Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Merchant Of Venice Controversy Du Jour

I'm not even going to bother linking to this, since we probably all know the story.  Some students over in the UK refuses to take their Shakespeare exams because of the anti-Semitism in Merchant of Venice.  The thing is, the exam itself was on The Tempest, MoV wasn't even part of the curriculum.  They were making a statement about the entirety of Shakespeare's canon, not just the one play.  And, that these were some sort of national standings exams, so their failure to take them resulted in their school tumbling in the standings.

Here's my opinion.

I think they're stupid and they deserve to fail.

Too strong?

I'm not a fan, at all, of close-mindedness.  Let's assume for the minute that you have actually read MoV and come to your own conclusions that Shakespeare is anti-Semitic, and this bothers you greatly.  You owe it to yourself, then, to learn more about the man's work, to see if this is a theme that permeates his entire literary output, or if it is instead just a single character in a single play.  To simply say "I didn't like this play therefore I refuse to read anything by him, regardless of the cost to myself or my school" is ... misguided? At best.

That doesn't even bring up the question of whether MoV is actually anti-Semitic at all, and if so, whether that also means that Shakespeare was.  Some people dismiss it with a simple "those were the times, everybody was anti-Semitic back then."  Personally I don't think it's that simple.  I think that Shakespeare was showing us anti-Semitism as a mirror up to ourselves and saying "Don't you get how ugly you come off looking?  Are you missing the basic hypocrisy, here?"  He didn't just draw a character and stick a big Jew sign on him, he gave us a very complex individual.  A father who lost a daughter, for one.  Shylock may come off as a bad guy, sure, but is that because of his own nature, or because that is the role that the rest of society forces him into?

The play is supposed to be a comedy, so it's a reasonable assumption that Shakespeare was not trying to hammer us over the head with his life lessons.  But I have to wonder, did people walk out of there thinking, "Well, you have to have a little sympathy for the Jew, don't you?"  It goes back to a regular topic here on this blog about the timeliness of Shakespeare's message, and whether his audiences just wanted a simple play where they could spot the good guy from the bad guy, or whether it was more complex than that.  It seems a very great irony in stories like this that we've become just as simple, haven't we?  Only we've become the worse for it.  Dear god in heaven he portrayed a Jew in a negative light, therefore he must be anti-Semitic!  It can't possibly be more complex than that!  Quick, compare him to Hitler!  (I'm not kidding, earlier today I read a blog post that compared this issue to what it would be like if Hitler wrote a nice romantic comedy in his youth.  NOT THE SAME THING!)


David Blixt said...

I completely agree, they're idiots. The play Shakespeare wrote, as opposed to say THE JEW OF MALTA, is astonishingly sympathetic to Judaism, considering the times. Shylock himself has the most heartbreaking line in the show when he speaks of how the ring his daughter has stolen was given to him by his late wife. Kills me every time.

Besides, and here's the real proof: everyone else in the show is an asshole. I mean, all of 'em. Gratiano, Antonio, Salerio, Solanio, Bassanio, Portia, Nerissa - they're bad people, and deserve the awkwardness of that awful ending. That ring business so painful to endure, you know none of them will end up happy. Especially Jessica and Lorenzo, who are already falling apart.

Anyway, these kids are young, they're taking a stand without the wisdom to know what they're standing for/against. And they're looking to create a fuss - and get out of an exam.

Alan K.Farrar said...

One of my pet themes - but I'll restrain myself (I don't accept the "antisemitism" thing at all - and have blogged extensively on it).

As a UK original, I believe the school was not in the state system - it was a religious institution.
I suspect with so many students refusing they had been influenced by an adult - possibly a parent, possibly a teacher.

None-Muslim Fundamentalism in its extreme form I'm afraid.

Taken to it's logical conclusion, they'd have difficulty with the Physics examination too - several rabid anti-Semites there; and mathematics (would they be allowed to answer questions on calculus?); Music an absolute no-no; Rockets development started in Nazi-Germany - so no firing back missiles in Israel!

Duane's point about studying the texts though, and making up your own mind, is the best anti-dote (As long as you don't have a teacher telling you what it means).

PrimroseRoad said...

The whole thing is ridiculous in light of the fact that many early 20th-century Jews adored the Shylock character, or at least understood him. They suggested that if he seemed misanthropic and avaricious, it wasn't because he was a Jew, but because he was -- as you say -- a father who lost his daughter.

