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The Merchant of Venice: Comedy or Tragedy?

The works of William Shakespeare are regarded the world over for their unique insight into the human condition. Although on the surface, Shakespeare’s writings frequently appear to uphold the Elizabethan status quo, for example making the illegitimate Edmund a villain in King Lear and Henry VII a kind of Tudor saint in Richard III, there are usually underlying messages to be found that an Elizabethan audience would have considered subversive. Because of the time in which he wrote, Shakespeare had to be subtle in his expression of radical ideas, a fact which, rather than serving as a hindrance, has greatly enriched his writings, leaving them open to many different interpretations and allowing audiences to come to their own conclusions rather than self-righteously bludgeoning them about the head and neck with an obvious “moral of the story.”

This is especially evident in The Merchant of Venice. Written around 1596 or 1597, The Merchant of Venice heavily reflects the anti-Semitism of its time. Throughout the Renaissance, Jews were hated in Christian Europe, largely for their biblical connection with the crucifixion of Christ and for their status as usurers, one of the few professions allowed to them in a largely Christian society. Exacerbating the problem were laws which kept Jews segregated in ghettos and religious concerns of Orthodox Judaism which prevented Jews from associating too closely with Christians, such as the kosher food requirements cited by Shylock in his response to Bassanio’s dinner invitation in the third scene of act one:

Yes, to smell pork; to eat of the habitation which your prophet the Nazarite conjured the devil into. I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following; but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.

In a superstitious age, this legally and religiously enforced separatism contributed to anti-Semitic suspicions, and Jews were frequently blamed for such nefarious acts as causing outbreaks of plague by poisoning well water and using the blood of Christian children to bake unleavened bread (Swale).

The Jews had been banned from England in 1290 by Edward I, and 1492 and 1497 had seen the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal respectively (Loomba). Although many converted Jews returned to England, they were treated with suspicion and frequently regarded as secretly Jewish, which they may well have been. In Spain, the English were accused of harboring Sephardic Jews, and in England, Iberian Jews were accused of harboring Spanish or Portuguese sympathies. Anti-Jewish sentiment reached its height in England in 1594, when Elizabeth I’s Portuguese-Jewish physician, Roderigo Lopez, was tried and convicted of attempting to poison the queen. He was hung, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn, followed very closely by a revival of Christopher Marlowe’s popular anti-Semitic play,The Jew of Malta, and the first performances of The Merchant of Venice soon after (Loomba, Swale).

To an Elizabethan audience, The Merchant of Venice was a comedy in which the virtues of Christian New Testament mercy triumphed over the harshness of Jewish Old Testament justice. On the surface, the play conforms exactly to the anti-Semitic standards of its time. Shylock holds the stereotypical Jewish occupation of moneylender and is portrayed as cruel, bloodthirsty, and materialistic. He hates Christians and values money above all else, including his own family. When his daughter Jessica elopes with a Christian, taking with her money and jewels, it is his material possessions that he mourns, lamenting in an inhuman and unfatherly manner:

I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear! would she were hearsed at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin!

Thirsting for Christian blood, Shylock tries to kill the goodly Christian merchant, Antonio, who in a display of Christlike self-sacrifice, is willing to give his life to help his friend, Bassanio. In the end, Shylock is thwarted by strict adherence to the same law he tried to manipulate to his advantage. He is only spared his life, which the same “justice” he demanded would have forfeit, by the power of Christian “mercy,” which also spares his soul by forcing his conversion to Christianity. With the Jewish menace eliminated, the fifth act sees three good Christian couples married in a typical comedic happy ending.

This obvious and anti-Semitic interpretation of The Merchant of Venice has been upheld by many into modern times. Although Restoration theatre did not see immediate revivals of The Merchant of Venice, it did produce an adaptation by George Granville, titled The Jew of Venice in which Shylock is portrayed as a clown (Swale). Later, actual revivals of Shakespeare’s play featured Shylock as “a decrepit old man, bent with age and ugly with mental deformity, grinning with deadly menace” (Swale). German Nazis in the 1930s even used the play as part of their anti-Jewish propaganda campaign, and beginning in 1912, the play’s anti-Semitic elements even prompted the Jewish Anti-Defamation League to protest against its use in schools (Lerner, Swale).

Many modern readers, however, have interpreted the play differently. As early as 1709, Nicholas Rowe wrote of The Jew of Venice, “Though we have seen that play received and acted as a comedy… I cannot but think it was designed tragically by the author. There appears in it such a deadly spirit of revenge, such a savage fierceness and fellness… as cannot agree with either style or characters of comedy” (Loomba). More tragic presentations of The Merchant of Venice followed.

In the nineteenth century, Sir Henry Irving portrayed Shylock as a sympathetic figure, persecuted and distraught over the loss of his daughter (Swale). Although this interpretation was met with criticism from such prominent figures as Henry James and George Bernard Shaw, who resented the depiction of Shylock as “a martyred saint,” similar portrayals of Shylock followed, including those of such famous actors as Laurence Olivier and Peter O’Toole (Swale).

