When William Shakespeare penned “The Merchant of Venice” between 1596 and 1599, he considered it a comedy; couples Portia and Lorenzo and Nerissa and Balthazar end up together and no one dies.
Yet for generations, scholars have called it one of the playwright’s “problem” plays. And Jews find it impossible to ignore the vicious antisemitic tropes that Shylock, one of a very few Jews in the Shakespearean canon, faces.
For Jews, “The Merchant of Venice” feels like an affront. With antisemitism on the rise in the United States and around the world, this 400-year-old play reminds us that Jew hatred is ensconced in the canon of Western theater and culture.
Six year ago, Washington writer and attorney Steve Frank asked in an article in The Washington Post, “Why do we still produce [‘The Merchant of Venice’]?”
Haven’t we suffered enough Shylocks, listened to the curses and seen him spat upon one too many times already? Is it time to retire “The Merchant of Venice”? Or is there still more to mine in this Shakespeare tragicomedy?
This month, the District’s Shakespeare Theatre Company mounts a modern-dress version of this “problem” play on its Lansburgh stage. As one of a number of “Merchants” I’ve seen over my decades of covering theater and performance, this one, even with what used to be called non-traditional casting, leaves an unpleasant taste in my mouth. Anxiety churns through me when actors spit out epithets like “the very devil incarnate,” “Jew dog” and “curr Jew” at Shylock. I recall an incident in junior high school when a classmate taunted me about where my “Jew horns” were hiding on my head. And I wonder if “Merchant” is still relevant.
What can and should we take away from this 400-year-old play in 2022, and beyond?
The arc of the play follows two friends — Bassanio, who wishes to impress eligible bachelorette Portia, but is tight on cash, and his friend Antonio, the merchant of the title, who lends him money he doesn’t have because his ships literally haven’t come in yet.
So, Antonio, who prides himself on interest-free loans as a “good Christian,” must seek a loan from Shylock, the Jewish moneylender of Venice, who has faced anti-Jewish diatribes and microaggressions daily. Seeking a measure of revenge from Antonio, Shylock agrees to forgo interest on Antonio’s loan. Instead, the bond is set at one pound of Antonio’s flesh.
When the merchant’s ships are lost at sea, Shylock demands his pound of flesh.
A trial ensues; the settlement charges Shylock with shedding Antonio’s blood, which amounts to the murder of a Venetian citizen — punishable by death. Pardoned from the death sentence, Shylock instead must convert to Christianity.
Renowned literary critic Harold Bloom characterized Shakespeare’s “Merchant” as “a profoundly antisemitic work.” And while the playwright most likely never met a Jew — Edward I expelled the Jews in the late 13th century and were not allowed to return until about 50 years after the play was written — in today’s terms this unrepentant Jew hatred grates. I imagined it was cheered and enjoyed in Shakespeare’s time.
The production now playing in Washington is directed by Arin Arbus, who worked mightily to elevate Shylock beyond the corrosive trope he has come to represent. This production, which premiered at New York’s Theatre for a New Audience earlier this year, weds contemporary and ancient threads in casting powerhouse actor John Douglas Thompson as Shylock.
This highly acclaimed Shakespearean actor is African American. Thus, his Shylock is twice an outsider in Venice, both by religion and color of his skin. And while the play denigrates Shylock as a Jew, Thompson, though large and imposing, stoops, seemingly shrinking, under the weight of the racism he encounters in every social or business transaction in this version of contemporary Venice.
In imagining a put-upon, despised Jewish moneylender was Shakespeare offering a critique of Jew-hatred? It’s unlikely. He wrote what he knew and he didn’t know any Jews, though he likely heard about the medieval tropes invented about Jews.
How should we redress this painful world the playwright penned for today’s audiences, when racism and antisemitism continue to haunt us, deeply ingrained in too many of our social and communal structures?
As recently as this past week, New York Times opinion columnist Maureen Dowd compared Hollywood actor Will Smith’s infamous Oscars slap to Shylock’s demand for Antonio’s bond — a pound of flesh. It’s primitive, primal and directly related to the ancient blood libel, which unfortunately seems to be recycled again and again throughout history.
At the end of the play, Shakespeare shows us Shylock undone — crazed with revenge, bloodthirsty for his bond, on a course to self-destruct. Director Arbus tried to ameliorate this portrayal. She borrowed a page from other recent “Merchant” productions in the hope of returning at least an inkling of agency and dignity to Shylock after he has lost his standing, his religion, his daughter (who converted to Christianity) and his money.
As the play’s dialogue subsides, Shylock, alone on stage, intones the ancient words of Kol Nidre, the Yom Kippur prayer to dismiss all vows. Daughter Jessica returns to join him. While the concept returns some dignity to Shylock, it sounds more powerful in concept than it feels on stage.
Is it time to cancel “The Merchant of Venice”? Or can directors and performers in our present moment find new ways to convey the play’s horrifying antisemitism? Should we as Jews say, “Never again” or “Never forget”?