Erev Rosh Hashanah. A fitting time to ponder one of my least favorite plays: The Merchant of Venice. As a long-standing Jewish sympathizer, I find it difficult to feel enthusiastic about that one—even though it abounds with rich poetry and treats the rule of law as worthy fodder for drama. Sure, Portia’s speech about the quality of mercy is lovely. (“The quality of mercy is not strain’d./ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/ Upon the place beneath. . . .) In a vacuum, I am perfectly happy to hear people recite that speech, including my own precious daughter (who is learning it now). The trouble is the context.
Portia’s famous “mercy” speech is the closing argument in a courtroom scene. In that scene, she is passing herself off as both a man and a lawyer. Her client is a young Venetian merchant, Antonio, who gambled his future by placing a big commercial bet that his ships would come in in time, in the process borrowing a big sum from a man he openly despised. The bet came up short. He breached his agreement to pay back the loan as promised. At trial, no doubt exists about his liability. Moreover, the plain language of the contract is explicit: in the event of a breach, Antonio was obligated to forfeit a pound of his own flesh. Taken literally, that form of liquidated damages would mean the death of him. He goes to trial to try to get out of the bargain he’d made, fair and square. His defense hinges entirely on inciting prejudice against his partner in the contract.
The person with whom Antonio entered into this contract—the person whom Antonio promised to pay back by a certain date with interest or else submit that pound of flesh—is “Shylock the Jew.” Shylock, of course, does not have much need for Antonio’s flesh. But he felt such a bargain was worth forging because of the lifetime of taunts, insults, discriminatory practices, and ghettoized existence he’d endured in Venice, thanks to the likes of Antonio. This is why, when Shylock is asked what he could possibly hope to gain from acquiring that “pound of flesh,” he says “if it will feed nothing else,/it will feed my revenge.” (III.1.53-54).
Indeed, Shylock justifies the stakes involved in his bet with Antonio in an exceedingly moving and disturbing speech demonstrating the collateral consequences of racism:
. . . . 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
Even if we can defend Shakespeare by arguing that at least he gave Shylock this moving speech before making a public mockery of his pain in the courtroom scene, it is virtually impossible to suggest that the playwright intended Shylock to be more than the butt of the young Christians’ joke in the end. The audience is entreated to laugh upon learning that Shylock’s own daughter has stolen his life savings, forsaken him, and eloped with a Christian boy; the secondhand reenactment of his pain is treated as riotous comedy:
I never heard a passion so confused,
So strange, outrageous, and so variable,
As the dog Jew did utter in the streets:
‘My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
Justice! the law! my ducats, and my daughter!’
The young Christian hipsters get the better of him at trial and beyond; he is forced to convert and is then left alone in misery while the happy couples’ wildest dreams come true.
So I don’t like this play. Nor do I like the idea that it depicts the law as a malleable instrument fairly exploited by the young, beautiful, and powerful against outcasts made prematurely old and gnarled by the heartless vitriol of the disdainful majority.
But it seems the Jews do get the best of Portia and her Venetian cohorts in the long run. The chosen people have the last laugh—or, really, the next laugh—by stubbornly insisting on making the rest of the world laugh with them, often by turning the ugliest tribalism on its head. See, e.g., my husband’s favorite blog: http://www.jewornotjew.com/