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THE MERCHANT OF VENICE AND ANTI-SEMITISM

by Walter Saunders - 2011

Harley Granville-Barker, the great 20th century director and critic of Shakespeare’s plays, described The Merchant of Venice as ‘a fairy tale’. He said, ‘There is no more reality in Shylock’s bond’ or in Portia’s father’s will ‘than in Jack in the Beanstalk.’

One might add that the play has an abundance of other seemingly ‘fairy tale’ elements, including a fabulous city, a wondrously fair ‘princess’ in her ‘castle’, a flock of princely suitors and above all an ogre or monster. But the ogre is not, as it might seem, Shylock, the moneylender. The ogre is anti-semitism, and in-so-far-as Shylock behaves like a monster, he is the product or creation of anti-semitism.

In the first speech of the play Antonio says how sad he is but he does not know why. His friends suggest that it is on account of his anxiety over his ships, or because he is ‘in love’ (with a woman). A more probable reason is that Bassanio, the friend he loves platonically, is planning to get married. But if it were any of these three reasons, Antonio would certainly know it; we must therefore take his word for it when he says in his first line: ‘In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.’ The last lines of the speech confirm this when he says that sadness has made him ‘such a fool’ that he finds it difficult to know himself. ‘Know yourself’ was a dictum of the ancient Greek philosophers, Socrates for example. What it meant, or should have meant, to a Christian like Antonio was to know your potential and your limitations as a human being, to love your God with all your heart, mind and strength, and to love your neighbour (fellow man) as yourself.

Sometimes sadness or depression springs from guilt and it might be a guilt the person is not consciously aware of, because he does not know himself. However, everything Antonio’s Venetian friends say about him in the course of the play conveys what a good person he is. Salerio says, ‘A kinder gentleman treads not the earth’; Lorenzo exclaims ‘how true a gentleman’ he is and Bassanio describes him as the best-natured of men and an ‘unwearied spirit/ In doing courtesies’ – meaning that he never tired of being not only polite, but considerate, loving and generous to others. And this is how he comes across to the audience in the opening scene, particularly in his kindness to Bassanio and his readiness to help him to the utmost. There is nothing to suggest that he has any serious fault or that he has done anything that he might feel guilty about.

Then two scenes later Shylock says of Antonio in an aside, ‘He hates our sacred nation.’ All hatred is sick and sinful, particularly an ingrained race-hatred like this. One certainly does not expect to find it in a man who, we are told, is a model of goodness. Worse follows: we hear that he has abused Shylock in public, not once but many times; he has called him him ‘misbeliever’, ‘cut-throat dog’ and he has spat upon him – ‘voiding’ his disgusting phlegm upon Shylock’s beard, as one ‘voids’ shit! – and he has kicked him, as one kicks a stray dog out of doors. Such, Shylock says, are the ‘courtesies’ he has received from Antonio, who has now come to him, asking for money!

One might think that no man with any decency could behave as Antonio has towards Shylock without feeling some sense of shame and guilt. But what is Antonio’s response to Shylock’s bitter accusations?

I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.

No outward sign of guilt there! No apology, not even a promise to behave decently towards Shylock in future, or the slightest expression of regret. He is not conscious of having done anything wrong; in fact he thinks it is right to treat Shylock as he has done and will continue to do so. But this response is not calm and controlled, it is self-righteous and angry, prompting Shylock’s comment: ‘Why, look you, how you storm!’ Such anger often springs from an inner or unconscious sense of guilt, as seems to be the case here.

The question is: why was Antonio so viciously anti-semitic, and why were his fellow Venetians little better? It seems that, like Antonio, they think it is right for him to abuse Shylock. Generally-speaking 16th century Christians throughout Europe were anti-semitic because that is how they were brought up by their society and its church, whose demonisation of Jews was part of its dogma. Through this indoctrination and through the popular superstition and the libellous propaganda stories that exacerbated it, most Christians throughout Europe regarded Jews as hard, cruel, crooked, blasphemous Christ-murderers, cursed by themselves and by God! They were subhuman creatures, or devils, rather than people worthy of human consideration and respect. Not surprisingly Shylock is called a devil or the devil eight times in the play – more than any other character in all of Shakespeare’s work; but the dramatist makes it clear that, in spite of his evil pursuit of revenge, Shylock is not a devil but a human being, and he shows more human depth of character than any of the Christians who call him devil.

