Thursday, January 06, 2011

Play review – “The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare

The Bard’s great contribution to anti-Semitic literature: Shylock, the money lending Jew, one of the most famous Jewish characters in literature, is the villain – something which is problematic for those who mount the production today. But after reading it, my sympathy’s with Shylock. Characters constantly bag him for being Jewish, greedy, villainous, etc; his servant dumps him for a Christian; his daughter runs off with some bloke, taking a pile of Shylock’s cash with her – and what’s more, she converts; the merchant is a rich anti-Semite who tosses around his money any old how and doesn’t seem to be a very good businessman (for all his wealth); Shylock winds up broke because of the deal (mostly due to unfair laws which prejudice against him as an alien) and is forced to convert. The poor guy!

This is technically a comedy: there’s a wacky servant, plenty of romance (two main ones), a quiz to prove true love, a song in the middle of proceedings, women pretending to be men, etc. But it’s mainly remembered for the dramatic bits: Shylock’s character, the trial at the end, the character of Portia. The court scene where Portia argues the pound of flesh argument is very clever – Portia was a rare strong female Shakespearean character. The play feels as though it should end with the trial but there’s this whole other bit involving Portia and her idiot husband (who is lusted after by the gay merchant of Venice) not recognising her and her teasing him.

Whole books have been written about whether this is anti-Semitic or not. For what it’s worth, here’s my take: the main characters are almost all anti-Semitic; whether you think that means the play is tarred with the same brush depends on how much you feel Shakespeare supports the point of view of the heroes. Shylock is a three dimensional character whose motives are fully explained – it’s totally possible to do a sympathetic reading of this. If you squint slightly.

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