The Banished Heart asks that question. Here are some real people - including a British lawyer and a university researcher - weighing in, in an article that first appeared in Mishpacha Magazine.
The lights come up on a darkened stage, revealing a courtroom. Standing in the prisoner’s dock is a gentleman, about 50 years of age, balding, sporting a thin mustache, and wearing a doublet.
Lawyer: Your name, please? Gentleman: William Shakespeare. Lawyer: Your profession? Shakespeare: Playwright. Lawyer: Are you the author of a play called The Merchant of Venice? Shakespeare: I say so. But there are those who claim my plays were really written by Christopher Marlowe, or the Earl of Oxford, or a few others.
The Crowd seated in the gallery laughs appreciatively. The Judge pounds his gavel and calls for order.
Lawyer: Assuming that you are the author, as most educated people do believe today, why did you write this play? Shakespeare: To make people laugh. It’s a comedy.
Shakespeare removes a bright red wig and a big false red nose from his doublet, puts them on, and makes a face at the Crowd, which roars with laughter. The Judge pounds furiously with his gavel, until the courtroom is silent.
Lawyer: So you think it’s funny that your character, Shylock, has become the world’s symbol for the supposedly heartless, villainous Jew? You admit that your play is anti-Semitic and that you, Mr. Shakespeare, are an anti-Semite?
Shakespeare stares at the Lawyer, stunned. Then he relaxes and turns to the Crowd and says:
Shakespeare: Gentlemen, what would you have me do? Laugh at my losses? Ignore my disgrace? Hath not a Playwright eyes? Hath not a Playwright hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? If another author writes a play that’s a hit, shall I not copy it? If another theatre’s audience is tickled by a Jew, shall I not tickle my audience, too? The way to box office success my rivals taught me, and all I did was better their instruction.
All the World’s a Courtroom
William Shakespeare, the Elizabethan poet and dramatist, is considered by most people to be the greatest playwright of all time. Although it’s true that not everything that he wrote was a masterpiece—his career spanned about a quarter of a century and he wrote at least 37 plays, 154 sonnets, and two narrative poems—at his worst the Bard of Avon, as he is often called, is still equal to, if not better than, his contemporaries. At his most problematic, he is more entertaining and thought-provoking than the vast majority of dramatists who have set pen to page.
And therein lies the rub. Because the same Shakespeare who gave the world the brooding Hamlet and the tragic King Lear also gave the world a Jew named Shylock—and this portrayal of the Jew as an uber usurer who won’t stop even at murder to take his revenge still haunts us, Jew and non-Jew alike.
And therein lies another rub. Because even though the plot of The Merchant of Venice is a shaky structure cobbled together from several ill-fitting sources, the play is still one of Shakespeare’s most popular. Every year “Shylock, a Jew” makes his ghastly appearance in classrooms around the globe. Every year some actor somewhere is sharpening his knife, on stage, in preparation for receiving his “pound of flesh.”
This summer one of those stages is located in New York City’s Central Park, where the New York Shakespeare Festival has mounted a new production of the play starring the Hollywood actor Al Pacino in the role of Shylock. Mr. Pacino, who visited a chassidic shul in Boro Park as part of his preparation for the role, has received generally glowing reviews.
But do we need this “praise”? In a summer where the world is demanding an international investigation into Israel’s conduct during the Gaza-bound flotilla raid, and where a United States court has sentenced Sholom Rubashkin to a 27-year prison term that even many non-Jewish lawyers and law professors believe is too severe, do we really need to see the spectacle of another Jew—albeit a literary figure—hauled before a court and demonized?
Should we not, instead, insist upon an international investigation into the harm inflicted upon the Jewish people by Mr. William Shakespeare? And, if he is found guilty, should we not insist upon a stiff prison sentence, preferably in solitary confinement, for his play The Merchant of Venice and the play’s villain, Shylock?
I interviewed a few expert witnesses, to see if the Jewish people have a case.
