“The world is still deceiv’d with ornament”
Director’s notes by Antoni Cimolino
The Merchant of Venice doesn’t just warn us against judging books by their covers; it even goes so far as to suggest an inverse relationship between essential worth and surface appeal. From caskets to complexions, appearances “entrap the wisest.” Throughout the play, people are judged by the colour of their skin, by their nationality and, of course, by their religion. As one might expect, such discrimination causes great pain; it also breeds a desire for revenge.
Just as appearances are important in The Merchant of Venice, so too is money. The language of the play is filled with references to commercial transactions and trade. Suitors come armed with rich gifts and servants dressed in new-made liveries. In this play’s world, money is to be got in several ways – but the best, it seems, is inheritance. Portia’s father has taken care of her from beyond the grave, leaving her a seemingly endless amount of money that renders any size of debt petty. Antonio, on the other hand, must venture for his money with ships on the high seas. Venturing entails hazard. And hazard is a word that comes up again and again in this play.
Those who have exhausted their inheritances and have no ability or stomach for venture may need to borrow – but in this play’s world, providing loans as a business is frowned upon. From the perspective of Christian religious beliefs, taking interest is seen as predatory and unnatural. So Christians in need of a loan must borrow from lenders of other faiths, and the circumstances of such transactions do nothing to dispel distrust. On the contrary, being forced to occupy the necessary role of moneylender only exacerbates the Jewish outsider’s plight: religious differences are heightened both by envy of the lender’s wealth and by the perception that it is accumulated in distasteful (i.e. un-Christian) ways. And so the Christians in this play need the service of credit yet despise the providers.
The play is jammed with such opposing forces. There are differences between two faiths; between profiting from a business venture and profiting from moneylending; and between the feudal ideal of good service and our modern desire to achieve personal gain. There is also a tension between the city of Venice and the rarefied country seat of Belmont.
In the play, the boys of Venice chase Shylock and make fun of him. I am haunted by Salerio’s description: “Why, all the boys in Venice follow him, / Crying, his stones, his daughter, and his ducats.” What will come of these children? Shakespeare seems to suggest that the visions he presents in this society will be carried forward by these boys – these children who are taking on the prejudices of their parents. This reminds me of the lyric from South Pacific: “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear. . . . You’ve got to be carefully taught.”
And so I began to think of the Italy of my parents when they were children, in the 1930s. They too were from the Veneto. The Depression had made money scarce and therefore more sought after. Fascism was already proving to be a failed experiment – and the blame for Italy’s failure was placed on other nations and international Jewish financiers. This led to tragic results.
Since the unification of Italy in the 1860s and the creation of a secular democratic nation state, Italian Jews had thrown themselves into civic life. Within its first fifty years, Italy had two prime ministers who were Jewish. The rate of Jewish-Christian inter-marriage was between 50% and 60%, an usually high number for any country in Europe. Then in 1938, Mussolini and the National Fascist Party introduced race laws. This was an enormous betrayal by a party and a country that had previously seemed to welcome Jewish involvement. Italian Jews were now excluded from educational, professional and civic life. The Fascists claimed their policy was enlightened compared to that of their counterparts in Nazi Germany. The Italian race laws aimed to achieve “discrimination” but not the “persecution” of the Nazis. The distinction is a depressing one to contemplate.
However, the history of the Jews in Europe, certainly in Italy, is one of occasional tolerance followed by regular extortion and persecution. In Venice, from the thirteenth century onward, Jews were allowed to live in their ghetto (the word comes from the Italian getto, or “foundry,” because the area of Venice to which Jews were confined had been the site of such a facility) as long as they paid extraordinarily high taxes. And so this betrayal by the Fascist Party was both a repetition and an amplification of this long history of seeming tolerance followed by extortion toward Jews in the Italian peninsula.
In short, all the key elements contained within Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice are present yet again in 1930s Venice. As in Shakespeare’s own pre-revolutionary age, such hatred and division within a community based upon religious differences could not end well.
As the play ends and the newly married and now wealthy couples leave to go to their bedrooms to consummate their marriages, Shylock’s shadow looms large. Shylock’s own daughter is among them. And as they go off to create children, I cannot help but think of the boys who taunt Shylock about his ducats and his daughter. The story will certainly continue; it is up to us and our children to determine whether it will ever end.
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