Every society that has ever graced this planet with its presence has had the unavoidable issue of double standards, and today’s generation is no different. We should be tolerant of all views but those views which are intolerant, making ourselves intolerant of intolerant views. Everyone, to a certain point, is intolerant of something, for no one stands and applauds serial killers and rapists, sexists and racists. The latter two are certainly less physically obvious to behold in a person, and consequently they are more improperly attributed to people than perhaps any other label in society. The double standard is that while we properly view racism as the great evil that it is, we are far too quick to start throwing the label around, devaluing the word and all its connotations. If everyone is a racist, racism is not so bad. This phenomenon occurs more often in my field of “expertise” than others because unfortunately our past was full of racism, and those men felt the need to write about it. The work of literature I mean to comment on concerning this is Shakespeare’s controversial play, The Merchant of Venice, a work often considered anti-semitic.
Often when reading works of literature from the past, the knee-jerk reaction is to apply the views of their society with those men. Thus, Twain is considered a huge racists because that was common in those days. We forget though, that any work of fiction or poetry is written in layers; the narrator should not necessarily be considered the same person as the author. This is never more true than in first person narrative, and Huckleberry Finn has his own context that he lives in, specifically pre-Civil War America. People read Huckleberry Finn and see the disgusting word that lines its pages, and the natural reaction is to conclude that the person who wrote the story is a racist. But though the word lines the pages, Twain is not the one using it, Huckleberry is, and when we look at the novel as a whole, we cannot help but notice that while Jim may not necessarily be painted in the best of light, every single adult, white male in the novel is portrayed negatively and most of them are made fools by a 14 year-old kid.
Thus, when we come to Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, the natural tendency on first glance is to assume its antisemitism. Shylock has a name but the writer chose to use his race as his primary description. This is common in other works like Oliver Twist. Writers often want to distinguish their character by other means than just their name, and for some reason (perhaps racism, but we’ll get to that) Shakespeare chose to use Shylock’s race, and Dickens can’t help but remind us that Fagin is a Jew. Both are antagonists.
The question we now arrive at is this: Is it fair, based upon what little evidence we have of Shakespeare himself, to label him an anti-semitist based solely on this play? I argue that before we label any person a racist, sexist, homophobe etc. we must give that person the benefit of the doubt. If we truly believe in the gravity of such labels, we would not be so quick to deal out judgement on our fellow men, especially when they’re six feet under ground and unable to make an apt rebuttal to our charges. Therefore, when looking at this play, much like Huckleberry Finn, we have to look at all characters and ask ourselves if any of Shakespeare’s characters are ever actually portrayed in a positive light. Does he not make fun of just about everyone he writes about? Furthermore, good literary analysis will call us to look at the entire work. Much like we look at the whole of a man before we make a judgement. Otherwise, no one would meet our criteria.
First things first. At the dawn of a new acquaintance, the initial action that is taken (after a hardy handshake no doubt) is the exchanging of first names. This done, we further question the landlord of that name to discover his or her place in this grand play we call life. When taking a similar approach (doing without the handshake) to this play, we cannot help but notice the name, Merchant of Venice. We must conclude before we read a line of the play, that the plot’s protagonist will be a merchant from Venice, specifically Antonio. He is the central character. The answer to all questions. The entire reason why the play was written. Although I touched on this very briefly in my last post concerning Barnaby Rudge, the title of a play or novel is early evidence as to who or what that work is about. The reason I point this out is to argue that had Shakespeare initially desired this to be strictly a play about antisemitism, he would have titled it “The Jew of Venice” or maybe even “The Taming of the Jew” in keeping with his earlier controversial play. This is why I have an easier time regarding The Taming of the Shrew as a misogynistic play. The title informs everyone that it is sexist.
As we look at the play as a whole, we recognize that the climax concerning Antonio, the merchant of Venice, actually occurs in act 4, making act 5 look like nothing more than a denouement. But Antonio’s affect on the characters in the play definitely continues into act 5. While the suspense is all but tied up after act 4, the merchant of Venice and what we could infer as a central theme in the play is not tied up until act 5. This final act, consisting of only one lengthy scene, portrays the effects of his character — it is the greatest argument for his worthiness of being the protagonist. Before anything is said of any other character, we must look at this, our hero.
Antonio is immediately sympathized with in the opening lines, “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad” (1, 1). We quickly learn, thanks to Salarino, his friend, that his “mind is tossing on the ocean” and this foreshadows the state of his ships later on in the play. Contrast this with Shylock’s entrance into the play. The Jew states that “Antonio is a good man” before just lines later revealing to the audience that he “hates him for he is a Christian; / But more for that in low simplicity / He lends out money gratis, and brings down / The rate of usance here in Venice” (1, 3). Antonio is the innocent and unaware victim of Shylock’s hatred toward Christianity, and the audience can easily sympathize with the play’s title.
