Ages: Adult/ Teen. There’s some PG-13 language, and the subject matter touches on racism and anti-Semitism, so it shouldn’t be read by really young kids.
Premise: Like the Midsummer Night’s Dream edition I already reviewed, this is the full play with Manga inspired illustrations. However, unlike Midsummer, this book is more conceptual. It reinterprets all the characters as either fairies, aliens, mermaids or merman, or some other fantasy characters. It is literally a fairy tale, which I find a fascinating concept for a number of reasons. That said, like any interpretation of Merchant, this choice is somewhat controversial for reasons I will get into below.
“A friend of mine said she got married in Venice and described it as like being in an RPG.”
Faye Yong, Illustrator for “The Manga Shakespeare: Merchant Of Venice.”
What Does Role-Playing Game (RPG) Mean? A role-playing game (RPG) is a genre of video game where the gamer controls a fictional character (or characters) that undertakes a quest in an imaginary world.
Defining RPGs is very challenging due to the range of hybrid genres that have RPG elements.
Traditional role-playing video games shared five basic elements:
The ability to improve your character over the course of the game by increasing his statistics or levels.
A menu-based combat system with several choices of skills, spells, and active powers as well as an active inventory system with wearable equipment such as armors and weapons.
A central quest that runs throughout the game as a storyline and additional (and usually optional) side quests.
The ability to interact with elements of the environment or storyline through additional abilities (e.g. lockpicking, disarming traps, communication skills, etc.)
The existence of certain character classes that define the characteristics, skills, abilities, and spells of a character (e.g. wizard, thief, warrior, etc.)
My reaction: I honestly don’t know what to think about the way the comic depicts races. In the interview above, illustrator Faye Yong explains how she chose a fantasy aesthetic for the graphic novel.
She read the script and represented the characters like the Prince of Aaragon, the Prince of Morocco, and re-interpreted them as fantasy characters. A good example is the Prince of Aragon. As you can see in this scene from the 2004 movie, Shakespeare portrays Aaragon as a vain, shallow person. Incidently, Aaragon is a province of Spain, over which the English just won a major naval victory, so Shakespeare makes this character a mockable popinjay since the Spanish were still the mortal enemies of the English:
Fay Yong wanted to heighten Aaragon’s vanity, so she made him a beautiful creature with long, flowing hair.
This is telling: Yong immersed herself with Shakespeare’s text, but she didn’t really delve into the real world context. She wasn’t interested in the real cultures of Aaragon, Morrocco, or even Venice, but to take Shakespeare’s impression of these cultures, and use Japanese style animation to tell Shakespeare’s story. For most of the play, this approach works quite well. After all, Shakespeare depicts Portia and her home in Belmont as an almost ethereal place, where men come from far and wide to see this magical kingdom, and Portias father gets a prophetic vision on his death bed that makes him alter his will so that only someone who can decipher his riddle will get to marry Portia and inherit her estate. Like I said, the scenes in Belmont work very well as a Manga comic, particularly Bassanio’s Zelda-style fetch quest where he has to choose the right casket to marry Portia. I hope someone someday turns this idea into a real game.
However, the scenes in Venice don’t work as well because Shakespeare wrote them with a clear understanding of the real Venice, and the tensions between the Jewish and Christian communities. Details like Antonio’s anti-Semitism, Shylock’s fury at his daughter marrying a Christian, and Portia’s own racism and anti-Semitism is frankly erased when you view it out of the context of the real Venice.
Another example of questionable racial re-interpretation is theThe Prince of Morrocco, who like Aaragon, is a suitor to Portia who likewise fails to choose the proper casket and win Portia.
In Yong’s version, Morocco has green, rather than brown skin now, (sort of like Piccolo from Dragon Ball Z), which is problematic because we associate green with sickliness and that makes this speech of Morocco’s even more problematic:
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
Not surprisingly, the most controversial illustration choices center around Shylock the Jewish moneylender. As I’ve written before, Shylock has always been a controversial figure, and this comic interprets him in a way I find simultaneously simplistic and highly thought-provoking.
