In Defense of The Merchant of Venice

Maurycy Gottlieb, "Shylock and Jessica"

Maurycy Gottlieb, “Shylock and Jessica”


Recently I was talking to my oldest son Darien, a former theater major, about Shakespeare’s problem plays. I had just finished teaching Percy Shelley’s Defence of Poetry and the class was wondering whether Shelley’s defense of Dante and Milton could extend to The Merchant of Venice and Taming of the Shrew.

Those two works are problems because they grate on 21st century liberal sensibilities. Darien mentioned a Washington Post review he had read over the summer arguing that people should stop staging Merchant of Venice.

Before looking at the review, let’s look at what Shelley says. The problem of Dante and Shakespeare for him is that their Christianity gets in the way of their art. Shelley is upset that Christian orthodoxy keeps deserving pagans out of Dante’s Paradisio and that it prompts Milton to turn a dynamic rebel into the villain of Paradise Lost.

I don’t agree with Shelley’s view of Satan—I think Milton is showing us the seductive force of narcissism by making Satan initially attractive—but I’m sympathetic with his idea. Inherited religious views can’t keep a good work of art down, and Dante’s divine vision transcends his orthodoxy. For Shelley, then, local prejudices are just outer disguises that allow subversive visions to walk amongst us. When he talks of “the distorted notions of invisible things” in the following passage: the atheist Shelley means religion: 

The distorted notions of invisible things which Dante and his rival Milton have idealized, are merely the mask and the mantle in which these great poets walk through eternity enveloped and disguised.

Lesser poets focus on transient beliefs whereas the great poets focus on eternity–or in Shelley’s view, the human longing for liberation. Since Shakespeare is undoubtedly a great poet, is Merchant of Venice a call for human freedom? Washington Post reviewer Steve Frank thinks not:

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.

And further on:

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.

For the first century and a half, King Lear also was seldom produced—never without its Nahum Tate-engineered happy ending—so that in itself is no argument. But regarding its anti-Semitic slurs, I’d like to offer a Shelleyan defense. I start with the most memorable speech in the play, which is a brazen assertion of equality:

He 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? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. 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 villany you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

In this powerful passage, distinctions vanish between Christian and Jew. We cannot help but acknowledge Shylock’s humanity. We also see clearly how his thirst for revenge, problematic thought it may be, is in response to Antonio’s anti-Semitism.

Darien made the point that Portia’s get-out-of-jail solution is not terribly convincing. Shylock could simply say, “I don’t want the blood, just give me the flesh.” But Antonio’s lawyer knows she is not speaking to an unbiased jury but one that is looking for any excuse to allow her client to escape.

Shylock recognizes this and surrenders almost immediately. By the end of the play, we watch as everyone piles on him, a classic case of hitting down. Privilege has triumphed and something turns in our stomach as it does so.

Would people at the time have seen the play as i do? Perhaps not, but that is Shelley’s point. Once the local historical prejudices have burned away, we see a deeper drama than mere social scapegoating. We see vividly how privilege operates and how an outsider who tries to revenge himself against it never has a chance. A similar drama can be seen in Sir Toby and company piling on against Malvolio in Twelfth Night, pushing the joke to such a nasty extent that the fool has to step in and put an end to it.

Would we prefer to see Shylock as a virtuous victim? We might squirm less but we wouldn’t see as complex a depiction of a character. Shakespeare shows us how Sherlock has been twisted by the prejudice visited upon him. That people of privilege righteously denounce Shylock at the end of the play just adds to the pathos.

In a similar drama, society’s racism makes Othello vulnerable to Iago’s manipulation. He can’t confidently believe that Desdemona would prefer him to a white man.

There’s nothing wrong with being forced to squirm. Have faith that Shakespeare knows what he’s doing.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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