** spoiler alert **
The Merchant of Venice (1596-1598) was hard for me to get through, because the theme of the play centers around anti-semitism. The plot of the play centers around a young man, Bassanio, in need of money so that he can be a suitor to a wealthy woman. He has a friend, Antonio, borrow the money on bond from Shylock, a Jew, who does not want to participate in the deal because of Antonio’s anti-semitism and refusal to lend or borrow with interest. (Historical note: Christians used to be unwilling to deal in usury, or using interest for loans, and considered it against their religion. Usury was not against the Jewish faith, so Jews became an integral part of Christian economy, filling an economic void. This is where the greed stereotypes come from and was a major reason Jews were hated throughout Christendom and were scapegoated for Germany’s financial depression before World War II.) Shylock is reluctant to agree to the deal because Antonio has screwed him over before, but finally agrees to the deal if he may take a pound of Antonio’s flesh if Antonio does not pay up before the agreed upon date. They sign a contract, and Antonio is happy with it because he does not have to pay any interest. I think we can all agree that the deal is morbid in the first place, and Antonio is an idiot for signing it.
The play rages on, Bassanio gets the girl, Portia, (in a manner that treats her as property, I might add), Shylock’s daughter steals from him and runs off with a Christian, and Antonio ends up not being able to pay up on time. Shylock demands that the pound of flesh be taken from Antonio, even after he is offered his repayment with interest after the due date for repayment, and demands that his revenge is legal and just. Portia takes on the guise of a male judge (cross-dressing is a reoccurring theme in almost all of Shakespeare’s comedies) and saves the day through a loophole in the contract. Everyone but Shylock, who is forced to convert to Christianity, give money to Antonio for his lifetime, and leave his estate to his runaway daughter, lives happily ever after.
I know that there is a great debate as to whether or not the play is actually anti-semitic itself, and the main Jewish character, Shylock, has been played on stage as both a sympathetic character and a supreme villan. So it’s all in how you read it (though I’d say that it’s the situation in which the characters are placed and not their actions that show Shakespeare’s anti-semitic intent). The non-Jewish characters, however, are decidedly anti-semitic, and just that made me sick with anger reading it. This may paint me as overly sensitive, and I am usually apt to look at classics as pieces of social history, thus I realize the work accurately depicts the general attitude of the time. But, when reading works like these, I’m constantly running the historical narrative in my head, and can’t shut that part of my brain off enough to enjoy the plot of the work.