Faye Yong has stated that she wanted to make Shylock look the same as the Christian characters, but that his garb would reflect a sort of “dark elf” aesthetic. She describes him as the sort of fantasy character that worships the moon, rather than the sun. On the one hand, I applaud her for not giving into the old Jewish stereotypes like red hair, hook noses, etc. I also have to admit that Shylock is sort of a dark vengeful figure (he is after all, the villain), so making him a dark elf works on the surface.
On the other hand, again, without the context of anti-Semetism, and the complex relationship between Jews and Christians in the 16th century, much of the Shakespearean text is devoid of meaning. Perhaps this is an attempt to make the play more easily accessible to young readers like teenagers, and I applaud that, but as I wrote in my post about why everyone should read or teach this play, learning about the historical context of real Jews is this play’s great gift, and that is lost in this version.
On the other hand, depicting Shylock like some kind of dark elf or warlock actually brings to life a very real aspect of anti-Semetic prejudice that many people overlook today: for most of western history, many of our stereotypes of Jews were interlinked with our stereotypes about witches!
Jewish Stereotypes and the Occult
So, ironically, much the same way Ian McKellen’s Richard III helped modernize the complex medieval politics of the 15th century, seeing Shylock as a semi-mystical, possibly occult figure, actually brings to light some of the prejudices that real Jews in the 16th century faced!
In conclusion, Merchant Of Venice is extremely hard to adapt in a comic book context, and some aspects are a little lost in translation. That said, it is gorgeous to look at, and it has a great visual shorthand that enlivens Shakespeare’s text in a unique and appealing way.
Recommendation: I’d recommend this book to all mature fans of Shakespeare, anime, Manga, D&D, or any kind of nerd stuff!
According to the Christian calendar, today (Tuesday) is Shrove Tuesday AKA fat Tuesday, AKA pancake day, AKA Fasnacht Day, (if you live in Pennsylvania ) It is the season that commemorates the time in Jesus Christ fasted in the desert for 40 days, then he then entered Jerusalem with his followers, had his last meal the last supper was betrayed by Judas. was crucified, died and ascended to heaven on Easter Sunday.
Every aspect of the Easter story from Christ’s entry to Jerusalem to the Holy Thursday celebration of the Last Supper, to his death and the cross on Good Friday has been ritualized by the Catholic and many Protestant churches. Incidentally, Holy Thursday is determined by the Jewish calendar, which is in itself coordinated by the Paschal moon, the last full moon before the Vernal Equinox.
Growth and fertility; pain and pleasure, privation, and excess, things dying and things born. These extreme states of being and the dramatic stories of Christ’s passion are, of course, very good theater, so it’s no wonder that Shakespeare would choose to incorporate the themes and motifs of Shrove Tuesday into his plays.
Shakespeare and Shrove Tuesday
Shakespeare loved pancakes!
Shakespeare uses a lot of Christian imagery and theology in all of his plays but he also specifically refers to Shrove Tuesday, with its pancake suppers, use of theatrical disguise, and carefree attitude. He also refers to Lent, and the threadbare and lean times it represents. In a general sense, a lot of his plays deal with the swinging back-and-forth of Time, where society is simultaneously getting ready to purge itself of sin and deny itself of pleasure. I thought I’d explore that by taking a look at some examples of text Shakespeare that deal with these themes.
First, let’s talk about Shrove Tuesday; in As You Like It, Touchstone makes reference to eating pancakes, traditional food for Shrove Tuesday in a lot of Christian communities. There are variations like donuts and fasnachts, but the idea is to eat up the fat and oil in your house. This is because to begin the start of length a time when Christians are supposed to abstain from fat, people would use the remaining oil and butter in their houses to have pancake suppers.
This modest pancake supper is one tradition of Shrove Tuesday, but there are many more elaborate ones. As I mentioned Shrove Tuesday goes by many names but the most extreme and extravagant celebration of the purging of sin in preparation for Lent is, of course, Mardi Gras. The celebration of Mardi gras in New Orleans is an offshoot of the Shrove Tuesday tradition which is why it is often celebrated as an extravagant party with food, drink, and sometimes lewd behavior. Sometimes, Mardi Gras celebrations even incorporate Shakespeare plays as a theme:
Masks and Mardi Gras
As you can imagine getting the chance to purge yourself from sin and do things that you wish you wanted to do might make you a bit self-conscious which is why traditionally in a lot of cultures mardi gras is celebrated by the wearing of masks where people can hide their faces, and adopt an extreme personality, and indulge in dancing and drinking. Venice is another city famous for its Mardi Gras celebrations and Shakespeare uses this tradition heavily in his play The Merchant Of Venice.
