A Jewish reading of The Merchant of Venice

From Antonio spitting on Shylock's 'Jewish gabardine' to the moneylender's famous speech, 'If you prick us, do we not bleed?': Dr Aviva Dautch responds to The Merchant of Venice as a Jewish reader.

Twenty years ago, studying The Merchant of Venice at school, I was delighted when my English teacher picked me to perform Shylock. It took me a while to realise that this gender-blind casting (admittedly, it was an all girls’ school) was racially specific, owing nothing to my skill as an actress but rather to the fact that I was one of only a handful of Jewish students in my year. During the trial scene, the instructions were to lick my lips in anticipation at the blood I was about to spill and generally make Shylock as malevolent as possible until we booed him like a pantomime villain. Portia, cross-dressing legal eagle, became our feminist heroine. When Jessica abandoned her father and stole his jewels, the entire class cheered and then, obedient daughters, went home to our parents.

Henry Irving as Shylock and Ellen Terry as Portia

Photogravure images of Henry Irving as Shylock and Ellen Terry as Portia

The Victorian actor, Ellen Terry in the role of Portia, the cross-dressing lawyer

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The Merchant of Venice is termed a comedy since it ends in marriage rather than death. Good triumphs over evil (‘mercy’ represented by Christian Portia being good; ‘usury’ represented by the Jewish moneylender Shylock being evil) and everyone who matters lives happily ever after. According to my teacher, this was Shakespeare’s authorial intention, how it was played and received in Elizabethan England, and so this is what we were taught in late 20th-century Manchester. But my family’s attitude to the play was the opposite – ‘that horrible, anti-Semitic play’ they called it, the slights Shylock endured comparable to those many of our friends and relatives had experienced a few decades earlier in Second World War Europe, his forced conversion tragic, too painful to watch in the face of what they’d been through. For my community, the play’s most positive aspect was Shylock’s ‘dignified’ response to those tormenting him: ‘Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?’ (3.1.59–60) became a battle cry against all harms done, the shadows of the Holocaust still so close.

Photograph of the 1943 production of The Merchant of Venice directed by Lothar Müthel

Production photograph of the notorious 1943 production of The Merchant of Venice directed by Nazi Party member, Lothar Muthel

The Merchant of Venice in Nazi Vienna: Werner Krauss’s Shylock, according to one critic, offered ‘a pathological image of the East European Jewish type, expressing all its inner and outer uncleanliness’

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Copyright: © Ullstein bild/Getty Images

Photographs of Yiddish production of The Merchant of Venice in 1946

Photographs of Yiddish production of The Merchant of Venice in 1946

A brave decision to stage the play in London, immediately after the war: Meier Tzelniker played Shylock, with his daughter, Anna as the Christian Portia

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Copyright: © Courtesy of Jewish Museum London

Each of these perspectives is appealing in its certainty, but as an adult what I find most attractive about the play, why I return to it again and again despite its unsettling nature, is the nuanced writing that allows such contrasting interpretations to co-exist as valid readings. To view Shylock as hero or villain is reductive, just as I believe describing Shakespeare as anti- or philo-Semitic is redundant. While a contemporaneous audience might have applauded what they saw as a play of binaries – greed/generosity, revenge/mercy – with all the negative qualities represented by the figure of the moneylender, it seems to me that Shakespeare is doing something far more sophisticated.

Attitudes to Jewishness

To understand this fully, it’s essential to consider the play in the context of the time in which it was written and think about early modern cultural attitudes towards Jewishness. Shakespeare’s literary contemporaries, such as the poet John Donne, clearly believed the anti-Semitic propaganda around them and contributed to it themselves. Donne, who was Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, gave a sermon in 1624 perpetuating the Blood Libel. This is the entirely unsubstantiated anti-Semitic lie that Jews ritually murdered Christians to drink their blood and achieve salvation, first spread in the Middle Ages and the cause of several attacks of mob violence against Jewish communities. Donne’s perspective is absolutely standard for the time in which he was writing.

