Why Everyone Should Read (Or Teach) “The Merchant Of Venice.”

I am disgusted by the recent violence in Charlottesville VA. The fact that in 2017, White supremacists threatened, hurt, and killed innocent Americans is despicable and truly disheartening. I won’t go into my political views here since this tragedy transcends politics and forces everyone in this country to re-examine who we are and what we stand for as a people, and do our part to help prevent this kind of mindless hatred.

I’m not a politician, I’m not a policeman. My area of expertise is Shakespeare, so I am going to try to make a case for why the study of Shakespeare can help people, (especially young people), learn about the world, examine new points of view, and try to improve the world.  I will then add a list of resources for teachers and students to deepen your understanding of the play.

My first argument for the play is that Merchant has two of the best speeches about intolerance ever written.

      You’ve probably heard of this speech, (spoken by the Jewish moneylender Shylock), and I’m also well aware of the fact that, in context, it is not entirely about peaceful coexistence and tolerance, but it nevertheless establishes Shakespeare’s argument that condemns bigotry and violence, particularly against Jews:

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. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction. Merchant, Act III, Scene i.

img_5431Al Pacino when he did this speech said that it has the eloquence and power of Dr. Martin Luther King. Patrick Stewart initially had the same reaction, but later realized that Shylock turns midway through and the speech becomes a justification for revenge. What’s clever here is that Shakespeare manages to give Shylock two good arguments against bigotry; by emphasizing how Jews are no different than any other racial or religious group, and also warning that oppressing a people will only result in more retribution and pain on both sides. This is what he means when he says: “The villainy you teach me, I will execute.” We’re seeing this sort of reaction right now with the recent surge of violence by both white supremacists and the Antifa; without tolerance and common decency, chaos and bloodshed reins.

Another speech, much less well-known, is this speech of the Prince Of Morocco, one of Shakespeare’s only black characters. The speech below is the first time he speaks while attempting to woo the heroine Portia:

Prince of Morocco. Mislike me not for my complexion,
The shadow’d livery of the burnish’d sun,
To whom I am a neighbour and near bred.
Bring me the fairest creature northward born,
Where Phoebus’ fire scarce thaws the icicles,
And let us make incision for your love,
To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine.
I tell thee, lady, this aspect of mine
Hath fear’d the valiant: by my love I swear
The best-regarded virgins of our clime
Have loved it too: I would not change this hue,
Except to steal your thoughts, my gentle queen. Merchant Of Venice, Act II, Scene i.

People often forget that this speech condemns pre-judging a person based on the color of their skin. Morocco tells Portia, (who in all probability has never seen a black man before), to not judge him by his appearance. His tone is gentle, but it is not apologetic. He says he won’t change his skin color for anything, (except maybe if it would win her heart). The Prince is a dignified and proud representative of his country and his race.

My second argument for reading or teaching this play is that it reveals how bigotry and racism is usually tied to money and profit. In Act IV, Scene i, Shylock points out the hypocrisy of his Christian brethren in keeping slaves, which they justify by saying that they are not people, but property:

  • Shylock. You have among you many a purchased slave, Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules, You use in abject and in slavish parts, Because you bought them: shall I say to you, Let them be free, marry them to your heirs? Why sweat they under burthens? let their beds Be made as soft as yours and let their palates Be season’d with such viands? You will answer ‘The slaves are ours:’ so do I answer you: The pound of flesh, which I demand of him, Is dearly bought; ’tis mine and I will have it. If you deny me, fie upon your law! There is no force in the decrees of Venice. I stand for judgment: answer; shall I have it? Merchant, Act IV, Scene i.

Shylock turns this hypocrisy back on the Christians by saying basically, “How can you call me and human when you  debase and subjugate your fellow creatures?” The answer to both questions of course, is that it is economically convenient. Shylock earns his money by lending money at interest, and threatens dear penalties if not repaid on time. Similarly, the Christians revile Shylock because their religious practices forbid them from lending money, so they have to go to him instead of other Christians. We see echoes of this unfortunate tendency today: the white supremacists in Charlottesville were chanting: “Jews will not replace us,” which clearly exposes their fear of losing political and economic influence to minorities. In addition, our country has refused countless immigrants from poor, war-torn countries which we justify to ourselves by saying the cost of letting them in is too great.

