“Christian” Imperial Charity
Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice is as per usual as a play an excellent play. However it’s excellence as a play and of course Shakespeare’s well deserved status as a truly great playwright has to a large extent muted the response to the fact that the play has some truly ugly features to it.
It of course is commonly recognized that the play is anti-Judaic.1 It is also recognized that the play’s depiction of Shylock is a collection of stereotypes and clichés by in large. That these clichés and stereotypes and anti-Judaic myths, were later transmitted into racial anti-Semitism is also recognized. But then the “buts” come rolling in. We are treated to arguments that Shylock is a rounded character that he is given good speeches; that the play is about the triumph of love and charity, that it is fairy tale, that Shylock is a fantasy villain, a hobgoblin, and a wicked uncle that we are not to take any of this seriously in the slightest. That Shylock is such an obnoxious individual, and he is, that his being Jewish is incidental.
That there is a certain defensiveness about Shylock and The Merchant of Venice, in the wake of the Holocaust is hardly a surprise. After all what modern audience weaned away from the notion of elemental Jewish wickedness and aware of the horrors of the Holocaust would not feel uncomfortable with the character of Shylock and not necessarily find his defeat the triumph of good over evil or find the heroes and heroines of the play quite so admirable. We simply lack belief in the assumptions that Shakespeare’s audience had.
And the various defences of the play are not terribly convincing. Instead of simply admitting that the play has a point of view that is largely unacceptable to a modern audience, attempts are made to special plead objections away or deny the essential offensiveness of much of the play.
The title of this posting “’Christian’ Imperial Charity”, refers to the attitude of self satisfied, arrogant superiority that the “Christians” in the play have regarding Shylock. They are when push comes to shove a truly smug lot, basking in their feelings of superiority and in their self regard as compassionate, caring and loving, although imperfect.
As for the idea that Shylock being a Jew is merely incidental and that the real point is that he is obnoxious and in fact evil. Sorry that doesn’t wash. The “Christians” in the play are positively obsessed with Shylock’s Jewishness. Throughout the play Shylock is continually referred to as “the Jew”, it is obvious that the other characters in the play regard it as a significant and in fact predominate indication of his essential character. Also it is my contention that the use of the noun Jew in the play is intended and in fact used by the characters in the play as a term of abuse. So in this posting it shall be treated as an abusive term but only in the context of the play and the character’s attitudes.
The "Christian" characters can’t be bothered most of the time to use his name Shylock.
The following indicates the number of uses of various terms for Shylock in the play:
Shylock - 15
Father - 6
Hebrew - 1
Old Master - 1
Sir - 1
Worship - 1
Subtotal - 25
Jew - 75
Devil - 6
Wolf - 3
Fiend - 2
Scylla - 1
Creature - 1
Villain - 1
Enemy - 1
Starved - 1
Ravenous - 1
Currish - 1
Infidel - 1
Sub Total - 94
He, Thou etc. - 98
Grand Total - 217
As the above table illustrates more than a third of the time the characters in the play refer to Shylock they use the term “Jew”; calling the audiences attention to the fact that that Shylock is a Jew constantly. It is also evident that the characters in the play view the term “Jew” as insulting, and use it in such a way that it is meant to be insulting, as the term, referring to Shylock, as “Jewish heart”, no doubt in contrast to a good “Christian” heart. Now terms like he, him, his, thee and thou were common everyday terms to refer to people, although we’ve lost the terms thee and thou. The fact that altogether they number just 98 and not one of the individual terms equals “Jew” in terms of frequency used to describe or designate Shylock, indicates just how omnipresent in the minds of the characters is the fact Shylock is a Jew. Further Jew is by far the most common descriptive term for Shylock for out of 119 descriptive terms 75 use the term “Jew”, which is 63% of all the descriptive nouns used to describe Shylock. A further 18 terms are abusive and amount to 15% of the terms. Thus in total 78% of the terms used to describe Shylock are abusive, at least in the eyes of the “Christian” heroes and heroines. A mere 22% of the descriptive nouns used to describe Shylock are non-abusive. Shylock’s name amounts to a mere 12% of the nouns used as describers of him, the other terms are a mere 10%. Thus more than ¾ of all the terms used to describe Shylock are, at least from the “Christians” point of view abusive. Of course turning the noun “Jew” into a term of abuse is a indication of the attitude of the “Christian" characters in the play towards Shylock and Jews in general.
