Shakespeare’s Shylock, Anti-Semitism and Italy 

Program notes by Darren C. Marks


In all the millennia of anti-Semitism, few periods can match in intensity and voracity that which lasted from 1933 to 1945 under Nazi, Fascist and other totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy, Spain, Russia and Hungary, to name but a few nations. That this occurred in the flower of liberal civilization is all the more shocking.


Two questions seem to fall out after the Holocaust. The first is whether anti-Semitism is past; the second, to paraphrase Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, is what exactly happened in this mystery wrapped in (historical) silence? More simply, what does anti-Semitism, as a specific kind of prejudice, have to do with us today? Of course, that question also deals with Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and his Shylock the Jew.


Certainly, Jews in pre-Holocaust Europe felt the blows of anti-Semitism, but in places such as Italy they also enjoyed some of the most progressive inclusion in all of Europe. The same could even be said of Germany, in which Jewish emancipation had been declared in the previous century, at least in rhetoric if not in reality. Jewish citizens had educational and economic access, and were politically active across the fullest spectrums of parties (some even holding founding memberships in Mussolini’s National Fascist Party).


Historical Christian anti-Semitism still had power, and many believed historical anti-Semitic scapegoat lies, along with such new twists as the allegation that Jewish bankers were to blame for many social ills and general post-Depression economic woes. However, between 1870 and 1921 there was every opportunity to suppose that this ugly old belief was slowly changing. Jewish citizens represented a full account of European life: intellectuals, artists, bankers, politicians, capitalists, communists, teachers, doctors, radicals and conservatives.


Italy’s Jewish population, despite living in a nation defined by Roman Catholicism, was perhaps the best example of this hope. Numbering merely 48,000 on the eve of 1938’s Race Laws, Italian Jews had already seen two Jewish prime ministers and one mayor of Rome, had fought with Garibaldi and in the numerous nationalist wars, and enjoyed steadfastly middle-to upper-class careers as educators, professors, doctors and business owners. In a country largely rural, less than 2% of Italian Jews were rural-based; most lived in such major centres as Rome and Venice.


There was remarkable diversity among them, with origins in different cultures, languages and ritual. Venice alone had five different linguistic-cultural synagogues for a population of less than two thousand. Scholars count the orthodox Jewish community at less than 8% of the Jewish population. Most identified as both Italian and Jewish. This issue, along with an intermarriage rate of over 50%, was vexing to the Jewish rabbinic leadership, who lamented Italian Jewish integration.


Italian Jews held diverse political beliefs, some advocating Fascism (to curb socialism) and others socialism (to curb Fascism). Some advocated economic policies associated with banking and market restrictions; others wanted banking and market freedoms. Some were military officers; others were pacifists. Some were religious; others atheistic.


The October-November 1938 Race Laws, upheld by the Fascist- and later Nazi-controlled Salò Republic until the end of the war, had a severe impact on the small Jewish population. Paving the way for internment and deportation to Nazi camps, these measures had by 1945 reduced that population by 34%. Five per cent of Italian Jews were killed; Jewish businesses and assets were seized; synagogues were defaced and destroyed. What distinguishes the Italian story from what happened in other Nazi-controlled areas is the rapidity of the ascent of intolerance, as few European Jewish populations had been so integrated into their national culture. How did Mussolini’s evident anti-Semitism remain unopposed? This is where Shakespeare and Shylock are helpful as a study into the mystery of historical silence.


After the horrors described above, every production of The Merchant of Venice must struggle with the question of anti-Semitism. While Shakespeare’s play is far removed from his contemporary Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, with its tone of virulent, toxic anti-Semitism, the truth is that Merchant is not devoid of anti-Semitic substance, text and attitudes. How are we to justify its continued performance?


Can we take refuge in citing the context of the late medieval and Elizabethan world? It does seem unimaginable that Shakespeare would have known anything other than the rhetoric of a Christian worldview in which Jewish people were Christ-killers, inveterate and obstinate idolaters who refused to become Christians and who were subsequently forced by a prejudiced political and social system to occupy social roles morally abhorrent to Christians, such as moneylending. There were likely fewer than three hundred Jews in England, most of them “converts” viewed with great suspicion by “born” Christians. What Shakespeare knew would have been greatly restricted by his own ignorance and the propaganda of Christian anti-Semitism.


Likewise, can we ignore the recent history in which this particular play has been used as propaganda to reinforce the attitudes of those – whether Nazis, Fascists or the white “elite” of North America – who regard Jews, together with blacks, gypsies and aboriginals, as “low-culture undesirables”?


These are deeply divisive questions, but I would argue that we fail the victimized Jews of Europe when we treat anti-Semitism as neither a persistent present problem nor inherent to Shakespeare’s play.


