I have to say, I never really realized how anti-Semitic The Merchant of Venice was. I can’t believe they let us read it in high school. Shakespeare has so many good plays to choose from, it baffles me that they would assign one of the most blatantly controversial. Then again, we do also read books that deal with racial issues, Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Tortilla Curtain, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, just to name a few, but most of those are written by people writing about people with racist values. The writer disagreed personally, and wrote about it as a way to discuss racial issues that are present in today’s society. But was Shakespeare himself anti-Semitic? Daniel Hannan, a writer and journalist answer’s this query in his article in The Telegraph “Was Shakespeare Anti-Semitic:
“No, of course he wasn’t. His universalism, his grandeur, the wholeness of his understanding, makes such questions meaningless. Shakespeare cannot be confined by any set of beliefs: his genius always bursts out, putting both sides of a case far more eloquently than any other advocate. When you try and conscript him to a narrow cause, you make yourself look narrow. Shakespeare’s canon will broaden your experience more than your experience can ever broaden it.”
Okay, fair enough. Shakespeare is a god, who transcends prejudice, but can his work The Merchant of Venice itself be anti-Semitic? Can a god create something flawed?
The character of Shylock is a fully human villain. His motives go beyond that of your average stereotypical bad guy. When you employ a stereotype as a character it is often hard to make them seem human. Shakespeare of course can’t create a two-dimensional character so Shylock breathes life into the negative Jewish stereotype: clever, lacking compassion, and loving money. Because Shylock is so well developed, he is hated as a person, not just as a character giving the play itself not-so-subtle anti-Semitic undertones. (This is ironic because Shakespeare was actually a moneylender himself and a greedy harsh one at that. He once had a man arrested for only a few pounds. Did he write himself in as the villain?)
Shakespeare’s skill may have fueled anti-Semitic thoughts for generations. I suppose there is some responsibility that comes with genius.
Though Shakespeare does put down one group of people in The Merchant of Venice, he also elevates a group that is hardly recognized: women. Portia and her ladies maid, Nerissa embody virtue and sensibility as well as loyalty and cleverness. They manage to free Antonio from Shylock’s grasp, and scare their husbands into fidelity all in one night. Great work ladies! In all seriousness though, Portia is one of Shakespeare’s few heroines who is truly in charge of her own destiny. Possibly because she holds an economic position above her husband, she is able to treat him as an equal.
Though I find the anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice disheartening, I do enjoy reading a Renaissance play in which women are treated with respect.