Of course the less hostile nouns are those which are designed to be ingratiating. In most of the play our “Christians” do not refer to Shylock as “the Jew” to his face, they insult him behind his back while ingratiating themselves to him to his face. Thus their positive comments lack sincerity while their angry and contemptuous comments are very sincere. As for referring to Shylock as “father” that is done 4 times by Shylock’s daughter’s Jessica, who would of course refer to her father as father, although even she refers to her father once as “the Jew”, and calls him a “Scylla”. Yes Even Shylock’s own daughter sees him as the “other” to some extent.
Even if you divide up the terms by character you get the obsession of the “Christian” characters with Shylock’s Jewishness.
Antonio refers to Shylock as:
Shylock - 4
Hebrew - 1
Jew - 9
Devil - 1
Wolf - 1
He, his etc. - 16
Thus only 4 times does Antonio refer to Shylock by name, and only 5 times “neutral” style. He does refer to Shylock as a Jew 9 times and a total of 11 times in an abusive manner. Antonio then uses he, his etc, a total of 16 times. Out of the 32 times Antonio refers to Shylock a little more than one third are abusive and out of 16 descriptive nouns 11 are abusive and the majority of the descriptive nouns are the word Jew.
The Duke of Venice seems to be a more balanced man in his dealings with Shylock:
Shylock - 2
Jew - 2
He, his etc. - 11
Thus out of a total of 15 expressions 11 are he, his etc, making more than 2/3rds of the expressions used to describe Shylock. Of the descriptive nouns ½ are Shylock's name, (2) and ½ is the term Jew. The Duke doesn’t seem quite so obsessive as Antonio or most of the other “Christian” characters in the play with Shylock’s wicked Jewishness.
Salerio is also a different from most of the Christian characters.
Jew - 1
Creature - 1
He, his etc. - 13
The great majority of the time, out of a total of 15 times, Salerio does not refer to Shylock in an abusive manner. However in the only two cases in which Salerio uses descriptive nouns both are abusive. In one case Jew in the other the term creature, which indicates someone who is the wicked other.
Bassanio, the gigolo of the play, refers to Shylock in the following manner.
Shylock - 2
Old master - 1
Jew - 2
Devil - 2
Villain - 1
Enemy - 1
He, his etc. - 3
Bassanio refers to Shylock twice by name and a total of three times by neutral descriptive nouns. He also refers to Shylock as he, his etc, three times, out of a total of 12 times. Out of 9 descriptive nouns 6 are abusive (2/3rds). If Bassanio only uses the term Jew twice he makes up for it by 4 other abusive terms. Like the others Bassanio can’t get Shylock’s Jewishness out of his head.
Gratiano refers to Shylock in the following manner.
Jew - 7
Wolf - 2
Starved - 1
Ravenous - 1
Currish - 1
Infidel - 1
He, his etc. - 15
Out of a total of 28 times Gratiano refers to Shylock as he, his etc, 15 times. Out of the 13 descriptive nouns all are abusive. More than ½ are the term Jew and the remaining 6 a variety of abuse. Gratiano can not be bothered to use Shylocks name even once.
The Clerk at the trial can’t be bothered to use Shylock’s name and when referring to him his one and only time uses the term Jew.
Portia refers to Shylock in the following manner.
Shylock - 4
Jew - 11
He, his etc. - 32
Out of a Total of 47 times that Portia refers to Shylock she uses the term he, his etc, a total of 32 times. Out of the 15 descriptive nouns that Portia uses to describe Shylock she uses the term Jew 11 times, more than 2/3rds of the time and she uses Shylock's name a total of 4 times. Another character who can not get Shylock’s Jewishness out of her head.
Launcelot goes overboard in referring to Shylock’s Jewishness as will be seen below.
Shylock - 1
Worship - 1
Sir - 1
Father - 1
Jew - 27
Devil - 2
Fiend - 2
He, his, etc. - 3
Thus out of a total of 38 times Launcelot refers to Shylock he uses the terms he, his etc. a total of 3 times, less than 1/10th. Out of the 35 descriptive nouns, Launcelot manages to use Shylocks name precisely once. He also uses the term father once and is the only person to use the term sir. Only 4 out of 35 descriptive nouns are non abusive although the one worship is sarcastic. Launcelot in the 31 descriptive terms uses the abusive terms devil and fiend twice each. However Launcelot uses the term Jew no less than 27 times, more than any other character in the play and in fact a bit more than 1/3rd of the total use of the noun in the play. In fact the term Jew represents more than ¾ of all the descriptive nouns used by Launcelot to describe Shylock. Launcelot is truly obsessed with Shylock’s Jewishness. The term Jew even represents more than 2/3rds of all of Launcelot’s references to Shylock in the play!