The question then becomes whether Merchant’s anti-Semitism is so overwhelming that the play should be relegated to the rubbish bin or so altered textually that it becomes not about Shylock qua Jew but about racism in general, or a commentary on greed or something else less offensive. But to alter or downplay is to miss the truest role of Shakespeare as a playwright and, more importantly, as a commentator on the human condition. It is also a disservice to the European Jews in question, as they believed the best of civilization, despite evidence otherwise. They never quit the Western project, even when it nearly ground them out of existence, and Jewish life in the world today is evidence of that bravery.


Shakespeare, while he does mirror Elizabethan attitudes towards Jews as legalistic, literal and worldly (as opposed to the gracious, anagogical and spiritual virtues extolled by the Christian gospel), is never satisfied with such easy reductions. His keen observation of the human condition makes both Christian and Jew in the play equally “legalistic” in their choices, whether it is Antonio’s mistreatment of Shylock, Portia’s rejection of her suitors, Bassanio’s attempts to make himself financially secure by wooing Portia, Gratiano’s repetition of Shylock’s intolerant fury in the courtroom or Lorenzo and Jessica’s careless misspending of her dowry. Each character, regardless of religion, fails to be understanding, generous, gracious and other-centred, and instead is legalistic, fleshly and self-centred.


These attributes do reflect the abusive characterization inherent in historical Christian anti-Semitism, but a perceptive director, cast and audience will realize that Shakespeare actually makes them less “Jewish” flaws than human flaws. Humans, he notes, are faced with choices – either to act out of self-centred fear, ignorance and hatred, or to seek the best for another. Shakespeare does associate this with the trope of Jewish behaviour inherited from (or infected by) his context, but he goes much further by highlighting that all – regardless of religion – fail in alterity.


Alterity, for Jewish thinker and survivor Emmanuel Lévinas, is what relieves and challenges the inherited anti-Semitism in Shakespeare’s play. Alterity means to see the Other as independent of one’s own needs, as a person who has a moral and ethical right to be and not as an object for selfish means. In the play, to be “Jewish” is to fail in alterity, and no one escapes the charge of selfish bigotry until they are converted to a greater idea – found in both Judaism and Christianity – namely love for another as a foundation for common human life. Whether exemplified in Torah or in Christ, this is the bedrock of both Abrahamic traditions as love of the neighbour. But it is critical that Shakespeare uses ugly, historical anti-Semitism in his play as the means to explore this human lack. To remove the anti-Semitism is to reduce the observations that can challenge us all.


The anti-Semitism of Merchant is real and must be central to our accounting of it, but Shakespeare’s genius vaccinates against the play being used merely as a piece of propaganda. Transcending its author’s historical time and views (and ours), it is a play about intolerance, prejudice and ungenerousness, whether in Shylock or the Christian Venetians, and should remain as a persistent reminder of “never again” for Christians and Jews. For Shakespeare, the play’s anti-Semitism is symptomatic of a human pestilence that dehumanizes others in the name of self-empowerment, comfort or advantage. Merchant is no dusty historic relic or museum piece but a powerful challenge to new generations: a reminder of the need to stand against hatred, racism and intolerance, whether rooted in religion or any other caricatured category of human definition: gay, black, Hispanic, female and so forth. To remove or ignore the anti-Semitism is to become morally quietistic, and this is why the play remains important as a canary to warn of the ills of hatred, religious or otherwise.


Returning to the European Jews on the eve of the Holocaust, those who had so strongly believed in a peaceable future, despite warnings and in the midst of horror, and who were overcome by a mystery of historical silence, the question of faithfulness to them remains. Yitzchak Greenberg argued, “So evil is the Holocaust, and so powerful a challenge to all other norms, that it forces a response, willy-nilly; not to respond is to collaborate in its repetition.” Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is one of those responses.


Dr. Darren C. Marks teaches Holocaust Studies (amongst other subjects) at Huron University College at Western University.



“If you prick us do we not bleed?” 

Program notes by Alexander Leggatt


Imagine yourself at a gathering of witty, charming, attractive people; and just as you’re enjoying their company one of them drops a remark – racist, sexist or homophobic – that leaves you in shock. No one else takes any notice, the conversation continues, and you realize the prejudice that has just surfaced is so ingrained in this company that they take it as normal. Encountering The Merchant of Venice is not unlike this.


The scenes in Venice show a group of friends, generous and good-natured with each other, united in their hatred of the moneylender Shylock not just because he takes interest – a custom widely denounced in Shakespeare’s time for its unnatural breeding of “barren metal,” and just as widely practised – but because he is a Jew. The scenes in Belmont show the heiress Portia beset by a series of unwanted suitors, whom she mocks by stereotyping their nationalities. Those characters are offstage, and the jokes are easy enough to take. It is not so easy to take when she recoils from one of her onstage suitors because she doesn’t like his skin colour. And yet the characters whose prejudices surface in this way are characters the story asks us to like and care about. Does this mean that the play should be dismissed as hopelessly dated, the product of a time less enlightened than our own? Or does it challenge us to think more deeply about the prejudices it displays, to examine our own attitudes and those of the world we live in, and to ask if we’re as enlightened as we think we are?


