Shylock, anti-semitism and contextual awareness

A few days ago I was reading this post by Martin Robinson, author of the book Trivium21C and all round interesting thinker and blogger on education: Martin put me onto this BBC broadcast in which Alan Yentob and the author Howard Jacobson explore the issues around Shylock and anti-semitism whilst discussing the thought processes behind Jacobson’s latest novel: Shylock’s Dream: This is a great programme and anyone teaching Merchant should show it to students in order to provoke a discussion of the context of reception relating to the play as we move into a 21 Century in which anti-semitism is clearly still rife and in which it seems easier, at times, to drop a text from the curriculum rather than face the genuine difficulties that arise when exploring the nuance and variety of contextual approach offered. Today, it seems, students are very quick to race to the the headline description – thus Merchant is anti-semitic, Othello is racist, OMAM is racist and so is Mockingbird, regardless of the multi-layered complexities such texts offer.

In the programme, there is much discussion of the anti-semitic nature of the portrayal of Shylock. It is indisputable that Shylock receives hideous treatment from the Christians, represented by Antonio at the opening of the play, and also that the punishment of denial of his faith seems utterly beyond any reasonable scale of justice or mercy. Yet Shylock is given in Act 3 such a clear cry for understanding and for religious tolerance, that it is hard to see Shakespeare writing in such a way as to present an anti-semitic model. The writer of Richard III was perfectly capable of creating an unremitting monster, so should we see something in this play beyond what the actor Antony Sher, in the programme, refers to as an attitude driven by the post-holocaust awareness of the appalling treatment of the Jews under Hitler. It is very hard to read the play in the modern era without this being the overwhelming contextual reference which attracts our thoughts.

My question is more to do with the context of creation. 350 years before the holocaust. MEP Daniel Hannan describes it as a play that has done “immense damage” and can present anti-semitic examples from the 19th century to support this idea. Stephen Greenblatt calls Shylock the element which “ruins” the play – in short he so overpowers the bawdy love romp that his story dominates the reception of the play.
I have no doubt that the play displays anti-semitism in deep cruelty both in the behaviour shown towards him and by his behaviour and his obsession with his bond in Act 4.

Yet I wonder if this is really what was uppermost in Shakespeare’s mind and in the minds of his audiences. Shylock is not the real protagonist of this comedy. The needs of the comic plot require the hindrance and final acceptance of a marriage – in this light Shylock is the hindrance and the protagonist is surely Bassanio or Lorenzo. It is Shakespeare’s error that Shylock is portrayed so strongly given the balance of the plot. We need to consider if the 16th Century audience might have found other elements in this character. The popularity of Marlowe’s Jew of Malta certainly indicates a popular ease with the portrayal of Jews as the red-haired, crook nosed, crook-backed creature of the anti-semitic portrayal of Jews by the Christian church and therefore by many of the populace, no doubt. However, the majority of the audience would only have understanding of Jews in their imagination. Jews had been thrown out of London in 1290 and certainly, despite the presence of a couple of hundred Jews practising their faith in secret, few in the audience would have had first hand knowledge of a Jew. There was real sectarian hatred at the time, of course, much nearer to home.

Claire Asquith has presented a case in her book Shadowplay which might allow a different perspective. Just as with the material in the programme discussed above, there is a single focus to the writing – to prove that Shakespeare was writing in a coded language to offer support for the Catholic lobby in England at the time. Much is open to question or interpretation here. There is an element which rings out when reading this play. In late 16th Century England, Catholics lived in secret and in fear of discovery, arrest might be brought about by possession of a single book or an informer’s word concerning church attendance. In this environment I feel that students should consider the genuine context of the day. It would not be possible for Shakespeare to present the characters on stage as contemporary followers of the Christian church, so might he have found a useful archetype behind which to hide his comments about contemporary society? Asquith offers ideas about “light” and “tall” being coded Catholic traits and “dark” and “low” referring to protestants. Amongst other ideas, what if the “dark” Shylock was a presentation of the type of Puritanical Protestant at the centre of the purge of Catholic England? The opening of the play seems to focus in the interaction between Shylock and Antonio on the concept of revenge. It is not a huge stretch to imagine this as a perceived rationale for the behaviour of Elisabeth’s secret police following the cruelty and violence meted out to Protestants under her sister, Mary. Another issue, raised above is the utter cruelty of the punishment proscribed by Portia – the change of Faith. Again, no one in 16th Century England could miss the resonance of the past 50 years in which Catholics ands Protestants were required to do precisely this in order to be able to live their lives in freedom. Indeed, this would not necessarily seem to be a punishment in any way unusual. Within this model, we need to see Shylock as Shakespeare’s Jew of Convenience, rather than a serious character portrait of the rapacious Jew of legend.