Shakespeare’s debt to Italy
First of all, credit where credit is due, many of Shakespeare’s comic characters are directly inspired from character types created in a form of Italian comedy called “Commedia Del’Arte-” The Comedy of Art. These were short improvised vignettes where performers donned masks and acted out a sort of improvised skit. Each actor spent years learning the voices and mannerisms of these stock characters like the scheming maid, (Columbina) the crafty servant (Arlequinno or Harlequin), or the greedy, dishonest innkeeper Brighella, who might have influenced Shylock himself. If you click on this website, there are some great scholarly articles about Commedia’s influence on Shakespeare, and how these characters helped forge all of his comedies, not just Merchant Of Venice.
Masks and Venetian culture
As this video from the Youtube historian Metatron explains, Commedia masks were just one of the masks that were front and center in Merchant Of Venice. Masks were part of Venetian society, not just during Carnival, which allowed Shakespeare to make masks part of the plot of Merchant Of Venice.
It’s not explicitly said, but I believe Shakespeare sets Act II of The Merchant Of Venice during a Carnival masquerade revel, where young men danced through the streets wearing masks. This might very well be during a carnival celebration, which means the play might very well be taking place during the twin seasons of Easter for Christians and Passover for Jews. This might very well be what Shakespeare was intending, as this clashing of religious dogman is at the heart of the play.
First, there’s Graziano, Bassanio’s wild and raunchy friend. In this speech, he deftly parodies the duelling concepts of Shrove Tuesday and Lent, by promising to be austere, wise, and virtuous tomorrow, but not tonight, when he and his friend Lorenzo will be walking through the streets in their masks.
Bassanio. Why then you must. But hear thee, Gratiano;745 Thou art too wild, too rude and bold of voice; Parts that become thee happily enough And in such eyes as ours appear not faults; But where thou art not known, why, there they show Something too liberal. Pray thee, take pain750 To allay with some cold drops of modesty Thy skipping spirit, lest through thy wild behavior I be misconstrued in the place I go to, And lose my hopes. Gratiano. Signior Bassanio, hear me:755 If I do not put on a sober habit, Talk with respect and swear but now and then, Wear prayer-books in my pocket, look demurely, Nay more, while grace is saying, hood mine eyes Thus with my hat, and sigh and say 'amen,'760 Use all the observance of civility, Like one well studied in a sad ostent To please his grandam, never trust me more. Bassanio. Well, we shall see your bearing. Gratiano. Nay, but I bar to-night: you shall not gauge me765 By what we do to-night. Bassanio. No, that were pity: I would entreat you rather to put on Your boldest suit of mirth, for we have friends That purpose merriment. But fare you well:770 I have some business.
While Gratziano and his friends are playing masquerade outside, Shylock instructs his daughter Jessica to shut up his doors and do not let the maskers in, or even look at them.
It’s entirely possible that the play itself might very well conclude around the time of Easter which is especially significant considering that it ends with a scene that inverts, subverts, and questions the Passion story of Jesus.
The courtroom scene from Merchant of Venice is almost a Passion Play in itself, where Shylock attempts to take a pound of flesh from the Christian Antonio, (who gives it as willingly as if he were Christ himself). Even though Jesus was crucified by Romans, for millennia the Jews were blamed for his death, and Shakespeare uses this anti-semetic imagery where Shylock stands in for the austerity of Mosaic law, rejecting the concept of divine Grace. Meanwhile, Portia is playing the judge, and she utters a poignant speech about mercy with almost God-like eloquence. This scene illustrates the established theological basis of Lent and Easter. According to Christian theology, the whole point of Lent is to remember and celebrate Christ’s sacrifice where we are redeemed from our sins. As she says, “We do pray for mercy, and that same prayer teaches us to render the deeds of mercy.” In a way, the sinful nature of mardi gras is not just a purging of human sin, it is also a way of acknowledging how far we fall short of God’s perfect ideals.