“A Merry Sport” or Deadly Seriously?
For those who missed reading the play, here’s a brief synopsis: Antonio, the merchant of Venice that is referred to in the play’s title, wants to lend 3,000 ducats to his friend Bassanio, who needs the money to make a “shidduch” with a wealthy Venetian heiress named Portia. Since Antonio’s own money is tied up in merchandise that is at sea, he borrows the money from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. In “merry sport,” Shylock makes a strange deal: if Antonio defaults on the loan, Shylock will receive one pound of Antonio’s flesh as payment, instead.
Meanwhile Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, elopes with a non-Jew. When news arrives that Antonio’s ships have been lost at sea, an angry Shylock demands his payment and his revenge upon the Christian world. Shylock takes his case to court, but he loses. As punishment he is forced to convert to Christianity and forfeit his money. The play ends “happily” with the news that Antonio’s ships have arrived safely at port.
The Merchant of Venice was written sometime between the years 1595-1598. England’s Jews were expelled from that country in 1290, some 300 years before the play was written. They only returned to England in the mid-1600s, about 40 years after Shakespeare’s death. A community of crypto-Jews was living in London while Shakespeare was busy writing his plays, but it’s not known if he had any contact with them. So what kind of knowledge could Shakespeare have had of Jews?
He would have known about older works of English literature, which invariably cast their Jewish characters in a negative light. England was the home of early blood libels, for instance, which were kept alive in a variety of “histories” and popular ballads. And a vilified Judas character made frequent appearances on the medieval stage. Portrayed in a ridiculous, grotesque manner, he was garbed in a costume that became the standard for Jewish characters down to Shakespeare’s day: a fiery red wig and beard, and a long nose of the same color.
The playwright also most likely heard about Jews living in other countries. English diplomats and merchants would have brought back news of wealthy Jewish businessmen living in the Ottoman Empire, as well as the Portuguese anusim (crypto-Jews) based in the Netherlands, who dominated the spice trade. In fact, many English literature scholars believe that the Jewish villain of Christopher Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta, which was produced a few years before The Merchant of Venice, was based upon Don Yosef Nasi, the wealthy and powerful nephew of one of Portugal’s most famous crypto-Jews, Dona Gracia.
Englishmen of Shakespeare’s day also would have been riveted by a sensational trial that took place in 1594 involving a New Christian originally from Portugal, Dr. Rodrigo Lopez, who was accused of plotting to poison Queen Elizabeth I. During his trial, his judges referred to him as “that vile Jew.” When he stood on the executioner’s block and protested that he was innocent of the charges, as well as a true Christian, the crowd jeered.
It was into this poisoned atmosphere that Shylock first saw the light of day. What made Shakespeare write the play? Was Shakespeare, an astute businessman, just cashing in on the Jew-hating craze that had swept London thanks to the Lopez trial and the runaway success of The Jew of Malta? Or was he an anti-Semite, eager to do his bit to help fan the flames of anti-Jewish sentiment? Or was he actually appalled by the frenzy and so he wrote a play that would show the world a different kind of Jew—a Jew who was human, like Christians, and, to borrow a line from King Lear, “more sinned against than sinning”?
We call the first witness, Victoria Buckley.
The Turks Are Coming!
Victoria Buckley is Associate Tutor and DPhil Researcher at the University of Sussex, England, where her area of research is Shakespeare and Jacobean politics and culture. During our initial correspondence, where I raised the question of Shakespeare’s possible anti-Semitism, she pointed out an important and sometimes overlooked detail in discussions of the play: for the English Christian audience of Shakespeare’s era, any “other” was viewed with distrust. In a follow-up email, she expanded upon this point.