Interwoven within the romantic subplots is Antonio’s lending of money to Bassiano so he can travel to Belmont and court Portia which we find out, quickly enough, is not so easily done. We conclude that Antonio, then, is not necessarily using wisdom when he tells Bassiano he will fund this trip.
Thou knowest that all my fortunes are at sea, Neither have I money nor commodity To raise a present sum; therefore go forth, Try what my credit can in Venice do: That shall be racked, even to the uttermost, To furnish thee to Belmont, to fair Portia. (1, 1)
Antonio has put all his resources into furnishing his friend’s adventure to Belmont, and in act 2, scene 7, we learn of the difficulties Bassiano has to go through to win Portia’s hand: choosing which of three caskets (containing gold, silver, and lead) have her picture in them. The susceptibility to choose the wrong casket is depicted in both the Prince of Morocco and the Prince of Arragon choosing the wrong ones, yet for seemingly good reasons. This plays on the whole idea that Antonio may have not made the best of judgement in helping his friend with this hopeless endeavor. Of course, Bassiano chooses the correct casket if not for a little help from Portia who was pulling for him all along. But not minutes later, Bassiano is given a letter that reveals all of Antonio’s ventures have failed, and we all learn the valuable lesson of not following Bassiano’s example who “freely told you (Portia) of all the wealth I had” when in truth he had nothing but circumstance.
For the most part, act 4 is only concerned with Antonio’s trial before the Duke. This is where Antonio’s naive and ignorant heart is contrasted with the unmerciful and cunning wit of Shylock. Antonio meekly states that he opposes his “patience to his fury, and am armed / To suffer with a quietness of spirit / The very tyranny and rage of his” (4, 1). Initially the bond that Shylock is missing from Antonio is worth three thousand ducats — a large sum, but when he is offered the same amount as opposed to the penalty of the law (which is a pound of flesh), he responds with a cold heart: “You’ll ask me why I rather choose to have / A weight of carrion flesh than to receive / Three thousand ducats: I’ll not answer that. / But say it is my humour, is it answered?” (4, 1). He goes on to give no other reason for this than his hatred for Antonio.
The ire of Shylock is increased proportionality to the increase of money offered to him throughout the trial. Portia, who may be considered the hero of the play, shows up midway dressed as a lawyer and offers Shylock three times the amount of the bond only to be met with Shylock’s stubbornness. The pound of flesh must be cut out. However, in a witty turning of the tables, Shylock’s schemes are thwarted and he is bound to pay Antonio half his goods for seeking the life of a citizen. Interestingly enough, when the tables are turned, so to is the audience’s sympathy towards the antagonist as is Antonio’s. Instead of taking everything from Shylock, the merchant of Venice displays an act of mercy on Shylock requiring only that he give half his wealth to his daughter and her new husband and that he become a Christian. Shylock’s end is certainly not completely satisfying, but the fact that the protagonist displays this act of mercy may just be Shakespeare’s way of responding to Shylock’s most popular case for himself found in act 3.
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. (3, 1)
Shylock then explains just why he will take revenge. Though I have yet to see this version, I think perhaps Pacino’s Shylock portrays this scene in very post-modern interpretation of the play.
As was stated before, the play does not end with Shylock’s exit, and it is therefore unfair to attribute the play as nothing more than an antisemitic play. In act 5 the audience is treated with perhaps one of Shakespeare’s greatest uses of irony as Portia and Nerissa torment their husbands about the rings they gave the lawyers for Antonio’s safety (lawyers the audience knows to be their wives). In transitioning to this scene, the last feelings the audience goes away with are not antisemitic feelings as much as the humorous way in which these two wives outwitted their husbands. It is almost enough to make us scratch our heads about The Taming of the Shrew which would have been one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays. Much like Dickens would later recant the apparent antisemitism his early novel gave off, so too may Shakespeare have matured since his early play. As with any writer, the entire body of work should ultimately be analyzed.
Shylock’s eloquent argument for the Jewish people finds itself in the heart of the play for a reason. I can honestly see either reading of this play: those who would argue it to be antisemitic and those who would refute that case. While the play was popular in Nazi Germany, it is also popular in contemporary American culture for the very reason of its ambiguity. I have chosen to give Shakespeare the benefit of the doubt in this case simply because the play does not come across as only and antisemitic play like The Taming of the Shrew seems to be so blatantly misogynistic. Surely, antisemitic statements are made by Christian characters in the play, but the other evidences, and specifically Shylock’s argument, give off contemporary sentiment. I believe we can even learn from Shylock in this play that before we are so quick to label and judge those around us, we should at first give them the benefit of the doubt and maybe even broaden our circle of tolerance.