The Greatest Antisemitic Play Ever Written

Al Pacino as an Unsympathetic Shylock

Al Pacino as Shylock

New York’s “Shakespeare in the Park” is offering a new production of The Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino. This news has reminded me of the first time I saw Shakespeare’s profoundly antisemitic play.  Not having read it beforehand, I came to the performance with fresh ears.  Jewish ears.

The Merchant of Venice is an Elizabethan comedy.  That means a complicated love story in which serious obstacles to love are presented and then overcome, and a happy ending is reached.  In this case, there are three pairs of would-be lovers interacting.  Their plans for happiness involve borrowing money.  The most important obstacle to their happiness is the play’s main character, Shylock.

Shylock is a rich Jewish moneylender who is owed money by a defaulting Christian debtor.   He is a monster motivated by hate and revenge.  His written loan agreement states that if the debtor can’t repay, then a pound of the guarrantor’s flesh is due.  Shylock gleefully intends to enforce this clause.  Although the dialog makes it clear that Shylock is a Jew, there isn’t anything Jewish left in his character except his memory of suffering.

Most productions show a local Jewish community in existence all around him, but those actors go about their business as usual.  Not one fellow Jew whacks Shylock on the head and says, “What are you crazy?”   No committee drags him off to a Rabbi for correction.  It’s surreal.

None of the Jews behave like Jews.

Finally, relief arrives.  An unknown young lawyer from out of town appears in the Court, accompanied by a clerk, to speak of Jewish values to Shylock.  This breath of fresh, Jewish-sounding air is the first familiar bit in the play.  But there’s something odd about the lawyer character.  One wonders what agency sent this messenger.  Is he a sheliach from a rabbinic court?  Is it Eliyahu HaNavi?  Will he succeed in restoring Shylock to sanity?

Then the sky caves in.  The lawyer and clerk are actually women in disguise (two of the lovers), and the Duke steps in to order the happy ending:   Shylock must surrender half his fortune to the Court.  His daughter (the third woman among the lovers) will be married to her Christian lover, who inherits the other half of Shylock’s fortune.  And Shylock himself will be baptised as a Christian.

As the Jew is stripped of his property, his child, and his soul, the original Elizabethan audiences must have risen up and cheered wildly — as some Mormon audiences still do at this happy ending.  In the original Elizabethan productions, Shylock wore a bright red wig and a grotesque hooked nose — the wicked Jew stock character of anti-Semitic fantasy.

Apologists are quick to claim that the play isn’t truly anti-semitic because Shakespeare makes Shylock so recognizably human.   Shakespeare’s Jews do evil only as the natural, understandable result of prolonged abuse by Christians.  Thus Jewish evil is not due to Jews having an innately evil nature.  In this respect Shakespeare was progressive.  However, whether Jewish evil is natural or unnatural is not the point.  Jews aren’t evil; so the progressive view is still a canard that leaves the play anti-semitic.

The play continues.  The lovers’ story resumes: a farce about misplaced wedding rings.  Did Shakespeare’s  genius at giving all his characters fully human depth — giving even a “Big Bad Wolf” like Shylock an inner life and a chance to be understood — dampen the comedy for the Elizabethans?  Probably not.  But for us today,  the play’s last act is comparatively of little interest.

As always, Shakespeare’s words are brilliant.  And Shylock is a monumental role for any actor.   The “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech alone is worth the price of admission.  So by all means, read The Merchant of Venice for pleasure, or attend a production sometime.   Just know what you’re in for.

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