Marlowe's The Jew of Malta

Marlowe's The Jew of Malta

Christopher Marlowe’s Jew is an anti-Semitic stereotype – a greedy, murderous traitor

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Christopher Marlowe’s theatrical depiction of Jewishness in The Jew of Malta, performed regularly in the early 1590s, is an obvious influence on the composition of The Merchant of Venice, which is usually dated between 1596 and 1598. In 1594 Queen Elizabeth’s doctor, Roderigo López, a Portuguese Jew, was accused of attempting to poison his mistress and put on trial for treason. Racial propaganda was a major element in his conviction and his execution was celebrated throughout the country. Exploiting López’s notoriety, The Jew of Malta was revived at the Rose Theatre and enjoyed a successful run. Although Marlowe may have intended his play to be a satire of the political classes, its Elizabethan producers capitalised on its crude anti-Semitic stereotypes. Marlowe’s Jew, Barabas, has few redeeming qualities. He is more vulgarly and less compassionately drawn than Shakespeare’s moneylender, greedy, murderous and a traitor who turns on both the Maltese and the Turks. While, like Shakespeare, Marlowe has his Jewish character express his resentment at his poor treatment by Christian characters, there is no doubt where the audience’s sympathies are intended to lie. With such entrenched anti-Semitism evident in Elizabethan and Jacobean society, it is interesting that, in contrast to Marlowe and Donne, Shakespeare seems to suggest that if the Jew is a monster, it is because the Christian population around him have treated him as such.

Henry Irving as Shylock and Ellen Terry as Portia

Photogravure images of Henry Irving as Shylock and Ellen Terry as Portia

Playing Shylock in 1879, Irving felt the play revealed how ‘the worst passions of human nature are nurtured by undeserved persecution’

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Shylock and Christian Values

In Act 1, Shylock challenges Antonio, the ‘good signor’ (1.1.65), who deplores usury yet wishes to borrow money from him, about whether he should lend money to someone who has behaved so badly towards him in the past.

Signor Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances:
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
(For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe).
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own. (1.3.106–13)

Sermons against usury

Sermon against usury

The ‘silver-tongued’ preacher, Henry Smith condemns lending money at interest, and makes an uncomfortable link between Jews and usury

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Antonio, who treats Bassanio with love and generosity, is neither loving nor generous towards the Jew. The treatment Shylock has endured at his hands is brutal and reductive. Read in light of Nazi caricatures of Jews as animals, or Hitler’s description of Untermenschen, the ‘sub-human’, Antonio’s casual abuse of Shylock as a ‘dog’ has sinister resonance. If Antonio’s motivation is religious – a hatred of lending money at interest which is forbidden by the New Testament – where is his obedience to other Christian injunctions such as ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’?

All this is even more telling because, like Shylock, Antonio is an ambiguous figure, his friendship with Bassanio layered with homoerotic undertones. The quality of their relationship seems different from that between the men around them and Solano says of Antonio’s feelings towards Bassanio, ‘I think he loves the world only for him’ (2.8.50). Many directors characterise him as overtly gay, frustrated by unrequited desire. However explicitly Shakespeare intended this to be understood, Antonio stands out as a figure alone. While we might hope that those on the margins will support each other and find strength by standing together, often they turn on one another as here Antonio turns on Shylock.

Portia is equally selective in her application of Christian values towards others. With her ‘quality of mercy is not strained’ speech in Act 4, she lectures Shylock, that mercy is ‘twice blest; / it blesseth him that gives and him that takes’ (4.1.184–86). When Shylock’s desire for revenge is couched as justice, the Hebrew Bible’s Lex Talionis, an eye for an eye, a pound of flesh for a debt of three thousand ducats, she cautions him against it:

Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy… (4.1.197–200)

Untempered by mercy, unmitigated justice can be the source of decidedly un-Christian and painful consequences that lead to the opposite of salvation. Yet none of the Christian characters show mercy towards Shylock, not even Portia, but rather rejoice in his downfall – to them, his loss of his money, his daughter and his identity seem just reward for his dealings with Antonio.

