Tzahit Shoshani, PhD‏
Tzahit Shoshani, PhD‏Courtesy

The current performance of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice in London is noticeably secured by police for fear of antisemitic violence and due to personal threats received by the Jewish leading actress who plays the role of Shylock the Jew, in a new adaptation of the play.

It seems odd as the Merchant of Venice has been widely interpreted as an antisemitic play nurtured by rampant prejudices and was even performed extensively in Nazi Germany with the intent of promoting anti-Jewish propaganda.

However, in spite of common interpretations, some readers and spectators have sensed the subtle but discernable undercurrents throughout the play that suggest that Shakespeare was navigating tricky waters in a venture to spark compassion towards the Jew in the milieu of the immensely prejudiced Elizabethan audience, yet without cracking the façade of consensus on this matter.

A recently published book by Steven Byk (2021) sheds light on a deeper dive and understanding of the play and the character of Shylock, thereby Vindicating Shakespeare (as the title goes) from allegedly promoting antisemitic attitudes. Byk points out that Merchant of Venice stands against another contemporary play by Christopher Marlow, The Jew of Malta, echoing similar circumstances but whereby Barabbas, its Jewish villain, is portrayed in ridicule and endowed with popular antisemitic stereotypes. Shylock, however, is portrayed as a victim in as much as he is a villain.

Conversely, world-renowned literary critic Harold Bloom describes the play as "a profoundly antisemitic work" and Susannah Heschel maintains that "if Shakespeare wanted to write something sympathetic to Jews, he would have done it more explicitly." Yet, it feels to me very constrained to conceive of Shakespeare overtly going against a prevailing narrative in an Elizabethan society that publically hangs people for doing so. This is far from an era of alternative social media platforms where, even on such domains, influencers today hardly escape the gaslighting directed at nonconformists to mainstream beliefs.

It is well evident from the onset of the play that Shylock, the money-lending Jew, is a victim of a racist society that has trampled on him for his religious affiliation and that it is the continual swell of his emotional and financial anguishes that gradually push him over the edge.

In other words, it is the collision of both his continual persecution as a Jew and the intensifying chronology of personal blows that bring him to eventually obsess over his plea for revenge.

Shylock's segregation as a Jew seems to be a non-issue prior to his daughter's renunciation of the faith by eloping with a Christian. It is her betrayal and the help she receives by Christians that places him on the offensive. Shakespeare strikes a massive chord by touching on this pivotal issue. When Shylock understands that Jessica cannot be found, he responds by saying that the "curse" upon the Jews is something that he only now realizes, "I never felt it till now."

It seems that Shakespeare informed himself regarding various Jewish laws and customs as referenced throughout the play. In the play these references are not used to ridicule Shylock, but rather to authenticate his character and to convey that his religious connection is important to him. Shylock does not perceive himself as inferior because of his religion and generally seems to be fine with his social seclusion. He knows how to navigate successfully in an antisemitic society as evident by his wealth and his cited negotiation skills.

Negotiating a money bond with Antonio at the outset, Shylock confronts him about the incessant shaming he has suffered (being publicly spat at, spurned, called dog etc.), but nonetheless has "borne it with a patient shrug,/ (For suff'rance is the badge of all our tribe.)"

To this Antonio replies that he will happily do it again: "I am as like to call thee so again,/ To spet on thee again, to spurn thee too." Nonetheless, Shylock goes on to lend Antonio the money anyway.

The promise of continued harassment eventually does materialize in increased hostility, when Antonio jumps on the bandwagon in a quick reversal between victim and victimizer as soon as he recognizes the opportunity in the later trial scene.

After discovering the elopement of his daughter Jessica with a Christian lover and realizing she also took his money and a cherished ring of his late wife Leah, Shylock takes to the streets bewailing and seeking "my daughter…my flesh and my blood." The 'flesh and blood' that was taken from him, he now wants to revenge through his bond with Antonio.