Ian Thal said...

I've said it elsewhere, but MoV can be a pretty painful play to read if one is especially sensitive to antisemitism in all its forms, and it takes a sensitive director and cast to produce it in a way that 21st century audiences can take. Thankfully, the play (like all of Shakespeare's work) is rich enough that it allows for the sorts of reinterpretations that David and primeroseroad suggested.

The kids' behavior came from misdirected rage at injustice and owes a great deal to the emotional volatility of youth, and the feelings of helplessness that comes from being a teenager, and part of a minority group.

One should also keep in mind the country in which this story takes place: within the Jewish community, the UK is generally perceived (rightly or wrongly) as a society where antisemitism is increasingly acceptable and there are so few opportunities for a 14-year-old (whose adolescent mind is easily overwhelmed by an adolescent heart) to stand up and say "enough is enough" in a non-violent manner.

David- I agree with most of your points but I have to to respectfully disagree with you regarding how sympathetic the presentation of Shylock can be (in all likelihood, Will never had meaningful contact with Jews or Judaism since they were forbidden to live in England at that time.) Yes, Shakespeare does portray him as the victim of injustices, but at all times his villainy is portrayed as stemming from his Judaism, not as accidental to his Judaism-- and consequently, the injustices he receives are at least partially warranted because of his tribe.

David Blixt said...

Ian - yeah, he probably didn't have contact with many Jews (though there were some at court). And I agree that Shylock's tribe sets him up for a lot of opposition. But mostly it's other people who blame his faith for his actions - as far as I recall (and it's been three years since I last did the show), he doesn't justify his ACTIONS through his faith.

His feelings? Yes, he says he hates Antonio because he is a Christian. But Shakespeare, being the writer he is, presents a picture to us of what that means to Shylock: these are the people who spit at him, curse him, refuse him any profession other than money-lender, then despise him for that very job.

I think that one of Shakespeare's great gifts was in making sure than villainy was never easy. Good and bad people do not exist. While actions are always one or the other, the people are deeper than that. And do we really think that Shylock would have kept to the letter of the bond if Lorenzo hadn't run off with Jessica? He's a wounded father, that's what gives him his reason to chase his pound of flesh.

But perhaps all of this is colored by the fact that the Shylock in my production was the amazing Mike Nussbaum. You saw him as the little old man in MEN IN BLACK who carried the universe in his pocket. He was astonishingly real - furious and wounded and funny all at once. His line about Leah broke my heart every night - and his need for revenge came from a place that had everything to do with a lifetime of insults, ones that he had ignored until his daughter betrayed him. Mike's amazing, and I'll never be able to read Shylock without thinking of him.

Ian Thal said...


Any contemporary company willing to produce MoV makes the effort, as you have done, to draw out the nuances-- it's generally one of those plays companies avoid if they're not confident that they can pull it off. We 21st century lovers of the Bard's works naturally read it in that light-- but a teenager, especially a Jewish teenager who may have justified anxieties about antisemitism is not going to read it in the same light (especially since there is a good chance that these kids never read MoV have only heard "Shakespeare was a great writer but there's this play with an awful antisemitic stereotype.") Teenagers are lacking in the sense of nuance of character that adult fans of Shakespeare take for granted.

One thing I recently noticed, by the way, is that MoV is, like R&J a commedia dell'arte plot gone horribly wrong. (Shylock, in many ways, is the stock character of Pantalone grafted onto the stereotype of Jews as vengeful moneylenders.)

Gedaly said...

I have to agree with the the thoughts about the Students "protest" is wrong and ignorant. Plenty of people in the news and in blogs have already mentioned bits like "we shouldn't study anything since the inventor was racist"...

As for the argument about Shylock not being written with anti-semitism in mind, that he is a good person who is wronged and everyone else is bad I have to disagree with. In our modern times it is common to add modern issues to Shakespeare's plays. There's so much in them that makes them easily adaptable to different ideas put forward by the director. In performance today, MoV is done this way to avoid offending people when putting on this show.

BUT I think Shakespeare wrote Shylock as a comic villain. Ian, I think you're right about the Pantalone comment. Shylock is a lot like the Miser characters in Moliere. If you insert miser instead of jew, the comedy in the character and situations is made fully apparent.


David Blixt said...

