How ‘The Merchant of Venice’ Has Become an Unexpected Analysis of the Nature of Oppression

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If the death-of-the-author trends beloved by mid/late 20th century post-structuralists/postmodernists now seem a bit extreme (the way a work is interpreted can be a meeting of the author and viewer’s subjectivities!), perhaps theatre is the art-form where the author’s intentions matter least, given that a play’s success is so often measured on the flexibility of its relevance to different generations and zeitgeists. “Classic” status is not, as in a film, an honoring of one production and interpretation, but of the fact that the work has been reproduced under multitudes of different artistic visions. (Though playwrights like Beckett, with hawkish estates entrusted with the author’s desires for invariability, can do their best to prevent this.)

Critics have argued ad infinitum over whether Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was written antisemitically or with sympathy for the plight of the famous (in part because the name became an antisemitic colloquialism) Jewish character, Shylock. Thankfully, with the exception of Iago, Shakespeare rarely wrote pure villains, and even antisemitic overtones can — due to the writer’s insistence on moral complexity, and imbuing even the most malicious deeds his characters do with human motivation — be twisted by a good director. Such is the case with The Globe Theatre’s latest production; directed by Jonathan Munby and starring the fantastically woeful and resolved Jonathan Pryce, it stopped last weekend at Lincoln Center before moving on to Washington, D.C.

The changing times — and the expectations for what a directorial vision of an old text needs to do — have, for the Globe (and many other noted contemporary interpretations), transformed The Merchant of Venice from a dark comedy whose comedic structure comes at the expense of the Jew to a complex moral dramedy whose tragic elements are dictated by the Jew’s fate. In the 60s, New York rabbis protested it —now, it’s being performed (still, admittedly, with a level of controversy) for awareness of the 500th anniversary of the Venice ghetto by a company called Compagnia de’ Colombari, with a guest appearance by none other than Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Whether Shakespeare wanted to perpetuate or interrogate the stereotype of the “stingy Jew” cannot be known beyond speculation, but the beauty of continuing to perform this play is that the more “woke” society becomes to the nature of oppression, the more deeply complex the play becomes as a work that now shakes the very core of its originally happy comic resolution. Which is to say that even if it were written from an antisemitic mindset, that doesn’t make it any less worthy of performance today. The question shouldn’t be — and thankfully often isn’t anymore — “Is this play antisemitic?” but rather, “How can this play that sympathizes with people who do things that now seem unjust be used to scrutinize the nature of oppression?”

The Merchant of Venice begins by following the relatively generic male lead Bassanio as he sets out on a quest to accrue crushing debt for love — but the thing is that the debt won’t actually be Bassanio’s. He wants to court the currently-available Portia of Belmont, so he asks his titular merchant friend, Antonio, for some money with which to do so. Yet because Antonio currently has no cash (due to having invested his money in ships that are still abroad), they need to seek the help of a moneylender, Shylock. Shylock — who’s ghettoized, disenfranchised, and forced to go around Venice wearing a red cap to indicate he’s Jewish — hesitates at first because in the past, Antonio has been outwardly antisemitic and has even sabotaged his business. He eventually agrees to give him the money on one famous condition: he can carve out a pound of Antonio’s flesh if he cannot punctually return the funds.

Similar to the Antonio of Twelfth Night, this single man’s unwavering loyalties and affections for his best friend can be played as unrequited homosexual love; he himself, despite his antisemitism, can also be portrayed as societally isolated. His unshakable melancholy is written into the script from its first lines about his “want wit sadness,” and implying that Antonio’s both the perpetrator and victim of social alienation further complicates the morality of Merchant.

Following the loan agreement, Bassanio is able to beat Portia’s other suitors at a game of romantic guesswork (mandated by her father in his will) that leads him to be the rightful winner of her affections. But, it turns out Antonio wasn’t able to get the funds in time, and now back in Venice, he and his pound of flesh wait to be separated. Portia, unbeknownst to Bassanio, disguises herself as a man and travels to Venice, pretending to be a “doctor of the law” to free Antonio, who, even after twice the amount of the loan has been offered to Shylock, still risks execution by flesh-carving. However, she’s able to turn Antonio’s trial on its head, save his life, and see to it that the court punish Shylock (who’s now lost everything) by forcing conversion to Christianity on him.