The evil or allegedly evil actions that Shylock is guilty of are his taking of interest on loans, his cruelty to defaulting debtors and his pursuit of revenge against Antonio; but these actions, even the last and worst of them, do not make him a devil. Besides, as Shylock says, in pursuing revenge he is merely following Christian example: when Christians are wronged, instead of showing humility, according to their own teaching, and forgiving their wrongdoers, as they say they do every day in their prayers, they take revenge. So, Shylock implies, Christians are not only evil in this, they are hypocritical too. But that does not mean they are devils. Though it is an exacerbating factor, and even what some Christians might regard as confirmatory proof, it is not because Shylock seeks revenge against a Christian that he is called a devil and a villain, but because he is a Jew and therefore inherently evil – evil by nature. This anti-semitic prejudice, this sickness, this ‘ogre’, is the root of the evil in the play.

In 1290 Edward I had expelled all Jews from England so there were no openly practising Jews in England in Shakespeare’s day. The moneylenders were not Jews but Lombards and English ‘gentlemen’, like William Shakspere of Stratford (generally regarded as the author of the plays), who seems at least once to have had a defaulting debtor’s security put in gaol, as Shylock did to Antonio. These Christian moneylenders were actually called ‘Jews’ because their ‘hard, cruel, crooked’ behaviour towards their debtors was regarded as‘Jewish’ in the prejudiced minds of the public.

So in Europe anti-semitism persisted even in countries from which Jews had been expelled. Furthermore the Protestants, whose claimed objective was to reform the Church’s evils, continued to promote this prejudice. For example, the great German reformer, Martin Luther, described the Jews as ‘a pest in the midst of our land’ and ‘an insufferable devilish burden’. He called for their relentless persecution and the burning of their synagogues and books, thus further inflaming the inbred national sickness that eventually led to the 20th century Holocaust. To give another example of Protestant anti-semitism, this time from Shakespeare’s England, in 1607 the satirist and later Anglican Bishop, Joseph Hall, attacked the Pope for not expelling Jews from his domains (as Edward I had done), saying: ‘Our (English) church is well rid of that cursed nation, whom yet Rome harbours, instead of spitting at…’ (Spitting? Is it possible Hall had seen one of the peformances of The Merchant of Venice at King James’s court two years before and approved of Antonio’s disgusting treatment of Shylock?)

Shakespeare was not the only writer whose vision of the Jews rose above the religious intolerance and bigotry of his age. His greatest literary contemporary was Francis Bacon and it is not necessary to believe they were one and the same person to see in how many ways they shared the same views and how close to one another they often were in thought and even expression. In fact, in their ostensibly very different works they often illuminate one another. This is seen in what they wrote about Christians and Jews.

Bacon’s New Atlantis is a short unfinished book in which his unnamed narrator describes an imaginary Utopian country he has visited, called Bensalem, a Hebrew name, meaning Son of Peace. Nearly all its people were Christians but a number of Jewish families lived among them. Unlike Europe in Bacon’s day where, he writes, Jews bore a ‘secret inbred rancour against’ the Christians, the Jews in Bensalem love the Bensalem Christians ‘extremely’. One reason for this is because these Christians leave the Jews to practise their religion without interference – no intolerance, no unjust discrimination, no forced conversions, no expulsions, no ‘pogroms’ (state-incited genocidal riots). But, although it is not directly stated, the main reason why the Bensalem Jews love the Christians and love them exceedingly is because these Christians love them. In other words, unlike the Christians in Europe, the Bensalem Christians actually practise the commandment: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’; they don’t preach that commandment and ‘practise’ hatred and hateful actions, as Antonio does, against their neighbours, the Jews.

