A comedy that’s not funny

Rabbi Bernard Barsky

By Rabbi Bernard Barsky, Beth Abraham Synagogue, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer

Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which is to be performed at Wright State University this month, has always carried the stigma of antisemitism.

Its portrayal of the vengeful and avaricious Jewish moneylender Shylock belongs at first glance to the long parade of stock Jewish villains and usurers in medieval and Renaissance literature.

The 16th-century English stage was rife with mediocre and trashy plays – and one hugely successful play, The Jew of Malta by Shakespeare’s main rival Christopher Marlowe – depicting Jews as buffoons or villains.

And for two centuries, Shakespeare’s richly complex Shylock was always portrayed on stage as either comically repulsive or monstrously evil, with no redeeming qualities.

Not until the first half of the 19th century did British actors begin to uncover in Shakespeare’s words the inward depth and difference of his character.

Behind Shylock’s implacable vengeance is a human being who has been reviled and spat on in public and cursed for usury by the very Christians whose business interests depend on his loans; whose beloved wife Leah is dead; whose daughter Jessica not only abandons him to marry a Christian, but also steals caskets of gold and jewels when she goes, to give to her lover, one of his enemy Antonio’s circle of indolent, empty and spendthrift young men.

By the time Shylock confronts Antonio in court, his is the vengeance of a man who already has nothing left to lose.

I know no portrait of a Jew in European literature before Shylock which gives such human depth to the Jewish story.  And once Jewish suffering is given this powerful emotional voice, a different light is cast upon all the Christian characters who circle around Shylock to bring him down. A sympathetic reading of Shylock will show the corrosive effect of antisemitism on all of society, victim and oppressor alike.

It isn’t Shylock’s so-called Jewish heart which makes him villainous, but a lifetime of despicable mistreatment by Christians who give loud voice to their own virtue and proclaim that mercy is their very nature.

The plot device at the center of the story is a loan which Antonio secures from Shylock by bonding himself to repay the loan in case of default with a pound of his own flesh, which Shylock may cut off from whatever part of Antonio’s body he chooses.

Shakespeare lifted this and most of the plot from an old Italian story; the “pound of flesh” element appears in numerous medieval tales. It was a stock portrayal of Jewish cruelty in money lending, and is rooted in the biblical law of retaliation, commonly known as “an eye for an eye.”

It was a common Christian accusation to portray Judaism as a religion of vengeful justice — an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth — but Christianity as a religion of mercy and forgiveness. But those verses from Torah represented, in their original context, an amelioration of the law of vengeance.

The loss of an eye or a tooth could not be retaliated with death, but only with an equivalent retaliation — only an eye for an eye, only a tooth for a tooth. Then rabbinical tradition went much further and explained that in all cases except murder, the injured party would be compensated with appropriate monetary damages.

As Maimonides wrote, “There never was any rabbi, from the time of Moses, who ruled, based on ‘an eye for an eye’ that he who blinds another should himself be blinded.”

The ugly irony of the pound of flesh story is its macabre parody of Jewish law. While Jewish law requires monetary damages as payment for bodily injury, the Christian libel is that the Jew demands injury to the body as repayment for mere monetary loss.

When Shylock proposes the bond to Antonio he calls it “a merry sport.” It’s hard to say whether he ever really intended to claim a pound of flesh.

But he hears of Antonio’s financial losses and his inability to repay the loan at just the moment when he learns he has lost his daughter forever, and is taunted about it by friends of the girl’s lover, also friends of Antonio. Shylock’s daughter is dead to him, and suddenly Antonio’s life is in his hands.

Ironically, Shylock the Jew asks not what a Jew would do, but what a Christian would do.
“If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge.  If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute.”

Whatever the Christian says about mercy, the Jewish experience of the Christian has been vengeance. Shakespeare shows this boldly. At the end of his trial, the Christian lawyer who had pleaded eloquently with Shylock for mercy becomes the relentless agent of the cruelest vengeance against him.

Shakespeare undermined all the old self-serving pieties. The Jew’s soul was not vengeful by nature or by religion but was twisted to vengeance by a lifetime’s sufferance of cruelty, and then immediately by the loss and betrayal of his daughter with the connivance of this circle of Christians.

Nor are Shakespeare’s fellow Christians necessarily merciful by nature or religion, but only by convenience. And to boot, it’s the Christians, not the Jew, who spend the entire plot trying to acquire money in easy ways.

Antisemitism was part of the air Shakespeare breathed and the common language he inherited.

His genius was to enter into the soul of every character, presenting them from the inside out, not as they flattered themselves to be, but as their own words revealed them truly to be. The Merchant of Venice is listed among his comedies, but so much truth gets exposed that no one should be laughing when it’s over.

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