Shylock is cruel and obsessed not by wealth, but by his “bond”. Indeed this obsession, signalled by the numerous repetitions of the word throughout the trial scene, suggests an obsession with the written word and the authentic document itself. This is so close to the Reformation idea of the need to strip religion back to the true text and to the authentic simplicity lost by the Catholic church over time, that again, I am sure many in the audience would pick this idea clearly when watching the play. Indeed, if Shylock becomes a figure of Protestant Fundamentalism, then there is a genuine contemporary resonance to the Character which lift him above the run of the mill, two dimensional portrayal of the cruel, rapacious Jew. It allows Jessica a sensible reason to leave his home and move away from such Fundamentalist thinking (though I am pleased that Jacobson and I share a similar distaste for this girl – leaving and stealing…), and also presents a challenge to his Queen, when she has to outwit her own secret policeman in order to temper his excesses.

Obviously there are loose ends here. I doubt if the Queen’s Men would have voluntarily performed such a potentially destructive play without protest if the message were too strong. This is not a play designed to restore the Catholic Faith, but I do not believe it is a play designed to focus on the character of Shylock as part of an anti-semitic piece of writing. Shylock vanishes after Act 4 because there is no longer any function for him in the plot. He has performed the role of the angry father who obstructs happiness in this play in terms of one of the two love-tangle plot lines. I wonder if Shakespeare dropped him so easily simply because he was not intending an anti-semitic message, but had jumped upon his Jewishness as a convenient cover for his message about the intractability of the religious zealots of his day.

There can be no convenient answer. The play is one which has invited anti-semitic portrayal in Nazi Germany and which has become the “anti-semitic” play. I am not sure this is fair. I amy be wrong, but i do not sense wide anti-semitism in the rest of the plays and do not see this as a Shakespearian trope, whereas critical comment on the politics and religious arguments of the day run through each of the plays for all to see.

I do not enjoy the play and find it to be broken. This is something shared with all the contributors to the programme. It does not work and one reason is that Shylock has become bigger than the play. The comedy plot/s is/are relatively uninteresting – girl flees cruel father to rush to boy and boy overcomes obstacles to attain the unattainable wife. Much of the humour of Act 5 with repeated jokes about girl’s “rings” soon palls and the homoerotic charge of Antonio’s relationship with Bassanio is an unnecessary side track. The clown is an embarrassment. Asquith makes a case for Act 5 in terms of the opening of Jessica’s eyes to higher things (Catholicism) and links the man who “has no music in himself” (a Puritan) with “strategems and Spoils”, being “dark (Protestant) as Erebus”. She may be right and Lorenzo may well represent a figure saving Jessica from the darkness of a religious fundamentalist upbringing, but I believe that it is possible this fundamentalism is Protestant, hidden behind a convenient archetype – the Jew.

This does not make the potential for ant-semitic readings of the play any less, nor does it excuse the carelessness with which the treatment of the Jew in the play is carried out, but it does offer a perspective on the context of creation. The punishment is vile and unforgivable, yet contemporary audiences would have seen this enacted regularly; the terms of the bond are inhuman to modern eyes, but at a time of heresy punished by being burned alive or by hanging, drawing and quartering, a pound of flesh does not seem anything like as stomach churning as it does to us today and the careless use of an archetype which had been portrayed as evil and which was, literally, made up of outsiders to mask the political message within the play would not have offended at the time. In a post Holocaust world, it makes any performance of the play riven with problems. The main question on anyone’s lips today when seeing a production is “how is Shylock portrayed?”. The play is no longer about the Merchant of Venice, but has become about Shylock in the modern consciousness.

Actually, if this causes discussion and revulsion at anti-semitic ideas and behaviours, this is probably a good thing, though I do not think Shakespeare intended this at all. But then, the author is dead, isn’t he?

P.S. Can’t wait to read Jacobson’s book!

Other posts to look at: