Gloria Tessler shows how Shakespeare turned antisemitism on its head.
I have often thought the Bard was the most enlightened philosemite of them all. And the reason? His controversial play, The Merchant of Venice.
Many Jews applaud Michael Morpurgo’s decision not to include The Merchant in his forthcoming children’s book, Tales from Shakespeare, but I have always seen the Bard’s portrayal of Shylock more as an attack on the society that brought him into being than an antisemitic portrait.
There are two great speeches in The Merchant: one of them is Portia’s ‘quality of mercy speech’, widely quoted as an example of the genius of a strong and wise woman denied her voice in her time. But the other is Shylock’s powerful, redemptive soliloquy in which he begins by invoking the injustices he has received at the hands of Christian society:
He (Antonio) hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies—and what’s his reason? I am a Jew.
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, 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?
And it is that speech which reveals the kernel of the play, seen not through Antonio’s eyes, nor Bassanio’s nor even Portia’s but the view of the writer who saw how Jews were treated in Europe at the time.
Shylock, the money-lender, is approached by Bassanio on behalf of his friend Antonio, who wishes to court the wealthy Portia but needs money because his merchant ships are late. Shylock is reluctant because he knows Antonio is antisemitic but agrees on the condition that if he defaults on the loan he will take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. So ridiculous is this notion that Antonio accepts the deal. But the merchant ships are lost and he faces bankruptcy – and his own death – since the hideous transaction has been legally admitted by the presiding judge, the Duke of Venice. It is Portia disguised as a male lawyer (of course there were no female lawyers at that time) who saves Antonio by successfully challenging the safety of the legal ‘agreement’ since the pound of the flesh includes no mention of blood, which must be shed if the flesh is to be taken from the living body.
Shylock is humiliated; to avoid the death penalty he is forced to give up his wealth and convert to Christianity. His own daughter Jessica runs away and opts to convert to for the sake of her impending marriage.
But although the subject of this play is repulsive, it can be seen from a more nuanced angle. In Hath Not a Jew Eyes, we can see clearly where Shakespeare is going with this. The 16th-century Venetian society in which Shylock lives, probably in a ghetto, has made of the Jew a hated pariah figure, one into whom one’s worst fantasies could be poured. Nobody would really expect a moneylender to exact a pound of flesh from a defaulting borrower, a term which has entered the lexicon of money-lending for all time, and that, I think, is where Shakespeare is asking us to look again at how hatred could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Hath not a Jew eyes, can not a Jew feel? Shakespeare asks us. He is telling society the truth about its own nightmares, about its ability to call out ‘the other.’ And Shylock, wittingly or not, is playing into Antonio’s hands, succumbing to forces that are beyond his understanding within a society that considers him nothing more than a beast. The Jew, he is called in a pejorative manner. The Jew.
And perhaps ugliness is at the root of all this. Shakespeare exposes the ugliness that his contemporaries saw in the Jew. Shylock is not pretty – superficially he is a caricature of his own religion, one without any saving graces. His physical repulsiveness invades his soul; money is his god and he will stop at nothing to achieve his ends. But the catalyst here is Antonio; the typical antisemite who ultimately depends on him to save his bacon, if you pardon the analogy. He can’t even bring himself to ask Shylock for money, instead of persuading his friend Bassanio to represent him. And so we have the two forces pitted against each other; the antisemite who can see nothing good in any Jew, and the Jew as prototype hate- figure forcing upon Antonio the natural conclusion of his loathing. Shylock tells him:
Signior Antonio. So many times on the Rialto, you have berated me about money and my money-lending. I’ve always responded with a patient shrug because enduring such things is the badge of all our race.
Yet Antonio needs Shylock’s money. Sixteenth-century Venice both tolerated and envied Jews because they were useful to society and because of their success as doctors, merchants and bankers. Their role as usurers helped support the Venetian economy. But money-lending was considered immoral; so it was fine to demand it of someone with no hope of salvation, someone beyond decent society; beyond the pale. The Jew became the metaphor for this unsavoury practice – Jews as money; dirty money, whose dispensers’ wealth equals their dishonesty, who are so low that they have no human instincts at all. But again – cannot a Jew feel?
Shakespeare has courage. He gets the picture and forces society to look again; the Bard is beyond his time, beyond the centuries of European Jewish persecution on which he drew, and beyond the time of Hitler. Maybe even beyond our own time, showing society that baseless hatred has its own reward.
Hath not a Jew eyes? – I would urge Michael Morpurgo to read The Merchant again in greater depth – and draw his own conclusions.