In that sense, Mardi Gras and Carnival are not a flouting or a rejection of Christian theology; it’s a reinforcement of it. Christians indulge in sin and acknowledge their sins the next day on Ash Wednesday, where they don black clothes and become contrite and this is our way of remembering Christ’s sacrifice and how necessary it was.
However, Shakespeare doesn’t have Antonio die like Christ, instead, it is Shylock the Jew who will metaphorically die and be reborn; he will convert to Christianity (and thus be dead to his former community), and his riches will give stability to Jessica and Lorenzo when Shylock dies. Shylock’s punishment at the end of the play is intentionally harsh and cruel, and many scholars have shown it as a demonstration of the limits of Christian mercy. Like the masks they put on every day, Venetian Christians seem pure and pious, but are inwardly corrupt and degenerate.
Shakespeare and Lent
You might have noticed that I used the word “purge” repeatedly in reference to what people do on carnival and mardi gras as a way of releasing their sins. The Purge movies do in fact have a basis in this concept. Traditionally the flowers that are part of purge days are actually given at Shrove tide. The Purge is also traditionally celebrated in mid March around the time of the vernal equinox, so the purge movies are a more extreme version of mardi gras, with the belief that the one illegal tendency people would indulge in alloed, would be murder, (which is a very bleak comment on human society).
What’s interesting is that Shakespeare creates his own sort of purging of society in his play Measure For Measure, and he creates a villain who is very much like an embodiment of um of lentin But
no man can is without sin and no and it is incredibly dangerous to assume that 1 Possibly making fun of her clothing and possibly also calling her a whore or a prostitute that that um you see it was traditional to eat Is the food a drink length until It’s a sexual It’s not as enjoyable and probably lower quality than the norm normal because of course the tradition of lent is a tradition of self denial and and in measure for measure he creates a character who is obsessed with his own piety and self denial the character of the judge Angelo in measure for measure he is a judge who is known for his piety and a society that is that it’s become too loose too loose to carnival ish and he is charged by the Duke who has chosen to Leave Vienna to with to become more dracodian to become more our strict and and legalistic and punish people use the fear of the law in order to command good behavior he sets the same standards for everybody else that he does for himself and that’s why the central conflict of the play is between him and Isabella whose brother who hasn’t committed any sins on stage but her brother Claudio is guilty of adultery well not no not guilty of adultery hes technically guilty of fornication in that he has consummated his marriage with the Woman before proceeding with the marriage rituals that I mentioned in my most recent Romeo Juliette portpost so hes being punished by 4 and a Kate for fornication fornication in in the the strictest and most technical definition of fornication he loves this woman he has made a pledge for her to be his wife legally they are married but it’s not good enough unless they make a formal request they get the consent of the parents and they and they are and they have a marriage ceremony performed in a church unless he does all of those things in Angelo’s mind he is guilty of fornication So you can see that Angelo has a stricter nature than most people would permit themselves and he is utterly and the concept of mercy is just as alien to hit him as it was to Shylock the main difference between the 2 characters that’s Angelo heights behind Christian piety not Jewish piety Ione and he turns out to be even more morally degenerate than Shylock because he is it is he is trying to manipulate uh manipulate Isabella in order to get her to sleep with him he wants to sleep with a nun because he thinks he deserves her he thinks that she is a reward for his piety
Angelo forgot what any person who celebrates mardi gras and ash Wednesday does that the purpose of lent is to remind ourselves that we are human know that we need mercy and to celebrate the sacrifice the Christ made so that we can continue to be human and not try to utter utterly lady destroy our imperfections that make us human so measure for meta The diconomy between Lynton and and a boccanelli or carnum Leonora carnival’s morals morals and in the end Isabella emerges from that crucible Victorious she defeats Angelo she exposes him as a failure as a failure she failure she ransoms her brother almost as definitely as Christ renziming humanity humanity and in the end she is offered the chance to either become a nun as she wanted or to become the Duke’s wife and therefore Queen of the whole country Taking a face value it looks like it seems like a fairy tale ending where this is the sort of person who should be governing somebody whose morality is tempered with mercy but but Shakespeare’s play is much Messier than that if you actually read it or see it performed formed it has Siri it’s a racist serious questions about how helpful oh helpful this this particular concept the concept is to women especially since Particularly when it comes to failings of the Flash in most productions I’ve seen you’ve Jew seen Juliet in measure for measure to for measure is as mocked and as disdained and is the and abused it’s viewed as Claudio is and Is life a reputation which is really all a woman had back in this period so Shakespeare does a good job of of showing the virtues of letting and carnival in Is illings of such rules it’s all very well and good to say we are allowed to be human man but very often women are set to higher standards than the men when it comes to if comes to standards of purity and piety
No hare, sir; unless a hare, sir, in a lenten pie, that is something stale and hoar ere it be spent. [Sings] An old hare hoar, And an old hare hoar, Is very good meat in lent But a hare that is hoar Is too much for a score, When it hoars ere it be spent. Romeo, will you come to your father’s? we’ll to dinner, thither.
