‘Do we not laugh?’ On the continuing obsession with Merchant of Venice

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die?

So Shylock laments to a pair of Venetians about their inability to imbue Jews with the same human qualities as they grant Christians. This speech is understood as Shakespeare’s great rallying cry for equality, shining a light on his unequalled humanism in what is an otherwise deeply racist play. But, as the Merchant Antonio tells his friend Bassanio at the beginning of the play, be careful, for ‘The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose’. In Bell Shakespeare’s recent travelling production of The Merchant of Venice, directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, Shylock’s speech appeared as if straight from Shakespeare’s mouth. But even if Shylock stresses sameness, his emancipatory language is undermined from the outset, because what has been emphasised to the audience is his racial alterity.

In the original text, this famous speech is told to two indistinguishable Venetians, Solanio and Salarino; in the recent production, Shylock’s speech was moved from the public Rialto to the private Ghetto, and was recited just before the interval so that it became a frustrated soliloquy for the audience’s ears alone. The set’s lone tree shed brown leaves across the stage, and for a moment, it eerily recalled the trees that stand in the corners of the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo. The effect proved quite touching, and by and large, the production received positive feedback for its moving rendition of Shakespeare’s most uncomfortable comedy. Sarks had sleepless nights on whether the production unintentionally perpetuated racism – a pertinent problem considering the current moment that Bell Shakespeare had chosen to put on the play. This brings us back to the question posed whenever a production of The Merchant of Venice is mounted: is this an antisemitic play, or a play about antisemitism? Indeed, if we need Shylock’s ‘Hath not a Jew’ speech to remind us that Jews are, in fact, human too, then we are dealing with a much larger cultural problem that productions of The Merchant of Venice play into.

The plot of The Merchant of Venice is relatively simple: in order to come up with the required cash to woo the heiress Portia, Bassanio has his friend Antonio take a loan of three thousand ducats from a Jewish moneylender, Shylock. Shylock only agrees to enter into this bond if the collateral is ‘a pound of [Antonio’s] flesh’ as revenge for the vile abuse he has received from Antonio in the past. Antonio’s merchant ships do not come in, so he is forced to default on his loan. In the meantime, Shylock’s daughter Jessica runs away and converts to Christianity in order to marry Lorenzo. Hoping his act will punish all Christians, Shylock prepares to cut away the flesh from Antonio’s chest in court. At the last moment, Portia, disguised as the young lawyer Balthazar, finds a loophole in Shylock and Antonio’s contract, which saves Antonio’s life. In punishment for attempting to take the life of a Venetian citizen, Shylock is stripped of his wealth, and forcibly converted to Christianity.

The Merchant of Venice is antisemitic down to its comic structure: more humiliating than death, the antagonist is defeated through stripping him of his identity. Through conversion, he is theoretically shaved of his otherness, but it is painfully obvious that the Venetian community will never accept him. Mitchell Butel, playing Shylock in what was the most powerful moment of the Bell Shakespeare production, kept his hand fixed to his head after his kippah was torn off, even when he was stripped of his tallit katan (the fringed garment worn under the clothes of religious Jewish men). This moment was the climax of the production’s raison d’être, which intends to educate audiences into empathising with the disgraced Shylock. The production goes even further, interlining a lamenting Jessica in the plays final lines, moaning ‘What have I done? I am ashamed’ after it is revealed that she and Lorenzo are the benefactors of Shylock’s fall.

Any production of The Merchant of Venice exposes its audience to the ideology of antisemitism in an attempt to destroy it. But if the man who sat sniggering behind me tells us anything, it’s that the exposure did not quite work.

It is not curious at all that Bell Shakespeare chose to mount a production of The Merchant of Venice, considering the play is one of the most widely read and performed. But the production team clearly felt uncomfortable with the play they were mounting, considering their decision to change the ending. Although dramaturg Benedict Hardie rationalises this change as ‘having a conversation with audiences’, what it did instead was show an unwillingness to grapple with just how deeply uncomfortable the happy ending is for a modern audience. Changing the ending did not shine a light on the rise of antisemitism, but instead made the ending easier to swallow. If the production had kept the original ending, then it would be Shakespeare who came off the worst, because it was his vision of a – sort of – happy ending. As Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore pointed out in the Guardian, Bell Shakespeare did not indicate on their promotional material that they had changed their ending. In doing so, it seems as though this is what Shakespeare intended – an ending that ignores the fact that three quarters of the play is actually comedic matchmaking.

What is at stake here is the perception of Shakespeare as universal, a man for all seasons and before his time, the liberal bastion against the evils of prejudice and ignorance. Essentially, Bell Shakespeare uses the idea of Shakespeare in order to educate its audiences into progressive thinking, as well as to reflect back on what the audience perceives as their own progressiveness. As it is written in the company’s mission statement in The Merchant of Venice’s promotional material, ‘We believe Shakespeare and other great works are not stuck in the past, but that they are the key to exploring our present and imagining our future.’ But this has the effect of uprooting Shakespeare from his context, and totally disengages Shakespeare from the man that he was. Indeed, it simplifies Shakespeare’s plays. The Merchant of Venice could be a play for all seasons, but one that leans into and deeply considers what it means that the Swan from Statford-upon-Avon was perhaps just as prejudiced as the play that he wrote.