When Shylock says to Antonio in Act 1, scene 3, ‘I would be friends with you and have your love,’ he is being hypocritical at this point; but there is an underlying truth in what he says. The friendship and love he pretends he wants in order to reassure Antonio, is what he actually does want, though he might not admit it, even to himself. It is the Christians’ denial of love for him and their rejection his ‘tribe’ that lies behind Shylock’s bitterness and revengeful hate.

One wonders what Shylock would have been like, if he had grown up in an environment of true Christian love as in Bensalem. With his intelligence, insight and ability, he might well have become like Joabim, one of the Bensalem Jews, whom Bacon’s narrator describes as ‘a wise man and learned’ and ‘excellently’ versed ‘in the laws and customs of that nation.’ Joabim’s worth and usefulness in the service of the state is recognised by the ruler – in other words, he has not been discriminated against on account of his race and religion, as would certainly have happened to him in Christian Europe, where for the most part Jews were not allowed to fill official posts; they were barred from the universities, from all the professions and most of the crafts. Moneylending was one of the few sources of income open to them – and that only because the church frowned on Christians who lent money on interest.

Joabim extols the virtues of the Bensalem Christians. He says, ‘You shall understand there is not under the heavens so chaste a nation as this of Bensalem, nor so free of all pollution and foulness.’ Then later, ‘…and they say that the reverence for a man’s self, is, next religion, the chiefest bridle of all vices.’ One cannot have respect for oneself, if one fails to respect one’s fellow human beings. Think how Antonio’s treatment of Shylock, his kicking and spitting, show his lack of respect not only for Shylock but for himself – he is actually degrading himself more than his victim.

Bacon’s narrator in New Atlantis shows an admiration for Joabim that approaches awe. He compares him to the prophet Elijah, who came ‘to bring to memory our sins’. And one of the gravest sins Joabim brings to any thoughtful Western Christian reader’s mind is ‘our’ millennia-long demonisation and persecution of the Jews.

We can understand why Shylock has ‘a secret inbred rancour against’ all Christians and in particular a deep personal grudge against Antonio. We sympathise with the Jew in his reasons to be revengeful, as we do with most of Shakespeare’s other revengers or would-be revengers, like, for example, Hamlet, Romeo and Prospero; but sympathy does not mean condonement. ‘Vengeace is mine,’ says the Lord, ‘I will repay.’ It is for God, or his representative, the ruler, or the state and its appointed judges to punish wrongdoers. If private individuals were allowed to take the righting of wrongs into their own hands, it would lead to a breakdown of law and order, resulting in anarchy and chaos.

But if the ruler or the state and its church disregard certain wrongs, or actually condone and even promote them, what recourse does a wronged person have? More important: how did Jews respond to the wrongs done to them through the ages? As a rule they did not respond by taking revenge. The notion of the typical Jew being an evil revenger was anti-semitism’s creation – you expect a person you have wronged to wrong you back; you instinctively think of him as a dangerous would-be revenger and you not only hate him more, but you think yourself justified in doing so. Shylock as the avenger was not a typical Jew; he was only typical in libellous fictions (like Marlowe’s Barabas), where he becomes, whether the author intended it or not, in effect a projection of Christian guilt. One might put it another way: the ogre Shylocks of fantasy and nightmare are a form of punishment that anti-semitism creates and inflicts upon itself.

But, to get back to the question, how did Jews in general respond to the wrongs done to them? Shylock gives the answer: they responded ‘with a patient shrug’ and with ‘sufferance’, which means forbearance, or more specifically here, the preparedness to suffer wrongs patiently without retaliation. In fact they did not resist the evil, but ‘turned the other cheek’, actually practising what Christians preached but seldom practised themselves. Like his fellow Jews, Shylock had also responded passively but for him it was a hypocritical show, as he secretly sought the opportunity to take revenge.

