Shakespeare’s comedy has presented a serious challenge for centuries, one so significant that the play often is listed as one of his “problem” plays — one that cannot be easily categorized as a comedy nor a tragedy.
So why choose Merchant of Venice? What noble result can evolve from the apparently blatant anti-Semitism within the script?
While in production for Twelfth Night last spring, the production team began mulling possible titles for this year’s production. At the time, the nation was in the midst of a contentious and polarizing presidential election. The Occupy movement was active and their representatives were engaged in a war of words with the tea party movement.
It was in that polarized political atmosphere that the deep-seated contention that drives Merchant asserted itself as a possible working production.
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The play seems on a surface reading to be clearly anti-Semitic. The term “Jew” often is used in a derogatory fashion. Yet interestingly, the very negative tone that Christians use against Jews in the play also can be clearly found in Shylock’s own commentary on Christians. In short, the stereotypes and discrimination run in both directions.
The antagonist Shylock, once abandoned by his daughter, seems to be almost insanely bent on the physical destruction of his nemesis Antonio, the title character of the play. Yet, Shylock diverges from the pure nefariousness of many Shakespearean villains.
Shakespeare imbues Shylock with some very sympathetic characteristics. He makes a clear appeal for the basic humanity of Judaism with his “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. He also is devastated by the desertion of his daughter to a Christian spouse; a human enough response whenever a child deviates from the devout wishes of her parents.
And we certainly can sympathize with the urge to punish something, anything, when we’ve been hurt. While as an audience we do not want Shylock to succeed, we nevertheless find ourselves sympathizing with his pain and suffering. And the audience clearly identifies with Portia when she pleads with Shylock to show mercy in Act IV.
Finally, the enforced conversion of Shylock to Christianity likely wasn’t something with which Shakespeare, who often is thought to have been a closet Catholic in the very anti-Catholic reign of Elizabeth I, would have identified. Why else is it in the play, then, but to unsympathetically illustrate the anti-Semitic malice of Antonio?
Shylock’s evident humanity mitigates against the theory that Merchant purely is an exercise of creedal race-baiting, as Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe clearly indulged in his Jew of Malta. Given the twofold nature of the creedal stereotyping and discrimination to be found in the play, coupled with the persistent and perplexing hints of a fully human nature in Shylock, makes the careful reader reconsider the notion that Merchant is simply anti-Semitic. If it is not that, then what is it?
In looking at the results for Antonio and Shylock, the play reveals its true genius as an expose on the intrinsic dignity of all humanity. When a person, race or culture is reduced by another, whether through racism, sexism or prejudice, both are brought down. The most malicious, most discriminating characters in the play are Shylock and Antonio. Both seek mortal revenge upon one another for reasons of discrimination and hatred.
Antonio in the end succeeds, but note well that as the play concludes, both characters end up isolated and alone. The various other characters are either happily paired up or, like Launcelot, are in the service of one whom he respects. Shylock is of course ruined, but Antonio has not improved his lot. It is true that he has been restored to his previous position of wealth. But as he was at the opening of the play, he is alone. Like Shylock, he indulged his hatred for “the other” and did not profit by it. This is an unusual result for a Shakespearean comedic character.
Which ultimately is why we chose this play. Properly executed, Merchant of Venice offers a unique opportunity for teaching against the evils of discrimination, unreasoned hatred and seeing others as alien.
When our view is tainted by seeing the other as opponent and focusing on our differences, isolation and destruction are the inevitable result. And this tendency to stereotype, to generalize, still is with us, pervasively so. We see it whenever political opponents demonize their opposites (consider those who insist despite all reason in viewing President Obama as an alien, or those who label conservative Republicans with the very demeaning term “teabagger”), religious denominations that glorify their own and demonize “the other;” governments (look at the United States and North Korea in current affairs) and even sports fans indulge in this sort of thing all too often. One in fact could argue that the gridlock currently afflicting our government is due to this very sort of stereotyping. When legislators refuse to communicate and compromise with “them,” or “the other,” then legislative paralysis must, by functional definition, settle in.
In the case of a Catholic school producing a play exposing the ancient conflict of Jews vs. Christians, we do so with a deep reverence. At the very center of Catholic art, music, architecture and liturgy is an inherently Jewish history and culture. Our heritage is deeply rooted in the soil of the Jewish people and we are undeniably united, not divided, at the very level of our DNA.
Though conflict sadly remains in many parts of the globe, the reality between Jew and Christian stems from an intrinsic solidarity.
It is our hope, in the style in which it is presented coupled with some multi-media presentations, to illustrate the reality that not only is anti-Semitism unacceptable, but also that every word, action, law or legislation which reduces a human person for any reason whatever, is a disgrace which weakens persons, families and nations.
In preparation for the play, we, the directors, have been in dialogue with members of Congregation Beth Sholom Synagogue in Richland. Our conversation has been underscored by an atmosphere of deep respect and good will with a view to bringing forward the many points of unity between the two cultures and representing the Jewish characters in the play with great care and accuracy. We are planning an open forum panel discussion led by members of the cast to include members of Congregation Beth Sholom to take place at Tri-Cities Prep for the students during production week. Nina and Brett Powers have directed the Shakespeare in the spring program at Tri-Cities Prep since 2008. Nina is Music Director for St. Patrick Parish in Pasco. Brett is the Academic Dean at Tri-Cities Prep.