The play’s comic sub-plot also has many lessons for today’s world. The hero Bassanio undergoes  dramatic transformation from a spoiled prodigal son to enlightened married man. At the play’s beginning, he has a close friendship with the merchant Antonio, that might be played as a one sided homosexual relationship. Antonio is very affectionate to Bassanio, and lends him a large amount of money without any expectation of repayment, which has sometimes been interpreted as a hinting of Antonio’s unrequited love for Bassanio. Though Basanio doesn’t reciprocate any romantic feelings,  he eventually saves Antonio’s life, and at least tries to repay him for his kindness.

robert-alexander-hillingford-the-three-caskets--the-merchant-of-venice,-act-iii,-scene-ii
Robert Alexander-Hillingford: The Three Caskets, The Merchant Of Venice, Act III, Sceneii
Bassanio also takes a very feminist attitude towards the play’s heroine Portia- he understands that being married means making your spouse a partner, and giving her an equal say. At the beginning of the play, he sails to an island called Belmont, to try to win Portia’s hand, by correctly solving a riddle. You may have heard of the three caskets, gold, silver, and lead. If Bassanio guesses right, he wins Portia and her fortune. Bassanio chooses the correct casket, but halts afterwards, and does something unexpected; he asks Portia herself if she wants to marry him. He doesn’t treat her as his prize, and throughout the play asks her opinion, and her permission before he acts, just as a good husband should.

Fair lady, by your leave;
I come by note, to give and to receive.
Like one of two contending in a prize,
That thinks he hath done well in people’s eyes,
Hearing applause and universal shout,
Giddy in spirit, still gazing in a doubt
Whether these pearls of praise be his or no;
So, thrice fair lady, stand I, even so;
As doubtful whether what I see be true,
Until confirm’d, sign’d, ratified by you. Merchant Of Venice, Act III, Scene ii

I would argue that, although Portia is a far more important character, Bassanio is the moral center of the play. He is the only person who treats Shylock like a human being, by trying to reason with him and pay Antonio’s debt, instead of spitting in Shylock’s face like Antonio, or forcing him to convert like the characters at the end of the play. Bassanio also is one of the only characters who call Shylock by name, everyone else just calls him “Jew.” Thus, audiences and students can learn from this kind of person; the kind of person Christ said could be saved and become a true Christian, because he acknowledges his sins and tries to correct them. Bassanio is the prodigal son in this play, and we benefit from the parable of his life.

 By contrast, some of the other characters, Christian and Jewish, are examples of the kind of morality that we all wish to discourage in our children, and society in general. Though they are outwardly pious, the Christians like Antonio and Portia, are capable of vindictive, cruel, and definitely impious behavior. Portia, (probably due to her sheltered life on Belmont), can be deeply racist and prejudicial. She is prejudiced against the Prince of Morocco because of his race, hoping that “All of his complexion,” will fail to win her love. In addition, when she poses as a judge presiding over the court case between Antonio and Shylock, she throws vengeance at Shylock, even though she barely knows either of them. She strips Shylock of his property and nearly gets him sentenced to death, even though she preaches mercy to him in her most famous speech. If you look at the contrast between her words and actions, she is a deeply hypocritical person. Shakespeare shows how toxic it can be to raise a child in an isolated environment.  Portia’s isolation makes it harder for Portia to relate to and understand different types of people, and it planted her predjudices within her heart.

Antonio for his part, seems to define himself by how “un-Jewish” he is, believing that generosity and mercy are anathema to all Jews, particularly when Shylock confronts Antonio in the courtroom:

I pray you, think you question with the Jew:
You may as well go stand upon the beach
And bid the main flood bate his usual height;
You may as well use question with the wolf
Why he hath made the ewe bleat for the lamb;
You may as well forbid the mountain pines
To wag their high tops and to make no noise,
When they are fretten with the gusts of heaven;
You may as well do anything most hard,
As seek to soften that—than which what’s harder?—
His Jewish heart: therefore, I do beseech you,
Make no more offers, use no farther means, Merchant, Act IV, Scene i.

Although Jesus preached loving ones neighbor, and being the Good Samaritan to other religions, Antonio seems to think that being a true Christian, means being Anti-Jew. He is a counter example of piety that audiences and students can learn to mollify and avoid within themselves.

My final example of religious counter examples, Shylock himself, shows how prejudice can destroy a man if he lets it. At the beginning of the play, Shylock has had to endure losing his wife, having Antonio spit on him, mock him, encourage his enemies, and call him a host of dehuminizing names. That’s not even taking into account the horrible Venetian ghettos of the 1590s, in which Shylock would have been forced to live were he a real Venetian Jew. One quote that helps explain his behavior comes from Henry Norman Hudson in 1882:

[In Shylock] “we see the remains of a great and noble nature, out of which all the genial sap of humanity has been pressed by accumulated injuries.” – Shakespeare: His Life, Art, and Characters, H. N. Hudson, Ginn and Company, Boston, p. 291. “

Scholars and actors have emphasized ever since the end of the Second World War, that, although Shylock is still guilty of reprehensible acts, his cruelty is a reaction to the cruelty he has had to endure, or as he puts it: “The villainy you teach me, I will execute.

img_5433
Maurycy Gottlieb: “Shylock and Jessica,” 1876
Shylock’s lack of joy and love manifests itself by the way he treats everyone in the play. He keeps his daughter locked away from anyone, which later inspires her to run away with the Christian Lorenzo, (while stealing a huge amount of Shylock’s money). Shylock then rages against the citizens of Venice, especially Antonio, whom he blames for his losses, and concocts a plan to kill him by taking a pound of flesh away from his heart.