Gobbo refers to Shylock as a Jew twice and refers to him in no other fashion.
Jessica, being Shylock’s daughter refers to Shylock in the following fashion.
Father - 4
Jew - 1
Scylla - 1
Out of a total of 6 references to Shylock as father Jessica being the daughter refers to him as father 4 times or 2/3rds of the times. However out of Jessica’s 6 references to Shylock 2 are abusive. Well even the daughter must join in. Jessica refers to Shylock as a Scylla, a ravenous hungry monster from Greek mythology and once as Jew. By referring to her father as a Jew Jessica declares that she is not the dangerous wicked other that is a Jew, she spurns her parents, both of them. It is fascinating that Jessica’s love Lorenzo slights /insults Jessica’s apparently deceased mother and nary a reaction from Jessica. Jessica rejects her parents; her former faith and everything connected to both and dumps it all in the trash can of her contempt. Oh and we’re supposed to celebrate this and regard it as unproblematic, because after all Jessica is motivated by love! Of course her contempt for her father doesn’t prevent her from being very fond of her father’s money, which she steals with the aid of Lorenzo.
Jessica’s love Lorenzo refers to Shylock in the following fashion. Lorenzo refers to Shylock a total of 5 times and 4 of those uses the term Jew and once as father. It is interesting that even when talking to Jessica Lorenzo refers to Shylock as Jew and not by his name or by the term father, (There is one exception to this). That this is disrespectful is obvious and Jessica’s lack of response says volumes. Lorenzo like the rest of the “Christian” Characters is obsessed with Shylock’s Jewishness even when talking to Shylock’s daughter he can not help himself from referring to Shylock’s Jewishness. Like Jessica Lorenzo is deeply fond of Shylock’s money.
Solanio refers to Shylock in the following fashion.
Shylock - 1
Jew - 4
Devil - 1
He, his etc. - 5
Solanio refers to Shylock a total of 11 times, of those times 5 are terms like he, his etc. Of the 6 descriptive nouns only one is Shylock’s name. The remaining nouns are abusive. It is noted that 4, more than 2/3rds, of the descriptive nouns is the term Jew. Once again a character is obsessed with Shylock’s Jewishness.
Stage directions. It is interesting to note that Shylock is referred to as Jew three times and as Shylock only once. It appears whoever first put the play on had Shylock’s Jewishness very much in mind.
Given that it is painfully obvious that the characters in the play seem to think of Shylock most of the time if not all of the time as “the Jew”; and that they view being Jewish as some sort of disease, that makes you wicked on some level, to be cured by becoming a “Christian”, how can it be denied that the play is deeply anti-Judaic? That the term Jew is considered in and of itself insulting is obvious from such terms as “dog Jew” in the play etc.
The play’s plot main plot isn’t a love story, (The whole casket thing and related love stories are amusing, but simple fluff to decorate the main plot), it is the triumph of Christianity over Judaism. The “Christian” characters, are in relation to Shylock smug and superior, not simply because Shylock is an obnoxious human being, which he most definitely is, but because in their minds eye Shylock’s Jewishness is deeply offensive and in fact evil, and that their “Christianity” makes them superior. In relation to Shylock they show no humility whatsoever, they base their superiority on being “Christian”, and Shylock’s inferiority not on him being a vicious, greedy, murderous lout but on him being Jewish. At no place in the play does it occur to a single “Christian” character that there might be distinction between Shylock’s Jewishness and Shylock being a horrible human being.2
The play’s picture of Judaism being cold, harsh, vengeful and legalistic is contrasted with Christianity being about love, charity, kindness and compassion. Ah but it is a special compassion, a murderous compassion. Beneath the “compassion” in this version of “Christianity” is torture and murder.3
The very fact of Shylock conspiring, plotting to kill Antonio goes back to the legends of Jewish ritual murder, whereby Jews allegedly killed Christians, usually children, in religious ceremonies, drained them of their blood and consumed it. That is the fundamental source of Shylock’s plot to kill Antonio. Some of the terms used to describe Shylock conjure up images of ritual murder and cannibalistic consumption; like “starved”, “ravenous” and “wolf”.4 The fact that Jewish dietary laws specifically forbid the consumption of blood, that is what kosher meat is all about, is forgotton / ignored.
In the fevered world of the “Christians” in the play the “Jew” is the demonic evil alien out to destroy Christians out of malice and greed. Thus we have Shylock admitting that he hates Antonio because he is a “Christian” and for lending money interest free. Thus the image of the evil “Jew” plotting against the innocent “Christian”. The blameless “Christian” is helpless against the diabolical plotting of this powerful, hateful “devil”. (Calling Jews devils, i.e., satanic, as a long history prior to Shakespeare.) Only good luck and divine intervention of some sort can defeat the machinations of this powerful adversary. Thus “Christians” are helpless would be victims of this powerful indeed often satanic force. Thus in the play we see the image of Shylock the Jew, as vastly powerful that even the Duke of Venice cannot stop him and only luck and God’s blessings can stave off his triumph. In this case in the fortuitous, almost miraculous intervention of Portia. That this image neatly encapsulates “Christian” Medieval and later mythology about Jews is not a coincidence. Of course this mythology averts its eyes from the actual situation in which Jews lived lives of insecurity and oppression. Further it ignores the second class status of Jews as sanctified by myriad laws. It also ignores the stream of contempt and out and out hatred coming out of government and pulpit. It ignores the position of Jews as a pariah people in “Christian” Europe.5
Thus carefully elided from view is the idea of Jews as victims; instead it is the “Christians”, who oppress Jews, i.e., victimize Jews, who are victims of Jews. This is a form of projection that to a large extent inverts reality and denies that “Christians” victimize Jews. Thus the pogroms, torture and murder that occurred are simply forgotten down the memory hole and the oppressor fancies himself as the innocent victim. The twisted psychological aspects of this are obvious. The “Christian” sees the Jew as in some sense evil and deserving of suffering and rejoices in the Jew getting it. Further if a Jew or Jews suffer that is viewed as divine punishment from God, forgetting that men are the ones doing the punishing. Of course when “Christians” suffer it is the doings of evil men or Satan or both.
This vision of reality is of course highly perverse and the play plays into that distorted and in fact lying paranoid view, of the innocent “Christian” attacked by the evil Jew.
Thus the “Christians” hatred of Jews is projected onto the Jew and it is assumed that the Jew hates, oppresses, kills and plots against the “Christians” in the same way that “Christians” oppress, demonize and in fact hate Jews and also torture and kill them.
The Merchant of Venice is part and parcel of this hoary psychotic myth.
In this essay I have put the terms Christian, Christians and Christianity frequently in quotes. What I mean by this is that those people and this type of “Christian” beliefs are so called. They are in many ways a betrayal. And no, I don’t think I’m using the no true Scotsman fallacy. Perhaps another time I will explore why I think this is so. I also use quotes because I believe that the humility, compassion etc., of the “Christians” in the play is also so called and in fact masks hatred and contempt and smug arrogance.
The other reason I use quotes is because quite simply that one of the great historical myths is the myth of eternal anti-Semitism. It is utter nonsense. The evidence is overwhelming that the psychotic anti-Judaism that in the 19th century mutated into anti-Semitism, i.e., hatred of Jews based on myths concerning race, is not eternal in the slightest. Jews and Christians have gotten along quite well over the centuries. In fact that fact infuriated many people who blinded by myth and the prospect of gain deliberately created and fanned the hatred. It is a fact that some early fathers of Church, not all by a long shot, were furious with their congregations for not despising Jews and getting along with them. It took much patient propaganda lasting quite a long time to create the psychotic image of the Jew in a large section of Christian society. And even then large numbers of people did not buy into the nonsense. In fact a large part of the discriminatory legislation against Jews was done precisely because the Christian population did not instinctively hate, despise etc, Jews.6
Despite all this there were numerous cases of Christians and Jews getting along, and many, many cases of churchmen and secular government officials not buying the nonsense. Anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism is neither eternal nor is it innate in Christianity. In fact it appears that the first clear indication in Christian Europe of this psychosis is the pogroms associated with the First Crusade, (1096-1099 C.E.).7
By the time of Shakespeare the myth of collective Jewish evil had become entrenched in Europe and his play is a reflection of that myth.
The construction of the play is fascinating in terms of plot. It is commonly alleged that the plot is a fantasy and fairy tale and thus we should ignore the absurd elements in the plot. Ah but it is a very special fairy tale with a nasty edge.
Antonio needs 3,000 ducats to loan to his friend Bassanio, instead of going to all his friends whom he as lent money to gratis for a loan he goes to Shylock! Why? It is not explained in the slightest. Antonio publicly tells Shylock to his face that he despises him for being both a money lender and a Jew. Boasts about how proud he would be to spit on him again. Yet Antonio feels no compunction about asking a man he despises, holds in contempt and publicly lambastes to his face for a loan! Not surprisingly Shylock is upset and peeved and says so. Right afterword Antonio insults Shylock again and says he would spit on him again and insult him to his face again. Oh and he still wants the money from Shylock.