Comedy deals in difference. At the crudest level, it invites us to laugh at characters who look funny, talk funny or don’t see very well. There is some comedy of this kind in The Merchant of Venice, but overall its handling of difference is subtler than that. At first glance there are significant differences in the ways the characters relate to that basic fact of life, money. Portia, the rich heiress of Belmont – the name of her estate suggests a beautiful mountain, remote from the harsh realities of the world – simply has money, a seemingly endless supply, which she can dispense with a liberal hand. There is no thought of how it was made, no fear that one day it might run out. But if Belmont is a mountain, Venice is at sea level. Antonio, the merchant of the title, gets his money by foreign trade, and the language associated with his wealth suggests a fragile glamour, shipwrecks spilling their rich merchandise over the sea. He operates on such a grand scale that he seems immune to risk; but halfway through the play he loses everything. His friend Bassanio has already ruined his own estate by keeping up a style of life appropriate for a gentleman (in Shakespeare’s time all the best people died in debt), and he sets out to win Portia not just because he loves her but because he needs her wealth to bail him out. Portia bails out Antonio as well: at the end of the play, she holds the information that restores his fortunes, and how she came by it is as unexamined as the source of her own wealth.


There is nothing mysterious about Shylock’s money. As a moneylender depending on interest for his income, he is careful and frugal; in his first scene we watch him slowly weighing the risks of lending to Bassanio with Antonio as surety, while the latter wait impatiently for him to make up his mind. Against the glamour of wealth in the other characters’ language, and the fecklessness with which they treat it, his is the sober business of keeping the books balanced. This does not mean, however, that on the question of money there is a firewall separating Shylock from the other characters. Bassanio asks Antonio for a loan to finance his journey to Belmont to win Portia, but Antonio’s cash flow is at a low ebb, and they turn to Shylock. The Christians may despise him, but they need him. It is Shylock’s money that bankrolls Bassanio’s trip to Belmont, and at the end of the play it is Shylock’s estate that will secure the future of one of the pairs of lovers, his runaway daughter Jessica and her husband Lorenzo. Even as the play examines the sharp differences between the characters, it shows them bound together in a network based on money.


The links run deeper than that. Shylock proposes a grotesque penalty if Antonio defaults: he will be entitled to a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Shylock presents the bond as a joke; but we may wonder if we are seeing in raw form the hostility that often lies behind laughter. And the joke becomes deadly when Antonio goes bankrupt and Shylock claims the penalty, saying the pound of flesh “Is dearly bought; ’tis mine, and I will have it.” Portia, calling her new husband, Bassanio, “dear bought,” gives him a ring to wear as a guarantee of his loyalty to her – or, to put it another way, her possession of him. He gives it away. Her waiting woman Nerissa gives a similar ring with the same meaning to her new husband, Gratiano, who also gives it away. Portia rebukes him, saying the ring was “riveted with faith unto your flesh.” The symmetry between the two couples keeps the action comic, and the solution is equally comic: the men gave the rings to their wives, who were in male disguise. But behind the joking accusations of infidelity is an insight into one of the conditions of marriage, the claims wives and husbands make on each other’s bodies.


Shylock’s claim on Antonio’s body is one of hate, not love; but in the instinct to possess, the cry of “mine,” do these very different characters have something in common? Keys and caskets are significant props in Shylock’s world, and in the love story of Belmont; and Shylock’s proverb “Fast bind, fast find” could be the lovers’ motto as well. But in love there is giving as well as taking. Bassanio wins Portia by picking the right casket, the one that demands he “give and hazard all he hath”; Antonio in agreeing to Shylock’s bond has hazarded his own body as a sign of his love for Bassanio, and when the bond falls due he prepares to give it, sacrificing his life for his friend.


The body itself is the ultimate site of our common humanity, the thing that despite our differences we all have in common. That is how Shylock sees it in his counterattack on the prejudice that surrounds him: “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? . . . If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die?” But he turns this plea to his own use, justifying his claim on Antonio’s flesh: “And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?” He pursues that claim with rigid literal-mindedness, insisting on the exact wording of his bond. Portia, masquerading as a lawyer called in to judge the case, turns that literalness against him, defeating him with the very letter of the law to which he has appealed. She can do so because Shylock has not realized the significance of something he said in his eloquent plea against prejudice: if he pricks Antonio, Antonio will bleed.


The play draws much of its energy from the differences between people, the clashes of different values and traditions, the hostility to those who are not like us. But it also explores the common humanity of which the characters themselves seem frequently unaware, showing we neglect that humanity at our peril.


Alexander Leggatt is a professor emeritus of English at the University of Toronto.





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