I’m quite uncomfortable discussing matters of race, ethnicity, and religion. Being a middle-class generic white dude of the Heinz 57 variety, with some small Mediterranean influence stemming from my paternal genes of Italian descent, I find it odd to engage in a discussion in which I have, as one person once put it, “no right to open my mouth.” (This is the subject of another blog to come. But don’t hold yer beath.)
Those of you who know me know full well that weighing the consequences of opening my mouth has never been a barrier to folly, and even though I do find this subject both odd and uncomfortable, I’m not going to let that stop me. Disagreements can be logged in the COMMENTS box below. Don’t be shy.
So I’m somewhat peripherally engaged in the matter of a local Shakespeare troupe producing “The Merchant of Venice.” “Peripherally” meaning I auditioned then recanted said audition, and subsequently interviewed the producer-director and the actor playing Shylock. I, for those of you who do not know yet, have a radio show, “Onstage/Offstage,” which airs every second and fourth Thursdays of the month on WRFI, 88.1 Ithaca Community Radio. It’s a half-hour straight interview format (so far). Past shows can be found and either streamed or downloaded at www.onstageoffstage.org.
Anyways. The issue of anti-Semitism comes up, as it always does with this play. One friend, a Jew, asked my why the hell I’d ever audition for “that play.” I have my own answers to this, and as it turned out, they pretty much coincide with the views expressed by the actor and the producer.
I live in Ithaca, NY, a progressive liberal, multicultural, egalitarian bastion of world music, hemp underwear, head shops (6 at last count in a two-block radius), drum circles, jug bands, designer coffee, and what’s very likely the greatest concentration of lesbians per capita in the known universe. We’re inclusive as all hell. This also pretty much guarantees that a play that appears to specifically espouse anti-Semitism is not going to pass unnoticed. There was bound to be some, probably intense, level of questioning. People tend to get touchy about this subject. So why would I, or my friend the actor, even think about auditioning for the part of Shylock?
In the inimitable words of my dear departed grandmother, “Read the fucking play.”
I’ve heard the arguments: Shakespeare was anti-feminist. Shakespeare was anti-Semitic. Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare. Etc.
Shakespeare was a product of his time, and considering his time, he wasn’t that bad a guy. Considering. His plays raised more metaphysical and societal questions than were comfortable, and I am convinced that he had a healthy dislike and distrust of his fellow men. He could be a snarky bastard.
What Shakespeare did with MOV was to take a persecuted member of society, a Jew -- and what’s more, a moneylender -- and in scene after scene, document the man’s descent from despised second-class citizen into virtual nonexistence. When we first meet Shylock he is taking a meeting with Antonio, who is offering to provide collateral for a loan of 3000 ducats for his friend Bassanio, so Bassanio can woo . . . well, whoever. (People will do anything in Shakespeare’s plays to get laid.) Shylock derides Antonio for a series of past abuses inflicted upon him by Antonio, including beatings, spitting on his clothes, and public humiliation. Antonio merely laughs, likens Shylock to the devil (because he charges interest for his loans), and basically tells him, “So what? I might do it again, too. Because I can.”
(Let’s not forget that Shylock is the representation of a typical businessman; he could be Jewish or not. The legend has it that only Jews were allowed to charge interest for moneylending services. This is a load of horseshit, actually. Moneylending was what kept the papacy/Catholic church and many of the European warlords afloat. It was legend that Christians could not practice usury, but in fact usury was practiced by Christians on a grand scale. Sort of a “Pay no attention to the hypocrite behind the curtain” thing.)
Here’s where we who paid some small bit of attention in history class use that knowledge, and recall that the history of the Jews in Europe is not one that speaks well of humans in general. Discrimination was typical, widespread, and perennial. If you were born Jewish, you had a hard time coming.
So Shylock has had a hard life of trying to survive amidst rampant bigotry, public abuse, and a life where fear always lurked; as a Jew, you never knew when you’d get blamed for anything or be used as a scapegoat for any discerned accident or mishap.
And here stands his abuser demanding money. Shylock, seeing the man’s callous and unfeeling attitude, loses it. He demands a repayment that would be, in the grand scheme of things, perhaps no more horrible than the anti-Semitic abuses inflicted upon him and his fellow Jews. (And today, with the outrageous interest rates charged to ordinary people by banks, credit card companies, and tuition and auto lenders, wouldn’t seem out of the ordinary. Maybe Citibank or Visa should introduce the “pound of flesh” credit card.)
Shylock, in his anger, demands, as every, well, some, students of literature know, “a pound of flesh” -- a punishment that almost guarantees death for the unfortunate lendee.
And Antonio accepts. Why? Because (a) of his certainty that the debt would be repaid, and (b) because Shylock wasn’t charging his usual interest. So Antonio decides that saving the cost of the interest was worth the risk of having a body part cut off.
A pound of flesh. Given who he is and what he’s been through in his life – much of it at the hands of Antonio – who can blame Shylock for throwing such a vicious, impossible choice at Antonio?
And here we witness beginning of the merciless annihilation of Shylock. In a subsequent scene, Shylock loses the only thing he loves unconditionally and eternally: his daughter, Jessica. She not only deserts him, but takes much of his money with her and elopes with a Christian. And if that horrifically cruel betrayal weren’t enough , at the end of the play, the trial to collect on Antonio’s loan default goes against Shylock. Probably mad with grief at this point, Shylock refuses an offer of twice the original loan repaid and cries for his pound of flesh.
The court actually does grant this pound of flesh, but—get this—with the stipulation that there be no blood shed. Should he spill even one drop of Antonio’s blood, all of his property will be confiscated. On top of that, should he take any more than a precisely weighed pound of flesh, he will be executed for thievery.
But that is not enough punishment for the Venetians; because Shylock is a Jew, an “alien,” and has tried to take Antonio’s life via the pound of flesh, he has forfeited his entire fortune and condemned himself to death. The duke pardons Shylock’s life, but only at the cost of the last thing that marks him as what he is: his religion. Shylock, in order to save his life, is forced to convert to Christianity. Antonio “generously” has the duke remand part of Shylock’s fortune on the condition that, on his death, he bequeath it to his faithless daughter and the man who stole her away.
Shakespeare has effectively drawn for us the slow, inexorable elimination of a man, piece by piece.
I think the pound of flesh was too little a price to demand.
As my actor friend, a man of no small wisdom, told me, “This is not a bigoted play. This is a play about bigotry.”