This past weekend I saw a disturbing production of The Merchant of Venice at the recreated Blackfriars Theater in Staunton, Virginia. Or rather, I saw a production of Merchant of Venice and was therefore disturbed. The most problematic of Shakespeare’s problem plays cannot be otherwise than disturbing, but I was particularly vulnerable given the outbreaks of anti-Semitism we have been witnessing.
I also gained some new insights into the play that have lessons for us in today’s volatile political climate. People who are being victimized—or feel that they are being victimized—are capable of horrific resentment. Shylock isn’t the only example of this as Portia and Gratiano, as least as presented in the Blackfriars production, are also implacable in their thirst for payback. It’s not a pretty picture.
The play also helps us understand the anger of Trump voters. Many felt so violated at having an African American as their president–Shylock calling the shots–that they were willing to vote for a racist and a misogynist as his successor. Although Obama is no Shylock, they experienced him as one, imagining that he was exacting a pound of flesh for the way African Americans have been treated.
They projected in so doing since Obama, unlike Shylock, made a special effort to rise above grievance. In their desire to restore the old hierarchy, they overrode their doubts about Donald Trump, catching the Clinton campaign off guard as it tried to peal away Republican voters. (Trump got as much of the traditional GOP vote as Romney did.) They yearned to make Venice great again.
White resentment in the play explodes into the open after Portia performs her legal magic and saves Antonio. In a scene that made me think of Nazi street gangs, Gratiano, a minor character, goes after Shylock, shouting,
Beg that thou mayst have leave to hang thyself:
And yet, thy wealth being forfeit to the state,
Thou hast not left the value of a cord;
Therefore thou must be hanged at the state’s charge.
Gratiano is not the only character that wants to grind Shylock into the dust. My colleague Beth Charlebois, our Shakespearean, said that she has become increasingly disturbed by the figure of Portia, and during the production I could see why. Portia is relentless in her persecution of Shylock, pushing for his ruin and even death, even as the others willing to cut him some slack:
The law hath yet another hold on you.
It is enacted in the laws of Venice,
If it be proved against an alien
That by direct or indirect attempts
He seek the life of any citizen,
The party ‘gainst the which he doth contrive
Shall seize one half his goods; the other half
Comes to the privy coffer of the state;
And the offender’s life lies in the mercy
Of the duke only, ‘gainst all other voice.
In which predicament, I say, thou stand’st;
For it appears, by manifest proceeding,
That indirectly and directly too
Thou hast contrived against the very life
Of the defendant; and thou hast incurr’d
The danger formerly by me rehearsed [execution].
Down therefore and beg mercy of the duke.
Again, the image that came to my mind—and that was deliberately invoked by the production—was of Nazi youths forcing Jews to prostrate themselves before them in the street.
Just as many Trump supporters felt that Obama was shoving executive orders down their throats and now revel in Trump playing turnabout with his Muslim bans and immigrant round-ups, so Gratiano takes pleasure in throwing back at Shylock Shylock’s own language. Because Shylock praised Portia as a veritable Daniel (this when the verdict appeared to be going his way), Gratiano takes up the allusion after the tide turns:
A second Daniel, a Daniel, Jew!
Now, infidel, I have you on the hip.
A Daniel, still say I, a second Daniel!
I thank thee, Jew, for teaching me that word.
Portia, meanwhile, whose dead father has not allowed her to choose her own husband, enjoys the new power she gains by crossdressing. She goes after Shylock much harder than her husband does, saying, “The Jew shall have all justice; soft! no haste:/ He shall have nothing but the penalty.” This after Bassanio offers to pay back the Shylock debt.
Bassanio and Antonio seem to be nicer than Shylock and Portia, but that’s just privilege speaking. Since their kind rules over others, including Jews and women, they don’t feel the need to assert themselves so forcefully. Shylock and Portia, by contrast, chafe under their second class status and mimic, when they have the chance, the ruling class. Think of Shylock as a Robespierre.
Shylock is put back in his place by the end of the play, but Portia manages to elevate herself, albeit at the expense of the Jew. She knows she has to fight for her power since she has learned from her husband that he would sacrifice her to save Antonio. (“But life itself, my wife, and all the world,/ Are not with me esteemed above thy life.”) She succeeds where Shylock fails, perhaps because she is white, rich, and beautiful. Think of her as any of those rightwing women who manage to grab power, say Phyllis Schlafly.
By obtaining, as lawyer, Bassanio’s wedding ring and then castigating him, as wife, for having lost it, she is able to maintain leverage. She even gets Antonio to agree to keep Bassanio in line:
I dare be bound again,
My soul upon the forfeit, that your lord
Will never more break faith advisedly.
Although we can’t ignore that Portia’s power grab comes at the expense of an oppressed group, we can understand why she does what she does. And at least she gets something for her pains. Those lower class Trump supporters who celebrate as Trump sticks it to Muslims and Latinos don’t realize that they too are Shylocks. At the end of the day, Antonio and Bassanio rule the world, and they look down on everyone else.
Resentment arises in part from the knowledge that you have been played. You rage against other oppressed people so that you don’t have to face up to that fact.
More anti-semitism from the Trump administration: In case you were wondering whether Presidential Senior Advisor Steve Bannon has abandoned the anti-semitism of his Breitbart days, the Chicago Tribune caught him in an anti-semitic dog whistle at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday:
[B]y Thursday, Bannon was smugly taunting the press at the Conservative Political Action Conference, saying: “They’re corporatist, globalist media that are adamantly opposed to an economic nationalist agenda like Donald Trump has.”
“Globalist media” is a loaded term that bubbled up out of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of a media controlled by Jewish elites, a concept akin to “international bankers,” cabals of wealthy Jews supposedly plotting to take over the world.