Victoria Buckley: During Shakespeare’s lifetime, knowledge about the world beyond England exploded, due to trade, exploration, immigration, and colonisation. But with this knowledge came anxiety. Unfamiliar cultures and people had to somehow be assimilated into the English psyche, while at the same time England had to protect her sense of national identity and security. “Others”—Moroccans, Turks, Moors, Indians, Egyptians, the Irish, Jews, Gypsies—were suspicious, alluring, frightening, evil, heathen, exotic. And this push and pull, this attraction and revulsion, was contested and negotiated on Shakespeare’s stage.
But can it be said that the Jews were in a special category, which is perhaps why Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity at the end of the play?
Victoria Buckley: Most depictions of Jews on the London stage at this time might be viewed as “negative,” but Jews weren’t necessarily treated differently from any other minority. Indeed their status was often interchangeable with that of the Moor or Turk. An excellent example of this is found in Robert Daborne’s Christian Turned Turk (1612). Daborne parodies the Jew Benwash, but his treatment of him does not fundamentally differ from his treatment of the Turks.
Theatregoers in Elizabethan England came from all walks of life. The job of any London playwright, therefore, was to cater to as wide a taste (and education) as possible. Shylock’s conversion to Christianity might be seen as a simple plot denouement at the end of the play; he converts from the “other” to a Christian; the loose ends are tied up, and everybody is happy.
This ending would have suited the groundlings heckling in the pit whose knowledge of Jews might perhaps have been limited to the scandal and gossip circulating in the aftermath of the recent Lopez trial. But if we read The Merchant of Venice as a more complex and critical play, then it could be argued that Shylock’s conversion is ironic; his subjugation at the hands of Antonio and the Venetians throughout the play serves to highlight the contrast between stereotypical negative notions of the Jew, and the perceived “mercy” and “generosity” of the Christian. These supposed differences run throughout the play, and yet it is in the character of Shylock, not Antonio, that we see the essence of purity and truth.
If the actor playing Shylock was wearing a bright red wig and a long red nose, would an Elizabethan audience have been able to look past this grotesque disguise and see this essence of purity and truth?
Victoria Buckley: That’s a very good question. It’s true that, to an extent, any stereotypical costumes or props on Shakespeare’s stage would have made it much harder for him to portray Shylock with any degree of sympathy. But it’s worth bearing in mind that the irony in the play can in fact be highlighted by the use of stereotypical props or apparel. Shylock may appear to some a seemingly ridiculous figure on the stage at first glance. But as the plot weaves its way towards the climax, it seems clear to me that Shakespeare is exploring and critiquing anti-Semitic prejudice through the character of Shylock.
So you would say that Shakespeare wasn’t anti-Semitic?
Victoria Buckley: Opinion continues to differ on the issue of whether Shakespeare and The Merchant of Venice are anti-Semitic in nature. One of the problems of course is that of applying contemporary notions of anti-Semitism to early modern thinking. Certainly there were those in Shakespeare’s London who would have been suspicious and hostile to Jews. But there was as much a lack of toleration between Protestants and Catholics and indeed Puritans, in some sectors of society, as there was towards minorities.
My own opinion is that far from being anti-Semitic, Shakespeare was in fact challenging prejudice in The Merchant of Venice. He takes the fear of “others,” in this case, Jews, as his starting point, but utilises this to present a world in which corruption is rife within all communities. The world of The Merchant of Venice is certainly dark, but that darkness does not emanate from Shylock. It emanates from the play’s themes: the rise of capitalism and the greed of the merchant class. Ultimately the play is less about the concept of the “other,” and much more about the corrupting influence of hard-bitten commerce.
“Which is the merchant here? and which the Jew?”
As Victoria Buckley has pointed out, the picture that Shakespeare painted of Venice, which had been an important center of trade and commerce since the Middle Ages, was not a pretty one. Why might Shakespeare have decided to explore the dark underside of the glittering Venetian economy?
England during the Elizabethan era was just starting to make the transition from a feudal, land-based economy to a commercial one. In a highly controversial move, money lending became legal in England in the mid-1500s. Therefore, just as the average Englishman had a distrust of the Turk or the Moor, he also had a distrust of the new class of home-grown merchants who were springing up on England’s shores.