The production by the Globe doesn’t negate the comedy or the happy ending, but rather adds to it in a pretty harrowing manner: like most Shakespearean identity plays, once the women characters are discovered and assigned gender is restored, everyone happily couples off, and that is how the written part of Merchant of Venice concludes. This production gives its characters that joyful ending, and then abruptly shifts: Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, who’s renounced Judaism and her father to marry a Catholic, suddenly begins singing in Hebrew as we see Shylock being stripped of his identity in a forced baptism, and a soaking wet Shylock, stripped of his sense of meaning, becomes the last image we’re left with. With an oddly Brechtian resistance of catharsis, the play imposes a back-and-forth between the type of lighthearted comedy — where the “good guy” always wins, even following frightening scenarios where flesh is measured like cold cuts — and social drama, wherein society fails the marginal. The play of Portia, Bassanio and Antonio, can afford to be a comedy, because they are protected from certain tragedies by systemic preference. Shylock’s play, however, is scarcely funny.

The Merchant of Venice therefore has the singular ability to become something truly revelatory: an unsettling thesis in cognitive dissonance, bringing the audience at once through a love story with a kooky, comedic, identity-shifting plotline that mirrors Shakespeare’s less morally difficult comedies — leading audiences to thereby feel for and root for the characters involved in the love plot — while also expressing how they’re capable of acts of cruelty towards the marginal, spreading dehumanizing discourse, and perpetuating their privilege and oppression.

Antonio is an arbitrary victim of Shylock’s rage towards his society; no matter how you play it, saving Antonio’s life feels like a victory, because the punishment Shylock wants to impose is ridiculous and gruesome. But it’s not one in which anyone is morally exonerated, at least on a contemporary stage. This triumph is also a marginal character’s ruin. The play, as it’s done today, also speaks to the problems of white feminism; Portia, the celebrated, mischievous character who has incredible agency and is ultimately the play’s “hero” also becomes the facilitator of oppression, hinging on the antisemitism of her society to win her battle. If her victory seems a moment of unexpected Elizabethan literary feminist triumph, it is also at the expense of someone else’s identity.

As such, the Judiasm of the character can of course be strictly symbolic — while watching it, for example, from a U.S. social politics perspective, I of course saw many more contemporary parallels to the treatment of Muslims, Latinos and black people in America. What’s interesting is that to an extent, the perceived antisemitism of Merchant has been reappropriated to such a degree that not only will it, say, be used in remembrance of a ghettoized community this very month — but it’s also had some opposite effects in other productions. When an Israeli troop performed a different production of it (in Hebrew) at the Globe a few years ago, many actors (including Mark Rylance and Emma Thompson) called for a boycott of the production because of the company having had a “shameful record of involvement with illegal Israeli settlements in Occupied Palestinian Territory.” While the Israeli troupe were performing a play in which they vastly emphasized the oppression narrative, there was, it seemed, a simultaneous complicity in or complacency about the contemporary system of oppression enacted by the State of Israel. It’s eerily reflected in the way Merchant characters who are totally sympathetic can also ignore their complicity in a system that disenfranchises whole groups.

By continually reviving a work from a time where being an ethnicist bully was entirely the norm (rather than, well, half the norm — progress?), directors are able to get to the bottom of the understanding that oppression doesn’t often come from evil, but rather from the somewhat more unsettling human ability to mentally distantiate oneself from whole groups of other people’s subjectivities and pains based on difference and socialized illusions of superiority. If in Elizabethan times it didn’t unsettle viewers that the wealthy Catholics lives within the play exist in a comedy realm and the societally marginalized Shylock’s life exists in a realm of desperation, isolation and loss, it’s hard not to be wholly unsettled by this genre stratification that arises from the play even more now, and the way it runs parallel to the stratification of privilege. And being wholly unsettled, I think, is one of the best things theatre can give us.