Clearly I'm not making my point well. I'm not saying he's not a villain, and yes, absolutely, he's inspired from stock del'arte characters. But the thing that Shakespeare as a playwright did that is remarkable is nuance that stock figure to such a degree that there is sympathy for him in an audience disposed to loathe him.

I disagree that sympathy is a modern twist. It's in the text. "Do we not bleed?" Is that something a stock character asks? No, not until Shakespeare.

I'm not saying he's a good person - I'm saying that his actions cannot be defined as "Jewish" any more than Othello's can be described as Moorish. Will has taken the stock characters and breathed life into them. They still fulfill their stock parts - villainous miser, noble savage, etc. - but written in such a way that gives them humanity. That, I will strenuously argue, is not modernism imposed upon the plays. Rather, it is the words he puts in their mouths. Otherwise why, of all the plays written through the centuries, have these plays thrived? It's because they are the single best expression of being human ever set down in words.

Ian, I completely see your point about teenagers, and I agree. And nobody even told them that Antonio is gay. What a furor that would raise, eh?

Ian Thal said...

I disagree that sympathy is a modern twist. It's in the text. "Do we not bleed?" Is that something a stock character asks? No, not until Shakespeare.

Well, if I recall correctly, that famous speech is not Shylock's address to his persecutors, where it would serve as an accusation, but as a lament shared with his one friend, Tubal, where it serves as a self justification for the villainous actions he contemplates.

Nonetheless, I am in complete agreement with you that Shylock is much much more than a stock villain to a sensitive actor, reader, or audience member.

I'm not arguing so much that our sympathy for Shylock is a modern affectation, but rather, that our emphasis on sympathy for Shylock is modern. The 16th century audience still got satisfaction that the villain got his comeuppance in the end, even if they could somewhat identify with his rage-- but again, that speaks to Shakespeare's gifts as a writer. Something all of us agree upon.,

To gedaly, whose first alerted me to this news story:

There's a reason Shylock resembles the Moliere's Miser! They have a common ancestor in the Pantalone of commedia, who, at his most villainous, was still accorded some sympathy.

Gedaly said...

I agree Ian, that the the possible sympathy for Shylock is not new but that our emphasis on it is. Shylock's speech is wonderful in showing his motivation and justification for his actions... but for those who say this speech proves that Shylock is not a horribly stereotyped anti-semitic character they've missed a lot of text.

- G @ The Bard Blog

David Blixt said...

Actually, Ian, he says it before Tubal enters, during his confrontation with Salario and Salanio, as they taunt him with the fact that his daugher has rebelled. So he's saying it to Christians, protesting this ultimate insult, and before he determines to pursue his bond.

And I must disagree with you both about emphasis. Nowadays we're looking for sympathy because we cannot conceive that our beloved Bard was an anti-Semite. But, seen live for the first time in the 16th century, that one sympathetic speech was revolutionary!

Gedaly, we haven't been introduced, but let me assure you I'm really not missing or glossing over the text. I'm looking at it as a whole, in both context of the period and in comparison with his other works. I've done this show (at this point I've done half the canon, with some of the apocrypha thrown in). This is in fact my livelihood - I am fortunate enough to say that I make a living doing Shakespeare. That's not to say I know more than you (I'm sure I don't), but to assure you that I'm not ill-informed.

So, yes, the role is often stereotypical, loaded with the standard anti-semitism of the time. It's even in his name, which is taken from the Hebrew word shalakh, meaning "bird-of-prey."

But what Shakespeare was doing was taking the stereotype, the parts that are so objectionable today and are seen in dozens of other plays of the period, and turning two-dimensions into four. Note that most of the objectionable stuff comes up front, in that very first scene. This is to identify him in the audience's mind as that stock figure. Then, in the middle of the show, he gives him a speech to stun the audience. Then at the end Shylock is returned to his stock role as villain, and the innocent triumph. That they beggar him and take away his only profession is certainly balanced in their view by the fact that he is not now going to Hell. A happy ending for all. Only the audience walks out with a vague sense of "something's wrong with that."

Ian, it's very like his twist on the Comedy formula in R&J. He showed the audience what they expected to see, then flouted their expectations by doing something dramatically different. The effect is to stun the audience, show them something they've never seen before. Try viewing "Do we not bleed" as another "Queen Mab" speech, one that alters the course of the show and elevates it beyond its standard confines.