17th-century scales and coin weights

17th-century scales and coin weights

Scales used to check the right weight of coins, but also a symbol of justice

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Copyright: © Trustees of the British Museum

Men, marriage and rings

The parallels created between the Christian men and Shylock can be explored through the symbolism of rings. After Bassanio selects the correct casket in Act 3, winning Portia’s hand in marriage, she proclaims all she owns, herself included, to be his property:

I give them with this ring;
Which when you part from, lose, or give away,
Let it presage the ruin of your love
And be my vantage to exclaim on you. (3.2.171–74)

The ring is a token of possession, submission even, drawn from the marriage ceremony, never to leave Bassanio’s finger. Yet in comedic interplay, raising fascinating gender implications about power and cost, when dressed as the lawyer Balthazar, Portia convinces him to give up the ring as payment for saving Antonio. Nerissa, in costume as the lawyer’s clerk, mirrors her mistress and in turn persuades Gratiano to relinquish the ring he received from her. Then Portia chides the men for their fickleness:

If you had known the virtue of the ring,
Or half her worthiness that gave the ring,
Or your own honour to contain the ring,
You would not then have parted with the ring. (5.1.199–203)

She emphasises that the ring is valuable as, ‘the thing held as ceremony’ (5.1.206). Its meaning transcends its purchasing price and should be held close as a marker of love and relationship, something Bassanio and Gratiano had failed to fully appreciate. The only man in the world of the play who does fully understand the significant meaning of the ring and, by implication, of the depth of feeling involved in marriage itself, is Shylock. When Jessica runs away with Lorenzo, in a move applauded by the Christian characters, she takes with her not only her father’s ducats and jewels, but also his ring, given by his dead wife. As Shylock cries to Tubal: ‘it was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor: I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.’ (3.1.120–23)

Jewish marriage-ring

Jewish marriage-ring

An elaborate Jewish marriage-ring, possibly from Venice

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Copyright: © The British Museum

Shylock is resistant to his daughter marrying out of his faith, but no more so than contemporaneous Christian characters would be if their daughters did so. He is a family man: both too controlling and passionately committed. He loves his late wife Leah and is broken when Jessica deserts him. He is over-fond of his wealth, angry and vengeful; he is also a shrewd businessman, resentful at how badly he is treated by Antonio and his friends. He is not merely a caricature but a fully rounded human who deserves to be seen as such. At the heart of the play is his cry ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ (3.1.64), which leads to ‘if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?’ (3.1.66–67). When he admonishes ‘the villainy you teach me, I will execute’ (3.1.71–72), it is a statement chillingly resonant centuries later, telling those who have persecuted him that, if he has murderous intentions, it is because Antonio and company have radicalised him. Does this make him a hero? Absolutely not. Does it make him understandable? Absolutely.

Jonathan Bate claims that Shakespeare set the play in Venice to represent the modern city. This is appropriate for what seems a very modern play if we read it not as a binary ‘either/or’ but a ‘both/and’, and see that Shakespeare is playing with anti-Semitic stereotypes and challenging them simultaneously, just as he confronts questions of what it means to be a woman in relationship to a man. He gives agency to the marginal while critiquing how people use and abuse power when they are in the majority. He reinforces Christian values while highlighting how they are selectively interpreted in the 16th century and condemns and converts the Jewish moneylender he depicts while giving him one of the most resonant speeches in his whole oeuvre.

Reading The Merchant of Venice as an English Jew is a study in disjuncture. I grew up with a Rabbinic tradition which teaches that two seemingly oppositional truths can co-exist: ‘these and these are the living words of God’ argues the Talmud, and one of the most frequent phrases in Jewish textual commentaries is ‘And another opinion…’ The unsettling complexity of holding opposing views in tension is never more evident for a Jewish literary scholar than when thinking about this particular play. Perhaps it’s due wholly to my readerly identity, but I would argue that a nuanced exploration of The Merchant of Venice confirms that Shakespeare’s writing is at its best when exposing how we are all more than one thing – speaking about principles we don’t always observe ourselves, loving those close to us while mistreating others, at times victim at times perpetrator and, in our complexity, fully human.

Jewish book of customs

Jewish book of customs

A rabbi gives the sermon in a synagogue, from a Venetian book of Jewish festivals and traditions, 1600

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  • Aviva Dautch
  • Dr Aviva Dautch is a poet, literary critic and curator. As an academic, she specialises in the Renaissance and Modernist periods, with a PhD in Modern Metaphysical Poetry, and has taught English Literature and Creative Writing at the British Library since 2007. She is Poet in Residence at the Jewish Museum, London, her poems, reviews and literary essays are widely published internationally in journals and magazines, and she has recently received an award from Brandeis University to complete her first full collection of poetry, ‘We Sigh For Houses’.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

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