Notes on The Merchant of Venice

As I prepare for my bi-weekly Shakespeare group

One of the new pleasures of the pandemic year was being invited to join a Zoom-based Shakespeare discussion group, a mix of actors, directors and academics, most of them Canadian. Each session, a couple of members of the group would present one of the plays, not in a terribly formal way, and then we’d all discuss for an hour and a half. It’s been absolutely delightful, a real bright spot in an otherwise dim and often grim year. We’ve kept it going as the pandemic’s pall has lifted, and I hope we continue it indefinitely.

Tomorrow we’re discussing The Merchant of Venice, and I’m one of the presenters. So I re-read the play, and also revisited other pieces I’ve written about the play, most prominently this piece from The Jewish Review of Books about Shakespeare’s Shylock and the biblical Jonah, two Jewish characters whose interactions are primarily with non-Jews, who each evince a passion for justice that looks a lot more like vindictiveness, and who each perforce play out a part that they know will not end well for them. I’ll stand behind that piece happily, with only one emendation: that the word, “author” in the last sentence of the penultimate paragraph should have been capitalized:

Seeing this narrative kinship between Jonah and Shylock, I step back and see that Shylock’s vengeance isn’t really aimed at Antonio, any more than Jonah’s complaint is with the people of Nineveh. While on one level it is Antonio’s fault, and his society’s, that Shylock is seen as a clown and a villain, on a deeper level it is the author of the play, the creator of the story within which he is embedded, who is responsible. And inasmuch as we see Shylock as fully human, as fully real, we shift from thinking of Shakespeare as the author to thinking of him as the one responsible for the reality of Venice and of Shylock’s life in exile. If Shylock cannot hear that Author’s words and confuses his own oath for God’s command, it is because those words come out of the mouth of a Christian, his adversary and persecutor.

It’s an important change that I missed in reviewing the galleys, probably because I treat God and Shakespeare as almost interchangeable—as, for Shylock, they in fact are. But he doesn’t know that. He can’t know that. The thing is, neither can we.

In any event, I also looked over my old reviews of productions and meditations on the play like these, and what struck me on re-reading is two things. First, first impressions really do stick, and we really do change less and less as we age. I kept coming upon moments where I startled myself, saying, “did I already think that then? Huh. That’s depressing—I thought I was still having new ideas.” But second, the more I learn, the more I know that I don’t know—my opinions may not have evolved as much as I might wish, but I’ve gotten humbler about them.

So what do I still think about the play, humbly or not?

I still don’t think it’s Shylock’s play. It isn’t a tragedy, but a comedy, and as such Shylock is the comic villain. A friend of mine once quipped that of course it’s a comedy, but now that Jews are in the audience it isn’t funny anymore. But I’m not sure it was ever that funny—not all comedies are. On a meta-theatrical level, one can understand the trial scene as precisely Shylock’s attempt to escape the confines of that role, to seize the mantle of tragic hero by becoming the villain in a theological drama that he himself does not believe in. But I’m not sure you can play that, exactly, nor do I think it answers the question of what to do about Act V. But I still think it’s helpful to think of the play alongside Twelfth Night, and of Shylock as more akin to Malvolio than to Shakespeare’s Marlovian antiheroes, Aaron the Moor or Richard III or Edmund the bastard.

What that means as a corollary is that it remains an antisemitic play, and not a play “about” antisemitism. But it’s such a sublime and complex play, and its relationship to antisemitism is so equally complex, that I can’t help going to see production after production in the hopes that the circle will this time successfully be squared. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that quite accomplished. The production I carry around in my own mind (which I talk a bit about in the JRB piece) tries to do so by means of a meta-theatrical trick: having Shylock wear the costume of a stage-Jew-as-clown (red wig, funny hat, Groucho mustache and glasses), but to know he’s wearing it. I fear that turns Shylock a bit into Rigoletto, but what can you do.

I still don’t like Portia—but I’ve come to feel more compassion for her. For decades I’ve walked around with the impression that Portia is a very successful control freak, another one of Shakespeare’s director characters—like Hamlet, Rosalind, but less likable than them; more in the vein of Prospero and Duke Vincentio. It starts with the wooing scenes. We’re told her father is ruling her from beyond the grave, but by the time we meet her she’s already figured out how to turn that to her advantage and let her choose her own husband. Reading the rhyme of “Tell me where is fancy bred/In the heart or in the head” as a signal to Bassanio to choose “lead” is now a commonplace, but before we even meet Morocco Portia is suggesting to Nerissa that she put a bottle of wine on the wrong casket to lure her German suitor away. Who’s to say that she doesn’t similarly mislead the first two suitors we actually meet? And whom does she choose? Bassanio, a charming and good-looking gentleman of no particular account who is the least-powerful and least-wealthy man who hazards to woo her. I don’t think that’s an accident. And it continues after she’s wed. Why does she go to Venice in disguise? Why does she choose to set such a trap for Shylock? (I can’t believe she’s improvising, and even if she is, she could let him off the hook at any time.) Most notably, how does she know that Antonio’s ships have in fact survived, and made it safely into port? There’s a reason why I began to read her (in the JRB piece) as an allegorical figure, whether divine or satanic.

But why should all this make me dislike her? I don’t similarly dislike Olivia, who is also a controlling and beautiful orphaned aristocrat who is determined not to match above her station. So I’ve striven to find compassion for her, to understand her need for control as compensation for some loss, as a survival skill, and to feel the agony she feels when Bassanio gives her the ring after all. It’s madness to think of playing her as an allegory, so onstage she can only be a woman who wants to have that kind of power and control. There’s a lot of pathos in that position, or could be.

Finally, I’m still drawn to Antonio, the title character, Shylock’s partner in a folie a deux who also wishes this were a tragedy. I identify with his desire to exculpate himself through annihilation, and the way he blends business and friendship in a way sure to bring both to a bad end (a subject Shakespeare would explore again in Timon of Athens). I’m not fooled by him and his pretensions, but neither is Shakespeare, and I feel for him, as I imagine Shakespeare did. As a comedy, The Merchant of Venice follows the pattern of Renaissance debates over the relative virtues of friendship or marriage, with Antonio standing for friendship and Portia standing for marriage with the hapless Bassanio stuck in between. Which is why I am struck, always, by how modern (not contemporary, more Edwardian) Antonio’s melancholy is. Though he stands for male, Christian friendship, it’s impossible for me not to read him as loving Bassanio in a way that Bassanio not only doesn’t reciprocate but doesn’t fully understand, and to read his sadness as recognition that his love is not truly requited. Which makes the business with the ring so much more poignant.

(Speaking of the ring: as long as we’re doing the friendship vs. marriage thing, it is notable that Shylock also had a ring, which Jessica stole, and traded for a monkey, the symbol of lust. That Shylock had a true love match, and lost his only real friend when his wife died, is, to my mind, what ties the two parts of the play together, brings the truest note of tragedy into the romantic comedy, and is the only ground on which Shylock truly is or could be victorious. When I imagine my own production, I picture my clown-clad Shylock shedding his wig and glasses only once, in a silent scene alone with a portrait of his dead wife. But this is perhaps turning The Merchant of Venice into Shtisel.)

In any event, this should give you a sense of why I love the group: because it gives me an opportunity to do this kind of thing every other week with a host of other smart Shakespeare lovers with a lot more practical experience than I have in a whole host of domains. I hope we never stop.