Every year brings new productions of Shakespeare’s controversial play “The Merchant of Venice.” This week, it visits the Kennedy Center. Yet no matter how it is packaged, as the preeminent literary critic Harold Bloom unequivocally stated in “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human”: “One would have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to recognize that Shakespeare’s grand, equivocal comedy ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work.”
It is time to say “never again” to this historical aberration. Every time it is produced, the play introduces new audiences to vile medieval tropes of Jew-hatred that we should have long ago left behind.
“The Merchant of Venice” is one of the most frequently produced of Shakespeare’s plays. In recent years, it has been presented all over the world: Moscow, St. Louis, Detroit, Salzburg, Notre Dame, New York, London, Hong Kong. This year, the Globe Shakespeare Theatre’s production starring Jonathan Pryce (of “Miss Saigon” and “Game of Thrones”) as Shylock visits Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, stops in Chicago and China and ends up in the actual old Jewish ghetto in Venice to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the founding of the Venice ghetto — the world’s first ghetto. The Globe’s production with Mr. Pryce opened in New York and Washington to admirable reviews.
The play is nominally one of Shakespeare’s comedies, but these days, it’s more often characterized as one of his “problem plays,” along with others such as “All’s Well That Ends Well.” It’s a problem, all right.
No matter how liberally one interprets Shakespeare’s intentions or the play’s themes, it’s impossible to ignore its sickening anti-Semitic language. Shylock, the Jewish villain of the play, loans money to Antonio (its titular merchant of Venice), then demands strict compliance with the terms of the loan — a pound of Antonio’s flesh — when Antonio defaults.
As a result, Shylock is repeatedly referred to as “a kind of devil,” “the devil himself,” “the very devil incarnate,” “the devil in the likeness of a Jew” and a “cruel devil.” That’s when his opponents are being charitable. At other times, he is a “damned, execrable dog” and an “inhuman wretch.” Throughout the play, Shylock is rarely referred to by name; mostly, he is simply “the Jew.” Sometimes, colorful but repulsive adjectives are added on: “dog Jew” or “currish Jew.”
Even worse is the play’s revival of ancient racial slurs — that Jews killed Jesus, murdered Christians to use their blood in rituals and loaned money with interest because of their un-Christian ways. A New York Times review of the recent Lincoln Center production describes the trial scene, where “Antonio is shackled to an iron bar, his arms splayed out and his body lifted from the ground, in a pose that obviously evokes Christ on the cross, suggesting that those who are conducting this trial are intent on drawing the comparison, turning Shylock into the stock Jew of vile stereotype, the Christ-killer.”
Apologists for the play today argue that Shakespeare was merely reflecting the prejudices of his time, that in most modern productions Shylock is presented as a “sympathetic” figure without the gross hooked nose and clownish red hat common in earlier productions, that Shylock is a symbol of all oppressed minorities and his oppressors are exposed for the racists that they are and that, nevertheless, the play is great art. But do these rationalizations justify the presentation of a play with vile anti-Semitic language and themes in respected theaters throughout the world 70 years after six million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust?
Shakespeare certainly was reflecting the prejudices of his time. The Jews of England had been expelled in 1290, some 300 years before Shakespeare wrote “Merchant,” and it is likely that neither Shakespeare nor most of his contemporaries had ever seen a Jew (except for a few who had accepted forced conversion to Christianity as the price for remaining Englishmen). Still, medieval stereotypes of Jews as Christ-killers and defilers of Christian children lived on in the teachings of the church and popular literature.
These days, of course, after the Holocaust, such anti-Semitic attitudes are no longer acceptable in polite society. And defenders of the play sometimes say that Shakespeare’s real intention in putting them on stage was to show England how ugly such beliefs were. That’s the argument put forth by Martin Yaffe, author of “Shylock and the Jewish Question,” which helped win a mock trial about the play in 1999 at the U.S. Supreme Court presided over by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
That view is typical of the modern vision of the play: Ignore its actual words and make it about something other than a “dog Jew.” For example, make it about the racist Christians. Michael Kahn’s 1999 production at the Shakespeare Theatre followed this revisionist mode, valiantly attempting to redeem the vulgar portrayal of Shylock by underscoring the hypocrisy of the effete Christian coterie that condemned him. After all, this crowd viciously mocked Shylock’s obsession with financial obligations — and yet, their singular focus was their own financial well-being. It’s only when Shylock offers Antonio an interest-free loan that Antonio approvingly says: “The Hebrew will turn Christian; he grows kind.”
Most contemporary productions attempt to mask the actual language of the play by converting Shylock into a more “sympathetic” and “universal” figure. Quite often Shylock the Jew becomes Shylock the African American (as in Peter Sellars’s 1994 production where Shylock was played by a black actor set in a post-Rodney King Venice Beach) or even, ironically, Shylock the Palestinian (in last year’s Royal Shakespeare Company production).
These humanizing efforts rely largely on Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew” speech (“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions … If you prick us, do we not bleed?”)
“Merchant” apologists cling to that soliloquy as the Holy Grail of Shakespeare’s humanism. But these few lines can’t redeem the vicious portrait of “Shylock the Jew” that surround them. And, of course, after the Holocaust, do we really need to be reminded that Jews, too, bleed?
These modern attempts to ameliorate the play by making Shylock more sympathetic or a universal symbol of oppression fail because they do not to confront the actual language Shakespeare wrote. This spin may allow theatergoers to feel more comfortable about going to see the play, but it cannot shelter them from the barrage of repulsive language it subjects them to.
Does any of this matter? After all, it’s just a play.
But yes, the language in it matters a great deal. The daily revival of ancient racial slurs that encouraged decent Christians to become Hitler’s “willing executioners” just 70 years ago is deeply disturbing. “Merchant” was a favorite play in the early Nazi era between 1933 and 1939, during which time it was produced about 50 times. The most notorious “Merchant” of the Nazi years was presented at the Burg theater in Vienna in May 1943. One critic described Shylock’s first appearance: “[w]ith a crash and a weird train of shadows, something revoltingly alien and startlingly repulsive crawled across the stage.”
In an age when young people have largely forgotten these ancient slights and racial stereotypes, why do we still inculcate them with notions of the vile treachery of “the Jew?” Society, through education and evolved notions of decency, has largely purged the Jewish stereotypes of the Dark Ages from present-day life, but one can still witness these vituperative portraits of “the Jew” at renowned theaters throughout the world.
Other deeply offensive works of art, although they accurately reflect their times, have effectively been shelved: I certainly don’t see a performance of “Amos & Andy” coming to Broadway anytime soon. A play that stereotyped Muslims generally as terrorists would, quite rightly, be universally condemned.
Setting “Merchant” aside is not censorship. It is just good judgment. As audiences squirm in their seats at the Kennedy Center this week, I hope they have an honest conversation with themselves: Why are they there? Because it is Shakespeare? Because Jonathon Pryce is a famous actor who, in playing Shylock, asserts the “dignity of the persecuted,” in the words of The Washington Post’s reviewer? Does their attendance make them merely a witness, or rather an accomplice, to reviving dangerous racial slurs?
We should keep in mind that in the first century and a half of its history, “The Merchant of Venice” was hardly ever produced, and it virtually disappeared from the stage. Let’s give it a break for another 150 years — at least.