British critic John Gross, author of Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy, notes that Shakespeare’s villainous moneylender could have just as easily been a Christian. But in an era where the word “usurer” was synonymous with the word “Jew,” was it really possible to cast a Christian in such an ignoble role? Wasn’t Shakespeare already pushing the envelope, so to speak, by casting a Christian in the role of a merchant, a profession that also had Jewish connotations?
According to Jennifer Rich, a faculty member of Hofstra University, in an article titled The Merchant Formerly Known as Jew, one of the tasks of the play is to make the profession of merchant “kosher” by stripping away any association with Jews. The “knife” that is used to perform this delicate operation is none other than Shylock. In this reading of the play, when the Jewish Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity, it has less to do with religious dogma than a need to pave the way for a new and improved merchant/moneylender—as embodied by the Christian Antonio.
Anti- or Anti-Anti-Semitic?
While arguments about the “other” and England’s transition from a feudal to a capitalistic economy might make for a fascinating classroom discussion, there’s no escaping the fact that Shakespeare meant for the play to be performed—and in performance Shylock’s Jewishness can’t be avoided. Although Shylock appears in only five of the play’s scenes, he is referred to as a “Jew” some 60 times. The word is not used as a compliment.
Yet after two centuries of actors playing Shylock as either a villain or a buffoon, in 1814 an English actor by the name of Edmund Kean decided to exchange the red wig for a black one, the slovenly caftan for more contemporary garb, and present his Shylock as a persecuted martyr who tries to take his revenge only because of the circumstances that have been forced upon him by Venice’s Christian society. What caused the change?
Jews began to return to England in the mid 1600s. They didn’t have full rights, but England was hospitable enough to allow for a rather rapid assimilation. One of the byproducts of that assimilation was that London Jews of the 1800s became avid—and vocal—theatergoers, who weren’t afraid to express their disapproval of a play that cast Jews in an unflattering light. For instance, a riot broke out in 1802 when Jewish members of the audience took offense at a Jewish reference in a play called Family Quarrels, while an 1818 revival of The Jew of Malta so enraged Jewish theatergoers that they boycotted London theatres for the rest of the season.
Was worry about the box office receipts the only reason why productions of The Merchant of Venice began to present Shylock in a sympathetic light? Probably not. But a generally sympathetic portrayal of Shylock continued into the 1900s, and even famous actors of the Yiddish stage tackled the role.
Today, after the Holocaust, that trend continues. As their predecessors did before them, modern-day directors will often add scenes in an attempt to make the play more palatable to their audiences. For instance, in a 1970 National Theatre production, Kaddish is sung offstage in the final scene, an audio hint that this Shylock has committed suicide rather than convert to Christianity. The production currently playing in New York’s Central Park gives Shylock a different fate. The director has added a scene that shows Shylock being baptized—and defiantly putting his yarmulke back on his head after the dunking.
Do such rewrites, which are usually well received by critics and audiences alike, provide convincing evidence that Shakespeare’s play is sympathetic to Jews? Or are they merely band-aides designed to protect overly sensitive members of the audience from the play’s anti-Semitic sting?
We posed the question to Anthony Julius, deputy chairman of the British law firm Mishcon de Reya. Mr. Julius is perhaps best known in the Jewish community for his successful representation of historian Deborah Lipstadt in a libel action brought against her by Holocaust denier David Irving. Julius is also the author of Trials of the Diaspora: a History of Anti-Semitism in England (Oxford University Press), which includes a discussion of how Jews have been represented in English literature.
In his book, he quotes a nineteenth-century American who asked, “How many thousands of Christians have been prejudiced against the whole tribe of Israel by Shakespeare’s Shylock, though they have never seen a Jew?” In our telephone conversation, he reveals his own thoughts about the matter.