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In his Madchen und Frauen, German writer Heinrich Heine writes of a woman who wept at seeing the verdict turned against Shylock in the fourth act of the play. “And when I think about those tears,” writes Heine, “I have to count The Merchant of Venice among the tragedies, although the framework of the play is decorated with the liveliest masques, images of satyrs and cupids, and although the poet actually wanted to give us a comedy” (Lerner).

It is debatable, of course, how Shakespeare “wanted” us to interpret The Merchant of Venice. The time in which Shakespeare wrote was extremely hostile to Jewry, and thus the performance of an openly pro-Jewish play in England would not have been possible. However, The Merchant of Venice may easily be interpreted by modern or simply more sympathetic audiences, as Heine suggests, as the tragedy of Shylock, rather than the comedy of Antonio. Assuming that Shakespeare, with his legendary insight into the human condition, had intended to defend rather than refute the humanity of Jews, framing a pro-Jewish tragedy within a pro-Christian comedy would have been an ingenious method of doing so. Even if Shakespeare did not intend this, such a tragic interpretation is still an eminently defensible conclusion to draw from the text.

Although Shylock, as a detested minority, does not begin the play as a more conventional tragic hero might, at the height of society, with a great distance to fall, he does have wealth, financial power, and a deep connection to his faith. He loses all of these by the end of act four, forfeiting control over his wealth, the profession that granted him financial influence, and his identity as a Jew, all due to his tragic flaw of wrath. Although he does not die, he leaves the stage a broken man, presumably having learned not the value of mercy, as his Christian enemies are poor teachers, but the cruel lesson that it is futile to fight against the merciless Christian mainstream.

Truly, the Christians, for all their pretensions of mercy, and even Christianity itself, are neither merciful nor truly Christian. Portia criticizes Shylock with a lofty lecture on the value of mercy, arguing from an obviously Christian viewpoint:

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this:
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

However, afterwards, when she has successfully turned the law against him, she proceeds not only to deny him the money that he had previously refused in favor of his bond, but also his life and property, hypocritically favoring “justice” over mercy, just as she accused Shylock of doing moments before. Although Shylock retains his life in the end, through Christian mercy, which is both slight and self-vaunting, he loses everything else: his dignity, his identity, and his profession. Indeed, it might be better stated that although Shylock survives to see the end of the play, he does not truly “retain his life.”

Although early interpretations of Shylock portray him as an evil Jewish caricature dressed in “the kind of red wig worn by Judas in the medieval miracle plays,” Shakespeare’s text defines him as a complex and occasionally sympathetic character, even if he is interpreted as a villain (Smith). Twisted by Christian cruelty, Shylock is a product of his environment, and might have been a better man, had society allowed him to be. Shylock mentions more than once that Antonio and the other Christians have spat upon him repeatedly in public and berated him, for no other reason beyond his religion and profession. “Thou call’dst me dog before thou hadst a cause,” Shylock tells Antonio, “But, since I am a dog, beware my fangs.” In Shylock we see, from the very beginning, a wronged man, and if he is evil, it is by example. In his famous speech “Hath not a Jew eyes?” Shylock holds up a mirror to a hypocritical Christian society, explaining:

If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

In villainy, Shylock does not lack for teachers. Although the eponymous character, Antonio, may be interpreted by anti-Semitic audiences as a Christlike figure, generous to his friends and unflinchingly self-sacrificing, he is cruel to Shylock “before thou hadst a cause,” and has thus brought his predicament upon himself. His friends are no better. Gratiano in particular mocks Shylock even after Portia has passed the sentence of death and forfeiture of property on him, gloating:

Beg that thou mayst have leave to hang thyself:
And yet, thy wealth being forfeit to the state,
Thou hast not yet the value of a cord.

Finally, Portia, although frequently upheld by critics as an exemplary Shakespearean woman, is both cruel and hypocritical. Apart from preaching the virtues of mercy to Shylock and subsequently crushing him, she is hypocritical towards the Moroccan prince, who from the start shows her nothing but the most gracious flattery. When, choosing the golden casket, he is refused, informed that, “All that glisters is not gold,” Portia gives him a rude farewell, saying, “A gentle riddance.—Draw the curtains, go.—Let all of his complexion choose me so.” Clearly, Portia herself pays no heed to the lesson of the golden casket, and instead judges the seemingly kindly and gallant prince entirely by the color of his skin. Indeed, Portia cruelly and selfishly berates all of her suitors, with the one exception of Bassanio, with no apparent justification at all, hardly the actions of a truly Christian spirit.

The critic A.D. Moody might have been most correct in stating that The Merchant of Venice may be interpreted in two entirely different and equally valid ways: first, at face value, as a comedy recommending New Testament mercy over Old Testament justice, and second, as a tragedy drawing attention to the faults of Christians who do not live up to the standards of their own religion (Swale). In Shylock, Shakespeare created a character both twisted with malice and downtrodden with prejudice. Whether that results in a tragedy of injustice or a comedy of justice is, as it should be, a decision left to the interpretation of the audience.

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