There are Jewish characters that are in my opinion far more villainous in Shakespeare - Iago, for one. I would argue that Othello, far more than MoV, renders an anti-semetic view of the villain. Iago is a double-dealing, lying, back-stabbing (literally) cuckold (horns!) who is covetous of what a good Christian (Cassio) has. But in that the Jewish stress is subtle, as subtle as Iago himself, whereas here Shakespeare's being ham-handed to a purpose - to debase the stock character and make them into real people. Flawed, yes. But he was showing his audience something they hadn't seen before.

I suppose I am too much of a contextualist, and see how revolutionary this was for the time. Today, absolutely, it's anti-semetic. Then? The anti-semetism is used as a common base to undermine that very base. I'm not saying that Shakespeare had grand notions of making England a friendlier place for Jews. He was a playwright, and stretching the boundaries of his craft. Stock Jewish villains being a part of that craft, he tried his hand at it, and as usual did something extra-ordinary.

Okay. Tried my best, got a little definsive en route, and will now leave it alone. I'm not trying to denigrate anyone's opinion of the show - everyone sees what they see. I suppose I am more in awe of Shakespeare's achievements than I am disgusted with his age.

C. B. James said...

Very interesting series of comments. Lots of passionate defenders of the faith and well reasoned arguements.

It's always interesting for me to see how strongly people will defend MOV and Shakespeare when it comes to anti-semitism. In my view, the play is quite simply anti-semitic as is Shakespeare. EVERYONE IN HIS DAY WAS. How could they be otherwise. This can't but make the play problematic for a modern audience. One may find it more or less anti-semitic than its comtemporaries, but what degree of anti-semitism is acceptable?

Take The Jew of Malta as a case in point. It proceeded MOV. (Shylock probably owes his existence to the wildly successful Barabas. MOV was also called "The Jew of Venice.") Marlow's hero/villian follows pretty much the same dramatic arc Shylock does, but Barabas is so extreme in his actions that it's hard to imagine anyone producing the play now. Poisoning a convent full of nuns is not something a sympathetic character can do. Yet, Barabas is a sympathetic character. He is a wronged man. He is the only one in the play who lives by his principles and the principles of his faith. He makes a very good case for every "evil" action he takes. And the play is about him, much more so than MOV is about Shylock.

I think Shakespeare wrote seven or eight (depending on my current state of mind) of the best plays in the English language, but he also wrote some that are not very good. MOV is one of them. (See Auden's lectures on Shakespeare.) If not for that one terrific speech, I doubt there would be many productions; there surely would be no debate here. It is a great speech. Too bad it's followed later with that nonsense about the "quility of mercy" that even the characters in the play don't believe.

As for it's use in school, I'd argue against it on the basis that there are so many better plays in Shakespeare's cannon. How does requiring students to read a mediocre one help?

(The professor I had in college who made us read Jew of Malta, later expressed regret that she had not assigned Marlow's Edward II or Faust, because both are better plays.)

David Blixt said...

C. B. - I like your point about the times. And yes, Shakespeare's name is on some seriously awful plays. Though I'd probably argue that MoV is in the middle, not at the bottom of the pack. The last act is dreadful, but there's some really interesting stuff early on. Still, not a strong show, nor in its arc a very satisfying one (the ring business? Wow, does that suck).

What's interesting about these students and their protest is the fact that they weren't reading MoV, they were reading The Tempest. No one asked them to read MoV, I assume they hadn't read it. They knew that play was anti-Semitic, and refused to take a test on the Tempest on principle. There's a response here:


...that actually links back to gedaly's site. And round and round we go.

Alan K.Farrar said...

Awful lot of 'assumptions' flying around.

I have attacked some of them fairly regularly:


and there is quite a discussion on:


Considering one of the most remarkable things about the plays is that it is impossible to say what 'Shakespeare' actually thought about any issue - suggestions that 'he' was antisemitic based on what characters in the plays say are a little futile.
The word anti-semitic itself is controversial in this context -
Shakespeare's attitude to 'Jewishness' would have had no echo in Nazi Germany - remember, Hebrew was a language comparatively well known in Elizabethan England (it was taught in some schools and at University) and the 'Old Testament' was read from every Sunday in every Church in England.
Prejudice is one thing - hatred something else. Anti-French, Spanish and Catholic riots were not un-common in London.

And as for Marlowe's 'Jew' - productions are put on nowadays, and there is a lot of sympathy for the character - as written in the words of Marlowe - in the text: I've prepared to play the part myself and assure you, read it and he's another more sinned against than sinning (at least in the first part).