By disconnecting Shakespeare-the-man from Shakespeare-the-icon, productions of The Merchant of Venice think about ‘Venetian Jews’, rather than Shakespeare’s representation of Jews. For example, although the play condemns usury (the practice of loaning money with high rates of interest), Shakespeare was very much part of circles of credit and moneylending. His own father loaned money for interest, as did his fellow playwrights, if not Shakespeare himself. There’s long been a myth that usury drove much of the racist treatment of the Jewish in Shakespeare’s London, but it was Christians, and not Jews, who primarily practiced usury. But, because productions of The Merchant of Venice wish to separate Shakespeare from the play while still relying on his name, the audience leaves without an understanding of the conditions that prompted a play like The Merchant of Venice in the first place. Without any contextual background, except for the standard details about the Venice Ghetto, audiences are left with the perpetuation of a harmful stereotype, rather than an understanding of the early modern credit economy and Shakespeare’s place within it.

Although it would be reductionist to put The Merchant of Venice down to an example of Jew-baiting, it does not mean that it is not a deeply antisemitic play. The deluge of insults propelled towards Shylock – for example, ‘villain Jew’, ‘inhuman wretch’,  ‘the devil incarnate’, ‘currish Jew’, and a myriad of puns on Jew/Ewe – do not make the play easy watching. It can – and has! – been argued that this language is present in order to highlight the hypocrisy and racism of the Christians, and indeed, this is what Bell Shakespeare’s production wanted audiences to think. It is easy to wipe away claims of antisemitism with that kind of logic. But, from the outset, The Merchant of Venice works to remind you that Shylock is inherently different. Not because he is evil per se, but because he is Jewish.

For centuries, The Merchant of Venice has been used to create the ‘Jew’ in the cultural imaginary. More often than not, he is Semitic looking with dark hair and a hooked (sometimes prosthetic) nose. If the production is an example of museum theatre, Shylock wears a red hat, and if it is contemporary-style, he is dressed like a Hasid. Shylock acts as a metonymy for Jews, and this production does not seek to problematise the limited way that Shylock is depicted. While the other characters wear summery suits and dresses, Butel, as Shylock, wears the accoutrements of an orthodox Jewish man, including the black suit and heavy coat. In the background plays a Klezmer fiddle (what one reviewer calls a ‘Semitic melody‘), as though Shylock just got off a boat from the Pale of Settlement. Shylock and his business partner Tubal also say random Hebrew and Yiddish phrases, and, at one point, Butel takes out a tallit (prayer shawl), wraps it around himself, and bends back and forth while reciting the Shema, which is the centrepiece of morning and evening Jewish prayer.

These sorts of choices mean that the production does not think very deeply about the difference between ‘Jew’ and ‘Judaism’, comingling them together in a way that racialises Shylock. It is clear that the team at Bell Shakespeare wanted to create a feeling of authenticity, but it is inherently paradoxical to use this version of ‘Jewishness’ because it uses a stereotype of Jews to promote an anti-antisemitic message. What would it mean to do a production of The Merchant of Venice where Shylock is dressed like everyone else? Maybe it would be more believable that Shylock bleeds when he is pricked, laughs when he is tickled, and dies when he is poisoned.

You could say, what does this all matter, it is just a play! But it is impossible to watch The Merchant of Venice without the spectre of history hanging over us. As theatre historian Dennis Kennedy wrote, the Second World War has ‘completely transformed our ability to read the play’, giving us ‘a new text of the play, one which bears relationships to the earlier text but is also significantly different from it’. In essence, productions of The Merchant of Venice are now about the evils of antisemitism, rather than the evil-Semite. Now, the Holocaust is a whisper of knowledge that reminds us of the deadly, and too real outcomes of prejudice. In this current moment, despite its best intentions, a production of The Merchant of Venice that tries to wipe away the shades of grey that are concomitant with the representation of the archetypal Jew unfortunately feeds into the larger antisemitic discourse of our society.

Now, in 2017, when our parliamentarians are arguing about whether Section 18C of our Racial Discrimination Act should be removed, where Cory Bernardi is describing George Soros as ‘a renowned globalist’, when Milo Yiannopoulos freely tours Australia (and is even hosted on J-AIR, Jewish Australian Internet Radio), where antisemitic hate-crimes have risen by 10% in the last year, let alone what is happening in America, then The Merchant of Venice certainly is a play for our time. But we need a production of the play that implicates us – the audience, everyday people – within the ideology of prejudice.


Gabriella Edelstein

Gabriella Edelstein is completing a PhD at the University of Sydney on early modern drama.

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