We see here the operation of entitlement and arrogance. Antonio feels entitled to Shylock's services and entitled to continue to insult him with great contempt and spitting on Shylock because Shylock is a money lender and a Jew. Antonio is simply arrogant, he feels that his position as a “Christian” gives him the right to Shylock’s services and the right to hold the man in utter contempt. In other words Antonio is proud of being a superior “Christian” and feels he has the right to lord it over non-Christians. And by going to Shylock for a loan, which he obviously feels entitled too, he rubs into Shylock’s face his superiority. The fact that Antonio lends money gratis. at least partly, to hurt Shylock’s business and not from any pure motive of just helping people, and then expects a loan from a man whose business he is trying to destroy is amazing. Ah the benefits of no-nothing, smug arrogance.
It is of interest that Antonio is not simply arrogant he is also colossally stupid. He goes to a man, he hates and despises for a loan, gets the loan and he thinks all is “forgiven”! It is a special type of forgiveness though because Antonio indicates quite strongly he will continue to regard and behave towards Shylock in the same way as before. That Antonio would think that this would not end badly is amazing. After all it would be obvious that Shylock just might hate Antonio quite intensely and want to destroy / punish him. That Antonio is an idiot in at least this area is obvious.
However Antonio is stupid because his sense of “Christian” entitlement and his arrogance make him think that he can behave in this fashion and there will be no consequences. So when there are consequences Antonio whines like a complete victim. Hello! You got a loan from an enemy you make no secret of hating, whom you’ve been trying to hurt seriously and you weep that he out smarted you and is screwing you over!? Feeling sorry for yourself seems to be something you like to do Antonio! Of course Antonio accepts no responsibility for what happened to himself or accepts in the slightest that his attitude towards Shylock may have played a role. Nope instead with studied arrogance Antonio says the equivalent of Je ne regrette rien.
The play then has a series of scenes contrasting the wicked Jew with the “compassionate” “Christians”. Thus we hear over and over again about things like a “Jewish heart”. The “Christians” in the play contrast the difference between their compassion and Shylock’s harshness / wickedness. And they pat themselves on the shoulder about it. They smugly assume their superiority and aren’t the slightest bit humble about it. Thus Gratiano refers to Jessica in a punning phrase has “A gentle and no Jew”, (Act 2, S. 6.), thus becoming a “Christian” elevates one, makes one “compassionate” and “gentle”. Thus do the “Christians” in the play over and over again smugly assume their superiority.
What is also of interest is the way in which the “Christians” tend to talk civilly with Shylock to his face and when he is not there smugly and contemptuously refer to him. However this changes as the play moves along.
In the trial scene in act 4 we see the climax of our “Christian” heroes’ contempt. Remember this is a trial and yet what develops during this trial? Why the “Christians” just can’t stop referring to the characteristic of Shylock that most captivates them, his Jewishness. Shylock is referred to again and again, in a formal trial, as simply "Jew". The very clerk of the court doesn’t refer to him as Shylock but as "Jew". The Duke of Venice refers to him as "Jew". Portia in speeches refers to him repeatedly as "Jew". Now this is a trial and for officers of the court to repeatedly not refer to someone by their name is highly disrespectful. Just imagine for example if in a trial someone was repeatedly referred to as the “Black”, or the “White”, or, perhaps more germane, the “Christian”. The officers of the court do not see Shylock the man but the arcane abstraction, the other, the Jew. And it is Shylock’s Jewishness that dominates the “Christians’ perception of him.
We have Portia’s quick little speech about the quality of mercy. A wonderful polemic about the virtues of “Christian” charity and of course a statement about the superiority of “Christian” compassion over “Jewish” harshness. Of course Shylock rejects the speech being an inferior Jew you see he must. The speech flatters the “Christians” in their perception of their own superiority by declaring publicly and ostentatiously how superior they are in compassion. So much for humility. These “Christians” like to boast how compassionate, forgiving they are in public and often.
Then Portia baits the trap and tells Shylock the contract / bond is legal. Many people admire Portia for finding that since the bond doesn’t mention blood than it is invalid. It has been pointed out that Portia’s reasoning is pettifogging sophistry of the worst kind and utterly empty of legal meaning. The very nature of the bond would include blood without having to mention it. After all contracts include by definition things that flow naturally from the nature of the contract, i.e., what are called incidentals. So Portia isn’t being clever only absurdly pedantic. A more valid objection is that the contract is simply void because the state will not enforce a contract of such a nature. In other words no one will accept as valid a contract requiring someone in the event of default to be allowed to kill someone else, or horribly mutilate them.
