Roy Lotz's Reviews > The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
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bookshelves: drama, anglophilia, bardolatry
Read 2 times. Last read July 9, 2018.

I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching.

In my first review of this play I agonized over whether it was truly anti-Semitic or not. Now I am not unsure: this play is undoubtedly anti-Semitic. The plot is simply incoherent if Shylock is to be regarded as anything but a villain. Sympathetic as we may be to a man so mistreated, we cannot sympathize with someone so single-mindedly bent on material gain and bloody vengeance. No playgoer can conscientiously hope, in the trial scene, that Shylock is successful in fulfilling his bond. And Shakespeare does not allow us to suspect that Shylock is bluffing: he is prepared to cut out a man’s flesh and weigh it on a scale (a traditional anti-Semitic image) simply because "it is my humour." If Shakespeare was trying to be slyly subversive, he did a very poor job.

What provokes audiences into sympathy with Shylock is the end of the trial, in which, aside from being denied his money, he is forcibly converted to Christianity, on pain of death. To us this seems such an obvious mockery of justice, such an undeniable outrage, that we assume Shakespeare must have felt the same way, and to have written the scene to undermine all the Christian talk of mercy. Yet I do not think Shylock’s fate would have provoked anything like this reaction in Shakespeare’s England, where anti-Semitism was taken for granted. To the contrary, that such a greedy and bloodthirsty Jew should be spared some of his fortune and accepted into Christianity might have been seen as wholly just, even merciful.

The final result of this—Shylock’s villainy and the play’s anti-Semitism—made the trial scene literally sickening for me. One man, mistreated and spiteful, is trying to legally kill another man for defaulting on a debt, and he is in turn stripped of his property, his identity, and his honor—humiliated, kicked, and spat upon. And all this is delivered as the denouement of a romantic farce, complete with cross-dressing ladies and a playful love story. I admit that I was in no mood to overlook or excuse the anti-Semitism, having recently stood in the Ghetto Vecchio in Venice, and seen the monuments to the deported Jews there. Even so, I think anyone must admit that the play’s dramatic coherence is seriously compromised, even destroyed, by the decline of anti-Semitism.

It speaks to the power of Shakespeare’s art that, even in such an obviously anti-Semitic play, which uses so shamelessly anti-Jewish stereotypes, and which so joyfully persecutes the play’s Jewish villain—even despite all this, we still read and stage this play. As often happens in life, charisma can deaden our moral senses; and Shylock is nothing if not charismatic. He is one of dozens of Shakespeare’s characters whose dialogue reveals a complete personality, a shifting mind whose depths we can only guess at, whose roving interior life extends into parts unknown. Somehow Shakespeare has conjured a character that embodies all of the negative Jewish stereotypes, yet who nevertheless is a believable and fully individual human. This is dramatically admirable and, in retrospect, morally reprehensible. For, as Harold Bloom said, Shylock’s very plausibility is why the play has been such a potent inspiration for anti-Semites.

I am not sure what conclusion to draw from all this. The play is without doubt one of Shakespeare’s stronger efforts. And yet, by the end, I felt little more then distress.
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Reading Progress

July 7, 2013 – Shelved
July 7, 2013 – Shelved as: to-read
Started Reading
March 17, 2014 – Finished Reading
May 10, 2015 – Shelved as: drama
September 29, 2017 – Shelved as: anglophilia
March 18, 2018 – Shelved as: bardolatry
Started Reading
July 9, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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message 1: by Thomas (new)

Thomas Salerno The Merchant of Venice was the first of Shakespeare's plays that I ever read. I was in junior high and still remember having to write an essay on whether or not I thought the play was antisemitic. Viewed in retrospect, asking a fourteen-year-old to answer a question that, as you rightly point out, scholars have been debating for a long time, seems a bit silly. On the other hand, it was probably a good exercise in critical thinking. After all these years I unfortunately remember little of the play or my response to it. I do recall pointing out that when Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity, the other characters probably believed they were doing the Jewish moneylender a great favor by saving his soul. That qualification hardly makes the play's ending any more palatable to modern sensibilities, and that's okay. I've always been meaning to reread the great plays of Shakespeare. Hopefully I'll get around to it in the near future.

message 2: by Roy (new) - rated it 3 stars

Roy Lotz Haha, I agree with you. That's a big task for a junior high school student. I was a terrible English student in junior high and high school, and managed to never seriously read Shakespeare until my senior year of undergraduate. So there's always time!

message 3: by Fergus (new)

Fergus I cannot agree more, Roy.

Coming out of middle school I thought it was a pretty neat play and my favourite as a high school freshman. I thought it was all so unfair to Shylock, though, and couldn't figure out why.

Recently I listened to the audiobook and recognized the play as the sitcom-like racist potboiler it is.

Just couldn't see that back in high school!

message 4: by Roy (new) - rated it 3 stars

Roy Lotz Fergus wrote: "Recently I listened to the audiobook and recognized the play as the sitcom-like racist potboiler it is."

Nice phrase!

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