Met on the streets by the dubious duo, Solanio and Salarino, Shylock is not only crushed by their (as well as others') involvement in Jessica's plans, but at the height of his grief is insensitively informed by them that Antonio's ships were wrecked at sea, which means he cannot return his debt.

Overwhelmed by an emotional Aqua Alta, Shylock responds in an irrational revenge bout insisting on the term of the bond to get a pound of Antonio's flesh in lieu of recompense, a scenario he did not initially believe would unfold. If previously he 'shrugged off' Antonio's Jew-shaming, now harrowed by the compilation of events he confronts Antonio: "Since I am a dog, beware my fangs."

In spite of the dog imagery, Shylock expresses his humanity in the passionate "Hath not a Jew eyes" monologue that powerfully articulates the basic humanness of Jews and defends his vengeful response.

However, Salarino and Solanio remain indifferent to his/the Jews' plight and proceed to scorn Shylock and Tubal, a fellow Jew, as devils. Previously they also chat about "the dog Jew" who was crying out on the streets: "My daughter! O my ducats!" This line is often interpreted as stereotypically representing equal importance in the Jew's mind. However, it is an account delivered by dubious Salarino. Those are not Shylock's lines.

To add insult to injury, Shylock learns from Tubal, who has been helping the search for Jessica in Genoa, that she splurged huge sums of money and traded her mother's ring for a monkey. In sorrow he comments, "I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys."

Shylock in his impassioned monologue also disputes the double standard posed by Christians towards Jews who seem to expect Jews to contain and appease their enemy even when they have been wronged:

"If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why revenge! The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction."

Shylock confesses that it does "go hard" on him to take revenge, but that he is entitled to his feelings.

Byk explains that Shylock's sneers regarding Christians are meant "to demonstrate that they often fail to be equal to their own espoused morality." Furthermore, his anger is not directed at those who betray him because they are Christians but, more deeply, for aiding his daughter's escape.

In the climactic trial scene, the contradictory moral standard is furthermore epitomized in the character of Portia, for whose courtship by Bessiano the disputed money was lent by vouch of Antonio.

The trial scene highlights the forces of a Jew-persecuting society represented now by Portia (disguised as doctor/lawyer) and the Duke. Portia is not only intent on saving Antonio; she pushes further when that goal is achieved. After lecturing Shylock and the crowd about the importance of mercy, she hypocritically goes on to destroy Shylock even after he agrees to take the settlement deal.

After shoving Shylock into abysmal destitution, Portia commands him like a dog: "Down, therefore, and beg mercy of the Duke." This is even more appalling considering she is a fake authority. Her malicious motive is further magnified when she later reveals to Antonio that she holds a letter (she withheld) notifying that three of his "argosies are richly come to harbour."

Shylock was dispossessed and forced to convert to Christianity as part of an evil scheme hiding behind a romantic Venetian masquerade. Would this provide mere comic relief for the antisemitic viewer?

To understand this sentiment, it is also significant to note that Portia then acts extremely manipulatively and deceitfully towards her newly-wed husband regarding the whereabouts of the ring she gave him, taunting him in order to establish her dominance in the relationship. This is important because it shows that she is capable of being mean even to someone she loves and not just towards a Jew, which would arouse some aversion toward her character and (un)consciously have the audience reassess her previous ruin of Shylock.

Through his comedies, tragedies and sonnets, Shakespeare communicated his perceptions and criticisms of people and society. Shakespeare renders the context of Shylock's social and circumstantial setbacks in a way that may (secretly) kindle empathy to his predicament while at the same time allowing the audience to continue to masquerade antisemitic conformity. A little light to dispel much darkness means something too.

London's streets of today are inundated with a new kind of hostility that attempts to push for an anti-Jew narrative through manipulation of old and new prejudices. The hate-threat posed on the present production of Merchant only accentuates the false veneer of those purporting to advocate for freedom. Well, off with their masks!