Portia then tells Shylock if he varies even a scruple from the bond, i.e., one gram, his life is forfeit. Really? This is again mere pettifoggery. The contract / bond did not say exactly a pound but only a pound so it doesn’t have to be exactly a pound. Further Portia then engages in a legal leap. Portia says that Shylock cannot change his mind and accept the offer of money instead of his bond because he had refused it earlier. Really? And the reason given seems to amount simply to Portia saying “Because I say so”. After unilaterally deciding Shylock cannot change his mind now because she says so, Portia then says that aliens plotting against the life of a Venetian citizen shall have their lives and goods forfeit. A question! Why the hell did Portia not say this earlier. Why the hell did the Duke, Bassanio, Antonio and all of Antonio’s friends not know this? Hell why was Shylock not aware of this! It is all a little ridiculous. It also indicates quite clearly that Antonio was never in any real danger whatsoever.
In the first part of the trial, before faux lawyer Portia shows up, thus turning the trial into a judicial farce, and putting herself at serious risk of severe punishment for impersonation, Shylock is shown as having poor Antonio at his mercy with even the Duke of Venice unable, it seems, to keep Shylock from his vengeance. The awesomely powerful Jew and the helpless “Christian” cannot be more starkly shown. So too the conceit of “Christians” as victims of the evil Jew. It is in other words a paranoid fantasy and in many ways an inversion of reality. But it is most soothing to the “Christian” view of the world. Yes all of Venice is helpless before the all powerful Jew and only providence saves Antonio. Delusional is what this is.
However the slip about aliens plotting against Venetian citizens lets the cat out of the bag. Reality emerges if only briefly. Thus Antonio had nothing to fear and his whining about his plight becomes even more absurd.
After Shylock’s humiliation comes the “Christian compassion”. After telling Shylock that his life and possessions are forfeit. The Duke pardons Shylock after making a comment about “That thou shall see the difference of our spirits, I pardon thee, thy life before thou ask it.” (Act VI, s. 1). The Duke thus publicly proclaims, “See we’re better than you”. He boasts and proclaims “Christian” charity and compassion and makes a boastful and public display of it. In other words it is all for display. It is not done out of compassion but for show, for ostentatious display. Christ’s advice about avoiding public display of charity etc., because otherwise it is pride and self love is voided. Shylock is pardoned not out of compassion or forgiveness but out of the need to show off and exercise power and shove it in Shylock’s face.
Shylock then says without his possessions he cannot earn a living. Again in a very public display of “compassion” Antonio and the Duke give back Shylock’s goods and possessions. (Each being entitled to ½ of them). Of course Antonio’s portion is given back to Shylock only in trust. Shylock must agree upon his death to leave all his wealth to his daughter Jessica and Shylock’s future son-in-law Lorenzo. The Duke agrees to this. Thus giving back to Shylock his wealth etc., is basically nothing more than a plan to enrich Shylock’s daughter and husband. In other words Antonio doesn’t do it out of compassion but out of the desire to enrich friends of his.
Finally the part that in modern day audiences raises the hackles of anyone with much decency is the forced conversion bit. Antonio, oh so generously offers Shylock his money back on condition Shylock become a “Christian”. Oh and Antonio comes out with it like he had it all saved up for this moment. The Duke of Venice adds the proviso that Shylock shall convert or Shylock shall die. Yep convert or die! The Duke says that although just moments ago he pardoned Shylock now he withdraws that pardon unless Shylock converts. Really? So Shylock, in this court, can not change his mind but the Duke may. Earlier the Duke mouthed some platitude about showing the “difference” in terms of mercy between Christianity and Shylock’s Judaism. Suddenly it becomes not so different and in fact the compassion is a lie. It is convert or die.
Let us get one thing clear, assuming Shylock had told the court to go to hell, he would have been executed not for being a vile human being, not for plotting against Antonio’s life but for refusing to become a “Christian”! Not a word of protest is uttered by any of the “Christians” concerning this most un-Christlike demand. This “compassion” of the stake and inquisition. Instead our “Christians” all think this is fine and dandy, indeed “compassionate”. The truly sublime, unthinking arrogance of this takes one’s breath away. In the play this whole proceeding is seemly considered unproblematic.
Changing someone’s religion by bribery or coercion, and certainly threatening to kill someone if they don’t convert is a high level of coercion, and is simply evil. And it was one practiced again and again against Jews in the Middle Ages and early modern times.8 This “compassion” at the point of the sword has a long and unpleasant tradition in our world and here it is both justified and approved of.