–Mercutio, Romeo and Juliet
Lent and Measure FOr Measure
the Lenten season probably appealed to Shakespeare because much like “Twelfth Night” it is a season that momentarily subverts and then enforces the status quo. People indulge themselves in debauchery briefly, then commit themselves whole-heartedly to sobriety and piety. It shows the tendency towards the extreme in human nature, whether it be the grotesque, the sinful, the lusty, or even the austere. Like the masks at Carnival, we find these extremes of nature fascinating to watch as they dance before us and therefore, they also make for very good drama.
This week I’ll be celebrating Hanukkah with a series of posts and podcasts about Shakespeare’s only play to feature Jewish characters The Merchant Of Venice. I’ll have a new post about the play this week, and hopefully a podcast episode, but in the meantime, here are some of the post’s I’ve written in the past about the Merchant Of Venice.
Thanks for recommending this topic. I really enjoyed researching it. Disclaimer: Although I have a degree in Renaissance literature, I don’t have a degree in world religions. I don’t pretend to be an expert in Judaism and I apologize if I have gotten any cultural details wrong. As I have written before, this play has been used to spread harmful stereotypes and misinformation against Jews and Muslims, and I have no desire to do so. So don’t take this information as a comprehensive guide to the lives of Jews or indeed any 16th century Venetians. What I do intend to do is analyze how costumes from the play can evoke the people and cultures of that time.
Venice in the 16th century was a lot like modern day Manhattan- a multicultural epicenter of trade and commerce. https://youtu.be/FNZa9qazTvc
Many productions have costumes that emphasize the wealth and privilege of the Venetian world, except for Shylock
As this video shows, Jews in 16th century Venice were segregated into separate communities known as ghettos. Although the Jews found ways to survive and thrive in this situation, they faced constant discrimination and harassment.
In a modern productions or a period production the costume has to reflect a single vision for the show. Watch this interview with Globe Costume coordinator Laura Rushton: https://youtu.be/PaZmAuKE-Jg
2. Men’s Fashion- Italian fashion was all the rage in Shakespeare’s day. Gone were the stiff woolen tunics of the Middle ages, in with brightly colored silks and leathers. Young Men wore leather jackets called doublets and tight pants that showed off their legs. In the hot sun of Venice, light linnen undershirts were wore underneath the doublet. Wealthy men would wear fine silks and their jackets had slashed sleeves to show off the fine embroidered silk underneath.
Servants- Servants were given distinctive clothes known as liveries by their masters, which for a man would typically be a distinct colorful jacket. Women like Narissa, who were high-ranking ladies maids, would wear hand me down clothes from their mistresses. So this is why in most productions I have seen, Narissa and Portia wear similar clothing. This also helps show the trust and respect they have for each other.
A Note On Masks:
Act II, Scene 5, takes place during Carnival, one of the most celebrated holidays of Venice, and it’s usually celebrated by people wearing brightly colored masks. This great video below from history YouTuber Metetron shows just a little bit of background on Venetian masks:
3. Women’s Fashion- The women in the play Merchant Of Venice are treated line birds in a cage, especially Portia who literally lives on an island and has to marry the man who wins her at a carnival! With the restrictions of garments like partlets, bodies, or corsets, if you wore the fashions of the period, you would feel like your lungs were birds in a cage!