The forbearance and non-retaliation that was the ‘badge’, or ‘mark’ of all Shylock’s ‘tribe’ (1.3.105) was perhaps more a matter of survival than moral principle. The Jews knew if they retaliated violently against Christian violence, the Christians would not show them forbearance or mercy. If a situation like Shakespeare’s ‘fairy tale story’ of the bond, had occurred in real life anywhere in Europe where Jews lived in Shakespeare’s day, the Jews themselves would have been the first to remonstrate with Shylock and insist that he should forgo taking the forfeit. Why? Because, if Shylock had actually begun to cut off ‘his’ pound of Antonio’s flesh in the court, not only would he himself have been cut to pieces on the spot (as Bassanio implicitly threatens to do), but there was a danger that in the riot, or ‘pogrom’, that would surely have followed in the city outside, not a single Jewish man, woman or child would have been left alive.

The pursuit of revenge is as destructive of the revenger as his victim. More so, religious people might say, because though the revenger has no power over his victim’s soul and he cannot destroy it, he can and does destroy (or damn) his own. And what has Shylock’s lifelong hatred and stored-up revengefulness done to Shylock himself? It has all but killed the love in him or his capacity to show it, even in his own home. ‘Our house is hell,’ his daughter Jessica says, and what is hell but the absence of love? No wonder she is ready to run off with the first handsome young man who comes into her life and shows her love.

I say the love in Shylock is all but killed because it is still alive and Shakespeare reveals this in a masterful way. When Tubal tells him that his daughter has exchanged a ring of his for a monkey, Shylock exclaims, ‘Thou torturest me, Tubal. It was my turquoise. I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor: I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys!’ It is not the value of the ring that pains Shylock (a turqouise was not a very valuable stone – nothing like the diamond that cost him ‘2000 ducats in Frankfort’); it is the sentimental value of the ring as a token of his and his dead wife’s love, which is still alive in his mind. What he is saying in effect is that the ring was worth more to him than a million monkeys, or a million empty pleasures, or a million meaningless ducats – more in fact than any material price.

This speech follows soon after his abhorrent expression of revengefulness against Jessica for her heartless action: ‘I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear: would she were hearsed at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin…’(3.1.80-2). But the desolate cry for the loss of his turquoise goes far deeper than this, even deeper as an expression of his humanity, than the speech to Salerio in which he asks, ‘Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimension, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?’

Shakespeare knew that the magical power of the theatre and his poetry could give the illusion of reality to improbable and impossible siuations. Perhaps, instead of thinking of The Merchant of Venice as a fairy tale, it would be more appropriate to describe it as a fantasy or a combination of pleasant dream and nightmare. The poet uses these improbable elements to put across his message or messages with striking force: the evil of revenge as a motive of action is highlighted in this play by the monstrous cruelty of the intended act itself.

The bond itself is an impossible piece of fiction. A contract with a condition that would entitle one person to kill or maim another would be illegal and unenforcible in any civilised country. But not in Shakespeare’s fantasy Venice. The dramatist uses this fictional situation to give expression to a very real legal conflict: that between strict justice based on the letter of the law and justice based on fairness or, to use the legal term, ‘equity’. According to the ‘letter’ or wording of the bond Shylock was entitled to a pound of Antonio’s flesh, because in this court, there could be no appeal for a ruling based on fairness or equity. The only appeal that could be made was for Shylock to show mercy.

When Portia’s magnificent speech on mercy fails to move him (or to bend those who uphold the letter of the law), she abandons her moral argument. Instead she turns the tables by arguing against her ‘opponents’ in their own terms, i.e., by the letter of the law. Here she does so by focusing on the meaning of the word ‘flesh’. Portia asserts that it meant flesh alone and not a drop of blood. This was a meaning that neither Shylock nor Antonio had intended and one the average man would not consider it to have in the bond – in other words, it would have been easy to argue against Portia in a proper court of law. But not in Shakespeare’s fantasy court. Through this verbal quibble Portia is able to defeat Shylock, and Shakespeare shows the absurdity of those who place the letter of the law above its spirit – above equity, or fairness, or, one might say, true justice!