No doubt from the point of view of Antonio, who had no compunction about bribing Shylock with Shylock’s own money to become a “Christian”, the Duke and the other “Christians” in the play they are giving a priceless bounty, the gift of salvation to a horrible man deserving of death, that it is at the point of the sword is in their “Christian” eyes irrelevant. Shylock can now join the elect, the saved; for “compassionate” “Christians”, out of “love” and “compassion” have saved his immortal soul. The “Christians” feel that they have bestowed salvation on a worthless man and thus they are oh so “compassionate” and “virtuous”. Thus indicating once again their superiority to Shylock’s Judaism. Thus they pat themselves on the back and smugly broadcast their “compassion”.
That the conversion is forced and thus has not a particle of sincerity in it, that Shylock will be ripped away from everything he knows in terms of faith and society, that he will be scrutinized daily for any deviation from his new faith and subject to dire penalty if he lapses is not a concern to the “Christians”. That this whole proceeding makes a mockery of baptism and Christian faith is also not a concern to the “Christians” in the play. This is love, compassion and charity?
Portia then utters the line “Art Thou contented Jew” (Act IV, s. 1). Portia in this statement sums up the fixations of the “Christians”, once again Shylock’s Jewishness is uppermost in her and the other “Christians” minds, once again in a formal trial she like the others can’t be bothered most of the time to use Shylock's name, but refer to him as “Jew”, over and over again. Again the central offence of Shylock is made clear it is that he is a Jew. As indicated above in various tables collecting the references to Shylock by the “Christians” in the play. The sarcasm of Portia’s statement conveys the note of crowing triumph of good “Christians” over the evil Jew. Thus do the “Christians” exalt in their victory and in their deserved superiority over the forces of darkness, personified by the ‘Jew”. Thus do they wallow in arrogant pride.
That the “Christians” wonted “humility” and “compassion” is bogus, that this play is not about the victory of love and charity is obvious. In the play the “Christians” are neither humble nor compassionate quite simply because they can not stop telling us about it. They do it for show, they do it to indicate their superiority. They rub it in Shylock’s face. They are hypocrites of a very high order and they do not realize it.
For all their fine words the “Christians” in the play fail and fail badly on showing “Christ like" compassion or love. They talk a good game and fail to deliver.
In Act 5 when Shylock is mentioned, in relation to the deed he sent to Jessica and Lorenzo making them his heirs, he is referred to a couple of times as a Jew. Thus even after his conversion to Christianity, Shylock remains the other, the Jew in the eyes of the “Christians”.
The Holocaust has made it very hard not to see this play except through the prism of Auschwitz. Beneath the taunts of the “Christians” in the play we hear machine guns firing, trains crammed with people running, and children screaming.
Complaints that some modern versions of the play get away from the play, distort it and make the “Christians” in it unpleasant and hypocritical, forget that that the play cannot be performed in its original way as a triumph of “Christianity” over Judaism. We no longer have the attitudes that made the attitude of the play seem “natural”. We take the speeches of Shylock that explain his behaviour as sympathy creating. We regard the “Christian” assumption of superiority as uncalled for. We do not regard the antagonism against Shylock because of his Jewishness as, in the least, excusable much less justified. Of course antagonism against Shylock because he is detestable is understandable, but that is a different matter and in the play it appears to be a secondary reason for the “Christians” attitude towards him. In short we have an almost instinctive sympathy for Shylock as the underdog and an aversion to the “Christians”. We find it very hard to see Antonio has a underdog, because we do not believe, (With hopefully very few exceptions.), in collective Jewish wickedness, or in the myth of Jews hating all Christians and plotting against them.
Thus we cannot take Shylock’s statement that he hates Antonio because he is a “Christian” with a great deal of seriousness. Well at the time this myth that Jews collectively hated all Christians was believed by many, many people. It is one more trope in the myth of Jews collectively victimizing Christians.
The world has changed making the play impossible to understand as it was in the late 16th century.
From our point of view the “Christians” of the play are indeed hypocrites, they are also hateful, and full of contempt but they clothe their hate / contempt in fake “compassion”, but it is compassion that loves to advertise itself, rejoices in public display and advantage; and further underneath it is the willingness to inflict suffering and death.
It is in other words “Christian” imperial charity. It is the charity that converts at the point of the sword, tortures for ones own good, that spreads misery to save souls. It also likes to talk about how wonderful it is. As such it reeks of hubris.