Although the dress was richer and more ornate (reflecting the relative peace during this period), the clothing was much more physically restrictive than medieval dresses: https://youtu.be/KCeqG47LI1Y
Jessica- Though most productions have Shylock’s daughter dressing like the Christian women, there is a long history of distinctive clothing for Jewish women as well as men. Sadly, the only video I could find refers to 14th century clothes, I think this video is very informative and extremely thoughtful
It’s worth noting that Shylock is not the central character in the story; the titular merchant is Antonio. Probably Shakespeare’s original audience saw him as a one dimensional villain for the audience to boo and hiss, then rejoice when he fails. He probably came onstage in 1596 wearing stereotypical red wig, a long gown, and a grotesquely oversized nose. The costume and performance gave the impression of someone foreign, alien, even demonic. This was one reason why some modern actors have balked at playing Shylock, as Patrick Stewart explains: https://youtu.be/7UOdMHW7J2Q
That said, Shakespeare clearly didn’t write him as one dimensional; he dominates the scenes he’s in and for centuries great actors have yearned to play Shylock over all the other characters. Slowly Shylock has become the focus of the play and the romantic comedy aspect has become less and less important in most modern productions. Like every great part, Shylock’s costume proclaims his social class, his background, and his relationship with other people.
In the play, Shylock only refers to his clothes once, referring to the gown he wears as “My Jewish gaberdine.” A Gaberdine is a long cloak like the one in the painting above, but as you can see, Jews were not the only people wearing them.
Because of rampant antisemitism and fear of the growing influence of the Jewish community in the 16th century, the Senate and local magistrates segregated and kept constant watch on the Jews of Venice, and one way they did that was by forcing Jewish people to wear distinctive clothes.
According to the Online Jewish Museum:
Jews were forced to wear various markings on their clothing to identify themselves as Jews. In 1394 they had to wear a yellow badge, it was changed to a yellow hat in 1496 and to a red hat in 1500.
As Shylock grew in popularity with actors and audiences, actors played him with more nuance. Contrast the foreign looking gown in the previous picture, with Charles Keen in the 19th century.
That is not to say that all productions played Shylock as a fully formed human: in 1934, the Nazi Party sponsored a German production of Merchant with horror actor Werner Krauss, (famous for films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) asShylock. You’ll notice that the costume again emphasizes otherness, and exaggerates Jewish stereotypes.
Patrick Stewart when he played Shylock in the 1970s, emphasized how Shylock is essentially an immigrant in his own country and played him with tattered clothes, a dirty bushy beard, and with an air of a stray dog. His clothes emphasise both his race’s oppression, while also telegraphing Shylock’s miserly attitude. Sir Patrick emphasized that his Shylock had lost so much in his life that he clings to Earthly wealth to feel in control of his life.
By contrast, David Suchet. (famous for his portrayal of detective Hercule Poirot), chose a near polar opposite interpretation of Shylock at about the same time. The main difference between Suchet and Stewart could basically be summed up by this fact, Suchet is actually Jewish, Stewart is not.
Because Stewart was portraying a member of a community to which he didn’t belong, his portrayal downplayed Shylock’s Jewish identity since he didn’t want to make assumptions about what being Jewish is like. This is why Stewart gave his Shylock an over-refined accent and made sure his costume didn’t emphasize any stereotypical Jewish elements.
Since Suchet actually is Jewish, he did not shy away from portraying Shylock’s jewishness. His Shylock is proud of being Jewish but is well aware of how other people see him. He knows that he is othered by the other Venetians, and can use their fear and hatred of him as a weapon against them. Suchet also dressed his Shylock as well to do, but not gawdy to try and command respect from other people, but also carried around a walking stick to use as a weapon.
6. Case study: the 2009 movie
The Prince of Morrocco: In Act II, Scene 7, The Princes of Morrocco and Aaragon (A region of Spain), come to Portia’s home on the island of Belmont to try solve the riddle of the three caskets. In order to show the audience that these men are foreigners, their costumes have to be distinct from the Venetians. Take a look at this was accomplished in the 2004 movie:
Mr. Harewood’s costume was inspired by the real Morroccon ambassador to Queen Elizabeth, Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud, who many scholars believe, might have also inspired Shakespeare to write Othello 6 years later.
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.
Al 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 inhuman 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 need 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.
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.
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 compels 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.