Anthony Julius: I think Shylock has been an affliction for the Jews for 400 years. The term “to be a Shylock” is still in contemporary usage. Shylock represents a character-prism from which actual Jews still struggle to escape.
So would you say that The Merchant of Venice is an anti-Semitic play?
Anthony Julius: It’s both anti-Semitic and anti-anti-Semitic. It has an aspect that’s hostile to Jews, and it has an aspect that’s hostile toward hostility toward Jews. Most productions of the play don’t show both these dynamics. They either emphasize the anti-Semitic aspects or try to turn Shylock into a sympathetic character. I prefer to recognize that Shakespeare holds the two aspects in tension.
In equal tension?
Anthony Julius: I think the play is more anti-Semitic than anti-anti-Semitic.
Can we therefore infer that Shakespeare was anti-Semitic?
Anthony Julius: You don’t go to a work of literature to find out where is the author’s heart. You can’t infer through any particular reading of the literature what Shakespeare thought. History has portrayed Shakespeare as a secret Catholic and a staunch Protestant, as a Republican and as a Monarchist. He embraces all those totalities.
If Shylock is still an affliction for the Jews, should we want to ban the play?
Anthony Julius: I’m absolutely against censorship. It’s right that we should expose ourselves to the play. It allows a discussion to take place. But the play has got to be taught in the right way. The play will always be with us. You can’t wish it away.
Dark, Very Dark
There is at least one Jewish literary critic and ardent Shakespeare admirer who disagrees with the notion that Merchant is both anti- and anti-anti-Semitic: Harold Bloom, who has taught at Yale University for more than half a century. In his book Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human, he writes: “One would have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to recognize that Shakespeare’s grand, equivocal comedy The Merchant of Venice is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work.”
Indeed, there’s no question that when the Nazis looked into the play, they saw it as the perfect vehicle for disseminating fear and loathing of Jews to the German people. In the 1930s alone there were some 50 productions.
But even though Mr. Bloom has gone on record as saying it would have been better for the Jewish people if Shakespeare had never written the play, he doesn’t go so far as to accuse the Bard of being anti-Semitic. Instead, he wonders “if Shylock did not cause Shakespeare more discomfort than we now apprehend.”
So it appears that Mr. Shakespeare, if not his play, is not guilty of our charges. But in the spirit of rewriting the play’s ending, I’d like to add a revisionist final scene of my own. Because even though the history of the Jewish people might be tragic, we are not a tragic people. And so in my production Shylock doesn’t submit to baptism, nor does he take his life with his own hand. When Shylock leaves the Venetian courtroom, he boards a ship bound for Turkey. There he is welcomed by Dona Gracia and Don Yosef Nasi, who help him rebuild his life, both materially and spiritually. A repentant Jessica joins him, and All’s Well That Ends Well. But that’s already a different story.
* * * *** ***
Was the Contract Valid?
During the past 100 years or so, there have been a few attempts to analyze the contract made between Antonio and Shylock to see if it was a binding contract according to Jewish law. One of those who provided an analysis was Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, a founder of the Encyclopedia Talmudica. But after analyzing the various legal issues, Rav Zevin came to a surprising conclusion:
“The power of life that resides in the body of a human being is not his own—it does not belong to this person, that is the crucial point. …When one sells or gives or mortgages the flesh of his own body in order that it be cut up for someone else, this resembles one who sells an object that is not his own. Hashem (God) gave life to a person in order that he uses it. It was never given to him to do with it whatever he wishes. The right to take this life back is given only to the One who gave it in the first place—Hashem.”
Rabbi Zevin based this concept on many sources, among them the Rambam, the Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 420.21, and Shulchan Aruch Harav Vol.5 Hilchos Nizkei Guf Venefesh 4.
Therefore, according to Rabbi Zevin, the contract signed between Antonio and Shylock is invalid for the simple reason that Antonio never had the right to offer the flesh of his own body as collateral to be used in case of delay in repaying the loan.