Of course Shakespeare being Shakespeare, didn’t just give Shylock some good lines, and a case, although I suspect it wasn’t appreciated the way we appreciate it, but he subverted rather cleverly the plot of the play. Now of course this could simply Shakespeare being careless, after all what about Desdemona’s posthumous utterances.9 However I think it is possible Shakespeare being the great dramatist he was and given that he could subvert the surface meaning of his plays;10 I suspect that it is possible that Shakespeare may have put a few subversive elements in The Merchant of Venice.
I have already indicated above in a few cases the basic unbelievably of the plot. Everything from Antonio going to Shylock for a loan, to the trial sequence, to Antonio’s apparent stupidity. Even the oh so convenient discovery of Antonio’s supposedly lost ships at the end is oh so convenient. Other things like Antonio needlessly provoking Shylock at the meeting for a loan etc., it all adds up to a possibility. What if the whole thing was a set up to destroy Shylock? What if Antonio carefully planned the whole thing to trap Shylock? Certainly that would explain some of the absurdities of the plot. Like why a well respected Venetian citizen is thrown in jail and is so apparently helpless. Where are all of Antonio’s well connected powerful friends? It would explain why no one brought up the whole plotting against the life of a Venetian citizen is punishable by death and confiscation of your wealth before Portia does late in the trial.
It would also help make sense of two comments from the Duke of Venice one about expecting a “gentle answer”, (Act IV s. 1); from Shylock at the beginning of the trial and a bit latter the Duke mentions he could simply dismiss the whole case. So why doesn’t he, why is he apparently so ignorant of the law? Is Portia in on the plot? Maybe, but more likely she is a spanner thrown in that almost wrecks the whole thing from Antonio’s point of view. In other words Antonio sets Shylock up and crushes him.
Of course at best this is only hinted at in the play, but it is in keeping with Shakespeare’s known tendency to subvert the overt meanings of his plays.
This posting as been mainly about the overt meaning of The Merchant of Venice and not about the possible subversion of that overt meaning in the play and that overt meaning is the light of the fire of the stake.
|Shylock and Jessica|
1. I use this term because anti-Semitism is antagonism against Jews based on the alleged fact, (myth, and lie), that Jews are a biologically distinct “race”. In Shakespeare’s time Jews were recognized as members of a distinct religion and they could of course change by becoming Christians. That Jews were not considered a damned biological race is evident from the fact that Jessica, Shylock’s daughter converts to Christianity and is an entirely worthy person in the eyes of the plays cast of heroes and heroines.
2. Just read the play it is plain. See also Gross, John, Shylock, Simon & Shuster, New York, 1992, for a incisive look at the play and attitudes towards the character over the centuries.
3. IBID. See also Carroll, James, Constantine’s Sword, Houghton, Miffin Co, Boston, 2001, de Rosa, Peter, Vicars of Christ, Bantam, Press, Toronto, 1988, Pelikan, Jaroslav, Jesus though the Centuries, Harper & Row Pub., New York, 1985, Moore, R. I., The Formation of a Persecuting Society, Second Edition, Blackwell Pub, Oxford, 2007, Hay, Malcolm, Europe and the Jews, Beacon Press, Boston, 1960, Grosser, Paul E, & Halperin, Edwin G., Anti-Semtism, Citadel press, Secaucus N.J., 1976, Langmuir, Gavin I., History, Religion and Antisemtism, University of California Press, Berkeley CA, 1990.
4. See Hay, de Rosa, Langmuir, Hsia, Po-Chia, The Myth of Jewish Ritual Murder, Yale University Press, Cambridge MASS, 1990.
5. See Hay, Langmuir, Moore, Grosser et al, Bronner, Stephen Eric, A Rumour about the Jews, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000.
6. See Moore, and Ruether, Rosemary, Faith and Fratricide, The Seabury Press, New York, 1979, Parkes, James, The Conflict of Church and the Synagogue, Atheneum, New York, 1977, (Originally published 1935), Gager, John G., The Origins of Anti-Semtism, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1983.
7. See Grosser et al, Reuther, Moore, Carroll.
8. See Hay, Grosser et al, Moore, Carroll.
9. The play Othello has the Character Desdemona speak lines after she is strangled to death. See Sutherland, & Watts, Cedric, Henry V, War Criminal? & Other Shakespearean Puzzles, Oxford University Press, Oxford University, pp. 76-84.
10 For example Henry V, which on the surface is jingoistic patriotism and yet if you pay attention subverts it. I dealt with this in a previous posting. See also Sutherland et al, pp.108-125.