his filial/familial (and theological) ruin. Shylock has money, but no friends to recommend him. Even his daughter and his servant Launcelot are disloyal; when given the chance to betray him, they do: once Shylock lends money to Bassanio, Launcelot eagerly chooses to serve Bassanio because he is rich but not Jewish. And Shylock’s reaction to Jessica’s flight—“my daughter, my ducats”—is mocked throughout Venice. The Christians interpret Shylock’s cry to mean that he cannot distinguish between the human and the material. (Shakespeare is more subtle, as the play's endgame involving caskets, gold, and love seems to suggest they are easily confused.) But more than that, Shylock’s unwillingness to give away daughter or ducats is compared unfavorably to Antonio’s easy willingness to give up both (money and Bassanio).

At the end of the play, the Court makes Shylock give away everything—daughter, money, religion. In a naive reading, this is simple antisemitism. In a problematic, and still naive reading, this really is teaching Shylock a lesson -- a lesson in renunciation. In a more complex reading, it is teaching Shylock a lesson about capitalism. For all that Shylock wants to participate in the Venetian social world, he misses the fundamental principle of exchange from which power develops: the more exchange the better. It's the economy, stupid: Venice has to teach its citizens a lesson by forcing Shylock to lose more because he hoarded more.

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Images: Top: Al Pacino as Shylock (photo: Steve Braun, Sony Pictures)
Bottom: Charles Macklin as Shylock (engraving)

February 2005

In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart
Jay Michaelson

Whatever it Takes
Aaron Hamburger

The Merchant of Venice and the New Ruling Class
Karin Roffman

James Lee Byars & the number Ten
Abi Cohen

Two Incidents at the Café Kamienica
Gordon Haber

Jacob said to an angel, Tell me your Name
Abraham Mezrich

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From previous issues:

Let them Eat Myth
Douglas Rushkoff

Shtupping in the Shadow of the Bomb
Marissa Pareles

Damp Memories
Joseph Dobkin