One of the pleasures of retirement, at least for me, is reading a Shakespeare play each month. November’s choice was Merchant of Venice.
The play’s theme is that rulers should value the spirit of the law over the letter of the law and leaven punishment with mercy. Queen Elizabeth saw a performance, so Shakespeare wasn’t just preaching to the groundlings. It’s unbefitting of a Christian ruler to insist on legal literalism and harsh punishment because that’s a Jewish thing — a relic of the eye-for-an-eye Old Testament. Shakespeare dramatizes the theme through the moneylender Shylock, a riveting character given more lines than the merchant the play is named after.
By ironclad contract, Shylock is entitled to a pound of the merchant’s flesh as collateral for the merchant’s failure to repay a loan. A friend of the merchant offers to pay twice the loan amount if Shylock backs off, but Shylock refuses. Why? Because Shylock has endured a lifetime of abuse, including from the merchant. “You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, and spit upon my Jewish gaberdine [coat],” he reminds the merchant. Venice was the commercial engine of Europe. Jewish credit made it so. Yet Jews, penned in the original ghetto and demeaned daily, were never granted equal rights — and were treated even worse in England, where they were continually persecuted until banished in 1290.
It’s questionable whether Shakespeare himself was anti-Semitic. Critics cite Shylock’s eloquent “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” oration as proof Shakespeare sympathized with Jews, at least to an extent. And in his personal life Shakespeare almost certainly consorted with Emilia Bassano, a Venetian Jewish woman (and object of the most credible argument that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays attributed to him), at a time hardly any Jews lived in England. A prominent character in Merchant is named Bassanio. Coincidence? Unlikely.
Judging from Merchant of Venice, it’s also questionable whether Shakespeare was sexist or racist. The true hero is Portia, who while disguised as a man outmaneuvers the lead male characters. The Prince of Morocco is granted an opportunity to win high-born Portia’s hand, and though he fails, in a later play, Othello, the Moor does get the fair-skinned love interest (albeit with tragic results).
Regardless of whether Shakespeare was sexist, racist, or anti-Semitic, the Elizabethan sensibility was — and the U.S. is a product of that sensibility. Jamestown was established during Shakespeare’s lifetime, Plymouth three years after his passing. The original colonists brought with them the rampant, unexamined biases of their time, and they and their descendants wove those biases into the American social fabric.
Outsider groups can take only so much before they snap. Shakespeare’s Shylock gives in to his worst impulse and is punished for it — overly so in a comedy advocating juridical compassion. But the story ends happily for the rest of the cast; all’s well that ends well for the “right” people.
It still does, in a way that leaves outsiders alternately contemplating arguments for equality and fantasies of revenge. Consider this remarkable video by Kimberly Latrice Jones, which went viral shortly after George Floyd’s murder. Pay particular attention to the last 45 seconds: “You are lucky that what black people are looking for is equality and not revenge.” That’s the voice of Shylock, barely — just barely — restraining his worst impulse.
Only fools will tell you literature, including that of dead white males, has nothing to teach them. The legacy of Elizabethan England — and the story of Merchant of Venice — remain stubbornly relevant in the U.S. four centuries on.
By the way, if you’re looking for an authoritative Shakespeare collection, I recommend William Shakespeare, Complete Works (New York: Modern Library, 2007) edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen for the Royal Shakespeare Company.