Thoughts on Act I of The Merchant of Venice

Merchant of Venice cover image

The next play being “covered” by a contemporary author in the Hogarth Shakespeare series is The Merchant of Venice. Howard Jacobson’s adaptation, called Shylock is My Name, was released last week, and I’m looking forward to reading it soon. And I was looking forward to rereading The Merchant of Venice – until I remembered how cringeworthy it is.

I’ve taught this play to high school sophomores a few times, and each day’s lesson required a veritable ballet of evasion and sleight of hand. I’ve designed grammar lessons out of this play. I’ve used it to teach iambic pentameter. I’ve done side lessons about economics, and once, in terrible desperation, I’ve even had the students “cast” the movie version. Markers were involved, as I recall, and possibly also old magazines and scissors and glue. The purpose of all of the smoke and mirrors was to distract myself and my students from the fact that in this play, Shakespeare goes beyond creating a racially-stereotyped character – that this play really does reveal Shakespeare himself to be anti-Semitic. Then and now, I have no doubt that this is true. Of course, Shakespeare may well have never seen or interacted with a Jewish person, Jews were expelled from England by Edward I in 1290 and did not return until Cromwell’s reign in the 17th century, though it is possible that Shakespeare could have encountered some Jews in continental Europe if he ever went there – though there’s no evidence to show that he did. I am optimistic about Shakespeare being “not of an age, but for all time” (as Jonson stated), and I like to hope that if Shakespeare had known some Jewish people he would not have painted Shylock in such a terrible way. But of course, it’s also possible that in this area Shakespeare was in fact a product of his time. I am always so disappointed when Shakespeare turns out to be a product of his time.

However, while the portrayal of Shylock is anti-Semitic, this play as a whole is not “about” anti-Semitism. What the play is “about” is money. The opening scene presents Antonio, a melancholy proto-capitalist whose friends are trying to figure out why he’s depressed. One friend, Salerio, posits that Antonio’s “mind is tossing on the ocean” (I.i.7) along with his ships, which have left Venice and are out on the open sea in pursuit of trade goods. Antonio dismissively responds that his assets are perfectly well diversified, thank you very much, and that no, he’s not in love either. This conversation fizzles out when Bassanio – who is upset about both money and love – arrives and asks Antonio for a loan so he can afford to go participate in a ridiculous guessing game, the object of which is to marry the rich, beautiful, and brilliant Portia. Antonio jumps at the chance to help Bassanio but admits that most of his funds are tied up in his various ships at sea, so he authorizes Bassanio to apply for credit in his name.

Enter Shylock. Back when I was on a constant hunt for things to do in class that didn’t involve reading the words “dirty Jew” out loud, I found an article on the biblical basis for usury laws. This article was great because it quoted a lot of Bible verses, which I could write on the board and have the students copy down, thus eating up time, and also because its ideas were complex enough that we could devote a whole class period to them without having to whip out scissors and glue or, worse, grammar handouts. I can’t find the essay online anymore, or I would quote from it – but the very short version is that a verse in the Old Testament (Leviticus or Deuteronomy, I’m almost sure) says that charging interest on money lent to one’s “brother” is forbidden. Ancient and medieval Jews, apparently, took this passage to mean that they could not charge interest on loans to fellow Jews. Much later, when Christians were codifying their own moral codes, they used the New Testament idea that all people are the “children” of God and therefore siblings to one another to interpret the Old Testament injunction to mean that they could not charge interest to anyone. In the Middle Ages, of course, many European cities forced Jews to live in ghettos, and Christians and Jews lived in near-seclusion from one another. Laws prohibited Christians from doing business with Jews in many arenas, but nowhere did it say that Christians couldn’t borrow money from Jews. Furthermore, many cities prohibited Jews from practicing many ordinary trades, and since they had to make a living in some way, and since the far-from-perfect medieval Christians did sometimes find themselves desperate to borrow money, moneylending became a common profession for Jews.

Act I, scene iii of The Merchant of Venice is one long spiteful hate-fest. Of Antonio, Shylock pronounces, “I hate him for he is a Christian” (I.iii.39) and accuses him of spitting on him (specifically, spitting on his beard), kicking him, and other acts of cruelty, none of which Antonio denies. Then he demands the famous “pound of flesh,” with the extra-creepy addendum that he will take the pound of flesh from “whatever part of your body pleaseth me” (I.iii.148).

(Brief aside: whenever I hear about the pound of flesh, I remember the time when Oprah lost 67 pounds and then rolled 67 pounds of animal fat out on stage in a little red wagon so everyone could be grossed out – this happened very early in Oprah’s trajectory as a celebrity; it was in 1985, but don’t ask me why I remember that. I was home sick from school that day and got to see it first-hand. It was also the same day – the SAME DAY – that Phil Donohue wore a dress. What? This is a blog about memory. And also books.)

See what I mean about looking for anything else to talk about besides Shylock? Don’t think I didn’t tell my Oprah story to my sophomores, because I totally did. I even told them the part about Donohue in a dress.

Of course there are ways in which this play is brilliant. Salerio’s speech at the beginning captures exactly how easy it is to let money dictate one’s emotions, and there is even something profound about the “chain” of creditors and debtors that Act I establishes. Bassanio borrows money from Shylock in Antonio’s name, and even Shylock doesn’t have the money Bassanio needs (like Antonio’s, Shylock’s assets are well diversified), so even he has to borrow money from another moneylender, Tubal – who, as a Jew, presumably does not charge Shylock the same interest that Shylock charges Antonio. This dynamic of borrowing and lending is highly germane to our era, and I can think of any number of ways to modernize this play in our world of financial crises and oil futures and interest rates and mortgages and credit cards. I am looking forward to reading Jacobson’s novel, and maybe I am also looking forward to reading the rest of the play too, if only because I’ll get to tell you how hilarious Portia and Nerissa are when they talk about men.

And that’s all! I’ll be back soon with more.


This entry was posted in Drama, Hogarth Shakespeare, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized, William Shakespeare. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s