Ian Thal said...


I am in agreement with you that much of the anti-Semitic content of MoV is not the primary image of Jews held by the Nazis, but it is very close to the image of Jews taught by the Christian churches of Shakespeare's and well into the modern era. Most of the legalized discrimination against and segregation of Jews codified in the racial laws passed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy found support in official pronouncements of the Vatican-- where they differed is that the "modern" (i.e. the fascist) anti-Semite defined Judaism as something organic (i.e. racial) while the Church insisted Judaism to be a matter of faith (i.e. religious.) Which shows that not only do our sensitivities to injustice change over time, but even how we define the target of injustice.


Yes, it's revolutionary that Shylock is written with enough sympathy that we in the 21st century can have a serious debate on the character, though let's not forget that this is a revolution begun by Kit Marlowe's Tamburlaine who was by any definition of the term, a villain. (Will does Kit one better by twisting traditional plot formulae as we have noted earlier.)

Bottom line:

I'm not burning my copy of Merchant of Venice, I will see a production of the play if anyone in my area has the audacity to stage it, and if the opportunity to be involved in such a production comes up, I'll probably say yes.

It's a troublesome play, but the kids are missing out. Hopefully when they are older they'll return to the bard and see what they are missing.

Gedaly said...

David, now that you've elaborated... Shakespeare makes him human, I think that's what you're getting at and I think I'll have to agree with you about Shylock.

I'll have to go back through Othello, but I'm still not convinced that Iago is a Jew. The use of the word "tribe" in that play is often used as evidence of Iago's religion but the etymology during that period of time is a little fuzzy. If anyone has more supporting info I'd be happy to hear it. Just contact me via my website liked to below.

CB - MoV isn't one of Shakespeare's top 5, but I don't think it's a bad play. It has it's oddities, but which play doesn't? It's a comedy. It's hard to notice it when studying it, but in performance some of the text lends itself to some great physical comedy. Even the median of quality of Shakespeare's plays isn't bad. Yeah, there are a few that I didn't enjoy reading, but I always reserve my judgement until I see a good production or two.

Ian: In response to your bottom line... amen!


Alan K.Farrar said...

Very, very, very last from me on this - As Ian says, the play is still being performed (frequently, in the UK, with a Jewish actor in the main role) - a sure sign that there is something universal in it.
The girls in the Orthodox Jewish school who refused to answer questions on the grounds of Shakespeare's antisemitism obviously know little of either the play they claim to be anti-semitic or the other works of the playwrite: Their school's rank dropped, by the way, because the girls refused to put their names on the paper - not because they refused to answer on Shakespeare.
There is no way the girls would have done such a thing without the encouragement of their parents - or, I suspect, the school - it turns out that other girls in the school had done a similar thing in previous years - but put their names on the paper.

Ian Thal said...


The play is rarely produced in the States-- and never without controversy. It fact, Titus Andronicus is produced more often than Merchant of Venice.

And while I agree the play itself is far too complex to painted simply as "anti-Semitic," we have to keep in mind that the young people in this news story are said to be 14 years-old and had they ever tried to read the play, would likely be too upset by the end of the first or second act to see read the text all the way to the end-- let alone appreciate the ironies David has listed.

Anonymous said...

You should yourself study the history of the term "anti semitic"

A "semite" or Shem-ite was a descendent of Shem i.e. Abraham/Jacob.Israel/Ishmail". The "jews" were never the only semites and the modern "jews" are mostly secondary imposters anyway being they are Kazarian converts to Judaism in the 9-11th centuries. Even though Jesus and his 12 were all "jews" they were constantly at odds with the original imposter "jews"; which practiced judaism that derived from the babylon captivity 500-600~bc.

Ian Thal said...

Anonymous demonstrates that anti-Semites are compelled to spew their venom anytime the topic of Jews or hatred of Jews comes up.

And while the Kingdom of the Khazars were ruled by converts to Judaism (it's unclear how much of the population actually adopted Judaism) genetic sampling shows the Khazarim's contribution to the general Jewish gene-pool is quite small and that modern day Jews are closely related to other tribes indigenous to the Levant.

Of course, anonymous proponents of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories rarely let a few scientifically verified facts get in their way of their racism.

cantueso said...

I think it is a bad play. The two themes of the play don't jibe.Unless you read all the fine print, you get the impression of just another half-baked comedy.And those three caskets! The profound differences between them!