Shylock’s pain and hardships have turned him into the kind of bloodthirsty Jewish stereotype his enemies have always assumed to be. At the same time, he constantly points out the cruelty and hypocrisy of Christians, calling them no better than himself. In the end though, through Portia and the Duke sentencing Shylock to will his money to Lorenzo, and convert to Christianity, Shylock has to become what he hates, and surround himself with people who will never accept him; an ending that fills the audience with pity and maybe even remorse.

Now, there are compelling arguments that teaching this play can actually encourage stereotypes, which it can, and has in ages past. I read several articles that debate this issue in various ways. I’d like to discuss two articles written within one year of each other that are particularly fascinating. The first one was an article from The New Yorker by Professor Steven Greenblatt, who claimed that Merchant is “Shakespeare’s Cure For Xenophobia.” The other was a Washington Post article that argues that in the interest of keeping negative Jewish stereotypes from perpetuating themselves,  this play should be ignored altogether. 

On the other hand, as Professor Greenblatt says, the genius of the play is that it shows stereotypes, but it also shows the people under them. If you compare Shylock in The Merchant Of Venice, to other contemporary Jewish characters like Barrabas in Marlowe’s Jew Of Malta, he is a much more compelling, complete, interesting, and at times moving character. Love him or hate him, Shylock inevitably gets under your skin. He’s a man who strips the varnish off our culture and exposes the hypocrisy, greed, and prejudice that lurk just beneath the waters of the Rialto, (as well as the modern Potomac and the Hudson). The saving grace of this play is that it forces us to examine ourselves- how do we treat people, how do we see people who are different than us? What makes our points of view good and bad, and what can we do to heal our misunderstandings? Though this play cannot answer these questions, it encourages us to confront them, to open a dialogue, and hopefully, open avenues for change.

Artwork: For a wonderful selection of pictures of Portia, please visit: http://themerchantofveniceportia.weebly.com/fair-portias-counterfeit.html 

Elizabeth Shuh: “Merchant Of Venice.” Reprinted with permission from Immortal Longings.com
Portrait of Edmund Keene as Shylock, circa 1815
Portrait of Jessica by Luke Fildes, 1888
Music: Where is fancy bred?

Resources

  1. Schmoop.com Summary of The Merchant Of Venice: https://www.shmoop.com/merchant-of-venice/summary.htmlhttps://www.shmoop.com/merchant-of-venice/summary.html
  2. Shakespearehelp.com- lesson plans for teachers on The Merchant Of Venice: https://www.shakespearehelp.com/the-merchant-of-venice-lesson-plans/
  3. Teaching English.org: Lesson Plans for Shakespeare’s Merchant Of Venice: https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/sites/teacheng/files/Mercy%20in%20Shakespeare’s%20The%20Merchant%20of%20Venice%20Lesson%20Plan.pdf
  4. Thug Notes: Merchant Of Venice (explicit language) https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Tw9q2P2N028
  5. Varsity Tutors: Merchant Of Venicehttps://www.varsitytutors.com/englishteacher/merchant
  6. Intermediate Worksheets: Merchant Of Venice: http://www.macmillanreaders.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/The-Merchant-of-Venice-Worksheet.pdf
  7. Prestwick House: Worksheets for Students: Merchant Of Venice: https://www.prestwickhouse.com/samples/200958.pdf
  8. Shakespeare In the Schools: The Merchant Of Venice- Evaluating Values:  https://witf.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/ca3e6c02-0eb6-436f-b605-f741673dd399/evaluating-values-merchant-of-venice/https://witf.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/ca3e6c02-0eb6-436f-b605-f741673dd399/evaluating-values-merchant-of-venice/
  9. Internet Shakespeare Editions: The Merchant Of Venice- http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/m/lifetimes/plays/the%20merchant%20of%20venice/
  10. RSC Production History: The Merchant Of Venice: https://www.rsc.org.uk/the-merchant-of-venice/about-the-play/stage-history
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