Portia’s speech on mercy had no effect upon Shylock but had its effect upon the Duke and Antonio. When she commands Shylock to save his life by getting down on his knees to ‘beg mercy of the Duke’ this is also a message to the Duke himself and a reminder (if he needed reminding) of her earlier speech. The Duke shows no hesitation: ‘I pardon thee thy life before thou ask it’ and the case moves to the matter of Shylock’s property. When Shylock says that taking away the means by which he lives is tantamount to taking his life, Portia turns to Antonio and asks: ‘What mercy can you render him, Antonio?’ This is a question not a command, but it has the force of a command; certainly it leaves no doubt in one’s mind that she expects Antonio to show mercy too. He does so generously – though with conditions, which the Duke upholds. Previously Antony had abused Shylock without mercy, though Shylock had done him no wrong; but now, after Shylock has held him in his clutches and refused to be merciful, Antonio shows him mercy. This is an extraordinary change of heart and it seems to come as a result of Portia’s speech on mercy, followed soon after by her rescue of him from cruel death at Shylock’s hands. But Antonio’s spiritual progress actually began long before, perhaps with his sadness or depression at the very beginning of the play. (I shall return to this later.)

Antonio’s rejection of his right to one half of Shylock’s property and his request that the Duke should forgo the state’s right to the other half, are acts of kindness, consideration and generosity – for the first time he is treating Shylock, the Jew, with the same courtesy he had always shown to his fellow-Christians. The other two conditions (that Shylock should become a Christian and that he should bequeath ‘all he dies possessed of’ to Lorenzo and Jessica) are regarded by some as punitive and a negation of the mercy that has been offered to him.

But when Portia asks Shylock whether he is ‘contented’ to comply with the conditions, he says he is ‘content.’ This means ‘satisfied’, even ‘happy’. Although his defeat and disappointment have left him feeling drained and ‘not well’, he knows how fortunate he is. He has been shown to be guilty of a crime for which the punishment was death and the confiscation of all his property; now not only has his life been spared but his house and the means by which he lives have been in effect restored to him. This should be seen as a generous act of mercy, whatever the conditions. Reading the history of those times, one finds many instances of Jews being framed, tortured, put to death and their property seized, for crimes they had not committed, or simply because they were Jews; but does one ever hear of pardon being granted to Jews who were actually guilty of crimes? In the circumstances, the Duke’s pardon is a rare and wonderful act (one of the play’s ‘fairy tale’ elements, if you like) and Shylock must have realised this.

Regarding the condition that Shylock ‘should become a Christian’, some see behind it a sincere wish to save his soul, others a merciless attempt to humiliate the defeated man further, but the plain fact is that such a conversion would have been totally meaningless. True conversion, like mercy, cannot be forced. Even some of the Popes in the darkest ages of anti-semitism realised this. Furthermore Shylock was a shrewd pragmatist, he knew how to temporise and dissimulate. It would have gone against the grain with him, but in order to survive he might well have done what a number of seeming converts and their descendants did in Europe in Shakespeare’s day: they followed the forms and attended the compulsory church services, but they continued to practise their true religion in secret.

As for the conditions that would benefit Lorenzo and Jessica, it seems reasonable that Antonio, who has shown mercy to his merciless enemy, should wish to ensure that his friend, Lorenzo, and his wife Jessica, would not be disinherited, but would also be shown mercy, although they had wronged Shylock so grievously.

The fact that the ships did not return in time for Antonio to repay the loan seems to have been simply a matter of luck – very bad luck. But Shakespeare might have seen this differently: not as luck but the working of what was ultimately a beneficent Providence. The apparent loss of all Antonio’s ships, and the very real threat of Shylock’s knife hanging over him were a cause of great suffering for Antonio, resulting in such a loss of weight, that he says he would hardly have a pound of flesh left for his murderous creditor to cut off! This providential suffering teaches him humility and patience; but his final transformation comes as a result of two further ‘happenings’: (1) Portia’s speech on mercy and (2) her defeat of Shylock and Antonio’s ‘restoration to life’ through this. The joy of that moment is like a lightning (or ‘lightening’) shock that illuminates Antonio’s mind, bringing out the true goodness in him and enabling him to outdo the Duke in showing mercy to Shylock. In the end Providence rewards the chastened and transformed Antonio with the return of at least three of his laden merchant ships.

 

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