When I read Merchant of Venicein high school I remember being righteously indignant about it, at least partly because I was a teenager and wanted the whole world to know how liberal and accepting I was. The irony, of course, was that in my push to be liberal and accepting, I failed to actually give the play a chance, or see past the uncomfortable parts to the merit of the work. My fellow students reacted similarly, and our conversations were about how much we hated the play, rather than what it might actually be about. Years later, I visited my old teacher and when she mentioned she was teaching Merchant again. I asked why. Her response: “Book clubs are for literature appreciation; English class is for developing critical thinking skills.”
In 2008, I put together a staged reading of Merchantto raise funds for the legal battle against Prop 8 and I know my text selection was due to my teacher’s remark. I wanted a play that could articulate all the anger I felt but also make a plea for rational and productive reactions, instead of encouraging more hatred back. Following the passing of Prop 8, I had been astounded by all the socially liberal men and women I knew who were so quick to look for blame and usually placed it along race and class lines. People who should have known better said things like, “It was the Asians! It was Latinos! It was the Christians! It was the lower class!”, probably never realizing how much they sounded like the people they felt had wronged them. But an “us vs. them” mentality runs rampant when we forget that each person should be treated as an “I” and a “you.”
Venice in the 16th century was a cosmopolitan melting pot of pirates, slaves, courtesans, fortune-seekers, businessmen, new wealth and old money, in addition to Eurpean, Asian and African cultures. Like the modern USA, many of those groups didn’t co-exist peacefully, and their values often clashed. Merchant isn’t a play about Jews any more than it is a play about homosexuals, women, princes, servants and traders- all of which are depicted. Merchant is a play about modern society, and it’s the first I can think of that recognizes that the modern state is defined by diversity of thought and the inherit pressure on the individual to either commit to the role they’ve been born into or carve out a new one of their own. The individuals of Venice exist in a constant social turmoil defined by selfishness and generosity, forgiveness and revenge. The play is about what drives us to choose one over the other, and how everyone has it in them to choose either or both.
While observing this scene, one thing struck me about the charges Portia makes against Shylock. The penalty of death and confiscation of property is leveled against “aliens” who attempt to take the life of a Venetian. Shylock is an alien because of his Jewish identity not because he was born outside of the Venetian empire (or so I would assume). His forced conversion, in the world of Venice that had been created would, in theory, make him a citizen of Venice. (perhaps?)
Gabe, good point. However, I think the reality of life in Italy, as it was in Spain and the rest of Europe, was that a converted Jew was just that. It did not make him/her a fully welcomed person in society. The country I know most about is Spain, and the Jews who converted to survive the Inquisition/exile were persecuted badly, and had no place in the society. Here, Shylock post-conversion will probably have the worst of it: a) he will have been forced to convert publicly, so there are no illusions he found Jesus, 2) he will be ostracized by his own community and exiled and 3) he cannot even take the guise of Wandering Jew, as the Italian Jews are neither Ashkenazi, nor Sephardic, but are Italkim – the oldest Jewish community in Europe, with roots to the Roman Empire times, and with customs and beliefs that would be rejected by the other Jewish societies. He is doomed as an outcast, and it is probably a death sentence.
Well, Brian, let me just point out a couple things: one, Venice was very different from Spain, much more liberal, and so Shylock would not have been any more persecuted post-conversion than he would have been pre-conversion. Jews were a necessary and accepted part of the Venetian economy, though they did live outside Venice proper, in the ghetto. The tough part is that, as a convert, he would not be allowed to practice usury, so Shylock would have had to find a new way to make a living. Since the State restores to Shylock their half of his wealth (they only deduct a fine), and Antonio restores the other half (Shylock must turn it over to Lorenzo and Jessica- upon his death), he does have assets at the end of the play, but no promise of a future income, so it is still bleak for the reasons you point out. THAT said, it’s important to point out that Shakespeare is English, and had no real concept of what Venice was like outside of history books and such, so in the end his plays always reflect Renaissance England more than whatever place or time they are located in. This is important to point out because converted Jews were not uncommon in England- Queen Elizabeth had one as a doctor, actually- and so one could have a future as a converted Jew in England and could, as Gabe points out, be more or less accepted into society. Certainly the play implies Jessica will have no problem fitting in with her new friends, and that implication is what made this play very unpopular with the Nazis, who didn’t like it implied that, in the end, it was a matter of words that separated Jews from Christians.
I’m pondering the lb of flesh in this comedic nightmare. Back in the eighties I worked for a man fixing TV sets who’s daughter was murdered on her first day of college. Very devastating. My experience in the store was witnessing the action and talk around the death penalty (my boss was for the institution). Obviously his reasons were much more than “a lodged hate and a certain loathing” he bore of his daughter’s disturbed and jealous boyfriend. But my own beliefs could never justify state’s permission to apply death. Is it more than “revenge”? What am I missing? In Shakespeare’s days death and torture were more readily and easily applied. Was he commenting on this?